Why the 70s shop stewards lost

Submitted by Matthew on 8 November, 2017 - 11:00 Author: Jim Denham

For a brief period in the 1970s, Derek Robinson (who has died, aged 90) was widely regarded as the most powerful trade unionist in Britain.

The so-called “Red Robbo” wasn’t a full-time official. He was a shop steward (albeit a senior steward, allowed time off by management, to devote himself full-time, to union duties).

I was a shop steward at the same car plant as Robinson (Longbridge, Birmingham) in the 1970s, and was one of those who went on the picket line when he was sacked in 1979. If some of what I say about Derek seems harsh, it’s because it’s essential we learn the political lessons of his downfall and that of the shop stewards’ movement. I have never doubted or questioned Derek’s personal integrity nor his commitment to trade unionism, socialism, and the working class. Although we frequently clashed, when we occasionally met in later years Derek was unfailingly friendly and unsectarian.

When the company went bust the Wilson government promptly nationalised it.

The response of Wilson’s government differed dramatically from that of Blair’s which presided over the terminal decline and eventual closure of Longbridge (under Rover) between 2000 and 2005. This can be explained in part by the rise of neoliberal economics and the corresponding transformation in official Labour politics. But abstract ideology is not the decisive factor (after all, Heath’s Tory government nationalised Rolls Royce in 1971). The crucial factor is the strength of the organised working class and, specifically, within the threatened workplaces. And in 1974 our class was strong and the Longbridge plant was probably the most powerfully organised (as well as the largest) workplace in Britain.

Longbridge had been gradually unionised after the Second World War. Communist Party (CP) members played a central, and in many ways admirable, role. The plant’s first recognised union convenor, Dick Etheridge, was a CP member and in those days it seemed a natural step for active, militant trade unionists in the plant to join the Party. By the 1960s, the Party had a factory branch numbering around 50, and sales of the Daily Worker (later Morning Star) inside the plant (not on the gates) were in the hundreds. Management once tried to prevent sales by seizing a bundle, but were forced to back down by immediate strike action.

The CP’s influence went far beyond its formal membership and permeated the Joint Shop Stewards’ Committee (JSSC), numbering around 500 stewards from the AEU, TGWU, Vehicle Builders, Electricians and the multitude of smaller white and blue collar manufacturing unions like the Sheet Metal Workers.

Apart from a few bastions of right-wing (or “apolitical”) trade unionism, the shop stewards’ movement at Longbridge was dominated by the ideas of the CP, even though the Party never had a majority of card carrying members on the JSSC.

When, in the late 1960s and early 70s, the old British Motor Corporation merged with Standard-Triumph and Leyland to form the giant British Leyland Motor Corporation, the influence of the Longbridge-based CP stewards spread throughout the whole combine. The only organised opposition was the much smaller number of Trotskyist and semi-Trotskyist stewards grouped around the Socialist Labour League in the Cowley Morris plant.

By now, Etheridge had retired and handed the convenor’s job to his protégé, Derek Robinson. When I worked at the plant Etheridge was still remembered with affection even by people with no political sympathy for the CP. Feelings about Robinson tended to be less enthusiastic. In Etheridge’s day the CP’s role was to be the best and most conscientious union organisers at shop floor level — a task they combined with low-key Stalinist propaganda. When Robinson took over in the early 70s he was immediately faced with a series of crises that demanded political answers and exposed the underlying weaknesses of the CP’s approach.

First, there was the question of the abolition of piece-work and the introduction of measured day work (MDW). The shop stewards’ movement throughout the motor industry had been built around the piece-work system: stewards determined staffing levels, arranged work patterns, negotiated the “price for the job” and, ultimately, their effectiveness could be judged by the weekly wage packet. Piece-work had many draw-backs, but it did at least ensure that stewards were directly accountable to their members and it gave the union a central role in determining the link between work and payment.

Robinson and the CP supported the introduction of MDW, dismissing the widespread shop-floor opposition as “short-sighted”, “money-militancy” and (the ultimate put-down in those days) the work of “a bunch of Trots”.

What they didn’t understand was the vital part piece-work played in keeping the stewards’ movement in touch with the membership. Bureaucratic arrogance and high-handed dismissal of shop-floor opinion was to characterise the CP’s approach throughout the 70s and finally led to Robinson’s downfall.

Nevertheless between 1971 and 1978 it seemed that Robinson and the CP had been right — the workforce enjoyed the security that came with MDW whilst retaining the mutuality and shop-floor organisation that had been built up under piece-work. It seemed like the best of both worlds. Meanwhile, a much bigger crisis was looming: in 1974 the company faced bankruptcy.

The Wilson government decided to nationalise the firm, but the price for the workforce was to be acceptance of the Ryder Report. Ryder recommended bailing out the company but insisted upon far-reaching “rationalisation” of work practices, with the aim of achieving speed-up of production and a “slimming down” of the workforce, though this last point was not spelt out in any detail.

These proposals stood little chance of success without the co-operation of the shop stewards’ movement and thus was born “participation”. This was a comprehensive scheme to involve stewards, convenors and officials in joint committees with management at almost every level of the company from the shop floor to national level — except that Ryder made it clear that management would retain the final say and full decision-making power.

The shop floor overwhelmingly saw “participation” for what it was: a scheme designed to take stewards off the shop floor and draw them into an unequal “partnership” with management.

Robinson and the CP went for the scheme in a big way. As with Measured Day Work, shop-floor opposition was dismissed as an unprincipled alliance of “money militants”, right-wingers and the hated “Trots”. Robinson (in an infamous pamphlet of 1975, written jointly with CP theoretician Jon Bloomfield) went so far as to describe participation as “a step towards workers’ control”.

Robinson and the CP argued now that the company had been nationalised the workforce had a duty to pull their weight and make a go of it. Robinson and the Longbridge Works Committee clamped down on unofficial strikes (“downers”) and insisted that the disputes procedure was kept to at all times. “Continuous production” became the gospel propounded by the CP and by Leyland management alike.

When, in 1977, toolmakers throughout Leyland struck for a wage claim that in practice challenged phase two of the Labour government’s Social Contract, Robinson and the CP joined forces with the AUEW Executive and the bosses in denouncing the toolmakers and breaking their strike.

The behaviour of Robinson and the CP was not the result of individual treachery or corruption (though that was often how it was regarded on the shop floor): it stemmed from a fundamentally bureaucratic political philosophy that equated nationalisation with socialism and regarded the spontaneous actions of the shop floor with suspicion and hostility. The result of all this for the shop stewards’ movement throughout British Leyland (and in Longbridge especially) was nothing short of disastrous. Stewards were seen as little more than the bosses’ policemen and an enormous gulf of distrust and cynicism opened up between the plant-based union organisation and the membership.

The rest of the story is tragic history: at the end of 1977 Labour appointed a proven union-basher called Michael Edwardes as chairman of British Leyland. Edwardes immediately announced 40,000 redundancies and the closure of 13 plants. Shop meetings throughout Longbridge voted to oppose the Edwardes plan and yet at the official presentation of the plan the Longbridge senior stewards (along with most other BL union representatives) gave Edwardes a standing ovation!

Edwardes must have realised that the majority of senior stewards in British Leyland were severely out of touch with their members. He dispensed with the soft-soap Ryder approach, drove a coach and horses through participation and, finally (with Thatcher’s Tories now in power), thanked Derek Robinson for his past co-operation by sacking him on a trumped-up charge in November 1979.

The Robinson sacking (in which the Duffy/Boyd leadership of the AEU was complicit) was a traumatic blow to union organisation in Longbridge and throughout BL. In fact, it was nearly a death blow: Leyland bosses gave serious consideration to the idea of withdrawing union recognition throughout the Group and creating a company union. Probably because they realised that they already had a de facto company union in the AEU, they pulled back. But they had won a decisive victory and followed it up with a purge of militants and left-wingers at Longbridge and Cowley in the early 1980s.

Union organisation in the company survived but never recovered and was powerless, when in 2000, the then-owners, BMW, “sold” (for the token sum of £10!) Rover Cars and the Longbridge plant to the dodgy asset-strippers of the Phoenix Consortium, who renamed it MG Rover Group.

Many financial commentators claimed that the plant was not modern enough and that the company would run out of money within a few years. In April 2005, this happened; the Phoenix Consortium put the MG Rover group into administration, leaving more than 6,000 workers without jobs.

The virtual collapse of the British Leyland shop stewards’ movement was not inevitable: it happened because a tremendous strength built up under piecework was frittered away in participation committees; because stewards lost their roots in the shop-floor and became petty bureaucrats. Most of all, it happened because the dominant politics of the movement (i.e., the CP) had no answer to the financial crisis of the company beyond giving full support to everything that flowed from the Ryder Report. In the mid-70s they had the strength and (for a while) the shop-floor support to fight for real workers’ control.

The tragic collapse was down to politics, not personal weakness or (as some shop floor workers occasionally suggested) personal corruption. The best of these people – Derek Robinson, for instance – were in fact personally principled and even courageous individuals, who devoted the best years of their lives to trade unionism and socialism, as they understood it.
So I feel I can say now, without any hypocrisy, farewell comrade Derek: you fought for what you believed in and you never sold out.


Submitted by Janet on Sun, 19/11/2017 - 03:32

I'm guessing that this from Jim Denham "Edwardes must have realised that the majority of senior stewards in British Leyland were severely out of touch with their members. He dispensed with the soft-soap Ryder approach, drove a coach and horses through participation" is what the Economist obituary tells like this : "Mr Robinson’s forte was haranguing mass meetings on windswept playing fields, with strike votes taken instantly by an intimidating show of hands. But in 1979 British Leyland’s new boss, Michael Edwardes, balloted the workers directly (and secretly) on modernisation plans, gaining a seven-to-one majority for drastic job cuts in exchange for investment."
I'm also interested in this story for its similarities (though many differences) with the way Australian manufacturing unions promoted and enforced a national Prices and Incomes Accord, essentially out of fear of growing unemployment. Promises of investment, leading to jobs, weigh very persuasively to workers generally and union leaders in particular. There is nothing beneficial to employees in their employer going bust. It's not so hard to come up with general demands against unemployment - shorter hours, nationalisation, decent unemployment benefits - but in the maelstrom of uncertainty about being able to earn a living - there's a profusion of cases of unions submitting to capital. What efforts if any, were made through the 1970s, from an independent working class perspective, to anticipate and avert job losses from the coming demise of car manufacturing?

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