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Colin Barker

Union Solidarity

(Autumn 1967)

From The Notebook, International Socialism (1st series), No.30, Autumn 1967, pp.4-5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Colin Barker writes: (30 July): The Roberts-Arundel dispute in Stockport, at the time of writing in its ninth month, has illustrated certain problems and weaknesses in the current organisation and policy of the labour movement, and also pointed towards the possibility of some kinds of solution.

The dispute, initially a strike against a new management’s attempts to reorganise production without consultation with the shop stewards’ committee, was rapidly converted into a lockout in December last year, when the management announced that in future it would not accept the ‘paraphernalia’ of trade unionism within its factory. The dispute was declared official, and has continued since then; the management are continuing production, after a fashion, with a new, ‘scab’ labour force, and negotiations have proved fruitless.

From the first it was clear that a victory for the unions in this dispute would depend on the support they received from other sections of the movement. The management, under the control of an anti-union parent company in North Carolina, USA, withdrew rapidly from the Engineering Employers’ Federation to pursue a plain anti-union policy in the Stockport factory: sweet reason alone was never going to convince them, while a major deployment of force might. The 140 strikers (the entire workforce), although loyal union members, had no tradition of militancy; before the takeover in 1965 the factory had been entirely dispute-free, and the majority of the workers were long-service men intent on a quiet life, and out of the mainstream of moderate militancy that has characterised the engineering unions in the area for some years. Alone, they could only sink quietly into defeat.

Solidarity action, crucial to this dispute, has taken three forms. The first, the simple collection of money, has been the most successful in one sense, in that there has at least been enough money in the strike committee’s kitty to pay out a reasonable weekly wage to the men on strike. Three local District Committees of the AEU have arranged a 6d weekly levy on all their members, and other donations and collections have flowed in very well. This, and the blacking of the firm’s products and supplies, has been partly stimulated by the strike committee’s pamphlets [1] on their strike, nearly 30,000 of which have been sold or otherwise distributed. But money by itself can do no more than slow down the process of demoralisation among the men when they are engaged in a long dispute like this. If it can help to delay a defeat, monetary support can do little to contribute directly to a victory.

The second form of solidarity action is of much greater importance in this respect – blacking the supplies and products of the Roberts-Arundel Company. Here the strike committee has, through an enormous, amount of work, been able to chalk up some important successes; Shipments of goods destined for export have been locked up on the docks at Manchester, Liverpool and Hull, and at Manchester Airport. As a result the firm has almost certainly been forced to lose money through penalty clauses in contracts, and has beyond all doubt had to spend large sums of money on alternative forms of transport, multiple trans-shipping arrangements and the like, in an effort to move their products around Britain and shake off the pursuing strikers. Supplies have been denied to them, and whole ranges of means of transport, from British Rail and British Road Services to many smaller contractors, have been cut off. In many other firms the stewards’ committees have enforced the general embargo on Roberts-Arundel. The firm’s own public estimate of the costs of the strike several months ago was one million dollars, and by now the sum is likely to be considerably greater. At the time of writing approaches were being made to the National Union of Seamen in an attempt to stop all cross-channel shipment of goods between the Stockport factory and other establishments in the same group on the continent.

Nonetheless, despite the general success of the embargo, reliance on this alone converts the dispute into a straightforward war of attrition between the unions and the management. The process is very long drawn-out, and it is difficult to maintain much morale among the strikers as a whole; a few experts at blacking have emerged from the strike committee, but their activities take them away from the picket line, and even their greatest successes have little impact on the daily grind of maintaining a picket outside the factory. In the long run the blacking of Roberts-Arundel may induce the management to negotiate, or to pack up shop and clear out of Stpckport for good, but it does not greatly bother the blacklegs that the firm has recruited, nor does it stop the slow whittling away of enthusiasm among the pickets.

Support of various kinds on the picket line itself is therefore crucial, and it is here more than anywhere else that local weaknesses have revealed themselves. In January and February a series of mass pickets in the mornings undoubtedly scared off some of the less resolute blacklegs. The local Trades Council organised two large demonstrations of solidarity, and there was a generally rising tide of support. This culminated, towards the end of February, in a coordinated half-day stoppage in several local factories, and a mass demonstration outside the Roberts-Arundel works. In the course of this several policemen were injured, including the town’s deputy-chief constable, large numbers of windows were broken, and an attempt was made to break down the factory gate.

This ‘riot’ led to a flurry of negotiations, which finally came to nothing. The management recovered its nerve, largely because there was an almost total stop to all picketing in the succeeding weeks.

A call for token stoppages in local factories, endorsed by stewards in a fair number of plants, ended in fiasco, when the stewards failed to win the support of their own men for the policy. It rapidly became apparent that the much-boasted strength of the ‘left’ in the local engineering shops was largely illusory, a conclusion since reinforced by other events and situations in some of those shops.

Since February the whole local movement appears to have been partially paralysed. Such picketing as there has been has lacked the earlier spirit and numbers. At the time of writing, however, the local Trades Council has announced a meeting to discuss the whole issue, and there is a feeling in some quarters that it may still be possible to revive activity. Perhaps more important, support for some kind of rank-and-file solidarity committee has strengthened. Disillusion with the essentially passive ‘unity of the left’ policy propounded by the right wing of the Communist Party in association with a number of ‘Labour lefts’ has grown, partly through the experience of the struggle around the Roberts-Arundel dispute. The effective absence from the picket line of a number of key figures in the ‘unity’ movement has been noted, and the appropriate lessons drawn. It may be that out of the Roberts-Arundel dispute a quite extensive network of local militants may come to a new conception of militancy and socialist activity. Certainly the need for such a change of approach is very apparent; the job of local socialists is to help sow the seeds of this new consciousness.



1. Copies of the latest pamphlet, The Story of the Strike, may be obtained, price 6d, from the Strike Committee, 125 Wellington Road South, Stockport, Cheshire, or from Colin Barker.

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