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International Socialism, January 1975


Brian Parkin

The Broad Left in TASS


From International Socialism, No.74, January 1975, pp.16-19.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The author is International Socialists TASS Fraction Secretary, Chairman Leeds West Branch and Branch Conference Delegate.

Currently on victimisation pay following victimisation at a Leeds Engineering Factory whilst acting convenor.

Author’s note: The following article is bound to create a bitter reaction front the leadership of TASS. I would like to stress here and now that I do not accuse the union leadership of being corrupt. I believe that the nature of the leadership they assert in TASS is a reflection of the political philosophy they uphold. It is the duty of Marxists to analyse, criticise and change the situations that confront them. This article is a contribution to that aim.

Brian Parkin, November 1974


THE Technical Administrative and Supervisory Section of the AUEW provides an interesting example of how a union can become increasingly bureaucratic under an apparently ‘progressive’ leadership.

TASS has its origins in the Assoc. of Engineering and Shipbuilding Draughtsmen (AESD) which was founded on Clydeside in 1913 along strict craft lines. Its membership comprised almost entirely of draughtsmen until 1922 when tracers – a predominantly female category were allowed to hold a lower grade of membership. The history of the union up until the post-2nd World War period is one of low militancy and right wing leadership – in fact fairly typical of small exclusive craft unions. Predictably an undemocratic structure was controlled by an ossified leadership over a largely uninvolved membership. Full time officials were appointed, the leadership did what it liked and ignored the policies laid down by the annual conference.

It is in the period of the post war boom that the AESD began to develop its militant traditions but to understand this development it is necessary to take a brief look at the prevailing economic conditions of the 1950s.

In common with the rest of western capitalism, the British economy emerged from the 2nd world war, destined for a period of unparalleled expansion. The early 1950s saw the re-emergence of independent shop-floor militancy which was to create a period of ‘wage drift’ in which the wages of organised manual workers were to increase enormously. This renewed wage struggle was the main factor in the growth in union organisation amongst the previously fragmented and passive white-collar section of the working class.

The growing demand for increased wages amongst industrial white-collar workers also led to a dramatic change in the methods of struggle and office floor organisation. The AESD had previously had only the most tentative contact manual unions through the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions. This was and still is an amorphous federal body of the principal unions in the engineering industry. Although a member since the mid 1940s, the AESD had not conducted any joint action with the other, predominantly manual unions.

It was the lesson of the De Havilland dispute in the mid 1950s that exposed the ineffectual nature of AESD organisation and the price that had to be paid for isolation from the manual workers.

The next few years saw a rapid change take place within the union. Plant organisation was improved to enable greater participation of the members in wage and condition struggles. Between 1950 and 1960 the membership of the AESD grew by more than 50 per cent. Because of the character of the period the newer membership was more inclined to militancy and less inhibited by craft and professional consciousness.

This new-found militancy was imposed on a right wing leadership, steeped in AESD craft tradition and incapable of assisting the economic struggle of the members. Like all bureaucracies, the AESD leadership fertilised the soil in which an opposition was able to take root.

The Broad Left

THE OPPOSITION that developed was the ‘Broad Left’. Comprising in the main of Labour left-wingers and Communist Party members, it set about the task of taking over the union’s structure and replacing it with a ‘progressive’ leadership. The Cold War environment that then raged meant that the Broad Left had a cleanly defined and strict political character. The Communist Party members who were involved in this phase of the Broad Left’s development were notable for their determination and industrial ability.

The Broad Left rapidly gained the support of the politically aware and the industrially active rank and file. Broad Left groups were eventually established in most of the AESD’s 16 divisions which met regularly to formulate Broad Left alternatives to the policy and decisions of the official leadership.

The main reason which allowed the right wing leadership to remain in office during this period of ascending militancy, was the de-centralised structure of the union which enabled branches and divisional councils to determine much of the local industrial policy. Both bodies had direct access to the union’s Executive Committee so constant pressure could be mounted on the leadership.

The EC itself could not escape the wind of change, the EC members, being elected every three years by the members in his division. Because of the AESD’s structure the Broad Left developed a formidable electoral ability which was to change the entire leadership of the union within the space of a few years. The annual Representative Council Conference became the permanent focus of the Broad Left, both for determining policy and for contesting the elections to lay membership bodies which conducted much of the day to day decision taking.

What began as a tiny caucus of branch delegates became what can only be described as mass meetings which included a growing number of FTO’s and Executive Committee members. The positions and committees that were contested through the Broad Left list were as follows:

As the Broad Left became a popularly based reforms movement, it was more inclined to include a greater range of political opinion. The early sixties saw the first real success of the Broad Left. Ken Gill a member of the Communist Party and an executive in a London based engineering company was appointed to the full time position of divisional organiser for Liverpool in 1962. He joined an already established but small group of Communist Party members among the full time organisers in the union. As long as there was the common enemy of the right wing leadership, the Broad Left conducted itself with some degree of unity. A small but growing number of what was then a tiny revolutionary left was able to participate in Broad Left meetings and conference caucuses.

The regime of the union changed under the pressure of reform within the structure and among the rank and file. In order to promote wage struggle, dispute benefit was fixed at 100 per cent of the member’s wage and the apparatus of the union was geared up for what was to be a period of intense activity. The method employed by the AESD in pursuing wage claims was to select wage ‘targets’, ie individual companies or combines. Over a period of a few years, the national minimum wages of technical workers had been ‘chased’ up by the use of this method.

The involvement of AESD members in industrial action exposed a vein of creative ability that white collar workers had not been previously recognised for. Although a white-collar union, the AESD, due to its industrial membership, was very different to unions such as the CPSA, NUT, NALGO etc. Because draughtsmen and most technical workers work in industry, they are more directly linked with the production of profit than teachers and civil servants.

But they do often lack direct industrial bargaining power. It can be many weeks before an employer starts to feel the effect of a strike by technical workers.

In order to overcome these difficulties, new methods of industrial action were developed. Work to rules were usually conducted for several weeks before applying the final measure of strike action. A programme of ‘working without enthusiasm’ on a ‘bog-in’ – a continuous queue to the toilets – could rapidly create chaos. And then of course drawings could always get ‘lost’ and calculation sheets and production schedules could disappear.

This sort of action, little short of sabotage, allowed AESD members to prepare favourable ground for a strike several weeks in advance. No loss of pay was involved and the involvement and confidence of the rank and file could be built up.

The increase in industrial activity in the early sixties, coincided with the total defeat of the right wing in the official leadership. The Broad Left was now in control. Although well based among the industrially active rank and file, the Broad Left still continued to operate discreetly. Unlike the Broad Left in say the AEU, the AESD Broad Left never produced a paper or newsletter with which it could campaign for the support of its policies throughout the membership.

Whatever intentions the AESD Communist Party members had of ‘going public’, must have been dropped when a cold war atmosphere developed over the ETU ballot-rigging case. This single event has been the most bitter experience for the Communist Party in the trade union movement. It has created a fantastic sensitivity among Party members that still ‘weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living’. Instead of openly stating their membership in the various biographies that have appeared in the union journal, notable Communist Party members were referred to as ‘a well known supporter of progressive policies’. This has led to an underestimate among the rank and file as to the actual influence that the Communist Party has in the union leadership.

From the mid-sixties onwards the AESD was to establish itself as the most left wing union, both in terms of industrial militancy and politics. The industrial successes of the union brought more and more members into participation. It has been estimated that one in every seven members held a lay officer position during this period. Although in many ways the structure of the AESD was formally less democratic than some other unions, this high level of membership involvement plus the authority of lay member bodies at local level (branches and divisional councils) gave the union a high level of participatory democracy.

It was this environment that enabled DATA (Draughtsmans and Allied Technicians Association) as the union had been re-named to enter the most intense period of industrial action.

The tightening belt of British capitalism meant that changes had to be made in the strategy for wage increases. The Labour government, engaged in its historical role of getting big business out of a mess, was making the control of wages its main priority. Employers were given every encouragement to resist wage claims with statutory wage controls being introduced from time to time.

Nevertheless, DATA was able during this period to secure large wage increases and continue to raise the national average earnings of the membership. In 1969 a claim which had been submitted to the Shipbuilding employers resulted in a national lock-out of DATA members. Because of the massive numbers of members involved, it was necessary to impose a national subs levy on the membership as a means of maintaining a sate level of dispute fund. The response of the members to this appeal was ‘magnificent’. With the dispute fund protected it was possible to pursue the shipbuilding claim to a successful conclusion.

Within 12 months a national wage campaign was launched. Propaganda was circulated to prepare the membership and gain widespread support. The collapse of negotiations with the Engineering Employers Federation was followed by lock-outs at companies where work to rule was being applied. The resistance of the employers indicated a clear determination by the EEF to break the union – both financially and in terms of the members’ morale. Once again the members were asked to pay a levy (which by rule could be imposed by decision of the EC). Again the response was ‘magnificent’.

The support given by the members enabled the 1969 national claim to be fought to a successful conclusion. The funds were further restored by most of the DATA members voluntarily donating their first week’s increase.

1970 saw further large scale industrial action by DATA members. On 14 July over 1,000 DATA members at Rolls Royce, Coventry commenced strike action after weeks of fruitless negotiation on a domestic claim. From the outset it was clear that Rolls Royce were ‘perfectly willing to force a showdown’ (Financial Times, 17 September 1970). DATA members in other Rolls Royce plants were instructed by management to process blacked work or be locked out. A mass meeting of the 1,200 members at the Denby plant rejected this instruction (with only 12 votes against). Again the funds were endangered by a massive dispute and yet again the members were asked to give financial support. The object of outlining this particular period in the union’s history is to show how the membership were capable of responding in periods of intense wage struggle and in defence of their union’s very existence.

The myth so loved by many union ‘leaders’, that repetitive industrial action only demoralises the members and drives them out of the unions, is also challenged by the DATA experience. In the three year period of 1967-70 the members of DATA endured work-to-rules, lock-outs, victimisations and subscription levies. In that same period the membership of the union grew from 73,024 to 105,418. (TASS official figures).

Amalgamation with the Engineers

IN 1970 DATA undertook the first phase of amalgamation with the AEU. This was the culmination of several years’ negotiation and was a very necessary step in the union’s development. But it is this issue that more than any other has exposed the real nature of the Communist Party leadership and the political limitations of the Broad Left.

The AUEW amalgamation was hailed as a progressive step towards the years-old aim of ‘one union for engineering workers’, the foundary workers and construction workers’ unions also joining the AUEW. Socialists should have no hesitation in defending amalgamation and working to build it. It can give engineering workers increased industrial power and also get rid of much of the craft chauvinism that plagues the constituent unions to impede united action between staff and manual workers.

For the Communist Party, amalgamation is a means by which they can extend their power in the AUEW. All that this requires is a bureaucratic fusion between the executives that will be the various sections of the amalgamated union. That is just what the final proposals on amalgamation add up to. As the move towards amalgamation has coincided with the Communist Party’s final act of their consolidation and domination of the TASS leadership, so has it seen the degeneration of the Broad Left under the cynical and sectarian manipulation of the Communist Party.

The Rolls Royce dispute which was conducted by a local leadership to the left of the Communist Party exposed a marked reluctance in the ranks of the Communist Party to fight the dispute to a successful conclusion. It was put about that ultra-lefts and dangerous elements were out to bankrupt the union by a protracted dispute. These rumours were not the creation of the right wing’s imagination. They were often on the lips of Communist Party members.

Over the last four years the Broad Left has become more and more an electoral instrument of the Communist Party. This has often meant the systematic elimination from the Broad Left of militants who were critical and to the left of the Party. At the same time the Broad Left has become broader and at the same time less left – the Communist Party preferring the company of Labour Party not-so-lefts who can be relied on to defend the unity of the ‘progressive movement’ – at any price.

The record of the Communist Party-dominated leadership is well worth examination, not as a morbid sectarian indulgence, but as a contribution to the analysis of the Communist Party in operation.

In 1970, 60,000 DATA members voted in a ballot on proposals for amalgamation. A majority of more than 3 to 1 voted in favour. DATA then undertook the first stage of amalgamation and became the Technical and Supervisory Section of the AUEW (TASS). The name was later changed to the Technical Administrative and Supervisory Section. As TASS was much smaller in membership than the manual Engineering Section – only one hundred thousand, compared with one and a quarter million it was clear that TASS would have to undergo some re-organisation to bring its structure and rule book into line with the majority union. The members were assured that they would be informed and consulted at each stage of this re-organisation. In the event of drastic measures which were outside the original guidelines arising, a special delegate conference would be called.

Since that ballot the membership has never been consulted and has only been presented with a series of fait accompli instead of the promised regular reports. It has now become a cardinal sin to criticise the way that the EC has conducted amalgamation. Such criticism is denounced as divisive and reactionary. Members who have questioned the democratic integrity of the amalgamation have met an hysterical response which has labelled them as ‘anti-amalgamation’.

Re-organisation and Democracy

WITHOUT ANY doubt the success of the Communist Party in TASS has been more spectacular than in any other union since the war. Taking the Communist Party at the face value of its rhetoric you would assume that the regime they would introduce would be vigorously militant and refreshingly democratic.

The structure of the AUEW Engineering Section is formally more democratic than that of TASS. In the AUEW Engineering Section there is a long tradition of full time organisers and national officers facing regular election. TASS on the other hand has a tradition stemming from the old AESD of officials being appointed for life. Now the Communist Party vigorously defends the election of officials in the Engineering Section and many other unions. Clearly amalgamation presents an opportunity to extend democracy in TASS and introduce the principle of regular election of all full-time officials and national officers. The present proposals on amalgamation and re-organisation however make it perfectly clear that TASS will continue to use the system whereby FTOs are appointed for life. Above all the Communist Party defend this arrangement. This inconsistency is easily explained when you realise that at least 17 of the present 28 organisers are Communist Party members plus two out of the four national officers.

Instead of the Engineering Section’s more democratic procedures reforming TASS, it has actually worked in reverse. The NEC of the AUEW is a body to which all members have been periodically elected. But now at least one member of the NEC will never have to face election. His name is Ken Gill.

The Executive Committee is also to be ‘streamlined’. The present EC consists of 26 lay members who are elected by the members in their division every 3 years.

It is now proposed that the EC be reduced to 11, each member representing a region – a group of divisions. This will create serious imbalances in the industrial functioning of the EC. The proposals would give an EC member representing the Wales region (3,000 members) the same voting power as the West Midlands (21,000 members). This is exactly the same arrangement that exists in the docks section of the TGWU where tiny backward wharves can wield the same voting strength as the large ports. When this set-up enabled Jack Jones to sell-out the 1972 dockers’ strike, the Morning Star described it as undemocratic and unrepresentative of the membership.

Clearly for the Communist Party the democracy of a structure is determined by the degree of their control over it.

It is not just the nature of the TASS bureaucracy that constitutes a threat to democracy in the union. The size and growth of it is also an alarming factor. In 1970 the number of divisional organisers was increased from 16 to 26 in order to ‘cope with the sudden growth in membership which will result from amalgamation’ (into the AUEW). This year a further five organisers will have been appointed. It cannot be denied that a sudden growth has occurred, but it has been a sudden growth of over 90 per cent in full time organisers compared with only 15 per cent increase in membership.

The cost of the bureaucracy is also becoming an enormous burden. In August this year the EC reported that 80 per cent of all incoming monies were being spent on administration. The following month the amount was estimated to be 106 per cent. In short TASS is spending more on running the headquarters and paying officials’ wages than it is getting in subs from the membership.

In spite of this minor problem the EC is supporting a claim of a 30 per cent wage increase for all full time officials. This would put Ken Gill on a cool £6,000 plus and the divisional organisers on £4,700.

Because the Communist Party in TASS has to face the consequences of whatever political positions the union holds, it has become more reluctant to adopt militant policies.

The case of C.A. Parsons (described in detail in the December IS Journal) was a clear indication of the resistance the Communist Party would promote against the Industrial Relations Act. As long as conference motions dealt with South Africa and Vietnam, you could expect an endless queue of Communist Party members at the microphone, each one extolling the glorious struggle of the Vietnamese people etc.

The imperialist crows that were roosting nearer home in Ireland did not however draw the same rigorous support. In fact the policy of the EC is to refer any letter or article to the TASS journal which mentions the Irish question to the Irish division of the union. Because of the domination of Loyalists in the Belfast branches this means that such an article will never appear. But perhaps the most spectacular example of the real nature of the Communist Party leadership in TASS is the performance of Ken Gill at this year’s TUC. Suddenly ‘in the interests of unity within the movement’, the red menaces withdrew a motion mildly critical of the social contract. No matter how inadequate that motion was it was the policy that belonged to one and a half million engineering workers. When it comes to appeasing friends in high places, such mandates can be ignored.


IT HAS been stressed earlier that the aim of this article is not to take needlessly sectarian swipes at the Communist Party. For two generations the Communist Party was the only real left wing organisation that workers could look to. Because of this a myth has grown up both inside and outside the party about the quality of leadership they could provide when one day they became dominant in the leadership of a union. Today TASS is the living example of the leadership the Communist Party offers within the unions. Today the union’s bureaucracy is more vast than ever and less accountable than ever. There is less political liberty in the union today than at any time in the last five years. At conference political expression is contained by the contortions of the Standing Orders Committee, jeers and slanders and discreet threats of physical intimidation.

The present proposals on re-organisation will restrict the participation of members within their unions. For a union in which participatory democracy is a foundation stone, such a development is disastrous. But to just interpret the situation is not enough. As always the point is to change it.

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