A couple of decades on after the publication of the controversial Solidarity pamphlet on the lump (a way of casualising construction work), Dave Walton, a former construction worker looks back on it and the struggles of the time.
The following text was hand written very hastily during a few late nights in March 1997. The gang was knocking out a fair-sized, off the cards, plastering job and exhaustion was the name of the game. It was at the behest of Wildcat in Germany, au ultra-leftist outfit commendably insisting on workers’ autonomy superceeding leftist and trade union forms of struggle. It was simultaneously translated into German and typed up there while final reflections were added a week or so later It was put together in a small book alongside a translation of Dave Lamb’s Solidarity pamphlet, The Lump, An Heretical Analysis, which came out in Britain in 1974.
Reflections was translated verbatim and some peculiar loop the loops in English grammar should maybe have been altered. No matter, they have been corrected here. One or two new footnotes have been added and some of the German ones – which here need no explanation – have been left out. It was, though, a text for German readers and this accounts for a lot of the many broader generalities which, had it been for home grown consumption, would have been more developed. Some details no longer apply though the broad thrust still very much does.
Much of the pamphlet deals with the often bizarre conflict between rank ‘n’ file lumpers and rank ‘n’ file trade unionists, when, often it really isn’t or shouldn’t be a conflict at all – and most protagonists deep down know it! In particular, the rank ‘n’ file Building Worker Group was singled out for particular critical attention.. More should have been elaborated but time was of the essence as after all, the BWG is certainly better than all others proclaiming independence from the set paradigms of the union. Recently, the Building Worker Group, (BWG) has had a text published by Revolutions Per Minute: RANK AND FILE OR BROAD LEFT?: A short history of the Building Worker Group. It certainly makes for interesting reading.
The Building Worker Group (BWG) was formed in 1974 at the behest of the then Trotskyist, International Socialists (later the Socialist Workers Party) as part of their industrial strategy creating base groups in a period of high workers’ combativity. These base groups initially attracted a lot of fairly clued-in workers pissed-off in one way or another with the Left Labour/ Communist Party reliance on the workers as nothing more than an actively demonstrating pressure group on left wing MPs and left-leaning union officials. Seemingly, these base groups appeared to be independent bodies with often their own newspaper, relying only on the power of the workers themselves. In reality though, they were nothing more than the hoped for industrial muscle of the party and no autonomy or spontaneous activity was to be given any significant head.
Once Thatcher’s dictatorial, anti-working regime came to power, the SWP feeling and anticipating defeat in the air – and well before real bitter defeat became a grim reality – disbanded these caucuses. Some bitter rumblings surfaced from below but most succumbed to this diktat. In July 1982, Tony Cliff, the leading SWP ideologue, ordered the BWG to be disbanded. They rightly refused and those members in the SWP, of whom Brian Higgins was one were expelled from the party. If other industrial branches had possessed the same spirit as Higgins and co, we might now have had a more lively scene industrially, perhaps not unlike the COBAS rank ‘n’ file bodies in Italy, even though such organisations though more insistent on anti-bureaucratic spontaneous responses, in themselves are also incapable of transcending a trade union form.
This shock certainly helped to broaden minds in realising the enormity of enemies you then faced as the BWG carried on through many disputes , slowly but remorselessly bitterly criticising the Broad Left approach seeing it essentially as a convenient trajectory deployed by the bosses. Rightly the BWG perceived that the SWP had, after appearances to the contrary, fallen in with this trajectory. (mind you, the SWP had always been on this jag) In the following years, the BWG were to come up against most of the far leftist, mainly Trotskyist, parties who rubbished them whenever possible. Prominent among them were the Workers Revolutionary Party though Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party played its part too, knocking them because they wouldn’t support a big wig union official who had tried to take Higgins to court.
The BWG slowly produced a very pertinent analysis of Broad Left behaviour in various disputes during the 1980s and since. Among them were the British Library, Southwark Council Direct Building Works Dept, Northampton Labour Council, Hays Wharf and The Laing’s Lock Out Committee in 1985/6 which, "set London alight for six months". Historically, they grounded this in a critique of the Building Workers Charter which was at the fulcrum of the 1972 building workers’ strike as the first of the Broad Left pressure groups pretending it was a rank ‘n’ file organisation. No doubt they saw it’s menacing shadow at work in the 1980s semi-independent organisations like the Joint Sites Committee and the London Steel Erectors Committee with the latter, having no independence from the London Regional Secretary of the AEU though playing on the appearance of some kind of autonomy. The same goes for OILC (Off Shore Industrial Laison Committee) who were merely a recruiting rank ‘n’ file outfit organising for the benefit of union officials but forced by their own devious momentum to go on strike. One things seemed to be getting out of hand they made certain union officials moved in to finish off a potentially momentous oil workers struggle in the North Sea just after the bitter defeat of the miners’ strike. If this strike had been allowed to develop – as it had all the spontaneous potential of so doing – it could have reversed the miners defeat. (These particular strikes have been outlined in some detail in two additional texts republished here and which German Wildcat translated in the late 1980s).
Confusion within the BWG really sets in though in the long term aims of a rank ‘n’ file group conceived in terms of a trade union form. The reality is you cannot have aims other than upsetting the bosses and their stooges seemingly forever until one day hopefully they finally completely fall apart beset by so many other impossibilities. It’s impossible to get "total reform of the union" or to " put the unions under workers’ control". At the same time, the BWG desires "new" independent workers organisations seeing them as "almost a necessity". A kind of well meant but incoherent floundering then fills the gap as impasse looms with pointless support for nationalism’s (a 32 county Irish Republic, self-government for Scotland and Wales and, no doubt, now, for the English regions).
As another aside to this process, interestingly the BWG was quite rightly excited by the fuel protests in 2000 and was "horrified" by the TUC’s 2000 conference which called for a mass scabbing of blockades and picket lines. Why though be "horrified" when you know bureaucrats regularly go in for this type of thing? It’s that shadow of leftism which all rank ‘n’ file groupings seem to possess and can never get away from. Moreover, the backbone of these protests were the self-employed, the so-called "small-businessmen" – precisely those types vilified as "lumpers" within the building industry. In the pamphlet, the BWG says, "A rank ‘n’ file organisation is open to all workers associated with a particular industry or union be they employed or unemployed". This is just not true yet when an earth shattering revolt breaks out they make an identification which they can never follow through from in their own still lock jawed syndrome. We were also excited and produced some texts just after the protest was peaking - which unfortunately always seems to be the case - (c/f the one included here which was translated and produced for German Wildcat). We tried to highlight some of the contradictions and complications of this short-lived though exhilarating revolt which purist, dead duck and plain boring groups like Echange et Mouvement panned so completely.
At this impasse we do encounter very real problems though. After such activity and history like the BWG has, it’s hardly surprising they’re looked up to by the anarcho-syndicalists who, as always, have the eternal solution to hand of the one big union like the CNT or CNT-U. And there you have it – no need for much further thinking. We well know the history of these organisations and there’s no need to go into them here other than to say, history didn’t produce the new world expected of them. Rank ‘n’ file bodies like the COBAS in Italy don’t have such grandiloquent pretensions and maybe as such are telling as regards the temper of the times. Accounts of COBAS activity in English merely go into details about the activity engendered but what about their aims? The crux of the matter seems to be: is it possible at this historical juncture to have aims other than something more nebulous without also, being fluffy in the process? To be sure one can go on about abolition of the wages system and the spectacular commodity economy but what does all that mean in practise when we already know some of these things were already bureaucratically enshrined in the fixed and fast organisations of the old workers’ movement. Of course, we ardently desire a world without money but getting from here to there is quite a different matter.
Tub-thumping ways of proceeding at this point don’t seem much good and this is where criticism of the BWG’s hectoring tone (that kind of Calvinism alluded to elsewhere in the original text is not only ineffective but can be off-putting. The atmosphere thus engendered becomes, a priori, hostile to opening up discussion, where the unmentionable can be mentioned, and where the ability to listen to others allows ourselves to be influenced and changed in turn thus subverting that privatised, armoured psyche preventing an essential, "but what then" drift.
Unofficial movement, rank ‘n’ file etc over the last 30 years or so have become terms which now lack all meaning unless specified. In the book ‘Glorious Summer’, Darlington and Lyddon more or less conceptualise the momemtum of the huge wave of strikes in 1972 as pushed by those below and thus essentially defined by the rank ‘n’ file and as true for the biggest building workers strike in these islands history as for the others. The BWG on the contrary suggest the Broad Left was responsible for sabotaging an outcome on the brink of a more stupendous victory than was achieved.
Certainly at moments of great revolt, officialdom, particularly lower grade officialdom are, willy nilly, dragged along in its wake unable to continue controlling their day to day recuperative routine. If however, that’s all that’s needed such strategy rapidly runs into a brick wall, as on the morrow, though weakened, the structure remains intact ready to gradually take on its old repressive role all over again. Thus the BWG are right to clinically tear apart all the overt contradictions in the organisations they criticise.
The BWG also utilise the trade union form. Higgins is after all, Gen’ Sec’ of the Northampton branch of UCATT forced to abide to more than some degree within the union’s statutes. No doubt he is able to push the union form to its very limits reinterpreting things to suit better ends. No doubt, hopefully too, he can direct some of the funds to producing strike leaflets etc with real clout and purpose and in effect, related to BWG activity. Often a leaflet is necessary and if there’s no ready source to pay for it, a proposed action is severely limited. We must be realistic here. In the text on The Winter Of Discontent, it’s noted that union offices were sometimes occupied by members as such venues also provided free phones when most urgently needed etc. On a better level and in a more open organisation, Rene Riesel in France was Gen’ Sec’ of the Confederacion Paysanne of small farmers when he instigated exemplary and courageous actions against GM contaminated grain and the like. Later though, Riesel felt impelled to resign his post in this new and more relevant organisation (an organisation far in advance of UCATT) precisely because of its bureaucratic structure and the way it was beginning to ape the aims of big agriculture. Does this now mean that Riesel feels more vulnerable and isloted than ever?
German Wildcat did a good job in a rushed situation. One thing however is contentious relating ver much to what has been said in this introduction. A certain important part was cut out relating to criticisms of the anarcho-syndicalists in the building trade, mainly around Black Flag, and their cooperation with the broad perspectives of Brian Higgins and the BWG which nonetheless are in some kind of flux and looking perhaps for some more coherent critique.
Like the anarcho-syndicalists, Revolutions Per Minute, a publishing project which hosts a web site, The Red Star Research, make no criticism of the general aims of the Building Workers Group. It seems sufficient to be anti the SWP! and approves of Haringey Solidarity Group, with its populist "community" ideologies – in going along with Higgins and co. Criticism is absolutely essential. The issue of the Lump in all its complexities must also be at the centre of such critique which is why the deletion of a pointed part of the original text – and now here reprinted in full – was so irksome. Broadly – and it was no more than broadly – the argument had to do with the anarcho-syndicalists – following through, albeit in a more militant way - the fundamental though now rhetorical aims of the unions. In relation to Higgins, an amusing aside on the man - comparing him with the type of Scottish Calvinist Robbie Burns would have wanly satirised - was also deleted on the grounds that building workers elsewhere wouldn’t know who the guy was. Surely a simple footnote would have sufficed pointing out that Burns, an untutored ploughman was an insurrectionary Scottish poet at the time of the French revolution. After that, well it’s simple enough to go to a library or the Internet to find out more about what an amazing guy Burns was.
Protecting workers from upsetting facts and too-critical (!) thought is never helpful. If some anarcho-syndicalists had got annoyed – and they undoubtedly would have – well tough! On the simplest level what was published was only the opinion of one person. People are then free to condemn such opinion but at least it’s been aired. It seems Wildcat were trying to keep together a heterogeneous bunch of building workers together throughout the world who, over the Internet, were beginning to break away from leftism. It’s also the old story of not alienating the most retarded element meaning it’s only the lowest common denominator keeping everybody together. The trouble is such strategy never works! Around 1981, we published a translation from Spanish called: The Bankruptcy of Syndicalism and Anarchism. It was a vitriolic attack on the traditions of a libertarian ideology in Spain when a more relevant, contemporary libertarian critique was now urgently needed. It was hated though: it certainly meant a sensitive button had been pressed.
As previously alluded too, included also here are excerpts from a long letter which was published by Wildcat in the late 80s though it was never published in Britain. It explains a few things about coordinations and the shop stewards movement which maybe useful in relation to the main text. It also includes descriptions of relatively unknown incidences of some especially violent action by building workers on unionised sites which (strangely?) had been forgotten or repressed in the Reflections…. Though very critical of the "new" rank ‘n’ filism it is far too optimistic and even we ourselves had underestimated the degree of the remorseless, whittling defeat taking place - the direct obverse of Pannekoek’s proclaimed piecemeal whittling in Britain then going in the other direction - which Echange et Mouvement often used in a laudatory way. Well, that is until the social collapse here when they all skidadalled!
The other is again a text quickly thrown together on Robert Tressell for the benefit of those in Germany who were quite unaware of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. The relevance to our present period when everything is again at rock bottom was perhaps too simplistic. It was less than a profound attempt to put Tressell into some kind of perspective historically and also to explain how grotesquely Tressell had been used by Labour Party and TU hacks. It now seems that some of this text has been quoted in a new German edition published in Switzerland. In 1953 evidently an edited version of the book was printed in the former GDR but most likely in response to the East German workers’ uprising of that year certain parts of the book were censored –perhaps those parts referring to the abolition of the wages system? It seems this censorship and the reasons for it have been pointed out. Unfortunately, the initial English intro failed to make criticisms of the book itself. One quite blatantly stands out. Owen, the "socialist" hero building worker really is one helluva cardboard cut out figure. He’s such a goody ggody two shoes it’s almost laughable at times. Does the guy have sex, has he ever been bad just for the sake of it? This isn’t just a carping criticism because it’s precisely such quasi-mythical figures, regaled in moral splendour who are the ideological backbone of that moral puritan force which has such a lamentable trajectory in the history of social insurgency in these islands. It sure is a good time for an end to all that.
REFLECTIONS ON THE LUMP BY DAVE LAMB. (PUBLISHED BY SOLIDARITY. BRITAIN, 1974) Some thoughts on the pamphlet by D.W. - for the use of Wildcat in Germany. March, 1997.
Looking back, the Solidarity pamphlet, The Lump, in the building industry from the early 70s (1974)it was well optimistic never mind the more than occasional flights of fancy. But who wasn’t optimistic at the time despite the depressions, freak-outs, suicides and the all-pervading sense that the audacious edge of the late 60s rebellions was being whittled away. The atmosphere was strike happy, rebellious, even confident in a battered sort of way and totally un-like the sheer despair, defeat and incipient, if not to say galloping, free market totalitarianism which now stalks Britain.
As far as I was concerned The Lump pamphlet was a delight after a fraught, sometimes OK but nonetheless mutually suspicious relationship with building worker union shop stewards who had been engaged in a number of strikes in the building industry culminating in the 1972 nationwide building strike. Suspicion didn’t emanate however, from unionised building workers around the stewards. These people were only too glad to have a pint in a pub where spontaneous friendship mattered the most: the suspicion was inseparable from even the lowest ranks of the union hierarchy. It would manifest itself in leading jibes: seeing you could talk so well, why weren’t you writing in union papers or thinking of becoming a very left wing MP in Parliament where you’d really have clout? I regret I was not in the 1972 strike though I had recently been working on a big site run by Gilbert Ash – a company whom later became part of the Bovis Group. The atmosphere there had been very intense; the canteen was so full of passionate talk about so many extreme things that the site agent banged on a table one day calling all of us, young and old alike, "vandals". Even he, I think, was affected by the atmosphere despite his psychotic disposition and would try putting his arm around you in shady corners. It seemed he was a repressed gay who would nonetheless have said, "hang gays". The Timekeeper had in the past been a vicious foreman but a few years previously, some building workers had fitted him up. They’d purposelessly sent him across some scaffolding boards that hadn’t been properly secured and he fell, floor by floor, hitting the deck with a sickening crunch. Now crippled and limping badly, his disposition had changed and he said to me: "I’d hire any Trotskyist" – obviously thinking I was one. Seeing the guy was so disarming, it crossed my mind to be equally disarming and I wanted to blurt out something like: "Well, art is dead. You see, I was knocked out by these Situationists who had superceeded the Anarchists but that wasn’t enough neither as you still had to strive for an even greater authenticity. Abandon all career, set out on the roads, or in this case building the road". He wouldn’t have understood so I just left it. What was the point? The guy had become a really nice guy and that’s what was important. I left the building industry for a short while on the very eve of the big strike. I greatly regret that.
On a simple level it’s very difficult to discuss or assess the building trade from the point of view of the people who work in it with any accuracy. After all, it probably involves about 2 million people in one capacity or another and thus it is so varied. At the present time some building workers have taken time off and have been involved in building some of the tunnels in the eco-protests at Fairmile and Manchester airport. Now what would a union militant think about that. Sadly, probably not that much.
In 1974, I think Dave Lamb was trying to cock a snoop at the union militants and after all my recent personal experiences, it was therefore, a joy to read. But I also felt at the time that Dave Lamb didn’t know enough about union sites and therefore, was somewhat biased. It wasn’t sufficiently accurate. I also doubt very much if he’d worked on a union site for any length of time – if at all. On the other hand, anti-Lumpism hadn’t been that important in the strikes preceding the big 1972 strike. In the previous years, there had been a prolonged, stop and go strike on the Barbican in east London which had occasionally broken out into violence. In the dispute Communist Part shop stewards had a high profile. Nonetheless, while on strike, building workers subsidised their militancy and their drinking which, invariably, seems to go with the job - what with all the shit and dust flying about on sites builders love their ale - by doing small building jobs –"foreigners" as they were called – on the side. Fine. Nothing wrong with that but CP building workers did the same too. A few years later and the same individuals, together with all the burgeoning "new" leftists, were to use the Lump as an ideological stick to often beat others with.
Lump workers often did (and still do) receive higher rates of pay than unionised building workers, though in a more irregular way. This is somewhat unusual and is the complete reverse of say the United States where unionised building workers always seem to get higher rates. Therefore on the simplest of economic levels, it’s easy to understand the Lump’s attraction in Britain. At that time, Lump workers were getting £2 an hour (skilled rate) compared to the union skilled rate of £1.50p per hour. But then to go on –as Dave Lamb did - and say that Lump workers in the early 70s initiated a lot more strikes than unionised building workers is stretching credibility. When Lump workers then did go on strike it was often in order to get union recognition on a particular site. An obvious question begs: why should they want a union if they were getting well paid? Well, sometimes they weren’t getting their wages as easily as that. More often than not, wages were irregular, coming in fits and starts which always makes one nervous. Often, union organisation was desired for simple safety reasons – but more on this later. These union recognition strikes took place by and large on big sites and one must never forget the untold but colossal number of "ragouts" (small half day strikes or so) on many a small operation. Simply too, there were those workers who’d down tools on some outfit never to return again!
Many Lump workers did scab during the nationwide building strike of 1972 and that was real bad. It’s not so much they crossed picket lines (although this happened) as carried on working oblivious to what was taking place elsewhere. Seeing the strike had nothing to do with their blinkered immediate interests why take any interest? All one can say in mitigation is that unionised workers were striking for wages which were often the norm on Lump sites. On the other hand at the time, or thereabouts, there were disputes where members of a particular building union would cross another union’s picket lines (e.g a scaffolders’ strike in Co Durham in the mid 70s).
Despite the arrests and jail sentences meted out to figures who became prominent in the ’72 dispute, the strike, despite all the spontaneous initiatives within it, never drifted beyond union control and was quite prominently anti-Lump which was also, a factor in contributing to Lump scabbing. In the months after, - nay, perhaps for a few years - those who often made the most noise against the Lump were often middle class - prominently Labour Party voting - professional types who’d never had any day to day contact with building workers apart from employing them to build extensions on their homes in a rising house and property market.
For those who worked at the sharp end of the building trade, the response was much more diverse not to say chaotic. Many building workers, union and non-union alike, were well aware of all the contradictions inherent in the anti-Lump position and that’s hardly surprising. Only the real union ideologues (specifically senior shop stewards or branch officials) tenaciously stuck to a strict anti-Lump line – a line which got weaker and weaker generally the lower down you descended in the union hierarchy. Thus you’d find a lower ranking shop steward quite happily talking in the pub to, say, a small time Caribbean sub-contractor (note, not big time – they usually drank in smart pubs and generally were white in any case). I mention Caribbean because maybe there was a common anti-police bond that could have provoked interesting contradictions in themselves. There were (and probably still are), Afro-Caribbean Lump gangs who refuse to do work on any ultra-repressive institution like say a police station, a prison or a magistrate’s court. One spray-plastering gang I was friendly with turned down a job on Wakefield prison even though the pay was excellent. It was all very praiseworthy stuff. Yet quite recently, the "radical" Building Worker rank ‘n’ file paper called for the unionisation of workers engaged in building police stations. Although the person who’d written the article slipped in a line criticising the function of police stations, it would have been a nice idea, if he’d also suggested it would be an ideal situation to engage in some structural sabotage while putting the damn building up, e.g. badly installing a steel RSJ girder or leaving out cement in a brick mortar mix is an easy enough thing to do etc. In his book, The Keys to My Cell, Des Warren, one of the Shrewsbury Three building workers jailed in connection with the ’72 strike, recalled how in the late 70s, he put a certain substance in his paint while forcibly employed decorating the prison where he was incarcerated. It meant the paint would never dry! Again commendable but you wonder if it was the extreme circumstances of prison which motivated Des to behave like this and would he have done so as a union activist on the outside?
Don’t forget too, that the real anti-Lump thrust had basically nothing to do with workers’ real self-interests. As issues like safety and such like were by the by. The real thrust was the economics of the nation state. The Lump meant taxation on wages was not being paid and taxes were a sacred cow for social democrats vis-a-vis the redistribution of wealth channelling funds to a welfare state subsidising council housing, schools and hospitals etc. The union militants only emphasised the more beneficial aspects of state capitalism and in doing so presented a very biased picture of taxation and one which was so demagogic it was all too easy to dispute. Taxation as a means of subsidising the repressive state apparatus; police, prisons, social work institutions, higher education, culture and the arts etc, was never their brief and don’t forget their intellectual briefing had basically emanated from an assembly of Labour Party hacks who had a personal vested interest in promoting such a line. At times –and on the dusty site floor - you often wondered if you were talking to a shop steward or a tax inspector and building workers in an admittedly mildly fearful way, often saw "their" representatives as a kind of ersatz tax man. The trouble is during the following years, the tax debate was taken up by the free market right in their even more hideous power plays which meant any more coherent on-the-spot debate was stymied.
Other things were also easy to dispute. Union ideology insisted that people on the Lump were bad trades people and known as "bodgers" for not having gone through the procedurally correct apprenticeships. In short, just cowboys as the saying goes in English. This was always pretty priceless when it came from trade union people, who, over a pint, readily admitted to having learnt their particular trade (steel fixing, carpentry or whatever) by watching other operatives doing it on a site and then trying their hand at it. In time they became good at their chosen trade. Generally a lot of skilled trades people start off by being cowboys or cowgirls. In reality (and everyone knew it) most apprenticeship papers were pretty meaningless in any case as experience was what counted. Only recently, and that’s mainly to do with increased bureaucratic accounting and also ever-tightening EU legislation, have correct papers and certification mattered. You were taken on at face value, given a few hours site test and if you knew your trade, were kept on. If you’d been bull shitting, well down the road you took a walk whether the site was union or non-union. In any case, cowboy work was (and is) something endemic, big or small company, union or non-union and it goes way back into the mists of time. Some of the worst cowboy building work our gang has come across were in prestige heritage London buildings in the neo-Palladian style designed by the famous late 18th century architect, John Nash. They’re all beautiful façade but contain no real structural substance. Although we winced at some of the really atrocious construction that had been carried out originally in the guts of the building and now being somewhat modernised and made safer, nonetheless these "cowboy" buildings have survived two centuries.
If the critique of the Lump had been conducted in a more thoughtful, clear and honest way, assessing the pros and cons according to specific situations then things might have turned out somewhat differently. Although it’s a big perhaps things might have been somewhat less ideological. The fact that workers often get cheated out of their wages on the Lump (or, at least, part of their wages) by thieving sub-contractors was very low down on the anti-Lump agenda. This thieving has now grown immeasurably.
Again, it’s necessary to say the building scene is very varied and no two sites have the same feeling and texture. It’s often such things that can make some sites so fascinating. Inevitably this overflows into the many and varied lump situations. Some can be truly hideous. At the time of writing The Lump pamphlet terrible things were happening on some lump sites which were well known and had a kind of folklore status among building workers. Some sites where property developers were speedily building new private housing estates quickly became notorious. Bryant’s in Birmingham was such a one. Brutal sub-contractors ruled and the site manager’s office one night was blown up which attracted press headlines. It was possibly executed by cheated building workers (there were 10,000 such relatively miniscule explosions throughout England in 1972 alone) and many were to do with intolerable work scenes. The Bryant’s bomb however, could also have been the action of Angry Brigade types as it was accompanied by a small manifesto. It was a moment after all when the names of property speculators such as Bryant’s, Leech and Barrett’s became synonymous with all that was sickening about exploitation.
The problem is, on a big site where there’s no basic organisation among those at the sharp end things can quickly get awful and really dangerous. There’s nothing worse than having a bullying foreman on your back telling you to do hair raising things like clearing away rubbish from under scaffold while operatives work far above on the scaffold and great nuts and bolts etc thud into the ground near you having just missed your head, or, for example being forced to walk on so-called strengthened glass while loading up a skip. Then there’s all the potentially dangerous heavy machinery and if you have an accident it’s often mightily difficult to claim compensation or, even if successful, the monetary recompense is pitiful. You can hardly ask the foreman to be nice and reasonable as he’d probably laugh in your face accusing you of cowardice. If you refuse to do his bidding, especially if unskilled, the likelihood is you’ll be asked to collect your cards from the site office. And so on. No wonder, in this all too common situation everywhere, there’s often a basic cry for some on-site organisation which in this reified time and space expresses itself in a simple but traditional union form. Abstractly we can lament this knowing all too keenly what nonsense unions are and knowing too, that capital needs them ten times more than workers but such insight is naught set against the pressing necessities of immediate practical fears.
Then, having got yourself a union nothing changes much and all the contradictions again arise even over elemental issues regarding safety which was say, the impulse for bringing in the union in the first instance. A unionised site (a Higgs and Hill site?) in West London a few years ago strongly emphasised safety. Remarkably, safety officers stationed there were sent round to all small, non-union sites in the immediate vicinity. In a friendly and concerned way they criticised all safety lapses and invited operatives to safety meetings held on the big site in the evenings. Yet, irony of ironies, it was on this ultra-safety conscious home site off Queensway that a gigantic crane was shortly to keel over killing some building workers.
On the other hand, some of the Lump sites were hilarious, life enhancing and had a fine libertarian disposition, particularly in the 70s and early 80s. Gangs weren’t that uncommon which worked on the principal of equal wages making no economic differential between skilled and unskilled often dividing up the amount later after being paid by a sub-contractor who obviously insisted on the usual wage differentials between skilled and unskilled. Such gangs were egalitarian and had often dispensed with the boss in the shape of a sub-contractor even if obviously(!) been unable to dispense with other bosses in the industry. In these situations which often usually existed on smallish sites - though not always - there was many a wildcat strike just for the hell of it, simply because you wanted a good drink together, to smoke some dope, or because everyone had a rotten hangover or just generally wanted to fuck about. In such gangs, made up of like-minded individuals -say from 4 to 8 - getting high on the "craic" (in the original Irish language meaning passionate, flowing, unrepressed conversation packed with jokes and wild stories encapsulated within it’s own eroticism). You could shape your work scene to some degree cutting out some of the more oppressive alienations. Holding a good gang together in a nifty sort of way could be virtually guaranteed to keep a foreman or site manager etc off your back ever wary of upsetting a bunch of mates they knew were skilled at their trades. Such gangs too, would liven up other workers who so often would refer to them as "the union" usually because the craic wound up quite rapidly with a lively, on-going attack on the system generally. None of that meant you didn’t do a lot of back-breaking work as these things took place under the constraints of capital and naturally you went for the highest wages on offer – if you could get them. Equally though, horrible gangs existed and sometimes you worked side by side with them: gangs which were uptight, psycho and racist to the core advising you on the best way of say, shooting gypsies in the back etc! When using the past tense here it doesn’t mean such scenes don’t exist today. They do but good gangs, as well as bad - though we don’t miss the latter - are dispersed and increasingly a lot harder to find or keep going. Simply put, reaction puts more blocks in the path of such spontaneous work organisation – a form of togetherness which, as far back as the railway and canal building navvies, were an axiomatic part of subversion in the building trade. It’s a testament to the success and strength of the neo-liberal, free market that such gangs have been virtually vanquished by capital.
I would guess this was the type of Lump situation Dave Lamb was involved with though, most likely he wasn’t involved with it for too long. After writing The Lump pamphlet, it seems he progressively abandoned a life on the tools for a more acceptable, professional, cadre-type career. He followed it up with a very interesting historical text on forgotten and often officially covered-up soldiers’ mutinies in the British army. Nonetheless, this was a step back from something as relevant as The Lump and an on-going development of his ground breaking iconoclastic critique of the building industry would have made a lot more sense. The last I heard, which was quite sometime ago, Dave Lamb was writing a book with Chris Pallis ( the former main Solidarity organiser ) on the philosopher Wittgenstein. It seems he’d become a university lecturer. One cannot help but feel it’s a pretty cynical development though fitting well with the demoralising, and destructive go-getting zeitgeist we’re all really sickened with.
In fact a proportion of these gangs in the early 70s were made up of ex-student, drop outs who’d trained in specialisms such as architecture, surveying, town planning and what have you and in the lefty populist mood of the times tried to become workers. Initially they were consciously anti-careerist and had something of a critique of these professions - closely involved with management - as part of the superstructure of the building trade. This was all to the good but then most never deepened their first splendid rejection. They only tried to become workers and although workerism has to be rejected, workers’ position in the social structure is still pivotal in the assault on the old world. Once reaction started to really bite, these same people pathetically backtracked into the cadre role they’d half-heartedly tried to overthrow within themselves. If they’d maintained their original negation they could have over the years broadened the building workers’ critique into a more comprehensive and subversive totality. They chose not to. Today, everything built is nothing but bullshit in terms even of the simple splendours of the not so recent past and all life-enhancing spatial qualities related to a humane everyday encounter have evaporated. Nothing in its present form will be retained -ousted as it will be - in a thorough going social revolution. The hollowed-out shell of an architect’s role will instantly crumble into nothingness as everybody finds there wasn’t an ounce of creativity left in their dire designs. From then on the imagination can be given free play probing the possibilities of a new spatial dimension finally inseparable from all desires liberated from the suppression of the monetary economy. Interesting weeds and shrubs creeping up through the motorways, the City of London warrened with mysterious tunnels, clouds of butterflies as part of new eco-systems slowly taking over the shells of former banks. And so on.
But let’s not get carried away here. At any rate, the above is merely a fairly banal personal fantasy and a renewed environment may not be anything like that as it will take place through a poetry made by all and not by one as in Lautreamont’s maxim. Meanwhile, the conditions are just too grim and getting grimmer. The Lump: genuine waged workers, self-employed or little businessmen? It’s now a difficult question. Until quite recently, many Lump workers never bothered to register in any specific economic category. In this respect many didn’t exist in terms of official economic statistics, others were signing on the dole and weren’t really "casual" in the classic sense of the term having a subversive outlook and life style generally and who were living active critiques of the world of work generally. Accepting the role of self-employment (in the sense of paying a self-employed stamp, keeping accountancy books or paying for the services of an accountant) was regarded as close to nerd status or, at least, "suburban". In short, part of the Lump was an expression of the marginal proletariat’s way of life but then it could so easily go ridiculously ideological categorising 5 day a week workers as "straight".
Equally though the 5 day a week union militants repaid this slur with equally blinkered comment never reflecting on all these growing complexities with any sensitivity. Their minds were focussed on the big time sub –contractors hired by Wimpey, John Laing or McAlpine’s. Such though was their obsession they tended to look rather paranoically at everything and everyone else that wasn’t 100% pure union as "suspect" (a favourite term) which didn’t equate with a sub-contractor’s aura when that aura plainly was nowhere to be seen. Nonetheless, simple facts forced them to make a distinction between a fat cat sub-contractor and a self-employed worker. Obviously, you couldn’t avoid that one. The militants though tended to approve of the respectable, kosher, self-employed trades person who, at the time, had a rather petite bourgeois, mini-capitalist life style and aspirations, often looked down disapprovingly on the wild, mad gang out for a good time and having more of a propensity to riot than strike. Yet the militants and the wild men just couldn’t get away from each other. Ironically they were almost constantly in each other’s pockets in the pub, unable and even unwilling to get away from each other yet constantly slagging each other off.
Sometimes Lump mini riots were quite impressive. We once worked on a biggish site in the early 80s in west London which was part official, part unofficial. It was funded by Camden Council and the then functioning, Greater London Council and from the very first day, it was fascinating and crazy. The site boss, related to some posh Irish aristocratic family with an old Norman inflection before his surname, finally went completely over the top in his financial arrangement and massively over-spent on materials needed. We’d shake our head at the piles of sand and cement, at the mountains of Welsh slate and so on. After a few months this social housing project for the poor was near completion. Then came the day he had no money to pay the workers. He tried to borrow some dosh off a local drug dealer known as "Straight Mick" as the number of workers gradually filled up the ground outside the site office anxiously waiting for their wages. Opening the office door he finally admitted he’d got nothing. The whole site erupted as chain saws were deployed on doors and cupboards everywhere, cement mixers destroyed and floors torn up. Wreckage was strewn everywhere. Ironically, we who’d always gloried somewhat in the spontaneous festivity and potlatch of a riot, stood back having qualms about joining in because this street of conversions were for poor people who often anxiously came to visit us inquiring when their homes would be ready for them to move in. Nonetheless, though standing on the sidelines we vicariously felt in a rather shame faced way the exhilaration of the destruction.
These mini-riots have from time immorable always been prevalent on building sites and must surely still be quite frequent. They do however, take place a lot less on the more formally structured union sites but I have heard a shop steward laughing as he recalled a worker in an aggro fit dropping one TV after another down a garbage shute. They’d all been "pinched" from management offices. The ultra-leftist outfit, World Revolution in one of their more entertaining articles on the St Paul’s riots in Bristol in 1980 commented upon building workers on a nearby site cheering on the rioters molotoving cops. In a rigidly ideological and as is their want, World Revolution reckoned the builders were remembering the days of 1972 when the cops attacked builders’ picket lines. All that though, is fanciful revolutionism, as many building workers tend to get in a lot of trouble with the cops often simply through wild drinking scenes getting out of hand.
Things change - often without you realising it - until it’s staring you in the face. Nowadays, self-employment has lost the choice which until quite recently, was associated with it. It’s now an economic structure heavily imposed by the state ,changing as it becomes more widespread, downgraded and often not much more than a polite description disguising precarious, part time employment complimenting in some ways, the proletarianisation of a once up-market suburbia as the rich moved back to recolonise the inner cities. Similarly, though rather more desperately, marginality gave way to the often bleak, nether world of the excluded. Moreover, do all the distinctions and separations associated with the early 70s up to the early 80s now really apply?
The drive towards self-employment heavily promoted in the very first days of the Thatcher Government in 1979 and as a riposte to The Winter of Discontent had been well prepared in advance during the last days of PM Callaghan’s Labour Government with its new monetarist initiatives. It was largely and ironically, an invention by the state as it was also a recuperation of the individualistic and hedonist drives of youth in the sought for new communitarian ways of the late 60s, embraced but essentially altered by a state seeking its own renewed survival. The fresh innovative and individualistic life-blood borne in a social cauldron was rapidly drained away. It wasn’t however, until the final catastrophic defeat of the miners after their year long strike that the new panacea of an ersatz self-employment was promoted everywhere over the following years as the be all and end of everything that work could become. It was presented as the direct inverse of a Stalinist workers’ paradise and with the same relentless propaganda. There was the cornucopia of get rich quick, of everyone becoming a capitalist of sorts holding stocks and shares with a personal pension plan courtesy of a kindly faced insurance company. Britain was put on course to become a popular capitalist work utopia.
If the miners had won, it’s extremely doubtful this trajectory with all the rest of the bullshit paraphanalia (a crazy house price boom been not the least of them) would have had the same, razor-sharp, cutting edge. The madness of the market would have been considerably curtailed. In retrospect it’s fair to say- and one cannot over-emphasise this enough - how the defeat of the miners was one of the most tragic defeats for the working class of the world this century. Initially, it was the prelude to nearly every other defeat in Britain: from health workers to dockers to inner-city rioters. The guts were torn out as humiliation was followed by endless rounds of further humiliation as hardly anybody but the few crudest profiteers were left unscathed. A little later and the dimension of the world historical defeat of the miners became clearer because in a way the defeat of the miners parallels the defeat of the German revolution between 1918 to’21 in heralding a newly shaped and rather unforeseen totalitarianism. It’s extremely doubtful if the state capitalist system of Eastern Europe and Russia would have collapsed - despite the rapacious media onslaught - if there hadn’t been Thatcher’s example whereby one state industry after another was destroyed and the massed ranks of workers abolished to make way for millions of petty entrepeneurs as a crusading neo-liberal economics was messianically embraced. True, behind Thatcher lay Reagan and a revitalised American form of "capitalisme sauvage" aided fortuitously perhaps by the equally devastating impact of hi-tech pioneered in California’s silicone valley but Britain was uniquely the vanguard of the world and the way forward in famously destroying, "the enemy within". Even now, during the recent rebellion by South Korean workers, President Kim Young Sam praised Thatcher’s defeat of the miners ardently hoping he could unleash the same repression in one fell swoop.
If that was defeat there also had to be a final, final round of utter degradation: the ransacking of all the mining communities in 1992 carried out not through swords and armed pillage but courtesy of a TV sound bite and a lie mimicking a literary stream of consciousness endlessly promoted which said; "there’s no market for coal" when it was plain there was a very big market indeed albeit perhaps adapted more to pharmaceutical production. In reality, it was a cynical plan concocted and executed by MI5 secret services under the leadership of its boss, Stella Rimmington who’d been awarded her counter-insurgency spurs during the miners’ strike of 1984-5. Beyond and even further lay an even greater goal: ransacking everybody at the sharp end.
Although the last page or so might seem like a long digression it’s been put there to fully emphasise that the defeat of the proletariat here must be placed first and foremost. All the concomitant and more recent horrors like an intensified wave of sub-contracting, contracting out (out-sourcing), spurious self-employment, wiping out a great raft of unemployment and health benefits, pushing through enforced low wages, labour schemes etc, has, as a hellish backdrop, an all pervasive atomisation and an almost total loss of community bringing with it, crack-up and madness everywhere. It’s based on one single ringing fact: DEFEAT!
The Lump pamphlet can therefore, without a lot of clarification relating to the here and now only be regarded as an excellent period piece, good as it was for the its time, even though many things should have been gone into in greater depth. As mentioned previously, except occasionally you no longer meet situations in the building trade like during the 1970s. The rebellious edge has been lobotomised. Collective gangs regardless of union status are few and far between and a tradition going back to the railway navvies has been broken. By and large, the bosses decide what the composition of a gang will be – all in the interests of breaking the nuclei and possible spear head of class solidarity. Everything, including the universal panacea of self-employment, fits in with isolation and a subjective solipsism centered round an agonised and screwed-up individual firmly shackled by a class society he or she has now little awareness really still exists. Every effort to think and act collectively is virtually in Britain characterised as criminal set inside a country where even to use the term "working class" can be regarded as bordering on the subversive!
Building workers whether they want to be or not have had self-employment thrust upon them in order to hold down any kind of job or have access to any kind of wage. It’s all a chimera however as they’re really not working for themselves but for a slave driver generally in the form of a sub-contractor who makes a mint out of them. Some are still fortunate enough to work for a big company but the numbers dwindle daily. Although a sub-contractor directly employs self-employed trades people basically as full time workers they are virtually without any rights or security. They can be dismissed on the spot without recourse to any procedure. The boss doesn’t have to pay into any sickness schemes (as that’s now up to the worker to make provision for), nor does he have to pay out holiday money. Thus for two weeks over Christmas say, the workers are effectively without any money. After national insurance deductions etc workers on top rates employed by a London sub-contractor get about £75 per day but after all other stoppages (usually mere cons which have more to do with the subby’s profit margin), workers take home between £45 to £50 per day. The sub-contractor, on a gravy train just gets richer and, as often as not, deductions are not handed over to the state anyway. After a decade or so, if the sub-contractor is lucky and ruthless enough, he invariably ends up a millionaire after getting into one scam or another at the expense of the poor. It’s easy. You can buy up wholesale low grade fixtures and fittings as against better quality ones agreed in the contracts; merely slap on one coat of paint when three have been promised; paint over wet concrete or plaster; use low-quality tiles; skimp on the roofing as nobody can see that etc. One could go on. It all ends up though as a very long list adding up to a lot of money over time. Often too, the subby is in league with an architect or surveyor or some suit in management and they divide the spoils amongst themselves. Its all well covered up and in the bigoted atmosphere ruling in Britain today, even if they’re found out, it doesn’t matter in the slightest as it’s well known only the poor are corrupt. Few dare then call the boss to account for fear of becoming liable themselves to heavy financial penalties knowing full well that any exposure of a "fat cat" would only result in a mild reprimand. Hardly surprising then economic class polarisation relentlessly intensifies as the gap between rich and poor has become wider than ever. One example will suffice. It was customary up until the mid 1990s for the boss to hand out loyalty bonuses –often around £3000 or more – to reliable building workers at Christmas. Since then all such benevolence has been scrapped as the greed of the rich intensifies. Most self-employed, though not all by any means, don’t have a clue how to behave capitalistically and their grasp of economics is usually quite paltry. Their accounting system is often quite rudimentary and despite appearances to the contrary, they’re not that good at fiddling. Many cannot afford the services of an accountant and if they get hold of a cheap deal they get a cheap result which just isn’t worth it. Punters try it once and then give up. Often they earn just enough so as not to be able to qualify for housing benefit to cover part of the rent on their home or else their books are in such a mess that no Town Hall official could sort them out easily. More often than not in order to get over this hurdle, fear often prevents the individual from presenting an acceptable swindle sheet to the housing authorities. They get frightened of getting found out over minor irregularities just in case a prosecution would be in the offing. Moreover, and to cap it all, sometimes the same person can earn good money in one week and then nothing for the next three weeks. How could all this be explained to a rule-clad petty functionary with a computer? Seeing the computer is infallible the machine doesn’t possess the intelligence to explain such vagaries. Fear thus becomes a punishment in itself reinforced by a bottom line adamantly insisting that asking for monetary assistance off the state if your poor is tantamount to a criminal act.
In London, on the buildings, a wage of £75 per day is a sheer privilege in comparison to many places elsewhere. Plasterers in small country towns like Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire can earn as little as £15 per day. Contracts between sub-contractors and "reputable" clients (like Housing Associations or Council Depts) which, only a few years ago would have involved some kind of honour and bureaucratic etiquette, are torn up on the spot as the hunt intensifies for the most rapacious exploiter touting the cheapest price which means, in turn, having the cheapest proletarians on offer. In this dog eats dog atmosphere, it’s hardly surprising that in some outfits the regime beggars belief. You don’t walk about the site, you run. Barrett’s, the house builder, systematically fires its workers almost on a daily basis. A carpenter is say, given 24, 4inch, size 8 screws from the materials depot to put together a particular bit of wooden studding. If the carpenter loses any screws or fucks any of them up, he or she has to pay for them. Screws of that size are about 60 pence each so at the end of a bad day, you can easily be down £20. Just what are you supposed to live on? Fresh air? And in the era of the really cleaned-up, po-mo, pristine façade, with an even more pristine interior, some maintenance engineers are expected to forgo the overalls for suits even though constantly handling oily machinery and tools. Looking untidy can result in threats of dismissal (an oily lapel can be a near capital offence!) even though the companies refuse to foot the constant dry cleaning bills. One can go on with these horror stories and they’re everywhere.
Though it would take some time, a compilation of true-life tales from the buildings could probably now equal that chilling account of 19th casualism, ironically titled: The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell and which became the bible of English trade unions. It’s the complex story of a group of workers on a building site on their knees to a merciless free market capitalism. When I first read it many moons ago, a suicidal chill enveloped me: could this become true again? Could people dying of fatal diseases be forced nonetheless to work among the muck and rubble again? Well OK folks, it’s back. There are carpenters around now ill with cancer plugging away at the daily grind either because they cannot afford to live on the miserly, basic sickness benefit of about £68 per week or because they cannot take the constant harassment meted out by those state appointed "doctors" known colloquially as the Mengeles. These creeps oversee just who should be allowed sickness benefit these days as their sole aim is to save as much money as possible so that more tax cuts for the rich can be guaranteed. Basically, the state - via these blood-money hacks - believe the sick have a duty to work…. Or perhaps a guy ill with cancer feels confusedly inside that the free market is so death-driven that you may as well be drawn into a contemporary dance of death anyway? And behind that too maybe is the sheer fear of dying alone in the loneliest society ever? Who knows and why now shouldn’t such a situation be all of the above and more?
One of the reasons why 19th century casualism has reappeared is directly related to the steadily growing difficulties encountered in trying to get any form of state unemployment benefit and with the new draconian Job Seekers Allowance, it’s going to get a lot worse. Furthermore, if you spontaneously walk away from an impossible work scene or if you get dismissed from a job under the cloud of "industrial misconduct" well there ain’t going to be any guaranteed survival for you mate for sometime. It’s as though your being forced on the rob. A sub-contractor on a site can sadistically use such a ruling to threaten a worker for been an hour late because of transport fuck-ups or whatever. Sometimes it really does mean dismissal. These threats and this reality are a constant nightmare for already precariously employed people and on pain of survival they’re forced into a submission no matter how much the spirit rebels inside to at least snap back. Hire and fire it seems, becomes all there is to life.
Once it was possible in the building trade, especially when getting older, to fix up employment with the Direct Labour Departments – the DLO’s – administered by the local councils to get to grips with all the maintenance work needed on their housing stock and a also, to have on hand, a body of people to build new council house stock. The pace of work was generally more easy going and there was a closed union shop guaranteeing an easier time which meant you could get away with more than a few freebies like sleeping or sunbathing on a roof during a hot summer’s afternoon. Now these DLO’s have all but been swept away with CCT, the law on Compulsory Competitive Tendering. Strikes against DLO abolition, which admittedly were pretty desultory strikes, have made no difference During the early 1980s, even some Lump gangs went along to DLO protest meetings to voice their support, though this was a rarity. In their place, sub-contractors have moved in en masse, trade unions have ceased to exist and some fat cats are again(!) making a lot of money. It’s not as though things have suddenly become more efficient in terms of getting jobs done as, on the contrary, there’s generally been a deterioration in the quality of work executed on council housing. Going along with these "new" found means, an ideology of "new" youth abounds which means getting poorly trained young ‘uns to knock out the work as quickly and cheaply as possible, pushing aside the older, more technically experienced, building workers. That informal apprenticeship of site work – where the young learned all the nifty, technically brilliant tricks from old hands at the building trade - has gone along with all the rest.
However, after having said all of this and taking a more, all rounded view, a word of fact and a word of caution is necessary. One cannot simply blame the sub-contractor today as in the past in a time when they had a much greater freedom of movement. Nowadays they are much more at the beck and call of big capital where essentially the whole structure and directive comes down directly from the huge and powerful building companies themselves. The composition of these companies which are some of the most ideologically committed to a free market oriented state, have changed drastically from what they were twenty years ago or so when they directly employed thousands of workers and sub-contracting was relatively minimal in comparison with today’s standards. Sub-contracting then was largely a matter of specialised, technical operators advancing new structural innovations which no one else was capable of carrying out. Now the big companies are "hollowed out", existing as client, wining and dining, artistic vending operations shorn of most day to day responsibilities involved in construction. Financially and as mini-global empires, they are richer than ever involved in high profile stock market wheeler-dealing and extremely able to crack the whip on the many backs of the sub-contractors they employ and who essentially organise and administer all their masters’ work. Economically, these big guys can destroy these sub-contractors whenever they deem it fit to do so. If say, a sub-contractor makes a complaint against them acting against the pressures foisted on him by the big companies by withdrawing his company and self-employed work force (in a kind of parody of a strike) he can be in deep trouble. Contracts can be immediately cancelled along with money owed to the sub-contracted company that can run into huge sums of money bordering on a million pounds. Consequently, the sub-contractor then faces bankruptcy which means his bank assets are seized if, not, immediately, his flash house and car. He therefore has no ready to cash to pay his workers for work in progress or finished . Probably, he’d like to pay his workers if only because he doesn’t want the news to get around locally he’s a bad payer and no craftsperson of value will work for him in the future – once, of course, he gets on his feet again! These creeps usually do spring back after a short period of mourning replete with a new name for the new company registered in the wife’s or brother’s name, fit and fine to let the good old exploitative times role again. If the subby suffers anguish – obviously plainly for all to see in the pub over inability to pay – it’s largely for commercial reasons and to prevent himself ending up with more than a thick ear. He cannot really resort to law as the cost of say taking a giant like McAlpine’s to court is prohibitive He’d lose anyway and the big guys know this which is why they resort to these foul means in the first place. Inevitably, the workers see the sub-contractors as the big shit giving them as much grief as possible in a clandestine sort of way like doing a bit of damage to their smart houses or torching their flash cars. Fine, but the problem is the biggest shits - – those giant companies who initiate such policies - and from whom the problems really stem - go unscathed. It could be said that the growth of sub-contracting has been very effective in preventing the workers from getting their hands around the throats of the powerful building companies who have such a profound influence over British, free market, neo-liberal economics. These monsters are responsible for so much – a dependency on oil, an obsession with road construction , a hatred of wild nature, rail traffic and travel and so much else beside.
It would be nice to say there’s been some reflection on all what’s happened on the buildings over the last thirty years or so but it’s a sure sign of just how bad times are that there’s not even that! There’s been little or no change in set attitudes. Ideologies of all types still abound with arguments stuck more or less in the past. An unemployed Irish carpenter friend on the eve of retirement and who’d worked on all types of building scenes, big and small, union and off- the-cards, recently attended a meeting of the inner London, Shepherds Bush branch of UCATT – the builders’ union. He honestly stated in relaxed conversation that he did some work on the side now and again to top up his pittance of an unemployment benefit. Some of the members present turned nasty more or less suggesting he was a low down scab even though the guy had never crossed a picket line in his forty years on the sites! When telling me about this incident, with his eyes and head rolling wildly, he was clearly very upset. Really it was too much.
On the other hand, the builders’ union from the electricians EPIU to the TGWU (Transport and General Workers’ Union) and UCATT (Union of Construction And Technical Trades) have now accepted bona-fide self-employed people into their ranks and it’s not difficult now to find fully paid-up union members on an individual basis working for rip-off sub-contractors. They do this however, on the basis of the union being not a means of creating daily workplace organisations but as a form of insurance and legal protection if anything should go wrong at work when, in the present circumstances, free legal aid for the majority of fully employed workers has been abolished. The union thus becomes the workers’ insurance company.
This has created a backlash among some union fundamentalists who wish to go back to the days when labour only, sub-contracting was barred from many a site and everyone worked for the one big company making it easier to array a united force against the bosses. To be sure you can well sympathise with such nostalgia and how we miss the constant industrial ferment and it’s true we’d all feel a lot happier if strikes of any significance were going on in the building industry. However, most of the workers who go on like this are so completely black listed that there’s no way in the present circumstances of head long reaction they’re going to get a job on a big site in the foreseeable future. The bricklayer, Brian Higgins of The Building Worker rank ‘n’ file group is the most notable. He, along with sympathetic others, got together a bricklaying gang in the late 80s worked on a reasonably sized lump site and then pushed for unionisation. Strikes were called and from some initial small successes snowballed into halting major sites in the very centre of London itself. The giant London Bridge City development came to a standstill. It really was impressive but even the palpable misery of the late 80s - reeking from the defeat of the miners - seems like relative paradise in comparison to now. Higgins has become unemployable but he constantly tries to kick-up untidy increasingly but now squeezed back into a sectarian obsession with the union wanting it transformed into a more "democratic" organisation and more accountable to its members. Desiring "freedom of speech" he mouths off incessantly against "sell-out" union officials. Although some more advanced kind of independent Trotskyist (c/f new intro here) his fervency reminds one of some old time Scottish calvanist who wouldn’t be out of place in a satirical aside in a poem by Robbie Burns. Recently, Brian Higgins has been sued by Dominic Hehir - a UCATT union official - for defamation of character. Yes sued! It reveals just how far down the road of money terrorism Britain has gone (despite Hehir being Irish and living in Dublin) when a well-heeled bureaucrat is able to demand compensation from a penniless worker.
Basically, Higgins wants a union fully responsive to its rank ‘n’ file members, a true union, a fighting union! This demagoguery though appealing can be nothing but simple hogwash. It’s the kind of thing though which finds a sympathetic response among that tiny band of anarcho-syndicalists though in a less trade oriented form. It’s even a little wider than that. The Crook branch of UCATT in Co Durham has something of an old-style libertarian disposition on these lines often producing somewhat interesting pamphlets and leaflets (e.g a pamphlet on a strike in a factory which produced wallpaper in Bishop Auckland in the early 80s. The instigators, who became known as "The Wallpaper Warriors" rapidly transcended Trotskyism immediately taking to arms killing a cop apocalyptically thinking, after the huge 1981 urban riots, that Britain was on the very edge of revolution. The pamphlet though interesting never made enough of these and other essential connections). Despite all of these anti-bureaucratic sympathies, in reality, the anarcho-syndicalists inevitably go along with a lot of procedural union bureaucracy such as the obscure rituals related to the "star nights" – don’t ask me what all this means but most likely has its origins in old time radical free masonry. There is something of an overlap between people like Higgins and the anarcho-syndicalists but it’s really only based on mutual respect for the others’ on-site militancy rather than moving on to something more coherent. Individually too, some of the anarcho-syndicalist building workers have been very brave in the past and some, particularly during the miners strike, landed up with heavy jail sentences.
It’s doubtful if the supine present-day character of the unions in Britain can continue indefinitely. In America –that other free market Mecca – they’re changing and some bureaucrats now issue "fiery" statements like calling for an uprising of the American working class, What in reality though does all this mean as for sure they don’t want any such thing? It means wanting some kind of rebellion to break out and then some Young Turk can have some success in seeking to transform the union and get ahead nailing down a power position. Thus illusions multiply all over again as a repetition compulsion is unleashed and any revolutionary breakthrough is again denied.
On a more general level, all this talk of a sustainable capitalist take-off in Britain following a new direction –the third way – is nonsense. Don’t be fooled. A lot of this spin emanates from the media which is more policed by management than most countries in Europe and is merely a front expounding the benefits of neo-liberal economics. Sure there may be some more inward investment by global multi-nationals moving to Britain where labour is cheaper – because more flexible – than in many other countries in Europe or even some Asian countries like South Korea. A car worker can be hired in Wales for £8,000 per year. The equivalent in Seoul would be £10,000 to £12,000, so no wonder Korean multi-nationals take advantage of a capitalist paradise. However, to move on from this and declare that there’s an increasing general prosperity is way off the mark. Can one also say unemployment is really falling? For sure there may be more part time work available but there’s been no real palpable increase in full time employment. Companies downsize, shedding full-time workers everywhere at the same time as stock market quotations and dividend payments go up and up. Moreover, the Job Seekers Allowance is increasingly sweeping people off all kind of benefits and unemployment statistics here are only calculated for those receiving such benefits and not for those out of work as happens elsewhere in Europe. The official statisticians now find such a situation laughable and are finally saying so because unemployment in Britain could be nearly as high as in Germany but whose to know in a country when lying is sacrosanct? For sure there is a real expansion in prison building and, therefore, a few more building workers are employed, but it’s all geared towards a penal system whose intake is rising by 250 inmates a week. Most are banged-up for petty offences like shop lifting, small time burglary, defaulting on fines or spraying up some hip-hop graffiti which are all treated as great crimes. What though are you supposed to do walking around skint in a world where money and consumption is proclaimed everywhere and where endemic rip-offs by the rich are proclaimed everywhere. It feels that naked and together with the ever-extending array of laws and penalties against those at the sharp end, is it surprising that workers are living in fear and dread under the sway of a money terrorism waiting to be unleashed on the rest of our immediate European neighbours.
A powerful fraction of capital here wants to bequeath to the rest of the world an updated version of 19th century "Manchester free trade liberalism". It’s ironically focussed on a little Englander mentality, or rather, a home counties mentality, which now wants the world as its oyster, making the obscene heyday of British Imperialism seem enlightened and progressive in comparison. We are the miserable end game which could end up on your doorstep soon if the inevitable insurgency accompanying free market economics isn’t fought more lucidly than was the case here. People are thirsting for revenge – scared though they are – and we must finally put our faith in that but when will hope break out again?
DW. March 1997
Some notes on Robert Tressell which may prove helpful in some kind of introduction to the German edition of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.
Robert Tressell was writing at a time – the early years of the 20th century – when the workers’ movement in Britain and Ireland was at one of its lowest ebbs ever. Not much was taking place. The big and often violent miners’ strike of 1896 was nothing but a memory. Reaction was rampant. Laws against workers taking any kind of action, particularly strike action was practically out of the question as most such activity at the time was union led. The Asquith Conservative government of the day gave itself powers to sequester all union assets. A lot of the unions were small outfits with not much money and thus they faced bankruptcy and liquidation. Finally, a tiny union at the Taff Vale company in South Wales took on the Taff Vale Railway Co and declared a strike. In response, the government seized all the union funds, the union ceased to exist and the strike collapsed. The shock waves spread like wildfire throughout the employed and the message was loud and clear: either shut up or put up.
This then was the immediate background to Tressell’s dark and foreboding book. The workers had given in to this terrible pressure and began to somewhat accept it as their lot. It was therefore easy to characterise them as "mugs" – to use the American expression – and Tressell’s Hastings on the south coast of England (and where he’d worked as a painter and decorator) thus becomes Mugsborough. In retrospect, it’s perhaps easy to see as somewhat patronising and there’s very little scope given in the book to the transformation of the submissive and conned subject once direct action is undertaken.
However, in many respects it was the very misery engendered by such submission that was gradually to galvanise the workers and transform them and, as a by-product, produce a more combative, centralised, as well as as a more recuperative trade union movement with something like a "never again" as Taff Vale, casualism and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists became canonised in a labourist ideology which provided suitable and applicable rhetoric/credentials for any aspiring left wing trade union bureaucrat and leftist Labour politician in an ascendant state capitalism. Quoting Tressell became an almost obligatory career move. Nay, it was even more: an essential under-pinning of the One Nation Toryism which guaranteed some kind of worker protection. And a long-lingering sentiment has remained well into these rampant, neo-liberal times. It’s been said that Tressell’s book was one of the favourite books of John Major, the last Conservative Prime Minister! But this by then was an exception.
Generally though, the book retained its quasi-mythic status until the 1980s. The laws enacted against workers in the early 70s and which were overthrown by wave upon wave of strikes, in fact reinforced this status (c/f the pamphlet about Tressell commemorating his new statue in Liverpool put out by old-style Liverpool TU members). Finally though the 1980s did produce a more enduring anti-worker legislation which has ferociously remained creating an atmosphere of resignation and stupidity reminiscent of Taff Vale times. In practise though these laws now are far more draconian than ever they were in the early years of the 20th century. Hopefully, we all can remember with what intense fury, violence and even aborted uprisings these laws helped engender in the Britain of the 1980s. The workers were defeated and the laws increased. The present absence of struggle is, of course, predicated on this defeat. The stakes were high and in retrospect it’s easy to see all the manifold failures of our side. Most were blatantly obvious even at the time and a belief in following trade union directives in the final analysis – when the chips were really down – was fatal. It’s our fault we lost; nobody else can be blamed. A lot of the miseries a la Tressell have returned with a vengeance and a name you were weary of hearing endlessly repeated, knowing what an opportunistic aura it possessed, has again acquired cutting edge.
What must be remembered about the early 20th century in these islands was that the period of outright repression was a prelude to one of the most explosive periods in our history – what became known as The Great Unrest between 1909 to 1914. Robert Tressell died in Liverpool on the eve of the outbreaks.
However, from 1905 onwards signs of trouble were in the air. The aborted 1905 revolution in Russia caused consternation in ruling circles in Britain. An incoming Liberal government in 1906 (which many said at the time was elected due to the shock waves emanating from Russia) quickly drafted legislation scrapping the nastiest aspects of the previous governments labour laws. It was a palliative to what they perceived to be a changing mood. By 1909, the Liberal government enacted a piece of legislation which became known as The Peoples’ Budget. It was the first systematic form of state capitalist protection against the worst ravages of the market on workers’ lives that a British government had come up with and old age pensions etc became a statutory right.
It was a case though of the state giving too little too late in an attempt to forestall workers taking independent action… In no time these islands were in uproar from one end to the other. Strikes and riots broke out everywhere. Police were killed and gunboats were sent up the Mersey to put down insurrection in Liverpool. The army shot dead striking miners in West Yorkshire and the city of Hull in east Yorkshire experienced a huge orgiastic riot which sent shock horrors throughout the Christian establishment as not only did they witness the burning of the city but mass fucking in the streets… School kids refused to go to school organising against teachers etc. The accounts of this period are spare in the annals of English social history and the best is probably Stanley Dangerfield’s, The Strange Death of Liberal England… Then in Dublin in 1913, the famous transport workers strike broke out fitfully organised by the anarcho-syndicalists replete with the first armed workers’ militia of the 20th century patrolling the streets of the Irish capital for many weeks. (Moscow and St Petersburg had seen armed insurrection without a prior organised militia).
It’s been said recently by some of those Anglo-American new breed of academic autonomist historians that the out break of hostilities among the belligerent powers in Europe in 1914 wasn’t really a war over the carve-up of imperial markets but a dire necessity in order to forestall social revolution. Although this argument has the merit of dethroning the time-honoured Social Democratic and Leninist economic and political perspective, it’s possibly over the top. The only proletariats’ in Europe on the offensive in the years prior to the inter-imperialist world was were those of Britain, Ireland and Russia and in the latter country, strikes and barricades were only just happening after a lapse of seven years. In the same period, Germany, France and Italy were relatively quiet.
Excerpts from a letter published in German Wildcat, September 1989 commenting upon a few strikes in Britain
If it hadn’t been for the existence of the most draconian labour laws in Western Europe, almost certainly one would have seen a "repeat" of The Winter of Discontent both in 1988 and 1989. A "repeat" in the sense of strikes all cascading together, tumbling over each other in some rambling sort of way.
However, these present strikes in Britain have been more under union control than those recent strikes in France or Italy –despite the fact that the unions have infiltrated and used the co-ordinations there. But in contrast to France say, where the strikers have won very little and basically nothing in pay rises, despite the existence of "new" organisational forms, here strikers have been remarkably successful this year. Almost every major strike – railway workers, local government officers etc - has been won both in terms of wage increases and in pushing back and even thwarting restructuration, particularly pay bargaining. The only exception – and it was a devastating one – was the defeat of the dockers. The dockers’ defeat has had though, amazingly enough, very little real impact on other striking sectors and, it seems, for other sectors preparing to strike. Set against the grim reality that these strikes have been won against the most reactionary regime in Western Europe – now going to lunatic lengths in the proposed poll tax to subjugate the rest of the population - they’re no small victory. Ironically, strikers here have been more successful than their French counterparts facing a modern, flexible, social democratic state.
But then, when all is said and done, though glad to see the return of the "English disease", making one feel rather better inside, they’re also not very inspiring affairs and quite unlike the ransacking and violence of the miners strike and the printers etc even though these strikes were defeated. This is not to worship violence for its own sake – a kind of metaphysic of violence – merely to note the rage expressed in these actions really did point to something more than a fairer version of the old order.
As for "new" content, well, I don’t know enough about that on that real intimate level which is of course necessary. Most of the time you simply cannot know this vis-à-vis those little changes/facts etc that can potentially open entirely new perspectives as time goes by. Finally you are involved in the relatively limited parameters of your own space. Certainly, there’s been the reemergence of rank ‘n’ file unionism despite having a new name but I’m not sure what it means. It’s still after all, rank ‘n’ file unionism and not "open" in the sense through which the form of a new world –if there is to be one – could come.
For instance, the old shop steward structure among striking steel erectors was thrown out but only in order for a new shop steward structure to be established which was prepared to get rid of a ridiculous two year agreement signed by engineering (AEU) bureaucrats. The new structure, though more prepared to fight, nonetheless wasn’t that different from those they’d overthrown. At one important moment at least, when 16 big building sites were on strike in London in early summer, this stewards committee made decisions behind the backs of striking steel erectors – decisions that it seems – weren’t really challenged by striking steel erectors although there was muted anger among a small minority.
Interestingly too (the mood is catching) these organisers no longer called themselves shop stewards but "coordinators", imitating their French counterparts. This has happened not only in the construction industry (maintenance building workers on the North Sea oil platforms used the term too) but also among London Underground train drivers. Indeed, the tube drivers were the first to deploy the tag. A nagging doubt remains. Aren’t they just shop stewards under a new guise? We shall see! Certainly there’s been an attempt to discipline some of these coordinators – particularly by UCATT officials in the building industry. On the Isle of Grain in the Thames estuary during spring, some union bureaucrats were beaten up and thrown off sites by strikers where previously some heavy action had taken place and railway lines had been uprooted and gantry cranes pushed over etc. It’s hardly surprising therefore that the union big wigs came down on them squashing all resistance though getting squashed themselves in the process. Sounds exciting doesn’t it? Well, it could have been a splendid precursor to something much bigger but the action remained confined to the Isle of Grain and London sites and limited to steel erectors who never really attempted to generalise their dispute to other building trades – never mind others. When they did make a gesture in that direction it was conceived in such an archaic union manner. A meeting was held at Conway Hall in central London by steel erector coordinators and though other building workers were invited it had to be care of the union card when 70% of building workers aren’t in unions. If only they’d made an appeal on pasted up posters to all building workers or, something similar! That perhaps might have meant a new mood was in the air!
On the North Sea oil platforms it was a little better. Building workers involved girl friends/wives in occupations over the appalling safety standards on the rigs and during the dispute began to make appeals to oil production workers. Some responded, but then the action petered out. (Did the coordinators lose their nerve as after all, they were taking on the mighty oil companies well noted for their brutality? Even so, some maintenance workers were well pissed-off when the strikes – on the eve of getting dramatically bigger – were ended by the coordinators).
Similar things can be said about the tube drivers. They never opened their coodination to other underground workers. They kept their elite role intact vis-à-vis other railway workers. Despite this lack there was also a fair degree of radicalism within that somewhat myopic narrowness. Bureaucrats, mainly belonging to ASLEF were ordered out of meetings and it seems, the coordinators were basically anti-party (some, it was said, had been Tory voters). It was only later that Trotskyists moved in to try and colonise the coordinations. At the end of their long strike, even though finally the strikers had relinquished the running of their dispute to the ASLEF bureaucrats, drivers at a final coordination meeting ferociously refused - deploying the heaviest language –"listen motherfucker" – to talk to any media representative. It was a response not seen since the early, heady days of the miners’ strike. All in all, the tube drivers’ action was something of a step in the right direction.
Really what’s needed is an analysis of the organisational composition of shop stewards over the last 20 years or so evaluating how their role has changed. In the 60s, the Situationists, most likely prodded by Solidarity in Britain, could hold to the view that shop stewards were basically an autonomous revolutionary body, or, potentially so - if one could only get to them - and clue them into real autonomous theory. Of course, it tended to smack of leftist handing theory down to the masses but there was rather more to it than that. Maybe it was an understandable perspective then at a time when there was hardly a national pay bargaining structure in existence and grabbing what you could (free collective bargaining!) usually depended on how bloody-minded you were prepared to be at a local level. Certainly, the situation was very open and some shop stewards here did latch on quickly to aspects of some of the most advanced and fresh theory in existence. However, 70s reorganisation and the emergence of a national pay bargaining on a big scale plus a much greater integration of stewards into the union/state hierarchy put paid to what had increasingly become, a mistaken concept though not perhaps, initially. (see enclosed text I wrote in 1979 on The Winter Of Discontent). In a sense, I don’t think the fully employed workers have still recovered from that subtly shattering experience. It would be worth investigating how the stewards fragmented throughout the 70s, for example, the substantial increase in the number of senior stewards often on 100% facility time paid for by the company/state dept or multi-national and thus becoming almost as remote from the sharp end of an intensifying workers’ alienation as the union bureaucrat in his/her office. During the savage Thatcher years of the 80s you really wonder just how much has that position been reversed. Indeed, some recent statistics and which the Trotskyist SWP eagerly pounced on, say that the number of shop stewards has risen from 300,000 in 1979 to 360,000 now! Basically though, the shop steward apparatus – with all its manipulations, encouraging/derailing struggle syndrome, ignoring mandates, decisions taken by themselves etc – has continued virtually unscathed. Perhaps what one is beginning to see is a union rank ‘n’ filism powered by those shop stewards at the real bottom end of the union hierarchy who feel sufficiently estranged from this hierarchy to borrow the term coordinator in order to give merely the appearance of something different? It was certainly more than that in the early days of the tube strike. It may be the beginning of something different but there again, probably not as it’s going to take some fundamental sea change for this "new" movement to break out of the union carapace.
D.W. September 1989
Back cover piss-take on Carl Andre's "bricks"
In the early 70s, 120 BRICKS, by Carl Andre was purchased for a substantial sum by the Tate Gallery. An edge to the critique of art took shape as bricklayers declared they’d "have to put their rates up". It made you laugh. Although the workers once possessed a banal though often enjoyable piss-take on modern art this has now been left behind as more and more are sucked into Tate Modern. Perhaps necessary, as the bulk of people prepare to grasp theoretically and historically the real mass supercession of modern art, which would still involve knocking Carl Andre’s sleight of hand into brick dust as well as putting Tate Modern to imaginative fire.
(Apart from the new critical introduction here, all the articles were published in one form or another by Wildcat, the autonomous German revolutionary group)