From International Socialism (1st series), No.31,Winter 1967/68, pp.21-32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
We are grateful to the shop stewards of ENV and to others in the North London labour movement who gave us so much of their time and help in writing this article. None of them will agree with everything we say, and we should like to pay tribute to them for their patience with us. All responsibility for this article must necessarily be ours. We hope we have not done them too great an injustice.
The initial emergence of ENV as a militant factory seems to have taken place in the period after the War, and particularly in the latter years of the Labour Government. In the context of a Government wage freeze, supported by the great majority of union executives, shop-floor action in support of local wage claims gradually developed.
Under a predominantly Communist Party leadership, the factory had a whole series of small stoppages, go-slows, overtime bans, etc. In general these actions were successful, and there was little managerial resistance to shop-floor demands, provided that the stewards and workers backed these up with action or the threat of action. The workers themselves were prepared to go on strike, as experience had shown that the strike-weapon was both effective and relatively speedy in operation.
In November 1951, however, there was a more serious dispute. One of the shop stewards wished to have a meeting with the works manager, but a foreman refused to arrange this. When the convenor, Bill McLoughlin, took this up with the management the foreman physically threatened him. The factory struck, demanding the foreman’s removal. This strike lasted 13 weeks, and ended with a Government-appointed Court of Inquiry. The issue was one of some importance, for it was the first time that so explicit a challenge had been made to the management’s own prerogatives of choosing their staff. There is some dispute as to whether this was in fact a good issue on which to lead a protracted strike. It is unlikely that, if the men had realised quite how protracted the struggle would be, they would have agreed to go on strike over this issue, in the absence of a long period of preparation, agitation, etc on the issue of managerial functions in the months before the stoppage. The experience of the previous few years had led them to suppose that all strikes would be brief, and no attempt was made to point out to them that no management was likely to give in as easily on an issue of this kind, intimately touching as it did their power within the factory. On the other hand, the strike was over a question of trade-union principle, and this was the central issue. In this connection, it is possible that the Communist Party at this time were anxious to have strikes called in the motor industry, in line with current WFTU (World Federation of Trade Unions, the Communist Trade Union international) policy, and that the Communist stewards at ENV were to a degree more concerned with having a strike than with the principle of the thing.
The strike was made official, after six weeks, and then only by the AEU (Amalgamated Engineering Union). The T&GWU (Transport and General Workers’ Union), however, decided to pay strike-pay to its members, although it did not recognise the strike. Only a small proportion of the strike fund, which amounted in all to some £14,000 by the end of the strike, came from the official unions; the majority of the funds came from factory collections organised by the ENV stewards themselves, not only in the North London area, but all over Britain. Teams went out to Birmingham, the West of England, Scotland, etc, and it was largely through the efforts of the strike committee in organising their own financial support that the strike was maintained for so long. One interesting feature of this collection was the fact that it was by no means from the largest, or reputedly most ‘militant’ factories that the greatest support came: Fords of Dagenham gave the ENV stewards only £25, and the Austin factory at Longbridge gave only £50.
In about the tenth week, the strike began to crumble a little, as about 100 of the men went back to work. (Up to the tenth week at most half a dozen had blacklegged.) In the 13th week the Court of Inquiry reported, and recommended that there should be a return to work on the following terms: that the foreman should be removed from any contact with trade unionists, and that McLoughlin, the convenor, should be replaced in the post by another steward. The strike committee decided to accept these terms, with one dissenting voice (who urged that it was for the stewards and not a capitalist court to elect the convenor).
The obvious candidate for the post of convenor among the remaining stewards was the deputy convenor, Sid Wise, an ex-member of the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party, and for a short time, with Gerry Healy, a member of the Socialist Outlook group. The Communist Party stewards, however, not wanting a Trotskyist convenor, proposed in his place Harry Ford. Much later Harry Ford was appointed safety and security officer by ENV, and was sacked in the summer of 1967 after he had played his part in the breaking of militant organisation in the factory (feeling against him after his promotion to management was considerable: one of his jobs was the setting of traps round the factory to catch the numerous cats that infested the place, and workers went around releasing the cats. Harry Ford complained of ‘lack of cooperation.’)
The two years after this big strike found the rank and file in the factory much more reluctant to take strike action. Until 1950-51 ENV had held a virtual monopoly in the manufacture of gears but from then on the car manufacturers (Austin and Morris in particular) started to make their own and the ENV management, fighting for a place in new markets, toughened their attitude.
From 1953 to the end of 1957 there were numerous strikes, almost without exception confined to particular sections of the factory. The most important activity during this period was the formulation of an eleven-point plan for fighting redundancy. This plan, whose main architect was Sid Wise, provided for a sliding scale of demands. It was discussed on a number of occasions at factory meetings in the middle of this period, and was accepted by the men as their policy on redundancy. It was not to be put to the test, however, until 1957.
A little before Christmas, 1957, the management informed the stewards that they would have to make ten per cent of the workforce redundant. The stewards were extremely concerned about the situation: it was just before the holiday period, the motor industry as a whole was in difficulties, and they were extremely doubtful about their ability to fight the management on this issue. True, they had a plan for dealing with redundancy, but although the men had given their support to the eleven-point plan in a period of prosperity, there had been doubt about it. Many of the men had felt that, although the plan was a good one, the management could not really be expected to pay a man for doing nothing.
At a factory meeting, however, when the stewards informed the men about the position, there was a demand from the men themselves that the stewards remember ‘our eleven-point plan.’ Many of them argued that it was better at least to ‘have a go with the plan,’ since there was nothing to lose anyway. The meeting instructed Geoff Carlsson, recently elected as convenor, to inform the management that they would not accept redundancy.
When Carlsson told Mr Pailing, the senior manager, that the men would not accept redundancy and that there would be a major strike if the management sacked anyone, Pailing walked out in a rage. The stewards told him that the furnaces would be closed down, and, after Pailing’s anger, fully expected to find next morning that the gates were locked against them. However, the management clearly decided that they would box clever, and informed the stewards that it was now their problem, and they would have to solve it themselves. Effectively this meant that the stewards would have to reorganise a considerable part of the production-arrangements, and the management no doubt expected that this would frighten the stewards into acceptance. They were unlucky.
The stewards’ committee accepted the responsibility and began the process of reorganisation. The men were put on to four and four-and-a-half day weeks, and were transferred from departments where there was a shortage of work to departments with enough to do. It took several months to sort the whole factory out, and the reorganisation was a process of continual improvisation. Although the reorganisation led to a certain amount of tension and jealousy, since it proved impossible to guarantee that everyone would suffer the same degree of inconvenience, the factory did stay united for nine months. For the whole of this period, although a number of men left voluntarily because of the work shortage, not one man was made redundant.
There was one incident which illustrated some of the conflicts and problems. Some men were supposed to be moved into one department, but the three men already working refused to accept them. Havelock, the manager, approached the stewards and asked them what they intended to do about their ‘three brothers.’ Carlsson told Havelock that he would either have to listen to the three men, or listen to the whole factory: if the three would not cooperate, then the management would have to sack them. This was done. As soon as the three men had been sacked, the stewards demanded that they be given a second chance. The three were visited and invited back to the factory; one refused, and two returned. This must be one of the few cases in which stewards have, in pursuit of a militant line, had men sacked; the essential thing in this case being, of course, that circumstances had turned the reorganisation itself into a dispute, and failure to cooperate with the majority was equivalent to crossing a picket-line.
The struggle over redundancy had several implications. Firstly, this was a period of fairly widespread struggles over redundancy. At BMC in the summer of 1956 there had been a strike over mass sackings. The labour movement was actively discussing policies for redundancy in various ways. Within the AEU, Communist Party militants were fighting for the acceptance of a rather dubious ‘right to work’ policy, whose principal demand was that workers should be retained on a firm’s books until ‘suitable alternative employment’ had been found for them; this rather legalistic approach left unanswered the whole question of what was ‘suitable’ and what was ‘alternative.’ In this general context the example of ENV stood out as one of the very few factories in which redundancy was actually fought successfully; managements in other local factories found that their stewards were less amenable, and were quoting the ENV example when sackings were demanded.
Secondly, the way the struggle had been conducted raised, although in only a partial way, issues of workers’ control within the factory. ENV management had to accept a situation for nine months in which the workers’ shop-floor representatives took over control of manning scales in the different shops, and organised production within the factory to an extent previously unheard of. It should be noted that this was done without any of the blueprints for workers’ control that are currently being offered on the Left, but was a process of continual improvisation in response to concrete problems in the factory.
Thirdly, the lesson was not lost on management. As we shall see below, when the ENV management finally set about the systematic destruction of the stewards’ committee they at no time attempted to remove the stewards on the pretext of a redundancy, for they knew that if redundancy were threatened the men would fight it. Given the history of the factory, the management’s choice of weapon – the (completely false) assertion that they were going to close the factory down – becomes more comprehensible.
Towards the end of 1958 trade picked up again and there was a return to the earlier pattern of national wage claims and disputes. In 1959 the stewards attempted to bring the factory together for a unified wage claim. The pattern of wage advances within the factory up to that time had been uneven, each shop fighting by itself for its own particular claims, and the whole factory’s wages going up by fits and starts through a process of leapfrogging and comparisons. The stewards, fearing the effects of differentials among the workers, proposed that the factory should fight as a whole, but at a factory meeting a majority of the men turned this idea down.
Six of the most militant shops then went out on strike on their own, in support of their own wage claims. This was not especially successful, since the balance of forces within the factory was now altered: the six most militant departments were outside the gates, and the weaker ones were still inside. As was traditional, the labourers immediately blacked all the work from the six shops on strike. There then arose a division on the stewards’ committee (composed for the occasion of the stewards from the shops remaining inside the gate). The majority of the stewards unfortunately argued that the question of blacking should be put to a factory meeting; the minority of militants urged that this was not necessary, since the labourers were already, on their own initiative, blacking the six shops’ work. But the majority argument was carried, and at a factory meeting (not including the men from the six shops) the blacking was rejected. The labourers then began handling the work again, and, with the factory’s strength evaporating rapidly, the men from the six militant shops had to make the best settlements they could.
Two years later there was again a similar danger that the factory might be divided. Under the National Agreements in the engineering industry piece-workers are supposed to be able to make an average minimum bonus of 45 per cent, or about 8£d per hour. In fact this agreement is completely out of date, at least for all but the most backward factories. At ENV average bonuses ranged from six to eight shillings an hour. But the existence of the agreement provided the ENV workers with a handy weapon; when working a go-slow they could justifiably argue that they were fulfilling the terms of the National Agreements and making the requisite 45 per cent bonus. The tactic was known as ‘working time-work.’
In the grinding shop a go-slow of this kind ran for a number of weeks. The grinding shop was of some importance in the factory’s production flow, and there were pile-ups of work from some departments and shortages in others. The action of one shop could seriously disrupt production throughout the factory, and this could easily create resentment, especially when, as in this case, the grinders were among the highest-paid groups already. In cases like these there was usually a certain amount of grumbling among the men in other shops, although it must be added that this grumbling never actually stopped them from giving the required support. Faced with the grinders’ protracted go-slow, and refusing to meet their demand for more money, the management approached Sir William Carron, president of the AEU, who informed the stewards that they must abide by National Agreements. The stewards’ answer was that they were abiding by these agreements, but Carron replied – in the spirit if not the letter of what the employers had intended – that the grinding shop must resume normal production. The stewards ignored this instruction. As the pile-ups and shortages continued, the rest of the factory decided to go on ‘time work’ as well: At this the management put out a notice stating that the grinding shop must resume normal working by 11 a.m. that day, or be sent home, and that the rest of the factory had until 2 p.m. to return to normal working, or be clocked out.
When these ultimatums were ignored, the whole factory was in fact clocked out. On the stewards’ instructions the men stayed at work. The foremen refused to give them any work-cards, so the men simply carried on with the jobs that were already in the shops. This went on for several days, with the management pretending that it had no workers, and the factory buzzing with activity. No wages were paid, and no record was kept of times on jobs. After a few days the management decided to come to terms, reached a settlement with the grinders and paid the whole factory back pay at a standard, consolidated time rate.
The above stories should make it clear that ENV was a highly organised factory from the trade-union point of view. Although there is always the danger of exaggeration, it seems clear, that it was one of the best-organised in the London area. It was the very fact of its high level of organisation, indeed, that was responsible for the major managerial offensive that developed there over the years 1962 to 1967.
In calling ENV an ‘organised’ or ‘militant’ factory one or two things have to be borne in mind. In the first place, the organisation was developed by the stewards and the men within the factory, with very little reference to the official union structure outside. The union outside was of very little importance; indeed, in general the stewards only had recourse to the union officials as a ‘face-saver.’ In situations where a return to work was necessary at the end of a dispute, and there was little possibility of going back on the terms the stewards and men wanted, then the officials might well be called in, to advise the men to go back. In this way the officials rather than the stewards would carry the blame for the element of ‘defeat.’
Secondly, one of the most important aspects of its ‘militancy’ as a factory was ENV’s readiness to help other sections of the labour movement who were in dispute. The stewards claim – not without justification – that the first place in London to which workers would turn for help was the ENV stewards’ committee. Any group of workers coming to ENV could be assured of an immediate donation from the stewards’ funds, and in a number of cases there were regular collections taken on the shop floor in support of disputes in other factories. Some of these collections were very considerable. During the 13-week strike at British Light Steel Pressings, Acton, in 1961, for instance, collections taken among the 1,100 workers at ENV amounted to over £1,500. During the strike of predominantly coloured workers at Marriott’s in Southall in 1963 a weekly collection of a shilling a head was maintained for 30 weeks – amounting to £1,717, or 18 per cent of the national total contribution.
This readiness to help other workers in dispute contrasted strongly with other so-called ‘militant’ factories in which assistance, particularly on this kind of scale, is very much the exception, or is subject to various conditions and qualifications. Mention has already been made of the poor response from a number of factories during the 1951 strike at ENV itself. One of the stewards, at that time a CP member, recounts how he visited the Austin factory at Longbridge and was only able to persuade the convenor there to help the ENV workers when he produced his Party card. During the Marriott strike, indeed, this kind of political exclusiveness led to serious divisions among groups within the Party itself. Due to the involvement of the Socialist Labour League in the dispute, the Southall District Committee, under CP influence, would do nothing to help the strike, declaring it ‘Trotskyite.’ And when Reg Birch and Bill McLoughlin of the London Committee (also Party members) wished to do something to help the Marriott strikers, they were verbally attacked by the Southall Committee.  At ENV, although there were serious disagreements over the way the strike was conducted, differences of this kind did not at any time inhibit the basic principle of solidarity with other workers in dispute. Even after it was felt that the strike should have been called off, ENV stewards and workers took part in the Marriott demonstrations, contributed to the strike fund, etc.
Thirdly, and most important, the term ‘well organised’ within the factory refers especially to the relationship that was built up and maintained between the workers and their stewards. Throughout the whole history of the factory this relationship was one of close support. Had this not been so, it is difficult to see how the 1957-58 fight against redundancy could have been kept up. Workers would not take orders from their foremen without reference to their stewards. On average a full meeting of the factory in the works canteen was held at least once a fortnight. What is more important, the calling of factory meetings was something decided by the stewards themselves without reference to management. In fact there was an agreement with the management to the effect that in the event of anyone working during a factory meeting they would not be paid wages. This came about as a result of a threat not to start work after a meeting if anyone had been working. As soon as an issue arose, a meeting would be called; there was no question of delaying a meeting to suit the convenience of the management or their production schedules. In effect, therefore, the very calling of a meeting amounted to a stoppage of production. Through this use of regular meetings the membership in the factory was kept fully informed of all developments in negotiations with management, and their feelings were communicated directly to the stewards. Thus the all too common phenomenon of a stewards’ committee that adopts a militant posture towards management but loses contact with its rank and file was avoided.
The stewards too met frequently. Apart from numerous ad hoc meetings on particular issues, there were regular meetings twice a week of the entire stewards’ committee. These meetings took place on Tuesdays at lunchtime and again after work. Unlike many other engineering factories, it was the policy of the ENV committee to refuse payment from the management for time spent at stewards’ meetings, apart from one hour’s wages every other Tuesday evening when the meeting began an hour before the normal working day ended. (This is a small point, but there are many factories where the stewards do, in a sense, gain material advantage from their positions: they receive payment for time spent at meetings, often after other workers have gone home; they perhaps administer overalls-cleaning schemes and receive a small payment for this. At ENV this kind of practice, which can tend to divide the steward from his ‘constituents,’ was rigorously opposed by the stewards themselves.)
All the various aspects of ‘organisation,’ of course, have a serious purpose: better wages and conditions. And at ENV wages were higher than elsewhere in the North London District, considerably higher than the District average and probably above the level in any other organised factory in the area. In February 1967, when the chairman and convenor were sacked, the average skilled man’s pay for a 40-hour week was just under £28. Like other militant factories, the atmosphere on the shop floor was very friendly. Also, ENV was probably unique in the engineering industry in that women workers got the same pay as men. One sign of the good conditions in the factory was the remarkably low rate of labour turnover: in the late 1950s the management told the stewards that on average 6 men a month were leaving (a rate of 6 per cent a year) of whom the majority were labourers. Of the others who left, most went because they were retiring or moving to another district. In fact the rate of labour turnover, most unusually, was higher among the clerical and administrative staff, and among the management themselves than it was among the men on the shop floor. There can be no doubt at all that militancy at ENV, as elsewhere, paid off in terms of good wages and conditions.
At no time did the stewards meet the management on any kind of formal ‘works committee’ with an agenda laid down by the management. All notions of joint production committees’ and other similar devices to get the workers’ representatives to take responsibility for the failures of capitalist production were strongly resisted as ‘stooge’ committees. Moreover, within the factory there were no rate-fixers allowed; in some departments there were even agreements totally banning the use of stop watches. The management had production departments and production advisers and other similar machinery of control, but in point of fact it was generally the men on the shop floor themselves who determined the amount and speed of production. To some degree this exists in every workshop, but at ENV this type of embryonic control was developed to quite a high degree: the workers had established tight ceilings on their earnings, which they varied as they saw fit, so that they could easily be used as sanctions against the management in case of dispute. At one point the management claimed that 55 per cent of the workers in the factory were on what was termed ‘dispute production.’
In the kind of environment that developed over the years at ENV, in which managerial control over a whole range of issues connected with discipline, production and so forth was hopelessly ineffective, it became possible for individual workers to develop their own special side-lines in open view of the management (some of whom did not even realise what was happening). Thus one man in the factory spent a large part of his time mending watches and clocks for his own customers – who included members of the management – while receiving a high average wage from the firm for his long hours of non-production. A labourers’ rest room gradually developed into a full-scale cafe, complete with a bar, tea-urn and sandwiches. In another part of the factory there was a highly organised cut-price shop. Proprietary rights to these ‘informal institutions’ were passed on from generation to generation. And one legendary worker had a dispute with his foreman, in the course of which he announced that he was not going to work for ENV any more. He came to work each day for six months, but for the whole of that time did nothing at all for the firm, spending his time making fancy metal goods for his mates. The wretched foreman let it pass for a couple of days, but then found that he could do nothing out of fear of his superiors. The possibilities for workers who wish to exploit the contradictions of bureaucracy are enormous! Another worker, who had been on a go slow the preceding week, refused to go home for his holidays without his correct pay, locked himself in the shop stewards’ room and phoned the national press. The management pleaded with him to come out, but he refused, and finally the money was pushed to him through a small hole in the window.
There were many more stories of small individual struggles against the management at the factory, as no doubt every other factory has its stories; what is important about them is that the majority would have been impossible without: a background of a very high level of organisation and control within the factory by the workers and their stewards.
The very fact of having a militant factory creates new problems for the shop stewards. In the first place, there is a constant tendency for the majority of the workers to assume that the situation is a stable one and to depend on their stewards for everything. This attitude threatens the whole strength of union organisation in a factory, which hangs on the maintenance of a continuous pattern of mutual interdependence between workers and stewards. Faced with a foreman attempting to get him to do something he did not want to do, a worker would immediately take the problem to his steward without attempting to handle it first himself. Stewards were relied on to help with all manner of personal problems, the writing of letters, marital questions and so forth. Much of this of course is a sign of the worker’s trust in his steward, but at the same time if it develops too far it tends to separate the stewards from the men as a special race apart.
Maintaining a high degree of organisation, and keeping the initiative in dealings with management, is not a simple matter of just going around ‘being militant’ but requires strategy and continual adaptation. No stewards who wish to maintain their organisation intact can afford to fight on every small issue that comes up for fear of wasting their strength and alienating sections of the factory. Issues for struggle have to be selected to some degree, and estimates made continually of relative strengths and weaknesses. Where, as happens all the time in a highly organised factory in a period of relative working-class political inactivity, workers ‘lean’ on the union there is a constant danger that the essentially fragile strength of the stewards vis-à-vis the management may be exposed. And this kind of problem is endemic. At ENV, for instance, there was a shop in which the men regularly finished work three quarters of an hour early, cleaned up the shop and then stood about waiting for the hooter with their coats on, deliberately provoking the management. The management knew very well that the men had finished their work for the day, and appealed to the stewards to get the men, not to carry on working, but to pretend that they were! On rare occasions men would come in drunk – an open invitation to the management to discipline them – and the stewards would have to get the other workers to keep them concealed until they had sobered up. Again, a rather unpopular worker urinated on the bins of work outside his shop instead of going to the lavatory, and was sacked. The stewards, feeling quite unable to call a strike over the man’s sacking, pleaded for suspension as an appropriate measure, and were relieved when the management agreed to alter the sacking to a suspension.
None of this in any way implies a weakness on the part of the ENV stewards: any militant, acting in a non-revolutionary situation, has to estimate all the time precisely how far he can push without exposing his weaknesses; an unimaginative excess of ‘militancy’ can weaken an organisation quite as much as the lack of it.
There are also various problems concerning relations between groups of workers within the one factory. Differentials are one: although the stewards resisted attempts to widen differentials, it was much more difficult to get them narrowed. Yet the existence of differentials can weaken the fighting capacity of a factory. If a highly paid shop goes on strike there is a danger that others in lower-paid departments will resent the cut-backs in production that follow, even though the higher-paid group are opening the way for further wage claims for the rest of the factory. Over the period from 1950 to 1965 differentials were probably maintained, more or less, in percentage terms, and of course widened quite considerably in cash terms. It must be noted, however, that this potential source of division, although it did on occasion lead to grumbling, did not at any time actually lead to serious divisions in the factory when one section needed support. For the whole of the period, some shops stayed in front of some of the others. In particular, the Hard Test shop were earning a significantly higher wage than the rest; they had a unique agreement whereby the whole shop’s wage was determined by one man’s production – with the result that whenever there was a dispute, all the men but one could go slow, cutting production by 80 per cent without loss of pay, while the one man maintained their earnings level by ‘highly organised scabbing!’ The management tried for years to get this agreement annulled, but without success. Although percentage differentials were not permitted to increase, attempts to reduce them were not very successful. The holiday bonus was changed from a differential to flat-rate system at a factory meeting, but generally it was not possible to overcome the feeling of the ‘skilled’ men (many of whom were in fact up-graded) that their differentials should be maintained. At the same time, the ENV factory did have an unusually high proportion of up-graded men, and the stewards never accepted the argument, regrettably still all too popular among some sections of the Left, that ‘skilled’ men had to have their position especially protected, at the cost of other sections of the class.
Within the AEU and other engineering unions there is, formally, a rule that overtime must not exceed 30 hours a month. This is a rule which is much more honoured in the breach, even in the majority of the organised factories. At ENV it was fairly rigidly adhered to, on the grounds that higher pay should be won through negotiations and not through extra work. The stewards won an agreement with the management whereby, if one man was asked to work overtime, the whole factory was immediately guaranteed three full months’ work. No evening or Sunday overtime at all was permitted, nor was overtime on the night shift. This policy tended on occasion to cause some dissent, especially among the labourers, who compared the hours they were permitted to work with the hours worked by labourers in other local factories. During overtime bans it was the labourers in particular who had to bear the brunt, but still the stewards insisted that if the labourers wanted more money they ought to win it by bar-gaming. The labourers were fortunate in their stewards, however, and their rates were higher than those obtaining in other local factories; thus the unity of the factory was never seriously impaired by this potential division.
Despite the fact that on many occasions the strength of the organisation within ENV was available to help other sections of workers in dispute, it would be a mistake to imagine that the ENV stewards were very popular in other factories. They were admired for the level of their organisation and militancy, certainly, but at the same time this admiration was touched with a degree of jealousy among less successful militants in other factories, a problem that was compounded by political differences between the leading elements among the ENV stewards (in the latter days) and the majority of the District Committee. They made several attempts to get a representative on to the District Committee, but on each occasion were blocked for political reasons. When they succeeded in getting Ron Johnson on, he was virtually isolated by other delegates for most of the time. When the final battle was joined by the management, there were reports of local militants remarking, ‘It serves them right. They were too greedy.’ Thus, through no wish of their own, the ENV stewards were really quite isolated from other local militants. Such a position of isolation is especially dangerous for a highly organised factory like ENV, which tended to stand out for local managements like a sore thumb. In the North London area, ENV was something of a symbol to all the enemies of militant factory organisation, not only the local managements and the Government but the union bureaucracies as well.
Thus for some time it was apparent that sooner or later the management at ENV, with the backing of other local employers, the majority of the AEU executive and others, would initiate action against the ENV organisation. The same thing had happened at other organised factories in the London area: the British Light Steel Pressings strike in 1961 and the Ford debacle in the winter of 1962-63 were the most obvious examples. There is a danger, therefore, in such a situation that the stewards will grow over-confident, over-estimate their actual strength and work on the assumption that they will be able to hold the situation in the factory static for as long as they like. This very much bothered a couple of the stewards’ committee, Carlsson and Hogan, who were convinced that sooner or later they would have to accept some form of increased productivity, if only to avoid a major management offensive against their whole position. Carlsson and Hogan did, therefore, work out a serious plan for presentation to the management, which would allow for the introduction of new work methods, etc, while keeping the advantage with the stewards. The cardinal point of the plan was a proposal to reduce differentials and demand a higher consolidated rate in such a manner that the lower-paid workers would get much larger rises than the higher-paid. The plan was worked out in the explicit expectation of an attack by the management, and rested on the recognition that some kind of change was inevitable. What mattered was that the stewards should anticipate the management and seek to keep such changes under their control. However, when Carlsson and Hogan presented their ideas to the stewards’ committee, the plan was turned down with very little discussion; the stewards most vocal against it (calling it a ‘sell-out’) were in fact the least politically aware of the stewards, and also the least militant.
Given the failure of this attempt to control the pace of change within the factory, it became almost inevitable that the management would initiate some kind of attack on the stewards. The form that it took was not however arrived at all of a sudden: the managements (who changed with great rapidity over the period 1964-66) tried a number of approaches without success before they worked out the final formula that led to the defeat of the ENV organisation. It is worth remarking in general, however, that in a factory which is both more highly organised than other local factories (and in which wage costs are consequently higher than elsewhere, and management control weaker) and which is isolated more or less from the rest of the local labour movement, the management is bound, sooner or later, to demand changes. The problem for stewards in this situation is one of finding a way of reacting in a realistic manner to preserve the essentials of their organisation, often while accepting that some concessions will have to be made. In a sense the final defeat of the ENV stewards is a measure of their failure to manage this. It is to the story of their defeat that we now turn.
In 1962 the giant American firm of Eaton, Yale and Towne bought the ENV factories at Willesden and Aycliffe. It seems that they were anxious to get a foothold in the aircraft industry and in the Common Market. Later they bought another factory in Manchester. They immediately set out to change things and in particular to destroy the power of the trade-union organisation at Willesden.
Initially they used a succession of British managers for these tasks. These were frequently given time limits in which to produce results – if they failed they left. During the next four years there was a very high turnover of managers at the factory as new men and new methods were tried. These managers were carefully watched by American managers, some of whom actually worked at ENV. Townsend, who later smashed the factory organisation, worked for six months as General Manager before taking over completely.
Some managers tried to win the support and cooperation of the workers by stressing that in the long run the interests of management and workers were the same; both would benefit from a prosperous factory. They made special approaches to the shop stewards. An American who worked for a year at Willesden as a ‘tool specialist’ took the stewards on trips to other factories and attempted to make friends with the workers. He later became Managing Director of the Manchester factory. Another manager called Hill tried the same approach, stressing that he was also only an employee and that he was really on the workers’ side. He would show his trade union card to everyone and was continually attacking the other managers. Another kept telling the stewards that he was working in close touch with George Brown (whom he assumed the stewards would support) and that the management were keen to do what the Labour Government wanted (which they were!).
A Dr Jarrett from CAV (a part of the Lucas electrical group) was then made Managing Director. He started productivity bargaining throughout the factory. As he said, ‘We want you to earn more money ... this is the socialist approach of equality.’ Hill commented, ‘I’m a bit of a Communist myself and Dr Jarrett has got a real socialist plan.’
These crude approaches were hardly likely to fool anyone. Some of the managers brought in were just hatchet men with no experience, including ex-naval commanders and the like. Similarly approaches and offers made specially to the shop stewards were also rejected. For instance, they were offered a proper office, that the management deduct union dues from wages, and some stewards were offered supervisory jobs (as mentioned above, one ex-convenor accepted).
Jarrett introduced into the factory Emersons, the Work Study firm which had been responsible for the Fawley agreements. A meeting was arranged with the shop stewards at which the Emersons’ representative outlined their plan. Jarrett then said that he expected the shop stewards would like to ask questions; but the stewards walked out and refused any cooperation. They threatened that the workers would go out if the Emerson people as much as came on to the shop floor. So although Emersons had an office in the factory for several months, they never did a thing. This is the only known occasion on which Emersons have failed to get any concessions whatsoever.
It was also Jarrett who started productivity bargaining in the factory. The management had issued several statements about the unsatisfactory state of affairs at ENV and how they were losing orders. They stressed that everyone would benefit from greater productivity at the factory – ‘High wages and high productivity go together.’ They also produced outline proposals for a new wage structure, both simplifying it and making it fairer.
The productivity campaign had a certain appeal for the workers, because the management were saying that there was to be more money but no redundancies. Also there was discontent about the existing pay structure and differentials. Even though the stewards realised that productivity deals represented a disguised form of attack on union organisation and working conditions, the plausibility of management’s offer made it difficult for them to refuse participation, unless they were to cut themselves off from the rest of the workers. So the stewards participated in the central and shop committees which were set up. The management were then very desultory over productivity bargaining.
Many of the lower managers were reluctant to suggest changes as they did not want to carry the can if things went wrong. So most of the proposals and suggestions came from the shop stewards’ side. But after many months only a few agreements had been reached and there was no agreement on the new wages structure. Some of the agreements which were concluded revealed both the strength of the shop floor organisation on these issues and the general incompetence of the management. For instance the packers agreed to a reduction from 16 to 12 men when in fact there had been 12 all along and also agreed to help with loading and unloading lorries which they had also always done. For these ‘concessions’ they got 1s an hour extra. The stacker-truck drivers agreed to become ‘mobile’ for an extra 1s an hour. Before this agreement each driver had regarded himself as attached to a particular shop and would only take loads from his own shop but would not bring them back. The failure of productivity bargaining to produce any real result meant the end of Jarrett who admitted at one time that he had been given a deadline of only a few months to produce results.
In 1966 there was a dispute in the milling shop and work from this shop was blacked. The management then sacked a worker who refused to be moved to this department. At this time the management seemed anxious to provoke a strike and get the workers outside; the stewards on the other hand were trying to avoid this, preferring to choose their own issue and occasion for a major fight. A factory meeting was held over the sacking and three shop stewards went to see Jarrett. He refused to meet them, so the meeting decided to go en masse to Jarrett’s office; ‘If he won’t see three of us, he’ll have to see all of us.’ About 1,000 workers marched singing through the office to Jarrett’s office. Jarrett declared he would have a meeting the next day but this was not accepted. Finally he said that the man would not be sacked or suspended. This incident led to the resignation of Jarrett a few weeks later and was also referred to later by the management as an example of the ‘anarchy’ existing in the factory.
On Jarrett’s resignation in June 1966 Townsend assumed full control and became Managing Director. Only a few weeks later he notified shop stewards that things had gone too far, the company was losing money and there were too many disputes. He announced that the management were not prepared to negotiate with the stewards until normal working conditions were resumed. He had asked the Engineering Employers’ Federation to approach the Executive Councils of the unions to arrange an informal Joint Composite Conference to be held at the Willesden factory. Until that Conference was held there were going to be no more negotiations with the stewards.
It seems probable that in the meantime Townsend had had a secret meeting with Carron at the Confederation of Engineering and Shipbuilding Unions Conference. Some of the stewards saw a letter from the management to the AEU headquarters trying to arrange this meeting. Carlsson made this public in the local press and was never disciplined for it. Townsend obviously wanted to make direct contact with Carron. There were other examples of contact between the ENV management and the AEU head office: the management for instance, used to collect all references to ENV stewards and workers in the press and agendas of factory and stewards’ meetings, and send them to Carron.
The joint Composite Conference was held on 4th July. Amongst the representatives of the AEU were Carron, Boyd, Berridge from the Executive, Reg Birch (then Divisional Organiser) and District Officials. Carron and Berridge warned the ENV stewards before the meeting that they must be prepared to compromise. National officers of the ETU, TGWU, ASPD and ASW were also present. ASSET were not informed and when Mike Cooley of DATA tried to attend the meeting he was refused admittance because the Conference was just for representatives of manual workers, not staff unions. All ENV stewards attended as did the top ENV management, some of whom were flown over from the States.
Townsend opened the Conference with a prepared statement illustrated with charts showing the company’s position. In his words he was ‘astounded, amazed and shocked.’ According to him the company was losing money and customers. He admitted that in the past there had been weak management at ENV and it was natural that the stewards would take advantage of this. But, he went on, ‘The main reason why we are here today is labour relations; the management will not put up with the actions of the shop stewards and therefore are refusing to negotiate with them.’ He complained of the ‘mass of domestic and verbal agreements’ at the factory, and of the fact that ‘two unauthorised mass factory meetings have taken place, one culminating in the march of an unruly mob through the Executive Offices ... this is anarchy and will not be tolerated in the future.’
He went to warn the union executives that although he was asking them to support the management’s actions in making these changes, ‘if the unions are unable to do this, we will take the necessary steps ourselves.’ Even Carron could not accept Townsend’s approach: ‘If you insist on going forward in the way you are, then you must expect a revolution.’ Of course, Carron was merely defending procedure, not threatening anything. He insisted that whatever proposals the management had must go through stewards and local officials.
Townsend then went on to outline the management’s proposals which were presented in the form of two documents called Management Functions and Interim Agreement. The effect of the proposals would have been to wipe out all the gains and benefits won by the trade-union organisation at the factory over the previous 20 years.
Firstly, the management intended to check all domestic and verbal agreements and would renegotiate them in a revised form that would make them clear. Of course these agreements were one of the strengths of the shop-floor organisation, especially the purely verbal agreements which could be interpreted as necessary whenever a dispute arose. The management had often complained that they did not know of the existence of half of the supposed agreements.
Secondly, standards were to be set up by ‘modern time-study methods’ and would include multi-machine operation. At the same time that the new standards were applied a graded wage structure of between five and nine grades would be introduced. Payments to time-workers were no longer to be linked to pieceworkers’ earnings and when an established piece-work rate was in dispute, payment would continue at the established rate until agreement was reached through procedure. Townsend admitted that the management had not yet decided whether in the long run the factory would continue to operate on piece-work or on measured day-work.
Amongst the other management proposals were things like mobility of labour, shift working as required, tea breaks to be limited to 10 minutes, and so on. Also the management would be able to transfer work to other factories as it wished. Towns-end mentioned that if these proposals were not accepted the factory might have to close.
Carron and the other officials made it clear that they were not prepared to agree to this. If the management wanted to change the agreements they must operate through the procedure, which meant first of all discussing it with the shop stewards. Carron reminded Townsend that the employers had as much obligation to go through procedure as the work people. The employers accepted this point.
However after this Conference the ENV management still refused to meet the stewards. So at a factory meeting it was decided to have token stoppages in protest. A series of guerilla stoppages to start on 20th July was planned. Each evening different shops were to be told by the stewards to go out the next morning for a few hours. At this stage it seems clear that the workers were prepared to resist the management. In fact the workers were prepared to resist the management right up until closure was announced.
On the day before these stoppages were due to begin a conference was held at the Employers’ Federation headquarters. At this the ENV management agreed to resume negotiations with the stewards the following morning. However the meeting finished late and so it was impossible to inform the workers at Willesden about the decision.
On the morning of 20 July, as planned earlier, the stoppages started. The management now announced that they knew nothing about the agreement made the previous day. This is one incident quoted by the stewards to illustrate how it was impossible to trust the ‘new’ (i.e. American) management – at least the ‘old’ management did keep their word. This resentment of the methods of the new management was one of the reasons that the stewards used the contrast between the British and American managements and made it a political issue.
Anyway, on this morning the storemen and electricians were already out as planned. They were due to come in at 10 o’clock. When they tried to return to work the management would not let them in and locked them out for the rest of the day. Carlsson, the stewards’ chairman who went out to see them, was stopped at the gate but pushed his way in. Shortly after this the management threatened to sack a stacker driver who refused to pick up a load as a protest in support of the workers locked out. A factory meeting was held and it was decided that if some workers were out then they would all go out. They planned to come back the following morning.
The next day the workers came back to find the electricity switched off, and everyone being herded into the canteen. On the platform were half a dozen managers and two representatives of the Electoral Reform Society. When all the workers had entered the canteen the doors were locked and Townsend made a speech about the crisis the factory was facing. He said that it came down to a choice – either the factory could stay open upon new conditions or it would be closed. He told the workers that they must now vote on whether they were prepared to accept the management’s proposals. Ballot boxes had been placed by each door and as each worker left the meeting he was to take a form and put it in the box. The ballot would be run by the Electoral Reform Society.
After Townsend had spoken Carlsson made a speech from the floor in which he condemned the methods being used by the management and insisted that the proposals must go through the shop stewards. He launched attacks upon the recent change in behaviour of several of the managers on the platform, but excluded Wilson, a popular representative of the ‘old’ management. Mitchell, the convenor, then spoke and said that he was walking out of the meeting and wanted everyone to follow him
stewards and some workers left the canteen, but immediately after they had gone the management locked the doors behind them, leaving the majority of the workers inside. So the stewards and other workers forced the doors open, upturned the ballot boxes, and the meeting broke up. During this meeting police in black marias were stationed near the factory and a manager phoned for them to come round to the back gate. The press and TV came down to the factory immediately after the meeting. Possibly it was a mistake to walk out of the meeting rather than argue the case out in full in front of the workers, showing that there was an alternative and then letting them refuse to vote in the management’s ballot. However the next day a factory meeting was held to which the press were invited and the workers voted unanimously in support of their shop stewards and against the management’s proposals.
At this meeting the workers passed a unanimous resolution stating that they would rather accept closure than any worsening of their pay and conditions. This resolution was continually re-affirmed at further meetings throughout the following period, and to the time of writing (late October 1967) still represents the attitude of those who remain at ENV.
Townsend announced that this sort of ‘intimidation’ would not put him off and he was going to organise another ballot, but this time it would be a postal one. Again it was organised by the Electoral Reform Society, who used the same pre-paid envelopes which they had used in an ETU ballot. Apparently the ETU did not object to paying for this ballot; they said they were not interested in taking the matter up. On another occasion one ETU official remarked that the ENV stewards ‘deserved to be shot’ if the management’s story was true.
Reg Birch protested about the postal ballot, but Townsend refused to drop it. However a few days later the ENV management called it off themselves because of ‘interference’ by the stewards – ‘once more the stewards had wrecked it.’ The vast majority of workers had returned the ballot forms to their shop stewards.
At about the same time a factory meeting was held at which the stewards attempted to settle outstanding disputes. This was done in order to prevent management having an excuse for locking workers out. Several disputes were settled as a result of this meeting. Negotiations were going on between shop stewards and management over the management’s proposals. On all major issues ‘failure to agree’ was recorded and the issues were passed to local officials.
On 24 August all ENV workers received letters saying that the Willesden factory was going to close. There was to be a phased close-down to be carried out over the next few months. The management gave as the reason the financial position of the factory which was, they said, aggravated by the government’s economic policies.
The major issue for the next few months was whether this announcement was genuine or only a bluff. The majority of workers and stewards tended to believe that the closure was genuine; only the convenor and chairman believed consistently that it was a bluff and that they must act accordingly. Yet there was plenty of evidence that the picture the management painted of the financial situation at ENV was inaccurate. Firstly, the aircraft sections at ENV were always busy and work from other departments too was deliberately being transferred to Aycliffe and Manchester or abroad- Secondly, the Annual Reports of the company showed large profits and increases in orders. Finally the management’s account of the effect of government policy was clearly misleading. For instance ENV as a manufacturing firm would stand to gain considerably, not lose, from the Selective Employment Tax.
Looking back it is now easy to say that it was a bluff but at the time the great majority of workers and stewards were not sure. The ENV management’s campaign had had a long build up over the previous years, with frequent announcements of ‘crises.’ Now they stressed continually that the factory was to close, and without any qualification. And of course even if one did not accept the firm’s reasons for closure, there was still the possibility that if in the last resort they could not defeat the trade union organisation in any other way, they would close down the factory, even if only temporarily. Whether this would have been possible is more difficult to say; the fact that the aircraft sections had plenty of work throughout the next six months suggests that the management would have found it very difficult to transfer all the work that the factory was doing.
The other issue which became of increasing importance was that of redundancy payments. The workers started to think of these payments and what they were going to spend them on. Since most of the workers had long service, the sums involved were quite considerable – many of them over £500. The management argued that if there were a strike, this would count as misconduct and would mean that the workers would lose redundancy payments. The stewards denied this and got lawyers to back them up, but this type of rumour had a considerable influence.
At the beginning of September the unions challenged the management’s case at the longest Local Conference on record. McLoughlin, an ex-ENV convenor, now local AEU official, opened the union’s case. He rejected the management’s figures which showed falling profits and losses of orders, and quoted Eaton publications which gave a glowing report of trade prospects. The President of the Employers’ Federation, who had just been to the USA at Eaton’s expense, then said that the closure was definite, and even if the management’s earlier proposals were accepted by the workers, it would not make any difference. He stressed that this was the result of the government’s economic policy.
At the end of this Local Conference, a failure to agree was recorded and in October 1966 the issue went to Central Conference at York where there was still no agreement. The night before the conference Carron stated that he did not see why he should take up the reference since both the management and he had been criticised sharply by Carlsson, and he had to be reminded that the jobs of more than 1,000 workers were at stake. After the closure was announced the ENV stewards began organising their campaign. In their publicity, they attempted to show that the closure announcement was only a bluff to defeat the workers’ organisation. They also attempted to get support by arguing that the ENV management’s policies were against the Labour Government’s policy of increasing exports. They argued that the bulk of the goods produced at ENV were exported and that the balance of payments figures would suffer if the factory did close and the work was transferred out of the country. The ENV stewards got the support of Brent Trades Council which organised meetings and marches about ENV. Marches were held in Willesden and Wembley. The issue was also brought up at meetings of the Shop Stewards’ Defence Committee, which had originated months before out of a legal dispute concerning the ENV convenor, Mitchell.
Deputations of ENV stewards and workers went to the TUC conference at Blackpool and the Labour Party conference at Brighton where they held demonstrations. A group of workers went to the Farnborough Air Show and picketed the ENV stand in order to illustrate the conflict between reports of the factory closing down and attempts to get new orders.
The stewards issued regular statements to the press about ENV. They told the press that work was being transferred from Willesden to factories in the USA. But although some of the journalists were interested in the stories, nothing appeared. The stewards found out that some of the journalists had been warned by the AEU head office that if they did print the stories about ENV then they would not get any more stories from the union.
The stewards organised lobbies of MPs and tried to get support and questions asked in Parliament. When they first tried to contact the MPs, many of them, especially the Left-wingers, agreed to help. But very few of them did so. Russell Kerr, who expressed great interest, later walked into one of the ENV meetings by mistake, much to his embarrassment as he had done nothing. The MP for Uxbridge, Ryan, promised to help but never turned up. But perhaps the worst case was that of the two Willesden MPs, Laurie Pavitt and Reg Freeson. They had been in close touch with the factory for years and had often held factory gate meetings there. ENV had raised canvassing teams to go out for them at election times. When the closure was announced, the stewards arranged a meeting with both of them. Pavitt and Freeson came and announced that they could not interfere as they had just discovered that ENV was not in their constituencies! In fact it was just inside the boundary of North Hammersmith, and so the ENV stewards were told to go to their own MP, Tomney. Pavitt and Freeson then went off to a meeting with the ENV management and didn’t see the stewards again.
When a meeting of MPs at the House of Commons was called to discuss ENV, only four turned up. Two of these, Stan Orme and Norman Atkinson, who were AEU MPs, said that they could not stay because they had been advised not to listen as the AEU Executive was going to advise them on the case. The only MPs who did consistently try to help were Sid Bidwell and Bill Molloy. Bidwell and Molloy were warned for taking the matter up and Molloy lost his chance of promotion.
In general the Left wing MPs were useless on an issue like this. A few were genuinely sympathetic, but where they were required to be more than ‘social workers with connections,’ they were too frightened to come out openly.
A few questions were asked in the House of Commons but these were mostly ‘safe’ questions, about the value of exports which would be lost and so on. The fact that the gears which ENV made for defence purposes could not be made elsewhere in Britain and would have to be made in the USA or on the continent was never mentioned, although at the time it would have created quite a controversy.
It was known that the ENV management had already had meetings with members of the government. One of the American managers went to a meeting with Austin Albu and he took a copy of the Shop Stewards’ Defence Committee’s pamphlet on Incomes Policy with him.
The ENV stewards and the union officials had a meeting with Douglas Jay and then with Shirley Williams, both at the Board of Trade. Mrs Williams said that they seemed to have a good case and if any union asked for an investigation it would take place. Only the DATA representative took up this offer, but nothing happened.
The results from this type of campaign – contacting MPs, questions in the House, and so on – seem to have been nil. One serious criticism which has been made is that it diverted attention away from the factory and took up effort which could have been used in trying to get opposition organised inside the factory. In point of fact, the campaign outside was only an alternative because there was no action within.
Regularly after the closure was announced, calls for a factory strike were put to factory meetings. The shop stewards recommended strike action as they knew that this was the only way they could win. Yet the strike calls were always turned down by large majorities. Among the workers and some of the stewards, doubts about whether the closure was a bluff or not persisted. Most workers were prepared to let the stewards attempt to avert the closure but they were not willing to risk sacrificing their redundancy pay. In the meantime they were anxious to increase their earnings in order to increase the amounts of these payments.
During this period the management were transferring work from Willesden to Aycliffe and Manchester in order to lay off Willesden workers. This was well known at the time. One criticism of the stewards was that they should have foreseen the situation arising out of this transfer of work months before and should have prevented it. When the Manchester stewards offered to black this work, the Willesden stewards turned down their offer on the grounds that since there was no opposition in their factory it was not fair to leave it to Manchester when they themselves were doing nothing. In this way they deliberately passed the buck back to their own workers.
In October the management announced that they wanted another stock-taking and therefore some workers must do overtime. Since they were proposing to lay off workers because there was not enough work, the factory banned overtime. As a result some sections were locked out and others went out in support. The management then locked out the entire factory for a week, with the exception of the storekeepers. When the management tried to do the stocktaking themselves the storekeepers walked out.
During the lock-out a meeting of ENV workers was organised at Hammersmith Town Hall with 800 workers attending. (However the following day, Saturday, when a march was held in Willesden only 14 people turned up, and these were mostly stewards.) At the Hammersmith meeting Birch and Cooley spoke, as well as the ENV stewards. A solicitor also explained that any strike action would not lead to loss of redundancy pay. The meeting supported the fight against redundancy and closure. The stewards had previously agreed that those workers who wanted to leave ENV should be allowed to go as this would make the rest of the factory stronger, but no vote was taken on this at the meeting.
But after the Hammersmith meeting, nothing happened. The men returned to work the following week. Resolutions for strike action at factory meetings were still turned down. Although various proposals for departmental strikes were discussed and sometimes agreed, they never came to anything. In the continued absence of any action from within the factory, the stewards attempted to get an official strike.
At the end of October the AEU District Committee took the rare step of calling for an official strike at ENV. However this had to be endorsed at the next AEU Executive meeting. When this took place Reg Birch moved that the North London District Committee’s decision be endorsed, but could not even get anyone to second the motion (Hugh Scanlon, who was at the meeting, just kept quiet.) So the official strike came to nothing at all. No attempt was made to strike in the few days before the EC met, since unfortunately the majority of the workers wanted to wait for the EC’s decision. Thus the chance for a strike was missed, although some of the stewards now think that the majority of the workers would have come out then. One difficulty was that it was getting near to Christmas and hence there was a greater unwillingness to strike. Quite a few of the workers could remember the long 1951-52 strike which began before Christmas.
In November the first group of workers were sacked. Each week more followed. A large number of stewards and other militants went in the first weeks, often in spite of their seniority. Early in the new year the management offered to make a deal with some of the remaining shop stewards, especially Carlsson. If they would get the workers to agree to the management proposals then they would not be sacked. This Carlsson insisted on reporting to a full factory meeting. The factory refused to make any deal of this sort. After this, both Carlsson and Mitchell were sacked.
It was now clear to everyone that the management’s only interest was in getting rid of the militants and then keeping the factory open. Soon after the sackings of Carlsson and Mitchell, they announced that ‘due to changed economic circumstances’ they would be keeping the factory open with a labour force of between 400 and 500. The workers who remained at ENV, however, stuck strongly to their earlier decisions and refused to make any concessions on pay or conditions. At the time of writing, eight months after the chairman and convenor were sacked, the management has still not succeeded in changing one agreement. The new ENV stewards, as we went to press, had just won back control over overtime at a Local Conference, where the management was forced to stand by the agreement that forces them to ask the shop stewards for permission before they could approach any worker to ask him to work overtime.
Once the ENV management had announced their intention of closing the factory, the problem that faced the shop stewards was that of finding some realistic way of opposing the management and carrying the men with them. It must be remembered that only a minority of the stewards – and an even smaller minority of the men – were convinced from the start that the management’s declaration of imminent closure was in fact a fraud. As we have seen, the men were already planning how they would spend their redundancy pay, and the stewards’ efforts to convince them that a strike would not affect their right to redundancy money were not entirely successful against a barrage of management propaganda.
In the period before the actual announcement of closure, the stewards, aware that a wholesale attack of some kind was about to be launched, followed a policy of ‘clearing the decks for action.’ They urged workers to settle outstanding departmental disputes in order to avoid giving management the opportunity to provoke a strike before they were ready or on an issue of management’s own choosing. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems perhaps that the management would not anyway have risked provoking a major stoppage at this stage, for they had not seriously begun to shift work from the Willesden factory elsewhere (indeed some sections of the factory remained busy throughout 1966 and 1967). At this stage it seems that the management’s hope was still that they would make some kind of breakthrough in the negotiations, through their attempt to divide the stewards from the rank and file by devices like the ballot. However one unfortunate result of the ‘clearing the decks’ policy was that some of the men, not fully realising the way that the management were shaping up for a major struggle, began to think that the stewards were ‘going soft’.
It has been suggested that during this period the stewards should have pursued a militant policy on all fronts and tried to secure a large-scale strike before the closure was announced, in order to keep the initiative. Some critics have condemned the ENV stewards for not turning the dispute into a major political campaign in the North London area. But this criticism ignores the current level of consciousness in the labour movement. Certainly any realistic review of .the movement’s experience over the past three years suggests that the formula, ‘incomes policy equals political struggle’ is quite wrong, over-simplified and Utopian. The campaigns which have been successful have depended on the presentation of issues in very low-level ‘trade union’ terms: the role of the State has been seen as an additional cause for working-class indignation, rather than as the central element in a larger pattern. Outsiders see only the abstract possibilities – down on the ground in North London, the real response of other workers looks quite different. Of course, this does not mean that every issue must be reduced to the lower common multiple. A campaign of solidarity must operate on at least two levels – aiming to rebuild, through activity in fragmented day-to-day struggles, a meaningful labour movement, and to re-group the existing militants and formulate a more coherent and revolutionary political programme.
If a campaign outside the factory was, in the concrete conditions of the moment, almost fruitless, the campaign among the workers within the factory was also difficult. For, although the stewards knew very well that a management offensive was imminent, it was not easy to communicate this general awareness to the men until the management showed its hand.
The actual announcement of closure quite seriously disoriented the stewards’ committee. For one thing, there seemed to be no precedent for this – how, after all, does one fight a closure? Furthermore, as we have already seen, it was only a minority of the stewards who believed that the management was bluffing. And in face of the management’s repeated insistence that it would be shutting up shop in Willesden (and for economic reasons not directly connected with the shop stewards) it was by no means easy to win the other stewards over to a realisation of the actual state of affairs. (We might add, too, that it is by no means impossible that if a more successful fight had been waged by the stewards the management would have closed the factory for a time.) The belief that the management were serious in their stated intentions was in fact not really dissipated until early 1967, by which time a number of stewards had already been ‘made redundant.’ It took the management’s offer of a ‘deal’ to Carlsson and Mitchell to convince even some of the most militant and ‘political’ spirits on the stewards’ committee.
Unless this background is understood, it is difficult to attempt a fair criticism of the policy of the leading stewards. They were, and through no fault of their own, faced with a situation of undoubted difficulty, being the only ones who saw even that a fight was necessary. There was by this time, it is true, an IS factory branch with about 12 members, most of them stewards. This met fortnightly after work. But it would be a mistake to see this as a highly conscious organised group. Throughout the ‘fifties and early ‘sixties, Geoff Carlsson had been completely isolated politically in the factory. The bulk of the stewards had been members of the Communist Party or had accepted a Party lead, although disillusion had gradually been setting in. It was not until well into 1965 that it proved possible to recruit the militant stewards to IS. Inevitably, given the political histories of these comrades, the development of the branch had hardly begun when the attack came. In a very real sense, as one of the ex-CP stewards remarked, the IS branch ‘came too late.’ Partly as a result of this immaturity of the branch, the group did not act in a very organised way on the stewards’ committee.
Given the failure of their repeated attempts to get a majority of the workers voting for strike action (although the minority in favour grew steadily) the question that arises is whether a minority or departmental strike of some kind was possible. In the past, faced with different circumstances, the stewards had encouraged the development of a tradition at ENV of abiding always by majority decisions. This stress on factory democracy – by no means present in all ‘militant’ factories – was of course very valuable. This kind of democratic procedure is particularly well fitted to a situation where workers and stewards are on the offensive, for then the more advanced can afford to wait for the more backward to catch up. In a defensive struggle, whose terms are set by the management, however, an unwillingness to lead, even from a minority position, is a definite weakness. And it is on these grounds that we feel the ENV stewards were open to criticism.
In a real sense, the stewards lost the initiative. It is not for us, at this remove, to specify that on such and such an occasion they ought to have pursued a particular line of action. What we do feel, however, is that they should have done something. Various suggestions have been made, from a ‘sit-in’ by the militants to a departmental walk-out. And many ideas were discussed by the stewards, but in each case they seem to have weighed the advantages to such a degree that they partially paralysed themselves. They were – quite rightly – afraid of being ‘adventuristic,’ but adventurism is better than nothing. In a way, the stewards’ legitimate fear of substituting themselves for the majority of the workers was, we feel, carried too far. Action cannot be determined mechanically by the existing level of consciousness; a spark of action could, perhaps, have altered the workers’ consciousness too. The stewards had a large fund of goodwill that they could rely on, and they should have risked more than they did. At the most general level, they saw only that substitutionism was a danger, but did not see that the theory of substitutionism (with which IS has often been identified) implies no rejection of the need for leadership. 
Would they have been defeated anyway? Almost certainly. But for socialists and militants this is not the sole question. What was sad about the defeat at ENV was that it was so quiet. For the stewards to go down without a fight was to miss the opportunity to generate any kind of campaign that could assist in the further linking of the militants in the engineering industry. Even if for example the pickets on the Myton and Sunley sites in London go down in defeat (as seems sadly probable at the time of writing), other militants in the building industry will have gained from their struggle, and from the solidarity movement that was built around it.
At the same time, the extent of the failure should not be exaggerated. An employer can be defeated fifty times, and he will still be there. A stewards’ committee cannot survive one major defeat. And in no sense was it a ‘sell-out.’ No concessions were made to management. Even today, fifteen months after the management’s final attack began, none has been made. One worker, still at the factory in October 1967, was amazed at the very idea that there had been a defeat: ‘We’ve never given them anything!’
And the positive elements remain. For years ENV provided a powerful instance of the possibilities of strong factory organisation. And it was, in a very real sense, the centre of militancy in North London engineering. Its defeat, as other militants in the area recognise, was a serious loss. The memory of the years of the struggle at ENV will serve for some time to come as an example to all those who are involved in the struggle for workers’ control and a new socialist movement. The unhappy manner of the final defeat should not be allowed to obscure that.
1. This kind of division among the Communist Party’s industrial membership in the engineering industry undoubtedly played an important part in the development of the later split in the Party’s ranks over the question of the AEU Presidential election, the Shop Stewards’ Defence Committee and ultimately the expulsion of Reg Birch from the Party.
2. See T. Cliff, The Revolutionary Party and the Class: Trotsky on Substitutionism, IS 2, Autumn 1960.
Last updated: 28.12.2007