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Colin Barker

The Fine Tubes Strike

(March 1974)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.67, March 1974, p.28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Fine Tubes Strike
Tony Beck
Stage 1, £1.80 (hardcover), 45p (paperback).

THE STRIKE at Fine Tubes of Plymouth lasted for three years, from June 1970 to June 1973. It was ultimately defeated, despite having for the entire period the official backing of the AUEW and the TGWU. The strike was not only ‘official’, but in terms of the engineering industry’s own procedure agreement, it was even ‘constitutional’. And it was a strike directly involving fundamental trade-union principle.

By any measure, the Fine Tubes strike was a test case for the trade union movement And, equally, the trade union movement failed that test. As Tony Beck says in this history of the strike: ‘The failure of the Fine Tubes strike was, at bottom, the failure of the two biggest battalions of the working class – the Transport and General Workers’ Union and the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers – to hold their own against one small American firm.’ If ever there was a strike that need not have been lost, it was Fine Tubes.

Tony Beck’s account of the strike is essential reading for trade unionists. It is clearly and simply written, and accurate. The villains of the piece, from Tom Barclay, Fine Tubes’ arrogant anti-union boss (‘tough Tom’ as the EEF officials called him), through Vic Feather (who gave tough Tom an autographed copy of the TUC’s centenary volume when he met him, but treated the strikers’ delegations with contempt) to Bro. Crispin of the TGWU (who threatened the remaining strikers with loss of financial benefits if they dared to tell the truth about the strike at the end) – these are all here. The let-down by senior stewards at Rolls-Royce Derby, BAG Preston, Henry Wiggins Hereford and the UKAEA, the lack of elemental union solidarity from the officials of BISAKTA in Yorkshire, are properly recorded. It is a blow by blow account, and every blow hurts.

If the book has a weakness, I think it is in its brevity. In the course of the three-year strike, the Fine Tubes strikers, and especially their non-stop travelling delegates, gained a knowledge of the British trade union movement that is rare indeed. They went everywhere, they saw everyone. There are literally thousands of trade unionists, in hundreds of factories up and down the country, who came to know them. The book tells too little of their experiences, of the tricks and stratagems by which they overcome opposition from all kinds of quarters. If nothing else, the Fine Tubes delegates became the most expert practitioners of the art of getting through closed doors. In some cases, their appearance at a factory itself provoked disputes. At Rolls-Royce, Coventry, I was told, management hid with a tape-recorder during a meeting with TASS members. When the convenor at Austin Longbridge wouldn’t speak to them at the gate, not liking the socialist company they kept, they walked in next morning along with the workforce and dug him out of his hole.

So the book lacks some of the drama of the strike, the humour and the ingenuity. It underestimates, as a result, the magnificence of the work done by the strikers, particularly the delegations.

But this is not to belittle Tony Beck’s work. His judgments are accurate and to the point The key question posed by the Fine Tubes strike remains before the labour movement: how are the unions to be made to fight for rather than talk on behalf of their members? A rank and file movement without the resources of the official union machinery is not sufficiently strong. In any case, the unions are not the property of the full-time officers, but of the membership. The crucial issue, pinpointed by the struggle at Fine Tubes, remains the regaining of the unions for the members. That is the problem Tony Beck’s story properly focuses on. His book should be bought and read, as an urgent reminder of the job we have to do.

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Last updated: 31.12.2007