As the battles of the 1970s intensified Norman McLean became an electrician working in factories and on building sites. Norman spoke to us about his experiences of being a revolutionary activist in an exciting period of working class history. Part 1 can be found here
Part 2 Getting Organised
What did it mean to be an IS trade union militant?
I was a shop steward and I had a duplicator at home so I was always running off bulletins – What’s the dispute about? What’s the latest story? In my own place and across the union in defence of some branch that the leadership were closing down.
The bulletin would be A4, badly printed. I did them very quickly at the drop of a hat. I can touch type. When I was at Mullards there were two shifts. When I needed everyone to know the truth about something in a hurry I would dash off the latest story and we would hand them out. People wanted them – people respected them as they were coming from someone they knew.
I think that is central to factory branches, to rank and file organisation, and to this day if you are working round a workplace from the outside you must be telling the workers what is happening inside. That’s an old Leninist tradition that we shouldn’t forget.
What was distinct about the IS from the Communist Party?
The CP were very soft on the bureaucracy. You would get rank and file militants in the CP who had little to do with King Street and they would follow us based on their rank and file gut instinct. While at Mullards I became involved in Flashlight which was the EETPU broad left led by the CP with a lot of
Labour lefts in it – IS people participated in it. I became the convenor of the South London group of this CP organisation.
What did they make of that?
I worked like stink, I was very reliable, the sectarians hated me and the good guys didn’t mind. It was classic Trotskyist united front work. It tied in with the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions. The IS had a tactic to work with the CP and show their best people that we were more serious. Flashlight split on a number of issues all to do with the union bureaucracy.
Early in my time in the electricians union there was a massive row when the CP leadership decided to support a dodgy Labour left, Eric Hammond, (later he succeeded Frank Chapple as General Secretary) against their own man, Fred Gore, who was the convenor of shop stewards at Heathrow Airport. The better people around the militants in the CP and the IS supported Gore. At the tender age I was, I was going to conferences run by the CP in Manchester and Liverpool where there were big rows and I was standing up in front of all these experienced shop stewards, with my IS comrades putting a militant, rank and file line. We split the CP down the middle.
In 1976 we left Flashlight and we ran Billy Williams for General Secretary of the EETPU – he got 10,000 votes on an election address saying he was an SWP member (The International Socialists relaunched themselves as the Socialist Workers Party in 1977) and we launched Rank and File Contact magazine which ran up until 1982 and went into over 20 issues. It was written by a network of people all over the country. At the peak we had 50 SWP members – and a periphery of hundreds of electricians, plumbers and electrical workers. Tony Cliff was calling it a rank and file movement but it was really a rank and file ginger group, a democratic left. It involved a lot of Labour left people and a lot of new people. The biggest thing it did was organise a lobby of five or six hundred construction workers calling for union democracy at an EETPU conference in the late 70s. Most came down from big sites like Redcar. There was a whole network of us doing things like speaking at EETPU branch meetings across the country – sometimes 2 people, sometimes 60 or 70, meetings often led by the CP or Chapple supporters. When I spoke at an Isle of Wight branch meeting in a debate with an EETPU official he went through my life history – Aberdeen University all that. I stood up, made a political speech and won the vote.
(My closest comrade in the EETPU, Marc Mellor, was a shop steward at Phillips’ Croydon factory 1974-78, and then in the lift industry until 1993. Chapple had him banned from holding office for five in the 1980s.)
In 1981 I was running fire alarms at the Sunday Times in Fleet Street and the union official (who had previously been a revolutionary) came round to talk to the foreman and I had to hide under a printing machine because if he’d have known I was on the job I would have been sacked. I had stood up at meetings all over London calling that official a rat. I organised many visits by comrades to building sites, factories and union branches. We intervened several times in the Fleet Street branch meeting of the EETPU – 70 to 80 electricians crammed into the Marx Memorial Library – a branch with a marvellous tradition, dominated by the CP. Some of them were sectarians who heckled me as soon as I spoke. One called me an “orange coated fascist” at the time of a Right to Work March. We’d go in there and ask them to do practical things, such as to vote for Billy Williams and support the striking Port Talbot electricians.
My wife was very tolerant. I thought nothing of driving to Southampton to speak at a meeting. I went to Manchester, spoke at a very good meeting of electricians and returned on a train in the middle of the night. I went away regularly on Saturdays on the train for years with CPers and later with SWP members to rank and file organising meetings of Flashlight and later Rank & File Contact.
In the early ’80s our ‘rank and file’ movement declined. Many supporters were unemployed. We had taken over from the CP as the leadership in the electrical industry, fighting against a horrible bureaucracy in cahoots with the employers. We were still growing so I was one of many who backed Steve Jeffreys against Cliff in the ‘downturn’ debate at SWP conference. I’m not proud of the role I played because I was wrong and six months later I said so at the National Committee. Steve never changed his mind. (Jeffreys argued that the upturn of the 70s would continue; Cliff said that there was a serious decline in struggle.)
Anti-racism has been a big part of your story…
I’ve been anti-racist since I was a kid. In my last year in school my headteacher used to do a weekly ethics lecture. One evening it was an attack on the IRA and the next week it was an attack on two Stornoway girls who had brought back African students on holiday and it was all about how the races shouldn’t mix and I remember being really angry.
Did it cause a reaction amongst others students?
Everybody hated the headteacher so it’s hard to know… I hated him and I understood he was a racist. A major achievement in my own life was the Anti-Nazi League. We had a great day at Lewisham in 1977 stopping the National Front (NF). Police came round the corner to charge us on horses and Glasgow comrades, a lot harder than me, went for them, trying to knock them off the horses. They managed with one or two. There was a real feeling of euphoria. Then the black youth came on the streets and chased them out of town… and I think it was the next day we had an SWP national council and Jim Nichol was saying: “We need to broaden this, we need a united front, we need a lot more forces involved.” It took off from there. I was very active.
At BP Chemicals there were 80 workers doing a very demanding job in a small chemicals factory – open-air structures, big vats, flameproof conditions. I was an electrician there for two years – I was able to talk about anything I was doing outside. There were frequent shop meetings of the maintenance workers, pipe fitters, and toolmakers – two dozen of us – several were old Labour Left/CP fellow travellers…very experienced, older than me mostly. I could take anything to these guys – I had the whole lot wearing Stuff the Jubilee badges. Everyone knew I was ANL and SWP.
On most building sites I worked on I came across a small, sometimes threatening, NF element. The ANL was very important. I worked on one site where the foreman was NF. I worked at a site in the City where there were two or three of them and when they realised I was getting some support things got thrown at me – including a toilet bowl… it was heavy stuff. It was a hard fought situation and the same young white apprentices that were listening to them were listening to me and they were swithering and some were coming over to me.
The sites were varied. I went to a shop meeting on the Barbican of 200 electricians and most of them were black… you also had lots of Essex boys. On the Nat West tower we called them the Essex Mafia but they were good, a well organised site, which took lots of copies of our rank and file paper. On a job like that fascists kept quiet.
How did the growth of women’ liberation affect you and your workmates?
Sexism was rife. I remember on that site the foreman describing how he’d had a spat with his wife so when he got home to his dinner on the table, he picked it up and threw it against the wall. I worked on jobs where men were very sexist. Obviously I supported the battle against women’s oppression. I tried to modify my own behaviour. I changed my life and became someone who did a lot of cooking and cleaning at home – the personal is political. I changed from a building worker who came home from work and went to sleep, to someone who, now a teacher, shared chores fifty fifty. I did the shopping every week from when my first child was born but my wife put up with a lot when I was running round the country as a super political activist.
You were involved in a number of strikes…
In 1976 I’d only been at BP Chemicals a few months and it was only my second job as an electrician. I had a lot to learn, everybody knew that but I was working with a close bunch of guys who were quite happy to teach me. I was competent, I wasn’t going to blow anybody up. There was a closed room in the steel structure of the building and the steels in the room were covered in blue asbestos inches deep, the worst kind. It had been stripped out extremely badly. The air was full of fibres. There was stuff lying on the ground. I was sent in to drill these steels and run cables and it was like snowing with blue asbestos.
I’d read the book on asbestos from the Hazards at Work organisation, which I subscribed to, and I knew the shop was educated enough about asbestos – the pipe-fitters had been working with it for years, knocking down pipes and breaking flanges, breaking open asbestos. I said I would only work in safe conditions – that involved an air supply, a white paper suit and a shower every time I went to the toilet. So I was getting nothing done. I may still get mesothelioma because of the day or two I spent in there. But I did my best to protect myself.
Then I went away on holiday. My wife was seven months pregnant with our first son. When I got back they wouldn’t let me open my toolbox. “You’ve got to come up to the office.” The shop steward, Frank, went with me. He was not militant but a good man, honest, democratic. He was very shocked because I was told in the office that I was being sacked because my work was unsatisfactory – no mention of asbestos. A previous job I had done on a mobile machine had been sabotaged to look like I had been doing dangerous work. This was an explosive environment – everything was flame proofed. Any spark could blow the place up.
There were two other electricians in the place and the one who had been showing me the ropes, Brian, knew perfectly well I had done that job properly. A young guy whose father was a police inspector or something, Geoff… this is emotional for me… he ran round organising a meeting for me. He was a young white lad with a huge Afro. He said we’ve got to have a meeting. Management wouldn’t let us have a meeting so we walked out and met on the street.
Two dozen blokes stood in a circle and they were pretty unanimous that I had been stitched up. So out came the second in command on the site who was very popular with the workers – they didn’t send out the man who’d sacked me. It was a small workplace, workers and management drank together in the pub. So they listened to him very respectfully.
So they agreed they weren’t having it but they would go back to work while the AUEW official Dave Schooling was called in. They had a lot of respect for him – some of them had been AUEW all their working lives. So I was left outside. For the next two weeks I met them every day in the pub. I had a couple of meetings with the management and Dave Schooling – I deliberately didn’t involve the Chapple Mafia… I deliberately relied on the AEUW, a more democratic union and a left wing official.
After two weeks they had a meeting and voted to go all out the next day. I was reinstated that evening, straight after the meeting and I worked there for another couple of years… I stayed until I went off into the building industry – I wanted that experience.
I worked for various contractors for three years. I worked on the Contemporary Dance Studios. They weren’t a bad bunch of lads, but a bit backward politically. After having a few arguments in the tea room one of them wrote in huge white letters on a concrete wall ‘Norman is Gay’ – because I had argued against homophobia. I laughed it off and kept arguing it. The foreman was a good man, gave us a day off every week.
After four years at St George’s Hospital I wanted a change. Many of my EETPU comrades had left the industry. We had had three of our four children by then. Teaching enabled me to pick up my kids from school, make their dinner and I got very close to my boys. Further Education was very good for me, I was able to write a lot of the course content and include a lot of politics. My students were three quarters black women. I found working as an Access tutor with mature students a very enjoyable job for over two decades. I played a leading role in the strong UCU branch at Lambeth College. In 1992 we won an all out strike against redundancies and later we struck and forced management to pay the full national agreement. When I retired I became secretary of Wandsworth Against Cuts. In October 2013 I was diagnosed with bowel cancer and after two years of treatment I am clear of the disease.
Norman spoke to Colin Revolting