Militant years in the car industry


Resistance Books has just published Alan Thornett’s new book Militant Years on the struggles of car workers in the Cowley plants and beyond in the militant period of the 1960s and 1970s. You can order it here.

There was an enthusiastic launch last night (Wednesday)  in Ruskin College Oxford. The book launch was chaired, in a personal capacity, by the Unite convenor from the BMW plant in Cowley, who had already read the book and was extremely complimentary about it.

60 people attended including both the convenor and deputy convenor of the plant along with 10 Unite shop stewards. The audience included workers from the plant past and present and other activists from the Oxford labour movement including workers from the CWU. 30 copies of Militant Years were sold at the meeting.

The BMW Unite branch had already bought some copies and are making them available from the union office in the plant. The CWU branch has also ordered copies.

Alan was interviewed about his book for the new issue of Socialist Resistance.

He began work in the plant in 1959 becoming a shop steward for the lorry drivers, deputy TGWU convenor for the plant, chair of the Joint Shop Stewards’ Committee and of the TGWU branch.

This new book is a radical representation of material he published in the 80s and 90s made far more accessible to a contemporary readership and with important new material added.

SR. Why have you re-published your account of car workers’ struggles in the 60s and 70s at this time?

AT. I wrote the original account of these struggles soon after I was sacked from the Cowley Assembly Plant in 1982, and later published it in From Militancy to Marxism (in 1987) and Inside Cowley (in 1998). Those books, however, are now too detailed and therefore a difficult read for a 21st century audience. Also, important new material has become available which adds to the picture.

Militant Years is much better. It’s a kind of industrial thriller detailing a series of pitched battles not only with management and successive governments but with trade union officials who were prepared to go to any lengths to and resort to any level of skulduggery — from kangaroo courts and disciplinary action to disinformation and ballot rigging — to stem the growth of militant trade unionism in the plant.

It is also timely given the emerging struggle against the cuts and what that implies for the unions.

SR. The struggles the book recounts took place in the 1960s and 1970s. This was a very different political period, wasn’t it?

AT. Yes, and a very important one. It was the highpoint of trade unionism in the 20th century, if measured by trade union membership and strike struggles. Union membership grew to 14 million and strike days averaged 16 million a year over the 19 years from 1968 until 1985 —with 23 million in 1982 and 29 million in 1969. The biggest ever improvement in wages and working conditions was brought about.

SR. So where did Cowley fit into this picture?

AT. Cowley was in the forefront of militant trade unionism for the whole of that period — as was the wider car industry. It was a major car making centre, with over 20,000 workers, and a microcosm of the wider trade union movement, in both a positive and a negative sense.

SR: When did militant trade unionism take hold in Cowley and what was the response of management?

AT. It started in the late 1950s. The reaction against it, however, was not just from management but from successive Governments.

During the 1966 election, for example, the Tories latched onto what they dubbed the ‘Cowley noose trial’. Seven workers, who had scabbed on a strike, were asked by a mass meeting to donate a day’s pay to charity. A media frenzy claimed that they had been ‘tried under a hanging noose’, that a ‘workers’ court’ had taken place and that a ‘soviet’ existed in the plant! The Tories denounced it as ‘Cowleyism’ and demanded that it be stamped out. After the election Harold Wilson ordered an inquiry into strikes in the plant.

By the end of the 60s the plant was amongst the most militant in the industry, averaging around 300 strikes a year. It was heavily involved in the struggle against Harold Wilson’s attempted anti-union laws In Place of Strife and then Edward Heath’s Industrial Relations Act, which led to the jailing of the Pentonville five.

SR. So when did Cowley become part of British Leyland and what difference did that make?

AT. British Leyland was formed in 1968 with a workforce of 190,000 and the Cowley plants were a part of it. The new management, under Lord Stokes, launched an offensive against the rising power of the unions.

The biggest challenge, however, came not with the change of management but the return of a Labour Government in February 1974— after Heath had been toppled by the miners. It meant that the trade union leaders — Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon in particular despite their left wing reputation — now lined up unambiguously with management.

SR. You were victimised yourself at that time.

AT. Yes. Management withdrew recognition from me as a shop steward and as deputy TGWU convenor soon after, in April 1974, accusing me of organising strikes and addressing unauthorised meetings. It led to a tumultuous strike by my own members, which shut down Cowley for a month. The strike — which saw the emergence of the anti-union ‘Cowley wives’ movement and Women in Support of the Union — ended with a compromise: I would be recognised as a sectional shop steward but not in a senior capacity.

SR. So what happened after that?

AT. After that TGWU officials managed to turn a union inquiry into management’s action against me into an attack on the elected leadership of the union in the plant. We were found guilty of bringing the union into disrepute, removed from office, and a right wing convenor installed with massive support from the media. It was three destructive years before the left won the leadership back. It was also the start of a ferocious eight-year witch hunt against militant shop stewards in the plant.

It was a remarkable situation. A militant shop floor movement, which had transformed employment conditions in the plant, was now repeatedly attacked by an alliance of unelected trade union officials and management.

When British Leyland was nationalised in 1975 there was a new attack. An extensive worker participation scheme was introduced, designed to draw the shop stewards into collaboration with management. Derek Robinson, Combine Committee Chair and Communist Party member, became its senior representative.

SR: What were the consequences of such collaboration?

AT. I can give a few examples:

In August 1976 Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon called a meeting of all their full time officials, under worker participation, and declared war on what they called ‘the enemy within’ — which was militant shop stewards in the British Leyland plants. A few days later when Cowley management victimised four shop stewards they bitterly opposed strike action in their defence.

When Michael Edwardes became chief executive of the company in November 1977 his first move, again under worker participation, was to call a conference of all plant managers and senior executives along with the union officials national and local and the convenors from the plants his first phase of 12,000 redundancies. The conference not only voted almost unanimously for his proposals but gave him a standing ovation at the end, led by the Combine Committee leaders.

Soon after this, Jones and Scanlon appeared on the front page of British Leyland’s house magazine, the Leyland Mirror, calling on Leyland workers to ‘KEEP WORKING’ — whatever difficulties exist or arise.

In February 1979 when 3,000 toolmakers struck over wage differentials Hugh Scanlon and the AUEW Executive not only opposed the strike but joined with management at a press conference to issue an ultimatum that they would all be sacked if they did not get back.

In September 1979 when Edwardes launched his second wave of closures and redundancies, this time the closure of 25 plants and sacking 25,000 workers, the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions (CSEU) not only supported the closure and sabotaged opposition to it, but called for a yes vote when Edwardes put it to a ballot. The result was a massive victory for Edwardes.

A week later Edwardes sacked Robinson. Despite massive support from within the plants Robinson was stabbed in the back by Terry Duffy the President of his own union. Robinson’s sacking was a huge blow to the trade union movement, and not just in British Leyland.

SR. So what are the most important lessons from all this?

AT. The first is that this was a massive lost opportunity. The 60s and 70s were the best opportunity in the post war period to strengthen and consolidate the unions and to tackle the historic weakness of the British movement – strong on organisation, weak on politics. It was a chance to start to forge a more political movement, which could go beyond Labourism.

This potential was clear in the battles against In Place of Strife and against the Industrial Relations Act – which had been led by an increasingly politicised shop stewards’ movement. It could also be seen in the many factory occupations of the 1970s and many other struggles.

Instead we had the defeat of the miners; followed by the seafarers, the printers and other sectors; the introduction of the Tory anti-union laws and the whole process was thrown into reverse.

Q. So what is the second lesson?

AT. When the trade union leaders were joining with the employers to attack and suppress militant trade unionism they were opening the door to the Thatcher onslaught of the second half of the 80s.

They were also preparing the ground for the defeat of the miners, which was arguably the most damaging defeat suffered by the trade unions in Britain in the 20th century. Twenty-five years later the unions have still hardly begun to recover.

By the end of the 1980s these ideas of class compromise were theorised into a new approach for the unions which was called ‘new realism’. This was the idea that resistance to the employers was impossible and that the only way was to work with them and try to get some crumbs from their table.

Q. You travelled a long way politically during that period — from a conservative background in agriculture to the Communist Party and the Socialist Labour League.

AT. Yes. A lot was made, by the media in particular, that we were Trotskyists and of course we were. The union establishment didn’t like it, of course, nor did the CP which was a part of the union establishment. But in the end the huge effort which was deployed against us was not motivated by our political affiliations but because of what we represented in terms of militant and effective trade unionism, though of course there was a close connection between our Trotskyist politics and our class struggle trade unionism.

Q. What are your regrets about that time?

AT. Our biggest failure was on the environment. We were unable along with most of the rest of the left to see the environment as the working class issue which it clearly is. We were productivists. We saw no problem in ever-expanding production and took little interest in the product we were producing: motor cars, or commodities of mass destruction as I would describe them today. Our concern was for wages and working conditions in the plant. If these were right we did not question what was produced.

In most other respects I would defend the record of the left in the plant. We were right to oppose the anti-union laws. We were right to fight for the highest wages and the best conditions. We were right to oppose worker participation in management and to defend the independence of the shop stewards’ movement. We were also right to fight for political trade unionism because workers could not take on either the employers or the government effectively without a political framework in which to do it.

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