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International Socialism, June 1975


John Deason

The Broad Left in the AUEW


From International Socialism, No.79, June 1975, pp.8-16.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


THE AUEW, second biggest union in the country, is generally considered the most important of the ‘left wing’ unions. In contrast to its giant partner on the left, the Transport and General Workers Union, the AUEW has maintained an official ‘left’ stance on most issues. Against the Common Market, for nationalisation and workers’ control of industry, irrevocably against the Industrial Relations Act, and, at first officially against the Social Contract. On paper this looks an impressive record. The Social Contract occasioned a rapid transformation of opinion by the AUEW delegates at the last annual TUC causing them to ‘abstain’. Scanlon’s explanation of this behaviour was in the September 1974 Journal (the union’s monthly publication):

The AUEW made its stand quite clear and, having done so and reserved our position there was no further purpose in putting our resolution to a vote we could never win ... Criticism has been made of the way it was done but with Congress refusing a short adjournment for discussion the decision had to be made with some speed and it was actually during the voting that the decision to withdraw was made.

But as Scanlon also pointed out in the same article:

It was generally considered by the AUEW delegates that the General Council’s report "Collective Bargaining and the Social Contract" was really another name for wage restraint. Our union has consistently opposed such restraint, whether voluntary or statutory, and it was thoroughly consistent with our National Conference policy that we could not vote in favour of the Social Contract. The present Labour Government was elected on a platform – among other things – of scrapping statutory wages policy and restoring free collective bargaining and it cannot honestly be said that the Social Contract is consistent with free negotiations. It was not a reversal of an election pledge but it was a variation with which our own union’s policy would not permit us to go along.

So even when the left leaders of the AUEW are abstaining on something they manage to verbally make it sound left wing. Not surprisingly they actually went on to honour the Social Contract in the settlement of this year’s pay claim. But this continued verbal leftism gives the impression of the union being a bastion of socialist ideas. Against that background Trade Unionists throughout the movement view with concern the recent electoral advances of the right wing. Does this represent a rejection of left wing principles? Will it tip the balance of the whole movement to the right? These are the understandable questions trade unionists are asking, whatever their union. The AUEW is seen as the core of the left within the British labour movement. Developments there are crucial to all of us. To understand what is happening we have to look in more detail at the left, and particularly the ‘Broad Left’, in the movement’s second biggest union.

Broad Left organisation varies from union to union. The most distinguishing feature is its reliance on the Communist Party as an organising motor, and the Communist Party’s reliance on an uncritical relationship with ‘progressive’ officials as the political motor. Generally speaking it’s thus nothing more than an election machine for such officials. Everything becomes subordinated to the capturing of official positions. ‘Progressive’ comes to mean all sorts of shadowy compromises – especially evident when many members of various Broad Lefts support the Social Contract for example. The Broad Left in the AUEW is no exception to these general rules. Organised around a highly infrequent paper Engineering Voice, the AUEW Broad Left lived through its zenith in the campaigns of the 60’s to kick out the notorious right wing under Carron, culminating in Hugh Scanlon’s election to the Presidency in 1967.

As this is written the AUEW second ballot election results have not been published. However following the disastrous first ballot results (see appendix at end) for the Broad Left candidates everyone is expecting this trend to be confirmed. In particular arch right winger Boyd is expected to beat Broad Left candidate Bob Wright for the key position of General Secretary. Already the Daily Mail has headlined ‘informal leaks’ about Boyd’s victory.

The expected failure of the Broad Left candidate is further confirmed by the cynical resignation from the AUEW by leading Communist Party member Bernard Panter, candidate for National Organiser, in order to seek a job as fulltime appointed official for the Electrical Power Engineers Association. He might at least have had the decency to wait until after the election results! More seriously Panter’s late resignation has left the position of National Organiser open and uncontested for the right wing. The only ironic justice in the whole story is that the EPEA, who incidentally has a ban on open Communist Party members holding office, have, following all the fuss, since changed their mind and forced Panter down.

These recent elections cap a rot that started with the very low vote in 1972 for Ernie Roberts, Left Labour leading figure in the the Institute of Workers’ Control, against the right winger Conway, whose unlamented death in a plane crash last year leaves the present vacancy for General Secretary. Similarly last year Walter Mather, little known right winger, beat our friend Panter the then long standing Manchester District Secretary. The Morning Star 8 May 1974 quoted Panter straight after this defeat ‘I shall be returning to the shop floor where I will continue to work to improve wages and conditions.’ That resolve hasn’t lasted very long!

Are these set backs for the Broad Left the result of inefficient campaigning? Or is it the result of increased right wing organisation within the union? Certainly the advent of the Postal Ballot can only help the right wing. But is that the main cause for all these defeats? The Postal Ballot takes the voting out of the Branch, where election addresses could be considered, where the activists are more able to argue support for the better candidates. The postal system puts the voting onus on the individual, isolated and ignorant, at home, where the press and TV influence rather than the informed discussion of trade unionists together in their own union branch. In the recent elections the press have campaigned for the right wingers, Woodrow Wyatt in the Mirror, numerous pictures of Salvationist Boyd blowing his tuba, loads of references to who are the ‘moderates’ etc. The sickest joke about these effects of the postal ballot is that its establishment had very much to do with the acquiescence of the Broad Lefts. The change in the system of voting was originally agreed by only 26 to 25 votes. But the Broad Left failed to mount any serious campaign for the 1972 National Committee where the attempt to reverse the change was defeated. Thus formally the Broad Left voted against the Postal Ballot but their campaign was muted to say the least.

Scanlon at a Broad Left Assembly in November 1971 at Birmingham repeatedly emphasised at length, how he would do his utmost to see the Postal Ballot was conducted according to rule, without mentioning once its dangers. Similarly John Tocher Manchester Divisional Organiser and leading Communist Party member, at the same meeting said that he agreed ‘that the Postal Ballot is here to stay. The collective, left progressive movement must ensure this system works equitably and openly.’ (Engineering Voice No.8) Hardly the words to be expected from the leaders of the ‘left’ just four months before they do battle with the right wing on the issue!

Another factor affecting the election results is of course the state of the respective election machines. Right wing organisation is on the increase within the union, and it has no lack of money. Such organisation is secretive and backed by numerous employer-financed, anti-trade union bodies – Common Cause, Aims of Industry, the Economic League, Insight, Datum Line. The main front for Boyd’s machine is IRIS, which is banned by the TUC. After Boyd’s defeat by Scanlon in 1967 his personal assistant Jim Hamilton left the employ of the AUEW, joined IRIS, and worked for the next two years building Boyd’s machine. But when Scanlon trounced Boyd in the 1970 election, and from then on was in until retirement, friend Hamilton was in a fix. Right wing General Secretary Conway promptly formed a new department for Industrial Health and Safety and employed Hamilton as its head. No doubt rank and file engineers rejoiced to find their health and safety in such safe hands!

The recent election results also point to the decline in the state of organisation of the Broad Left machine. Where the Broad Left has been in opposition to the right wing locally there has been a higher level of ongoing activity. Where Broad Left officials hold the sway there has often been total neglect. It is a very loose organisation that by and large exists just for electoral campaigns. This picture was born out by a survey carried out by the International Socialists Industrial Department through a questionnaire within the IS/AUEW fraction in May 1974. Of 25 key districts surveyed only two recorded any regular flow of Broad Left-organised resolutions. The sales of Engineering Voice were practically non-existent. Only four districts recorded any organised sales – one of those being a regular order of 24 to the local district office which remained there unsold. With the exception of four districts, two of which meet weekly, and two monthly, none of the local Broad Lefts meet regularly. Eleven met at election times – for the rest, members could not remember any meetings. Where there were regular meetings the average attendance was about twenty in the two districts meeting monthly; ten in one and fifteen in the other of the two districts meeting weekly. Meetings during election periods varied tremendously. For example one district reported that when Scanlon last spoke 150 turned up, and 300 attended a local Broad Left social.

Another district reported a similar meeting being supported by only forty. Often the format is local socials where one can meet the national guest – usually the prospective Broad Left candidate. Of course there are many more who passively support the Broad Left without being active within it. But its apparent lack of any factory-based organisation, its irregular electoral nature heightens the effect of any disillusionment and contributes to its own decline.

The bias of postal balloting because of the press campaigns for the right and the money behind right wing organisation-is a telling factor. But the press and money men will always favour the right wing ‘moderates.’ It’s up to the left to overcome these built-in disadvantages with the only trump we’ve got, and that’s the political sustenance of rank and file policies. To play electioneering at the expense of our politics is to fight on the right’s territory. It would therefore be fatuous to suggest that the recent fall in Broad Left support is solely due to electoral technical reasons. They accentuate more fundamental problems. Much of the membership is disillusioned with existing officials, supposedly of the left, who have failed to deliver the goods on bread and butter issues. Particularly on the wages front, the engineers are the only powerful section of workers not to secure a meaningful national pay increase in recent years. As the recent Engineering Voice Bulletin for the last round of elections states: ‘In recent years, rank and file policies have prevailed in the AUEW, primarily due to the election to office of such members as Hugh Scanlon, President Bob Wright, Executive Councillor; Ken Brett, Assistant General Secretary; John Foster, National Organiser; and other progressives. Judge the record for yourselves. [My emphasis – JD]. These are the policies they stand for and actively support:–

Even in this policy there’s no mention of defending jobs, or the need for meaningful across-the-board national wage increases to combat inflation – let alone emblazoned as it should be across the top! So is the poor voting for the Broad Left due to an overall swing to the right by the mass of rank and file members? Or is it due to the disillusionment with the existing Broad Left leadership and consequent lack of enthusiasm for the campaigning by the committed activists? As the bulletin suggests, let’s judge the record.

The Emergence of the Broad Left

THE BROAD LEFT came to the fore within the engineers’ union during the 1960s. A broad alliance of Communist Party and left Labour activists mobilised the electoral opposition to the hated Sir William Carron and his right wing stooges. Carron, Director of Fairfields and the Bank of England was, under the guise of ‘defending democracy’, the scourge of rank and file militants. He castigated militant shop stewards as ‘werewolves’. In supporting the wage freeze he blamed the crisis on the use of social services by immigrant workers. In 1966 he offered the car employers the expulsion of unofficial strikers in return for a closed shop agreement throughout the car industry. He, along with his cronies, represented everything that is worst in the trade union movement. Many militants, however, were able to survive during much of this period by largely ignoring the official machine and relying on unofficial plant fights. This was the period of the short, sharp, wildcat strikes and the consequent wages drift. National agreements secured the pennies while the stewards were responsible for the pounds! From 1960-1973 national agreements accounted for a pathetic maximum of £2.35 extra. A survey published by the Coventry district of the Engineering Employers Federation disclosed in 1968 that car workers’ wages in that area were comprised of two-thirds wage drift, and only one third from national rates.

But as British capitalism came out of the full employment, ‘you’ve never had it so good’,the employers resistance to wages drift stiffened. Meanwhile Carron was further undermining national wage agreements by his introduction in 1965 of the first three year package deal. This effectively eliminated any across the board national increases – it was a cynical sell out of any attempt to nationally better wages. In the words of Carron it was ‘a contractual arrangement whereby wage rates would advance in line with productivity year by year, without the time wasting and frustrating business of going through an annual round of wage claims.’ The employers said of the deal to the 1966 Royal Commission on Trade Unions,

In this three year deal of ours we have for the first time introduced a fundamentally different way of negotiating, and that is not to make a general increase, but to agree on literal minimum, ... this is far less inflationary than the old practice of giving everybody increases however much they are earning.

It was not only on the wage front that the right wing was undermining the union’s strength. Also in the pipeline during the run up to the 1967 presidential election were numerous plans to steamline the union structure. These included introduction of the check off system of dues payment which undermines branch activity, amalgamation of branches into larger units under the control of full time secretaries (it was suggested for example that 90 Manchester branches should be formed into 10), advisory committees’ for combines with an EC member and National Organiser as sitting members (the sort of committee that acquiesced to Weinstock’s rationalisation of GEC/AEI/EE), and the postal ballot.

All these proposals were designed to undermine democratic control and participation by the rank and file. Some were checked by the electoral victories of the BL, but many of the most dangerous proposals like the postal ballot went through to muted protest only from the new ‘left’ leadership.

Thus it was against this background of increased employer resistance to plant wage drift, the complete undermining of national wage claims, and the erosion of rank and file control of the union machine that the militants turned with fresh enthusiasm their attention to the national union leadership. Scanlon beat Boyd for President on the platform of increased rank and file control of the union and for annual national wage increases. Broad Left Officials and ‘our Hughie’ at the top were seen as the saviours to all ills. Expectations were high.

Early Days

THE FIRST disappointment was Scanlon’s acceptance of the second three year Package Deal (1968-1971). The employers were well pleased. They were anxious to finish national annual increases. They preferred the payment of new money to rely more on plant bargaining because it allowed more detailed introduction of productivity-dealing. As the report of the Engineering Employers Federation President put it:

We have given two small general increases ...

Out of the Agreement the Federation gained some vital concessions. Certain limitations have been imposed on the sort of claims which Unions can bring at plant level ... In future the Unions will not be able to pursue claims unless they are justified by a measured increase in productivity or efficiency to which the efforts of the work people have contributed, or in the case of the introduction of a new, or revised, comprehensive wage structure based on job evaluation ...

The Federation have also secured the Union’s acceptance of such techniques as job evaluation, work measurement and method study. Finally, the unions have agreed to co-operate in the elimination of certain impediments to the efficient utilisation of labour.

I think the Agreement should be of a great benefit to federated firms ... and I have personally written to the managing director of all federated firms to this effect.

Additionally for every well organised plant that could force a good ‘screw’ there were hundreds where the employer could take advantage of unemployment, poor shop steward organisation, and other local pressures. Productivity dealing of course further eroded shop steward organisation, and the consequent ability to maintain local wage bargaining. The use of job evaluation and work study to erode pieceworking, and mutuality clauses over rate fixing and bonuses particularly escalated this process. The lack of meaningful national increases left the weak to go to the wall.

But for the moment the vast majority of members, no doubt falsely lulled by often generous plant buy-out deals in return for productivity concessions, were still prepared to give Scanlon and the rest of the BL leadership the benefit of the doubt. Labour Party lefts, and the Communist Party apologised on the grounds the Hughie has ‘only just got his feet under the table’. ‘We can’t get everything overnight’. ‘He can’t give too much of a lead, the membership wouldn’t respond.’

The 1971 Claim

THE 1971 NATIONAL WAGE CLAIM however did not present these excuses to the Scanlon leadership. It was to be the most crucial test of the BL. Genuinely, the membership at large, feeling the cold wind of one million unemployed, and the increased determination of employers to resist local wage drift (except in return for crippling productivity dealing) looked to the national claim with heightened expectations. The claim was presented to the Engineering Employers Federation (EEF) by the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions (CSEU), an association of the 19 unions in federated engineering firms in which the AUEW (then AEU) dominates numerically and politically. It was submitted in August 1971 with the view to being implemented from December 1971. The main element of the claim was for:

  • a substantial across the board wage increase,
  • £25 minimum skilled time rate, pro rata for other grades,
  • 35 hour week,
  • equal pay for women,
  • four weeks holiday,
  • more lay off pay,
  • increased overtime and shift payments,
  • no productivity concessions.

Negotiations broke down in January 1972. The miners were lining up for their successful showdown. Here was the chance for the engineers national leadership to prove itself. To lead a national strike alongside the miners would have been a cast iron recipe for all out victory. The employers and their Tory government would have been forced to concede. In the event the miners struck nationally and won their claim practically in full. The engineers were unfortunately another story.

The January AUEW National Committee abdicated their leadership and, primarily urged by Scanlon and leading Communist Party member Les Dixon, plumped for the disastrous plant by plant bargaining ‘strategy’. Scanlon was then the prime mover behind adoption of the same policy by CSEU. It was rather like a general calling to his troops ‘you can charge, but not together, on your own and when you feel like it!’ Not surprisingly there were few volunteers to be the first to leap out into the fray. It was not until there were district wide initiatives in Sheffield and Manchester later in February and March that action developed.

The employers on the other hand had been preparing for a showdown.

In July 1971 a document had been discovered in which the employers freely discussed the possibility of organising national lockouts in order to try and bankrupt the militant Technical and Supervisory section (TASS) of the AUEW. This was followed in the autumn by the Coventry District of the EEF arbitrarily ripping up the 30-year old tool room agreement and then enforcing retaliatory lockouts when protest strikes occurred. In the same period they refused to amend the industry’s 50-year-old procedure agreement.

Additionally the EEF had been busy tightening its organisation and building its Indemnity Fund (bosses equivalent to a strike fund). They were encouraged by almost a million unemployed and the forthcoming introduction of the notorious Industrial Relations Act in February 1972. The employers must have been greatly relieved at the fight being wages on the terms they had consistently pushed for over the years, on a ‘Plant by Plant’ basis. The employers were given greater heart by early signs to compromise on the full claim by Scanlon himself. Note the wording of the adopted proposals: ‘The executive council are instructed to initiate 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.’

Later at the June CSEU Conference in Llandudno, Scanlon openly admitted that before the talks had collapsed he had privately offered to drop temporarily the demands on hours and conditions if the EEF would concede just the increase on minimum rates and improved holidays. This must have happened at about the time when Scanlon addressed the previously mentioned Broad Left meeting in Birmingham on 28 November 1971. The Engineering Voice report of that meeting is quite explicit ...

Brother Scanlon discussed the current wage claim. He underlined the importance of the “subsidiary” aspects, which the commercial Press and television have ignored. The demands for a shorter working week is a basic issue, especially in view of the current unemployment crisis. It demands real support, perhaps through action by the membership.

How cynical can you get – imploring stewards to fight for the shorter working week in public, when at the same time behind the scenes, by his own admission, he was offering to drop that part of the claim. Instead of preparing the membership for battle, propagandising for the full claim, the leadership opted for the coward’s way out They did everything possible to water down the claim; in particular deflecting all attention from across the board substantial increase and the shorter working week parts. These were the parts most likely to unite nationally. Not content with that they then insisted on a plant by plant approach. After the January decision little happened for a month. Then Sheffield district opted for a district wide claim that would at least unite different plants on a local basis in the absence of any national action. They planned to call a mass meeting of all 45,000 members in the local football stadium to seek support for a district wide strike. Enthusiastically members of the District Committee predicted the biggest crowd of the season for Sheffield Wednesday. However, the AUEW EC quickly intervened with Scanlon personally insisting this was all totally contrary to rule, and that no District strike could take place without a secret ballot. The National Industrial Relations Court (NIRC) couldn’t have done it better! The local district leadership was dominated by the Communist Party and, rather than openly break with Scanlon, chose to toe the line. The unity of the Broad Left’s electoral alliance was considered more important than the unity in action of the rank and file fighting for better wages and conditions.

Meantime in Manchester local Confederation leaders were also taking tentative steps towards a district approach to the claim. Again the local leadership was dominated by the Communist Party, two out of three AEU district secretaries (Panter and Reagan) and the Divisional Organiser John Tocher, were leading members of the Communist Party. The strength of rank and file determination was clearly unleashed at a meeting of 700 stewards who unanimously decided to ban piece-working (declare daywork as is termed in the Manchester Piecework Agreement) as from 27 March, and to sit-in in the event of any retaliatory lock outs by the employers. This led to the only serious fight for the claim anywhere in the country. At its height it resulted in some 30 factory occupations. These varied from passive sit-ins with continued management access, to the ejection of management and complete takeover of the plant and offices as at Metal Box (Timperly), Redpath Pearsons (Trafford Park) and Ruston Paxman (Newton le Willows). The employers strategy was very clear. They treated most of the sit-ins very cautiously, anxious not to provoke. At Edmestons (Eccles) the local management even brought in a crate of beer for the occupants! At the more militant plants, like the three previously cited, the level of confrontation soon escalated as the fight developed into a bitter struggle to preserve trade union organisation. At Ruston Paxman’s for example, the ejection of management followed the company’s refusal to negotiate and the provocative moving of spares by junior management in brief cases, car boots etc.

At one small plant, Sharstons, the employer Mrs Isabella Dubet successfully secured a court order and bailiffs to eject the 22 occupiers. However, even the court made it clear when granting the injunction that it would be powerless to enforce such laws against a large factory. The failure by local officials to mobilise sufficient support against the bailiffs for this small but militant group was disgraceful. But the vast majority of employers wisely avoided any escalation. Such soft cop tactics were in sharp contrast to the rest of the employers strategy. In seizing the offices at Ruston Paxman stewards discovered confidential files disclosing details of EEF tactics. Firms that escalated the dayworking into lock outs or strikes (thus increasing the cost in strike pay to the union) were subsidised to the tune of £5 per man and £2.50 per woman and apprentice for the first week, rising to £10 and £5 after one week’s actioa This subsidy was only applied to firms that stuck to EEF norms for settlement. At the end of the Manchester disputes the EEF Indemnity fund recorded a staggering £2,378,319 pay out to strike hit firms. Of that amount the Tories kindly gave back £178,239 in tax relief! These are the same people who have the cheek to complain about, and cut back on, Social Security benefit to strikers’ families!

The militancy of the Manchester actions exposed the lie gladly peddled within the BL that it was no use Scanlon giving a lead ‘the rank and file would never respond’. The other popular excuse at the time was that national strike action would bankrupt the union because of the amount of official strike pay involved. The pressure on ready cash had been caused by so much of the union funds having been put in ‘safe’ trusts, new property etc – a back door means of protecting union assets against the NIRC instead of making the necessary all out stand (which the union successfully ended up doing anyway). In any case, the miners had just shown how to win a national official strike without relying on official strike pay. The most pathetic reasoning was given by Bob Wright, then Broad Left Executive Councilman, who told the Warrington District Stewards quarterly meeting that

... there’s no difference between a national strike and official backing for plant by plant strikes.

The Manchester lock outs and sit ins were atter some trouble officially recognised and strike pay distributed. But beyond these minimal steps no national support was mobilised. No levies. No attempt to spread the strikes. Even failing a national strike there was no attempt to organise rolling districts or combine wide strikes with a supporting levy of all working engineers. Within the Manchester disputes themselves local Communist Party officials prevented any link up between the different sit-ins, or the organisation of delegations to seek support and escalation of the struggle into other districts. The Manchester sit-ins continued as isolated plant battles, making secret settlements. Local officials insisted on secret deals ‘so as to encourage firms to break privately with EEF guidelines.’ As if such deals were a secret amongst employers! It was a recipe for Tocher, Panter and Co to maintain control of the disputes – to make sure the struggle didn’t escalate beyond individual plant battles. IS engineers were the only people to push for an alternative approach. They produced a twice weekly bulletin Greater Manchester Engineer which was regularity distributed in most of the 30 sit-ins. It was the only source of information between different disputes. It consistently campaigned for a fighting ‘How to Win’ policy on eight main demands:

  1. No retreat on 35 hours-the full claim on cash, holidays and equal pay.
  2. Weekly shop stewards meetings to co-ordinate the actions.
  3. No secrecy on settlements – agreements to be voted at stewards meetings.
  4. One day a week strikes and mass demonstrations of all engineers in the district.
  5. All sit-ins must get immediate official support.
  6. Rolling district action across the country.
  7. National levy of all working engineers.
  8. Officials and delegates from mass stewards meetings to go and raise support in other districts.

The only national intervention was by Scanlon to a meeting of stewards, six weeks after most of the sit-ins began. It was to be the only meeting of stewards throughout the dispute. It was not called to discuss how better to organise the fight, how to secure national support, or whatever. Its only purpose was to crash through the dropping of the demand for a shorter working week. A move from the floor for a national supporting levy and maintaining the demand for a shorter week was lost some 200 votes to 100. But the meeting was a farce. The minority were delegations of stewards from plants still fighting. The majority were delegations of stewards from plants who, with the help of local officials, had already made secret settlements. For example Ruston Paxman had present only five stewards (including the author) representing an occupation still fighting for a 35-hour week-whereas AEI Trafford Park had two coach loads of stewards present. AEI, led by arch right-wing convenor Brennan OBE, had just settled the day before without any concessions on hours. Brennan was later to head the list of Tocher’s supporting signatories for his narrowly secured re-ebction as Divisional Organiser. Many militants in Manchester suspect that the unholy alliance began at this time.

From then on the situation deteriorated rapidly. The employers’ confidence and unity was in sharp contrast to the disarray of the state of organisation. Individual plants rapidly settled. Less than a handful of plants secured any concessions on hours. Most places were forced to settle within the EEF guidelines, the ‘best’ settlements achieving £3 or £4 increases and one or two days extra holidays. The more militant plants were left dangerously isolated and elementary trade union organisation was threatened. Shortly after the ‘Scanlon visit’ an IS led initiative did achieve a meeting of shop steward delegations from 11 occupations in a last ditch effort to form a joint occupation committee, prevent plant isolation, and campaign for national support. Even some of the most die-hard Communist Party stewards and convenors were fearful of the consequences of our ‘leaders’ manoeuvrings. But the meeting was deflected by the faint hearts and agreed to call on the Divisional Office to take up our suggestions. The officials ignored the initiative and put more energy into denouncing it than in securing the support so badly needed by the plants left fighting. After some 12 weeks of action, Ruston Paxman, Metal Box, Hawker Siddeley (Woodford), Viking Engineering (Stockport), Bason and Sons (Stockport) were the only plants left. The comments in the last issue of the Greater Manchester Engineer at that time summed up the situation:

With only five factories in the whole of the Manchester district left struggling for the remnants of the ckim, it is vital that meaningful support be organised ... and quickly.

What had started as a militant district effort ended in a shambles. Local officials, particularly Tocher, desperately tried to put a gloss on things. Exaggerated claims of the overall level of ‘secret’ settlements fell on soured ears. Everyone knew, everyone felt, that we had received a terrible mauling. Worse still, the employers, arrogant and confident, chose to rub in the defeat. A whole rash of victimisations, and attacks on the mutuality clause in the Manchester piece-work agreement ensued. Within six months Gardners were involved in a 13-week dispute defending piecework agreements. Ruston Paxman was occupied again for seven weeks in reply to the victimisation of a steward (the author). Bason and Sons were involved in a bitter occupation which was ejected by bailiffs over victimisation of the convenor through selective redundancies.

This defeat of the Manchester Engineers was perhaps the most significant event in the change of attitude of local militants towards the Communist Party and other Broad Left officials. The same rank and file militants who had previously put all their trust in Scanlon, Wright, Tocher (all Manchester ‘lads’) were left disillusioned. Not surprisingly, this reflected itself in local elections. Tocher, despite gaining the support of right-winger Brennan, only just scraped in. Panter was kicked out of office. The same militants who had over previous years fought and campaigned for these officials, now lacked any enthusiasm, and hardly any campaigning took place. The right gained by default. The same disillusionment that produced such noted local effects, quite obviously must have born heavily in recent national elections too. Manchester is the biggest concentration of AUEW members. It would be very revealing to see a regional breakdown of Wright’s vote – local lad or not I’m sure his vote from Manchester would be well down.

Finally in August 1972 a national settlement was reached to apply until August 1973 – which effectively made it a 20 month deal from the previous January when the last agreement terminated. The terms of the settlement were:

  1. Minimum time rates were increased
    skilled £19 to £22 from August 1972 – to £25 August 1973
    labourer £15 to £17 from August 1972 – to £20 August 1973
    women £13 to £15.50 from August 1972 – to £18 August 1973.
  2. Just two days extra holiday – one in 1972 and a further extra day in 1973.

There was no reduction in hours, no equal pay, no across the board increase.

It was reckoned to be worth just 7 per cent or expressed another way was just half that of the miners’ settlement. The engineers were thus the only powerful section of the trade union movement to be defeated in 1972. As the late Jim Conway the right wing General Secretary put it in a speech on the final settlement:

Let us consider then how many of our members working a 40-hour week actually take home a larger pay packet arising from the Agreement. I do not know the precise figure, but I would confidently state that it would be less than 10 per cent and in all probability be around 5 per cent.

In a bragging speech this view was confirmed by the Engineering Employers Federation President:

The campaign was not a fruitful one for the unions ... The vast majority of settlements were within the guide lines drawn up by the management board ...

The 1973 and 1975 Claims

THE 1973 engineers’ claim was for a skilled time rate of £35 (pro rata for other grades) – for a 35 hour week-four weeks holiday – equal pay – no productivity strings – and for it to be a one year deal. Significantly there was no demand for an across the board increase which every engineer would receive. Even at that time many engineers were on more than £35 anyway, so such an increase in the minimum time rate would for them have only marginal effects on Overtime and shift premiums. But leaving aside the obvious shortcomings of the claim itself one would have at least expected an attempt to rectify the debacle of the 1971 claim. As an IS Industrial pamphlet The 1973 Engineering Pay Claim put it:

It is vital that a real fight be put up for the 1973 claim because of the long-term results if it goes the way of the 1971 claim. The 1971 campaign improved the real wage of only a few workers in the industry and significantly, it reduced the importance of national negotiations in determining wages and conditions. If this happens again then no-one will take future national claims seriously.

But once again the Broad Left within the union proved incapable of forcing a national fight for the claim.

In reply to the claim the EEF offered:

  • £2.50 on the minimum time rate for skilled
  • £2.00 on the minimum time rate for unskilled
  • £1.80 on the minimum time rate for women.

The CSEU Executive meeting on 11 December rejected this derisory offer, but dithered about any action. But on 15 December there was a national BL assemblage which argued well for forcing the pace. An emergency AUEW NC was also arranged for 3 January 1974. Things were looking up – as the Morning Star on 12 December reported:

‘The decision to recall the national committee on 3 January to discuss the pay claim means that this Friday’s national rank-and-file conference in Manchester is all the more important,’ said Mr Bernard Panter, Manchester district secretary of the AUEW yesterday,

This gathering is sponsored by convenors from leading factories in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland and is expected to call for a national ban on overtime to support the claim for a minimum skilled rate of £35 for a 35-hour working week.

In the event this Rank and File conference – leading Communist Party members weren’t afraid of that name then – called for a lobby of the 3 January Special National Committee, and ‘for a positive lead for industrial action, up to and including a national strike on the wage claim’. The meeting closed to an appeal from the conference chairman Len Brindle, convenor of Leylands Chorley, (later to be unsuccessful Broad Left candidate for National Organiser) to ‘go back and organise factory meetings to launch the campaign for action from 3 January’.

As with the 1971 claim, the 1973 claim was coming to a head just as the miners were preparing for battle. This was to be the final defeat of the Tories and the ill-fated two-day week national lock-out. As in 1972 the AUEW Broad Left dominated leadership had the opportunity to join with the miners and force their claim. However, they decided to postpone national overtime until after the three day week! Reformist leaders, both ‘right’ and ‘left’, were far too concerned about the political implications of miners and engineers concurrently striking during the election period. They preferred to sacrifice the claim. Not content with this they also failed to give national directives to refuse co-operation with employers in ‘getting through the three-day week’. In many plants this resulted in much erosion of hard won conditions and shop steward organisation.

After all that it was a testament to the many genuine rank and file militants, including Broad Left supporters, that many establishments still carried the overtime ban. Such an action after a crippling three-day week was no mean feat.

But in the event a national settlement was reached in March for skilled minimum time rate of £32 (pro rata for other grades) and one day extra holiday. There was no reduction in hours, and no commitment to equal pay,. We predicted that failure to fight for the claim, especially after the 1971/72 defeat, which meant that ‘no-one will take future national claims seriously’. The results of the 1975 claim just recently settled bears this out. As Socialist Worker reported:

The 1975 non-event of the engineers’ national wage claim is now over. At the special National Committee of the AUEW last November all teeth were extracted from the claim.

Despite rising unemployment it did not include the demand fora shorter working week. Despite rapid inflation, it did not demand a specific minimum target of £50 or £60 a week. It did not demand real across-the-board increases on top of existing wages, but instead focused on basic rates.

The offer made by the Engineering Employers’ Federation on Monday on behalf of its 5,000 member firms was for skilled engineers’ basic rates to rise from the present £32 to £36 in June, then to £40 in December and finally to £42 in March 1976. Unskilled workers will move from the present £25.50 to £33.60 over the same period, and women workers will get an extra £1 in December to bring their minimum rate into line with the lowest male rate in the industry. The deal is a 15-month agreement to last from February 1975 until May 1976 at the earliest.

Hugh Scanlon, president of the AUEW, heads the negotiations for the 19 unions representing the 1¼ million engineering workers covered by the claim. Right from the start he had indicated there would be no campaign to publicise the claim or to take action.

Most engineers will never know that their unions asked the EEF for an immediate £9 on the basic rates, and for five days’ extra holidays. So it comes as no surprise that Scanlon and the other union negotiators are now going through the formality of recommending acceptance.

Scanlon refused to fight for any real increase for engineers because he supports the government’s Social Contract policy of keeping wages down. The EEF were happy with this: for once they even declined to estimate how much the settlement would cost. The reason: average engineering wages are over £48 a week and very few engineers will get anything in their pay packets as a result. A rise in basic rates can boost overtime rates and holiday pay, but right now short-time is affecting 250,000 workers and hardly any overtime is being worked. And there are no extra holidays in the package.

The consistent failure of the Broad Left to fight for meaningful national wage claims is possibly the most significant feature of rank and file disillusionment with existing officials. The engineers, mobilised nationally and together, would be a most powerful force. National ‘verbal’ militancy plus local plant strikes is one thing, but exploding the full potential of rank and file militancy is another!

The Fight Against the Industrial Relations Act

THIS ASPECT of verbal militancy coupled with extreme caution when organising action was very characteristic of the fight against the Industrial Relations Act. The AUEW resisted this act more vigorously than any other union. Certainly the Broad Left was at the heart of that resistance. But the action taken, as compared with the words spoken, was very stage-managed and smacked of tokenism, (the exception being the final showdown which I’ll deal with later). In policy terms the AUEW was very principled in forcing the TUC deregistration policy, in non-recognition of the NIRC, and consistent refusal to appear in the court.

The AUEWs fight against the act started well with two official one-day strikes before the Act became law – 1 March and 12 March 1971. Following that there was a whole series of one-day stoppages, national and district wide as a result of non-compliance with the Act. They can be summarised:

In addition engineers were to the fore in other unofficial stoppages; the strike to free the five dockers for example. But as most stewards will admit the longer the struggle against the Act wore on, the harder it became to ‘pull the lads out.’ Instead of directly confronting the Act, and deliberately escalating the strikes into an all out stoppage, the union leadership plumped simply for one-day token stoppages. One-day protests were good and fine, but by themselves were never going to smash the Industrial Relations Act. There was a greater danger of such tactics isolating militants. It was not the popular thing to do-always arguing support for one-day strikes which were clearly not doing the trick.

It was a policy that gave credence to the right wing’s argument that the AUEW stand against the act was a waste of money. And that all these one-day stoppages were getting us nowhere. Notwithstanding all these token actions the Industrial Relations Act indeed remained on the statute book. Even with the advent of a Labour Government, after the miners’ victory over the Tories, the NIRC continued to crucify the AUEW with punitive fines and costs arising from the Con Mech case. It was this case that brought about the final showdown. The union, when faced with sequestration of its assets, found the ‘left’ in a dilemma. If the Broad Left backed down and allowed this seizure of union funds, it would have been seen as a justification of the right wing’s argument. ‘Our union’s isolated stand has been of no use, just a waste of money’. The left had no alternative, they had to fight; the executive council’s decision was dramatic and simple:

The executive council instructs all members of the engineering section without exception to withdraw their labour forthwith.
For: Les Dixon, Reg Birch, Len Edmonson
Against: John Boyd, Bill John, Arthur Hearsey
Casting Vote: In favour – Hugh Scanlon

That instruction was issued for 8 May. The response from the rank and file was truly remarkable. Up and down the country engineers immediately downed tools. Whole sections even stopped on the night of the 7 May just on the basis of wireless news bulletins! An estimated half a million had downed tools by midday of the 8 May – they certainly didn’t wait for the written official instruction. But by the afternoon it was all over. An anonymous donor (the debate still rages whether it was from the government or the employers paid the costs. This was despite Donaldson’s (President of NIRC) previous statements that he would not accept such a payment. The employers sighed with relief, but also accepted the end of the Industrial Relations Act.

As the Financial Times commented,

’Those who feel relieved should also feel worried by the news that Mr Hugh Scanlon’s face has been saved with the help of what would seem to the layman a legal conjuring trick.’

Eight hours of all-out open ended strike action achieved more than 120 hours of one-day token stoppages! It justified the repeated cry from militants that all-out action would kill the act. It also exposed the Broad Left’s excuse that the membership would never respond to an all-out call. The call was in response to pressure from right wing manoeuvring. Scanlon had to save face. But the implications of that are not lost within the rank and file. A senior shop steward in the Manchester area recently explained to me his lack of enthusiasm in campaigning for votes for Wright.

’They’re the ones who pulled us in and out over the Industrial Relations Act, even to the extent of an all-out strike call, but when it comes to our wages they just don’t want to know.’

The AUEW Broad Left almost despite itself, played a key role in smashing the Act. But in so doing it ironically pointed to the way they should have fought for national wage increases, job security, the 35-hour week.


FACED WITH humiliating election results leading Broad Left figures have already started blaming the rank and file. ‘They’ve drifted to the right’. ‘We were too militant for them over the Industrial Relations Act fight’. We should reject such criticisms as elitist and dangerous if we are to counter the right wing ascendancy. The right have gained through default by the Communist Party and its Broad Left. Recognition of that and learning from it, is an important pointer towards building a genuine rank and file movement within the union. The kind of active rank and file cohesion which should make it impossible for the right wing to raise its head, let alone win elections.

That can only be achieved by fighting for the policies that relate to the membership’s needs:


Job Security:

Union Democracy:

Apprentices and Young Workers:

And it’s fighting for these policies that is crucial.

The notion of Broad Left officials that the security of positions is more important than commitment to correct policies is more than dangerous. It’s the first simple statement in the slippery road to compromise and sell-outs.

The electoral gains of the right wing are not due to a swing towards reaction by the mass of the membership: There is no grounds well of desire to return to ‘the Carron era’. If there was a swing to the right one would expect the first symptoms to be falling union membership, and waning militancy. Far from that picture, membership is rising. And rank and file militancy, often against the Social Contract and thereby unofficial, is reaching unprecedented heights. The right wing gains are the Broad Left’s fault. They are primarily due to the failure of the left leaders to fight for national wage increases and to their Duke of York stage soldiering over the Industrial Relations Act. In this article these are the two main aspects I have dealt with. But a similar examination of the manoeuvring in the car industry, the sell-out at Fords, the witch-hunting of militants at Perkins, official breaking of Chrysler electricians’ picket lines on executive instructions, the impending collapse of amalgamation moves, and the continued failure to effectively fight redundancy and short time – all would reveal the same picture, left leaders who verbally appear radical yet consistently sell short rank and file aspirations when delivering the goods. And as the crisis of society deepens then the more the shallowness of such verbal militancy is exposed.

Such officials are not in themselves malicious men. I am reasonably sure that Scanlon genuinely wants a better deal for engineers. But their behaviour is the prisoner of their politics and their bureaucratic position. They believe in piecemeal improvements that can be won from and within the system, by negotiation and manipulation. Sometimes they are forced to mobilise the membership to bring crucial pressure on such manoeuvring. But such action is a stage managed extra that is not to get out of hand. They do not see mass action as the key to defending jobs, improving living standards, and crucially developing the muscle and experience for the final struggles to transform society. The ‘Parliamentary Road to Socialism’ is the recipe for passive masses who wait for elected leaders to legislate the new society on our behalf. Similarly such politics within the unions scorn rank and file activism. The gaining of a position, the formalising of negotiations, becomes more important than the militant, often political potential of mass action.

Without a truly democratic union structure with the officials fully accountable to, and not privileged above the rank and file, then individual officials however sincere, become subject to the pressure of being part of the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy is far removed from the daily grind of factory conditions, on far better pay, used to rubbing shoulders with the ‘top nobs’ and generally privileged above the membership it should be representing. It therefore develops a self interest of its own. The officials mingle in the corridors of power, in government ante rooms, the financiers’ lobbies, and the consultative gatherings of top industrialists. It’s a comfortable, apparently ‘important’ life, that sometimes gets rudely interrupted by rank and file pressure. So for their social privilege they depend on the system’s continued existence. It therefore becomes in the bureaucracy’s interest to maintain things as they are. ‘To not rock the boat’ and just gradually seek improvements. The fight for better officials has therefore got to be more than just getting ‘progressives’ into office. There needs to be within the union, a rank and file movement constantly campaigning for control over the officials, a fighting wages policy, for defence of jobs, better conditions, etc. The fight back against the right wing must be seen in this light.

It is up to revolutionary socialists within the AUEW to fight for the leadership of the campaign against the right wing’s ascendancy. Every effort must be made to win Broad Left supporters and other militants to the banner of active rank and file policies. It would be criminal to leave the fight back against the right wing to the same national leaders who have allowed by default the right wing’s re-emergence. Far from diluting our political criticism of the Communist Party leadership and its Broad Left, it is essential that we openly argue for the correct orientation on rank and file policies. Such a fight must be more than position mongering. It is also a fight against reformist leadership scared of the militancy, activism and self creativity of the rank and file. Unlike reformists of the Communist Party and Labour Party variety, we welcome and encourage the maximum possible expression of such potential.

A note worthy ending on is a quote from Laurie Smith’s election address in the current election for National Organiser. Laurie topped the poll in the first ballot with over 50,000 votes, beating right winger Weakley and Broad Left candidate Len Brindle, who came third. His vote was the only result to go against the general trend of right wing gains.

He stood on an independent, socialist platform:

We are all aware that in the final analysis it is not the logic of our case, or the skill of negotiators that determines the outcome, but the ability and preparedness to fight invested in the members themselves. All the recent history of our unions shows that this preparedness to struggle exists in good measure; and that is going to be tested to the full in the period that lays ahead of us. It has to be combined with a clear and decisive leadership that understands the issues, and is not afraid to act on them in the interests of the membership.

Just as stewards have a responsibility not only to represent members, but to provide recommendations and leadership on which the members can act, so do full time officials.

Summary of First Ballot

Phil Higgs: Rolls-Royce convenor, lost National Organiser vote by 82,608 to sitting right-winger Bob Lloyd’s 156,680.

Pat Farrelly: Communist Party member. Divisional Organiser in Basingstoke/Reading/Southampton area for 20 years voted out by George Elsey, 4,731 votes to 4,301.

Len Brindle: British Leyland convenor, polled 36,247 votes as Broad Left candidate for National Organiser against right-winger John Weakley’s 48,876. But Laurie Smith, candidate from a small area (Erith), stood on revolutionary socialist platform and got 51,092 votes. Second ballot to be held.

Cyril Moreton: Communist Party, convenor at Ambrose Shardlows in Sheffield, failed to get into second ballot for National Organiser. Robert Walmsley topped poll with 53,753 votes, just ahead of right-winger Gina Morgan (52,076), who comes from a small area.

Bob Wright: Beaten 89,514-42,388 in first ballot for general secretary by arch right-winger John Boyd.

John Foster: Communist Party, sitting National Organiser, 89,039 votes but failed to get majority against litle-known right-winger Patrick Gregory (55,205). Second ballot to be held.

There will be second round balloting for several local positions. In Leicester, it will be between right-winger Bridget Pat on (1,965 votes) and William McMillan (1,111). In Oldham left-wing candidate Ray Seddon (693) is opposed by J.W. Jones (597). In Glasgow, Broad Left candidate Jimmy Hamilton, who polled 1,522, faced J. McKenzie (1,904).

Other right-wing victories:

Bill John: returned as executive member for West of England and South Wales.

Winning of district positions in Wolverhampton, Birmingham East and Blackpool. In Wolverhampton, all six left-wingers on the District Committees had already been replaced by right-wingers at the district quarterly meetings.

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Last updated on 16.2.2008