How Thatcher smashed the unions

September 23, 1998

Inside Cowley
By Alan Thornett
Porcupine Press, London, 1998
408pp (pb), £17.45

Review by James Vassilopoulos

Inside Cowley contains a thousand lessons for trade union militants. It explains how British PM Margaret Thatcher got away with taming the English trade union movement.

In the 1970s, the British unions were thriving. About 50% of all workers were members, there was a robust shop stewards movement, and delegate structures were bursting with life and energy. Within 10 years, the movement had lost half its members and was politically defeated.

Inside Cowley is about Alan Thornett's day to day experiences — between 1974 and 1984 — at the Leyland car plant in the Oxford suburb of Cowley. Through these experiences, the major issues that confronted the union movement at the time are discussed.

Thornett was a militant unionist and revolutionary socialist. His leadership and activism on the job resulted in him being elected to a number of union positions. He was the shop steward of the drivers at the Cowley plant, deputy Transport and General Workers Union convener (a full-time position), chairperson of the TGWU branch, and chairperson of the Joint Shop Stewards Committee.

He began as a member of the Communist Party, then joined the Socialist Labour League (later known as the Workers Revolutionary Party) led by Gerry Healy. He is now a leader of the group which produces the newspaper Socialist Outlook, and is affiliated to the Trotskyist Fourth International.

One of Thornett's main arguments is that the vibrant and grassroots union movement of the 1970s was undermined by the union bureaucracy, in cahoots with the British Labour Party (BLP).

The BLP attempted to control the unions, with mixed success. The union bureaucracy "cut the branch it was sitting on", disarming the workers' movement and rendering it unable to fend off attacks by the Tories only a few years later.

British Labour Party

In 1977, the Labour government offered firefighters a 10% wage increase, rather than the 30% the firefighters were demanding, to compensate for the high inflation rate. Troops were called in to do the work of firefighters. The Trades Union Council (TUC) voted to call the firefighters back to work.

Meanwhile, Thornett was conducting his own struggles at Cowley — not just against the Leyland bosses, but also against the media and conservative trade union officials. The union tops support for management victimisation of militants, including Thornett, opened the door to later Tory sorties on workers.

Wherever the left ran branches of the union, the right-wing of the union used every dirty trick in the book, and many not in the book, to undermine the militants. For example, they created new right-controlled union branches to neutralise left-controlled local branches.

A meeting of the TGWU Oxford Automotive Committee was held to elect a delegate to a national TGWU conference. Nine people voted for the left candidate and eight for the right. The right-wing chairperson announced the result as eight all, which included his vote. He then voted a second time, and declared the right candidate elected.

Despite the BLP's attempts, in 1978 many unions remained independent. There were a number of strikes, including at Ford, in the public sector and by the civil service unions. The capitalist class decided there was no longer a need for a Labour government, which had shown it could not keep the lid on trade union struggles.

The "winter of discontent" brought down the Labour government. According to Thornett, the main lesson the TUC drew from this was that militant action had to be lessened if Labour was to get back into office, not that Labour's pro-business policies needed to be changed.

Thatcher elected

When Thatcher was elected in 1979, tens of thousands rallied against her: 50,000 protested against her racist immigration laws; 50,000 protested in favour for women's right to choose abortion; and thousands fought cuts to the public sector.

Many people on the left are aware of the defeat of the miners' union in 1985, but few know of the major industrial and political battles that precipitated the defeat.

In 1980, the steel strike was the first national strike against the Tories. The steelworkers went for a 17% pay increase (the inflation rate was 20%) and fought to protect jobs. British Steel offered 2%, and proposed plant closures and 52,000 redundancies.

The steelworkers fought hard. Huge pickets were mounted at some sites, like Hadfield's in Sheffield, and flying pickets were organised against private sector steel users.

After a 13-week battle, the workers won a 19% wage increase (including 5% for productivity trade-offs), but thousands of jobs were lost. It was a victory for the government. The main reason for the partial defeat was the isolation of the steelworkers.

Following this, the Tories moved to beef up anti-union laws by outlawing solidarity strikes and picketing. The TUC's response has to call a national day of action, in which 250,000 people marched in 130 cities. But there was no follow-up action and the anti-union legislation was passed.

By October 1981, the Tories were on the nose. The Social Democratic Party-Liberal Alliance was scoring 59% in opinion polls. The Tories announced new anti-worker legislation, which included outlawing unions from engaging in political action, allowing employers to sack and selectively redeploy workers, and sequestrating unions' assets if they broke industrial laws.

The union tops failed to call for strike action. Instead, they adopted a position of "non-cooperation" with the act. If a union was attacked, the TUC promised to support it.

In the meantime, an earth-shaking event occurred — Britain went to war with Argentina. This was the perfect diversion for the unpopular government. A short, sharp war — oozing with nationalism — which Britain could not lose.

In the first major test of the Tory's legislation, railway workers launched an all-out strike to stop trade-offs in working conditions. The strike was solid and picket lines were respected.

The TUC called a general council meeting, ordered the workers back to work and warned that if the strikers did not obey, the rail union would be suspended from the TUC. The union was forced to accept defeat and go back to work.

TUC betrayal

The TUC "non-cooperation" with the act turned into a cynical betrayal. The rationale was that the strike must end to get Labour re-elected.

Thatcher was re-elected in a landslide in 1983 and worse was to come for the union movement. The next major industrial stoush was in the printing industry, between the National Graphical Association and Eddie Shah, the owner of the Stockport Messenger.

Shah won an injunction to have the union remove a picket line but the union refused. The union was fined £150,000 for contempt of court. The picket line at Warrington was attacked by 3000 riot police. The cops broke the line, chased people into neighbouring fields and beat them up.

A further fine of £375,000 was imposed and the union's assets were sequestrated. The union called a 24-hour strike and went to the TUC for support, citing its pledge to defend any union under attack.

The TUC decided not to support the printers — a move warmly welcomed by Thatcher. Thornett's describes the TUC's decision as a "total collapse in front of the anti-union laws without a shot being fired — a defining moment in the history of the British trade union movement."

Thatcher now knew that she could pick off each union one by one. The coalminers were next in line, followed by Murdoch's attack on the newspaper printers.

The Australian union movement stands where the British movement did at the time of the steelworkers' strike. It is faced with two paths — surrender or launch a fight back.

Either the trade unions rally behind the next group of workers attacked by the Howard government, or each union that is singled out will be isolated and lose.

[Inside Cowley is available from PO Box 1109, London N4 2UU. Cheques for £17.45 sterling (including postage) should be made payable to Alan Thornett.]

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