Tony Cliff

Prologue to an upturn

(June 1983)

From Socialist Review, No. 55, June 1983, pp. 16–19.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The recent crop of strikes, at Halewood, Tilbury, Timex and Cowley, have shown a small shift in the industrial climate. what has led to these strikes, and how should socialists relate to them? We reprint a speech by Tony Cliff to the National Committee of the SWP which answers these questions.

A group of strikes – Cowley, Halewood, Timex, Tilbury – came together in many ways different from those before. When we saw workers going on a four week strike over the sacking of Paul Kelly for allegedly bending a bracket costing 86p, with the loss of 19,000 cars worth £100 million, we knew there was something different happening. The same was true of a four and a half week strike over washing up time of six minutes.

We have to explain the common features of these strikes. They were not the upturn itself – more the prologue to the upturn. Two kinds of strike were involved, not always separate. The first relates to an upturn in the economy of the enterprise or plant; the second has to do with workers becoming immune to the level of unemployment.

Let us start with the first. We have to remember that even in the terrible downturn of the 1930’s there was growth in particular industries. The aircraft industry expanded massively – the number of aircraft workers rose from 17,600 in 1930 to 29,100 in 1935, to 60,000 in 1936 and 120,000 in 1938, though the total number of engineers remained constant. The consequence was a bitter explosion of strikes in the aircraft industry.

When we turn to the present, we can see a similar pattern of growth producing conflict. At Cowley in November 1982, Alan Thornett was sacked after 20 years as a shop steward. It was clearly a frame-up of a very good steward. Yet there was a vote of ten to one against supporting him. But in April this year a strike over six minutes’ washing-up time lasted six weeks. What happened in between?

The extra employment of some 1,400 workers followed investment of £250 million, and without the success of the new Maestro, there would not have been a rebirth of confidence among the workers. The same applies to Halewood. With hire purchase restrictions lifted on cars, a significant expansion in demand took place. The Escort, produced in Halewood, is among the top sellers in the country. The explosion over Paul Kelly’s sacking was workers saying ‘we want our share’.

With the strike at Tilbury we saw something similar. Containerisation cut the labour force by an enormous amount. In 1947 there were 80,000 registered dockers in the country. In 1972, 42,000. At present, only 15,000. The Catherine, Surrey and India docks all closed. The Royal Docks smelt of death over many years. The few hundred who went from the Royals to Tilbury were astonished by the magnificent machinery, by the port being full of ships. Here was something to bite into, a feeling that despite the general downturn things were on the up.

Less well known are a series of strikes following investment made a few months before. At GEC Hitachi, South Wales, 1200 mainly women workers had accepted a wage freeze in April 1982. In October 1982 with the introduction of new models workers were ready to put the boot in and went on strike. At Halewood and Ackroyd, Leeds, new investment and new machinery meant 300 workers on strike for six weeks. At Bonar Long, in Dundee, 400 workers came out for two weeks after £2½ million investment. A massive order book at Yarrow shipyards lay behind a week-long strike against the blacklisting of a shop steward. At GKN Telford, the labour force declined from 4,000 to 1,800. There was short time working, strikes were non-existent. Then with overtime working, the immediate reaction was that it was time to fight.

In the new Selby coalfield in South Yorkshire there have been overtime bans’ and continuous delays in production at the £1,000 million development and miners have refused to accept the performance standards suggested by the NCB.

Again, at Firth Derihon Sheffield 80 workers were out for over eight weeks – and won. Management already had four volunteers for redundancy – all they wanted was another five.

The recent South Yorkshire strike of steel craftsmen was a combination of the two types of strike. On the one hand, it was a profitable part of the industry, with the possibility of privatisation. On the other, there were only some 80 to 90 compulsory redundancies involved-thousands of jobs had already gone.

What we can conclude from all this is that a small economic upturn in specific enterprises can give a massive boost to the level of struggle.

The second kind of strike was the strike of desperation. Miners beating up a National Coal Board official is a reflection of just such a feeling. It didn’t happen in 1972 because then miners had a feeling of confidence in their own strength. Now, some significant groups of workers are beginning to say ‘enough is enough’.

One expression of this feeling could be seen with Timex. Since January management had wanted 1,900 redundancies. They had 1,703 volunteers-the other 197 redundancies were to be compulsory. But the workers said ‘enough is enough’.

The same goes for Albion, Glasgow; over the last couple of years a thousand jobs have gone. The strike was over 146 jobs. Albion was one of the few Leyland vehicle plants not to become involved in the five week strike which began in January 1982, a strike against the sacking of 4,000 workers of the Leyland vehicles workforce.

Nobody should think that the question of voluntary redundancies disappears. The Port of London Authority wanted 300 redundancies – they had 900 volunteers. At Halewood, management wanted 1,400 – the last reports indicated 1,700 volunteers.

But in all these strikes, we have seen groups of workers who have grown immune to the threat of unemployment, exploding in complete bitterness.

Slumps and booms – capitalism’s pulse

Why were these strikes important? Because they pre-figure what might happen under an. economic upturn. And that will happen because slumps and booms are the heartbeat of capitalism, even of ageing capitalism, when the heartbeat is less regular. Over the next year unemployment will continue to rise, but less speedily. In specific industries, employment will increase.

What we now have to understand is how these strikes were fought. For example, in Cowley, who led the strike? What is interesting is that the rank and file fought-while the union officials controlled. The shop stewards played only a very small role. David Buckle, the T&G official, was the crucial person, not Bobby Fryer, the convenor.

This would not have been the case ten years ago. Even the press noticed that this was not a traditional strike, led by shop steward ‘troublemakers’. Why the domination by the union officials? The truth is that the deterioration of the power of the shop stewards has been underestimated, even by us. The reason is the bureaucratisation of the negotiating top table.

According to Professor Clegg, in 1978 there were 10,000 full time shop stewards (more than the total number of union officials). There were also a massive number of senior stewards with a lot of facility time. So, while only 11.7 percent of manufacturing industry had full time convenors, another 74 percent had senior stewards not necessarily with full facility time of 100 percent, but with one or two days off per week.

In 1978 at Cowley, there were two full time convenors (one T&G, the other AUEW), seven fulltime deputy convenors (T&G), five fulltime deputy convenors (AUEW). That’s 14 out of a workforce of some 4,000. In addition there were 80 senior stewards, not fulltime. Quite rightly one expert in industrial relations could write ‘fulltime stewards have to a large extent come into being through management initiative.’

Since then, their role in the factory has declined. Once these fulltimers had done their job in response to the Edwardes plan, and weakened shop organisation, management was able to turn on them and push the majority back to work. Out of the 14 mentioned earlier, there are now only two full- timers. Being out of touch with their members, they had no power to resist the management offensive.

The same lack of contact could be seen at Tilbury. The only SWP member on the negotiating top table of 15 was consistently in a minority of one. Yet when it came to putting compromises to the mass meetings, they were constantly rejected by huge majorities. Why were these shop stewards out of touch? Simply because they no longer represented a section. By being responsible to everybody, they were responsible to nobody.

Another factor weakening the power of the shop steward has been the growth of the check-off system of paying union dues. Back in 1970 this was only widespread in the electrical power industry and the railways. Now 73 percent of trade unionists in manufacturing industry pay through check-off. In the old days the first duty of the steward was to collect the dues. If that is not done, there is practically no relationship between a steward and his members.

The impact of this weakening of shop organisation has been twofold. First, we tend to think of shop stewards as organisers of struggle. But if we check carefully we can see that they also act as firemen, putting out disputes. A frequent boast from stewards is that they have solved more strikes than led them. It was this aspect that made one industrial relations expert say:

‘Full time stewards to a large extent came into being through management initiative...For the most part the steward is viewed by others, and views himself, as an accepted, reasonable, and even moderating influence, more of a lubricant than an irritant.’

The shop steward’s role has weakened

Even when capitalism was expanding (in the 1950s and early 1960s) the shop stewards had this double role. Now, with the economic crisis, this double role is greatly weakened. They are often neither strong enough to lead strikes nor able to act as firemen. Management insults them, So strikes break out completely spontaneously, without being led.

So if the impact of weakened shop organisation is to bypass the shop stewards, the second point is that it strengthens the role of the trade union leadership.

The unions have not been decimated by the crisis. There is no analogy with the 192W and 1930s on this point. For example, 14 1920, 45 percent of workers were in unions, by 1932 only 23 percent. There was a collapse in membership from eight million to four million. Given that unemployment at its height did not rise much above three million, many must have become non-unionised without being unemployed.

Compare that with today. Unemployment has risen to four million. In 1979, 55 percent of workers were unionised; in late 1981, 52 percent. So the proportion remains much the same, with only a slight decline. It is nothing like the 30s.

So the union organisation still exists. It is the shop organisation which is so weak. That means that workers have to huddle with the union bureaucrats. In the absence of a strong shop floor organisation, workers’ spontaneous struggle will get leadership from people like David Buckle or Moss Evans.

What we have to understand is the role of the trade union bureaucracy under such conditions. In an upturn, workers wonder what more they can get. So the emphasis is on the specific and the sectional. For example, when London engineering stewards met in the 1960s they would compare factories to see which got more. The trade union bureaucracy would provide a national wage level which independent shop floor organisation would then try and improve on.

Under conditions of retreat, exactly the opposite is the case. The national wage agreement is the minimum. People are frightened that wages will sink beneath the floor.

As one expert on industrial relations puts it:

‘The more decentralised the bargaining system, the faster wages are likely to move in whatever direction they are moving anyway.’

Hence in the 1950s and 60s workers paid much less heed to national wage agreements than they had done in the 20s and 30s and in the depression of recent years.

What management would love at present is plant negotiations without reference to national agreements. As far as they are concerned the wages’ picture is much messier than it was three to four years ago, and this is where they would like a breakthrough. In response, therefore, workers are forced to look to the trade union bureaucracy as protection against the cold.

Finally, on the nature of the bureaucracy, we have to recognise that they are not a monolith. The trade union bureaucracy is under the pressure of workers on the one hand, and under the pressure of employers and the state on the other.

So it vacillates. But different layers do so differently. When you move from Moss Evans to David Buckle (both in the T&G), you find that Moss Evans vacillates much less than David Buckle. Why? Because Moss Evans is not insulted on a regular basis as David Buckle is by the Cowley management and is under less direct pressure from workers.

That means there are splits within the bureaucracy. Of course, we have no delusions that sections of the bureaucracy can lead us to the revolution. But the splits do open the door to intervention.

We must build the steward’s organisation

The key to intervention is rebuilding shop organisation. Now it is true that the change to measured day work shifted the balance from shop stewards to the national level (that applies in the mines, the docks and the car industry). And it is also true that if you don’t negotiate by the piece it is much more difficult for stewards to bite into anything.

But it would be a terrible mistake to assume that you can’t have workers’ control, or extension of control, or mutuality, under any other system. (Mutuality, to put it simply, is where management has no right to decide any change without a workers’ representative agreeing to the change). You can have it under measured day work.

We shouldn’t idealise piece work. Marx, for example, attacked it as a vicious, horrible form of exploitation. Workers eventually learnt how to bend the piece rate system; there’s no reason why they shouldn’t learn to bend the measured day work system.

The best instance is the. Flint strike of 1937, when 150,000 workers took on General Motors. Their demand was abolition of piece work and union participation in regulating the pace of the conveyor belt.

Two examples in my book The Employers’ Offensive (1970) show how it is possible to control the speed of the belt.

The first comes from the foundry at Dagenham, where one belt went much slower than another because a good steward was in charge. The second comes from a glass factory. Because the management insisted on fixing the speed of the belt, the quality control worker simply inspected so few glasses that the rest were smashed as substandard. In the end, management were compelled to slow the speed of the belt. Again, it was a question of good shop steward organisation. Workers who have learnt over a long period of time how to bend piece rates, do find and will continue to find, ways to control measured day work.

But the change from piece rates to measured day work hit stewards’ organisation very hard. If you look at the docks and engineering, for example, you can see that stewards’ organisation gained its strength from the fights around the piece rate and around bonuses. Once measured day work was introduced things changed.

You can see the effects in many places, but to take just one, ten years ago the quarterly AUEW shop stewards’ meetings in Beaver Hall attracted between 200 and 300 stewards. Now the attendance is around 25.

But the piece rate is gone in many industries and we have to look at the situation as it is now, with measured day work.

The last point to note about measured day work is that when the explosion comes it will be on a much bigger scale. Take the mines. After 1966 there was no more piece rate working and the number of strikes collapsed. But then there was the upsurge of 1972 and 1974. Compare, too, the strike pattern in Leyland and Ford. Until the introduction of measured day work at Leyland, there were always lots of little disputes. Ford, on the other hand, has had measured day work since the 30s, with few strikes, but these strikes have always been on a massive scale:

Finally, how do we go about building the shop stewards’ organisation? The first point to note is that by definition every new beginning of workers’ struggle starts from new areas. Take the history of the British labour movement. In 1880 the big expansion in the trade unions came with the dockers, people who had no tradition of organising. In 1930, the new impetus came from another section, the aeroplane industry.

The second point to note is that it is usually new people who lead these struggles. This is clear from the three major American strikes of 1934: the Toledo auto component workers, the Minneapolis truck drivers, and the San Francisco longshoremen.

For evidence of the newness of these people, take the case of the teamsters’ leader, Farrell Dobbs himself: In 1932, he admitted he voted Republican. At Toledo, the leader A.J. Muste, was a paid peddler of religion, a minister!

Again, if we take Minneapolis, we can see how things started from virtually nothing. Originally there were 70 teamsters in the union, and a tiny group, 30 to 40, of Trotsky’s followers. But in a matter of weeks, together they had organised 7,000 into the union, which then grew into a strike involving between 40,000 and 50,000 in the whole city.

We can also see something else. It was a matter of small groups intervening from the outside. The editor of the teamsters’ daily strike paper, The Agitator was Max Shachtman. He never drove a lorry in his life.

The same phenomenon could be seen in Britain, though on a smaller scale, and less dramatically because the unions were already well-established and had greater weight.

According to Richard Croucher, author of Engineers at War, the most important strike in the 30s was that of the engineering apprentices of 1937. Starting in Scotland, it spread to Manchester, Birmingham, Coventry and eventually London. In Glasgow and the west of Scotland, 150,000 adult workers came out on strike to support the apprentices.

As far as new rank and file initiatives were concerned, again we have to note youth to the fore. The Propellor (which soon became The New Propellor) came out of the Hawker aircraft dispute of 1935 and turned into the organ of the aircraft shop stewards’ national council. It was edited by a young man of 25.

At Siemens electrical engineering plant, the biggest in the south east, the creation of an effective shop stewards’ organisation was due largely to the imaginative efforts of another young CPer in his mid-twenties. The rank and file leaders writes Charles Welford:

‘... in the late twenties or early thirties had already accumulated a great deal of experience within the labour movement.’

What Croucher says of the apprentices’ strike has a general application:

‘It shows that experience in industrial matters is often less important than enthusiasm and determination.’

But the key is still politics. The CP led many of these strikes but because of their popular frontism they led the strikes to nothing. Nor is technical expertise any substitute. Shachtman, the editor of the Teamsters’ strike paper, probably knew little about the teamsters’ rate of pay. You can have the cleverest negotiators in the world, but that counts for nothing if you cannot mobilise people. Similarly, the editor of the London busmen’s rank and file paper The Platform for two decades was George Renshaw, who never worked on the buses.

This emphasis on politics is very important for us in the here and now. For the majority of us a strike comes as an external event. This is true for the series of strikes we have recently witnessed (Cowley, Tilbury, Timex, etc) even where we have a couple of members working inside.

What politics means can best be illustrated by the Tilbury dispute. The fact that the SWP raised incomparably more money than either the Labour Party or the Communist Party was important, less for whether it would stop the strike being lost than whether it would help locate the ones or twos in each workplace prepared to identify with the dockers. And that is an extremely political issue. It was easy to support the hospital workers because everybody loves hospital workers. But dockers are seen as lazy and overpaid.

The other important political aspect has to do with leadership in the workplace. And here we meet the law of uneven development. If the level of class consciousness were even we would need no insurrection. The Russian revolution did not take place all in one go. It started with a few thousand in Petrograd, with the majority of the workers in the city watching them favourably. Success there then gave confidence to the rising a few days later in Moscow. Nevertheless, the loss of life was much greater. And so the process continued throughout the whole country.

When we apply this law to the workplace we can see the same thing. In locating the ones and twos by collecting money for strikes, we are locating the ones and twos who are prepared to fight and who are prepared to identify with our politics. It is out of such small scale activities that a leadership is built for the struggles of the future. And the issues around which the struggle takes off can be quite small to begin with, health and safety, overtime distribution, manning and deployment, and the like.

We do not create that relationship by simply presenting ourselves as the optimists expecting the upturn. We did not collect money for the dockers on that basis. What we are out to show at present is that the method of collecting money is exactly the same method of leading a strike or an insurrection.

We, have to isolate the scabs and the cowards and pull the vacillating elements behind the militants and fighters. But to do that you have to start with the minority, and build support among wider and wider layers. The method is the same whether it’s a strike or an insurrection. You can only start with the few that are prepared to fight.

That is the method we have to understand about building a leadership. The point is that workers will never be without a leadership. That can be a union bureaucracy leadership, a reformist leadership, or a revolutionary leadership. Everybody has political ideas in their beads, and in the absence of revolutionary ideas, they will be reformist ones.

We have to transform the SWP into a party of leaders. Lenin stated that the revolutionary party has no rank and file, only leaders. What is meant by that is that we don’t simply understand the perspective but carry it out. In talking about relating to the minority prepared to fight, no one can afford to be passive. Every member must be actively involved.

Whether from inside or outside the workplace, for us it is the workplace which is central in the struggle for socialism. The creation of a network of militant stewards is central for building in industry. It is also central to overcoming the isolation of individual shop stewards, who, if they are left isolated are forced to subordinate themselves to the fulltime official.

In the cold world of the downturn the industrial militant cannot survive, cannot keep his or her spirit unless they are inspired by socialist ideas and are part of a community of militants. Pure industrial militancy will lead to either total resignation and apathy, or total co-option into the trade union bureaucracy.

We are faced with the twin dangers of passivity and co-option into the trade union bureaucracy. This means that it. is no longer sufficient to find a small issue and build from there. The only way militants can avoid the pitfalls is if they take a much wider political view. Overcoming the isolation of individual militants will not happen automatically – it will only happen if they understand the politics of the situation.


Last updated on 4 October 2019