Memories of workers' struggles and an occupation of the British Aircraft Corporation factory in Weybridge, England, in 1974, and their meaning today.
In 1974 I was working at the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) factory at Weybridge, 20 miles south of London. This was one of the largest aircraft factories in the country. In WW2 it made bombers. Now we were working on Concorde as well as military planes and missile systems both for the British Air Force but also for the Saudis and others. The production facilities were spread over a huge site with an aircraft runway in the middle. The factory had grown from a small engineering workshop in the middle of the world’s first ever purpose built banked motor racing track. Here and there bits of this old track still existed, hidden beneath woods and undergrowth on the perimeter of the site.
The workforce of about 6,000 came from the surrounding district which was a mix of working class council estates distributed amongst some of the most wealthy houses in the country. Just outside the factory gates was the St George’s Hill estate, a gated community of rock stars and financiers but also the site of one of the English civil war Levellers’ encampments, the ghosts of revolutionaries driven over by the Mercedes and Rolls Royces of Eric Clapton and other notables.
The factory had been fully unionised since the late 1940’s. Prior to this time if you wanted to go to the toilet you were allowed 3 minutes, any longer and you could be sacked. After the war, service men and women had the right to reclaim their pre-war jobs and many soldiers returned to the factory. One ex-squaddie went for a shit and as he sat reading his paper the foreman knocked on the door and told him he’d outstayed his time. The ex-squaddie opened the door and knocked the foreman out. He was sacked but everyone walked off the job. He was reinstated and most of the employees then joined unions. (At least this was the story I was told when I asked why people still called going to the toilet ‘going for a three minute’.)
The influence of the unions could be seen in the operation of the bonus system. Every specific task had a time set for it by agreement between management and unions. People could earn a bonus by completing a job quicker than the agreed time. However, there was a factory wide rule that no-one was allowed to earn a bonus bigger than 25% of their basic wage. This was to stop divisions between workers and also to stop the management trying to increase times overall. To enforce this ban stewards would go round and look at everyone’s payslips when they got paid, in cash of course, on a Thursday. If someone’s bonus was over the limit, and that sometimes happened by people making a mistake when they handed in completed job tickets, then they had to donate that extra cash to the union fund. In reality everyone earned the 25% extra.
There were two main trade unions in the factory, the Amalgamated Engineers Union (AEU) and the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) but there were also about nine other craft unions for the various skilled trades. I was a member of the National Union of Sheet Metal Workers, Coppersmiths, Heating and Domestic Engineers, known in the factory as ‘metal bashers’. There was no competition between the unions as they all covered different jobs. The shop stewards committee, with about 150 stewards from all different departments, met once a month and for the most part we acted as a unified work force. There was a senior shop stewards committee formed of the convenor (head steward) of each union and some elected from the stewards committee. These senior stewards were paid to work on union affairs as long as there was matters to be dealt with. When I got elected onto this senior stewards committee I immediately realised that they made sure there was always union matters to be dealt with so that they never had to return to their work benches. Some of them hadn’t lifted a tool in years.
The production of the Concorde was a strange business as bits of it was being made here, bits at the other main BAC site at Filton near Bristol and the rest in France. The air was full of talk of redundancies as it was becoming clear that Concorde was not financially viable and no airlines wanted to buy it.
At a meeting with management the senior stewards were told that there could be 4,000 redundancies amongst the production workforce and the white collar workers in the offices. The senior stewards took the decision that this information should be kept secret until more meetings were held. I thought ‘bollocks’ to that and overnight had thousands of leaflets printed with the management’s information. I then got comrades from the local area to give them out the next morning as day shift went in. Uproar. A general stewards meeting was called. Everyone knew I was responsible for the leaflet but no-one could prove it. After the meeting one of the stewards showed me a note that he had passed amongst all his mates saying if the senior stewards tried to do anything against me they would all walk out of the meeting in solidarity.
There was a Labour Government and we had meetings with the ministers, Michael Foot and Tony Benn. Their only advice was for us to all work hard, get the plane flying, let the world see how wonderful it was and wait for the orders to pour in. Like most revolutionaries of the time I demanded that the industry be nationalised.
But this row over keeping news of redundancies secret was not the first time I’d clashed with my fellow senior stewards. A couple of months earlier there was a bust up over the Des Warren affair. Des Warren was a building worker, a member of the Communist Party, and one of the instigators of ‘flying pickets’ that had tried to bring the entire building industry out on strike two years earlier. The builders union, led by right-wingers, tried to keep the strike contained to certain selected sites and refused to call everyone out. Des, and the others, in the flying pickets, were going round to stop sites that were still working.
After the strike collapsed the government went for the militants and Des and several other building workers were charged with conspiracy. Three of them were eventually found guilt and jailed including Ricky Tomlinson who went on to find fame as an actor in the Royle Family. Des refused to bide by prison rules insisting he was a political prisoner being kept in jail by a Labour government. A protest march was organised to walk from Liverpool to London to demand the release of the ’Shrewsbury 3’. At a meeting of all the shop stewards in the factory I moved we should support the march. The leader of the Communist Party branch in the factory, who was also the AEU convenor, read out a letter from the building workers’ union disowning the jailed men and asking people not to support them. Other right-wingers in the meeting also argued against supporting these ‘criminals’. But my motion was carried with nearly all the rank and file Communist Party members voting to support their fellow CP member, Des Warren. A group of stewards agreed we would go to the start of the march but when we went to get the factory banner from the AEU leader he refused to hand it over. We went anyway and the following week demanded a recalled stewards meeting where we condemned the refusal to hand over the banner and set up a committee to go round all the local factories to get coach loads of people to join the final day of the march as it got to London. 150 people went and several of the CP stewards left the party, so disgusted were they with their branch secretary’s behaviour.
While the future of Concorde was in the balance and many jobs at stake, the unions submitted the annual wage claim. At this time there was very high inflation and annual wage increases had to be big just to keep pace with prices.
The management made an offer – a few percent but way below the rate of inflation.
The senior stewards met to discuss the management’s offer and it was rejected as inadequate. We then discussed what we should recommend to the workforce. The senior stewards were mostly fairly conservative craftsmen (there were no women) but amongst them were some old style militants and several members of the Communist Party, but with a Labour Government in power most of the senior stewards were reluctant to rock the boat.
I proposed we call a mass meeting and recommend strike action. A split vote, 50 - 50. The Chairman, the AEU convenor and CP branch secretary member had to give his casting vote. Reluctantly he voted for the strike recommendation. As soon as we finished this part of our agenda we moved on to a subject that was clearly much more important for several of the senior stewards – an impending visit by Her Royal Highness, Princess Margaret. Which of us would give her a bouquet and get to actually shake the Royal Hand, swoon swoon. I proposed we boycott the whole farce but no-one else saw it my way.
That night 3 of the senior stewards went to a mass meeting of the night shift – about 1000 people. These people permanently worked nights and got their week over in 4 shifts and were known to be more militant than the day shift. We put our proposal for an all out strike and it was carried overwhelmingly.
The next day in one of the giant hangars we addressed the 5000 people on day shift. The proposal to strike was rejected by a show of hands. Someone from the floor proposed that the stewards should be sent back in to renegotiate and come back with a better offer. That proposal was carried.
The senior stewards met, sent our team in to meet management who refused to improve their offer. We discussed what to do. I moved that we should again recommend strike action but the committee voted to go back to another mass meeting with no recommendation, just a report that no new offer had been made. Then, because the date was drawing near, the committee got on with the more important business of the impending visit by ROYALTY. All around the factory preparations were being made. Everywhere was being tidied. The white safety lines round all machinery and walk ways were being repainted. Foremen were going round and taking down all the pin-ups and page 3 girls. Labourers were sweeping every inch of the floor.
Now this wage offer covered the entire BAC combine with production sites all over the country but there was no real rank and file industry wide union committee as far as I can remember. I certainly never met people from the other sites. However, every day a coach load of our workers went to work in a facility about 50 miles away. Through them word spread that the workforce at this small workplace had held a day long sit down strike to make their opinion of the wage offer known to management.
Once again, a group of senior stewards went to the night shift to report back the failure of talks with management. The night shift expressed their anger at the day shift for having rejected the strike proposal and they refused to take any further vote saying that it was irrelevant what they thought as the day shift were not willing to do anything. I remember leaving that meeting feeling quite downcast. What could we hope from the day shift that had already rejected the strike proposal when the night shift were now refusing to do anything.
The day shift assembled in the main hangar. The senior stewards addressed the crowd from a high gantry used for working on the outside of aircraft. We reported that there was no improvement on the previous offer and that we were making no proposals – it was down the meeting to decide whether to accept the existing offer - or what?
And then something unexpected happens. A man in the crowd shouts out ‘lets occupy the factory’. Clearly the sit-in at the sister plant had been discussed by people over the last couple of days.
The senior stewards standing alongside me act as if they hadn’t heard his proposal and carry on asking people what they wanted to do. No-one says anything. I say to the chairman, ‘you had a proposal from the floor, you have to take it’. There was huddled discussions on the platform. I again point out there is a proposal. Very reluctantly the chairman turns back to the crowd. ‘We have a proposal to occupy the factory. All those in favour please show.’ A mass of hands go up. ‘Against?’ another mass of hands go up. ‘It’s too close to call. Everyone voting yes go to that side of the hangar, those against to the other. Stewards please count.’
Great excitement. People go to one side or the other. A right wing steward comes over to the gantry and shouts up, ‘The apprentices are all voting but they are not allowed to strike so they shouldn’t be allowed to vote.’
‘Would all apprentices come back to the middle.’ A great ‘boo’ goes up as about 300 apprentices all leave the ‘occupy’ side and none from the no side.
Tension as the counting goes on for about ten minutes. A group of stewards come over to the gantry and shout their figures up to us.
‘The proposal to occupy has been carried.’
A great cry goes up and before the Chairman or anyone else can say anything people are swarming out of the hanger and then it becomes clear that many people have been discussing this plan for several days, while the senior stewards shut up in the negotiating office and so busy talking about the Royal Handshake didn’t have a clue that this was going on.
Many of the workers who voted ‘no’ return to their work places and spend the rest of the day talking and reading their newspapers but large numbers have other ideas, they’ve been making plans. Sitting in the factory would stop production but there was a greater prize.
Our site also contained the head offices of the entire BAC combine. About 4,000 white collar workers – from secretaries, accountants, designers, senior engineers right up to test pilots – working in a sprawling series of large office blocks. They had their own unions but their wage negotiations were entirely separate from ours.
Large numbers of the shop floor workers had their sights set on the main HQ building and the moment the vote went their way they were off.
If the senior stewards were unaware of the shop floor talk of the last few days, the management certainly weren’t. In large factories there are always management spies. Not just the obvious ones of the senior stewards who play golf with the managers every weekend and the foremen and shop floor managers who report up what they hear, but the special security men who are employed to patrol the shop floor disguised in overalls, watching and listening. The planned invasion of the HQ had been overheard.
Outside the HQ building crowds of men mill about trying to get in but the ten glass panelled doors are all locked and through them we could see a large number of private security men with Alsatian dogs. Our men pull and shove the doors. The men with dogs form themselves into a line facing us from inside.
A stand-off. Then suddenly the security men all begin turning around to face the other way. Chaos inside the entrance hall. Men in overalls soon swamp the security men. The doors are unlocked and everyone pours in to great cheers. Finding the doors locked a group of men had gone to the back of the building and took charge of a goods lift down to the printing department in the basement. Several lift trips later a hundred men attacked the security forces from behind.
People begin going from office to office disrupting work.
A group of twenty people walk into the managing directors office on the fourth floor. The MD is sitting at a vast desk dictating a letter to his secretary. The intruders grab chairs that line
a rear wall and take their places round the table, nodding wisely as the MD, trying to pretend that nothing is happening, goes on dictating.
‘I look forward to our next meeting on the 21st’.
‘Have you got that Miss Brown?’ asks one of the intruders.
Another intruder pulls out a diary from his pocket, ‘Oh I’m busy on the 21st. Can we make it the 22nd?’
A few minutes of this and the MD gets up from the table and leaves the room. The secretary follows giving us all a smile as she leaves.
Throughout the building, workers are visiting different offices.
One group discover the telephone exchange, the central communications hub for the entire combine and for liaising with France. Forty telephonists sit at the switchboards connecting calls.
The union rep for the telephonists comes over to speak to the men.
‘I’m sorry but we can’t take action in support of you as we have separate wage negotiations. But you might be interested to know that if more than 10 of our operators are not at their desks the switchboard will overload and have to be shut down and of course every so often an operator has to go to the toilet and if they can’t sit at their desk when they get back then what can they do?’
He goes off and goes round talking to the telephonists. Meanwhile ten men line up in the doorway and wait. One by one the telephonists get up and go to the toilet. As their chairs are vacated a man from the line goes and occupies it. In twenty minutes the switchboard is shut down as frantically flashing lights sweep across the entire layout. The factory is cut off.
All around the offices work is coming to a halt. Back in the factory people are sitting at their workbenches in groups, chatting, playing cards or reading. The canteen, which also has a bar, is a rowdy, jolly place.
After a few pints some of the men remember that in the office blocks there is an executive dining room and they go and shut it down.
The day draws on. The newly painted safety lines, all ready for the Royal Hand visit the following day, look like they’ve been a waste of paint.
Large groups of mainly younger workers meet to discuss staying on to cover the gap between the day shift ending and the night shift coming on.
I stay on and when the night shift arrive there is a mass meeting. At first there is the usual ‘we weren’t consulted’ quarrel. ‘We voted to strike two weeks ago and you lot said no so why should we follow you now?’ All that kind of thing. Several of the men who stayed over from the day shift explain what has happened and after about half an hour the night shift votes to join the occupation.
At night the vast hangers are mostly in darkness with only certain sections lit up, where work is being done. Now circles of men sit around chatting.
Friday. Dawn. The day of the Royal Hand which clearly now is not going to be shaken. I’ve been up all night. Along with others I’ve been making lists of people who are willing to keep the occupation going over the weekend. We work out how people will be fed as the canteen will be shut.
The chairman of the stewards passes by and tells me that he thinks the action will have to end at the end of the day shift. I show him the list of the people volunteering to stay all weekend. He thinks we’ve made our point and should go back into negotiations. I get more people willing to stay for the weekend. But it’s certainly a minority. It seems most people are just sitting, waiting, watching. Remember the vote to occupy was only just above 50 percent.
We have a meeting of a couple of hundred people to discuss how to hold things over the weekend. None of the senior stewards are there. One young engineer starts to criticise the occupation. He is angry that many people are working on missile systems for the Saudis and other military projects. He has always refused to do weapons work. He asks how can we be so militant about our wages when we don’t care about making things to kill people. ‘Fuck the lot of you’, he says and walks out. Of course he is right but how to get people to the place that he’s at?
I get a phone message from a journalist I know who tells me that BAC is making an application in the high court for an injunction demanding the unions end the occupation.
Later in the day, at another meeting with more weekend volunteers, someone comes in and announces he has just seen the senior shop stewards in a meeting at the other end of the factory.
This is the start of an episode in which I fuck up big time. I shoot off to find the meeting, a bunch of other people following me. I find the stewards in a production office. As I sit down the chairman informs me they have already taken a decision to call the occupation off and to carry on a regular strike from Monday morning.
I am so incensed by this that I get a bit of paper and write down ‘The fuckers are calling it off’ and slip it under the door to the guys outside waiting. But instead of that happening another steward is just coming in and picks up the paper and reads it out to the meeting.
‘Who did this?’ asks the chairman. I stand up and say ‘I did it. You are a bunch of sell-outs. I’m resigning from this committee.’ And walk out. I’m 23 and haven’t learnt that its not a good idea to lose your temper surrounded by your enemies.
The news quickly goes round the factory. The occupation is over. Hundreds of people angrily surround the senior stewards as they leave the meeting but already most people are going home.
Several hundred people meet up but we decide that there is nothing we can do till the Monday morning.
Monday morning. A thousand men turn up to picket the gates. The entrances to the site are on a busy main road. At 8.45 the white collar workers begin to turn up for their shift but the pickets won’t let their cars through. A long line of traffic begins to build up blocking the busy road in both directions. Soon van loads of police turn up and begin pushing the pickets aside. The pushing and shoving goes on. More police arrive, there are several hundred now and slowly they push the pickets aside. A few cars start to go in with jeering and booing from the pickets. Suddenly a loud cheer goes up. Twenty men are seen coming out of one of the nearby hangers wheeling a thirty foot long trolley used to shift large sheets of metal around. At a run they charge up to the main gates and before the police realise what is happening they have it chained and locked both ends to the gate posts.
The police now begin ordering the traffic to drive on and go home.
All morning the pickets keep an eye on all gates. People keep coming up to me to ask what is going on. I have to tell them I’m no longer on the senior stewards committee. I’m so angry at myself for the stupid action I took. Several of the ordinary shop stewards who put me up as senior steward come up and tell me I’ve been a dick head, just when we were beginning to build up a caucus and now we have no way of knowing what the senior stewards are doing.. I feel really dejected despite the high spirits of the crowd.
12 o’clock. The chairman of the stewards comes out and calls everyone together.
‘We are returning to work. They have given in to our wage claim.’
We’ve been back at work for half an hour when my foreman tells me I’m wanted in the personnel office.
There I’m told I am being sacked for having committed a violent assault on the manager of the executive restaurant. Two security men escort me back to collect my tools and see me off the premises. Two stewards from my union come out to talk with me. They will go back in and get the sheet metal workers to walk out. But they also say that garbled reports of me undermining the stewards committee are going round and that doesn’t help.
I wait but nothing happens. After a long time one of the stewards comes out and tells me a meeting of all the sheet metal workers was told by the chairman of the senior stewards that they were taking my case to a disciplinary tribunal and that it would not be in my interest if the men stopped work. The tribunal was set for a weeks time and of course it upheld my sacking. A new meeting of the metal workers was held. At no point do the senior stewards say that the violence claim was a complete stitch up. They let that accusation stand unchallenged. A vote to strike was narrowly defeated.
Not surprisingly I couldn’t get another job for months. I did get an unskilled job at Fords giving false references but they found out and sacked me after one week. Then a vacancy turned up at Rolls Royce Motors, a work place so strongly unionised that the management could only hire people nominated by the union and where any blacklisted people were slotted in.
Not long after the factory occupation the Concorde project was cancelled and the Weybridge plant shut down. Sometime later the vast hangars were ‘accidentally’ blown up in an explosion set off by the factory fire brigade in a drill that went wrong. The empty site, worth billions, became more housing for the Surrey gentry.
I’ve written all this from memory of events 50 years ago. I’ve tried to find archive material to check things but couldn’t find anything. So apologies if some things are not quite right.
A bit of reflection.
There is a terrible tendency for old trade unionists of my age to go on and on about how militant we all were back then and contrast it with the passivity of today’s workplaces. A short while back I heard an old comrade of mine, a union leader in a big car factory in the 70’s, telling an audience about how the people on the shop floor controlled production. I think this verges on nostalgia for an imaginary place that never existed. Yes we slowed things down. At Rolls Royce we got paid for five days but only actually worked till Friday lunch then we played cards and the management turned a blind eye. We could all tell a million stories of such ‘workers’ power’. Stories like the aircraft factory occupation have a role to play, to give ideas to a generation that have grown up with no unions or unions that might as well not exist, to people who have never experienced solidarity or a mass movement. It’s so hard in many countries today to talk to people about the working class as the revolutionary force for the overthrow of capital. What working class? What power? People have never seen it. The occupation of the aircraft factory, small as it was, gave a glimpse of workers’ ingenuity and the transformation that begins to occur in people when they are able to act as a class. However if these stories of past militancy are not coupled with asking the questions about where did all that militancy go, how was it eliminated so easily, what were its weaknesses, what were the limitations of the militants perspectives, if it doesn’t try to raise these questions then I think the stories just become old farts’ anecdotes, and often overblown anecdotes. My old comrade, the car worker, says the men controlled production but how come the bosses were able to sack him and get away with it? I get sick of hearing people go on about the Grunwick strike. I lived and worked next door to Grunwicks and knew several of the women who worked there.. The reality behind this ‘historic strike’ of mainly Asian women was that the entire British Trade Union movement was incapable of getting union recognition in a second rate little factory. It was a sign that the union glory days were coming to an end.
It’s hard now to recreate the mood of wage militancy that existed in the 70’s and, of course, this militancy spread over into all aspect of working life. I, like many people in revolutionary groups at the time, really believed we were in a growing revolutionary time. We were soon to be disappointed when Thatcher took on the miners and not only were the subservient trade union leaders able to hold back any kind of solidarity action but the workers themselves had little desire to get involved. The factory where I was working in 1984 voted 60 - 40 not to strike in support. A decade earlier, in a previous battle between miners and the government, the Saltley Coal depot became a scene of mass battles between the police and miners as they tried to stop wagons go in and out. The miners won the battle when thousands of engineering workers from the midlands factories joined the pickets. In 1984, with the miners trying to shut down the scab coal mines, no-one came to join them and they were beaten into the ground by the police. We revolutionaries pointed our fingers at the ‘treacherous leaders’ but gave little thought to the changes that had taken place in the class as a whole and little thought as to the limitations of the periods ‘militancy’ which really never went beyond the push and shove of negotiations between classes. It never sought to end that relationship altogether.
The main change was how capital responded to the post war militancy that existed all across Europe. Behind the militancy were two key factors - full employment, a shortage of labour and also the prevailing outlook of the ruling classes after WW2. The fear of workers revolt in the aftermath of the war, the advance of the Red Army across Europe, the revolt of the colonial people, all this led to a ruling class in ‘retreat’. Welfarism and social democracy became their underlying strategy to keep in power. However, by the 70’s this ‘retreat’ of the ruling classes was costing capital dear and slowly, starting with Thatcher in the UK, the political representatives of capital began looking at how to end this unfavourable balance of power. How to overcome the resistance of the working class? The answer lay in ‘globalisation’, not as a worked out plan but simply the way sections of capital moved. As soon as Thatcher was elected two things happened. She began to create the legal framework that would threaten the union bureaucracy with sequestration of union assets and the loss of all their privileges. At the same time capital began to move out of the country. This was the days of the asset strippers. Factories and whole industries would be bought up and shut down, production moved overseas, to cheap labour regions and the land used for other purposes. Unemployment began to shoot up - 4 million people were out of work. Wage militancy vanished, union membership began to fall and soon many of the large workplaces vanished.
The threat of factory closures and the legal penalties for taking any kind of solidarity action put an end to the militancy. The defeat of the miners and then the Fleet Street printers, some of the most highly paid and highly organised workers in the country, gave a clear message - You Are Fucked, resistance is pointless. The militancy turned to subservience in a matter of years. It was shown to have feet of clay, above all in its sectionalism, which wage militancy had exacerbated, and of course in its national insularity. My last job in this period was in an artificial limb factory, the only one of its kind in the country. All the workers thought ‘we’ll be ok, no-one else can make artificial legs, it takes years of training’. We got taken over by a global conglomerate. They invented new production techniques that semi-skilled people could do and then moved production to the Far East. For three months the workers picketed an empty factory and of course there was no structures to make contact with the new workers, nor did people even think about doing so.
Now all of this, the response of capital, the subservience of the union leaders, the craven role of social democracy (the Labour Party) ought to have been expected by anyone who claimed to be revolutionary. Yet it wasn’t, or at least not by most of the radical forces. My apologies to those revolutionaries who didn’t think like me, but most of us had such a simplistic vision. The working class was already ‘organised’ - in the trade unions - so it didn’t need to be organised. We never questioned whether these organisations, that had really become part of capital’s machinery of social control, could simply be made useful by a change of leaders. All that had to be done was replace the reformist union leaders with revolutionaries. And as most of us were in one revolutionary party (sect in reality) or another this process of taking over the unions went hand in hand with building ‘our party’. We were all marching towards a revolution that had the October storming of the Russian Winter Palace as its model. We ( whatever party), in control of the unions, with the militant working class fully behind us, would seize political power and then begin to enact the social changes that would lead to a better world. A friend of mine recently reflected that we were all really left reformists - change would come through central, governmental action, albeit one that would have the label ‘revolutionary’ on it. Haven’t we heard that somewhere before?
Like many other militants of the time, I was well read, knew the history of the Russian revolution backwards, knew about the defeats in Germany, in Spain, the role of Stalinism etc etc etc. Now, with hindsight, I can see how all of this ‘history’ was read, understood, only in the sense that it corroborated the narrative of us defeating all our political opponents and taking power. We were all Bolsheviks. The problems of the past were all put down to treacherous leaderships. In the party we had regular industrial faction meetings - car workers, builders, etc etc. But in these industrial meetings the only question that the party leadership were interested in was how many people have been recruited, how many papers sold, what union positions have been won. The unions and the party - that was all that was needed to do the job. No thought at all about the working class needing very different forms of organisation if bartering for wages was to become a struggle for factory power. So in a sense my whole real day to day activity inside the factory was divorced from the party life.
No thought was given to the way the actions of these past treacherous leaderships had impacted on the working class itself, how it had been globally atomised and the effect this had on consciousness. No thought was given to how capitalism was changing and, as always, seeking new ways to overcome resistance. Above all no thought was given to what was meant by the communist revolution. We only thought in terms of governmental power, of taking control. And above all we never saw in the working class the real force for change. For us the working class could only become revolutionary if it was under our leadership - read control. Again, apologies to the few people who did think about all these questions, most of us didn’t, we just sailed happily along on the rising tides of strikes etc and our naive (stupid) visions of the revolution up ahead. Some people did write about ‘workers control’ but this was mostly seen as a factory by factory process with no thought about how capital as the dominating force would be overcome - that was implicitly left to a Labour Government to sort out.
So to every old militant who wants to impress a new generation with tales of their exploits, I would point out that all us who claimed we were revolutionaries, are partly responsible for the present situation. We should have been the people who, in that period of change and defeat, could begin to think about new working class strategies to deal with the new situation, globalisation. We should have been the people to think and talk about the inadequacies of trade unionism as it existed, not just its ‘bad’ leaders, to think about the inadequacies of our own revolutionary perspectives. By and large we didn’t. Defeat after defeat simply added to our belief in the correctness of our existing outlooks. I’ve mentioned this before but to me the clearest picture of how things stood came in the late 80’s when the government announced it was shutting the Cannock Chase coal mine. This was after the defeat the 84-85 strike. The local miners’ union branch called for a national meeting of activists to discuss what to do to stop the closure. Every revolutionary group attended and their spokespeople got up one after another to tell the miners that they had to learn the lessons and build a revolutionary movement. After an hour of this the miners’ chairman stood up and said, ‘We are closing the meeting. There’s a buffet at the back, help yourselves. We used all our branch funds to organise this meeting to discuss how to stop the closure of this pit and not one of you have said a word about what you are doing do to help. So we are on our own and will have our own meeting.’
Some militant workers did develop new forms of organisation and new tactics when it was clear old ways were failing. A couple of examples from my own experience, I’m sure there are many others. A campaign developed to stop the closure of the last coal mine in Lancashire - Parkside Pit. This was a relatively new mine compared with most of the regions Victorian pits. Production had ceased and the mine was being kept open on a care and maintenance basis. The pumps and ventilators had to be kept going until the main shaft could be sealed otherwise the build-up of underground gas threatened a large explosion. To seal the shaft a hundred lorries of stone had to be tipped down it in a 48 hour period. The local community, mostly wives and mothers of pitmen would continually gather at the gates and put chains across the road letting management know that they could interrupt any planned convoy of lorries. Pitmen were involved, especially the young local union president, but things were organised outside of the union so it was impossible for management to take legal action. To reinforce their control of the pit and to gain publicity, the anti-closure campaign occupied the winding tower, showing they could shut that down if they wanted. To get the women occupiers into the tower a guerrilla raid was organised that attacked on several fronts at once, putting all the security men’s cars out of action, shutting down their communications equipment and creating diversions at the main gate.
Again at Liverpool docks new methods developed. The Liverpool dockers were the last unionised men in the country and had been on strike for a year to try to defend their rights. Their union abandoned them. (Listen to Chumbawamba’s brilliant song ‘Leader of the Union’). Everyday the police cleared their picket and let the scabs through. Then the dockers got in contact with a group of environmentalists called Reclaim the Streets. On the day of the first anniversary a huge picket assembled at the dock gates. At the the order to block the road everyone pushed against the police lines, reinforced with huge numbers of Tactical Aid thugs. But this push was a decoy. Overnight the environmentalists had sawn through the dock railings and covered the gap with a tent. As the police threw themselves against the pickets a hundred young people pushed into the tent and through the railings and rushed across the docks to occupy the unloading cranes. For the first time work on the docks came to a halt.
These two examples were very much rearguard actions. The class as a whole was in retreat. But these new forms of action, totally outside of the old union structures and learning new ways to fight were important. The problem was that the ’revolutionaries’, by and large, only saw in them doomed battles in which they could maybe gain some members and influence. They didn’t try to develop these tactics or the movements that produced them. They didn’t see in them the actual efforts of the sections of the class to reorganise itself.