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Dudley Edwards

We Need a Fighting Leadership!

(July 1980)

From Militant, No. 512, 18 July 1980, p. 14.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Every AUEW member knows that the lynch-pin of the engineering industry is machine tool production. It is this lynch-pin which was knocked out last week, when Mrs Thatcher’s government encouraged the close-down and break up of Alfred Herbet’s, at one time the leading tool builders in Europe.

This latest example of Thatcher’s policy of deindustrialisation aims at such a high level of unemployment that the unions will be forced to accept a cut in real wages.

The jobs of every man and woman in the industry are now at stake, and the only protection against a situation worse than the 1930s is a fighting trade union. We need a union which will counter attack by forcing the bosses to accept a 35-hour week as accepted by the present Executive Council of the AUEW.

Our union has a proud record. It has always stood in the vanguard of the working class to change society. Under its first socialist secretary, Tom Mann, the old AEU fought for real amalgamation and “one union for one industry.”

It led to the great battles of the last century for the 10-hour and then the 8-hour day. It was the first to recognise the great Clydeside general strike for the 40-hour week in 1919. It was because of the courageous strikes led by our union that the “Industrial Relations Act” was defeated under the last Tory government.

It was the vote of the AUEW delegation at last year’s Labour Party Conference which made possible the passing of the resolution on mandatory re-selection of MPs – one of the greatest steps forward in the application of real democracy since the Labour Party was formed.

It is this progressive and militant tradition of our union which is today being undermined.

At a time when the immediate application of the 35-hour week without loss of pay is a crucial means of fighting unemployment in the industry, our national leadership rewarded the enormous self-sacrifice made by our members during last winter’s strike by settling for a one-hour reduction and then accepting the employers’ demand for a four-year moratorium on any future demands for the 35-hour week.

At the rate that engineering factories are now closing down [60,000 in the Birmingham area alone last month] the majority of our members could be out of work in four years’ time!

Although some advance in the basic rate was achieved by the recent strike, this was achieved by the determination of the AUEW members to stick the strike out, despite the confusing tactic of one-, two-, and three-day strikes called for by the Executive.

A much greater advance both on the rate and towards the 35-hour week without loss of pay could have been won if the leadership had been willing to mobilise the full strength of the union in an all-out national strike.

Engineers now need a £100 minimum time rate index-linked, to combat rises in the cost of living.

The Employment Bill, aimed at undermining our bargaining power, as was the Industrial Relations Act in the 1970s by the Heath administration. Yet we see our executive already preparing the way for a policy of retreat.

Already Bro. Duffy has stated that the Executive can see no reason why the union should not accept the “softening up” money offered by the government to pay for all kinds of postal ballots. This means that the Executive Council is already accepting the ‘carrot’ which will lead on to the eating of the whole unpleasant dish.

Just as accepting government registration was the key which would have forced us to accept the whole of the Industrial Relations Act which Heath proposed, so taking this ‘Judas’ money will place the union under certain obligations to the government, and will be used by it, to involve the unions in the whole process of the present Employment Bill.

The one step that our Executive now seems to have taken toward Mr Prior can lead to our union losing its independence.

Over many years the AUEW built up a democratic structure which our members could be proud of, but unless we can remove the present right-wing domination in the EC and National Committee, the democratic rights of ordinary members will be seriously curtailed by the moves of the present Executive to alter the rules.

By their success in pushing through the present form of postal balloting for the election of national officers, the right wing tipped the balance in favour of their own election. They are now seeking to reap the fruits of that change of rules.

For the first time, the press was given the opportunity to seriously influence the internal affairs of the union by discrediting left-wing candidates and glorifying their opponents. The propaganda favouring the right-wing candidates influenced large numbers of card-holders who never attend Branch meetings or take any part in the work of maintaining and building the union.

The idea of the postal ballot was that these non-active members would swamp out the loyal and active members who dedicate themselves to keeping the union organisation alive. We are therefore getting National Presidents and General Secretaries elected as a result of the intervention of the pro-capitalist press.

The enormously expensive postal ballot system certainly produced a higher percentage vote than the old method of branch voting, but it is still a minority vote and is now falling again. The answer is to work for the transfer of balloting to the shop floor where the real strength of the union lies. This method, already used by the miners, would be by far the most democratic.

Policies of the candidates could be properly discussed at shop meetings and the ballot organised under the supervision of the shop steward.

Having gained its position by the present unfair system of balloting, the right wing is now moving towards other undemocratic organisational changes. Already proposals have been made to scrap most of the present branches and re-group them together into much larger regional branches under full-time paid secretaries. This would obviously make it more difficult for members to attend and is clearly designed to lessen the possibility of genuine rank and file control.

In the field of amalgamation too it is clear that the approach of our executive is one that favours a bureaucratic rather than a democratic form of organisation. The President and other continually complain about the TASS refusal to conform with the AUEW rule book and accept election of full-time officers.

It has to be said that the attitude of TASS on this question is indefensible and has allowed the right wing to point to the undemocratic nature of the left. TASS is led by Ken Gill, a member of the CP.

But this is merely a smokescreen to hide the fact that our Executive is not interested in an amalgamation with TASS because of the left position it takes on many important issues. This hypocrisy of the right wing was shown at rules revision conference when they tried to push through the appointment of full-time branch secretaries but were compelled to retreat by the weight of opposition to this proposal.

The right wing strongly favour amalgamation with the EETPU which is bureaucratically controlled by the extreme right wing.

Of course a genuinely democratic amalgamation with the EETPU should be supported by all trade unionists standing for working class unity, but the EETPU under Frank Chapple, has succeeded in introducing the general principle of selection rather than election of full-time officers and changing branch structure along the lines our Executive now seems to hanker after.

The question therefore arises, would the EETPU be asked to conform with our rules as they stand or are we going to be asked to change ours?

What has happened in factories all over Britain in recent months shows that the majority of working men and women in the industry do want the union to adopt a fighting policy. In case after case, where the workers have initially taken militant action against threatened redundancy or the dismissal of militant shop stewards, but they have been forced to accept defeat or a feeble compromise by our present Executive officers.

An outstanding example of this was the dismissal of Derek Robinson. True to our traditions, the workers in his factory took immediate action. Had they been immediately backed by the AUEW Executive, this disgraceful sacking of a steward for openly expressing his opinion against the views of management would never have taken place.

By their calculated procrastination, our union leadership turned what should have been a workers’ victory into a defeat, a defeat not only in one factory, but for the whole union organisation throughout the Leyland combine and nationally. This surrender to the will of the “Whiz-kid” Edwardes has lowered the whole standing and prestige of our union in the industry.

How is the damage done to be put right? We must revive a new genuine Broad Left, which will re-mobilise all the class-conscious and militant members of the union, a left which will avoid the mistakes of the past, which will strive to win the mass of the members for a clear programme of action and socialist policies.

Experience has shown that it is not enough to put blind faith in electing individuals to office, but to concentrate on winning the workers for an alternative policy to that of the right-wing opportunists.

Industrial tactics under Scanlon turned out to be no more effective than under Duffy. The guerrilla type of strikes practised in 1972/73 and advocated by the lefts on the EC and National Committee unnecessarily dispersed the forces of the union and achieved very little. It is a strange paradox that the present right-wing tactics advocating one-, two- and three-day strikes are not all that different from those advocated during the Scanlon era.

Such purely partial mobilisation of the union’s strength is inefficient and unnecessarily long-winded. To gain a real breakthrough in minimum wage-rates – still more to win the 35-hour week (now, not in four years) – we need an Executive with the courage to mobilise all the resources of the union for all-out national strike action.

In the coming presidential election, a revitalised left must of course campaign to get Bob Wright elected against Duffy. However, in doing this we must keep in mind how the “left” Scanlon, during the period of his journey from union head office to the House of Lords, ended up taking a right-wing position on most of the crucial issues facing the working class at that time.

He supported the so-called Social Contract when his union conference had opposed it, he supported incomes policy and the 5% when the trade union movement opposed it. He twice defied the decision of his own delegation at Labour Party Conference.

To win elections is not enough. Those we put forward must be committed to a programme which the workers understand and fight for.

The whole working class movement is now threatened with a return to the ’30s. Thatcher and her guru Sir Keith Joseph are deliberately engineering mass redundancies so that unemployment can be used as a whip to force the working class to accept a permanently lower standard of living.

The Broad Left should stand for:

  1. Elect Bob Wright as President.
  2. £100 per week, tied to the inflation rate.
  3. Immediate operation of 35-hour week.
  4. Fight all redundancies.
  5. Defend all trade union activists.
  6. Total opposition to Tory Employment Bill.
  7. Election of Labour government committed to a socialist programme.
  8. For a fighting engineers’ union!

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