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International Socialism, May 1977


Steve Jefferys, Sheila McGregor & John Rose

The struggle against the Social Contract

Leyland, Heathrow & 20 April


From International Socialism (1st series), No. 98, May 1977, pp. 10–14.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to Sally Kincaid.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


After nearly two years of wage controls, the possibility of a real fightback against the Social Contract has developed over the last few months. The Con-Trick has been put in question by a number of major strikes, above all those at Leyland, Heathrow and Port Talbot. But at the same times the movement against the Social Contract that developed around the Leyland shop stewards’ call for a one-day strike against the Social Contract on April 20 has dissipated. The Communist Party has played a major role in sounding the retreat, and has attacked the strikes at Leyland and Heathrow. Steve Jefferys, Sheila McGregor and John Rose analyse the struggle so far.

THE TIMES lead headline on Thursday, April 28th 1977, said it all: ‘A million days lost in worst strikes month since 1974’. ‘More than one million days were lost through strikes last month,’ it continued. ‘The total number of days lost during the first quarter of this year was more than two-thirds for the whole of last year.’

The battle over the Social Contract has begun in earnest. In the first three months of 1977 2,331,000 strike days were recorded, of which half took place in March alone. After nearly two years of industrial peace bringing sharp falls in workers’ living standards and a massive increase in unemployment, workers are now beginning to fight back.

The strikes taking place this year have been about the Social Contract, although few of those involved would have admitted they were out to smash it. The long-running Trust House Forte disputes have been about union organisation, as has the courageous Grunwicks strike. The Massey Ferguson lockout and strike in Coventry were about defending their shop stewards organisation and existing procedures. The motivating pressure in these and many other strikes was unquestionably the need to prepare for struggles for money. The Yardley women struck directly for equal pay. The Port Talbot electricians, still on strike at the time of writing, are fighting to win more money for all their members as a result of the introduction of new technology by the British Steel Corporation.

Yet more than any other strikes two key disputes have become inextricably locked into the national battle against the Social Contract: the Leyland toolroom workers’ strike and the struggle of the Heathrow engineers. The central questions they have posed are these: Will the end of Phase 2 of the Social Contract be negotiated by the TUC General Council and a new Phase 3 agreed to by the September TUC in Blackpool? Or will Phase 2 and the Social Contract be ended by the industrial action of the rank and file?

There is little doubt at all where the trade union bureaucracy stands on these questions. Right, ‘old’ left and ‘new’ left, are completely united. They all wish to see ‘an orderly return to free collective bargaining’, in other words, a return which they control. This is the reason why Hugh Scanlon has responded exactly as Frank Chapple has to Social Contract – attacking strikes. This is why Geoffrey Drain of NALGO and Alan Fisher of NUPE have lined up in favour of a third stage of the Social Contract. Whether Phase 3 has an upper limit with flexibility for productivity bargaining, or whether ‘kitty’ bargaining is established to divide workers within a company into the strong and the weak, the trade union leaders wish to make the decisions. And they intend to police it on behalf of the Labour government.

The Leyland toolroom and Heathrow engineering workers upset this applecart. They were not prepared to wait and have a formula imposed on their demands once again. Thus the key issue this year for those who oppose the Social Contract and its wage controls as measures for making workers pay for the capitalist crisis was their response to the Leyland and Heathrow struggles. A united response from militants throughout the trade union movement with a massive display of solidarity (money and sympathetic strike action) could have not only helped these workers to victory, but it would have encouraged hundreds of thousands of other workers to say ‘Yes, we’re a special case too’. Unqualified victories in these two disputes, won through widespread support in the movement, would clearly have hastened the unlamented demise of the Social Con-trick. Tragically, the close relationship that the Communist Party (still the political organisation to the left of the Labour Party with the strongest roots in the working class) has with the trade union bureaucracy meant that the only working-class organisation that campaigned for the Toolroom and Heathrow workers was ours, the Socialist Workers’ Party. And we are still not strong enough to decisively counter the influence of the CP and the right-wing when they are in alliance together.

The CP line was most clearly put by Bert Ramelson, Industrial Organiser of the Communist Party, and quoted in the Morning Star on Friday, 22nd April. ‘The dangers in the continuation of the Social Contract may be seen also behind frustration hitting out in all directions, even against fellow-workers, rather than the employers and the government,’ he told a Reading CP meeting. ‘The recent toolroom strike at Leylands and the current maintenance engineers’ action at Heathrow are examples of this.’ ‘Such actions are most harmful to the movement, creating divisions and bitterness between workers, diverting their anger from the bosses, the government and supporters of the Social Contract,’ his attack concluded.

The Communist Party scabbed on these strikes. It publicly attacked them and urged workers not to support them while they were taking place. Several CP full-time officials and senior shop stewards did exactly the same. The tragedy was that in scabbing on these strikes the CP was also scabbing on the whole movement against the Social Contract. It happened like this.

The Struggle at British Leyland

ON February 3rd, the Daily Mirror carried the headline ‘Leyland Pay Rebels aim to break the Contract. HELL-BENT ON CHAOS’ and the Birmingham Mail screamed ‘COLLISION COURSE’.

Clearly something was afoot. The Daily Mirror elaborated: ‘A massive shop-floor revolt which could torpedo the Social Contract and wreck Britain’s economic recovery emerged yesterday in the car industry’. The Executive committee of the British Leyland Combine had met the previous day and agreed to call on the conference of British Leyland stewards on February 15th, to organise a national conference to build a campaign against the Social Contract and call a day of action with a one-day stoppage. Two months later, on April 20th a mere 3,000 marched on Parliament. Nationally about 35,000 workers came out on strike yet in the Leyland factories, the production wheels kept turning. What happened to the ‘collision course’? Did the rank and file decide not to come out on strike, had people suddenly decided that the Social Contract was a good idea? The answer is NO. Workers who had voted to come out on strike suddenly found they were only being asked to fund delegations down to London. The senior stewards, including Derek Robinson, member of the Communist Party and convenor of Longbridge, organised the retreat.

On February 11th, 6,000 workers from Longbridge marched off the job on an angry demonstration against Industry Minister Varley, and Scanlon and Jones, who were visiting the plant. The message of those workers was clear. ‘END THE SOCIAL CONTRACT NOW’. Feelings were running high. Then on February 15th 600 stewards from all over Leyland voted to organise a national conference against the Social Contract and for a massive one-day stoppage in April. The conference date was set for April 3rd and the day of action for April 19/20th. This call was endorsed by the Communist Party-called conference of the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions on February 26th. The stage looked set.

But the discussion statement issued by the Executive officers Derek Robinson, Les Gurl, Eddie McGarry and Peter Robinson, and put to the Leyland combine conference on February 15th, contained the strategy which led to the retreat. The statement contained the following arguments:

‘... It is not possible for British Leyland to win this alone [i.e. an organised return to free collective bargaining] ...

‘British Leyland workers have a vested interest in the retention of a Labour Government ...

‘The need to decisively influence the current round of discussions [on Phase Three] is paramount ...

‘We need a mighty campaign to win the demand for an organised return to free collective bargaining.’

And at the combine shop stewards conference, the Combine Executive Officers spoke against an amendment that called for full backing to strikes against Stage 2 of the wage controls. It was then overwhelmingly defeated.

Two points were clear. The Executive committee was not intent on leading a movement to smash the Social Contract, but to influence the ‘current round of discussions’. They also said quite clearly that Leyland cannot go it alone. God help any section who tries.

And that is what happened. On February 18th, the toolmakers in Leyland’s car division came out on strike for separate negotiating rights. Angry at the wide disparity of earnings between toolmakers’ wages in different Leyland factories, the toolmakers elected their own negotiating committee to try and get some kind of timetable towards parity. They saw the first step as getting separate negotiations for this committee. Hence the strike. What was the response? A massive press campaign against the toolmakers. Government threats and official AUEW sabotage.

At a meeting on March 5th 20 officials from the local Confederation of Engineering and Shipbuilding Unions said: ‘We are convinced that the employment of thousands of members will cease at British Leyland and its suppliers unless there is an immediate return to work, continuity of production and recognised procedures properly used.’ And on March 11th Scanlon went hot foot to a mass meeting of toolmakers in Birmingham to order them back to work. As one worker asked of Hugh Scanlon ‘Who are you representing – the government, Leyland or the union?’

Or as another toolroom worker from Daimler put it: ‘Why is it the union haven’t the power to call us out on strike, but have the power to order us back?’

But not only did the official union machine do its best to get the toolmakers back to work, the senior stewards, seemingly so keen to end the Social Contract ignored the toolmakers dispute whilst it was on. Instead of mobilising support for the toolmakers in their fight for parity the Combine committee did nothing to support them. The Morning Star opposed the strike. So the toolmakers were left to take on the government, Leyland and the press on their own. Until they were threatened with the sack. Then workers throughout the Midlands and elsewhere sent delegations to the toolroom committee offering support. The Leyland Combine committee and the Communist Party failed to understand what Jack Sheldon from Tractors and Transmissions put so simply: ‘Leyland want to keep the wages of all workers down, to divide us factory versus factory. That’s why they are so concerned to break the toolroom workers’ strike’

Between February 15th and April 3rd the campaign for the national strike stopped. During the toolroom strike, government froze further investment for the new mini and the press was rife with talk of Leyland going to the wall. The Morning Star attacked the toolmakers for dividing the movement and stopped pushing the national strike or, until a few days beforehand, even the April 3rd National shop stewards’ conference.

On March 21st when everyone returned to work after the defeat of the toolmakers, the Works Committee in Longbridge put six proposals to the JSSC similar to the proposals which had been pushed through in September 1976. The main thrust of the proposals was that there should be no interruption to production in the way of disputes etc and that the shop stewards should give a fresh commitment to ending ‘unofficial’ disputes. These proposals were accepted on the JSSC and immediately put to the shop floor. As one woman put it: ‘We were told not to lose another minute, come hell or high water.’ Clearly Robinson and co. were on the retreat. And it was no surprise that by the April 3rd conference, the one day national stoppage had become a ‘day of action’ with delegations going down to London to lobby parliament. The toolmakers were accused of fighting over their own sectional claims and dividing the movement. In the Morning Star April 4th, Derek Robinson is quoted as saying:

‘In this situation, we cannot afford fragmentation and a divided force. We must resolve our differences and build a united movement.’

In other words, don’t support toolmakers and other sections who start the fight now. But more than that, Robinson and the others rejected the only way to unite all the sections – to formulate an across the board claim and fight for it now, to smash the Social Contract now. Instead, the toolmakers’ strike was used to justify turning the one day stoppage into a tea-party of delegations.

In Longbridge, where the shop floor had had a chance to vote on the one-day strike, the result was a vote of 6,287 in favour and only 1,042 against. A fairly decisive majority? Not according to the Works Committee who put out a bulletin with the following gems in it:

‘This is an inconclusive vote in a factory of 20,000 workers. The present serious position of the company and the very real threat to the future job opportunities of our members is a major inhibiting factor. When the original decision for the day of action was made by the combine stewards, we had not come through a number of crippling strikes that had brought the company to its knees.’

So not only was the vote indecisive but the toolmakers are to blame for the state of the company. Some solidarity!

Not only were Robinson and Co. busy sabotaging the one day strike; in the East Works at Longbridge, Roy Smith, the Unit secretary got a statement from himself and another dozen stewards printed by management saying the stoppage was being turned into a work-in.

At a mass meeting at Tractors and Transmissions, the workers were told that the strike was off and the shop stewards had decided just to send delegations down to London. Further they were warned off any revolutionaries who might be standing on the gate handing out leaflets calling for an all out stoppage! So much for the rhetoric of the Tractors convenor, Arthur Harper, at the Liaison Committee. The result of all of this was not only that not one single Leyland factory came out on April 20th (although the Glasgow and Reading Prestcold factories did stop and AEC in Southall), but that the confused leadership has seriously disoriented the shop floor. One woman worker described the situation in her shop after the meeting to discuss sending a delegation down to London: ‘For two days no one talked to one another. No radios were played and there was absolute silence in the queues at night. All day you could have heard a pin drop.’

Many were against even giving money for delegations to go down, feeling was so bad. In fact some were saying ‘Our union money is taken out like tax and we have no say in what the union does.’ The same woman had this to say about the leadership: ‘If the stewards had come into the shop and said the works was coming out, there would have been no problem. But the stewards didn’t even seem to know what they were doing: strike, delegation or work. The leadership went completely throughout the plant. You could feel it. It was like a kid that had lost its mother.’

Another steward from Leyland said: ‘It is ridiculous to try and turn defeat into victory by talking about it. I can’t see where the rank-and-file fight against phase three can go from here.’

But skilled and unskilled members of the AUEW working for British Airways did see where the fight could go. For although the Heathrow AUEW convenor put in a speakers’ slip at the April 3rd Conference and was not called to speak, the following week shift workers for British Airways throughout the country reverted to reporting for day work only. The next stage of the battle took off from where the Leyland senior stewards had left it.

The Heathrow Strike

‘YOU must have thought,’ Reg Birch told a mass meeting of Heathrow engineers on Monday April 25th, ‘that for the last few weeks I have sounded like a parrot issuing you with Executive Council instructions for a return to work.’

Even a parrot is preferable to a chameleon but on this occasion Birch spoke to keep the men out. This was the occasion when Birch had successfully manoeuvred an agreement with the employer which fell short of the shiftworkers’ original demands but which nevertheless itself was being blocked by the leaders of the other unions at the airport.

This was Reg’s finest hour of the strike. The time he rediscovered his militancy was not when the engineers were fighting the employer directly but when the leaders of the other unions were preventing a settlement. The integrity of the AUEW tribe must be protected at all costs against the lesser union tribes.

Of course it was more complex than this. The strike exposed in a very harsh light the particularly obnoxious method British Airways have used over the years to control its labour force – namely the National Joint Council and its multifarious committees and subcommittees bound together in the ‘panel machinery’. The NJC had for a generation squeezed a great deal of conflict out of the airports’ industrial relations.

Ian Morris, AUEW shop steward at Heathrow, member of the strike committee and Editor of its British Airways AUEW Bulletin, wrote in the third bulletin that appeared during the strike:

‘This dispute has highlighted the corruption and moral bankruptcy of the National Sectional Panel and indeed of the whole panel machinery.

‘The majority of national officials are there by appointment. They have never been elected by anyone and are only accountable to other appointed officials in their unions.

‘This self-perpetuating bureaucracy has actively conspired to prevent agreement between the AUEW and management. This started when they signed the infamous Blackleg Charter. Their actions are not in the interests of their members. They are motivated by self-interest, to maintain the power they wield through their sweetheart arrangement with management.

‘This is an arrangement that has saddled us with the worst shift pay, the worst holiday entitlement and the worst overtime premiums in the whole engineering industry and has left us at the bottom of the league on wages.’

A layer of local shop stewards and national trade union officials, including many Communist Party members, had been successfully incorporated into the airport administration. Indeed the CP members were proud of this. ‘It’s a nationalised industry and we are workers in control’ one told Socialist Worker recently.

But in a period of falling living standards such a structure cannot stand the strain for long. Though the strike was certainly not an accidental consequence of this. In this sense the British Airways ‘red scare’ on Sunday April 17th had some small basis in reality.

The Observer on April 17th led off with ‘Trotskyists blamed for Airline strike’, the Sunday Telegraph with ‘Airport strikers accused of ‘political’ action’, and the Sunday Times more moderately with ‘Far Left is blocking peace, says airline.’ But it was not the terrible truth that SW Litho had printed the first Airport Bulletin that accounted for ‘far left’ influence. For SWP members had been setting the pace perhaps for the three years before.

Ian Morris wrote a pamphlet for the Airport IS Branch three years ago with a strategy for pulling out of the NJC. Eventually over these three years all the unions in the European Division (E/D) were prepared to pull out.

But in the Overseas Division (O/D) it was more difficult. It is almost like two separate factories despite formal amalgamation of BEA and BOAC into British Airways. And our influence – in a very real sense a rank-and-file influence – was in E/D.

In simple terms the AUEW argument ran as follows: The shift premiums are below the West London average. The NJC will successfully lose the claim in its 1001 committees. The only alternative is for the AUEW to pull out of the NJC, demand direct negotiating rights for shop stewards and suggest the other unions follow suit. Only in this way will the claim ever be met.

Of course for some engineers this was about skilled men escaping from a structure which pressed them together with the unskilled unions. This is certainly how some Leyland toolmakers saw the situation. But the beauty of the claim was that it could be generalised to all the airport unions. Indeed it could have set fire to every shift-working establishment in the country.

Airlines make a hell of a lot of money. British Airways is about the only nationalised industry to make a profit. It makes even more profit at holiday time. The militant AUEW stewards were under the impression that the airline could be broken quickly in the week before Easter.

They thought a shift stoppage would do the trick. This tactic had been sued successfully in the past when less had been at stake. The shift-workers turned up only to work straight days with the result that maintenance work outside the hours of an ordinary day was not done. Some flights were damaged immediately. In this situation the B/A management had always rapidly escalated to bring about a climax ... and a settlement. They did it this time. They fired the shift-workers who nevertheless continued reporting for daytime duties.

However, there was another ingredient to the dispute that sharpened its cutting edge. Mass meetings of AUEW shop stewards controlled decisions and recommendations about the conduct of the situation. From the beginning this irritated the AUEW full time officials enormously. It also meant that the stewards Negotiating Committee, nicknamed the ‘5 Just Men’, had to discuss every jot and little of policy with all the stewards.

The balance of forces was very clear at first. Every time the full-time officials Hepple, Choulerton, Butler and Birch came to the stewards’ meetings they were greeted with a slow hand clap. Whereas the ‘5’ received loud applause.

Just before Easter the airline management panicked and let the beast out of the NJC bag. The Blackleg’s Charter was drawn up and signed by the other union officials including Communist Party member George Guy of the Sheet Metal Workers.

The fear of losing a major battle over money in the full public eye drove the full-time officials into the arms of management. The AUEW were telling their members to go back to normal working so the other unions felt safe in organising scabbing on the Engineers. After all, hadn’t the AUEW gone along with the threat to sack the Leyland toolmakers, and four years ago hadn’t the AUEW signed a similar blacklegs’ charter against the EETPU members in Chrysler?

Even the ‘enigmatic Mr Birch’ (Daily Mail) was angry. Until that moment he’d been trying to get a return to normal working – an Executive Council instruction. On the Thursday before Easter and after the sackings he was booed and hissed by both shift-workers and day-workers at a mass meeting. But once the Blackleg’s Charter was issued he indicated support for an all-out strike at the Tuesday morning stewards’ meeting after Easter.

The Blacklegs Charter was dropped (in theory at least) that evening. The strike clenched that, though one factor in this backslide was the appearance of AUEW BRITISH AIRWAYS BULLETIN No. 1. Edited by four AUEW shop stewards, Ian Morris, Kevin Prior, Ian Geddes and Jim Duffy.

The AUEW officials were now in a cleft stick. The Blacklegs’ Charter was officially dropped (though there continuing and disturbing accounts of unofficial scabbing) yet these officials now had a full-scale strike on their hands under the control of rebellious stewards.

Birch and his cronies resumed their attempts to end the strike at a series of engineers’ mass meetings in the Dominion Cinema belonging to the Southall Indian Workers’ Association.

On the evening of Thursday April 14, Birch pulled one of the nastiest stunts of the strike. A week earlier the Negotiating Committee had written an obscure document as a basis for a settlement – only it had never been discussed by the stewards. Birch got hold of a copy and rushed to the employer with it who responded with one of their own.

Birch then used television to call a mass meeting for the following morning, Friday, under E/C instruction, without consulting the stewards. The TV news backed him up, with claims that ‘hopes are rising of a settlement’ and that the strike was having little impact.

A very complicated situation then arose at the mass meeting the following morning. In the opinion of the AUEW officials the 2 documents were sufficiently similar for them to be able to recommend a return to work. The stewards disagreed.

They upstaged Birch and refused to recommend an immediate return to work on the grounds they wanted to study the documents more carefully. If they were satisfied over the weekend they would recommend a return on Monday.

The net result was that the documents laid the foundation for a much weaker victory than was possible originally. Whilst direct negotiating rights were conceded (at least on the stewards’ interpretation) a date – May 13th – was laid down for a settlement in principle after a return to work instead of money on the table now.

Eventually, the return to work came on Wednesday evening, April 27th. The final Airport Bulletin had clearly laid the ghost of anti-trade union attitudes that the Communist Party was trying to put across with a front page article entitled OUR CLAIM YOUR CLAIM:

‘BRITISH Airways engineers are appealing to the trade union movement for support.

‘Our claim is being deliberately misrepresented in the press. It is not a skilled men only claim. It is for skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled because our membership falls into all three categories.

‘It is not a claim that will only benefit the A UEW. Management stated that any change in shift pay will have to be for all unions and not just the AUEW. We support that view wholeheartedly.

‘Because the other unions are still hamstrung by the archaic panel negotiating structure, the AUEW are the only union in the position to be able to mount a struggle at this time.

‘National officials of other unions in collusion with management are attempting to sabotage this struggle. They see a win on shift pay as a threat to their position of power in the panel machinery.

‘But we know that a victory on shift pay, is a victory for all trade unionists, at the Airport and beyond.’

In the face of their partial victory, even the Morning Star was unable to maintain its pretence that the dispute was aimed against their fellow workers. There will now be a joint shift claim for 11,500 maintenance men at Heathrow’, it reported on April 28th. ‘Mr Reg Birch,’ it continued ‘said: “The other unions have now adopted your claim and your policy because of AUEW solidarity”.’ By the end of the dispute Morning Star readers must have been in utter confusion. The fact of the matter is that if leading CP members like George Guy and Fred Gore of the EETPU, and AUEW District Secretary Roger Butler, and Executive Councilmen Les Dixon had pulled with the Heathrow engineers then the move could have bust the Social Contract apart in April. As it was the engineers had to battle not only with the right-wing in the movement but also with the ‘broad left’. They won, but all they won was a promise. Only time will tell if it will be honoured or if it will have to be fought for all over again.


BOTH at Heathrow and in Leyland full-time officials and senior stewards in the Communist Party are deeply embedded in joint negotiating machinery with management. Just as in Leyland Robinson pushes through a policy of no strikes and greater productivity in line with management’s investment plans, and is not prepared to fight the trade union leaders and Labour Government so CP members at Heathrow behaved exactly the same way.

They have failed to see that the only way to defend jobs and fight for higher wages is to build a rank-and-file movement that organises that fight. And the only way to build such a movement is to throw every bit of support possible in behind those who are fighting now.

The Social Contract can be broken. Workers are ready. But it will not be broken by putting pressure on trade union negotiations. It will not be broken by whispering into the ears of the ‘left’ full-time officials. It will not be broken if there is a new deal rammed through by the TUC General Council and then accepted by all unions affiliated to the TUC.

The Social Contract will be broken if a broad movement can be developed, focusing on August and September, that simply sweeps the wage controls away by guaranteeing that there is not just one Heathrow or one Leyland toolroom dispute, but tens and hundreds of them. The ball is still at the rank and file’s feet.

Our task is to give the rank and file confidence and to give it a goal. Solidarity with all those fighting the Social Contract must become automatic. And the best form of solidarity is to join the fight. Wage claims of £15 across the board must be campaigned for now. And action to win them must be launched in the summer.

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