‘Becoming a shop steward transformed my political life.’ – IS in the 1970s

May ’68 and the struggles of the late sixties radicalised tens of thousands of students, some became revolutionaries and joined revolutionary groups. Norman MacLean became a member of the International Socialists (IS) and started working in factories, organising and agitating with his fellow workers during the heightened period of class struggle known as the ‘upturn’. Part 2 will be published tomorrow.

Student Occupation late 1960s

Part 1 From University to Industry 

What was your background? 

I come from Stornoway, Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides. My father was petit bourgeois, owning two butchers’ shops that I worked in as a child. My mother’s family were gamekeepers and domestic servants on a big estate and I grew up with a resentment of the landlords. I used to work gathering the sheep for them every summer. My mother’s family were very working class, but deferential Tories. My father was a businessman, a liberal Tory.

In my teens I was a rebel. I was anti-Tory by the time I was 15. Aged 17, I refused to go to church, one of the biggest decisions I made in my life – in my community it took a lot of bottle. In my teens I was a vague sort of Labour lefty, critical of my local Labour MP, Calum MacMillan.

I was very pleased to escape my background, especially the church, and I went to Aberdeen University, got a Geography degree and then went to Sudan and taught English in Dongola Boys’ Secondary School.

In 1968-69 I did a postgraduate social science diploma at Birmingham University. I was very involved in the occupation and then a political discussion group, the Free University of Birmingham which included Stuart Hall (Communist Party intellectual & later Marxism Today). The occupation of Birmingham University was huge, 3000 students involved, very democratic, constant votes – it was very active. I was part of the security detail led by Hall.

I remember some attempt to link up with workers in Birmingham and I can remember the [Beatles] White Album playing non-stop – you know the song Revolution… We had this non-stop meeting and we had these student superstars. I didn’t get up and talk – I was very shy having come back from Africa and now being surrounded by women.

When we voted to come out of occupation this bearded anarchist screamed out the window that we were all selling out – but we’d won our demands. One good guy there was Peter Gowan of the IMG (International Marxist Group) who died of mesothelioma recently contracted from teaching in a school in East London. Quite a few teachers are dying from mesothelioma, the cancer from asbestos.

The student occupation was a wonderful experience; it added to my radicalisation and convinced me even more that workers were the answer, not students.

565HairySelfPortraitLondon

What did you do when you left college? 

I came to London to work for the Greater London Council – I decided the way to change the world was in regional planning – some of former PM Harold Wilson’s crap had rubbed off on me. I got a job in the Parks Department and after a year of being bored out of my mind doing basic surveys and sitting in meetings where I was on the wrong side of the fence – I walked out and went to North Africa travelling

I met some Catalan Marxists who were very anti-Franco and I went to live with them in Barcelona. In Sudan I had spent some of my time reading Frantz Fanon, Mao Zedong, Karl Marx – possibly you could call me an unconscious Third Worldist Maoist. After a few months I came back, rented a flat in Battersea and got a job as a hospital theatre porter.

I went to any African speakers in London. I went to political meetings from the day I left home, CP (Communist Party), Scots Nats. At this point I’d been going to IMG meetings but I joined the IS (International Socialists).

What drew you to IS? 

I had a strong political position and the IMG line on Russia was nonsense to me because I saw Russia’s role in Africa as imperialist. Some of the Sudanese teachers I drank with had been educated in Eastern Europe and they were very clear that the motivation behind Russian aid was the same as American aid. I couldn’t stomach the ‘Bureaucratic Workers State’ argument and when I came across the view that Russia was State Capitalist I was very taken with it. I had spent my undergraduate years reading books about Russia and I had a critical position. I went to IMG meetings and argued with them, asking them lots of questions. I also didn’t like their emphasis on the role of students.

I joined the IS, very soon after coming across them at the end of 1970, because their positions on the third world and Russia fitted my views and they focused on the working class. This all made sense to me as opposed to the opportunists of the Labour Party whom I’d been aware of for years. I was never active for Labour but I would go to their events, jazz concerts, and have a drink with them.

I met a comrade called Dave Harvey who sold me a copy of Socialist Worker on the steps of Battersea Library. Someone called Paul kept coming to see me, took me out for a drink and after a couple of weeks I joined.

ISJ 1970

What was being a member of IS like? 

I joined the branch in Wandsworth and we met in the Spotted Dog pub. The branch was made up of teachers, white-collar workers, manual workers, intellectuals, full time politicos. It was a very broad group of people – I didn’t do very much, a few paper sales on Saturdays – certainly I didn’t do much for a year, people didn’t pressure me to. I used to ride a bike all over the place and I don’t remember riding to many political events. There were three or four really experienced manual workers. Danny Flynn, (formerly of the ENV factory) branch secretary of the Wandsworth bus garage union branch used to bring three or four bus workers with him. Tom Porter and Dave Edwards were experienced

AEUW members. We had speakers, a lot of talk, a stimulating environment – John Palmer and Duncan Hallas were in the branch. Sometimes Reg Groves (one of the original British Trotskyists from the 1930s) sat in a corner. I was working at Balham post office. I wanted to be a postman but they put me on the counter.

When did you become politically active at work? 

In 1972 I got a start in a factory, Mullards in Mitcham, part of the Phillips group, a big factory of 800 shop floor workers. The workforce was divided with 400 in the Electricians Union (the ETU), 400 in the Engineering Union (the AUEW). The factory had a really good joint shop stewards committee of 30 stewards mainly made up of women. Two young lads – one black, one white – organised the workshop I was in, a small unit in the corner of the factory that was majority black and Asian, through the EETPU (formerly the ETU) because the convenor, Ron Broom, was more sympathetic than the right wing AEUW convenor. I was there two years, a shop steward and minute’s secretary of the Joint Shop Stewards Committee. That was a very interesting experience. While there I became very active in the ETU fraction of IS. Comrades trained me – people like Rab Jeffrey came down and slept on my floor and talked me through it.

At Mullards I was suddenly a shop steward in a new workshop, a new group of workers, a lot of them were very confident – and we were in constant struggle – we walked out regularly, at the drop of a hat. Within a few months we doubled our wages, we got our manager pushed out and a much tougher guy moved in.

Were you politically active outside your workplace? 

The first big struggle I was involved in was the St Thomas’ Hospital building site in 1972 (contracting electricians’ strike). The CP had a lot of members there – some of whom I still know. Some of my Flashlight group (the ETU Broad Left) were working on that job. I worked hard in support and visited the picket line. From then on, when there was any big disputes involving ETU members I would take a day off work, take them round London to all the major workplaces – including all the Communist Party workshops in Fleet Street.

My workplace had mass meetings and we voted to come out with the AUEW in the Industrial Relations Act struggle. Our convenor was a Labour left and if the AUEW were fighting he made damn sure the ETU were supporting it although the ETU bureaucracy didn’t support it.

Outside Pentonville prison when Fleet Street printers took solidarity action with the jailed Dockers, now that was a great day. It was a flash general strike led from below. I remember getting a phone call saying Danny’s getting the bus garage out. Danny was an experienced militant – in his 40s or 50s.

My political life was transformed when I became a shop steward, everything the IS was saying fitted – rank and file, organise at work… we had educational sessions in Duncan Hallas’ flat. One of the things discussed was the National Minority Movement. I got individual advice from members of the Electricians union in the organisation and when we came out on strike if we were out for more than five minutes they would come down and join the picket line.

After about a year we had a factory branch and there was 6 of us – we met in the evening in the pub outside the factory. We had speakers like Duncan Hallas – it only lasted a few months. It was all very short term and exciting. Two Ghanaian workers, one West Indian, a Kenyan Asian and a Guyanese – they were great guys on the shop floor – some of the workers came to the big Rank and File conference that IS organised – and one spoke at IS conference.

It was a dirty, dangerous job – re-gunning TVs, reconditioning televisions. I spent sixth months looking at a lathe, burning glass – not good for your eyes – every so often one would explode – well, literally implode. If the temperature was wrong two or three would go off like bombs… there was glass everywhere. Conditions were tough and we stuck together like glue. On morning shifts we clocked on at half six, clocked off half two and went to the pub.

Eventually after two years they broke us by getting an alcoholic scab to weaken the organisation, telling them everything that went on, and the younger guys moved on to better jobs. The shop crumbled, key people left, management got much more aggressive. Eventually the alcoholic took over as shop steward from me on a split vote. My days were numbered by then. I was very involved in the EETPU fraction of IS and I wanted to carry on with that so an electrician called Jim Atkinson got me a start as an electrician’s mate with the Department of Environment. He was a militant with rank and file politics on the left of the Labour Party. I went to college one day a week and qualified as an electrician after two years.

In part 2 Norman tells how he worked for two years at BP Chemicals factory where he was central to a strike about working with asbestos and then spent three years in electrical contracting, organising on building sites.

Norman spoke to Colin Revolting 

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