[Book] In the Cause of Labour - A History of British Trade Unionism

In Place of Strife

The election of the Wilson government in October 1964 was greeted with tremendous enthusiasm. After more than a decade of Tory rule, for many the election heralded a new era. It certainly appeared time for a change. The Beatles had transformed music, and Labour it was hoped would transform Britain. The promises of Wilson to harness the scientific revolution and transform people’s lives caught the imagination of wide layers of the population, especially the youth. Talk about rational planning became fashionable. There were debates about automation and what people would do with their leisure time. The spread of television and programmes like Tomorrow’s World painted a future where modern technology would end the monotony of work and science would solve all our daily problems. In addition, the Nuclear Age would meet our energy needs for generations to come. Optimism was in the air, and the election of the new Labour government added to that confidence in the future.

However, as in the past, the attempt of the new government to work within the confines of capitalism, gave rise to grave problems. Soon after the election, Lord Cromer, the Governor of the Bank of England, approached Wilson demanding all-round cuts in government expenditure. He told him that the country could not afford Labour’s programme, and if he persisted with it, the government would face a financial ruin and a strike of capital.

Many years later Wilson revealed in his memoirs:

“I asked him if this meant that it was impossible for any government, whatever its party label, whatever its manifesto or the policies on which it fought an election, to continue, unless it immediately reverted to full-scale Tory policies… We had now reached the situation where a newly elected government was being told by international speculators that the policy on which we had fought the election could not be implemented: that the government was to be forced into adoption of Tory policies to which it was fundamentally opposed... The Queen’s First Minister was being asked to bring down the curtain on parliamentary democracy by accepting the doctrine that an election in Britain was a farce, that the British people could not make a choice between policies.”[1]

Instead of rallying the Labour movement and answering this corporate conspiracy with socialist policies, the working class was kept in the dark, and the Labour government bowed to the pressure of the City of London and the bankers. To restore the flagging competitiveness of British industry, old policies were dusted down and presented as something new. In the face of a serious balance of payments crisis inherited from the Tories, the government acted to reduce spending through orthodox cuts and the introduction of a “Prices and Incomes” policy. These traditional capitalist measures were combined with an attack on unofficial strikes and the declaration that workers needed to increase their productivity (i.e. work harder) in order to make Britain more competitive. In February 1965, the government established a Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employers’ Associations, under Lord Donovan, to investigate industrial relations and make suitable recommendations for “reform”, in other words, changes more suitable to the needs of capitalism.

Wage Restraint

By April, the National Board for Prices and Incomes was established under the chairmanship of former Tory MP, Aubrey Jones, which required voluntary wage restraint as a first stage. Wilson, however, was able to sell the incomes policy to a sceptical trade union membership as “a planned growth of wages”. There was much talk of economic planning and George Brown, the Minister for Economic Affairs, came forward with his short-lived National Plan. It failed, of course, because it is not possible to plan within the anarchy of capitalist production, where the blind forces of the market decide, underpinned by the profit motive. Under capitalism, it is not the government that decides economic policy, but the boardrooms of the major monopolies.

The TUC, while opposed to any statutory enforcement, backed Labour’s voluntary approach to wages. But, as with all incomes policies under capitalism, the Prices and Incomes Policy was simply a means of boosting profits at the expense of wages, to the particular disadvantage of the low paid. As Marx explained, profit comes from the unpaid labour of the working class. All else being equal, wages and profits rise and fall in proportion to one another. If wages are forced down, then profits will rise, and vice versa. The class struggle itself is nothing more than a struggle for the division of the surplus value produced by the workers.

In April 1966, given Labour’s slim parliamentary majority, Wilson called another general election and won a landslide victory. After 13 years of Toryism, people were keen to give the Labour government a chance to work. Under these circumstances, the trade union leaders put their full weight behind the government’s Prices and Incomes Policy, which was supposed to be in the interests of the low paid. This went hand in hand with a remorseless drive by employers and government to push up profit levels through the introduction of so-called productivity (more accurately, “profitability”) deals.

The second stage of the incomes policy, which lasted six months from July 1966, took the form of a government-imposed wage freeze, followed by harsh deflationary measures. This then gave way to a ceiling on wages of 3.5 per cent, coupled with further increases in productivity. Frank Cousins, the general secretary of the TGWU, had joined the Labour government in 1965, but when Wilson introduced statutory enforcement powers into the Prices and Incomes Act, he resigned in protest, signifying an underlying discontent with the drift of the government.

In the years since 1960, productivity deals, according to the Prices and Incomes Board, probably affected no more than half a million workers. By June 1969, they covered some six million workers, or 25 per cent of the total workforce. This constituted a relentless drive to increase the intensity of labour and boost the rate of profit.

In spite of his huge majority, Wilson remained within the parameters of capitalism and in effect attempted to run the system better than the Tories. Socialism was regarded as suitable for May Day speeches, but totally inappropriate for the here and now. At the Labour Party Conference, Wilson told delegates

“we cannot afford to fight the problems of the Sixties with the attitudes of the Social Democratic Federation, nor, in looking for a solution to these problems, seek vainly to find the answers in Highgate cemetery.”[2]

A month after the 1966 general election, the government was faced with a seafarers’ strike against poor wages and conditions. Men were expected to work a 56-hour week for less than £16 a week. This was the first official strike of seafarers’ since 1911. It was an important reflection of the changes taking place in the trade unions generally. This was especially the case in the National Union of Seamen (NUS), which, as we have seen, which was previously a company union and its leadership had scabbed on the 1926 General Strike.

In the seafarers’ strike, the union’s main demand was for a 40-hour week, a monthly wage of £60 and direct overtime rates for anything above the 40 hours. The right-wing Economist made the bosses’ position crystal clear: “The price of securing an incomes policy in Britain will be a willingness to stand up to strikes.”[3] Wilson, who certainly was not looking in the direction of Highgate, but rather Thread Needle Street, came out promptly against the strike on the grounds that “this would be a strike against the state – against the community. But this isn’t all. What is at issue here is our national Prices and Incomes Policy”.

To underline its determination to defeat the seafarers, and while appealing to the “national interest”, the government announced a state of emergency on 23 May. Wilson went so far as to use the “red scare” card against the strikers, accusing the NUS executive of being in the control of a “tightly knit group of politically-motivated men” who, for their own nefarious reasons, were “forcing great hardship on the members of the union and their families, and endangering the security of the industry and the economic welfare of the nation.”

John Prescott, then a leading left-wing official in the NUS, attacked the Wilson Labour government for its stand: “There is a wealth of evidence we could produce to show that behind the government, in its resistance to our just demands, stand the international banks, the financial powers which really direct the government’s anti-wages policy…” thundered Prescott.

“The goodwill of the bankers, the ill-will of the working class”, he continued. “How familiar a story that is of Labour governments, when we cast our minds back to Ramsay MacDonald and the 1929-31 government. It was the trade unions then that stiffened the Labour Party against the attacks on unemployment pay. They must rally to the cause in the different circumstances of today.”[4]

Today, an older and mellower John Prescott, serves as deputy PM in the Blair government. He could do worse than to reread his former speeches before attacking striking firefighters and others. Unfortunately, some memories are short. Despite the attacks of the Wilson government, the seafarers were successful in getting a wage rise above the norm and a 42-hour week.

The Labour government had set up the Devlin Inquiry into the docks, which recommended fewer companies and more job security – but linked to a much scaled-down workforce. While it recommended some favourable changes, such as higher guaranteed pay, sick and accident pay, and a shop stewards system, the control of labour was to a considerable extent to be handed back to the employers. The disease in Britain’s ports would not be cured through further exploitation of dock labour, but only through reorganisation based upon nationalisation under democratic workers’ control.

The report met widespread opposition among the rank-and-file dockers, who engaged in protest strikes against the proposals. “Don’t Delvinise – Nationalise!” read the London Liaison Committee posters. Unfortunately the action was not sufficient to defeat Devlin’s reorganisation plans, which was eventually to lead to containerisation on the docks and mass redundancies.

Of course, workers are not against modernisation. New methods should be used to shorten hours, lighten the burden of work, and improve working conditions. But under capitalism, new techniques are used to make fewer workers work harder, while the remainder are thrown on the scrap heap. Modernisation under capitalism is used not to ease work, but to maximise profits. “I’m not opposed to mechanisation as such”, stated London dockers’ leader Jack Dash. “I am opposed to mechanisation when it puts men on the dole. Progress measures by the degree of automation you can get without considering the plight of the displaced worker is not progress at all.”[5]

Containerisation on the docks was to provide the employers with greater flexibility and the power to redirect work from the more militant ports to those less well organised. The struggle against containerisation was to end up with the jailing of five dockers (the “Pentonville Five”) in July 1972 and the threat of a general strike. The policy of wage restraint pursued by the Wilson government became deeply unpopular. The docks’ strike in 1967 was quickly followed by the TGWU coming into opposition to the government’s pay policy. At this time, a bitter strike at Roberts Arundel in Stockport over union recognition drew national attention. These events were symptomatic of a deep-seated discontent in the working class, still hoping against hope that the Labour government would deliver on its promises.

On 7 November 1967 a dramatic shake-up took place at the top of one of Britain’s biggest unions, the Amalgamated Engineering Workers’ Union. In the fight to succeed arch right-winger, Lord Carron, the left-wing candidate Hugh Scanlon was elected as President. This represented a major shift, and not only in the AEWU. The result reflected a new mood in the union membership after years of right-wing domination. It was time for a change in the unions. Within a year, a further left victory took place in the massive TGWU, when left-winger Jack Jones was elected the union’s general secretary. These changes in Britain’s most powerful unions were to have a profound effect throughout the Labour movement in the next few years.

Jack Jones had already been elected to the NEC of the Labour Party. In his memoirs, he gave a glimpse of the real state of affairs at the top of the movement: “On the NEC criticism of the government came mainly from Ian Mikardo, Tom Driberg and myself,” he recalled, “with occasional support from Danny McGarvey of the Boilermakers Union. Some of the Ministers shared our disquiet but they were muted in debate and never risked voting against the government.”[6]

In 1967 the Wilson government nationalised the steel industry, not out of any socialist perspective, but in an attempt to provide cheap steel to big business. Of course, as was customary the former owners were well compensated for the loss: “This change, which had for so long been a major issue of controversy between parties, took place without fuss, and appeared to make little difference”, noted Henry Pelling.[7] In these years, the capitalists had grown accustomed to being bailed out by the state in times of difficulty. However the British Steel Corporation was to face bitter competition from abroad that was to see its share of the market shrink. Given the lack of investment in new plant, this was to result in massive lay-offs. In particular, the failure of the steel unions, especially the ISTC, to make a stand saw the butchering of the industry a further haemorrhage of jobs throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Economic Difficulties

The Wilson government was facing deepening economic difficulties at this time, as a result of the long-term decline of British capitalism. Britain was being constantly outstripped by its competitors. The short-sighted British capitalists were not willing to invest in the modernisation of industry, as was evident in the steel industry and shipbuilding. Instead, they invested abroad, or in gold, in antiques and old paintings, but not in productive industry. The lack of investment forced British workers to use antiquated machinery, resulting in the loss of world and home markets. By 1964 Britain’s share of world exports had fallen to just over 14 percent. The decline was masked by the general increase in world trade, but the fact remained that Britain was falling further and further behind.

In a desperate bid to restore industry’s competitiveness and overcome the balance of payments crisis, the government devalued the pound sterling in 1967. The British bosses, however, instead of using the devaluation to become more competitive abroad, simply raised their prices. As a result, their share of world exports fell from 14.4 per cent in 1964 to 10.8 per cent in 1970. Import penetration increased from 11.9 per cent in 1964 to 14.8 per cent in 1970. Although the mass of profit increased, average profit margins fell from 14.5 per cent to 10 per cent between 1964 and 1969, reflecting a falling rate of profit. The government, operating on the basis of its incomes policy, attempted to reverse this decline by boosting profits at the expense of workers’ living standards.

The deepening economic crisis forced the Labour government to introduce a series of cuts and counter-reforms: free school milk for secondary pupils was abolished, prescription charges were reintroduced, National Assistance rules were tightened up, and wage restraint introduced, while profits rose. In terms of foreign policy, which is always a continuation of home policy, and based upon exactly the same class considerations, the Wilson government gave full backing to American imperialism in its aggressive war against the Vietnamese people. The results of these policies at home and abroad was to disappoint and demoralise activists in the Labour movement as well as its supporters throughout the country. Party meetings were reduced to a shell as activists drifted away and internal Party life collapsed.

Opposition to the American war in Vietnam caught the imagination of the youth, especially the student youth. Huge protest demonstrations were held in London and elsewhere. In fact, 1968 was the highpoint of student radicalisation internationally. A further stimulus was provided by the events of 1968 in France, where ten million workers had occupied the factories in the biggest revolutionary general strike in history. This was completely unexpected by most of the Left in France, who considered that the working class had been bought off and corrupted by capitalism.

The movement in France began with the students and has therefore been wrongly presented as a “student revolt”. But in fact the main revolt was on the part of the working class. Students, who are predominantly from a middle class background, cannot play an independent role, but they are particularly sensitive to the moods in society. At this time, they represented a barometer of the new radicalisation that was developing deep within the bowels of society. The student ferment was a harbinger of the later movement of the working class, as we saw in one country after another after 1970.

The revolt of the students provided the spark that lit the smouldering discontent of the working classes that had been quietly accumulating for years. Although there were less than four million workers organised in the unions in France, ten million occupied the factories, mines and offices. The French ruling class was alarmed and despondent. The government did know how to react, and had effectively lost control of the situation. President De Gaulle told the American ambassador: “The game’s up. In a few days the Communists will be in power.” This was no exaggeration. If the Communist Party and CGT had wished it, the French workers could have taken power without a civil war. There was simply no force able to resist them. But the socialist transformation of society was not on their agenda, and the opportunity was allowed to slip.

In June 1968, after three years of deliberation, the Donovan Commission delivered its Report on British trade unions. As expected, the Report identified the central problem as the spread of unofficial strikes, estimated to have formed 90 per cent of all strikes between 1960 and 1968. Of course, this “problem” arises from and is a reflection of the conflict within capitalist society. It has its roots not in trade union practices, but in the class struggle itself. The Commission’s recommendations were an attempt to modify the class struggle, and tilt the balance of forces back in favour of the employers.

To reduce unofficial action it urged that the semi-official shop stewards’ movement (estimated at 175,000 by Donovan) be further integrated into the union machinery. Above all, the Commission wanted to make the trade union leadership police its own rank-and-file membership more effectively. But to the dismay of the capitalist press, the Commission came out against legal sanctions on the trade unions, suggesting instead a voluntary approach. In parallel the Tory Party issued its own report on industrial relations – innocently entitled Fair Deal at Work – arguing for the introduction of anti-union laws – a foretaste of what was to come.

In Place of Strife

Nevertheless, within seven months, to the utter astonishment of the Labour movement, the Labour Minister, Barbara Castle, produced a white paper entitled In Place of Strife. This paper went far beyond Donovan’s recommendations and embraced many of the proposals contained in Fair Deal at Work. Castle for instance recommended the creation of a Registrar of Trade Unions and Employers’ Associations and the setting up of Industrial Courts. It envisaged “cooling-off” periods and fines on trade unions. According to the government the legislation would “enable the Secretary of State by order to require those involved to desist for up to 28 days from a strike or lockout which is unconstitutional...” And further, “The Board will have the power to impose financial penalties on an employer, union or individual striker as it found appropriate”.[8]

Here was a Labour government attempting to introduce anti-union legislation! As expected, In Place of Strife itself created massive strife throughout the Labour movement. Angry protests were raised in all quarters, both in the trade unions and the Labour Party. “The White Paper In Place of Strife caused much division and bitterness. It shook the Labour movement”, stated Jack Jones. Special meetings of Constituency Labour Parties were called to which the Members of Parliament were summoned to explain themselves. Protests came in thick and fast to Transport House, Labour’s headquarters. Miners’ lodges in South Wales even threatened to disaffiliate from the Labour Party if the “Castle Bill” ever became law.

“Harold Wilson backed them [the proposals] enthusiastically but the unions were outraged”, admitted Barbara Castle in her Diaries. “They claimed – with some justification as it turned out – that the Conservatives would use my proposals as an alibi for the very different legal constraints they were proposing to place on the unions. Labour MPs mobilized in protest. So did the party’s National Executive Committee [NEC], of which I was a member. Some Cabinet Ministers opposed me openly. Others, who had supported me, began to get cold feet… But the bitterness remained. My own standing in the party was damaged…”[9]

The AEU and the TGWU demanded a recall conference of the TUC to discuss the anti-union attack. But the main thrust came from below. Under the initiative of the Communist Party, an ad-hoc body was established to fight the new proposals, the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (LCDTU). This body drew behind it a wide layer of trade union activists and militants across industry. The LCDTU conference in November 1969 put out the call for a national Day of Action on 8 December, which was answered by over one million striking workers. This was the first political strike since the General Strike, and opened up a new period for British trade unionism.

Jack Jones recalls a meeting at Chequers where Barbara Castle was present. “Barbara was rather shrewish, trying to put Hughie [Scanlon] and me in our place. We were told once again that ‘the public is looking for action against unofficial strikers. Action must be taken by the government; you’ve had your chance, boys!’ The nearest thing to a conciliatory tone was adopted when they explained their attitude to ‘criminal sanctions’, as we called them. ‘No,’ said Barbara, ‘people will not go to prison. Fines could be imposed but they would be collected as civil debts.’”[10] But this fine detail did not fool anyone, least of all the trade unions, which were in no mood to have their rights curtailed.

Under growing pressure from below, the TUC came out in opposition to the proposed Bill. On 1 May 1969, some one-and-a-quarter million workers took strike action, combined with mass protests and marches throughout the country. A recalled TUC Congress in June – the first such special Congress for over 50 years – met to draw up plans for action. By April 1970, the anti-trade union Bill had been carried in the Commons with 55 Labour MPs voting against and around 40 MPs abstaining. This proved to be the last straw. The pressure on the Labour government from trade unions, Trades Councils, shop stewards committees, and local Labour Parties became so intense that the government was forced to back down and abandon the legislation. This struggle against In Place of Strife resulted in a considerable radicalisation in the Labour movement that was to prove a dress rehearsal for the campaign against the Tory anti-union legislation over the five years that followed.

Between 1967 and 1968, the National Coal Board had closed 62 pits, the largest number in any single year. The workforce had now shrunk from 692,700 in 1959 to 365,000 in 1968. From almost a thousand pits at the time of nationalisation, they had been reduced by closures to 317 collieries. Between 1964 and 1968 the number of pits fell by 40 per cent and the workforce was cut by almost the same percentage. This change was prompted by the increased use of oil as a source of power and the rapid introduction of mechanisation in the pits. The proportion of coal that was power-loaded rose from 23 per cent in 1957 to 92 per cent in 1968. With fewer miners needed to produce more coal, they were simply told that ‘uneconomic’ pits would close. Those made redundant had the option of taking redundancy or transferring to another pit, like “industrial gypsies”, as they became known, driven by closures from one pit to another.

The destruction of miners’ jobs was a poor reflection on the then NUM leadership – not only the right wing but also the Communist Party. For many years they had pursued a policy of moderation, as Vic Allen, a historian of the miners explained, “Communist Party members, such as Will Paynter, the general secretary from 1959, Bill Whitehead, who succeeded Paynter as the president of the South Wales miners, Abe Moffat the president of the Scottish miners and his brother Alex who succeeded him as well as others in official positions around the coalfields continued to advocate continuity in the union’s policy of co-operation with the NCB.” Allen continued:

“They were in agreement on this issue with those who were their political antagonists, such as Sidney Ford, the union president, Sam Bullough, the president of the Yorkshire Area and Jack Lally, President of the Midlands Area. The union revealed no significant sectional differences over the important issues, which faced it. On the question of contraction it insisted that the decisions to close which pits, when and where, were the prerogative of the management. The union intervened only to facilitate the closures by assisting to alleviate the hardships which might result from them.”[11]

From 1962 onwards there had been virtually no national protests against pit closures, despite the lack of alternative work in mining areas. Strikes in the mining industry were at an all-time low. The NCB Report of 1967-68 recorded a “sharp reduction in output lost through disputes.” There was not one recorded industrial dispute over redundancies. A consequence of this union-NCB collaboration over decades had also pushed miners from the top of the wages league table after the war, to twelfth place by 1970. These factors were to produce a new militancy in the British coalfields.

Discontent grows

Discontent began to surface in the Yorkshire coalfield, where an unofficial Left (the “Forum”) began to challenge for the leadership. In Barnsley, a young faceworker and former Communist Party member, Arthur Scargill, played a key role in the Forum and the growing opposition. In December 1968, Will Paynter retired, and the Left candidate, Lawrence Daly, won the election for national secretary. This coincided with a change within the union, not over the question of redundancies, but the plight of surface workers, who worked longer hours with less pay than those underground. The South Wales miners, in May 1969, had passed a resolution demanding a reduction in hours for surface workers, through strike action if necessary.

Miners from all over the coalfields lobbied the National Conference as pressure built up for action over the issue. Unofficial strikes first broke out in Yorkshire, when on 13 October every pit in the Area bar one took industrial action. The following day all Yorkshire pits were at a standstill. Despite threats from the NCB, and the pleas of Lawreance Daly for miners to return to work, the strike spread through the use of flying pickets to Scotland, South Wales, Derbyshire, Kent, Nottingham and the Midlands, eventually involving over 130,000 miners. While the strike was going on, national negotiations over pay were underway. Although the NCB refused to give way over hours, fearing the spontaneous movement from below, they granted the NUM wage demand in full! The 1969 unofficial strike would prove to be a turning point in the union as well as a dress rehearsal for the battles that lay ahead.

At this point, the Donovan Commission came out with a recommendation to establish a Commission on Industrial Relations (CIR), as a means of controlling the power of the unions. This had originally been part of the In Place of Strife legislation introduced by Barbara Castle that had been vehemently opposed by the Labour and trade union movement. But Will Paynter, the “Communist”, described it in his memoirs as “a useful and constructive piece of machinery” and “ideal for the job” of modernising industrial relations. In reality, it was a vehicle for class collaboration and harmony under capitalism, a means of gluing together the interests of employers, union officials and shop stewards.

Paynter found the CIR so attractive that in February 1968 he accepted a job as CIR head on a salary of £6,500 p.a. (as opposed to £15 a week for a surface worker), and sat down alongside the likes of Leslie Blackeman, former personnel director of Ford, who dreamed up the infamous penalty clauses to outlaw unofficial strikes. Yet according to Paynter, it was an “independent” body, free from government interference and big business! When the Tories came back to power offering their own anti-union legislation, Will Paynter resigned, commenting, “Such measures are more likely to incite than to appease… Industrial relations and trade union and employer relations are not likely to be assisted by this kind of political knock-about.”[12] But these laws were nothing to do with “knock-abouts” and everything to do with class interests and the position of British capitalism. The CIR was the “voluntary” approach favoured by Paynter, whereas the Tories wanted to go that one step further in binding the trade union leaders to the state.

By the 1968-69 period, the “stop-go” policies and the price rises following the devaluation of the Wilson government, provoked a number of strikes over pay. In 1968, women machinists went on strike in the Ford Motor Company over equal pay. The discrimination against the machinists was symptomatic of the Company’s more general discrimination against women. Of the 38,000 male production workers, 9,000 were on Grade C – roughly one in four. The 850 female production workers included only two in Grade C – one in 400. Even with technical and clerical work included there were only twelve women in Grade C. There were no women at all in the two top grades D and E.

The militancy of these women workers, the most oppressed section of the workforce, preceded the general mood of militancy that was developing. The following February and March Ford workers went on national strike over wages. “The 1969 strike can also be seen as a turning-point for the British working class and the Labour movement as a whole”, writes Huw Beynon.

“As it progressed, the Labour government became more and more involved and increasingly antagonistic towards the strikers and Jack Jones’s shop stewards. It was the harbinger of a lost election and of the 1970s when strikes would be bigger and longer and take place under the close scrutiny of the state.”[13]

Following on from the example of the carworkers, dustmen engaged in a prolonged battle over wages in September, securing a wage of £20 per week. These strikes reflected a new militancy, after years of restraint, wage freeze and growing inflation. In fact, more days were lost in strikes in 1970 than in any year since 1926. Having been let down by a Labour government, the working class once again began to turn to the industrial front in an attempt to solve their problems.


In April 1970, a bitter strike broke out at the Pilkington Glass Factory in St Helens, Lancashire. The workers were members of the General and Municipal Workers (GMWU), which was bureaucratically controlled and stood on the far right of the Labour movement. Its general secretary, Lord Cooper, also had other outside interests, such as governor of the London School of Business Studies, director of Telefusion Yorkshire, and director of the National Ports Council. In the tradition of right-wing “democracy”, he ruled the union with a heavvy hand. The Pilkington GMWU branch of 7,400 members was the largest in the country. Incredibly its branch meetings were not open to ordinary members, but only to shop stewards. Negotiations were conducted within a Joint Industrial Council, which was supervised and heavily influenced by union full-time officials.

A spontaneous unofficial walkout at Pilkington’s main factory over bonus pay quickly spread to the other sectors. The workers were demanding a £10 wage rise. At first, the shop stewards called for a return to work, but under intense pressure they were forced to declare the strike official at branch level. Reflecting the colossal discontent within the work-force, the strike rapidly spread to other Pilkington factories throughout Britain. Within a week, the GMWU national officials intervened to get the strike called off, but were met with determined opposition. The Joint Industrial Council was hastily convened and recommend-ed a £3 wage rise – but the strikers rejected this offer out of hand.

The older shop stewards, who had originally acted as a break on the struggle, were pushed to one side and replaced by the Rank and File Strike Committee (RFSC), which assumed charge of the strike. The GMWU leaders, now in league with Pilkington management, used every device to get the industrial action called off, but failed miserably. However, on 16 May, in a poll organised by the local church, a small majority voted in favour of returning to work. With pressure from the TUC itself, the RFSC saw no alternative but to call off the strike.

The workers were extremely bitter at the manoeuvres of their own trade union officials. The task facing the RFSC was to conduct a serious struggle to transform the union on democratic lines, as a genuine instrument of the members. Unfortunately, many workers were influenced to split away from the GMWU, egged on by groups on the left, particularly the Socialist Workers Party (formerly the International Socialists), who urged them to break from the GMWU and set up their own union. The SWP produced leaflets entitled NUGMWU Scab Union, and a pamphlet that argued:

“Can the GMWU be reformed from within? The obvious answer is to say no, since the right-wing bureaucracy has so many safe guards built into the constitution to prevent militants getting into influential positions, since the rules prohibit organisation between branches, and since history shows how the NEC can chop off and re-organise any sections whose policies, etc. it does not like.”[14]

We have heard such arguments many times: that the workers cannot change the unions from within: that the only answer is to split away and form a new union and so on. Such splits are always ruinous for the trade unions, whose only strength is their unity. Attempts to form minority “left” unions merely serve to strengthen the stranglehold of the bureaucracy and weaken the Left, while sowing division and confusion among the workers. The net result is always the same: an increase of non-unionism. Many workers drop out of the union altogether. And the new “left” union, if it survives at all, inevitably moves to the right and plays a reactionary role. On the other hand, the majority union will eventually respond to the pressure from below and the old bureaucrats will retire or be replaced by more militant elements. This is just what happened here.

The RFSC changed its name to the Pilkington Provisional Trade Union Committee and around 3,500 handed in their resignations from the GMWU. As a result of the Bridlington Agreement they were refused membership of the TGWU. By the end of June, the Committee established their own Glass and General Workers’ Union (GGWU). In a scandalous manner, Pilkingtons and the GMWU bureaucracy nationally colluded to break the new union. In August, the GGWU imposed an overtime ban which led to suspensions and a short strike at the Cowley Hill plant. This led to 480 workers being sacked. Some were later re-employed, but 130 remained sacked, including the leaders of the GGWU, Gerry Caughey and John Potter. Within weeks, the breakaway union was wound up. It proved a very bitter experience, with victimised union militants sacked and blacklisted from work.

Those who seek short-cuts where none exist merely simply served to break away the more militant and class conscious workers from their less militant brothers and sisters. The split of the GMWU at Pilkingtons only served to reinforce the position of the right wing and the union bureaucracy, which in one fell swoop got rid of any potential challenge to its authority.

“Impatient leftists sometimes say that it is absolutely impossible to win over the trade. unions because the bureaucracy uses the organisation’s internal regimes for preserving its own interests, resorting to the basest machinations, repressions and plain crookedness...” stated Leon Trotsky just before the war, “Why then waste time and energy? This argument reduces itself in reality to giving up the actual struggle to win the masses, using the corrupt character of the trade union bureaucracy as a pretext.” The class-conscious workers must learn from the history of such disastrous splits and avoid them in the future.

The argument that it was impossible to change the GMWU was shown to be com-pletely false. Pressure from the rank and file forced the GMWU leaders to shift tack. The official union branch at Pilkingtons was divided into six factory branches, this time with the right of every member to attend the meetings. Lord Cooper retired early and was replaced in 1973 by David Basnett, who was a moderate but more responsive to the views of the rank and file. This served to move the union towards the centre-left and opened it up to democratic reform. Strikes in other industries were increasingly made official by the GMWU – in complete contrast to the past. From £27,000 paid out in strike pay in 1967, the GMWU’s strike pay figure rose to £700,000 by 1971. Unfortunately, those militants misled by the ultra-left groups, who could have acted as a catalyst to push the union further to the left, were now outside of the union, without work or influence. It was a tragic end to a brave fight. Nevertheless, Basnett’s election was clearly a product of the strike upsurge, which served to shift the union in a more progressive direction.

1970 was the year when the Wilson government went to the polls and was defeated by the Tories led by Edward Heath. The period of counter-reform under Labour had disil- lusioned its supporters, resulting in large Labour abstentions in the July 1970 general elec- tion. The coming to power of the Tory government’ constituted a sharp change in the polit- ical situation, opening up a tidal wave of struggle not seen since the 1920s.


[1] Harold Wilson, The Labour government 1964-1970. A Personal Record, London, 1971, p.37

[2] Labour Party Annual Report, 1966, p. 163

[3] The Economist, 5 June 1965

[4] Not Wanted on Voyage: The Seamen’s Reply by John Prescott and Charlie Hodgins, June 1966, published by the National Union of Seamen Hull Dispute Committee

[5] Jack Dash, op. cit, p. 164, London 1970

[6] Jack Jones, op.cit, p. 175

[7] Petting, A Short History of the Labour Party, p. 147, London 1972

[8] In Place of Strife, page 37 and 21

[9] Barbara Castle, The Castle Diaries 1974-76, pp.3, London 1980

[10] Jones, op. cit, p.204

[11] Alien, The Militancy of British Miners, p.63-4, London 1981, my emphasis

[12] Will Paynter, My Generation, p,156-161, London 1972

[13] Beynon, Working for Ford, p.248, London, 1984

[14] ‘The Pilkington Dispute’, International Socialists pamphlet, 1970