How British Labor Declined: Cowley from the Inside

Sheila Cohen

Inside Cowley: Trade Union Struggle in the 1970s by Alan Thornett (London: Porcupine Press, 1998) 407 pages, $20 paperback.)

IN CONTRAST TO the labor movement in the United States, disastrously bureaucratized and formalized from the 1950s on, the British working class entered the 1970s with a strong and extensive network of rank-and-file workplace organization. In the late 1990s, though a significant residue of that organization remains, the British labor movement has been beaten down into something more akin to the American situation.

There are many facets to this loss of effective organization. The neoliberal agenda is of course paramount, but along with this goes a failure by the labor movement itself to recognize the value and meaning of its own workplace-based organization. Inside Cowley provides an “insider” account of the process of, and reasons for, the disastrous decline of shop steward organization in the British workplace from the 1970s onwards.

The book’s relevance for the American labor activist and supporter is not necessarily in the fine detail, but in the overall message that the very lifeblood of effective trade unionism, and thus ultimately class struggle, is the presence of a consciously independent and democratic activist network in the workplace.

Inside Cowley is the second in a two-part “personal and political history”** by autoworker-turned-Trotskyist Alan Thornett, who was pilloried as the “Red Mole” for his leadership of shopfloor struggles in the 1970s and finally sacked in 1982 in a clear case of anti-union victimization. The auto plant in Oxford, then locally owned, where Thornett was taken on as a new recruit in the mid-’50s was to become part of British Leyland and is now, in its latest incarnation, a joint venture between Rover Cars and BMW.

Thornett was almost immediately radicalized by the plant’s tough conditions and spent a brief period in the Communist Party before seeking out something stronger than the CP’s conformist politics. Swiftly snapped up by the Healyite group the Socialist Labour League (now WRP), he became in turn disillusioned with its sectarianism and sought other political outlets, while remaining loyal to revolutionary politics and Trotskyism in particular.

Most pertinent to the present book, however, is Thornett’s record as a staunch fighter for his members’ rights, both as Deputy Convenor (senior steward) and later, when removed from that post by a combination of management and union maneuvers, steward of his truck driver section.

A clear set of issues resounds consistently throughout Thornett’s account of plant-based struggles in the 1970s and 1980s. They are, in roughly this order: the persistence of grassroots militancy; the gradual undermining of shop steward organization in the workplace; the key part played in this process by ideologies of “partnership,” specifically in its 1970s British form of “worker participation”; and the role of left reformism—from the CP influence in the plants to the misplaced Labour Party loyalties of the transport union’s leadership—in allowing this fatal weakening of rank-and-file influence and democracy.

Fighting Spirit

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Thornett’s account, to those of us accustomed to the relative fearfulness and passivity of today’s labor movement, is the obdurate militancy displayed by the rank-and-file union membership in the plant—a grassroots strength and fighting spirit that had not yet been eroded by the employer offensives and “partnership,” ideologies of later years. Yet in almost all cases this gut-level class reaction was being demonstrated against the weight of local official and even “lay” (plant-based) union leaderships—the same forces responsible for the earlier advent of constitutionalism and “business unionism” in the United States.

An early example Thornett provides of this intransigence is worker defense of the “mutuality agreement” negotiated at a high point of shopfloor strength in 1971 —though this followed on the introduction of Measured Day Work (MDW), itself a significant management move to regain control over the “wage drift” and worker management of job times developed under the previous piecework system.

“Mutuality” was a classic instance of workplace resistance locked into the structures of the labor process. The agreement required management to obtain prior “mutual” agreement by stewards on the section over the timing and organization of any new or changed job; “under it every change in track speed required the negotiation of a new agreement between management and stewards, based on a mutually-agreed `fair effort.’” Hard to envisage under present-day conditions in any auto plant!

Predictably, management moved against this agreement as soon as possible by unilaterally changing track speeds, along with a seventeen percent reduction in the workforce—an imposition met with immediate resistance, including a sit-in strike by women trim shop workers infuriated at the demand for a thirty percent increase in work effort above their already “astounding” rates of productivity.

This is only the first of a series of a struggles recounted throughout the book, from an “explosion of militancy” over an early “Quality” initiative to strikes against government incomes policy and, not least, action in defense of the right of Thornett and other left stewards to represent their members in the face of unremitting attacks by both management and bureaucracy.

Moving into the 1980s, Cowley workers continued to show an astonishing degree of intransigence in the face of job cuts, inadequate pay agreements and, eventually, the inevitable “flexibility” package (first proposed in 1980). Despite an apparently crippling series of defeats, strikes burst out in the plant over labor intensification in 1983 and over the 1984-5 wages review.

To get at the origin for the defeat of these struggles, however, we have to return to one early and particularly impressive example of worker resistance. The early (1975) introduction of “Workers’ Participation,” for which British Leyland seems to have been something of a guinea-pig, was stoutly resisted not only by consciously left stewards like Thornett but also by rank-and-file workers, who were “more skeptical of participation than most stewards. They saw it as drawing the stewards into cozy chats with management rather than dealing with their problems on the shop floor.” (115)

This instinctive class consciousness, sustained when members strongly supported a left stewards’ boycott of the committee elections, was however frustrated by the eager embrace of the scheme by a section of the workplace leadership along with full-time union officials. The worker participation proposals were integrated into a wide-ranging reorganization of the company proposed in the Ryder Report commissioned by the then Labour government, and union leaders rushed to support the “rescue” of the still-nationalized company through a series of restructuring proposals.

Thornett comments wryly that “Apart from the far left, and probably the majority of the British Leyland blue collar workforce, [my emphasis—SC] the [Ryder] report was widely welcomed. The government, the management, the TUC and the trade union leaders, and the Communist Party all supported it.” (97)

Theorizing Workers’ Role in Restructuring

This incorporationist perspective was, as Thornett shows, centrally responsible for the long-term weakening of workplace and ultimately union strength throughout the company. But the inclusion of the Communist Party in Thornett’s account is perhaps particularly significant for this analysis.

While already fatally influenced by creeping Eurocommunism, the British CP retained an impressive phalanx of industrial militants and workplace union activists in its membership—which is why its disastrous support for incorporation and “participation” mattered as much as it did to the British labor movement. Yet Thornett’s account presents a scathing indictment of the central role of the CP both in the “theorizing” of worker participation and in its work-intensifying, union-undermining practice.

Even before worker participation itself was introduced, response to the original Ryder Report by a union subcommittee including three prominent CP convenors “produced a highly contentious document based on the need to make the company profitable.” (90) On worker participation itself, Thornett recounts how a CP pamphlet “British Leyland—Save It!” defended the concept while making a somewhat back-handed reference to the skepticism of the workforce:

@9QUOTEFIRST = Amongst the labour force there is a certain suspicion, a feeling that being involved in management decisions “isn’t our job.” Yet to argue that means a permanently subordinate place for workers in industry and that trade unions should only “react” to management decisions. Participation offers opportunities to extend workers’ power and democratic control in a publicly owned industry. It could set an example for democratic advance elsewhere (quoted by Thornett, 113)

The CP’s classic illusions in “worker democracy” within the decidedly capitalist context of BL (dominant despite the fact that the company was still at least formally nationalized at the time) were, of course, swiftly belied by the reality of the scheme. Thornett shows how, from its beginnings, the real meaning of worker participation was increased productivity, suppression of strikes and, before long, devastating job losses.

The inaugural meeting in early 1976 of the joint worker-management body, the Cars Council, not only activated a secret section of the Ryder Report calling for the closure of four plants employing 2,700 workers, but also issued a statement to the Leyland workforce calling on them to stop strikes and massively increase productivity—to ten percent higher than standards already set by management.

Later the same year, the consistent CP role in backing all forms of incorporation was further illustrated by CP Convenor Derek Robinson’s backing of a management move against strikes by issuing a statement within his plant which condemned the current “rash of unofficial disputes” as “complete anarchy.” (162)

Long before the facade of “participation” was finally demolished under Michael Edwardes, the Tory-favored Chief Executive parachuted in by the Labour government in 1977 to deliver a dose of capitalist realism to the beleaguered company, it had been clear that any real decisions were made behind the backs of the Cars Council. But by this time the damage was done: not in terms of any rank-and-file ideological conversion to “participation,” but simply through the local union leadership’s obdurate refusal to support the independent class-based stance held by Thornett and other left stewards on behalf of their members.

The basic left reformist approach of “loyalty” to the company transcending any commitment to defending basic working-class interests (with the CP’s particular mixture of Stalinism and incipient Eurocommunism at the time giving it the edge in ideological distortion and manipulation) was instrumental not only in backing “participation” but also in the astounding support given to Edwardes’ openly confrontational program of job cuts and plant closures.

Rather than outrage and opposition, Edwardes’ opening announcement of cuts amounting to at least 100 million pounds and resulting in the initial loss of at least 12,000 jobs was greeted with a standing ovation led by two plant convenors—one of whom, CP loyalist Derek Robinson, was later to be sacked under Edwardes’ regime.

Thornett sums up the dynamic: While “Edwardes represented a sharp turn to class war management . . . The conditions created by the period of worker participation in Leyland were …. to be the biggest single asset Edwardes was to inherit as he started his new job. The unions had been softened up and undermined and he was soon in a position to exploit this weakness to the full.” (235)

Undermining Shop-Floor Power

It is in this picaresque tale of concession and defeat that the two main dimensions of Thornett’s analysis of the undermining of shopfloor trade unionism come together. Thornett rightly gives “attacks on the shop floor by fulltime officials” equal prominence with the more subtle processes involved in worker participation. The consistent hostility by dominant elements in the local union leadership towards the workers’ continuing struggle to defend their basic class interests expressed itself both in the continual harassment of the more militant stewards and also—even more dangerously—in what can only be called a sell out of struggle after struggle mounted by the shop floor.

In 1977, for example, management’s response to the annual pay claim in a Security of Earnings document proposing a no-strike clause and a common wage review date (a first step towards corporate bargaining) was rejected almost unanimously by shop stewards and workers. At the mass meetings plant convenors (chief shop stewards) called to recommend acceptance, “the treatment the proposals got. . . was even worse” in terms of raucous opposition that sent at least one convenor packing. Nevertheless, this militant resistance was ignored by local fulltime and national officials who accepted the offer without further consultation.

Similarly, intransigent opposition to Edwardes’ proposed closure of the a Liverpool plant in 1979 was neutralized by national union involvement in the initial (secret) closure decision and the refusal of the stewards’ Combine Committee, by then almost entirely “sidelined by participation” (254), to decisively support a strategy of occupation. Instead, the convenors’ strategy, led by a CP member, was to “return to work to fight the closure.”

Not surprisingly, within three months “. . . the sellout came into the open. The Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions (CSEU)—whose job was establishing minimum conditions in the engineering industry, not redundancy terms in BL—voted to accept . . . (257). The significance of the decision was not only to smash the Liverpool workforce but also to provide the “breakthrough” (269) for Edwardes’ sweeping program of ultimately 25,000 jobs cuts.

The defeat of the fight against Derek Robinson’s own sacking was the final ironic note of this shambles of compromise and confusion. As in so many previous confrontations, Robinson’s fellow-convenors fatally delayed issuing a clear call for a strike and instead confined their official response to rallies and demonstrations, which allowed the sacking to stand.

As Thornett puts it (generously given Robinson’s role), “Edwardes had won not because BL workers would not defend Derek Robinson. He won as a result of some of the worst treachery seen in the trade union movement for a long time. Behind it was not just the right-wing control of the AUEW [engineers—Robinson’s union] but “the role of the unions over the recovery plan, and the attitude of the union leaders to BL over several years . . . . They were caught on the viability argument which made them vulnerable to management at each crucial point.” (314)

Thornett’s comment captures the dynamic which was to produce today’s at least temporary paralysis of shopfloor struggle and organization at Leyland. Equally central to this process was the unremitting attack on left stewards, beginning with management’s derecognition of Thornett as Deputy Convenor in 1974. That derecognition was allowed to stand through the refusal of local officials to back strike action, and continued with the derecognition of four stewards in 1976 for holding “unauthorized” membership meetings—an action fully supported by the local fulltime official.

The attacks culminated in the sacking of nine workers, four of them stewards, in 1980 for “rioting” in the Longbridge plant over layoffs and continually deteriorating working conditions. In 1982 Thornett was sacked. The collaboration of the local union leadership in this offensive is recounted in a number of anecdotes which, despite their serious results, provide some entertaining passages. In one typical episode, the majority Thornett had won in a union meeting was “miscounted” by the chair, who then used his casting vote to back the decision and closed the meeting on the grounds of the ensuing “disruptive” uproar! (142)

The sustained militancy, class instinct and loyalty to trade union democracy of workplace union members, contrasted with the corporate ideology and bureaucratic manueuverings of the union leadership, do indeed form a central—and convincing—theme in Thornett’s account. His conclusion poignantly sums up these years of struggle:

@9QUOTEFIRST = (T)he workers of BL Cars, in Cowley and elsewhere .. . demonstrated their capacity, time and again . . . to take on management and defend their conditions. They always inspired confidence in the ability of the working class as a whole to determine its own destiny. When the BL workers were defeated it was generally because the leadership of the unions on which they relied . . . abandoned their interests or joined the other side . . . . It’s hard not to quote [a fellow steward]: “Lions led by donkeys.” (380)

Deep Roots of Reformism

So, does this bear out what has been seen by many of Trotsky’s followers as his classic Trotskyist thesis of instinctively class-conscious workers “sold out” by treacherous union bureaucrats? Such a perception apparently supported by statements like “The multimillioned masses again and again enter the road of revolution. But each time they are blocked by their own conservative machines” (1938 Transitional Program, “The Proletariat and Its Leaderships”).

In a way, of course, yes. What is missing from any such conclusion (which I am not suggesting is Thornett’s) is the more complex recognition that the ideology of even the most militant rank-and-file worker—or indeed steward—is, within capitalism, intrinsically reformist.

The potentially “revolutionary,” or at least highly subversive, actions of the workforce are in implicit contrast to this “default” ideology which, while not necessarily an immediate force in stifling grassroots action, operates in two long-term ways to the detriment of the movement: firstly the restriction of militant shopfloor consciousness to at least partially sectional and “economistic” levels, and secondly through the incorporation of shopfloor militants as they rise in the union hierarchy.

The process of transformation within the movement from fire-breathing activist to paunchy bureaucrat is familiar, but the crucial issue is how this process can be stopped. Despite Thornett’s accurate assessment of the undermining of shopfloor organization as “sawing off the branch you’re sitting on” (378), his own analysis avoids any far-reaching consideration of the contradictions and potential of grassroots worker consciousness and organization.

Rather, like so many socialists, when Thornett addresses politics he does so with a capital “P”: as something part of an agenda which necessarily supersedes everyday issues of workplace exploitation.

Despite his own trenchant argument that “A socialist framework would start with the independent interests of the working class” (103), the implications of this in terms of starting a process of political organization and education with such interests as represented in everyday workplace issues are countered by his claim a few pages later that defending class interests “involves the struggle by the working class for political and state power . . . winning the mass of the working class to such a perspective, and the building of a political party capable of leading the working class in challenging capital.” (106)

While ultimately true, this misses the central question: How to get from here to there? The class consciousness that exudes from Thornett’s account of his members’ struggles is, to use the classic Marxist terminology, still closer to that of a class in itself than to a class for itself. Yet the beginnings of the transition from the first to the second lie in the roots of the “economistic” struggles that sent those workers time and again to bang their heads against the apparent brick wall of an intransigent management.

For all the class loyalty and worker democracy displayed by workers in this context, it was these concrete material issues rather than any explicitly political agenda that placed them on the starting line of a socialist consciousness—a position not immediately advanced by any openly revolutionary “program” and certainly not by the gruesome sectarian distortions of Thornett’s own original Trotskyist group (which he had the good sense to leave in 1974).

Yet Thornett’s own recipe for advance, aimed also at undoing the depredations of the CP, remains that of “build[ing] an alternative which would not play its negative role.” (377) In its lack of any transitional perspective for bringing out the inherent political potential of worker resistance, this remains only too typical of the left even in its most worker-oriented form—at least in Britain.

The same problem, in another sense, is reflected in the lack of any analysis of the dynamic of union leadership and ideology in terms of the recurrent left-to-right trajectory described above. While Thornett and his fellow stewards could have done very little other than fight the fight they were waging, given the entrenched position of local union bureaucrats and in particular the historic role of the Communist Party, these massive obstacles call for assessment and analysis. What perspective can consciously address itself to stemming such seamless moves from gut-level militancy to cooperation, compromise and betrayal?

By contrast, some current U.S. union reform movements, aimed at fighting union bureaucracy and organizing for members’ interests from within the union, are showing increasing awareness of this dynamic. Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), the pace-setter for such movements, is perhaps particularly impressive in terms of its conscious work towards strengthening the links between activists and membership around issues reflecting their basic class interests—ultimately, the only defense against such incorporation.

While Thornett’s book provides a magnificent and fascinating portrayal of the details of workplace exploitation and struggle, it would be encouraging to feel that some of these lessons might be learnt, or at least considered, by a leading union-based voice on the British left.

ATC 77, November-December 1998