A rant against militant trade unionism

A review of ‘Turbulent Times in the Car Industry – Memories of a Trade Union Official at Cowley Oxford’ by David Buckle. Paperback, 110 pages, £4.99. Published by David Buckle MBE April 2011. ISBN: 978-0-9568632-0-1.

Alan Thornett

Former Oxford TGWU full time trade union official David Buckle’s book ‘Turbulent Times in the Car Industry – Memories of a Trade Union Official at Cowley Oxford’ was published, in April this year, as a response to my book ‘Militant Years – car workers struggles in Britain in the 60s and 70s’ published in January,* though a direct reference to Militant Years is studiously avoided by Buckle.

As soon as my book came out Buckle began raising the need for a reply to it, arguing that the left cannot be allowed to write the history of the Cowley car plants. He approached the union in Cowley for financial support but was rejected on the basis of his record.

It was the right decision since his book is an ill-informed, self-promoting, rant against militant trade unionism. This, despite the disastrous record of the alternative – moderate trade unionism or ‘new-realism’ as it was known in the 90s – which has reduced the trade union movement to a shadow of its former self.

Buckle was a right-wing establishment figure, despite posturings to the contrary in the book. He was a magistrate (and chair of the Abingdon bench) and later an MBE. He was also a member of the Industrial Society, of which the Duke of Edinburgh was chief patron. In fact he was an executive member of it. He cringingly describes how he ‘put the Duke right’ about working conditions in the car industry – for which the Duke was apparently ‘very grateful’.

He accepts that his book is anecdotal rather than analytical – and that is certainly one way of putting it. Another way is that it is confused, ill informed, inaccurate, and contradictory. It is worse in this regard than his previous book Hostilities Only published in 1999.

This inaccuracy – some of it willful and some of it incompetent – might seem surprising given Buckle’s long experience in Cowley. He worked in the Pressed Steel (later the Cowley Body Plant) for 14 years before he was appointed full-time official covering the plant in 1964 – an unelected position then as it is today in Unite. In 1976 his brief was extended to the Assembly Plant (on the same unelected basis), which he held until his retirement in the late 1980s. He certainly, therefore, had access to vast amounts of information – much of it privileged and most of which he kept to himself.

It can be explained, however, by the factional nature of the book and by Buckle’s determination not to let facts get in the way of a chance to denounce the left or of reaching the ‘right’ conclusions. Though to give him his due he makes no claim to either impartiality or objectivity. Nor does he deny that he opposed militant trade unionism tooth and nail. In fact he proudly justifies it on the basis that his opponents were ‘politically motivated extremists’ out to destroy the industry – the traditional charge of the right against the left down the ages – and were therefore fair game.

He puts it this way: “In effect, the extremist shop stewards were trying to run a union within a union and eventually became a greater danger to their members’ jobs prospects than the inefficient poor management.” He says that such ‘extremists’ need to be “confronted and challenged by every democratic means available”. It is hard to see, however, how the actions of an unelected official against fully elected shop stewards and convenor has anything to do with democracy.

He did play a major role in Cowley, but it was a deeply destructive one. He was the TGWU official who orchestrated (at local level) a series of damaging attacks on militant shop stewards and convenors in the Cowley Assembly Plant, which seriously weakened a strong shop floor movement built over many years. He worked closely in this with BL management and with Jack Jones and the TGWU establishment.

The measures initiated to this end included breaking up the 6,000 strong TGWU branch which had built the strength of the union in the plant; destroying the 300 strong Joint Shop Stewards Committee, which had united the unions in the plant; removing elected convenors and deputies from office and forcing them to stand again under a massive media witch hunt; and bringing trumped-up charges against militant stewards and convenors in order to seek their expulsion from the union.

It was as arrogant as it was damaging and undemocratic. Here was a unelected official setting himself up as judge and jury over shop stewards and convenors who had not only built the union in the plant but had been elected to the positions they held, usually many times over, and usually in hotly contested ballots.

Its true that we were political, since there are few non-political solutions to trade union struggle. But so was Buckle and those around him. His hostility to militant trade unionism was clearly politically driven. He was an active member of the Labour Party from his early days in the Pressed Steel, with an ambition to get into Parliament. He stood for Parliament twice (in1955 and 59) and only became a trade union official after he failed to get in. His base was the rightwing of the Oxford Labour Party.

He slanders leading left-wingers by claiming that they were interlopers who had sneaked into the plant, covered up their politics, and duped the workforce into voting for them. Yet (with the exception of the convenor Bob Fryer) we were all radicalised inside the plant itself. I started in the plant with no political or industrial experience at all, as I explain in my book. I fact I voted Tory just before I started in the 1959 election.

Nor did we cover up our left-wing politics once we had them. I joined the CP within a couple of years of starting and made my affiliation clear as soon as I was elected a steward. I was reelected for the next 20 years despite screaming headlines about my politics.

Buckle claims that he ‘fought extremism’ in both management and the union! This is also rubbish. In fact his behavior encouraged and supplemented management extremism. He nailed his banner to the mast as early as 1966 over the infamous Cowley noose trial. This was a campaign by the Tory Party and the tabloid press to the effect that seven strikebreakers had been ‘tried under and hanging noose’ in front of a mass meeting and forced to give the money they had earned to a charity of their choice. It became the centerpiece of the Tory election campaign that year.

The ‘noose’ was total fabrication, however. There was a meeting to deal with strikebreakers but the so-called ‘noose’ was a piece of rope on a gantry, which had been there for years and played no part in the meeting. Buckle, however, fully signed up to the Tory/tabloid version of it – and still does in his book. He was also a minority in a trade union inquiry into the ‘noose trial’, to which he was appointed, which cleared the stewards of any form of misconduct. Buckle, however, thought they should have been found guilty as charged by the Tories. (He also misunderstood the whole episode since he thinks that there was a dispute going on when there was not. The dispute was over and the issue was Tory/media/management charges of intimidation.)

Such was Buckle’s commitment to fighting militant trade unionism that, driven by hostility to the growing independence of the shop stewards movement, he often took a harder line than management itself. He complains bitterly, for example, that when he was appointed officer for the Assembly Plant the stewards had a (perfectly logical) policy that the official should only come on the plant at the request of or by agreement with the convenor – not the management.

In July 1976 Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon launched a remarkable attack on militant shop stewards in BL. After a complaint from management about the number of strikes they called a meeting of their full time officials in BL, with the convenors excluded, and declared open war on militant stewards denouncing them as ‘the enemy within’. They urged their officials to take on the militants and stop strikes at all costs. (Buckle enthusiastically supported this of course yet he makes the point in his book when attacking ‘extremists’, that “Such people forgot that their role was to represent all members, regardless of their political views.”)

The Jones/Scanlon crackdown was in line with the declaration of the TUC, when Wilson withdrew his anti-union laws in the 69, that the unions would control shop floor militancy themselves and thus make laws unnecessary.

Cowley management responded to the opportunity presented by Jones and Scanlon by withdrawing recognition from four production line shop stewards and there was an immediate stoppage in their defense.

Buckle along with Reg Parsons – a right-winger he had by now successfully promoted as convenor – fought tooth and nail to break the strike. They called a mass meeting and urged a return to work but were decisively (and dramatically) rejected and the strike continued. When they reported this back to management they were paranoid that they would make concessions. Parsons even threatened to resign if management gave ground. This came to light in 2005 when a copy of management’s official record of the meeting leaked out.

Bizarrely Reg Parsons is not mentioned in Buckles book from start to finish. Yet he was not only a major player but Buckle’s star candidate and most important ally against the left. Buckle was always in the media backing him to the hilt. He spent many years, and a big percentage of his time, promoting him, supporting him and defending him. He waged a huge campaign to get him elected and to keep him there until the left won the position back.

This remarkable blind spot could be related to Parsons violent record, which Buckle, as a magistrate, would no doubt rather forget. In his book Buckle makes allegations of violence against the left claiming that chairs were thrown at him during a meeting and water poured over Jack Jones’s head – both of which are pure invention. There was, however, violence by right-wingers in the plant, which Buckle sought to minimise.

On one occasion Reg Parsons attacked the AUEW deputy convenor in a worker participation meeting, in front of management, jumping on the table and kicking him in the face. When management took disciplinary action against Parsons, with a view to dismissal, Buckle defended him and got him off with a reprimand when sacking was automatic for violence inside the plant. He then refused requests from the AUEW to pursue a complaint inside the TGWU.

On another, one of Parsons deputies attacked and seriously injured a TGWU branch officer, who he saw as part of the left, with a beer glass at a trade union social. Although the attacker was prosecuted by the police and convicted of assault, Buckle blocked all attempts to pursue complaints within the union.

The only time that Buckle opposed management, to a (very) limited extent, was during the Michael Edwardes ‘management of fear’ period. But that was because, by then, the shop stewards movement had been seriously damaged (with Buckles enthusiastic help) to the extent that management no longer needed him, and they were starting to treat him like they treated everyone else. As a result he supported the ‘hand-washing strike’ in 1983, a strike he would earlier have denounced as irresponsible and extremist. (He bizarrely thinks Edwardes was appointed by Margaret Thatcher when he was appointed by Jim Callaghan two years before Thatcher was elected).

A charge Buckle repeatedly makes is that the left represented a danger to the very existence of the Assembly Plant; indeed were out to destroy it. Yet despite repeated threats by management to close the plant during the 20 years when left were in office it was always successfully defended. But within two years of Buckle and the rightwing taking control, in the mid-80s, the process began which resulted in the closure and demolition of the plant by the early 90s – with no opposition from either the right wing in the plant or from Buckle. In fact they refused to support the campaign in Oxford for the decision to be reversed.

In a preposterous example of his obsession to smear the left irrespective of the facts he actually manages to blame the left for the closure despite the fact that the left had lost the leadership of the plant to the right in the mid 80s and had been out of office
for four years before the closure process started! He puts it this way: “In July 1988 the Company announced the closure of the Cowley South Works, followed by the North Works’. At the end of that year I retired”. He goes on: “If were a cynic I would say the extremists were proud of the fact that their objective of closing the plant down has been achieved”. How whacky is that?

He goes on to claim that conditions are better today in what remains of the car industry in Cowley (a much smaller BMW factory in the original body plant) than they were in the 70s and 80s. And it is true that – despite the introduction of agency labour, anti-social shift patterns, and flexible hours – an active shop stewards movement in recent years have reorganised and pulled back some ground.

The reduction in wage levels during Buckle’s period as an official, however, was massive, particularly in the Pressed Steel/Body Plant, which was very highly paid in the 50s 60s and early 70s due to a militant approach to piecework prices by the convenor and stewards in the 50s. In fact Buckle calculates in his book that Body Pant production workers suffered a 73% reduction in real value between 1971 and 1981. No doubt this is true. Pressed Steel workers were the highest paid in the area by far at that time even surpassing most professional jobs – though it was very hard work. He gives a figure of £36.00 a week in 1964, which was about four times the average wage.

What he ignores is that a major factor in this was his support for management in the change from piecework to Measured Day. Another was the sell-out of a series of wages struggles in BL by the national officials, usually with his support.

He even claims that he made a big sacrifice when he became a fulltime official in 1964 since his pay was almost halved as a result of leaving his job in the plant. What he does not say is that by the time he retired as an official in 88 the situation had been completely reversed.

A balance sheet of Buckle’s role cannot be confined to Cowley, however. What he did in Cowley was a microcosm of what was happening in the wider movement – even if it was an extreme example. The concessions made to the Labour Governments of the 70s by the trade union leaders, and the crackdown on the shop stewards movement they carried out as a part of this, opened the door to the Tory onslaught of the 80s.

The sacking of Derek Robinson in 79 Longbridge, facilitated by AUEW President Terry Duffy, was a prime and damaging example of this. My own sacking in 82 was a part of the same process, in which Buckle played a damaging role.

In fact he makes my sacking the centerpiece of his book and gloats that, although it had been his job to represent me, he had achieved the outcome he wanted, ‘I was glad to see the back of him’, he says.

He attempts to justify this by claiming that my members had refused to support me. It was his willfully selective memory again. In fact they voted 3-1 for an all-out strike in my defense, which Buckle refused to support or implement. He refused to argue for the case in my defense either in the plant or in public. He issued a leaflet to the plant in which there was not a word defending me – just the charges against me and the procedural situation. When the TGWU stewards committee produced a leaflet for the plant, which did put the case in my defense, he blew his top and confronted the convenor Bob Fryer demanding, on behalf of management, demanding the names of the sub committee which had drafted the leaflet so that he could submit them for disciplinary action.

Meanwhile management distributed a statement saying that Buckle had disowned the shop stewards leaflet – the only thing in public defending me! It gave the management and the media everything they wanted. Winning such a struggle with representation like that was a big problem.

This was all part of a process which soon led to the isolation of the miners, the betrayal of the print workers and the imposition the anti-union laws without opposition from the TUC. As a result of all this the membership of the unions has been cut in half and their social and industrial weight reduced to an even greater extent.

Fortunately Buckle will find it difficult today to put a convincing right wing spin on the history of the Cowley plants at a time when the lessons of these events are becoming increasingly important. Or at least of he wants to do so he will have to produce something a lot more substantial, convincing, and based in reality than his Turbulent Times in the Car Industry.

* Militant Years – Car workers’ struggles in Britain in the 60s and 70s, by Alan Thornett. Paperback, 368 pages, £12.00. Published by Resistance Books January 2011. ISBN 978-0-902869-73-8.

1 Comment

  1. I would say that David Buckle had an affinity to the Crowley Body plant where he had originally worked. In fact many workers there saw the high number of stoppages and strikes in the Assemblly plant as politically motivated. At the same time many workers found it incompatible that both David Buckle and Bill Roach the body shop senior conveyor were magistrates. While The Reverend Tony Williamson was the Sheffif of Oxford. these were all throughly decent people but in many ways their loyalty was to the Labour Governments of the day which often got in the way of getting the best for their trade Union Members. Today’s trade Unionist at the Body plant might moan at the conditions they face working there. However under BMW the plant has seen proper investment and is no longer the rat infested hell hole it was throughout the 1970’s. I found Thornets side kick Tony Richardson a very likeable person whose intentions were good both inside and outside work. I was never convinced that his politics would do anything to change the world of work. We are all very simply wage slaves. Until we retire.

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