Bill Mullins, a former senior shop steward in the auto industry and later industrial organiser of the Socialist Party in Britain, recounts the mighty struggle of shop-floor trade unionists in Britain 50 years ago in defeating the attempt by Ted Heath’s Tory government to legally shackle the workers’ movement. Importantly, Bill illustrates the potential power of the trade unions to change society.
Not since the ‘Great Unrest’ of 1911-14 and the period of strikes following World War One had there been anything like it in Britain.
The decade of the 1970s witnessed a wave of strikes averaging ten million days lost in production every year; and the growth of shop-floor organisation with over 12 million workers in trade unions affiliated to the Trades Union Congress (TUC – the all-Britain union federation), mainly in the manufacturing industry but rapidly being replicated in the public sector and white-collar industries as well, particularly among low-paid workers.
All this ferment came to a head during that stormy period of ‘workers’ power’.
The most striking phenomenon, commented on almost every day by the capitalist press, was the existence of the trade union shop stewards movement – with over 350,000 shop stewards, mainly in manufacturing, which included engineering, the car industry and steel industry, plus the docks, and elsewhere.
These shop stewards were directly elected by workers on the shop floor and generally subject to instant recall if found wanting. In other words, they were answerable to the mass of organised workers and not so much to the union officialdom.
The establishment daily newspapers were foaming at the mouth about how shop stewards were running things on the shop floor and continually calling ‘wildcat’ strikes without the say-so of the union leaders.
For the capitalist press, and the boss class they spoke for, this was an intolerable negation of the ‘managers right to manage’ as they put it, and something had to be done about it’.
The UK ruling class was desperate to make the economy competitive with its foreign rivals, but since the capitalists had refused to reinvest sufficiently the enormous profits they had made from empire and the sweat of the British working class, they only had one option: that was to super-exploit the labour of the working class in the factories and industry in general. But to do that they had to remove their greatest obstacle, the power of the organised workers on the shop floor manifested in the power of the shop stewards.
This was not the same as saying the national unions were not strong; they were numerically. But, dialectically, real union power resided not so much at the unions’ tops, but in the accumulated experience and tight-knit organisation which existed on the shop floor. In the better-organised workplaces this allowed the working class to act with independence and confidence when it came to repelling the boss’s orders.
Not for nothing did Trotsky in an earlier period comment that the trade unions, particularly in Britain, were “the schools of a future socialist society and how it would be organised”.
Yet hardly any union rule book mentioned what a shop steward was. The TGWU transport union referred to a steward as someone who collected union dues and nothing else.
‘In place of strife’
It was the 1968 Labour government of prime minister Harold Wilson which made the first attempt to curb this shop-floor power. But he had to rapidly retreat from his misnamed ‘In place of strife’ legislation.
Wilson’s government, acting as the ‘second eleven’ of the capitalist class (it included future left-winger Tony Benn in the cabinet, who initially supported In place of strife) tried to use its influence over the trade union leaders to support its anti-working-class law.
There is no doubt that if it had been up to the overwhelming majority of the national trade union leaders, they would have gone along with Wilson’s proposals – which contained the threat to imprison shop stewards if they disobeyed the instructions of the union leaders.
Wilson had based his legislation on the Donovan commission’s ‘investigation into industrial relations’, which Wilson himself had set up not long after he became prime minster for the second time in 1966.
The political left at the time was of course aware of these developments, but the main political left party (albeit relatively small) in industry was the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) with its daily paper the Morning Star. (This party is not be to confused with the small group that took on its name after the ‘original’ CPGB dissolved itself in 1991)
The CPGB was able to play an important role in politically arming the most class-conscious militants in the shop stewards’ committees at the time. They did this through a front organisation called the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (LCDTU).
Militant, the forerunner of the Socialist Party had been founded in 1964, based on the ideas and methods of Trotsky. It was slowly building at the time and was able to comment on these developments through its then monthly paper the Militant (see The Rise of Militant).
The Labour government eventually was forced to withdraw In place of strife after a series of unofficial strikes organised by union militants.
June 1970 saw the election of a Tory government with Ted Heath as prime minister. Its manifesto had promised, “to stabilise industrial relations by forcing concentration of bargaining power and responsibility in the formal union leadership, using the courts”.
I had become a shop steward on the car track at the Rover (British Leyland) car company in Solihull, south-east of Birmingham, the previous year. And I had been made aware of the proposed anti-union laws through reading the Morning Star sold to me by a CPGB shop steward on the next section of the track.
We had participated in debates that were taking place in the shop stewards’ weekly committee meetings about these developments. And we had attended rallies in London organised by the LCDTU.
What really struck home (and made it very personal) was the threat to imprison individual shop stewards by the proposed Industrial Relations Court.
This was no idle threat. Later on, five dockers’ shop stewards known as the ‘Pentonville Five’ were indeed imprisoned (see ‘1972: dockers face down the Tory government’ at socialistparty.org.uk).
General strike call
It was therefore no surprise to us when we received a letter from the LCDTU calling for a general strike against the proposed Industrial Relations Bill.
The 300-strong Rover confederated shop stewards committee, Solihull, drawn from eight different unions representing 8,000 workers on the shop floor, agreed to call a mass meeting and propose a one-day strike against the bill.
The mass meeting took place (as probably did many others at the same time around the country) and voted almost unanimously to strike on 8 December 1970.
We had no real idea how many other workplaces were also doing the same, in fact, nobody asked, we took it for granted that everybody else felt the same – which, in general, is a mistake!
As it turned out, the strike was supported by wide layers in engineering, the car industry, the docks, and other places – probably in the region of 250,000 to 500,000 workers.
Much later on I found out that this had caused quite a debate in the CPGB and the strike was disowned by its national leaders, as well, of course, by the national trade union leaders.
Nevertheless, it gives an indication of the febrile atmosphere on the shop floor and it was one of the first ‘political’ strikes of that period.
The effect of this unofficial ‘political’ strike was to put the fear of god into some of the union leaders, who saw this as another example of how they were losing control of their members.
But there was also a developing layer of newish left union leaders who had come to the fore in the preceding years. These included Jack Jones (who had fought in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War), who was the leader of the biggest union, the TGWU, and Hugh Scanlon, the president of the AUEW (both unions are now part of Unite). Together, they were dubbed by the capitalist newspapers as “the two most powerful men in Britain”.
Later on, when the Industrial Relations Court was in use, the TGWU was fined twice – £10,000 and £50,000 – for defying the law and not bringing its shop stewards to heel.
The AUEW was also fined but refused to pay the fine on the casting vote of Hugh Scanlon, who instead called a one-day strike of the union’s 1.5 million members against the fine.
The fine was paid secretly by a group of businessmen to save the embarrassment of the Heath government, otherwise, it was likely that the AUEW would have continued to refuse to pay any fines handed down by John Donaldson, the president of the Industrial Relations Court. Undoubtedly, the bosses feared that the situation could have escalated into a general strike.
12 January 1971 saw a TUC organised ‘day of action’ against the Industrial Relations Bill (it didn’t become law until March 1971).
The day of action included the biggest-ever TUC demo up till then of 300,000 and was dubbed a ‘Kill the Bill’ demo, with placards depicting a shop steward imprisoned behind bars.
There have been bigger demos since, but the difference with, for example, the huge demo against the Iraq war in February 2003, was the composition of those participating.
The anti-war demos of the early 2000s, taking nothing away from them, were mainly individuals outraged at the actions of their governments.
However, the January 1971 TUC demo was primarily made up of shop stewards from industry who had been delegated by their members to go to London and tell the Tories where to put their anti-union legislation,
I was there as part of a 100-strong delegation of shop stewards from Rover Solihull. Most of the factory had gone on strike for the day of action.
The demo was a forceful reminder, not just to the Tory government but to the TUC leaders, that there was no way the organised working class on the shop floor would accept from the Tories what they had rejected from the previous Labour government ie any attempt to curtail their painstakingly accrued rights on the shop floor by legal sleight of hand.
There were four unofficial days of strike action between December 1970 and March 1971, including one backed by the AUEW.
But the TUC leaders steadfastly refused to countenance strike action. Consequently, TUC general secretary Vic Feather was continually heckled when he addressed a 10,000-strong union rally in Glasgow against the bill on 7 March.
Eventually, the bill became law, but it was made inoperable from the beginning despite all the huff and puff of the judges and the legal establishment.
Part of its provisions included the ‘right not to be in a union’. This saw a number of attempts, including at my factory, by right-wing individuals to rip up their union cards. They were dealt with summarily by the shop floor who refused to work with them (we were a ‘closed shop’ ie 100% obligatory union membership) and management was forced to get rid of them.
In September 1971, the TUC conference voted for a resolution forbidding affiliated unions, on pain of expulsion from the TUC, from registering with the act. This resulted in a number of smaller unions being expelled from the TUC.
This was replicated at local level where, for example, SOGAT, a print union, was expelled from Birmingham trades council. I moved the resolution at that meeting.
Later, when the 1974 Labour government repealed the act, the expelled unions were readmitted into the TUC and the local trades councils.
A number of important lessons from that period were being drawn at the time as the pulse of events opened up new perspectives. Inherent within the whole situation at that time was a general strike.
It was debated quite a lot, and even though I had not yet met Militant or its small number of supporters at that time, I remember vividly discussing ‘what next?’ on the shop stewards committee.
Our convenor was a member of the CPGB and he was putting forward the demand for ‘all power to the general council’. This was the leading body of the TUC.
It seems this was an echo of what the CPGB called for at the time of the 1926 general strike. That was heavily criticised by Trotsky as wholly inadequate when it was clear that both the left and the right wing on the general council in the days and weeks leading up to the general strike were preparing to abandon the struggle before it even began.
It seemed that the CPGB of 1971 had not learnt much from the CPGB of 1926.
Unbeknown to me, the Militant paper and its supporters were addressing what was needed to advance the struggle at the time. It argued for a 24-hour general strike as a warning shot to Heath followed by escalating action if needed.
The battle against the Industrial Relations Act was won by the organised working class, and it would take the political defeat on the electoral plane in the 1979 general election, which brought to power Maggie Thatcher, for the capitalist class to get their revenge.
Only after the experience of a failed Labour government, which politically disarmed the working class, were the Tories able to gradually reintroduce anti-union legislation again.
Yet there were many opportunities throughout the Thatcher years that with the right leadership, the working class could have once again defeated the bosses.
“As 1971 drew to a close the editors [of Militant, the forerunner of the Socialist] predicted that the next year would see… the gathering storm. The British workers in 1971 have not yet thrown out the Tories or their hated system. But they achieved more than in any year since the war: three mass strikes and a gigantic march of 300,000 against the Industrial Relations Act; two token strikes of 150,000 Scottish workers in support of the mass action by Upper Clyde Shipbuilders workers; the Plessey sit-in; heroic struggles by many sections of workers, notably the postal workers and Ford workers; more mass strikes around the TUC lobby on unemployment; and a landslide rout of the Tories in the municipal elections.
The early 1970s witnessed the organised British working class flexing their muscles and defeating by direct strike action all attempts by the new Tory government of Ted Heath to bring them to heel.”
From ‘The Rise of Militant’ by Peter Taaffe