Barry Biddulph reviews Notoriously Militant,by Sheila Cohen,Merlin Press,2013.
This is the story of the TGWU 1/1107 Branch at the Ford Dagenham plant and how the workers on the shop floor experienced, and responded to the harsh working conditions inflicted on them by the Ford Motor Company.Sheila Cohen lets the workers speak for themselves about what they had to endure: “Imagine bending down to tie your shoe lace.Its a simple job. But imagine doing it once a minute ….during the period of a work shift. (1) The unending tedium of fixing the same nuts bolts and screws over and over again in a zombie like manner with damage to mind and body. Add to this pressure the unpaid and unpredictable lay offs, intrusive supervision and speed ups, particularly in the post war period, and you have the anger which sparks rank and file resistance.
Sheila Cohen argues in, Ramparts of Resistance ,that it is the raw material reality of exploitation on the factory floor which generates the objective possibilities of collective resistance. (2).This gives rise to what she describes as the two-faced nature of trade unionism as a movement of radical struggle from below,rather than trade unionism as an official institution from above in partnership with capital. But before we consider the limits and possibilities of trade unions, we will look at some aspects of her narrative of the militancy at the Ford Dagenham plant .
Ford Motor Company had forged a useful working relationship with the national officials of the trade unions in April 1944 in the Ford National Joint Negotiating Committee.(FNJNC). The TUC had helped Ford to keep out shop floor negotiating rights. The workers in the plant had a different approach.In 1946 they walked out and then occupied the plant to demand better pay and shop steward representation. The formal right to shop steward representation was won. This left a battle for what they could and could not do. It was in the same year in the context of this Class struggle that the TGWU branch 1/1107 was established at the Dagenham factory.
In the decades that followed there was an explosion of unofficial inspired strikes and disputes at Fords Dagenham which were part of a wider grass-roots struggle which culminated in the high tide of militancy in the period 1968-1974. Although the Winter of discontent in 1979, triggered by a strike at Dagenham which smashed the governments 5% pay freeze, even topped this militancy. In 1960 there were seventy-nine walkouts at Dagenham with 100,000 hours lost; by1961 the number had risen to 184,000. Alan Thornett recollects a similar militant record in an Oxford car plant : the number of strikes at the Morris plant averaged around 300 a year from 1966-1968 culminating in 1969 with a record 624 strikes. (3) But not all these strikes ended in victory.
In 1962 there was a serious defeat at Ford Dagenham which left 17 workers on a company hit list outside the factory gate. The dispute originated in a shared outlook between union officials,and the Ford labour relations director Lesley Blakeman. The feeling was that something had to be done about those militants who had shown disrespect to union and company procedures. Les Kealey was sick of the trouble makers who got in the way of good relations with Ford management: a number of stewards had got into the habit of solving their own problems and order had to be restored. (4) The tactic employed was to link wage increases to constitutional good behaviour. Further,Kealey and other national officials agreed that ” unions recognise the right of the company to exercise measures against employees who fail to comply with the conditions of their employment by taking unconstitutional action”. (5) Days later, Bill Frances, the chair of the pain and trim shop(PTA) which was at the core of 1107 TGWU branch, was sacked for holding a lunch time union meeting.
There was a walk out and then an overwhelming vote to stay out on strike. But a return to work was then engineered by Kealey and Blakeman. Kealey claimed that he had reached an agreement with Blakeman for a return to work for everyone without victimization. This assurance was put to the shop stewards who narrowly accepted the return the work proposal. The return to work became a carefully planned, management controlled ,phased return. The management would “decide how the shop would start again,when it would start and who would start it,no longer at the end of a wild cat strike would the men be automatically come back to their jobs” (6) Most workers were eventually allowed back except for the 17 men who Ford management regarded as undesirable agitators. These leaders of rank and file resistance would not be allowed to return for the peace of mind of managers and national union officials . Hours lost in strikes dropped from 184,000 in 1961 and 415,000 in 1962 to 3,400 in 1963. (7)
However, resistance resumed. In May 1968, women sawing machinists at Ford walked out on strike and into history. Their long outstanding and neglected claim for upgrading from semi skilled B grade to skilled C grade was rejected by management. There was a four-week shutdown of the plant. The company was desperate for help. It turned to the Labour Government for assistance. Barbara Castle rushed in to rescue Ford. Over cups of tea with strike leaders Castle tried to get the women back to work with a promise of negotiations. When this failed she then met them for a second time, and persuaded the strike leaders to accept a deal which appears to have been suggested by Blakeman following a visit to the AEU conference.The AEU and Reg Birch had made the principle of equal pay for women the issue for the strike and given it official backing on that basis. They had not taken up the women’s demand for C grade, because this would have meant challenging the Ford Company wage structure. Claims for upgrading would have flooded in : many other workers jobs had been wrongly assessed. The compromise,accepted by the women as a basis to return to work, was a 7% wage increase which was 92% of the mens grade B rate,a step towards reducing differentials in pay.
Another notorious strike at Dagenham was the 1971 strike for wage parity with other car workers. This was the 9 week-long strike for parity not charity. The strike was brought to an abrupt end by Jack Jones, leader of the TGWU, and Hugh Scanlon, head of the AEU. Jones and Scanlon, negotiated a settlement with the government and the Ford motor company behind the backs of Dagenham shop stewards. The deal still left the Ford workforce as the lowest paid car workers. There was an increase of 9 pence an hour. Further increases of 5 pence an hour at the end of the year, and 5 pence an hour the following year. A few days prior to the sell out, Dagenham shop stewards had met Jones accidentally at Euston train station. They asked him about press reports of a backroom deal. He was deceitful saying :” I am not involved. It’s up to you lads-your running the strike”. (8) In effect the deal was imposed on Dagenham. Union Strike pay was stopped , no discussion was allowed, and a secret ballot adopted instead of the traditional show of hands at a factory meeting.
This sellout and others are not surprising. As Huw Beynon reminds us: “the trade unions are so rooted in the fabric of capitalist society that the sell out of the rank and file is bound to occur” (9)Marx had no experience of modern trade unionism or the extent of trade union bureaucracy with its links to the state,and was too optimistic in advocating the Unions adopt the slogan of abolition of the wages system. Nevertheless , he did identify their main fault: “they fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerilla war against the effects of the existing system” (10) Although the phase guerilla war exaggerates the feeble response to the employers of trade union officialdom today.The nature of trade Unions is located in negotiating or even accepting the terms of exploitation not in superseding exploitation. In the words of Alex Callinicos : “confining the class struggle within the limits of capitalism presumes the interests of labour and capital can be reconciled”.(11)
Sheila does not really discuss the politics of those involved in the militancy at Dagenham in any detail so we have no understanding of what possibilities there were in going beyond workplace resistance to a wider challenge to Capitalism. Sheila view seems to be that collective action in itself is objectively a step in a revolutionary direction. Sheila does argue elsewhere,” the need to go beyond the workplace through promoting a programme of broader political demands which would connect with existing not the desired level of consciousness among activists”. (12) This is undogmatic but politically vague. It is not a clear argument for the politics of an alternative to the capitalist state. The problem with simply identifying something real with present consciousness is that the separation between politics and economics is reinforced, and revolutionary ideas are left at the factor gate and office door.
The contours of modern capitalism in Britain with the Labour Party and Parliament on the one hand, and trade unions on the other, was strengthened rather than weakened by the Trotskyist and Leninist left during the period of mass militancy at Dagenham and elsewhere. The International Socialists (IS) Rank and filism was about more trade union militancy. Alex Callinicos articulates these politics when he writes: “experience shows that national rank and file movements can only be built on the initiative of revolutionary socialists . The actual programme of these movements may consist chiefly of straightforward trade union demands” (13) The Socialist Labour League ,the forerunner of the Workers Revolutionary Party, was very significant at the time ,but despite its hysterical revolutionary rhetoric it focused its demands on the Labour Party parliamentary left as if there was a parliamentary road to socialism. It called for a vote for the Labour party at elections as if the party could or would implement a revolutionary Socialist Programme.
This is where realistic politics are totally unrealistic. The tactical views of the SLL and other Trotskyist influenced militants originated in the false perspectives of the early Communist International for a workers government based on the capitalist state and the trade unions . The assumption was the traditional workers organisations and the capitalist state could be revolutionised. Despite Trotsky’s accurate polemics against trade union and Labour leaders, he held the completely unhistorical and plain wrong view that “a revolutionary Labour Party resting on the trade unions will become in their turn a powerful instrument of recovery and resurgence” (14) Whether it was the Great Unrest 1910-14, the General Strike or miners strikes 1926, and 1984-5, the Labour Party was not transformed by a revolutionary dynamic.Looking to the Labour Party and the state was not a way to transform capitalism.
From Sheila’s account of the struggles on the factory floor at Dagenham we do know some of the sacked stewards were members of the Communist Party of Great Britain : Johnny McLaughlin , Bill Frances, and Kevin Halpin. But we do not have an indication of the political role of the CPGB at Dagenham. In Huw Beynon’s study of the Ford Halewood plant, in the Liverpool area, he refers to the role of the Communist Party at Dagenham. The CPGB had a considerable number of members at the Dagenham plant, including senior stewards. Yet the CPGB “was reluctant to take a definite stand against the official union hierarchies. It had no committee based on the car industry until after 1965. (15) Johnnie Cross of the AEU, who was one of the 17 victimized workers in the defeated 1962 strike at Dagenham, complained that the CPGB leadership was against wider rank and file links in the car industry at the time, in case it offended leading union officials. He said that “the leading party members among the leadership of the stewards movement ducked down their little holes and stopped there” (15)
To return to Sheila’s story of the militant 1107 branch. The 1980′s into the 1990′s saw a lower level of struggle in the wider context of the surrender of the trade union bureaucracy to the anti union laws and the employers offensive. There was a rapidly growing feeling among the car workers at the plant “that the union cannot do anything about it”, and the grass-roots members were “not behind the union like they used to be”. (16) Job insecurity has a massive negative impact on confidence as well. In 1979 total employment at Dagenham was 28,583 ,by the end of 1985 it had fallen to 14,700″. (17) The Ford drive for flexibility, quality circles , and other forms of greater productivity increases were also impacting on workers independence from management. By 1985 job classifications had dropped from 550 to 52. The gap between stewards and the rank and file workers opened up.
Sheila’s title is based on a newspaper headline about the activities of the 1107 branch in this period of relative downturn. A radical leadership had taken over the branch from an allegedly corrupt and right-wing leadership. But we do not have any explanation of why such a leadership could have arisen in such a militant branch. Nor do we have any critical assessment of the politics of the prominent members of the 1107 branch,(left Labour?) and how this related to the world outside the shop floor.Steve Riley and Mick Gosling had taken a lead with others in tackling racism and sexism in the plant, but both were later forced out of the plant by management with the help of union officials.
Towards the end of the 1990′s the remaining workers at Dagenham were worried about the threat of plant closure. The closure was announced on 12th May 2000. Tony Woodley of the T&G ,one of a supposed awkward squad of trade union leaders, was full of strike rhetoric. The reality was there was no real urgency about strike ballots and no evidence of any trade union determination to fight the closure. The workers were kept in the dark. When a vote came no national union officials were to be seen at the plant meetings. The grass-roots workers were left with only one positive action : accept whatever redundancy money was available. Sheila comments that the drift towards closure was an example of “the pivot of union as an institution overcoming,for now,union as a movement” (18)
But for Sheila the workers will rise again as they have done in the past. So in terms of the trade unions “what makes the difference is a choice whether to seek to maximise what possibilities there are,or to remain gloomily preoccupied with the limitations and failures of the movement in a species of self-fulfilling prophesy” (19) But this comment does seem to assume trade union limitations and structures will not prevent a resurgence of workers struggles. Surely we need to take into account the failures of modern trade unionism, and not assume any fight back will go through traditional channels. As one of the militants of the 1107 branch said at the core of the resistance to Ford, the government, and trade union officialdom was the branch within the union branch. Stewards who represented workers from a number of trade unions had autonomy from the individual trade union.
What sheila’s vivid story of 1107 branch demonstrates is that workers did and can strive to transform a harsh capitalist environment. This kind of working class history does show there is a possibility that workers can unite in the workplace, link up with local activists in the working class community, and become part of struggle against capital, the state and parliament
1 Sheila Cohen,Notoriously Militant,Merlin Press,2013,p.4
2 Sheila Cohen,Ramparts of Resistance, Pluto Press,2006,p.13
3 Alan Thornett,From Militancy to Marxism, Left View Books, 1987 ,p.93.
4 Sheila Cohen,as above,p.75
5 Sheila Cohen,as above.p.74
6 Sheila Cohen,as above,p.77
7 Sheila Cohen,as above,p.77
8 Sheila Cohen,as above p.107
9 Huw Beynon, Working for Ford,EP Publishing 1979,p.301
10 Dave Stocking,Marxists and the Trade Unions,Workers Power pamphlet 1977,p.4
11 Sheila Cohen,The Ramparts of Resistance.p.170
11 Alex Callinicos, Socialists in the Trade Unions,Socialist Worker pamphlet,1995,p.
13 Alex Callinicos, as above,p.57
14 Leon Trotsky, Writings on Britain, vol2, New park Publications,1974,p.104
15 Huw Beynon as above, p.60
16 Sheila Cohen,Notoriously Militant,p.139
17 Sheila Cohen,as above,p.146
18 Sheila Cohen,as above,p.194
19 Sheila Cohen,Ramparts of Resistance,p.150