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International Socialism, April 1973


Roger Rosewell

The AUEW: The 1972 Wages Struggle and the Left


From International Socialism, No.57, April 1973, pp.7-9.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Ever since the successes of the ‘broad-left’ in union elections during the 1960s culminating in the election of Hugh Scanlon of Manchester to the presidency of the AUEW in 1968, the engineers have been the most prominent and the most important of the left’ unions.

Unlike the TGWU, the AUEW has persistently refused to recognise the Industrial Relations Act, or to have any truck with the National Industrial Relations Court. But its resistance is passive. As the Goad case showed, the leadership is willing to ‘endorse’ rank and file action against the law. It is not willing to lead. It will not pay fines, but neither will it organise industrial reprisals when the union’s funds are raided by the NIRC.

The resurgence of the right

This abstentionist attitude has undoubtedly helped the Right wing in the union to recover confidence and credibility. James Conway’s easy victory over Ernie Roberts in the contest for the general secretaryship is a measure of this. True, the defeat of Roberts was due, in part, to other factors – the introduction of a postal ballot, the use of the AUEW Journal as Conway’s personal publicity organ, and so on. But the ‘broad left’ has a heavy responsibility for these factors too.

It did indeed vote in the national committee against the system of postal balloting – a scheme designed exclusively to help the candidates supported by the capitalist press, and wide open to abuse – but its campaign to reverse the 26 votes to 25 decision was muted, to put it mildly. As a result, it failed at the 1972 NC by a slightly greater margin (27 votes to 25) to restore branch room voting.

Nor was the campaign mounted for Roberts on anything remotely resembling the scale of the electoral campaigns of the 60s. Now, the crucially important election for executive councillor for Division Five places the left-wing majority on the EC in jeopardy. At the time of writing, the result of the second ballot is not known, but on the first ballot Communist Party member, Les Dixon, had only a slender lead over the right-wing candidate Horner. If Dixon loses, the Right will have a majority on the EC.

The April NC will probably reject motions to reverse the policy of non-recognition of the NIRC, but there can be no doubt that the right wing is much stronger than it was 12 months ago. The root cause of this is the failure of the broad Left’s strategy in the 1972 pay struggle.

The 1971 claim

The 13 unions representing manual workers in the engineering industry – the biggest of which is the engineering section of the AUEW – are organised into the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions (CSEU). The chairman of the CSEU’s engineering sub-committee is always the president of the AUEW.

In August 1971 the CSEU approached the Engineering Employers’ Federation (EEF) and submitted a claim. The previous agreement had been signed in 1968 and was to last for three years. The new claim was for an agreement to become effective when the old one expired in December 1971.

Since 1965 there have been two of these three-year agreements, both ‘package deals’. These were first introduced by the then right-wing union leadership of Sir William Carron to avoid disputes and spread increases and improvements over a long period.

In contrast with the situation in many other industries, a large part of an engineering worker’s earnings are negotiated locally between shop stewards and plant management.

A survey published by the Coventry district of the EEF in 1968 showed that in this admittedly exceptional area, two-thirds of a motor worker’s wages were due to this ‘wage drift’; national rates accounted only for the other third. The immediate consequence of this was that the major companies saw national pay settlements as a costly expense. For they had to pay first a national award, then further local increases because of pressure from shop stewards and militants.

Second, the experience of the 1968 package deal taught them that it was impossible to buy productivity strings with national awards. The agreement of that year gave small increases in return for substantial concessions on productivity, payment systems, job evaluation, mobility and flexibility of labour. Practice showed, however, that if employers wanted to implement these clauses, they were either resisted or else forced to pay further increases.

The strategy the employers adopted was as follows. First they sought gradually to eliminate across-the-board pay rises as an element of national negotiations. The two ‘package deals’ reflected this trend, and the current agreement seems to have consolidated it by not containing any such award.

Second, they sought to make pay rises dependent on plant negotiations; the scrapping of national awards was, of course, central to this. At plant level they foresaw considerably greater possibilities of attaching pay rises to local conditions such as high unemployment, weak trade-union organisation, and so on, as well as introducing stricter productivity strings.

Many satisfactory agreements have been reached at plant level which are well short of the union’s nationally claimed increases ... Certainly in the medium and small firms settlements have been modest.

For the CSEU, faced with the same determination from the employers and lacking any of the advantages possessed or created by TASS, the plant-by-plant strategy was clearly unlikely to succeed. This initial weakness was further compounded and assured by the attitude adopted by the national union leaders, and was finally confirmed by the eventual settlement in August 1972.

Only a national struggle could have countered the employers’ strategy. Instead, the January meeting of the CSEU executive decided to break off talks with the employers, and pursue the claim on a plant-by-plant basis.

Abdication of leadership

For a month after the January decision little happened, but then the Sheffield district announced that they intended to organise a city-wide strike of all their 45,000 members. Its leaders said this would last until such time as the Sheffield district of the EEF conceded the claim.

Instead of welcoming and supporting this first expression of militancy, Scanlon and the AUEW executive instructed the district to abandon its proposals as unconstitutional, and contrary to the rule requiring a district ballot before a district strike.

During the whole of the eight months between the January decision and the signing of the new agreement, there was no lead or direction from the leaderships. They never campaigned for the claim or publicised it or attempted to mobilise mass support behind it. They never once seriously discussed the possibility of a national strike, or sought to direct and supervise the strategy they themselves were responsible for.

They could have selected the most important companies in the EEF and tried to compel them to concede the claim. But they didn’t. They could have led a national overtime ban or a national work-to-rule, or even imposed an arbitrary 35-hour working week. But they didn’t. They could have selected certain key districts, organised mass campaigns of propaganda and support, initiated solidarity action and levies in other areas and generally acted as a general staff. But they didn’t.

Indeed not only did they abstain from giving any leadership, but many of them frequently behaved in such a manner as to undermine any attempt at a serious fight. These betrayals were common to union leaders of both Left and Right. The most crucial of them occurred within the AUEW itself. The first took place in January when that union’s national committee – urged on by Hugh Scanlon and Les Dixon – agreed on the plant-by-plant strategy and sponsored its adoption by the CSEU. Even at this early stage, the willingness to compromise was spelt out:

the executive council are instructed to initiated negotiations through district committees and shop stewards with individual employers on the understanding that settlements may be concluded on all or part of the claim (our emphasis) which is acceptable to district committees and the members concerned.

This was not all. At the June 1972 annual conference of the CSEU in Llandudno, Scanlon spoke on the claim and openly admitted that before the talks collapsed, he had privately offered to temporarily drop the demands on hours and other conditions if the EEF would concede the £6 increase on minimum rates and improved holidays. This willingness to drop large parts of the claim was to feature at a later stage in the struggle, and at no time did either Scanlon or any of the other union leaders ever insist on their original demand for a ‘substantial wage increase’.

The Manchester action

With the collapse of the proposed Sheffield struggle, the next area to decide on action was greater Manchester. In the event, the struggle that took place in, this district was to be the only large-scale battle of the entire campaign. A mass meeting of local engineering shop stewards .decided to declare a city-wide ban on piecework from 27 March. This decision was not a binding instruction.

A number of factories responded, and when companies reacted with suspensions and other provocations, a number of sit-ins resulted. At the peak of the struggle about 30 factories were occupied, and in one of these a document outlining the policy of the employers was discovered in the files. It was a circular from the EEF, which stated:

The board recommended that member firms should adopt a policy of maximum possible escalation when faced with industrial action, on the basis of making the action as costly to the unions as possible, as quickly as possible ... Member firms would in this way be taking a positive step to support other members of the federation.

The Manchester Association of the EEF thoroughly organised itself for the battle in the area. Sixteen special subcommittees were set up, and any firm that conceded a reduction in hours was promptly expelled.

The national EEF was also very active, and gave considerable aid to its Manchester firms. In all they contributed about £2 million in compensation for loss of profits, distributing it on the basis of £10 a week for every man on strike and £5 for every apprentice or woman worker.

Compared with this discipline and organisation, the unions were weak and confused. The CSEU Manchester campaign allowed individual factories to settle for varying amounts and never achieved the sort of cohesion displayed by the employers.

Instead of aiming for an area agreement, the local union leadership allowed many firms to settle for considerably less than the terms of the national claim and did nothing to prevent widely varying agreements from being reached.

Sometimes the results of this were good, but overall it produced considerable unevenness, and threw away the opportunity for a united movement. The district committee adopted a policy of keeping settlements secret, on the grounds that to publicise them would deter a number of companies from following suit, owing to the fear of expulsion from the EEF.

But because, as a result, workers were unaware of what particular factories were obtaining, the whole campaign was fragmented and easily undermined by rumours circulated by the right-wing who did not want to fight. Any real district campaign – as opposed to attempts by individual factories in a particular area to get whatever they could – would have relied upon weekly shop stewards’ meetings to direct it, exchange experience and information, and generally control both the level of settlements and the pace of the entire struggle.

The campaign could have included one-day strikes and mass demonstrations that would have involved every factory – both large and small – in the area and helped cement the unity of the workers, as well as used the occupied factories as organising bases from which mass pickets could be directed and delegations sent around the country, both to try and raise money and expand the struggle.

But none of this was done, a number of blatant retreats were allowed, and many of the occupations kept extremely passive.

The earlier willingness of Scanlon to compromise on the hours part of the national claim also re-emerged at a crucial stage of the Manchester battle. After six weeks of struggle, with some factories accepting purely monetary awards and others continuing to fight for shorter hours, Scanlon visited Manchester and told a special shop stewards’ meeting that settlements could be reached without any concessions on the 35-hour week.

The Manchester CSEU accepted Scanlon’s advice, and in a number of factories purely monetary settlements were quickly made, along with decisions to keep up the fight for shorter hours by the imposition of indefinite overtime bans.

The Outcome

As the Manchester campaign reached its peak and began to decline, the whole national campaign for the claim relapsed into sporadic and completely uncoordinated action.

The CSEU’s acceptance of a new and entirely unsatisfactory agreement in the shipbuilding industry was to pave the way for the eventual settlement in engineering. Traditionally, although shipbuilding employers have a federation of their own, and agreements separate from engineering, the amount that it has offered in national negotiations has been very similar to that of the EEF.

This agreement, which the AUEW voted against, covered 100,000 shipyard workers and gave a minimum rate increase of £5.50 spread over 18 months. The employers were delighted, and in a statement issued by the director of their Federation explained:

the settlement, being an increase in basic minimum rates and not a general increase, affected only a comparatively small number of employees ... the total cost of the settlement to the industry is in percentage terms substantially below what is generally understood as being the government’s norm at the present time.

As the £1.50 increase offered by the EEF was only tor minimum rates and would consequently, with few exceptions, not apply to the overwhelming majority of workers’ wage packets, except in the form of increased holiday pay and overtime and shift premiums, its estimated value was only about three per cent.

The final engineering pay agreement, signed in August 1972 to run for a year from the date on which it was concluded, thereby making it at least an effective 20-month deal, was only worth between six and seven per cent. All it contained was one extra day’s holiday in 1972 and another in 1973 together with the following increases in the minimum rates:

A skilled man’s basic wage will be increased from the present £19 to £22 from August 1972 and £25 a week in a year’s time. A labourer goes from £15 to £17 and £20 a week in a year’s time; and a woman – despite the fact that the claim was for the immediate introduction of equal pay – from £13 to £15.50 to £18 in one year’s time.

No reduction in hours or any other concessions were achieved. This defeat was a clear product of the policy adopted by the union leaders.

The role of the left

The basic cause of this was their determination to avoid any major struggle with the Tories and employers.

If they had united their unions and fought alongside the miners in January, they would have created a formidable alliance. If they had seriously planned a rolling district campaign, the employers would never have been able to so concentrate their resources as they did in Manchester. If they had wanted to fight the EEF they could have strictly interpreted the termination of the procedure agreements; but they didn’t.

The present settlement is due to expire next August. Before then there will not only be a series of conferences to draw up the next claim, but there may well be pressures from the ETU/PTU and others for an entirely different approach by the unions.

Simultaneously with this process, disputes could take place around about March and April as a result of the fact that the new agreement bans local claims about national conditions. This means that in all those factories that took up the fight that the union leaders urged but did nothing to assist, there will now be an extension to local agreements.

IS members must demand a real fight on the next claim and give full support to any factory that demands it before the expiration of the CSEU/EEF deal. National negotiations and national pay rises as opposed to just minimum rate increases are tremendously important. In the last factory-to-factory campaign, increases were only won for some 60 per cent of the industry’s labour force. The rest went without.

National bargaining is important because it unites the working class. The main demands that IS members should be making in preparation for the next claim are: national negotiations, a £5 a week across-the-board rise with a 35-hour week, and a national strike if talks break down.

We must defend national agreements and fight to make them a source of genuine wage increases and united action by all engineering workers. Only in this way can total fragmentation be avoided, the weaker sections assisted, the full power of the unions used and the strategy of the employers defeated.

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