1960s >> 1968 >> no-766-june-1968

An unofficial Workers’ Committee

Are unofficial committees made up of wreckers? Does the Communist Party finance them? Do the communists and trotskyists work together? A member, formerly associated with one such committee in the printing industry, describes how it worked:

The printing unions, as is well known, are amongst the strongest in the country and are especially well-organised in the national newspapers in Fleet Street. As is also well-known, there are a number of craft unions which feel themselves threatened by the general printing union, the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades. SOGAT organises certain craft sections and also warehousemen, semi-skilled printers, clerks and cleaners. By the autumn of 1966, after the passing of the anti-union Prices and Incomes Act in August, active unionists were growing dissatisfied with Labour. Sensing this mood, a few anarcho-syndicalist printworkers decided to call a public meeting of printworkers to discuss what ordinary trade unionists might do to oppose the wage freeze and the anti-union laws.

At a second meeting, held in a Fleet Street pub on 25 October, thirteen printworkers, mainly SOGAT members, met to discuss the formation of an unofficial workers’ committee. Those present besides the anarchists were two trotskyists of the “international socialism” brand, and a few ordinary pro-Labour militant unionists. The promoters had intended that any committee should come out clearly against the Labour Party but the trotskyists opposed this. The week previously, a delegate meeting of the 10,000 strong London clerical branch of SOGAT had carried a resolution calling upon the SOGAT EC

   to prepare the Union for a policy of independence from all Governments and political parties and, to this end, suggests that the EC ballot those members who pay the political levy as to whether our present affiliation to the Labour Party should continue.

The trotskyists, both of whom ironically were members of unions not affiliated to Labour, dismissed this. One of them, journalist Paul Foot, said that these people had voted against affiliation because they did not see the point of paying money to a party that froze their wages, and not because they wanted fundamental social change (which was quite true, but their reason seems sensible enough). Foot described this as “mere trade union consciousness”. The time to leave Labour, he said, would be when the workers were deserting it for a revolutionary policy.

After much discussion, in which those opposed to Labour made it quite clear that the disaffiliation issue must be raised as this was one of their reasons for proposing an unofficial committee, a compromise was agreed. One of the aims of the Association of Rank and File Printworkers which was established that evening was “to campaign within the printing unions for a ballot of the membership on the question of continued affiliation to the Labour Party”. The other aims were: to fight the wage freeze and anti-union laws, including encouraging “sympathetic industrial action” should Labour invoke the penal clauses of their act; one union for printing; and to work with other “rank and file movements”.

The Labour government used their anti-union Act three times against printworkers, each time playing on other workers’ prejudices against people they believed to be higher paid: against printers and clerks in the national newspapers, against some inkworkers (who, incidentally, did break the law by forcing their employers to pay them more despite the Order. Significantly, the government did nothing) and against clerks in the news agencies. After issuing a journal, the Printworker, the Association, through a SOGAT chapel (as the workshop or office unit is called in the print), organised a meeting to protest against the wage freeze. A left-wing Labour MP. Sid Bidwell (ironically once an IS trotkyist), agreed to speak but withdrew when he learned that the Branch Secretary had declared that, under the rules of SOGAT, a chapel had no right to call a meeting.

At the meeting, held on 29 March and attended by about 70 people, including SOGAT officials Brady and President-elect Flynn, a resolution to organise a strike on 30 June was carried by 36 votes to 12. Brady, a branch secretary, argued that the union leadership was militant enough but they could not act without the support of the members. He felt that most members were apathetic and would not follow a militant lead. Although this was probably true, it was not well received by the meeting. Brady’s dilemma was that of all elected officials who want to be militant—elected by a minority of union activists they are responsible to an apathetic majority. Other, conservative officials readily use the apathetic majority to oppose the militants. A committee of eight, including two dissatisfied supporters of the Communist Party, was elected by the meeting to organise any action.

The committee decided to organise a march through Fleet Street on May Day proper, a working day as it fell on a Monday. Some other workers’ organisations, mainly influenced by IS trotskyists, agreed to take part and on the day some 200 hundred people marched. A meeting, held after the march, again voted to strike—this time on 3 July, the day the government was expected to invoke Part II of their Prices and Incomes Act, giving them power to delay wage increases. By now it was evident that some members of the Association had grandiose plans for organising a national rank and file movement that would use industrial action against the government. That this was a totally unrealistic aim was soon grasped and it was later agreed to drop industrial action and concentrate on spreading the aims of the Association amongst printworkers.

The Cameron Report on unofficial committees in various London building sites which came out last year refused to believe Lou Lewis, a Communist unofficial leader, when he said that his committee was financed by donations and collections from supporters. The report called him a liar and implied that the Communist Party provided the money. The Report, due to ignorance of working class organisations, could not believe that unofficial committees really had so informal an organisation as they seemed. Though it is true that informal organisation (no constitution, no dues, no minutes) does carry with it the danger of take-ovwer by eltist groups like the Communists and trotskyists, the Report’s charge is not backed by any evidence. Certainly, the Association of rank and File Printworkers was financed entirely from donation, collections and sales of the Printworker.

In fact, the Communist Party was opposed to the Association. As the June issue of the Printworker noted:

Already within the Printing industry the people who took part in the demonstration are being branded as ‘communist troublemakers’. In fact, although individual members of the Communist party attended the demonstrations and actively worked to make it a success, the official Party made no secret of their opposition to it, and in fact went as far as to describe it as ‘adventurist’.

Jack Dash also advised dockers not to take part in the May Day march through Fleet Street.

Present Communist Party industrial policy is to organise discontented workers behind Labour’s left and left-wing union leaders like Cousins, Scanlon and, for that matter, Briginshaw of SOGAT. This was one of the reasons why the Association turned down a proposal, sponsored by an IS trotskyist (and Gunther can make what he likes of it!), to join the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unionism, in which the Communists are very prominent.

The theory of the most active members of the Association tended rather to the syndicalist idea of so-called direct action, scorning all political action as useless. Some of its members, and once again they were wrong, saw the Association as a rival and possible replacement of the existing “bureaucratic” unions. From a Socialist point of view (and of course each Socialist Party members makes up his own mind as to what organisation or action is best suited in the place or industry where he works) unofficial committees are a useful adjunct to the unions, putting pressure on the officials from below to act more in the interest of the working class. Certainly they are not an alternative to the unions.