Peter Sedgwick

Who Are the Troublemakers?

(7 December 1962)

From Peace News, 7 December 1962.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

On November 26 Sir Patrick Hennessy, Chairman of the Ford Motor Company, announced that his firm was “hesitating” about going ahead with an £81 million extension to the car factory it is building at Halewood on the outskirts of Liverpool. The extension was more than six months behind schedule as a result of strikes, go-slow policies and demarcation disputes.

He said that there appeared to be “a pretty militant minority” determined that the site should not be made ready. He wouldn’t say that their leaders were Communists and he didn’t know how strong the Communists were in Liverpool, but they were very strong at Dagenham and there could always be a link.

In the Observer of November 18 Mr. Hobson Nailer, Managing Director of Screwe Steel Spoons, said (as reported by Michael Frayn): “I really don’t know what some of these lads want ... Seventy-eight stoppages we’ve had in the past year. Seventy-eight! It’s almost enough to make me wonder if the company isn’t in some way to blame ...”

Peter Sedgwick


Who Are The Troublemakers?

In the beginning was the Troublemaker. And he said: Let there be Trouble. And there was Trouble. Such is the basic explanation of industrial conflict presented by the main organs of press and TV. Recently our old friends “The Wreckers” have been blasted for supposedly sabotaging the completion of the Ford factory at Halewood. The Lord Mayor of Liverpool has agreed to chair a conference of representatives from the trade union movement, site contractors, sub-contractors and Ford officials. Whether any delegates from the workers at Halewood will be invited remains to be seen.

The Halewood site is not a particularly well-organised one from a trade union point of view, and some employers there have adopted a screening procedure to weed out known militants from the beginning. It is normal for casual labour in-contracting jobs to be hired on the site itself, but these firms have insisted on all applicants going for an interview to their company office, which might be nearly forty miles away in Manchester.

Workers on the Ford job have been disagreeably surprised by the needling, niggling, aggressive tactics adopted by many of the sub-contractors. Normally a number of concessions in rates and conditions are taken for granted in the contracting trade. These have generally not been forthcoming at Halewood, and sometimes even extras specified in national agreements have been withheld. One example quoted to me was a firm’s refusal to pay the agreed out-of-town allowance for workers living five or more miles away.

Shop stewards are under constant attack; like all other contract workers they are under two hours’ notice, which has been invoked against them with an unpleasant frequency, usually on a pretext of redundancy or breach of discipline. I heard of one electricians’ steward being given his cards within hours after being elected to his post. It is in the accumulation of similar petty nastinesses rather than in any single grand issue, that the trouble at Halewood consists. Both on the construction and the engineering side of the job the workers have had to fight a persistent uphill battle to defend their standards and their right to organise.

Why should this particular site have had such a bitter record? The proponents of the Communist Conspiracy story have failed to produce even their usual sprinkling of sinister names and details. There is, on the other hand, a stark and solid fact which will very easily account for toughening-up by the employers: the presence on Merseyside of 37,000 unemployed, including 4,000 building workers. The “industrial reserve army” of unemployed has historically enabled employers to feel confident in attacking working-class standards and organisation, and so reduce labour costs. Conditions of relative boom tend to create labour shortages in which employers offer inducements to attract skills; boom also favours the consolidation of trade union structure and membership, which in its turn acts as a check against employers’ aggressive tendencies. If the “reserve army of labour” resumes its classic size, or anything remotely approaching it, we have every reason to suppose that it will, in the eyes of many employers, resume also its classic function.

The early history of Ford’s venture into Liverpool provides a very simple instance of this. When Sir Patrick Hennessy decided to site the new factory at Halewood, it became evident after a while that Ford’s was trying to incorporate into its Merseyside agreement wage rates that were considerably lower than those obtaining at Dagenham. The unions have succeeded, it seems so far, in resisting this. But the attempt would not have been made if Merseyside’s reserve of unemployed (then some 19,000) had not put ideas into the heads of Sir Patrick and his merry men. And the reason why the latest Hennessy outburst has been so widely resented on Merseyside is because it is popularly felt even if it is not clearly understood. Sir Patrick is using the predicament of Merseyside’s workless thousands in his firm’s business interests.


Last updated on 25.11.2004