Tony Cliff

In the balance

(February 1995)

From Socialist Review, No. 183, February 1995.
Copyright © 1995 Socialist Review.
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The recent victory by signal workers shows the working class is beginning to stir again following years of Tory attacks. Tony Cliff assesses the state of the movement as it enters a new phase of industrial conflict

The industrial struggle

In the industrial struggle we have had three stages over the past 25 years: the period of upturn, the period of downturn and now the third stage – a period of transition. Elements of the first and second stages combined together in the present situation.

What did the upturn mean? There were massive workers’ victories punctuated by a few defeats. In 1971 for example, Upper Clyde shipbuilders decided to sack 2,500 out of a 8,500 workforce. The workers occupied the shipyard, 200,000 Scottish workers struck in solidarity and 80,000 went on a demonstration. The Strathclyde police were so shocked by the situation that the chief constable phoned the prime minister and told him he could not be responsible for civil order on the Clyde unless the government changed its policy on UCS. So the government did a U-turn and UCS was saved. Following this, 200 other factories were occupied.

Again, in 1972, five dockers were arrested for breaking the Tory anti-union laws. This led to a national dock strike, Fleet Street came out, the engineers came out, the TUC called for a national strike and the government capitulated. Then there were the miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974. There was no question of miners picketing miners – there were hardly any pickets at all. Miners were known to put banners on railway bridges saying ‘NUM official picket’ and the ASLEF driver would stop the train because he would not cross the picket line. There was fantastic solidarity at that time.

These were the big events, the big waves if you like. But the pressure that made those big waves was the strength of shop stewards’ organisation, which was highly independent of the bureaucracy. To see how this worked in practice we can look at what was called ‘wage drift’. The national union would negotiate a national agreement for wages but the shop stewards in individual workplaces would press for extra money. Between 1964 and 1967 the national agreed wage in engineering rose by 4.7 percent while actual wages rose by 17.1 percent. The wage drift was 12.4 percent, nearly three times greater than the nationally agreed rise. In June 1968 the standard wage of an engineering fitter was £13 per week while the actual average was £23 per week.

Between 1965 and 1968 a full 95 percent of all strikes were unofficial, and in the car industry it was 99 percent. In the docks, between 1960 and 1965, 410 out of 421 strikes – accounting for 94 percent of days lost – were unofficial.

It was commonly said that if you wanted to win a strike it was important to win before the union office heard about it.

Shop stewards were highly confident and aware of their own power. In one north London factory, ENV, the shop stewards were always competing with one another about who could be the first to cause the foreman to have a nervous breakdown. A new American manager came to ENV. He spoke to the shop stewards and told them that they were all one happy family at the factory. The manager left his office for a while and when he came back he found Geoff Carlson, the convenor, sitting in the manager’s chair with his feet on the table. The manager said, “Mr Carlson, what are you doing?” to which Geoff replied, “You said we are one happy family. In my family I always put my feet on the table,” adding, “I have broken more managers than you’ve had hot dinners”. This is what confidence of the rank and file really meant.

The more the workers are confident against the bosses, the less dependent they are on union officials. The less dependent on union officials, the more confident they are against the bosses. At the heart of the shop stewards’ movement, the cement which held it together, was the Communist Party. The CP, with a few tens of thousands of members was crucial because around it collected not only CP sympathisers but the Labour left. So, for example, in December 1970 the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions called an unofficial one day strike against the Tory Industrial Relations Bill and 600,000 workers came out on strike. Besides the Liaison Committee there was the London Docks Liaison Committee, the Building Workers Joint Strike Committee, the Exhibition Workers Committee, the London Sheet Metal Workers Organisation and so on.

The downturn

Then came the downturn. After the miners’ strike of 1974 the Tories lost office. The Economist, the bosses’ magazine, said what is necessary now is to get Labour to make scabbing respectable. That is exactly what happened.

Workers were clear when it came to a fight against the Tories. The simple slogan was “Tories out”. But when it came to the alternative, for 99 percent of workers it was simply “Labour in”. There was no level of generalisation or clarity of consciousness, about what to say when Labour came to power introducing anti-working class policies. When the Social Contract was introduced by agreement between the Labour Party and the trade union leaders (led crucially by the left), the result was that scabbing became respectable.

In February 1977, 2,000 toolroom workers went on strike throughout British Leyland. The government threatened to sack them. The left engineering leader Hugh Scanlon supported the government. Derek Robinson, convenor of Longbridge with 28,000 workers, himself a former toolroom worker and a leading member of the CP, stood at the gate of Longbridge and instructed the rest of the workers to cross the picket line. The next month when electricians in Port Talbot went on strike, the rest of the workers were told to cross the picket line, breaking the strike. In April that year, 5,000 AEU members went on strike in Heathrow, but 54,000 other workers were told to cross picket lines and the strike went down.

In the long run though, the decisive breaking of solidarity had most impact in the mining industry. It didn’t take the form of miners crossing other miners’ picket lines, but the ground for the scabbing of 1984–85 was prepared in another way. The Labour government introduced an incentive scheme. Until then any miner in Britain got the same wages if he did the same job. So a face worker in Scotland or Kent or Nottinghamshire earned exactly the same. Under such conditions solidarity was much easier to obtain.

In 1977 the Secretary of State for Energy at the time, Tony Benn, tried to introduce an incentive scheme so that different areas would get paid according to how much coal they produced per shift. The NUM conference rejected it, then the government insisted on balloting the members and the members threw it out overwhelmingly.

Then the National Coal Board, together with the right wing leader of the NUM, Joe Gormley, said, those areas that want it should take it and those areas that don’t should have the freedom not to take it. As a result the wages difference which built up over the next period was absolutely massive. Nottinghamshire miners earned much more than the other areas because the coal seams in Notts, by and large, are much wider than the other areas so they could produce more coal more easily. This led to the scabbing in Nottinghamshire of 1984–85.

The political difficulty of workers at the time is summed up by the banner of Kent NUM. On the banner there is a miner outlined against a pit head, looking towards the House of Commons. The logic of separating economics from politics meant that in conflict with the Tory government there was clarity, in conflict with Labour there was no clarity at all. This helped the union leaders carry their policies forward. And of course the CP and the Labour left supported those leaders, even if they were critical of the “Social Contrick”, as it was called.

Another thing which fundamentally affected union power was changing the method of negotiating. Instead of national negotiation for basic wages and then negotiation factory by factory or even shop by shop for extras – piece rates, bonuses and so on – Measured Day Work was introduced. The whole of Leyland would get the same wage rates and there was now no way of getting extras in individual factories, even less in individual shops. This change necessarily affected the structure of rank and file representatives in the workplace. The number of full time convenors rose massively. In Longbridge in the late 1970s the number of full time senior stewards rose from seven to over 50. By 1977 there were over 5,000 full time senior stewards in manufacturing industry alone, three times greater than the number of full time union officials at the time.

The result of all this was the collapse of unofficial strikes, which dwindled massively. In Ford Halewood in Liverpool, in 1976, there were 310 unofficial strikes, in 1981, 52, in 1984, 31, in 1987, 12. This was typical.

The present

What of the present, the transition? The defeats of the 1980s were brought about by a very strong government with a very clear policy of divide and rule. They had the Ridley Plan. Nicholas Ridley was a Tory right-winger and a friend of Thatcher who wrote a document in 1977 which argued that Heath had made a mistake in 1970-74 because he took the whole trade union movement on in one go. Instead the Tories should take on one union at a time. Ridley made a list of the order of the unions starting with the steel workers because they had a relatively non-militant record. The list finished with the mines, the docks and Fleet Street. And that’s exactly what they did.

Throughout the 1980s they stuck to this plan. Even in 1984 when they attacked the miners they made significant concessions to the railwaymen. Because of the lack of solidarity after a year the miners were smashed. Once the miners were smashed the government took on the dockers, the seamen, Fleet Street and so on. In the 1990s though, the picture is very different.

Firstly the government is very, very weak. Because of the depth of the crisis of the system the government’s attacks are much more generalised. The poll tax attacked every worker. The wage freeze attacks all the 5 million workers in the public sector and affects other workers. Under such conditions, the reaction from workers is necessarily different.

Incomes policy, we know from experience, can hold for a time – Harold Wilson’s incomes policy of 1966 held for two years, the 1972 policy of Heath held for something like two years, the Callaghan policy of 1976 held for two years and ended in the Winter of Discontent. We face, in a way, a similar situation. But the past still lives with us. It is not the case that the working class can throw off the past and move from victory to victory.

The signal workers’ strike was very impressive. Everything was thrown against them. British Rail lost £200 million during the strike, the members of the Institute of Directors lost £180 million and we don’t know how many tens or maybe hundreds of millions of pounds members of the CBI lost. Probably the whole thing cost over £800 million. It is true that there was some scabbing, 70 members of the RMT did scab, but 400 signal workers joined the union during the course of the strike. Also, the workers won 8 percent. It is not fantastic but it certainly is not a defeat, they won a cut in the working week. It was clearly a defeat for the bosses.

Following that, Rover workers were offered something like 10 percent over two years. The union argued for it strongly and eventually the workers accepted it but with a very close vote, 51 percent in favour and 49 percent against. Then came Jaguar where workers were offered around 8 percent over two years and initially rejected it (although they later accepted). These three represent significant advances for our side.

Then we had Jack Dromey, a top official in the TGWU, who talked about the agreement the union had reached with local government over wages. He claimed, “The Tories will choke on their cornflakes when they hear about the agreement”, initially raising hopes of a 5 maybe 8 percent wage rise. But the rise actually comes to 1.5 percent plus £100 in the first year (around 2.5 percent in total), the next year is 1.4 percent plus £100 (which amounts to 2.4 percent), with no negotiations of any change until the middle of 1996.


So workers’ recovery takes place by two steps forward, one step back. It is not simply up and up. After a long period of sickness of the movement you don’t get recuperation easily. If you have been in bed for six months because of illness you don’t get out of bed and run the marathon. You get up walk around and come back to bed half an hour later. Getting out of bed is extremely important but the periods of relapse are also inevitable. This is the period of transition we live in.

Unofficial strikes are undoubtedly reappearing but 95 percent of strikes are not unofficial. There is a split in workers’ consciousness, between new realism and the anger that leads to a readiness to fight. If this division was one between the rank and file and the union bureaucracy, we could simply push them aside. Even if the split were between workers and workers, let’s say 7 million trade unionists are ready to fight and 1 million are new realists we would push the others aside. Even if it was the other way around, and 1 million were ready to fight and 7 million were new realists, the 1 million would fight and pull others with them. But the split expresses itself in the individual workers themselves. Over the last couple of years the number of resolutions for strikes is astonishing. The number of strikes is much less. There are a number of examples which show the return of the unofficial strike. In Milton Keynes a few hundred UCW workers went on strike. The result was massive support from other post office workers and altogether 30,000 UCW workers went on strike. When a Liverpool post office worker hit a foreman who had insulted him because he stammered, he was sacked, resulting in an instant strike in solidarity by 2,000 workers. They struck, it was unconstitutional, it was unofficial, it was illegal, yet they struck for six days and they won. In January, 15,000 London postal workers struck illegally in support of victimised workers at one office.

Sefton UNISON is another good example. A group of workers in Sefton went on strike, unofficially and illegally, against privatisation of services. Leading members of the union branch were brought to court and the national union denounced the strikers. Because of the support the Sefton workers got from other workers, hundreds of whom gathered outside the court on the day of their hearing, the court decided not to imprison them but to fine them.

There is a relationship between quantity and quality and at present the quantity is still too small. The hold of the union bureaucracy is still absolutely massive. It is not that workers admire the bureaucracy. I can’t think of a time that the phrase ‘sell out’ has been used more often than now. People are angry but at the same time they feel impotent. So most often the anger does not burst through into real action.

A problem

Now we come to a problem. The level of generalisation is on the one hand quite low, but at the same time it is quite high. This sounds like a contradiction, but the contradiction is reality. Workers are ready to support other workers in struggle, but only to a low level. At University College Hospital in 1993 60 workers tried to stop a ward closure. They didn’t manage to get a strike of nearly 2,000 other workers in the rest of the hospital but they did get 4,000 people demonstrating, including local teachers, post workers and students in support of the nurses. Those workers demonstrating made all the difference to the UCH workers. Likewise with the signal workers. While it is true that no other section of workers came on strike, those 4,600 signal workers would not have survived if they hadn’t got support from other workers. Hundreds of thousands gave money and moral support. So the level of generalisation is in one way small but in another way quite high.

We have to relate to the section, relate to the specific. At the same time we have to raise other issues, get solidarity for other workers. This is even more important at present because the anger is so generalised, the Tories are hated over every issue. In a situation where workers lack confidence because of the experience of the last ten years, to bring the ANL in, for example, over the fight against racism, gives them a fantastic lift. They feel that there are not only 50 of them against the Tories but hundreds of thousands of people angry. All these issues, the anti-Criminal Justice Act, the protests against racism, against the Child Support Agency, need to be connected to the industrial struggle.

A network of socialists

Above all we have to create a network of rank and file socialists in the workplace. Any individual who plays a small role now will play a massive role when the struggle picks up. In the early 1970s the SWP had absolutely nothing in terms of roots in industry but when the Pentonville dockers went to prison we decided to launch a paper for the docks. We had no dockers. We launched the Dockworker and amassed a circulation of 5,000. When the Pentonville Five came out of prison, three of them came and addressed a meeting we had called. We had three miners. In June 1972 I spoke in Barnsley to a meeting of over 100 miners including a member of the national executive of the NUM, Tate, and a member of the Yorkshire executive, Arthur Scargill. We launched the Collier newspaper. We built over 50 factory branches, and big factory branches because the struggle was rising.

Now, we are potentially at a much higher level. Capitalism is in a much deeper crisis than it was in the 1970s so the struggle will be much sharper and more political. We are also in a much better strategic position, because in the 1970s the rank and file was organised by the CP, which hardly exists today. Therefore we will be in a much better position when the upturn comes.

It is impossible to tell when that will come. It is absolutely correct to build on the assumption that the slow recuperation will continue. To exaggerate militancy now would be demoralising. But neither should we forget that history sometimes moves in jumps.

In 1933 I was totally depressed. Hitler had come to power in January 1933 and for 13 months life looked absolutely unbearable. Every day newspapers carried some horror story or other. Then in February 1934 the fascists overplayed their hand. It changed the whole situation in Paris and they were beaten by workers.

In 1968 10 million French workers went on strike. It was totally unexpected because the strike did not follow on from a growing wave. It was not like 1905 in Russia where you can see how the strikes rose, or Britain in 1972 and 1974. No, 1968 was a break in the continuity – there were right wing governments for many years, workers were on the retreat, the unions were very weak and then, enough was enough. Because one student was murdered by police in Paris the whole thing burst.

So we have to work on the assumption that there is a slow cumulative recuperation but if the thing bursts open then we will have to move fast.

Last updated on 2 November 2019