Building workers: The great strike of 1972
Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson, the Shrewsbury two
Summer 1972 saw over 300,000 builders workers launch their first truly national strike. Dave Stockton
looks at how their victory not only raised wages, but unionised 11,000 workers, cut back on subcontracting and helped lower the rates of deaths and injuries on sites.
THE ALL-OUT STRIKE took place mainly due to the initiative and fighting spirit of militants and a minority of regional officials organised around a monthly paper: The Building Workers Charter – Organ of the Rank and File Building Workers. The background to the 1972 strike was the building boom of the 1960-70s, which saw around 330,000 houses built a year.
As construction workers know only too well, the temporary character of the job and the myriad employers and subcontractors and its many crafts make for a constantly changing workforce, differing contracts and pay rates. Employers are constantly seeking to break union organisation by bringing in non-union labour and by blacklisting or victimising militants.
The other major factor was the practice known as labour-only subcontracting, or the “lump”. Lump workers were self-employed and thus not entitled to holiday pay, national insurance or PAYE tax deductions, instead receiving a lump sum, supposed to cover all expenses. Between 1965 and 1970, the number of “lumpers” more than doubled to 400,000.
The lump led to shoddy work and an increasing number of fatalities and accidents. Because lumpers negotiated their own terms of employment, trade union organisation was undermined. Between 1951 and 1971, building unions lost 31 per cent of their members. The only response of the officials, then as now, was amalgamation – to protect their own salaries.
The principal unions involved in the 1972 strike were the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) and a new amalgamation of older unions, the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians (UCATT). The militancy and success of the strike owed little to UCATT’s new general secretary, George Smith, who had done nothing to fight against the lump and, worse still, had for years colluded with the employers in blacklisting shop stewards, especially members of the Communist Party (CP).
CP militants, like Lou Lewis and Pete Kavanagh in London, Dennis Dugen and Alan Abrahams in Manchester, played a key role in creating bodies like the Manchester Building Workers’ Forum, the Merseyside Shop Stewards Building Operatives’ Committee and the London Joint Sites Committee. Similar bodies spread to Stoke and Birmingham, where again CPers, like Tommy Walker and Pete Carter, played a leading role.
It was these militants who came to the conclusion a national rank and file organisation was needed to fight for an industrial union for all trades and to fight practices like blacklisting, victimisation and the lump. They took the initiative in drawing up the Building Workers Charter (BWC).
In April 1970 288 delegates from 50 union branches and a similar number of stewards from sites met in Manchester and founded the BWC as a rank and file movement. A year later its conference attracted 500 delegates, and in April 1972 865 delegates. Sales of Charter, its paper, reached 15,000 an issue by 1972.
The BWC won a major breakthrough in Birmingham where organisation was much weaker than London, Manchester and Merseyside. In Birmingham CPers like Pete Carter, Mike Shilvock and Phil Beyer, plus a few International Socialist members (IS, predecessor of the SWP) like Gerry Kelly, led the way. With the support of a left Labour district official Ken Barlow, they launched a campaign to organise Bryant & Son’s sites.
Pete Carter described their tactics: “We organised all types of activity against [the lump], including demos, strikes, sit-ins, raids on sites; you name it we did it.” Gerry Kelly also remembers: “ By February 1972, we had abolished the lump and won a 50 per cent rise in the basic rate.”
The Charter was responsible for UCATT and the TGWU adopting a militant claim for 1972: £30 for 35 hours. The national leadership tried hard to keep the dispute to one of selective strikes aimed at forcing deals out of individual employers. If this strategy had prevailed it, would have fragmented the strike and could have led to a defeat.
The strike began on 26 June during the most intense period of class struggle since the General Strike of 1926. The miners had used flying and mass pickets to win a massive victory in February, when 10,000 Birmingham engineers helped close the Saltley coking coal depot. In June, a dockers blocked container depots. Five dockers were arrested under the anti-union laws and imprisoned in Pentonville.
This led to a wave of unofficial strikes, the TUC threatening a general strike and the Tory government backing down. It was clear both government and employers were on the ropes and that a general strike would have finished them off… if only there had been an alternative leadership based on the rank and file, a movement uniting all these militant sections able and politically willing to go beyond what the union leaders would do.
There was of course a party with thousands of members in industry – the Communist Party. But it was in a strategic block with the left union leaders, including Jack Jones of the TGWU. Its programme The British Road to Socialism envisaged a Labour Government installed by general elections not by a general strike. Therefore the CP and its militants ensured every dispute remained in or returned to the channel of a normal trades dispute.
So it was with the builders’ strike: if the leadership wanted selective strikes then so be it. Fortunately the rank and file launched flying pickets to overcome this obstacle. The CP militants who had set up the BWC were divided over tactics. Most wanted an all-out strike but the party did not want to jeopardise its relations with the officials, so it supported the selective strike. Lou Lewis and Pete Kavanagh went along with this line, saying those calling for an all-out strike were “living in cloud cuckoo land”.
But the Birmingham militants worked for an all-out stoppage. Pete Carter, despite being a CP member, stood well to the left on strike tactics, as did Gerry Kelly. They pursued a policy of mass demos and pickets, which called out all the sites they found working. On 14 July, for example, a 4,000 strong march in Birmingham stopped 90 building sites. In Stoke, Merseyside then in most other areas, these tactics unravelled the selective strategy.
In Telford and Shrewsbury on 6-7 September flying mass pickets from North Wales invaded, unionised and brought out sites, activities which later led to the arrest and imprisonment of Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson, and their shameful abandonment by the union officialdom and the TUC.
Limits of Broad Leftism
By mid-August there was de facto an all-out strike. But when it came to negotiations, George Smith and the executive came into their own. There was no centralised organ of the rank and file to resist it. Throughout the strike’s 13 weeks not a single issue of the Building Workers Charter appeared.
Even Lou Lewis later confessed, “in the strike the Charter went to sleep” adding the excuse that “key ones of us were so involved in manning the dispute”. neither was there a national meeting to discuss tactics or goals. The deal on offer was for a substantial wage increase – some 25 per cent. But the issues of the lump, blacklists and victimisation were not pressed.
The protest from the rank and file were massive; 12,000 building workers marched in Liverpool, demanding no settlement short of the full claim. Yet Smith refused to put the agreement to a vote. The CP’s Morning Star complained and Lou Lewis lamely protested that Smith had assured him this would not happen. But when had Smith, who was to become a Lord for his services to capital, ever consulted the members?
But the CPers were not naïve dupes. Rather what was happening was direct result of the party’s approach to rank and file organisation. It saw its usefulness in right-wing led unions where it could pressure existing officials and help get left candidates elected, but it was not meant to challenge for leadership of a dispute or raise political slogans.
The executive’s control of negotiations meant that in the end this magnificent strike was sold short and afterwards a wave of victimisations, most notoriously the Shrewsbury Two, went unanswered.
The bitter truth is that the trade union officials form a privileged caste whose interests clash with those of the rank and file whenever they are in struggle. This will always be the case as long as these officials are irregularly elected, impossible or difficult to remove, paid far more than their members and control negotiations.
Militants should set themselves the task of dissolving this caste, replacing them with elected and recallable officers, accountable to the members and conferences, and lay executives. In all major disputes, local and national strike committees should be elected and exercise control over all negotiations with any deal being put to mass meetings of the strikers themselves to vote on.