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International Socialism, April 1977


Notes of the Month

The Leyland Toolroom Strike: Some Lessons


From International Socialism (1st series), No.97, April 1977, pp.4-5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


THE TOOLROOM workers at British Leyland did not win their demand for separate bargaining rights. Instead the issue has been shunted off to a management-union working party dealing with Leyland’s pay structure on which the toolroom workers have one representative. They accepted these terms after an unprecedented offensive which united James Callaghan, the Leyland management and Hugh Scanlon behind the threat to sack the toolroom workers.

Nonetheless, the issue is far from resolved. It is tied up with a complex of other issues, including Leyland’s chaotic and decentralised wages structure, the future of the company itself (again under review) and the prospects for the Social Contract. In some ways, most important of all is the light the strike threw on the shop stewards’ movement itself.

Shop stewards’ organisation developed after the war as the means by which workers in individual factories – more often in individual sections – fought and won the improvements in wages, hours, conditions, that underlay the rise in living standards during the boom of the 1950s and 1960s. The strength and the success of the stewards have made them the target of a series of attacks by successive governments concerned to shore up the competitiveness of declining British capital.

In the car industry in particular these attacks have taken the form of attempts to do away with the decentralised piecework plant bargaining systems from which the stewards derived much of their importance. As one former Leyland boss, George Turnbull, put it: ‘The act of taking the piece-work bargaining element away from the shop stewards and shop floor trade union organisations would automatically render the irksome negotiating elements unnecessary and – having removed the basis for shop steward power and authority – would leave the company in control of levels of production, track speed, wages and conditions’ (quoted in Leyland combine committee’s evidence to Ryder inquiry).

Many of the attempts to implement this policy – for example, the replacement of piece-work by measured day-work in British Leyland – were bitterly resisted. But in the last three years, the shop stewards in the car industry have been on the retreat. In Chrysler the stewards under threat of closure accepted the company’s terms for redundancies. In Leyland they opted for the participation scheme introduced under the Ryder report as part of the State takeover of Leyland.

These defeats reflected some of the weaknesses of an organisation built to fight for limited economic demands within particular plants and sections, which therefore found it difficult to adjust to a period when generalised, national, political issues are to the fore. They also reflected the tendency of many senior stewards and convenors to become full-time negotiators divorced from the shopfloor.

The aim of the participation schemes in the car industry was to reinforce this developing hierarchy within the shop stewards’ movement by involving the senior stewards in the implementation of company policy.

In Leyland an adhoc committee of 27 senior stewards was formed on management’s initiative. In January 1977 they produced a deal that was recommended by a meeting of all manual shop stewards. Supposedly about fringe benefits, the deal was riddled with penalty clauses against unofficial strikers and included a common starting date for all Leyland wage agreements – a crucial step towards national pay bargaining. The massive rejection of the deal by rank-and-file workers was one sign of the growing rebellion against the Social Contract in the car industry.

The toolmakers’ strike was part of this rebellion. Yet after the management-union offensive against the toolmakers, the Morning Star could still write, despite the Communist Party’s left turn which we discussed last month, that ‘the continuation of the strike can only lead to further divisiveness between one section of workers and another in British Leyland’ (March 16).

In other words, the CP fell in with those describing the toolroom strike as a sectional, craftsmen’s strike. In doing so, they lined up with the union officials. At the toolmakers’ meeting in Birmingham on March 11, Hugh Scanlon and Terry Duffy, respectively ‘left’ and right members of the AUEW Executive, did their best to treat the strike as a dispute over differentials. Scanlon, for example, said:

‘Speaking for the Executive, there’s not one of us who’s not a time-served man, aware of the importance of differentials.’

This approach reflects the trade union bureaucracy’s tactics towards Phase Three, which seems likely to concentrate on winning ‘flexibility’, i.e., scope for productivity increases, and the restoration of differentials, rather than across-the-board increases.

For the strikers, the sectional demand for separate bargaining rights summarised a mass of grievances – over pay disparities between workers doing the same job in different Leyland plants, over narrowing differentials, over anomalies caused by the Social Contract, over inflation. The argument in favour of increased differentials served as a bridge between acceptance of the tighten-your-belts argument and all-out opposition to the Social Contract in the way that the miners’ claim to be a special case did under the Tories. The direction in which the demands developed depended very much on the lead given the strikers.

The strike showed that the institution of shop stewards, despite the retreats of the last few years, and despite the conservatism and corruption of many individual shop stewards, provides rank-and-file workers with a means of organising themselves that is uniquely responsive to their wishes. Because shop stewards are the themselves rank-and-file workers, elected by their individual sections and because, on the basis of their performance, they can be removed by their members, they provide an instrument that can be subordinated to the rank and file in a way that no bureaucracy of full-time officials, however democratic and however left-wing, ever can. Scanlon and Duffy were jeered and shouted down by the toolroom workers, but they could not be brought to heel by their rank and file in the way the stewards could.

This has important implications for the strategy of building a national rank and file movement. The toolroom strike was a genuine rank-and-file movement mounted by the workers concerned themselves, independent of and against their officials. As the fight-back against the Social Contract develops, we can expect other rank-and-file movements of this sort to develop spontaneously. The National Rank-and-File Organising Committee and the Right to Work Campaign form only the beginnings of a genuine national rank-and-file movement. The rank-and-file groups in particular industries largely do not consist of the delegates of rank-and-file workers with the muscle to call their workmates out in action. They are propaganda groups for a national rank-and-file movement grouped around papers like The Collier, The Dockworker, Rank-and-File Teacher and so on. Their ability to become something more than this will depend on whether they can relate to these spontaneous rank-and-file movements as they emerge.

For a time the April 3 conference against the Social Contract called by the Leyland combine committee began to show what a national rank-and-file movement would be like. It was billed as a ‘rank-and-file TUC, i.e., a working conference drawing together the stewards involved in struggle. However, some of the organisers appear to have been scared off by the toolroom strike. Although we went to print before April 3, it looks as if the conference will be little more than a mass rally aimed at putting pressure on the TUC General Council.

The intervention of revolutionary socialists will be central to the formation of a national rank-and-file movement. The shop stewards’ strength – their shopfloor base – is also their weakness. Built within particular sections and plants during the wave of ‘do-it-yourself reformism’ of the 1950s and 1960s, they are ideologically vulnerable in a period when what happens to wages and jobs depends on the outcome of national political battles. However closely the shop stewards reflect the feelings of the rank and file, they need to be knitted together into a national, class-wide movement.

This is important at the present time for two reasons. First, the offensive against shopfloor organisation in the car industry is far from over. Recent struggles in Chrysler Linwood show that the offensive is not confined to Leyland. The shop stewards are the most important obstacle to the viability of British capital. Therefore, they must be broken. The new working party on Leyland’s pay structure will be used by management to push towards national bargaining. The toolroom dispute showed the danger that groups of particularly militant workers will be isolated and picked off by a coalition of the employers and union officials.

Second, Phase Three, as we pointed out above, is likely to involve concessions on differentials and productivity aimed at buying off sections like the toolmakers while public sector workers are clobbered. To prevent these divide-and-rule tactics will mean fighting for demands like across-the-board increases that can unite all section of workers.

Only revolutionary socialists can provide the general political perspective on the basis of which a national rank-and-file movement uniting workers within industries and across industries can be built. It is our duty – and our opportunity – to offer this perspective, winning support for it by the lead we give in the struggles in the coming months.

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