Lessons of the trade union activists’ Broad Left Organising Committee

Miners' strike. Photo: Dave Sinclair

The strike wave of the last two years in Britain and in other European countries has taken levels of industrial action to a scale not seen since the 1980s. A new generation of trade union activists is learning through struggle, drawing lessons about how rank-and-file activists can organise to exert pressure on trade union  leaders – including organising to challenge for the leaderships of unions themselves.

We republish an edited article, written in 2014 by Bill Mullins, then Socialist Party (CWI England & Wales) national industrial organiser, about the role of the Broad Left Organising Committee during the workers’ struggles of the 1980s.

Forty years ago, a national conference took place in Sheffield organised by the Broad Left Organising Committee (Bloc). The meeting coincided with the start of the miners’ strike in March 1984.

The miners’ strike was a culmination of the rising tide of anger against the Margaret Thatcher government and its attacks on the trade union movement. Thatcher, the Tory prime minister, was preparing to close down the mining industry, aiming to break the powerful National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

Bloc was a formation of trade union broad lefts which had been set up earlier in response to developments in the Labour Party and the use of the trade union block vote in an undemocratic way by the right-wing trade union leaders.

At that time, many of the broad lefts were led or influenced by supporters of the Militant (the forerunner of the Socialist Party).

Militant argued that, because of the growing list of attacks on the working class and the miserable leadership given by many of the trade union leaders, the time was right to re-launch Bloc as a new initiative.

The aim was to try to give a lead from below to all those ready to struggle against the Tory onslaught.

It was clear that the original aims of Bloc would need to be developed. Bloc had developed a certain authority among many trade union activists.

It needed to develop this rank-and-file organisation and, at the same time, continue to put pressure on the official trade union bodies to prepare their members for the coming struggle.

Bloc played an important role in mobilising workers behind the miners throughout their strike, including organising pickets of the power stations and a 2,000-strong lobby of the TUC conference in September 1984 to demand a 24-hour general strike to back the miners.

Bloc held tremendously important conferences and campaigns throughout the 1980s on many issues, including important international workers’ struggles. Regional Bloc organisations were developed and conferences took place throughout the country. This included a London conference in October 1986 against the privatisation of Thames Water.

In April 1986, the second national Bloc conference again took place in Sheffield. The miners’ strike had finished in March 1985.

The defeat of the miners affected the mood of the whole working class; nevertheless 1,800 trade union delegates were at the conference to debate the key issues of the day.

The conference was called in conjunction with the socialist-led Liverpool District Labour Party and its theme was “how to map out a strategy to defeat the witch-hunt [in the Labour Party] and build the left”.

In 1983, the Labour Party’s national leaders had expelled the five members of the Militant newspaper editorial board and, in November 1985, they suspended Liverpool District Labour Party, in their drive to suppress socialist ideas.

Derek Hatton and Tony Mulhearn, Liverpool councillors who were eventually removed from office by the Tory government in 1987 along with 45 others, addressed the conference.

The Bloc conference also highlighted the battle by the South African working class against apartheid and discussed how the trade unions in Britain should aid that struggle.

The president of the South African TGWU, Jeremiah Zulu, got a standing ovation when he called for direct links between the rank and file of the trade unions in Britain and South Africa.

A special conference was held in July 1986 in Birmingham, attended by over 350 delegates. This had the theme of fighting the privatisation of the public sector which had been unleashed by the Thatcher government.

At the time, Militant supporter and now Socialist Party National Committee member Dave Nellist was the Labour MP for Coventry South East. He opened the conference by calling for the renationalisation of all privatised services and industry with one third of the management boards made up of elected representatives of workers in the industry, one third from the TUC and one third from a Labour government.

Compensation would only be paid based on proven need. The conference called for Bloc to create a health service broad left to fight NHS privatisation.

Bloc organised another conference in February 1988 which over 1,200 delegates attended, including many from the health service.

When it was planned in September 1987, nobody foresaw the explosion of strikes, ranging from the health service to Ford in Basildon and many others, that would take place leading up to the conference.

On one night shift in Manchester, 38 nurses had taken strike action in frustration at understaffing, working conditions and low pay. They then left the RCN and joined Cohse, which later became part of Unison. The strike hit the headlines and forced the government into a U-turn. This changed the whole mood of the trade union movement.

The conference called for the TUC to organise a one-day general strike in support of the NHS and the TUC was forced – by the mood of workers – to organise a national day of action on this issue, which included strike action at local level.

Bloc’s role was crucial in showing what could be done if the trade union movement got together and acted in unison.

Unfortunately, despite Bloc’s growing influence, the right-wing dominance at the top of the unions effectively blocked the path to more militant action.

The right wing’s policies were based on acceptance of the market and capitalism. The argument was that this required a “new realism” – in other words, unlike the 1970s when militancy was the norm which, the right wing argued, led to the Thatcher government.

By the end of the 1980s, it was clear that the period in which Bloc could play a vital role was drawing to a close. The collapse of the Berlin Wall and capitalist ideological offensive led to a fall in the political consciousness of many trade union activists.

It required new events and a new, younger layer of activists to be brought into the struggle before the human forces for any new similar organisation would be available.

Bloc’s programme sought to unite all the struggles that workers were involved in. It called for:

  • Regular election of all trade union officials
  • Only the average workers’ wage for all officials
  • Opposition to all witch-hunts in the Labour Party and the unions
  • Building the shop stewards’ combines at local, regional, and national level
  • A 35-hour week without loss of pay
  • A campaign to defeat the attacks on abortion rights
  • Repeal of all the anti-union laws
  • Full support for health workers and for a 24-hour general strike

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April 2024