Chapter 3: The broad left in construction: popular front

Submitted by wojtek on March 12, 2013

It is important for readers to realise there is a distinctive [political] difference between the BWG and the Broad Left in the construction industry and unions, particularly in UCATT and that you also know the truth about this. This is especially important amongst any new group of militants who are emerging, as what they hear will be very heavily prejudiced by the politics of those speaking about us.

This document also states very clearly where we come from and the experience we bring and can offer any emerging movements. I feel the real proof of any working class organisation is not so much in what it says but much more what it does in practice, in action. This is proof we mean what we say.

We have learned many important lessons in our struggles and many years of existence. Many of them are vitally important for today and tomorrow. But what of the Broad Left?

The first thing to establish is that the main political and ideological difference between the Broad Left and Rank and File approach is that the broad left is entirely committed to putting pressure on left wing full-time trade union officials and also political figures. These will then put pressure on the other union and political people. Who will then put pressure on the more 'liberal' employers, who will presumably put pressure on the other employers and this will be to the benefit of rank and file workers. In this sequence of events, of course, the employers have the real power and they use it to dominate and control all the others in the interest of their own greed and class.

This combination is known as the popular front approach, i.e. a popular front between bosses politicians and union officials. This is, of course, completely to the detriment of rank and file workers, whereas the R&F united front approach means organisation and action completely independent of any popular front and against this.

As this sounds largely theoretical and theory is proven in practice, what is the practice of the broad left? I give a few examples with a wee bit of their history included. The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) essentially formulated and initiated this popular front/broad left approach and theory. They dominated earlier examples of this before their political disintegration and demise.

In the mid-'60s to early '70s the CPGB initiated and controlled what they pretended was a Rank and File industrial organisation in the construction industry called 'THE BUILDERS CHARTER'. They quite cynically launched the Charter as a pseudo R&F organisation to attract workers to them and to use these workers as a 'stage army' to build and enhance the reputations of CPGB militants with a view to implementing the CPGB's real industrial strategy, which was winning and holding on to full-time positions in the unions. Thus CPGB militants were elected into full time positions in UCATT on the basis of their reputations gained in the Builders Charter movement. There are plenty of other examples of 'militants', both as individuals and in political organisations, using workers' struggles to get a full-time union position; but the CPGB were the main proponents of this in the building industry.

The 1972 National Building Workers Strike

A Union to Build - The Story of UCATT by Leslie Wood 1979

The culmination of the Charter Movement and the most clear and worst example of the CPGB's cynicism was when they initiated and apparently controlled the 1972 (inter) national UK wide strike in the building industry. This strike won the highest percentage wage rise ever conceded in the history of the building industry, i.e. 'national' wage rise.

It could have been a lot higher and most importantly working conditions improved immeasurably. But the real price and popular front nature of the CPGB/Broad Left Leadership of the 'Charter' were soon to be callously and brutally exposed. During the strike, sites were allowed to work where the employers conceded wage rises, the Charter thus breaking all rules and principles of working class solidarity.

The Charter also agreed to ask the striking workers to forego desperately needed strike pay if the UCATT Executive Council would continue to give the strike its official backing. What a deal - imagine the signals these events sent to the employers and the British State! Most damagingly, a few months after the strike, tactically waiting till things had quietened down a bit, a state/employer conspiracy was mounted against some pickets in the North Wales and Shrewsbury areas.

As a result of this, some pickets were sent to prison on trumped up charges. Among them were Des Warren, (a CPGB member!) and Ricky Tomlinson in UCATT and TGWU respectively. They served three and two years apiece - the longest sentences.

When the 'Shrewsbury Pickets' were arrested, during the trial and after the sentences, many sites and building workers came out on strike for their release from custody. They were told to go back to work by the 'Charter' leadership and full-time officials of the unions. They said it should be left to the UCATT and TGWU Executive Councils, who promptly left it to the Labour Party and TUC. They passed it to that slug Roy Jenkins who was Home Secretary then. He left them in jail. Appeals were made to nice liberal employers and members of the ruling class. They stayed in jail. Des Warren is now suffering from advanced Parkinson's Disease as a result of the drugs forcibly administered to him to subdue him while in prison. The broad left/popular front CPGB 'Charter' leadership were just as guilty of putting and keeping the pickets in jail as the union officials, the state, the employers. The popular front in action! Compare this with the Building Worker Group and the 'Laings Lock Out'.

Earlier Joint Sites

There was an earlier 'joint sites' in London in the later sixties to the mid-seventies. All activities and policies were subject to the main broad left consideration for and thus subservient to left trade union officials. Action was continually sabotaged and sacrificed because of this.

The Building Worker Group after its formation repeatedly made appeals to the earlier joint sites, and to the broad left in construction ever since, for the broad left and BW Group to join together in one united front Rank and File Organisation. We sought policy agreements in order to go forward to construction workers with these. It was hoped that the unity achieved would prove to the workers on sites and in the unions that we could still maintain our political differences and opinions but unite on specific policies and issues for maximum action and organisation. This could only inspire workers and would mean they would be much more likely to take a lead from such a united front, rather than one organisation saying and doing one thing and the other something else.

The Building Worker Group initiated united front campaigns from time to time and appealed to the broad left to join us in these. One was 'The UCATT Democracy Campaign' that was formed in February 1987 with the specific objective of countering and opposing the ballot rigging, and those responsible, which came to light in the elections for the UCATT EC in 1985. Dominic Hehir (CPGB at one time and darling of the left of) the broad left UCATT Regional Organiser in London resigned his full-time position in protest at the ballot rigging, or so he said. He was actually manoeuvring for a more senior position in UCATT. He appeared on a 'UCATT Democracy Campaign' platform with some others from the broad left.

The major strategy of the campaign was quite simple to go to the rank and file membership and call on them to root out the corrupters and demand the total reform of the union.

Dominic Hehir ‘serial litigator’!

Shortly after this, Dominic Hehir with the full backing of the broad left, promptly deserted the R&F road and took UCATT to court. He got the London Regional Secretary's job he was after but of course the corruption continued as this became a secondary issue once he was in office and he wasn't about to rock the official boat. This effectively saw the end of his personal crusade against corruption. It also eventually saw the end of his time as regional secretary when he was removed from office by the votes of UCATT members - who were not too impressed by the fact that rather than settle disputes he had in the union via the rules and machinery for this his first recourse was now to consult lawyers and threaten legal action! He was fast acquiring a reputation as a 'serial litigator'!! So much for the broad left acting in the interests of the rank and file!

Construction Safety Campaign

A more prominent example of a 'Building Worker' united front campaign was the Construction Safety Campaign (CSC). This was set up on the initiative of the BW Group as a united front R&F organisation with agreed policies and rules with which to govern and discipline all activities. Or so we thought.

Unfortunately, the CSC with its huge potential for mass picketing and strike action over safety was hi-jacked by the broad left in the guise of the secretary T O'Brien, chair T Finn and treasurer A Higgins. Definitely no relation whatsoever!

The broad left nature of these three was most clearly and disastrously seen when two workers were killed on the Holborn, MacAlpine Prudential job in the space of one week in November 1989. The CSC put a lobby on the job. I was there and many workers going on to the job told us if the lobby had been a picket they would not have crossed it! I and some others realised we had come as far as we could with lobbies of parliament and coroners courts and building sites. It was now time (as workers were telling us!) to step up the campaign. The logic was inescapable, building workers are not killed in parliament or coroners courts. Lobbies of sites do not effect production and until we started to do this then the employers would go on killing building workers at an appalling and ever increasing rate.

It was now time to implement the CSC policy of "picketing sites where serious injury or death has occurred". In line with this, I took a fairly moderate proposal to the CSC National Committee Meeting of 25th November 1989. I was vice chair of the CSC. I proposed a picket be placed on a site for a couple of hours one morning where a death or deaths had occurred, mainly with a view to stopping transport but also asking workers not to cross. But if a worker told us he would be sacked for not going in then unless we were prepared to put an indefinite picket on until any workers sacked as a result of our picket were reinstated (which we weren't at that time) then we would advise those workers to go in. The limited picket would be a good way of testing the water and if signs were favourable picketing could be stepped up from there.

Employers go on killing building workers.

The vote was 3 for this and 2 against with one abstention. Quite simply, the secretary, chair and treasurer refused to implement this democratic decision and instead started to work to undermine it. Shortly after this these three 'stooges' announced they were going to appoint a full-time worker, coincidentally who just happened to be one of the three of us who voted to start picketing but had been persuaded to change his mind in the meantime!

This appointment was vehemently opposed on the basis that a R&F organisation must be totally opposed as a principle to the appointment of any and all officials be they in the union or most particularly in a R&F organisation - otherwise as in any appointments system you end up with 'jobs for the boys and girls' and only those favoured by the select few get the position. Many felt the appointment was made to ensure that I did not have a chance of getting the job as I would have in an election.

The broad left, including the SWP and Militant, at the 1990 CSC AGM voted for the appointment policy and they also voted against picketing! It was then obvious the CSC had been turned into a toothless broad left bureaucratic machine which was and is being used to enhance the reputations of those on the National Committee in London, with utterly meaningless lobbies of coroners courts and a policy of providing 'jobs for the boys'. As a result, the Building Worker Group and quite a few UCATT branches withdrew their support for the CSC. We now witness the CSC calling on the state as their main policy plank, i.e. the police, courts and judges to put their friends the employers in jail for killing building workers. Pigs will fly!! Even if by some remote possibility a boss or two were put into jail, this would not stop them killing building workers. Killing building workers is actually a very profitable business for these bastards. All emphasis has now been directed away from the sites where building workers are actually, we say, murdered and instead appeals to the popular front ad nauseam are substituted.

Prevention is better than compensation

The UCATT backed very broad left CSC is now so toothless and tame that it figures quite frequently in the pages of what we can only term the official UCATT scab version of our paper which George Brumwell and his poodles have the gall and effrontery to call "UCATT Building Worker". We were formed in 1974, they started in 1994. Seems scabbing is second nature to some!!

On the front page of the New Year 2000 issue of that journal there is a photograph of a building worker in a wheelchair waving a cheque with the caption "UCATT WAS THERE WHEN HE NEEDED HELP". This begs the question and we ask, where were they before he was put into a wheelchair? We think exploiting a badly maimed building worker in this manner is deplorable. What's next, coffins with a union official waving a cheque for compensation?

Good luck to the site worker who won the compensation but surely the true boasting on this issue from the union which calls itself the largest and only one for construction workers should be if they ever put a stop to the appalling rate at which building workers are put in wooden boxes and wheelchairs as a result of so called site accidents. Even better put a stop to it. Now that would be something to boast about and shout from the rooftops! But it's only when site workers get militantly unionised, organised and mobilised that this will and can happen. We must try to speed up this process.

"Prevention is better than compensation" should be our motto, our watchword. This issue probably illustrates in the most graphic and practical manner the real difference between the official union/broad left approach and ours to organisation in the construction industry.

Broad left in union elections

They used to ask those they supported in UCATT elections (mainly for full-time positions) to endorse one or two what they termed progressive policies. ( As the TGWU appoint their full-time officials then they could not have an electoral policy for it!) But in the stampede to the right in recent years the broad left, right, left, right have given up even this pretence and now vote for what in effect is a policy of the best of a bad bunch. Nae kiddin. They even got this disastrously wrong when they supported A Williams in the election for UCATT General Secretary, which he won in 1979 and then again in 1984. He was and is an out-and-out crook, the rest, as they say, is history. Unfortunately for us and the UCATT membership very recent history!!

They supported the current UCATT General Secretary G. Brumwell in the two elections in which he stood for that position after Williams. But nothing changes as Brumwell was on the Executive Council who, with evidence to prove it, were guilty of orchestrating the relatively recent ballot rigging and all of the horrendous corruption in the union.

Steel erectors struggle

The London Steel Erectors Stewards Committee who led a wages and conditions (exclusive to steel erectors) movement in the mid to late eighties was another workers' organisation that appeared to be controlled by the rank and file. But in reality, not having a policy of independence from their full-time trade union officials, they were largely controlled by the London Regional Secretary of the AEU, who in turn was controlled by the General Secretary MacLean, who was controlled by the employer!!

Eventually a deal was done by MacLean, some leading stewards were sacked, Joe Harrod the rank and file leader was transferred to the nether regions and the steel erectors brave revolt was effectively over.

The BWG said then, and still do, that the two main ingredients missing from the erectors struggle were their failure to adopt a policy of independence from their full time officials; and to adopt a strategy to involve other building workers in a wages and conditions struggle, thus keying into the all too apparent anger of other site workers at their wages and conditions and present the employers and union officials with one big united front. In not doing this, other building workers saw the steel erectors struggle as largely elitist and not too much to do with them.

An interesting observation is that I repeatedly asked the CSC secretary and chair, who were in regular contact with the erectors stewards committee, to ask them to send a delegate or delegates to the CSC National Committee. I also asked to be invited to speak to the steel committee. Nothing was done to involve them or to let me speak to them. The word was clearly out. Don't let Higgins near the steel erectors or them near to him - i.e. the broad left word!

Offshore Industrial Liaison Committee (OILC)

Many onshore and offshore construction workers were involved in the struggles of the OILC for safety and the continental shelf agreement in the UK oil industry in the late eighties. Again, a construction workers' organisation, this one with massive immediate potential, economic and political power, adopted the fatally flawed and failed broad left approach. They actually and openly declared they were in existence to restore some faith in official trades unionism among oil workers who had been badly let down by the unions on quite a few occasions in the past. Once this was done, the OILC would hand over the reins to the union officials.

Needless to say, with such an approach, the full-time officials let them do a job of work in recruiting thousands into the unions. Then when the OILC had done this the officials quite cynically and brutally sold out the oil workers again and the oil workers' brave struggles were over once again. Some of the conditions the full-time officials settled for are actually worse than the ones the workers were struggling against!

It is also worth mentioning that the OILC Standing Committee, which ran the struggle, was not elected by anyone and was therefore largely self appointed. There were no democratic elections to control the conduct of these OILC officials, rank and file at that! No delegate conferences took place to enable the rank and file, and it was supposed to be a rank and file organisation, to decide policy, rules or constitution.

Particularly crucial here was that there was no policy of defiance of the anti-union laws. Thus, when these were used against the occupations of the rigs (undoubtedly the highpoint of the oil workers' struggle) the OILC Standing Committee and leader Roddie MacDonald completely capitulated and called off the occupations.

I had written a few articles on behalf of the Building Worker Group in their rank and file paper 'The Blowout' and was in quite close touch with two of the Standing Committee. As soon as the occupations took place the OILC issued an order "no more rigs were to be occupied!" The BWG argued with those we knew; - every f'ing rig in the North Sea should be occupied and oil construction workers onshore should picket the many oil-related building site onshore!

Not having a R&F Strategy the OILC miserably failed the oil workers and continues to do so. Once more a workers' struggle was squandered and sacrificed on the altar of the broad left/official approach to class struggle ...and oblivion. Like all workers they need a R&F organisation which is workplace delegate based and capable of initiating and leading a struggle and carrying it on in defiance of the anti union laws and courts and full-time union officials and whatever else the employers and union establishments throw at them.

Joint sites take ball away

There’s no better way I can illustrate the broad left nature and decline of “The London Joint Sites Committee” from its hay day in the very early’90s, when it was a real force to be reckoned with, to what it is today than to recount the following, much of it reported in issues of the ‘Building Worker’ paper.

About mid 1998 we were approached, as were the Joint Sites, by a few sparks on the Jubilee Line fresh from one of their most noticeable struggles and victories, to discuss forming one united organisation representing the sparks, Joint Sites and Building Worker Group. This could then go to site workers with one message and give a more powerful lead than separate organisations. As this has always been BWG policy we wholeheartedly agreed and took part in a series of meetings to discuss and decide on these matters.

Eventually at a meeting on January 14th 1999 agreement was reached that the new organisation would be named “Builders United” with a paper of the same name. This name and football analogy was proposed by one of the leading lights (not a spark!) in the Joint Sites. We agreed with this for the sake of unity while realising policies and activity are much more important than names.

I now quote directly from an article in the “Building Worker” Bulletin - Summer 1999 …. At a meeting of Builders United held on 11th March we were shocked and angry when people from the Joint Sites argued and voted to completely reverse the previous decision and effectively sabotaged Builders United before it could even start organising on behalf of building workers. Attacks were launched on the BW paper and the secretary of the BWG. Some unity!

A leading role in this was taken by Mick Dooley, who had not been present at any of the previous ‘unity’ meetings but who now declared he would continue to produce the JSC paper “Builders Crack” and call JSC meetings and would not cooperate with the BWG. It was then we found that Dooley was being offered an appointed full-time position in UCATT by General Secretary George Brumwell. It all became clear. It can be no coincidence Dooley turned up at the meeting and performed the way he did. Mr Brumwell will be well satisfied.

BWG policy has always been to organise within the unions but independent of the full-time officials and we are critical of these officials when warranted. Which is quite often. The JSC believe in working with and relying on these officials most of the time. Once more a chance to build one big Rank and File organisation for building workers, saying and doing the same things, had been lost – this time because the JSC were afraid their carefully nurtured relationships with the full-time officials of which many of them aspire to become, mainly in UCATT, would be destroyed. It is now painfully obvious it’s the UCATT bureaucrats and not the rank and file who control the Joint Sites.

With Brumwell well in control. End of this quote from BW. By the way the sparks abstained from voting at the March 11th meeting. As well as Brumwell and company’s finger in the JSC pie we in BWG also detected the warped hand of the SWP Central Committee in the proceedings!

Mick Dooley gets a special mention as he founded and was the undoubted leader of the Joint Sites in its best days and as such was admired and respected by many site workers. Site workers also know rank and file leaders like Mick (was) are often offered full-time union positions as a way of removing them from their rank and file base, i.e. on the sites, and putting them under the control of senior union bureaucrats and thus neutralising them in the process.

The BWG had quite a close and good united front working relationship with Dooley and the Joint Sites in its most militant days. Incidentally, Mick was in the TGWU in those days. Perhaps he joined UCATT to increase hiscareer prospects! He also knew we in the BWG in UCATT had a long running battle with the full-time UCATT Bureaucracy and the current General Secretary George Brumwell. Brumwell must have been rubbing his hands and laughing quite a bit when Dooley took the full-time appointed position he offered him in UCATT. Thinking two fingers up to the BWG and site militants at the same time. As ever we gave the clenched fist salute in response and fight on.

Steve Hedley joins Dooley.
Steve is another erstwhile rank and file leader (of rail workers in the RMT mind you!) who deserted the rank and file road to go down that well trodden broad left path to full-time union officialdom. As we had quite a close working relationship with him at one time (particularly when he was in struggle for his railway job) he is another one worth going into a wee bit more detail than usual.

Steve was a well known Rail Maritime and Transport (RMT) militant and was involved in a struggle about three years ago for reinstatement after being sacked by GTRM (rail maintenance firm) during a national official RMT dispute over wages and conditions. During this he asked for and was given the BWG’s support and advice. In the course of this he invited me to speak at a railworkers’ meeting in Willesden (London) called to rally support for him in July 1998.

I argued they could and should not rely on their full-time officials (two of whom were sitting on the platform of the meeting!) and they’d have to defy the anti union laws if used against them as we had in1986. Also that they should send out flying pickets to spread the dispute once they went into struggle. It appeared I’d fired them up so well they were ready to go out on strike there and then! The RMT officials were not happy men! Steve Hedley said to me “you were fuckin’ brilliant, thanks”. A few days later the men at his depot in Euston went out on strike and went to other depots. But Hedley backed out of calling for the dispute to be spread by flying pickets and instead decided to go down the broad left road and rely on the full-time union officials. We told him he didn’t have a dog’s chance in hell of getting his job back via the union officials. He didn’t.

What did happen is not long after this he was appointed to a full-time position as a development officer in UCATT effectively by the General Secretary Brumwell although these appointments are rubber stamped by the Executive Council. Like Dooley Hedley knew of our battles with Brumwell and company and of our total opposition to appointed positions in the union. Needless to say we were saddened and very angry Steve had chosen to ignore the principles at stake and take the ‘low road’.

Sacked by Brumwell.
The only thing which can be said in his favour is that at least he didn’t exactly toe the Brumwell line (mainly by refusing to do check off deals with sub contractors where union subs are stopped by employers and paid directly to the union, in many cases with men not even knowing they’re in a union!”). As a result he was sacked by Brumwell, over the phone, in March 2000. The UCATT EC [i.e. Brumwell’s] decided to suspend Steve Hedley pending an investigation [into what?]. Needless to say the EC [for Ever Compliant!] eventually rubber stamped the General Secretary’s decision to sack Hedley. We suppose if he hires you he can fire you just as easily. Such is the utterly undemocratic and unaccountable [except to one man!] appointments system!

Steve’s also got a very hard neck. He asked the BWG and me for support against his sacking. We gave it of course but emphasised we do not support appointment of any union official on site or in the union.

Dooley toes the Brumwell line.
Quite soon after Hedley was sacked Dooley was called into a meeting and interviewed by Brumwell re. his job (Dooley’s!). He kept it. Obviously it wasn’t ‘toe to toe’. Petrified and nullified, nuff said about Dooley. Either way neither Dooley or Hedley are of much use to site workers. What price the broad left? Obviously a full-time union position!

Militant Sparks organisation in the AEEU.
A group of building workers well worth giving a bit of extra space and time to. I’ve put them in this section on the broad left in construct ion for political reasons. Halfway between R&F and broad left would perhaps be the correct way to describe them but it’s who has the political influence which defines this and it’s certainly not the R&F. I’ll define politics further on.

Their militancy and organisation are ‘legend’. Time after time they’ve gone into battle against their employers the electrical contractors and full-time AEEU officials and won national wages and conditions struggles and local ones over victimisation on site. They quite rightly use their specialist skills and fact sites can’t be finished without them and organised strength for this.

Jubilee Line.
This was particularly the case on the dome extension to the Jubilee Line in London in the run-up to New Year’s Eve 1999. Where they ran the employers and AEEU full-time officials ragged and won struggle after struggle against sackings of stewards and leading militants and for improved wages and conditions, especially safety, and against attacks on these.

Mass meeting support against Hehir and High Court.
Not that long after I was served with the High Court Writ in November 1996 one of the stewards on the Jubilee Line invited me and the BWG to address a mass meeting of sparks on that job. I hammered it out to about two hundred electricians in the canteen. I asked for their support for my and the BWG’s stand against the High Court and this attempt to silence us and said we’d be calling on them to go on strike if I was jailed. I also emphasised the need for all building workers to unite and fight on all major issues that affect us all on site and in the unions. In response they stood up to a man and nearly raised the roof thumping the tables and walls in support as they did so. I think if it was a call to come out there and then they’d have done so! This gave me and the BWG tremendous inspiration and with support like that Hehir and the High Court could do their damnedest!

I think the response must also have frightened the shop stewards committee, where there was quite a bit of SWP influence, as they never invited me back to another site meeting on the Jubilee Line!

How it can and is done, but SWP impose limitations.
The militant sparks show it can and is done on a sectional basis … and how!! However, their organisation and struggles have never been generalised and used to involve and assist other site workers and sections to get organised and join one big battle, one big united front organisation to improve the wages and conditions of all building workers (after all we’re all on the same sites!) and put a stop to the killing and maiming in the industry. Why?

The SWP always had and still has considerable influence with the AEEU contracting sparks (i.e. those who work on building sites), particularly with many leading stewards and militants. Being in favour of a broad left approach (but knowing sparks won’t lie down to full-time union officials) the SWP use their political influence to ensure the militant sparks organisation and activity is confined to sparks on a purely sectional basis and goes no further. Meaning the sparks don’t use their organisational strength in a very unorganised industry to mount a general challenge to the building employers and full-time officials in all construction unions against the anti union laws. No! No! This is heresy and would constitute a challenge to the SWP’s industrial politics and philosophy as well as that of the others mentioned and could result in some form of workers control of the unions and industry. God (i.e. The Central Committee, who think they know better than the workers) forbid!

Of course the sparks, like so many workers, have shown they will support other workers in struggle. But if they or any other group of workers wait for the SWP (S.P. or SLP) to do anything which generalises and widens workers’ struggles they’ll wait forever. As such generalising and widening of industrial struggle, particularly by the use of flying pickets and in defiance of the law, is above all a political question and one of political leadership. This will only happen when there is a big enough revolutionary workers’ political/industrial organisation in existence and or if a significant number of workers in struggle decide to go for it. There’s nothing like this around at present, BUT COME THE DAY!