Participation, resistance and betrayal among car workers

Ray M, a Unite rep, reads Militant Years (Resistance Books, 2011), Alan Thornett’s political memoir of his life as a radical car plant worker in Oxford – and draws out some political warnings about ‘participation’ then and ‘partnership’ today. Download a PDF here.

Top: BMW press picture of the last MINI Hatch leaving Plant Oxford in December 2013; bottom: photo of the last Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow body leaving Pressed Steel, Cowley, circa 1973 – ‘It was a sad day for us all as it meant goodbye to piecework.’

Militant Years is a tremendous biographical account of rank-and-file resistance at the Morris Motors assembly plant in Cowley, Oxford, which later became a part of British Leyland. The author Alan Thornett was a leading militant at Cowley until he was victimised and sacked in 1982.

Thornett was at various points a shop steward, convenor and chair of the factory’s Transport & General (T&G) union branch. He was also chair of plant’s shop stewards committee. He joined the factory workforce in 1959 and the Communist Party the following year.


In 1966 he and other shop stewards switch allegiance to the Socialist Labour League, the largest Trotskyist current in the left at the time, led by Gerry Healy. Thornett and his comrades were expelled from league in 1974, which went on to rename itself the Workers Revolutionary Party.

The assembly plant had a workforce of 12,000 in the 1960s, 100% unionised and led by an elected 300-strong shop stewards committee. The SLL boasted 109 members in the area, including 40 car plant shop stewards.

By 1964 Cowley boasted around 250 strikes a year. An official government inquiry found that atrocious working conditions were to blame. The intense pressure of working on the track was the main cause of unrest. Sections of the production line, each with its own shop stewards, would see flare-ups and walkouts. One section walking off tended to mean others being laid off as the impact of the production halt spread to other areas.

Alan Thornett in 2008

Physically demanding labour, sectional strength and socialist leadership made the assembly plant one of the most militant in the country, with the strike rate rising to 300 a year from 1968 to 1980.

Over the years this rank-and-file strength led to big improvements for at Cowley car workers, until their wages and conditions were among the best in Europe.

Production and politics

Workers also won significant control over much of the production process at Cowley. Piecework agreements gave shop stewards a veto over the pace of production: shop stewards negotiated the price for each job. If there was no deal workers would slow their work rate to the basic, drastically reducing production.

The ‘manning agreement’ gave the shop stewards control over staffing levels: any change to the job required negotiated changes to this agreement before the job could begin. The ‘movement of labour’ agreement regulated job allocation: workers could only be moved out of their department on the basis of seniority of service. Job allocation had previously been a lever for patronage and discipline. Now it was placed in the hands of shop stewards.

In 1967 a significant victory saw the end of the colour bar at the plant. Once Morris Motors had formal policy not to employ Black people. This had ended in the 1950s, but Black workers were still only employed in the cleansing department. Shop stewards successfully challenged this. By the end of the 1960s almost a fifth of workers in the assembly plant were Black.

This victory looks even more impressive in context. Racism was being stoked by the government and the National Front. Shop stewards had to fight against racism among workers in the plants as well as racist employment practices. The establishment of a significant Black minority at the plant was largely down to the efforts of socialist shop stewards. This was not lost on Black workers promoted from sweeping floors.

Battling a Labour government

Thornett gives graphic accounts of most important shopfloor struggles inside the plant, including a series of one-day political strikes against Labour’s anti-union legislation and the Tories’ subsequent Industrial Relations Act. But the book also gives a sobering reminder of how union officials can undermine rank-and-file revolt.

Barbara Castle

Thornett recalls the resistance to Barbara Castle’s anti-union laws of 1969, known as In Place Of Strife. Cowley’s stewards lobbyied the TUC to call a national one-day protest strike and persuaded the Oxford plant workers to join in.

This unofficial action kicked off a campaign of official strikes to ‘kill the bill’. At least 250,000 workers struck against a Labour government, effectively ending Castle’s plans.

Yet Castle’s diaries reveal that the same trade union chiefs who publicly attacked her white paper would support the proposals in private. It was organisation on the shop floor that wrecked In Place Of Strife. Castle had good reason to hope that trade union leaders would pull shop stewards into line.

So employers, government and union leaders had a common cause in undermining the power of elected shop stewards. Thornett powerfully demonstrates how far trade union officials, left and right, colluded with employers and the state to curb rank-and-file power.

An early defeat for shop stewards at Cowley came when management replaced piecework with Measured Day Work. Piecework involved a rate for each job, giving stewards significant bargaining power. MDW, in contrast, was a flat pay rate established via time and motion studies. MDW would speed up lines and eventually depress pay for car workers. A seven-week strike against MDW at Cowley ended in defeat at the end of 1970 when union officials caved in. This was a significant setback for shop stewards in the plant.

Breaking the power of the Trots

A large part of Thornett’s book details the fight against his own victimisation, which started in retaliation for a win by 150 drivers striking for a month. Thornett and other leading stewards were ambushed by an alliance of employers, the media – and the Cowley Wives, a group of workers’ wives. All demanded the militants be sacked.

T&G full-timers charged Thornett with bringing the union into disrepute and tried to expel him from the union. This was a crusade to ‘break the power of the Trots’, as David Buckle, the T&G regional officer responsible for Cowley, later reflected in his memoirs. ‘We did everything we possibly could to try to break the backs of these people.’

picture of David Buckle via Austin Rover Online
David Buckle via Austin Rover Online

The flimsy charges against Thornett and other stewards were joined by other tactics: kangaroo courts run by union bureaucrats; attempts to ban the left from steward meetings; ballot manipulation. All were part of a systematic campaign by union officials against the plant’s rank-and-file leadership.

The advent of ‘workers’ participation’

Thornett provides a detailed and convincing account of unnecessary compromises and betrayals by union officials that played a significant role in derailing the rank-and-file movement. But there were other important factors that also made major contributions to the setbacks.

We need to grasp these if we are to hope to come to terms with the problems that culminated in the defeat of rank-and-file organisation in car plants. Yet Thornett’s book says little about two key political relationships: that between shop stewards and ordinary union members, and that between the rank-and-file and the trade union bureaucracy.

Militant BL workers in the 1970s

British Leyland was formed in 1968 employing around 200,000 workers, with a further 500,000 in its supply chain. Its combined shop stewards committee drew together plant convenors from 15 different unions. It was the driving force in BL – and its influence was felt far beyond.

The car industry was strategically important, and car workers were one of the most combative sections of the working class. 40,000 engineers struck in 1972 in solidarity with miners. 10,000 joined the mass picket at Saltley gate, helping miners win a 20% pay rise. Car workers were at the crest of a rising tide of industrial struggle that would eventually drown Ted Heath’s 1970-74 Tory government.

Employers were forced to develop strategies to undermine and defeat independent rank-and-file leadership. When a Labour government was elected in 1974, national union leaders swung behind its policy of income controls. Meanwhile the rank-and-file was losing a crucial battle to prevent plant-level pay being replaced with corporate bargaining.

National corporate bargaining at BL was just one step in the ebbing of the shop stewards movement and its economic power. This began with national abolition of piece work. Convenors and full-time union officers would now negotiate wage deals.

In 1975, shortly after British Leyland’s nationalisation, ‘workers’ participation’ became union policy. The worker participation scheme at British Leyland was known as the Ryder Plan. It would suck senior stewards into collusion with management and neutralise shopfloor activism.

Undermining the shopfloor

Participation structures would increasingly provide an alternative structure to shop steward organisation, not least because of the Communist Party’s acceptance of the plan. The CP was influential in the car industry, having built a serious base in the preceding four decades. It was central to selling the Ryder Plan at BL to a layer of rank-and-file militants. A Communist Party pamphlet, British Leyland: Save It, argued that ‘the Communist Party not only considers these proposals of value and benefit to Leyland workers in the short term. We also believe they are of exceptional importance in the struggle for socialism.’

In practice worker participation made CP reps and convenors responsible for day-to-day implementation of management policy. This meant policing the workforce, dealing with strikes and enforcing ‘joint’ decisions.

In turn the three-tier participation structure (plant, divisional and national level) sought with some success to turn shop stewards into cheerleaders for competitiveness and speed-up. Soon key stewards like Derek Robinson, convenor at Longbridge and chair of the BL combine, were pronouncing in ‘joint’ reports that ‘we can grab that extra bit of the world markets and give ourselves the reputation we undoubtedly deserve.’

These committees would eventually allow BL bosses to foist responsibility for management decisions onto participating shop stewards, including decisions such as massive plant closures and job cuts.

Resistance to participation

Thornett recalls a wonderful story of workers resisting a 1975 attempt to implement participation. The Cowley Participation Committee decided to launch a ‘quality campaign’ on the Princess track – the most militant track in the plant. Princess workers would face immediate disciplinary action if their work was substandard.

Management soon suspended two track workers without pay on alleged quality grounds. The track walked out for two days. Participation Committee shop stewards met with striking workers to offer a ‘joint’ inquiry in return for a withdrawal of suspensions. But the strikers had no faith in the proposed inquiry. They voted to reject the proposal and go home for the rest of the day.

1978 advert for the Princess 2, a failed attempt to challenge the Ford Cortina

The next day workers discovered that the ‘joint’ inquiry had been set up anyhow. The track promptly downed tools and again met Participation Committee shop stewards. They denounced the inquiry, voting instead for a shop stewards’ inquiry into problems workers faced on the track. A further vote ruled that any more suspensions would be met by Princess workers closing down the North works until the suspensions were withdrawn.

A few days later two more workers were suspended. Princess workers downed tools and spread through the plant, building barricades across the other tracks. Within minutes the whole North works was at a standstill.

The Participation Committee convenor refused to meet the strikers, who decided to march to his office in South works anyway. He was locked inside guarded by management and security. Some workers got through a side window and emerged through the front a few minutes later trading insults with the convenor. An hour later, North works remained at a standstill and the convenor’s office under siege. Management caved in and withdrew the suspensions.

Sackings and closures

1975 saw the Ryder Report on BL establish corporate bargaining and participation bodies to prepare the way for a new boss, South African businessman Michael Edwardes. He was to make more ruthless use of ‘joint interest’ ideology.

Michael Edwardes

In 1977 Edwardes was given carte blanche to restore British Leyland to profitability and return it to the private sector. He scrapped the Ryder plan and launched a new initiative called Back From The Brink.

He unveiled it at the Kenilworth Hotel in Coventry to an audience of over 700 shop stewards, union officers, plant directors and managers. This kind of joint conference was unprecedented in BL and was testimony to detrimental effects of three years’ participation.

At the conference Edwardes obtained the consent of convenors and union officials for at least 12,500 sackings. Derek Robinson reaffirmed the CP’s support for participation, leading a standing ovation for the BL chairman that lasted several minutes. Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon, general secretaries of the T&G and the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, later appeared alongside Edwardes in adverts captioned: ‘We’re all on the same side of the fence.’

In 1980 Robinson was sacked – a conscious blow against the shop stewards movement. But by this point the combine had been fatally undermined by the willingness of Robinson and others to enter the participation committees set up by the Labour government. The CP’s enthusiastic support for participation and its key ideological component, ‘company viability’, meant it could not mobilise members to defend Robinson once Edwardes declared it was a choice between Robinson or closure.

A catalogue of collusion

Thornett argues that union officials colluding with management to undermine the rank-and-file opened the door to the Thatcher onslaught. He provides an overwhelming catalogue of evidence to support his position.

Derek Robinson addresses a rally of BL workers

They undermined union democracy, organised mass scabbing against workers in rival unions, and sowed the seeds of division and disillusion among union members. What’s remarkable is the continued resilience of rank-and-file workers in resisting this treachery for several years.

But workers’ participation was a central plank of the employers’ strategy. It too played a crucial role in defeating the rank-and-file. And as Thornett accepts, nobody understood the significance of participation until it was too late. By the time Edwardes had arrived, unions had already been weakened.

Militant shop stewards were also under attack from within. Their shop floor union structures were undermined and, in Cowley, eventually dismantled. By 1982, Edwardes had sacked tens of thousands and closed nearly 20 plants. He became a role model in industrial management for Thatcher. Coal boss Ian McGregor, later headhunted by Thatcher to take on the miners, cut his teeth as a BL board member under Edwardes.

Lured into the trap

The workers’ participation committees and the ideological trap of ‘viability’ allowed capacity and manning levels to be cut ruthlessly with little effective resistance. In 1981, during a third wave of closures, shop stewards began to realise that workers’ participation had been a turning point for the employers. Convenor and combine treasurer Mick Clarke argued that ‘the problem was that Edwardes had lulled most of us into supporting him at the 1977 Kenilworth conference, and this is the result.’

Thornett says that once shop stewards had accepted the viability argument, it was impossible for a single plant or industry to resist the changes. It would have taken a very different set of politics in the trade union movement – and therefore a different attitude to struggle – to have avoided this fate.

The struggles covered in Thornett’s book offered a great opportunity to overcome the historic weakness of the British shop stewards movement: strong organisation and weak politics. Thornett says it was a chance to forge a political movement that could go beyond the constraints of Labourism and CP thinking that dominated the national rank-and-file leadership.

However, Thornett and his comrades also missed a fantastic opportunity to defeat participation at Cowley. The fight waged by Princess track workers could have been generalised across Cowley – and then perhaps across the industry.

Learning the lessons

We need to learn lessons from mistakes detailed in this valuable book: in particular collusion by trade union officials and right wing reps against effective shopfloor resistance. Activists need to confront these problems as we rebuild democratic workplace structures today. We need to reconstitute the idea of ‘workers’ power’ if we are to rebuild independent rank-and-file organisation.

The best way to achieve this is, of course, through some significant victories. But in the absence of significant victories we still need to nurture rank-and-file self-activity at whatever level it currently exists. Developing this resistance will in turn develop class confidence and class consciousness. That involves a conscious political leadership that challenges ‘partnership’, the modern incarnation of ‘participation’ and ‘viability’.

Activists will need to develop an alternative vision of industry and society organised through a politics that mobilises workers against the austerity agenda of both government and employers – by organising wherever opportunities present themselves.

Margaret Thatcher at the wheel of an Austin Rover

Read more: interview with Alan Thornett



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