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International Socialism, Spring 1968


Martin Barker

The Merseyside Building Workers’ Movement
A Case History


From International Socialism, No.32, Spring 1968, pp.24-31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Mersey Scene

For almost its entire history, Merseyside has been dominated by one industry: the docks. Associated with this is a peculiar sensitivity to economic fluctuations, especially when the industry is one that uses casual labour, and is essentially a transport industry. Merseyside has long been prone, therefore, to unemployment well above the national average. There are, at the time of writing, over 4,000 building workers alone on the dole, and because of the seasonal nature of the work, this figure can be much higher in winter.

The introduction of the Devlin proposals in the area will be disastrous for unemployment figures [1]; for although some new industry is now moving into the area to take up a growing labour surplus, this is only just holding things steady, coping with present increases but not with the permanent pool of unemployed. It seems unlikely that the Government will do much to promote the development of industry in the area. As it is, the employers make sure that the effect of new industry is nullified, by refusing to engage local labour; Howards of London, the main contractor for the multi-million dock extension, has stated its intention of going as far as Italy for men, no doubt in the hope that they will prove cheaper and more docile.

In a situation where unemployment is consistently high, it might be expected that militancy would be low; on Merseyside quite the reverse is the case. Because workers have been living with unemployment for so long, it now has little or no effect on the fight they are prepared to wage. A case in point occurred in the last years of Tory Government, when unemployment was particularly bad – there were 9,000 building workers on the streets; the employers used the opportunity to hold down wages, but met with solid resistance. A tale is told of one employer who was paying 9d over the rate to Manchester workers, but nothing over the rate to Liverpool men because of the unemployment. About 15 Liverpool joiners got on to the site, and the employer never knew what hit him. Militancy had its adverse as well as beneficial effects; in response to good organisation among the workers, the employers also organised. Thus, when an unemployed Liverpool brickie was sent by the Labour Exchange to a site for a job, he was refused employment without explanation. He thereupon made enquiries, only to discover that the Labour Exchange man who had originally directed him to the site, had already warned the site that a ‘trouble-maker’ was on his way. The brickie proposed quite reasonably to make a strong complaint and have the Labour Exchange official disciplined, and it was his Union which brought pressure to bear on him to drop the matter. The brickie later discovered that the official concerned was also the chairman of the Young Conservatives. This type of very efficient black-listing operates on almost every site on Merseyside, far more effectively than in almost any other area of the country. It was first introduced into the area by one of the large contractors, and other employers were allowed access to their list when vetting their own labour-force. More recently, another well-known contractor has improved on this system; he takes both name and National Insurance Number, and forwards them to the Employers’ Federation, which can then circulate a list to all those employers who want it. There seems to be collusion between employers and Labour Exchange in the operation of the blacklist [2], and almost certainly also between employers and some unions. Class struggle is a developing response; and it now appears that a solution is developing to the problem of blacklisting. Among the pipe trades it is now quite common for men to strike in order to make sure that a black-listed man is employed. But this is only just beginning, and has not yet been attempted by the civil side of building.

Merseyside, unlike London, has not been blessed so far with any large-scale contracts in the recent period. As a result, there has not been the need for the employers to carry out the kind of protracted attacks on site organisation which occurred on the Barbican site for example; as a further result, there have not been any protracted disputes in the last year that could have given impetus to rank-and-file movements. The only really important site has been Fiddlers’ Ferry Power Station, where a major strike broke out against the introduction of ‘lump’ work. The strike aroused considerable support on other sites. But despite mass pickets in which the police were forced to give way, and scabs were driven back, the strike was eventually broken. The role of the union officials in this dispute was anything but praiseworthy; and subsequently the unions negotiated an agreement which gave the employers ‘carte blanche’ to do what they wanted with the workers. [3] This strike and many smaller ones did something to show the men just how ambiguous their elected ‘representatives’ had become.

From the Start to the Beginning

In March 1966, in response to a further swing to the Right by the Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers (ASW), a movement came into being on Merseyside. The Joiners’ Unity Movement (JUM), as it was called, was a direct result of a revision of the rule-book, which allowed officials to be in office for life after being elected only twice; indirectly and in the long term, the Movement was the culminating response to a long series of sell-outs by one of the most reactionary trade unions in Britain.

Its aim primarily was to revise the revision, to stop the antidemocratic drift of the ASW. There was a general feeling that something must be done about the union as a whole, and about its attitude to its members; and because its aims were so immediately and obviously relevant, it won quick support. The first few meetings were well-attended, with several hundred present. According to ASW rules, if 20 branches proposed the rescinding of the revision, an aggregate meeting had to be called. This was the end in view, but in fact it was never reached.

The ASW is the biggest union in the National Federation of Building Trade Operatives (NFBTO). This means that it assumes a de facto leadership of the NFBTO, since on all issues its vote is the determining factor. This was amply demonstrated during the Myton strike, when the ASW effectively blocked all attempts to have the strike made official. In fact, the ASW has not called an official strike in the past ten years, and only very reluctantly and grudgingly declared a few official after they had continued solidly for some time. In other words, the effect of having practical control of the Federation has been to make the ASW totally reactionary. The ASW response to the JUM was, predictably therefore, one of open disapproval, but because of the militancy of the joiners involved, it did not dare to attack it too openly. Instead, two of the JUM Committee were summoned before the ASW District Management Committee, and a JUM leaflet was read to them; they were then ordered to hand over the minute-book of the JUM, since, the ASW maintained, whatever had to do with joiners had to do with the ASW. Despite threats, this demand was refused, and the matter was quietly dropped. At the same time as threatening them, however, the ASW officials urged them to alter the form of the Movement so that it would no longer come directly in conflict with their jurisdiction. But events had already moved ahead of the officials. While the ASW swung between threats and appeasement, the JUM committee had already decided that the Movement was not broad enough to be effective. Out of the beginnings of the Joiners’ Unity Movement, came the Merseyside Building Workers’ Movement (MBWM).

A Change of Face

The decision to change from the JUM to a broader movement was taken by a general meeting of the JUM; there was little opposition at the meeting, but quite a number of joiners were bitter at the change, and dropped out of activity as a result. Nevertheless a majority stayed with the Movement after the change.

As far as the Committee was concerned, the main reasons for making the transition were that the JUM was too narrow as it stood, and was thus likely to fail even in its limited aim of reforming the union; there had been for a long time a gradual decrease in the importance of craft-consciousness because of the increasing need for site-negotiations, which to be effective demand complete unity between the various trades. Therefore most of those involved regarded themselves as building workers first and foremost, and as joiners only secondarily. This sense of the abortiveness of limited action was probably the most important reason in fact for the decision to change; add to this the growing frustration felt by many workers at their isolation from their officials (for a long time the only real organs of contact between sites), and a complete rank-and-file movement became a necessity. It was still intended that the individual trades should be able to hold separate meetings under the auspices of the MBWM, and this policy was initially pursued. The joiners held two meetings in this way within the first few months.

Because of the discontent aroused by the transition, there was at first a decline in support, accentuated by the fact that the change left the movement in a vacuum until something came along on which it could be active. But shortly after the MBWM came into existence, the seamen went on official strike for the first time in over 50 years. Liverpool being a port, it was natural that a great deal of attention should be paid to this strike. And in fact the first two months of the Movement were almost entirely taken up with organising support for the seamen. Collections were taken, meetings and demonstrations called.

For the seamen this resulted in a tremendous spirit, that made Merseyside one of the areas to voice loudest the demand to continue the strike; and one of the strongest in condemning Hogarth and the NUS Executive for their handling of the strike.

For the MBWM, it meant that many workers came to hear of it through its activity in support of the seamen, and approved of it on that basis; it also meant that a good many workers from other industries came into contact with it. For the period of the seamen’s strike, the MBWM represented a genuine, if embryo, rank-and-file movement for most of Liverpool’s industries; dockers, engineers, car workers, seamen and building workers attended their meetings. Even if only in small numbers, it represented something new.

But no attempt was made to expand the MBWM into any kind of general Trade Union Defence Committee; so that, with the end of the strike, interest died, and support tended to lapse, not only among the workers in other industries, but also among building workers.

One important factor that helped cause this decline was that many building workers who came into contact with the MBWM during the seamen’s strike, although they could support them on that issue, were not prepared to support the general policies of the Movement; thus when the strike ended, many workers had no stable reason for continued support. Following from this, and from a second, even more important factor, the absence of any major local dispute, the Movement stagnated. There was a mailing list of about 250, but only a handful of these could be counted on as active supporters. Only one issue gave the MBWM much momentum; in November 1966, the building trade was due for a 3d per hour increase achieved after long negotiations; this was duly frozen. The MBWM called for a half-day token stoppage and demonstration on 7 November. A large number of sites did stop work, and 500 marched in pouring rain to the Employers’ Office. [4] But nothing was done, and indeed little could have been done, to follow up on this promising start, and the Movement again went into hibernation. (Nevertheless, it must be said that no one else would have successfully called a demonstration on this issue. This stagnation has been partly the effect of the situation in which the Movement was operating, and partly the result of a certain lack of perspective, which again has been caused by the situation in which the Movement was attempting to work. First, there has been no major dispute for which the Committee could provide the focus; second, a deep-seated suspicion of anything that presents itself as a genuine rank-and-file movement (played on by certain groups and individuals), in addition to a definite lack of understanding of the need for such a movement, meant that many people were unwilling to become involved (except, perhaps, on specific issues). Nevertheless, when presented with an opportunity, the MBWM has on the whole reacted well; for a considerable time, money went to London to support the strikers at Mytons and Sunleys, following a MBWM-organised tour of the main sites on Merseyside by representatives of the London Joint Sites Committee which raised £200. But once again, the Committee either did not or could not follow up, although it appeared that they had a great chance since the whole operation had been organised under the auspices of the MBWM. Nor did London help in this instance, for no receipts or letters of thanks were sent, which made some of the sites cagey about future collections.

Because of this gradual stagnation, the MBWM Committee itself shrank. The JUM had 8 Committee members for its brief duration; when the MBWM started, it achieved the grand total of 16; this now narrowed to 4! Personal reasons (one excellent militant dropped out after a bout of thrombosis; another after 6 months’ unemployment) mixed with local conditions (the concern at the change to MBWM, increasing opposition from some quarters, and the lack of local activity) reduced the Committee to a hard core; there was no source from which to replace natural wastage. Since then, it has shown signs of recovering; at a meeting last August the Committee was expanded to 8, and this has since been expanded again.

The Second Front

Alongside the Merseyside Building Workers’ Movement, there existed another organisation which deserves special mention because of the effect it had on the MBWM. Shortly after the end of the seamen’s strike, a Merseyside Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (MCDTU) was formed. Designed to deal with, and draw in, all sections of industry, it was from the start dominated by the Communist Party, although there were originally several MBWM Committee members on its committee. At an early meeting, from which, conveniently for the Party, the MBWM members were absent, the Chairman pushed through a motion saying there was no need for a formally constituted committee within the MCDTU, because ‘everyone is on the committee really.’ This assured the dominance of the Chairman and the Treasurer, one a Party member and the other close to the Party.

Because of the lack of openings for other local activity, the MBWM paid considerable attention to this organisation, and many of its subsequent activities were oriented towards it. This was the heyday of the Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions, and marked the high-tide of this type of organisation. Meetings were called, lobbies and demonstrations organised; it appeared that a stable type of organisation, relevant to the immediate struggles of the workers, was emerging. But these committees found it almost impossible to maintain a steady support in industry, except among the most advanced militants, so they degenerated in most cases into shells, or into front organisations for the various Left political groupings. The effect of its flirtation with the MCDTU was definitely harmful to the Building Workers’ Movement. It meant that time and energy were frittered away in vicarious lobbying, an activity that by its nature can involve the mass of the workers only passively (i.e. in collections for delegates); and in opposing the Party control of the MCDTU. It meant moreover that the image of the MBWM became partly that of a political organisation, interested primarily in general fights rather than in the local struggles of its worker-constituents. Fortunately, the CP took control of the MCDTU to such an extent, and opposition to them within it grew to such an extent, that the CP decided it would be best if it were left to sink quietly into oblivion. This left the MBWM free to follow its own dictates. (Now the MCDTU re-emerges whenever a lobby is planned, or a ‘safe’ demonstration. Which means that support for it is waning even more drastically, and is confined more and more to political militants.)


The reactions of the various groups and organisations that the Merseyside Building Workers’ Movement came into contact with were predictable.

The employers first; it is difficult to gauge the extent of their resistance so far, but one interesting case has already come to light. During the Liverpool Teaching Hospital (Pochin) dispute, in the course of which two MBWM Committee members were sacked, the employer stated that he refused to re-employ the two of them because he knew them to be (shades of Gunter) members of a dangerous political organisation. It is clear from this that the employers are aware of the MBWM; but so far they have not had too much to worry about. The MBWM has done little locally, although it is now beginning to spread its wings in that direction. And it can be expected that as this happens, so the employers will be more strict in using the black-list against members of the Movement, and quick to try to attack any growth of local inter-site solidarity. The Unions, after the stormy beginning in which they found their interests directly threatened by the JUM, assumed a posture of quiet disapproval. Originally McCormack and Stevenson of the JUM Committee had been threatened with expulsion from the ASW, but because of the militancy of the men involved in the JUM, it was a completely empty threat; after that, opposition was for a period mainly verbal. The Union journal carried an article attacking rank-and-file movements in general, and the officials have consistently used their influence to turn some men against the MBWM. The presence of the MBWM has had one note-worthy effect on the Unions, however; prior to its formation, if a strike took place in another area, and the strikers wanted support on Merseyside, it would have fallen to the local officials to arrange meetings. This had the obvious draw-back that the officials would only arrange support for official strikes; and these were becoming rarer every day. Now the situation is changing radically; when Square Grip (an official dispute) and Mytons and Sunleys (unofficial) wanted support, they did not go to the officials but to the MBWM, and as a result won more support. The effect of the formation of the MBWM, in other words, has been not only to force the Unions on to the defensive against it, but also to remove from the none-too-willing hands of the officials some of the few radical tasks remaining to them, thereby removing them one stage further from the rank-and-file of the Unions. Thus again, the MBWM has started to take over some of the functions of the Unions.

Nevertheless, despite this interesting and important development, and despite the fact that the Unions are very much alive to the dangers for them inherent in the MBWM, their response has so far been mild.

The same can be said on the whole of the official Communist Party reaction. Initially, when the JUM appeared as a movement that not only ignored but actually challenged official channels, its instinctive reaction was to condemn it outright. The situation was further aggravated by the fact that there were several Party members on the local ASW Management Committee. But with the change to the MBWM, the CP’s attitude, like the Unions’, softened; it was now not something to be opposed, but to be redirected – back to official channels. The reasons for this change were: one, that the JUM confronted the Unions in a way that the MBWM would not; and two, that more and more Party members were becoming active in or sympathetic to the Movement, and therefore to oppose it openly would have damaged the Party itself. Given the fact that CP membership is high among Merseyside building workers, it was even possible for the ordinary members to force through a motion offering full support to the MBWM, and to the paper Rank and File. But as again might have been expected, this resolution was just ignored by the more official-minded of the Party members, a response which simply added to the disillusion of other members. The CP, having been committed in words by the pressure of its own rank-and-file, chose to ignore the MBWM; one Branch Secretary summed up this attitude, when he argued that it should be run under the auspices of the Party [5]; and because it was not, he could afford to ignore it. The ex-Regional organiser justified his disruptive role by saying that they were all ‘a load of Trots.’ But this so far is a very one-sided picture, for many Party members did put the official resolution into action; two of the hard core of the Committee, Leith and Stevenson, are staunch Party members. This split within the CP is having important effects, since some of the more official-minded are consciously ‘blacking’ the MBWM to those not in close contact with it. [6] Only an extension of the activity of the Movement locally can overcome this difficulty – by giving Party members first hand experience of the MBWM.

But it was not only in relation to Party members on Merseyside that this pervasive split had its effect. On the London Joint Sites Committee, and to a lesser extent in the Manchester Rank and File committee, there grew up a mysterious myth that the MBWM was ‘riddled’ with members of the Socialist Labour League, and this resulted in a definite reluctance on the part of both these organisations to establish anything more than casual relations with the MBWM. [7] Even after the successful trip by members of the LJSC to Liverpool doubts remained; and these did harm to the potential that the Movement had. It is almost certain that the blame for this must lie with Party and Union officials, whose views perhaps reached London. Relations with the Manchester Rank and File committee were always of importance to the MBWM; in fact for some time, it existed as a travelling salesman for the paper. Much time and resources were devoted to selling a meagre 300 papers; this generated a vicious circle. Because actual industrial activity was at a low ebb, sales of Rank and File remained low, which meant that to avoid cutting the order below its existing level, the Committee had to devote more time to selling the paper. In other words, Rank and File activity was substituted for rank-and-file activity; and because of the lack of balance between propaganda and action, propaganda was bound to be meagre and ineffective.

The Current Situation

The situation at present is that the MBWM is widely known on Merseyside as a consistent rank-and-file movement. Delegates now come to meetings from as far away as Skelmersdale, the overspill town 17 miles outside Liverpool, and there is reason to think and hope that the Movement is about to enter a period of expansion; the recent expansion of the Committee bodes well for this.

Generally, it is possible to say that the MBWM is entering the third period of its existence and growth, a stage which signals a time for some optimism for an increase in numbers, spirit and consciousness.

The three stages of the MBWM are not separate stages, they shade into one another and overlap but they are worth separating out so that we can get an overall picture of the state of the Movement, neither too optimistic nor too pessimistic, one which allows us to make predictions of its future, and judgements of its past; and in the course of this we may uncover some important facts about the development of rank-and-file movements in general.

The context within which events on Merseyside have taken place is well known to IS readers – the causes and results of the long phase of stability in capitalism, the fragmentation of class consciousness, and the shift in emphasis away from national political and industrial reformism to shop-floor bargaining.

One of the important effects of the change in the nature of the class struggle has been that politics have been brought into the arena of union affairs. Until recently it has been union policy to maintain the artificial separation between ‘union’ and ‘political’ affairs, but with the State intervening daily the gap is becoming more clearly artificial. How fast this change becomes apparent will vary from area to area; on Merseyside, the full effects of the fragmentation of the class struggle have not been felt. With continuing high unemployment, wage increases have not been as easy to come by as in other areas. Nonetheless, wage rates have been kept high in the area, partly because of the tradition of militancy, and partly because of the close links with Manchester where unemployment has not been as heavy and wages have consequently been maintained at a relatively high level. The achievement of high wages in a high unemployment situation requires a degree of inter-site solidarity, facilitated by the small size of the Liverpool area. Although the majority of the committee of the MBWM are militant socialists, the JUM and the MBWM were formed without any help from outside political groups. One of the MBWM’s first acts was the calling of a token strike against the frozen wage increase and against the wage freeze generally – with some success. From the start, the Movement appealed to both stewards and ordinary workers. Though very small, it had a completely rank-and-file basis, and attracted a cross-section of all trades. In short, the MBWM was from the beginning a potential classic rank-and-file movement, with direct involvement of the workers united against an attack on themselves as a class.

Stage One

The first stage in the development of a Merseyside building workers’ rank-and-file movement was that of attempting to reform the unions, and to work through official channels. The attempt failed completely. Typical of this stage was the attempt to get a good militant elected to the local ASW Management Committee; the Management Committee, predictably, found a way of squashing this by having the candidate disqualified. This reaction – to try to reform a trade union (or the Labour Party) – is almost instinctive; but in the current situation, with increasing collusion between the State, the employers and the unions, it must be seriously questioned whether it is a right course of action. There is currently a serious decline in interest in traditional trade-union affairs, and there is a strong case for saying that in most cases the developing rank-and-file movements should not concern themselves with attempting to change this state of affairs. Rank-and-file movements do not start fully grown; they start as small groups of rank-and-file militants who must attract a response from the mass of the workers. In the current situation, it is extremely difficult to get a response from the mass of the workers on the issue of reforming their trade unions; and to direct overmuch attention to the issue, therefore, is, in a sense, to turn away from the rank and file.

It is essential in this case to distinguish between a historical trend, and individual failings. The current right-wing swing of the unions is not due to there being in power a collection of ‘bad men.’ Rather it is a result of a trend within British capitalism, which demands the integration of the unions into the State. As British capitalism comes under pressure, it cannot afford to allow the workers to retain their strong bargaining position, it must undermine their strength. But it is not inevitable that every union should become integrated into the State simply because that is what is needed by capitalism. The example of DATA shows this. But DATA is an exception. Partly because of a conscious decision by the leadership, and partly because the Union has long been opposed nationally, DATA is now an effective voice of its membership, and has won some important gains for them. There is little point in going into the various factors that influence the extent to which unions become bureaucratised, since that is something that needs to be done union by union. With regard to the building unions, we may note one important factor that has caused the member-unions of the NFBTO to become more bureaucratic than most, and this is the nature of building work. Unlike most factories, all building sites are temporary; a job may last 6 weeks or 6 years, but it will in the end be finished, and the workers will have to look for other jobs. This means that site organisation can fluctuate wildly, and militancy on a site can be either very low, or very high. This has the effect of making the employers prefer local negotiations, with a low national minimum wage, since it is possible for each employer to attempt to exclude the militants from his sites, and thus keep wages close to the minimum.

In the building industry therefore site negotiations take on greater importance than in almost any other industry; and because of this, the split between the union hierarchies and the rank-and-file is proportionately greater. The national organisation is more functionless, and is under less pressure from the rank and file to fight for wage increases; so that the pressure from the employers is that much more effective. This has resulted in the building unions being among the most reactionary in the country, some of the worst for collaborating with the employers to destroy site organisation and militancy. Nevertheless, what is true to a great extent of the building unions, is still true to some extent of most of the other unions in the country; and the practical functionlessness of the unions has meant that many of them have given way to the pressures of employers and State, to discipline their members and curb industrial activity.

After a period of fragmentation, when local struggles were sufficient, employers are now staging a frontal attack on the workers. The workers have to reunite. And they have to develop organisation to face the renewed attack of the employers. But they cannot use the traditional organisation of the unions, since that has long since become bureaucratic, and the Executive has probably long since pushed through a rules-revision to make the union structurally undemocratic. They therefore try to take over the Union once more in order to use it for their own ends. Can they do it?

Presenting this schematically, rank-and-file movements are by definition in opposition to the unions concerned, and in the case of most unions the chance of their taking over the union and democratising it, are severely limited by the fact that usually only one section of the union is involved at one time, and the fact that there comes a point where it is practically impossible for the membership to oust the bureaucracy; added to which is the considerable lack of interest in traditional union affairs, which makes it virtually impossible for the militants within an industry to mobilise the ordinary membership against the bureaucracy.

Another factor which militates against the usefulness of a fight against the union bureaucracies, is the fact that in the long term the rank-and-file movements tend to take on themselves the functions of the unions, in terms of organising demonstrations, lobbies, collections, sympathy strikes and so on. We have already noted in the case of the MBWM that the job of arranging support for strikes outside the area was quickly taken out of the hands of the Unions. Rank-and-file movements arise for two reasons previously noted; first to reverse some action of the Union;, and secondly to carry out some action that the union has not carried out. The JUM was typical of the firsthand the MBWM was typical of the second. The JUM could not have survived, since its only aim was to revise the revision, and given the state of the class struggle and 20 years of union irrelevance, no sustained campaign could have been effected. The MBWM could survive, because its central aim in reality was to take over the functions of the union. First of all, over twenty years, the majority of the Unions have become so thoroughly undemocratic that it is practically impossible for the workers to regain control. An example of this can be found in the case of the Pochin (Liverpool Teaching Hospital Site) dispute, where at the end of the dispute, the local ASW delegate actually escorted the scabs through the gate. Several local branches tried to charge him, but the local Management Committee refused to accept the charges; on the other hand, when the delegate countered by charging the Steward, the Management Committee found the case ‘proven.’ Second, when a rank-and-file movement arises in order to oppose some action of the union, that movement is forced to take over the remaining radical and trade-union functions of the union. Thus the MBWM was forced to take over the role of organising support for official and unofficial strikes; and thereby the union and the officials were forced into greater opposition to the rank-and-file movement.

Rank-and-file movements arise in order to oppose some action by one or more unions, or more generally in order to make up for some lack of action by one or more unions. In the first case, they are automatically in opposition to the unions involved; in the second case, because they begin to take over the functions of the unions, the unions must move into opposition to them or simply go out of existence. Therefore in both cases, rank-and-file movements must come into opposition with the unions with which they are involved.

But for; 20 years, interest in traditional union matters has declined drastically, so that if a rank-and-file movement calls for opposition to the Union hierarchy, it is unlikely to get an enthusiastic response. On a particular issue one section of workers in a Union (take for example the contracting electricians) will fight to remove the union bureaucracy; but even here, it is difficult to maintain their enthusiasm for fighting the union specifically for long. And it is only one section of the Union. Because of the fragmentation of the class struggle, in the great majority of cases, fights between unions and their members involve only one section of the membership at a time. Indeed in the case of the ETU, it seems likely that the attack oh the contracting electricians was quite deliberately confined to them, in the hope that the other sections of the membership would not become involved in the fight. At the present time, it is the case that workers are not generally capable of uniting, but only of being united; and it is the role of rank-and-file militants to show ordinary workers the need for unity. Rank-and-file movements are of necessity started and carried for a time by political militants, and only by proving themselves do they grow.

One final effect of this should be noted; because these movements substitute for the official trade unions, there is inevitably a steady growth of conflict between them, which hastens the right-Ward direction of the unions. Taking the last radical tasks out of trade-union hands puts them even further out of touch with their members. This results in an almost complete integration of the top union officials into the capitalist system; examples are Lord Carron’s (AEF) directorship of the Bank of England, and the numerous steel and the other directorships given to top union officials. It also results in the middle echelons of Union officials being torn between the two opposing forces. As was found in the case of the Barbican and Horseferry Road strikes, which was the first major confrontation between a rank-and-file movement and their union in an organised fight, the officials nearest to the men experience acute conflict; some of diem consciously chose the side of the rank-and-file, and were sacked as a consequence. We may now summarise our conclusions about what the attitude of the rank-and-file movements should be towards the unions; it appears that the majority of the unions cannot be reformed, because the period of union irrelevance has meant that they have been integrated into the State system; the rank-and-file have neither the consciousness nor the interest in carrying through such a reform, due to the fragmentation of class consciousness. Rank-and-file movements, being composed primarily of political militants, who have the consciousness to understand the role of the union bureaucracies, must in the long term aim to take over the functions of these unions by proving themselves in local activity. The aim and reason for the appearance of rank-and-file movements, is to reunite the fragmented working class; and this cannot be done by attempting primarily to reform the unions, since if the unions could be reformed, then the workers would already be united. They are not, and the role of the rank-and-file movements is first and foremost to organise inter-site and inter-factory solidarity, which will itself entail opposing the actions of the union bureaucracies. Only by deliberately turning towards the rank-and-file can the movements survive and succeed; and that entails turning away from the official structures.

Stage Two

It is greatly to the credit of the MBWM, and in particular its Committee, that passing through stage one took such a comparatively short time. The change to the MBWM really marked the end of the period of attempting to reform the Unions. From now on, the MBWM would concern itself with bread and butter issues. It reveals much of the calibre of the leadership of the movement, that in the midst of all the difficulties in which they found themselves, they had the foresight and understanding to switch to a broader movement.

But even when they had changed, grave problems faced them. Their greatest problem was the lack of any dispute. Whenever an issue did arise, the response was enthusiastic; when the strike was called over the freezing of the 3d per hour, thousands stopped work and hundreds marched. But little happened following this that the MBWM could follow up; and it was reduced to desultory activity in supporting other strikes outside the area (Square Grip, Mytons and Sunleys). While it did this well, and got some support as a result, it was not active support of the kind needed, but passive in response to a passive demand (i.e. collections for other areas).

This caused some disorientation; the Committee narrowed due to a lack of direction. This was the reason that the MBWM became involved in the most time-wasting project it could have undertaken; the Merseyside Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions.

The TUDCs demand a high level of consciousness, since they seek to involve all workers in each others’ struggles; but at present the level of consciousness of the working class is at a low ebb; the Barbican strike and the Roberts-Arundel strike proved just how hard it was to get builders to support builders, and engineers to support engineers, let alone builders supporting engineers and vice versa.

But aft the same time as they demand a high level of political awareness, they are not political organisations as such. Because of their demand for a high level of consciousness, they do not have a determinate rank and file, and support for them is limited to the isolated militants. These militants are not concerned with the formulation of a complete political programme, only with the demands common to all existing programmes – as a result lobbies and demonstrations provide the main activity of these organisations.

In effect, the TUDCs provide nothing more than a stamping ground for militants; they are an expression of the isolation of the militants, and the frustrations felt at this isolation. Instead of overcoming the isolation of the militants in industry, these organisations did much to increase it, by giving individual militants the impression of having a rank and file, and of not being isolated.

The lack of any real rank and file, and the corresponding lack of any activity, made these organisations hotbeds of factionalism, since their only consistent supporters were the political militants; they were bad half-way houses between reformist and revolutionary organisations. If reformist, they were beyond the consciousness of the mass of the workers; if revolutionary, they lacked any perspective and ideology.

The MBWM walked into a trap, and neglected the building of its own rank-and-file basis. At all the lobbies and demonstrations called by the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions, it was noticeable that the builders’ contingent made up an unusually large proportion of the Merseyside contingent; in other words, the MCDTU was a parasite on the Building Workers’ Movement, and it is not unlikely that the CP, which virtually ran the MCDTU, were aware and glad of this. The contact that the MBWM had with the MCDTU was quite small, but given the low level of other activity, this became magnified.

Once again it is to the credit of the MBWM that it did not become more involved than it did; nevertheless for the period of their association, harm was definitely done to the MBWM; organisations such as the TUDCs have no rank and file of their own, and must therefore draw on the rank and file of other organisations if they are not to die. The Merseyside one is fortunately on its death-bed. It will be necessary in the future either to ignore or to actively oppose the formation of these organisations, since they are bad substitutes for real rank-and-file movements such as the MBWM. It must be our aim to overcome the isolation of the militants, not to increase it; organisations of trade-union militants cannot help but increase it, since they are out of touch with their own rank and file. Therefore such organisations are dangerous and diversionary.

Stage Three

With the removal of the MCDTU, the Building Workers’ Movement went into hibernation for a time. But now, slowly but surely, it is re-emerging in a stronger and more resilient form. The features of this third stage are not all apparent, but where they are not, we can see what they will be from the various things that were wrong with the earlier stages. The first stage was wrong, since it stressed one aspect of rank-and-file activity, the negative aspect of opposing the union bureaucracy, without developing the positive aspect of taking over the functions of the bureaucracy. To fight the union hierarchy would not have involved the mass of the members, and the attempt would have foundered as only one section could have been involved at a time. The third stage has to be one that involves all Merseyside building workers at one time in a way that overcomes the fragmentation of the struggle; and most important, it has to involve them in day-to-day issues. The second stage was wrong because it stressed the isolation of the militants by demanding a high level of consciousness from the start, instead of working to develop one by drawing on the day-to-day experiences of the workers at the only level they understand fully at present – site-level. The third stage therefore, must be one that is centred entirely on local activity, developing support for disputes, and thereby laying the roots of inter-site solidarity. It must not demand a high level of consciousness, and must therefore involve the mass of the workers at a level suited to their understanding. The development of inter-site solidarity is the most important task of the MBWM, since without the destruction of the parochialism that is the product of 20 years of stability, there can be no development of political understanding and class consciousness. But to achieve inter-site solidarity, the MBWM must cease to be a body of militants; it must appeal to all workers. This is why it is important that the present system of individual affiliation to the MBWM should be supplemented by site affiliation. On the sites, most workers have at least a basis of organisation in their shop stewards, and an organisation that attempts to by-pass these is doomed to failure. Workers’ organisations must develop from what exists; what is there at present is shop stewards’ organisation, and it is the job, therefore, of the MBWM, to act as the unifying organisation for these. The stewards on a site are better able to appeal to and involve the workers on a site, than are Committee members of the MBWM. This is the first practical step that should be taken to reorganise the MBWM. This step also has the relevance of being a way of overcoming the isolation of the militants on the sites. If it is simply the stewards as individuals (and this is what it has tended to be) who support the MBWM, the organisation will tend to reflect their level of consciousness and not that of the ordinary workers; and this will make the Movement appear irrelevant to the needs of the ordinary workers.

The MBWM must reflect the mood and consciousness of the rank and file, while remaining just one step in advance of them; the central function of the Movement is therefore to organise support for local disputes. There is a danger here. The sites most likely to have disputes are the best organised sites; the best organised sites tend to have a number of militants. But the best militants are already members of the MBWM. In the Pochin dispute, two of the Committee of the MBWM were sacked, and the site struck. But because they were members of the Committee, the two of them were unwilling to involve the MBWM in the dispute, and the strike was therefore isolated and defeated.

There are two disputes at present that are likely to give quite a bit of bite to the MBWM if it seizes the opportunities; the Shellstar Ince (Ellesmere Port) dispute, where 150 men have been sacked; and the ETU campaign against the Joint Industry Board and the Grading Agreement. Both are significant in that they involve the pipe trades, who have only recently become involved in the Movement with a PTU deputy Steward joining the Committee. But disputes come and go; so long as the MBWM is in the forefront of organising support for whatever building disputes occur, its organisation will continue to thrive. The third stage of the MBWM must be the longest lasting of the stages; it represents the real function of a rank-and-file movement in the present situation. In a sense therefore, all that can be suggested here are recommendations for future action; it is a recommendation based on the objective needs of the situation that the MBWM reorganise itself on a basis of site affiliations as well as individual affiliations. It is also a recommendation that the MBWM be wary about rejecting the use of traditional union procedures too early. It is a mark of the predominance of the militants in the MBWM, that it has tended to by-pass union branch meetings. It is unfortunately true that the majority of building workers on Merseyside, if they use anything at all, use official procedures; and therefore, if it is not to reflect the isolation of the militant in a new form, the MBWM must use the official procedures just as the mass of the members do. Too early a rejection of this, will result in isolation from the members. The essence of all these recommendations is that the MBWM should be in touch and in tune with the mood of ordinary workers; on the whole it is, but certain organisational steps should be taken to sustain this. The MBWM, because of its nature as a rank-and-file movement, will gradually take over the functions of the traditional union machinery; but to the extent that it has not so far, it must use the official machinery. There must be neither total acceptance nor total rejection of official procedures.

The Way Ahead

The MBWM has been in existence only 18 months; in that short time, it has established itself as an authentic rank-and-file movement. The point has now been reached where, when Shellstar Ince went on strike, the strikers immediately contacted the MBWM for support. The MBWM has established itself from nothing. Several factors have made for its success, and one of these really provides the justification for writing this article. The first factor is the peculiar local conditions on Merseyside, which has made it one of the first to experience the full effects of the economic downturn of the last two years; this has itself caused the second factor, which is the high level of political awareness of the Committee of the MBWM. The third factor is one noted earlier; the building industry felt the effects of the fragmentation of the class struggle more than most other industries, because of the temporary nature of site-work; this meant that, when the time came for the workers to respond to an attack by the employers, the building workers were in a better position than most to respond with the formation of rank-and-file movements.

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1. Even on conservative estimates, there will be, in the long term, at least a 50 per cent reduction in the dock labour-force; some estimates say that 90 per cent will have to go. According to The Observer, cargo handled per man-week will rise from 30 to 600 tons.

2. For example the Labour Exchange lent Pochins’ agent a room for vetting workers during a recent dispute on his site.

3. The agreement stated: ‘Agreed Formula ... 2. The unions give an assurance that if the men do not apply themselves properly in the future, the firm may take appropriate action without opposition from the unions.’ This sell-out was signed by all the unions concerned, except the AUBTW, the union which had shown the most fight all along.

4. Feeling ran particularly high on this issue, for the employers had already adjusted their cost-estimates to allow for the increase.

5. An argument remarkably similar to that used by the ASW when they were trying to kill the JUM.

6. The split within the CP is not just limited to the issue of the MBWM. At the Cantrell Farm Direct Works Department site (till recently a very well-organised site with good conditions), Party stewards have been selling job conditions at a low price. Leith, the MBWM treasurer, who recently started work at Cantrell Farm, was horrified at this, and took his comrades to task for it. They justified their actions by saying that by this means they might be able to stave off the Tories’ threat to close the Direct Works Department in Liverpool. To those Party members true to the line, Direct Works equals municipalisation equals socialism – no matter how bad the conditions!

7. This definitely was a myth, as the SLL had hardly any contact with the Movement. One or two SLL members worked within the MBWM and worked well; but as an organisation the SLL paid far more attention to the MCDTU.

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Last updated on 18.6.2008