Chapter 1: Rank and file in construction

Political

Before going on to what we mean by R&F it is important I register this is a political as well as industrial document; reflecting the fact that R&F Organisation is a political and industrial task. This needs stating at the start to counter the effects of what is politically termed 'The Popular Front' between the employers, state and trade union and political bureaucracies who are much better organised than rank and file workers on a UK wide basis at present and have been collectively planning and acting for many years against the interests of workers in general and, in our case, building workers on the sites and in the unions, in particular.

This has been particularly evident in the political move [sorry stampede] to the right by the trade union and labour movement [essentially this means those loyal to the Labour Party] in the face of the prolonged capitalist offensive begun under the labour Government of 1974 - 79. This intensified when Thatcher came to power with the introduction of the anti union laws and now being continued by Blair and the 'new' labour Government - with every section of the full-time union bureaucracy, left, right and centre, completely capitulating to this offensive and now collaborating with it.

Republican

My experience has now led me to conclude that workers will have to adopt a 'republican' approach [i.e. act as free citizens and not loyal subjects] to succeed in an all out struggle, including building workers if they go into this, against the very British, Loyal and Bureaucratic Popular Front.

Capital R&F

This is used to distinguish it from the more general use of rank and file as in workers. Rank and File is a revolutionary political concept, bringing together revolutionary workers [i.e. those who believe in some reforms but who have no faith in parliament or parliamentary democracy and see the only road to working class emancipation in extra parliamentary political organisation and activity] - and the more militant reformist workers, [by far the majority, who feel the system can be reformed in favour of the working class via parliament and the established political parties and industrial organisations if enough pressure can be applied] - to counter the effects of a capitalist offensive and the popular front in their specific workplaces and industries as well as the fact that it is the inherent nature of the full-time union officials to reach unprincipled compromises and sell out workers' wages, jobs and conditions.

A united front Rank and File Organisation should be formed to meet the more immediate needs of workers in the workplace, building sites in our case, and unions. Longer term policies and objectives are required to counter the ability of the employers to repeatedly come back at workers and claw back any gains made during periods of heightened class struggle, activity and organisation.

United Front Independence

The main emphasis of any serious R&F Organisation must be on action and organisation, completely independent of the trade union and labour bureaucracy, around a set of agreed United Front policies and objectives. Supporting workers in struggle is vital. Initiating and leading a few also!

By United Front we mean a minimum package of policies and principles which those in the united front can agree with and that will unite those, usually more militant workers and others (who will disagree socially and politically on some perhaps even many issues) in maximum action and organisation in a specific industry and union or unions. In our case the construction unions and industry.

As well as this there must also be one general umbrella R&F Organisation with a common platform which will unite workers, particularly in struggle, in one big united front that can successfully counter all attempts to 'divide and rule' by pitting worker and against worker in different industries, unions and occupations.

Narrow sectionalism and craft chauvinism are the enemies of worker's unity and solidarity. For example, surely all must unite around a policy for the defiance and repeal of all anti union legislation and especially support for any and all workers who find themselves in struggle against any of these utterly unjust laws.

A R&F organisation is open to all workers associated with a particular industry or union be they employed or unemployed. It will also endeavour, very much; to win the support of the more conventional forms of workers' rank and file organisations such as shop stewards committees and trade union branches. Essentially, the united front maximises agreement and minimises differences.

It will also take on board some of the more difficult social and political issues and adopt a principled working class united front position on these. This will mainly develop over time. R& F Organisations should cover these in their publications and some of their activities. Not to do so will inevitably lead to embarrassing walls of silence when workers (as some always do) ask the R&F organisation - where do we stand on this issue, that issue?

It is recognised that, in the short term, it is only the so-called bread and butter, 'economic issues’ that will get maximum support and unity in action from a majority of workers on site. However the R&F Organisation should be the bridge between the more popular economic and day to day site issues and the more difficult but equally [some would say in the long term much more] important ones.

I stress just as an example - what about the rights of the Irish, Scottish, Welsh and English people to national self-determination, and independence from the British State if they so choose, now that the British ruling class via Blair and the 'New' Labour Government have raised and heightened democratic expectations and aspirations, in an attempt to keep the very shaky [British] Union together, with the devolved Parliament in Scotland and the Welsh Assembly?

Building Worker Group

Next, for the purposes of this section on R&F Organisation, I refer to the 'Building Worker' Group, which is the only organisation in the construction industry which has consistently adhered to United Front R&F policies and organisational principles since its formation in 1974. It has always been totally independent from the trades union and labour bureaucracies.

26 years of struggle, often against the employers, but always against UCATT and TGWU officialdom. This has been mostly against tremendous adversity and in circumstances extremely unfavourable to R&F Organisation and activity. This is none more so than today with New Labour and the likes of the three B's Blair, Brown and, 'Chicken' George Brumwell ruling the roost.

The BWG was formed on the initiative of the International Socialists [IS, the immediate forerunner of the SWP] as a way of recruiting workers into the IS and to replace the Communist Party of Great Britain [CPGB] as the main industrial influence on the revolutionary left. This was after the CPGB's left reformist political [faith in Parliament] and industrial [your full-time official right or wrong] credentials were brutally exposed in quite a few workers' struggles in the 1970's and they stopped pretending they were interested in R&F Organisation.

The IS, and then the SWP as it became in 1977 recruited many workers in this phase but lost them just as quickly. In fact, the joke among building workers in the IS/SWP at that time was that they had a bigger turnover of labour than George Wimpey did! They never did replace the CPGB, at least not as the main industrial force on the revolutionary left.

Not having the politics necessary to deal with the Capitalist Offensive, anti-union laws and all, the SWP moved rapidly towards supporting a Broad Left Industrial position and they are now in fact tailing the main broad left forces in the official trades union and labour movement. Meaning in fact they are an adjunct of and very subservient to these.

The R&F organisations formed in 1974/75 were in fact seen as nothing more than party fronts by the IS/SWP leadership. However those of us in the IS/SWP at that time, who helped to form and build the 'Building Worker' Group in its early days, did so with a total commitment to the principle of the united front. We did not realise the party front intentions of the SWP leadership as they quite carefully and fraudulently disguised this from their industrial militants. Of which I was one!

Thus when the SWP wrongly diagnosed what to do in response to (what they determined was a downturn in workers' struggles and combatively due to purely economic factors] a full blooded capitalist offensive they bureaucratically and dictatorially ordered all R&F Organisations to close down and for members to retreat to our geographical branches to await the (mythical) upturn. By the way, the year long miners' strike in 1984-85 was some downturn!

Tony Cliff told to F*** Off!

At a meeting of the BWG in Manchester in July 1982, Tony Cliff of the SWP Central Committee, who had been invited by me to address the meeting and encourage us in our efforts, ordered us to close down the paper and group. We were astounded and very, very angry. Cliff was told the BW Group was a united front and as such was composed of and open to workers of varying political persuasions and thus it did not belong to the SWP and it never would, and neither the SWP or SWP members in the group had the authority to close it down. Nor did we want to work for this! He was told the way to respond when the going got tough was not to sound the retreat, as there is absolutely no credibility in this.

Rather, political and R&F Organisations should strive all the harder to strengthen their organisation and resolve and give a positive and definite alternative lead, with policies, to that of the craven capitulation and collaboration of the official trade union and labour movement. Otherwise you become part of this dungheap.


The year long miners' strike was some downturn!

The meeting voted, with only one against, to keep the Building Worker paper and group going. In fact Cliff, who was considered by many (including himself!) to be among the foremost revolutionary political thinkers and leaders of that time, was politically routed by a group of 'rag, tag and bobtail' site and political militants.

Tony Cliff was reminded that the Building Worker Group had supported many struggles outside as well as in the building industry. We had also led many struggles in the industry, such as at Lawrences in London in 1974, Macinerney's in London and Henry Boot in Northampton in 1975. At Shanleys in Bedford in 1976 we organised a political strike in solidarity with public sector workers against the cuts.

On the day of the strike in November 1976 the bus we hired, to take workers who wanted to go to the anti cuts demo in London, pulled up outside the site.

80 or so workers gathered in the canteen, the others who didn’t go stayed at home and as we left to board the bus Shanley’s contracts manager Pat O’Neil was heard to say “fuck sake what’s the building industry coming to when a hod carrier [before I became a bricklayer!] is running the job”!! Now there’s a thought. Workers could run the industry much more proficiently and safely than the bosses!!

The BW Group organised what must have been one of the most successfully and comprehensively organised sites in the UK, since the 1945 war, on Fairweathers in Clapham Junction, London. Three successful strikes were held on this site. Workers from many parts of London came to the stewards committee (which was organised deliberately to include Asian, Black and women workers) for advice and support.

BW meetings of 25-30 were regularly held in South London as well as in Central London. An example of the successful support given to other building workers was when the Fairweather workers and the BW Group picketed the Thames Barrier and forced Tarmac to reinstate a convenor they had sacked on a site in Brixton.

The BW and Fairweather stewards committee called for and got mass picketing of a huge Wandsworth Direct Labour Organisation (DLO) job where two shop stewards had been sacked. Pickets came from as far away as Manchester. The stewards were reinstated. The Fairweather and related activity took place in 1977, 1978 and 1979. Flying pickets came up to Northampton in 1980 and closed down a large site that was part of the Symes Group of Companies.

Close down such an organisation, Cliff was asked? Fuck off, he was told. I was expelled from the SWP shortly after this for refusing to work for the closure of the Building Worker Group and paper. This was the highest political compliment the SWP can ever pay you! Building Worker supporters took a brave stand on a Crouch job in London against the lump and gangster systems of employment. Two men were brutalised by a sub contractor's hit man. One was seriously injured and his health is still seriously impaired. Such are the risks sometimes associated with organising a union on site in the building industry. Struggles were also led in Milton Keynes, Hatfield and Welwyn Garden City, and others too numerous to mention.

Laings Lock Out Committee

The culmination of all of this and undoubtedly the most important and significant struggle led by the Building Worker group and worth a separate mention was the 'Laings Lock Out Committee' of 1985/86 where our cumulative and collective experience was most thoroughly and seriously put to the test.

Our bricklaying gang, all BW supporters, was sacked by sub-contractors Jonoroy on a site in Surbiton in October 1985 on the instructions of Laing Homes, who were quite openly and blatantly operating the blacklist against us.

We went into immediate struggle. With our very limited numbers and resources it was obvious we would have to fight a guerrilla, hold the site we were on and hit and run, war with Laing and the Building Employers Confederation. We sought and got support from many industrial and political sources.

We formed the 'Laings Lock Out Committee'. We were so successful in our use of the flying picket tactic that we halted or severely restricted production on 8 sites in London. In all, we picketed 14 different sites. The outcome of this was Jonoroy (Laings actually) offered work on a Galliford site in Banstead in Surrey, ostensibly until the site in Surbiton was ready, or so we were told. We knew the employers would come back at us in the very short term. We had to put a picket on the Galliford job to get on it. We had to threaten a strike after we got on it to ensure they took on a hod carrier who was with us, but hadn't been at the beginning of the Lock Out.

They told us to go back to Surbiton, as that site was ready. We went to Surbiton. We were told "there's no way Higgins and the others would work on a Laing site". Our picketing was restarted and stepped up. We hit the British Library and Hays Wharf among others. The employers were shitting themselves.

They took out a high court injunction against us that threatened us with two years in jail and fines of many hundreds of thousands of pounds if we did not stop picketing, meeting and even speaking about the Lock Out. The injunction was issued in February 1986.

We took a decision in line with official TUC, UCATT and TGWU policy at that time (though they always supported the anti-union laws in practice) and much more to the point in defence of the basic freedoms of the right to speak, meet and picket, to defy the injunction and carry on. We stepped up picketing, meeting and speaking.

In the months before the injunction was issued we had visited many workplaces, and rank and file trade union organisations, and had addressed many mass meetings. So much groundwork had been done and many workers knew of and supported our struggle against the blacklist. However when the high court injunction was issued on the basis of the 1982 anti-union laws, the main issue then became the overt political one of the anti-union laws themselves. Thus, we stepped up our campaign on this basis and got a tremendous response from workplace after workplace, mass meeting after mass meeting. We had always gone and continued to go straight to the rank and file. To hell and the High Court with the bureaucracy!!

{Text of the injunction:-

1986 L. No. 443
IN THE HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE
QUEEN'S BENCH DIVISION

B E T W E E N:

LAING HOMES LIMITED First Plaintiffs

JOHN LAING SERVICES LIMITED Second Plaintiffs

LAING MANAGEMENT CONTRACTING
LIMITED Third Plaintiffs

SOUTHERN BRICKLAYING LIMITED Fourth Plaintiffs

JOHN LAING PLC Fifth Plaintiffs

JOHN LAING CONSTRUCTION LIMITED Sixth Plaintiffs
- and -

BRIAN HIGGINS First Defendant

THOMAS WALSH Second Defendant

DAVID LAVERY Third Defendant

RAYMOND MILLS Fourth Defendant

DAVID WILLIAMS Fifth Defendant

****************** Sixth Defendant

end of text}

An example of the kind of enthusiastic support we received was when I addressed a meeting of about 1,000 Islington DLO workers. Among them were bin men. They told us if we were put in jail (Pentonville was traditionally where they put 'political' prisoners in London, arising out of industrial disputes) then they would blockade Pentonville Road with their lorries until our release, as they had done for the 'Pentonville Dockers'. I addressed a meeting of 4,000 print workers. Again, there was tremendous support for our struggle against the anti-union laws. It was the same everywhere.

Needless to say this sort of support and the promise of political strike action by many thousands of workers, if we were jailed, gave us great inspiration and enabled us to carry on our struggle. No doubt, it gave the government and the High Court the opposite! We went to see the UCATT Executive Council and general secretary, A Williams at that time, and asked for their support, just for the record. Naturally they didn't give it to us but instead told us to give up our struggle. I told them they were a bunch of spineless, cringing, crawling, backstabbing bastards and we were now in open defiance of them and the High Court. George Henderson, General Secretary of the TGWU construction section, and those other spineless bastards at Tooley Street (TGWU construction section London Headquarters) took the same approach as the UCATT Executive Council. Surprise, surprise.

During the dispute I received open death threats from the employers - twice during official negotiations. It really is a nice industry to organise in! They were told there would be no more Crouches (see earlier) and that if any of us or our families were harmed then the main employer Laing and its directors would be held physically and personally responsible and we would be avenged. No equivocation!

I was also banned by a court from the Tooley Street area of London [Laing had a massive job at Hay's Wharf there which we were picketing] for a period of time during the 'Lock Out'. I managed to circumvent this on occasion but was arrested once and held in jail, overnight and just happened to miss an employer/union conciliation panel which took place the next morning!!

For two months we openly and successfully defied the High Court and the anti-union laws, a tremendous political victory which has immediate implications for today's struggles. However on the industrial front A Williams, the UCATT general secretary, in secret negotiations signed a document with the employers' national secretary which removed all official recognition from our dispute be it at Surbiton or anywhere else. We didn't have enough building workers involved to force a negotiated settlement outside of the official machinery, which is what it would have taken, and after six months of tremendously hard struggle we called off our struggle against the blacklist with the knowledge it will have to be fought another day. Hopefully not far off now.

However, we set London alight for six months and exposed the gangster system of employment in the industry. We gave hope to many building workers; we proved the anti-union laws and High Court could be successfully defied! We exposed the full corrupt depth to which P Kavanagh, the London regional secretary of the TGWU (Tooley Street), had sunk and forced the TGWU to sack him. Unfortunately, he is only the tip of a very huge corrupt official iceberg.

The Federation of Brick Contractors was formed as a result of our struggle; meaning the brutalisation of a physical nature would lessen but they would now, and do, court official union support and corrupt it horribly in the process to counter any repeat of the 'Laings Lock Out' type of action. Before and since the blacklist has kept quite a few of us off the sites. Some have been so demoralised with this, and the state of the unions and the left, that they have given up the struggle.

But there were enough of us left to continue the struggle and how. Shortly after the Laings Lock Out in 1986 we were involved in supporting workers on a McCarthy Stone site in Sutton in Surrey. I was arrested on the picket by Special Branch, taken to the local jail and told if I didn't leave the area and stay away I'd spend a very long time on remand in Brixton Jail! To our knowledge this was unprecedented in an industrial dispute and shows the political threat we posed after successfully defying the High Court and the anti union laws!