Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 2/3


The Blue Union

Keith Sinclair
How the Blue Union Came to Hull Docks
Hull 1995, pp. 20, £1.50

John Archer
The Struggle for an Independent Trade Union by the Dockers in Merseyside and Hull During 1954–55
Upper Denby 1995, pp. 10, £1.50

AT THE beginning of his pamphlet, Keith Sinclair quotes a member of the Hull unofficial strike committee as saying: ‘An unofficial committee beat the gaffers. You cannot realise it, can you? I can’t. It’s the first time we have done such a thing.’ Even for someone like me, who is used to unofficial committees and their history of success, it is inspiring to read a fellow worker expressing his feeling of awe and wonderment at the power and ability of workers to beat the boss to his knees, something which the union officials have constantly failed to do.

This quote is indicative of the nature of this pamphlet. It is written from the standpoint of the rank and file docker involved in the breakaway from the TGWU (the ‘White’ union) to join the NASD (the ‘Blue’ union) in Hull. He points to the usually glossed-over fact that the Blue union was not a perfect organisation, and it retained ‘all the strengths and weaknesses of British trade unions’. This led to the dockers reverting, after their exodus to the Blues, to the previous form of rank and file committees leading unofficial strikes. This reveals both the weaknesses of unions, and the need to build class combat organisations based on the rank and file.

I crossed swords with the author in Workers Press over my allegation that the break to the Blues (as opposed to the idea for it, which had originated with the dockers and their unofficial leaders) was actually initiated by Gerry Healy’s Club, and carried out by a bureaucratic manoeuvre, with the object of strengthening their position and prestige in the Labour Party relative to the other left wing forces, such as the Bevanites. I maintained that members or supporters of the Club initiated the split at a mass meeting held in Hull on Sunday, 22 August 1954. This is endorsed by Bob Pennington, a leading Trotskyist and a prominent participant in this episode, who in a statement from 1960 cited in this pamphlet, wrote: ‘There is a very strong possibility that had the visit of the Birkenhead delegates to Hull in August 1954 not taken place, the Hull men would never have joined the NASD.’ The Birkenhead delegation, which included Bill Johnson, was strongly influenced by the Club. What is more, the ‘mystery man’ present at the meeting ‘can now be revealed as the late Gerry Healy’, who undoubtedly wished to ensure the success of the operation by his presence.

Sinclair disputes this, and says that the chain of events did not occur in this way. He says that the report Dockers Break Away From Union in the Hull Daily Mail on 18 August 1954 proves that the decision to break to the Blues preceded Johnson’s visit on 22 August, and the split from the Whites was not the work of the Club. As such, the mass meeting on Wednesday, 18 August which had passed a motion of no confidence in the TGWU, and voted to try and join the NASD, was a spontaneous reaction by the dockers alone, without being influenced by outsiders, and especially by Club members.

However, the proceedings of the Wednesday meeting do not appear to have been known by any participant in the struggles of that time. If this had been the meeting at which the decision to break from the TGWU had taken place, then Pennington would have known about it. And would not Albert Hart, a strike leader from whom the author obtained ‘the only detailed first hand account of the strike’, have known when and where the momentous decision to break from the Whites for the Blues had taken place? Bill Hunter states that after discussions with the Birkenhead committee, the Hull strike committee decided to ‘propose to Hull dockers that they join the Blue union’, for which they voted ‘almost unanimously’ on Sunday, 22 August. Is it not strange that the Hull leaders should ‘decide’ at this particular meeting to ‘propose’ a course of action that had already been decided four days previously?

The evidence of this meeting and its decision is crucial to Sinclair’s argument, and yet the Wednesday meeting is not elaborated any further, and the reference to an ex-docker called Murphy, ‘who was involved from the first day’, serves to cloud rather than to clear the air. Did Murphy speak at the Wednesday meeting, and call for a break to the Blues? No details are given about the meeting itself. It is obvious that this issue was raised at this meeting, but was it a definitive decision taken formally by the strike committee and the mass meeting, or a spontaneous exclamation from an angry and frustrated rank and file who had had enough of the TGWU’s officials, which made the Mail’s headlines?

Sinclair says that Johnson’s visit to Hull ‘no doubt reinforced the views of the strike leaders’. In other words, without his exhortations to the Hull leaders to go ahead and lead the breakaway, and the promise that ‘Birkenhead would follow Hull’s example in leaving the TGWU to join the Blues’, it is unlikely that inexperienced Hull militants would have acted in isolation. In this light, this pamphlet confirms both what Pennington and Hunter wrote, and the view that the intervention of the Club-influenced Merseyside delegates activated the national process of leaving the Whites for the Blues. The responsibility for the break and its consequences lies, therefore, at the door of Healy and his Club.

Keith Sinclair has produced an interesting and factual pamphlet, a vital contribution to the history of struggle of a section of the British working class. It would be a great asset in the fight for Socialism, both as a contribution to working class culture and as a practical record for lessons to be learned for future struggles, if similar pamphlets were produced to cover such strikes as Timex, Grunwick, Burnsall, the present docks strike in Liverpool, and whatever strikes may occur in the future.

Considering that John Archer’s pamphlet is a contribution to the polemic that took place some months ago in Workers Press on the issue of the White and Blue unions, one would have thought that with hindsight he would have presented at least a new and fresh approach to the matter under discussion, particularly as Workers Press declared the correspondence closed, as ‘the issues raised by Tom Cowan have been answered’ (although the issue of the paper closing the discussion gave three opponents a whole page to attack me, whilst denying me a chance to reply). Considering all this, it is a surprise to see Archer’s pamphlet extensively quoted in Workers Press (9 December 1995) attacking me on the same grounds as the others. Evidently, ‘the issues raised by Tom Cowan’ had not been answered, and once again I was refused the right of reply.

So what is the Workers Revolutionary Party and Workers Press afraid of? That the revelation, on the basis of historical experience, that their present narrow policy of campaigning for ‘independent’ unions, the mainstay of their organisation politically, is a fallacy?

In none of the polemics between the former members of Gerry Healy’s Club and myself have they made an objective analysis of events surrounding the dockers’ exodus to the Blue union and the consequences thereof. The aftermath of the breakaway was disastrous, resulting in the collapse of the portworkers’ national rank and file organisation that had been built up over the years in the course of struggle, in favour of a union, albeit democratic and militant, but divided into sections of dockers and stevedores, and circumscribed by its very nature as a trade union. There followed a series of inter-union disputes over the following years, the growth of non-unionism in what was a union stronghold, strikes for recognition instead of united efforts against the bosses for better wages and conditions, and finally the demise of the Blue union and its merger with the old established and bureaucratic TGWU. Archer fails to deal with these matters in an objective manner, and lowers still further the whole argument to personal attacks and naive political labelling – ‘Stalinist’, ‘ultra-leftist’, ‘reformist’, etc. He is more concerned with accusing me of abusing a point in his 1990 lecture than with an objective analysis of events.

For Marxists, the scientific approach to determine whether a policy or tactic will help to strengthen the working class’ struggle for the overthrow of capital is revealed by historical analysis, to which we Marxist-Leninists must constantly subject tactics and policies. If it is found in practice that such a policy or tactic has not benefited the working class, then we must analyse why we arrived at such an erroneous conclusion, and correct it at the earliest opportunity. This may be too late to affect the immediate course of events, but it must nonetheless be recorded as a lesson for future reference. Without this approach, which is ignored by Archer (and the movement at large for that matter), we cannot learn from past mistakes and rearm the workers for successful struggles in the future.

Since 1945 the dockers in the main ports of London, Merseyside, Bristol, Hull, etc., had over the years established a great tradition and a reputation for solidarity in struggle, not only for their own demands, but for the demands and welfare of workers outside their own ports. This had developed despite the efforts of the TGWU to keep the workers divided and under the strict control and domination of class collaborationist officialdom. Through unofficial struggles, the dockers forged a national unity, concretised through the establishment of the National Rank and File Portworkers Committee, and a national paper, the Portworkers Clarion. Its value lay in the fact that it was democratically created, and was developed and maintained by rank and file portworkers at mass meetings in each port. It was outside the control and the disciplinary tentacles of the TGWU’s officials and the union bureaucracy as a whole. It not only embraced dockers and stevedores, but had the potential for reaching lightermen, engineers and other portworkers. The portworkers’ organisation was a unifying body, and demonstrated its revolutionary class potential to close down the capitalist economy time and again, putting fear into the hearts of the bosses and their Labour and Tory lackeys. This unifying organisation was sacrificed by Healy’s Club, and the workers were disarmed in favour of another sectional trade union. However, the historical necessity for such an organisation was shown by the great number of times that it was reconstituted after the exodus to the Blues, whenever an organised national struggle was necessary. Even a militant and democratic union like the Blues was strictly circumscribed in its rôle as a class weapon, a fact that is still ignored by those who consider saving face to be more important than saving the workers from further defeats.

In 1948, at the time of the Canadian seamen’s strike and the portworkers’ solidarity action, Bert Aylward and Harry Constable, two national leaders of portworkers’ struggles (Aylward also being a Blue official), made contact with and joined a small Oehlerite organisation, the Socialist Workers League, because of its policies of class struggle against the Labour government, and its call for the building of a genuine Communist party. This organisation and its leader, Joe Thomas, a journalist, helped to produce the Portworkers Clarion. Not being hampered by any policy of critical support for Labour, the Portworkers Clarion gave every encouragement to the building of a national rank and file organisation for portworkers in pursuance of a policy of strengthening an organised opposition to the government’s anti-working class measures. Far from being a Syndicalist concept limited to trade unionism, or, as Bill Hunter suggests, the cause of the dockers’ failures, it was a weapon to organise a strike aimed directly at the heart of the political establishment, and by so doing to forge united action by the working class as a whole, and to raise its political understanding. Not once do Archer & Co raise the perspective of united working class action as the key both to waging a successful struggle, and of raising the level of struggle onto a political plane. The Club confined the dockers to a trade unionist, reformist and pressure group style of ‘struggle’.

The question of leading a breakaway from the TGWU to the NASD was discussed in the SWL. It originated in the dockers’ movement, in which it was very popular, and was strongly advocated by Constable. The SWL, including Thomas and I, opposed it on the grounds that it was a sectional dockers’ solution to a class problem. Also, whilst a militant and democratic independent union like the Blues may be tolerated whilst its power and influence were restricted, once it started to expand and became a point of attraction to large numbers of workers in other unions, it would constitute a threat to the trade union bureaucracy and the stability of the capitalist system, and would therefore be crushed before it left its infancy. Our prognosis, based not upon the dogmatic acceptance of the 30-year-old ideas of our teachers, but upon our own independent analysis of the rôle of unions under imperialism, proved to be 100 per cent correct.

In an effort to disparage our claim to foresight in condemning the policy of attempting to reform the unions into democratic and independent organisations, Archer writes: ‘This is not the first time that people have tried to be “clever” after the event, to take unfair advantage of hindsight.’ Apart from the fact that even if this were so, it is better than ignoring the lessons of past defeats and so allowing workers to tread the same defeatist road in the future, what proof have we that we are not dealing in hindsight, which (according to Archer) is ‘that kind of “wisdom” [that is] useful only to sceptics and reactionaries’? The evidence is in the articles Rôle of the Trade Unions and Rôle of the Rank and File Organisations, Soviets and Marxist Party, in the January–March 1948 issue of the SWL’s quarterly journal, the Workers Review.

This document pre-dated the membership of Aylward and Constable, and served as the basis for our opposition to a policy of campaigning and planning a breakaway. The SWL checked the efforts of the dockers’ leaders to proceed along these lines, and thereby prevented a disaster in the ports. That was so until a split in the SWL gave Healy a chance to exert his influence and win over Constable and others to his Club, with its superior numbers, organisation and technical means.

As if upon reflection and with a feeling of guilt, Archer writes: ‘... did Constable, did Healy take into account what they can reasonably be expected to have known? Did they reach their decisions on the basis of the information available to them at the time?’ In other words, did they not do all that was necessary to make the venture a success? So, despite the failure of the breakaway, we should not judge them too harshly!

Healy and Constable did not know – and Archer and other former Club members and defenders still have not learnt – that success or otherwise did not hinge upon the day-to-day factual considerations that determine tactics. It is a question of whether or not the whole strategic approach, as outlined by Trotsky and dogmatically accepted by his supporters, of revolutionising unions is a valid Marxist-Leninist proposition. Arising from the debâcle of the docks episode, and the more recent militant electricians’ breakaway and their isolation from the mass of electrical workers, this concept of ‘independent’ and ‘revolutionary’ unions should be subjected to analysis and discussion, particularly as it immediately and directly affects workers in the early stages of their struggles both within and outside of the unions.

So far this question has been ignored. And so we carry on in the pages of Workers Press and elsewhere advocating this erroneous policy, which is doomed to failure from the start, of fighting for revolutionary and independent unions, as opposed to independent rank and file combat organisations that would exist alongside the reformist unions as autonomous bodies, free from the control and discipline of trade union officialdom.

In ‘hindsight’, in the light of the defeat of the exodus to the Blues, the thin line of defence has been drawn, suggesting that it was not so much the Club’s policy of wanting or initiating a split, but rather a question of its giving support to what the dockers wanted and to their spontaneous action. Archer says, ‘who else was there, if anyone, who could credibly offer to the dockers what they wanted ...?’, and again, ‘in this particular case, the “Club” could agree with the experienced “unofficial” leaders that they could best help to mobilise the forces ... helping the dockers to find a new, hopefully democratic, centre around which to organise’. And: ‘What the dockers needed was a group that could hear them, could listen to them, could understand what they had been through, and could help them to do what they thought had to be done.’ This manoeuvre of disclaiming responsibility and shifting the onus for the breakaway onto the dockers is embraced by other former Club members. Hunter writes in the Workers Press of 29 April 1995 that a ‘break to the Blue union was discussed many times by members of our group, and it was the dockers’ leaders who pressed us to support it’. In the same issue, Dave Finch endorses Hunter’s statement in his book that ‘the Trotskyists supported and assisted the break to the Blue union in the North’. Nowhere do we find these former Club leaders admitting their rôle in initiating and leading the dockers’ breakaway. Nowhere do we find them admitting to mistakes on this issue, and, as alleged Marxists, searching openly and honestly before the working class movement for an explanation of why things went wrong. Instead, they make excuses and continue with the old false policies, as if nothing really serious had happened. Only Harry Ratner in his Reluctant Revolutionary admits that ‘it is certainly true that the breakaway was not finally successful’. However, instead of drawing conclusions and lessons from this failure, he sidesteps the question, stating that Hunter may be correct, that it was ‘not doomed’ to failure. The very fact that it did fail demands that we ask why.

That they intend to carry on with the old incorrect policies of supporting breakaways from unions is borne out both by their support for the electricians’ breakaway, and by Dot Gibson’s review of Hunter’s book (Workers Press, 3 September 1994): ‘The dockers’ mass strikes raised the question of the need for revolutionary trade unions ... We Trotskyists were a very small group, but our historical goals [revolutionary unions] met up with the dockers’ aspirations.’ One would think that this marriage between Trotskyist ‘historical goals’ and the ‘dockers’ aspirations’ was a roaring success – not one word do we read about the fatal effect of this marriage!

Archer infers several times that I’m a ‘Stalinist’, and just as the old smear ‘Trotskyist’ was used to cover a multitude of sins by their accusers, so he uses the term ‘Stalinist’ to avoid engaging in reasoned discussion on the basis of an historical analysis of events. For your information, John, I left the Communist Party in 1945 in protest against its support for a Labour-Liberal-Tory coalition government. I have consistently opposed the Stalinists ever since then on the basis of the struggle for a genuine Leninist Communist Party. As a member of the old Electrical Trades Union that was dominated by the Stalinists, I was tried in 1958 by the London District Office for ‘bringing the union into disrepute’, that is to say, criticising and actively opposing the leadership. As you correctly say, the ETU ended up ‘in the clutches of a right wing dictator’, John Byrne (and Les Cannon). However, did you know that this was due in no small measure to the fact that the Club’s policy was for its ETU members to nominate and campaign for Byrne, who was a member of both the Labour Party and Catholic Action, for the post of General Secretary? (If not, maybe Dave Finch can enlighten you.) ETU members in the SWL criticised this reactionary position, and suggested that rank and file members should be nominated for office on a militant programme. This caused Healy to approach me on a May Day demonstration, and declare: ‘Cowan, if you carry on slandering my lads in the ETU, I will put my boys onto you.’ And off he went, without my chance of a reply. Old Healyite habits die hard, eh? This was during the 1950s, when Archer considers Healy was ‘at his best’, a period when Healy used – literally – to kick his opponents into line, and sexually abused his female members; a period Archer refers to as ‘principled “entry” work’, when Healy’s faction voted for the expulsion from the Labour Party of Trotskyists of a different faction to curry favour with the right wing leaders, and thus to stay in the party. Perhaps Dave Finch can provide details of this as well.

Despite all this and more, Archer would have us believe that Healy was not capable of executing such a ‘bureaucratic manoeuvre’ of initiating the dockers’ exodus in order to strengthen his position within the Labour Party’s Bevanite left! ‘I could “suggest” no such thing’, he says, ‘It would have made no sense.’ However, Dave Finch, a member of the Club’s National Committee, admitted in Workers Press (29 April 1995) that ‘had the Blue union been strengthened ... it would have enormously strengthened the left in the Labour Party and unions – at that time centred around the Bevanites’. Of course it would, and it is useless for Archer to deny it, for as Finch continues, ‘opportunities opened up to the small group of revolutionary Socialists [the Club] attempting to find a mass base among an important section of workers’.

At the beginning of his diatribe, Archer accuses me of having contempt for the dockers, and infers that I despised them. To put the record straight, let me say that as a worker myself, with a record of militant struggle of which I am proud, I do not and have no need to bow down and patronise any section of the working class and its spontaneity. Furthermore, as a Communist, it is my duty, as with other Communists, to tell the workers the truth, even though one may temporarily lose their support, as was the case with the SWL and Constable & Co. To know that one has been true to one’s cause and class is the greatest stimulant to carry one forward, confident of the future victory of our struggles. There is no other answer I can give to the infantile accusations levelled against me.

Keith Sinclair’s pamphlet is available from 27 Strathmore Avenue, Hull HU6 7JH; John Archer’s is available from Old Tavern, Upper Denby, Huddersfield HD8 8UN; and the SWL’s documents are available for 75p from Tom Cowan c/o Revolutionary History.

Tom Cowan

Updated by ETOL: 29.9.2011