Building a Socialist Library (11): Notoriously Militant The Story of a Union Branch Sheila Cohen

Published by Merlin Press


Why would anyone join a trade union? Why would anyone want to be a trade union activist? It seems that every day we hear of trade union representatives being sacked for nothing more than representing their members.
In this very important book Sheila Cohen answers these questions. It is a history of one of the most anti-trade union companies, Fords, and the way in which trade unions, with all their imperfections, made a real difference to working class people’s lives, not just at work but also in giving them hope for a better future.
Central to the book is the David and Goliath struggle between the global empire of Ford’s and ordinary working class people: it reads like a modern day story about slavery and the attempts by people to escape the misery and servitude, not on a plantation but in a car plant.
Ford has a long history, founded by Henry Ford in 1903 in the USA, and was the pioneer of the modern motor car industry. The term “Fordism” summed up the nature of its method of production and “Taylorism” which as Sheila says; “was as dedicated as Ford to squeezing maximum labour out of the industrial workforce.” Fordism meant huge factories and a conveyor belt system which suited the design and production of cars and led to massive profits for the company.
Assembly line work was monotonous and, although workers were paid well,they were subject to a selective process based on Ford’s own bizarre views of morality whilst Ford employed spies within the workplace to ensure that workers did not talk about union organisation.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s it was the Communist Party and dedicated groups of activists who organised the workers at Fords. Faced with the depression workers became more militant and in 1932 took part in a “March on Hunger” mobilising thousands of workers who faced the full force of the state; “The police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse the demonstrators, who nevertheless broke through and began to throw bricks at the plant.”

5315650_orig march for hunger
Fords came to Britain in 1911 to a plant at Trafford Park in Manchester but faced serious unrest from the workers and several strikes. Their local manager Baron Perry commented; “Manchester.. the hot bed of trade unionism.” Eventually in 1931 the Manchester plant closed and the workers were transferred to Dagenham. The Ford Dagenham plant became a key part of the global empire where new methods of production and work organisation were tried out.
Central to this book is the story of ordinary people who organised themselves in the workplace and did not wait for the trade unions officials to do it for them. A crucial role was played by branch TGWU 1/1107 which was the largest union branch in one of the key industries in Britain. As Sheila comments; “This place is all the more deserved given the historic struggles carried out by 1107 against the anti-union and anti-worker culture of the company which gave its name to a whole industrial system-Fordism.”
What is fascinating in this book is the militancy of the workers in resisting Fords’ attempts to undermine them one eg in 1944 when stewards from the TGWU and AEU occupied the manager’s office and forced the TUC and Fords to reopen their talks on organising. As Sheila shows the grassroots shop stewards were not just fighting Fords but the reactionary forces within their own trade unions. And as a former shop steward I can testify that very often activists spend as much time fighting their fulltime Trade Union officers as the management.
The Irish in this country have played a major role in trade unions and the labour movement and Fords was not an exception. Sheila shows this Irish militancy in 1944 when two shop stewards, Sweetman and Lynch, are sacked. “They received great support not only from Sweetman’s fellow- Irishmen in the foundry, who had become “pillars of the union at Fords’”.
Sheila also shows how the increasing numbers of women being recruited at Fords during the Second World War to do men’s jobs refused to accept the poor working conditions: as one of the convenors commented; “During the war it was through the women, quite honestly, that we gained a lot of the advances-rest periods, washing facilities, all that sort of thing-because they wouldn’t put up with what the men used to put up with.”

women shop stewards at Ford's

women shop stewards at Ford’s

But it was in the early 1980s that new activists in 1107 reformed the branch “based on principles of workplace union democracy” and determined opposition to Ford’s collaborationist “Employee involvement policies”.
The new leadership of 1107 came in as Thatcher came to power. Over the last year there have been many commemorations of the Miners Strike 84-65 but there has been a lack of a wider analysis of the real reasons why the miners and other trade unionists were defeated. As Sheila shows it was the anti-trade union laws that really kicked the stuffing out of shopfloor militancy plus the lack of leadership from the trade unions.
She says; “Thatcherite anti-union laws limiting solidarity and undermining workplace trade union democracy were to have a devastating impact on even strongly-organised workplaces like Ford’s Dagenham plant.”

ford workers on strike
The new leadership of 1107 were not just fighting Thatcher but major changes taking place in the car industry including getting the workers to take on more tasks as well as contracting out jobs and imposing more flexible work practices. TGWU official Steve Turner summed it up; “Ford was at the forefront of many of the industrial changes that were coming about at the time, trying to drive home a new agenda of not working smarter but working a lot harder.”
But 1107 responded by building links with other Ford workers and political activists through the national Ford combine and connecting with workers across Europe and the USA.
In the workplace 1107 was at the forefront of challenging racism in the workplace, not just from individual workers but also racist recruitment practices. They also took an active role in the boycott campaign against South Africa; refusing to handle parts which led to Ford’s pulling out of the country.
Trade union solidarity was a key factor in their politics as Alan Deyna-Jones comments; “The banner of the 1107 was always there on marches and rallies all over Britain, supporting all other workers like the nurses, miners and bus drivers.”
“Notoriously Militant” is an important book for anyone who wants to find out what real trade unionism means. For me a major strength of the book is the way in which the story is told through the use of interviews with the grassroots activists and it reminds me of many people I have met throughout my life as a trade union member and shop steward, ordinary people who worked hard for their members and were often victimised for standing up for justice for their members in their workplace. It is one of the few books that are inspiring about the role of trade unions in the workplace and shows how together members can make a real difference to our lives at work and in the wider world.

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About lipstick socialist

I am an activist and writer. My interests include women, class, culture and history. From an Irish in Britain background I am a republican and socialist. All my life I have been involved in community and trade union politics and I believe it is only through grass roots politics that we will get a better society. This is reflected in my writing, in my book Northern ReSisters Conversations with Radical Women and my involvement in the Mary Quaile Club. .If you want to contact me please use my gmail which is lipsticksocialist636
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1 Response to Building a Socialist Library (11): Notoriously Militant The Story of a Union Branch Sheila Cohen

  1. says:

    Excellent article Bernadette!

    Hope all ok. are you going to WCML ?

    H xx

    Sent from Windows Mail

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