Interview with Hugh Scanlon
President of the Amalgamated Engineering Union
Could you tell us about your political formation and what has made you a militant trade unionist?
Isuppose one of the most formative influences on me in my youth was my grandfather, who was a good socialist and an active worker in the Labour Party and Co-op movement. From the beginning I always had his guidance. I was born in Australia in 1913, my parents having emigrated there, but shortly after my birth my father died and my mother came back to live with her parents. My grandfather, who was a semi-skilled worker in a soap works—as was my mother—gave me books to read, especially all of Jack London’s. These made a terrific impression on me. Then, of course, I read Upton Sinclair and other utopian socialist writers like that, as well as semi-fictional books. This was the type of writing that impressed me rather than any high-sounding theoretical study of socialism.
I left school at 14, to start an apprenticeship as an instrument maker at Metro-Vickers, now part of aei. There I came into contact with shop stewards who impressed me greatly, and I was proposed into the union by one of them, Ben Gardner, who later became General Secretary. Another steward was also a tutor of the nclc, and he got me to attend classes in elementary and advanced economics, industrial psychology and a number of other subjects. But the real driving force to militancy came with the Spanish Civil War. Being an engineer it was felt that, rather than going to Spain, I should concentrate mainly on repairing and overhauling vehicles for the Spanish government. I joined the Communist party at about this time, and remained in the party until the mid-’fifties when I left because of numerous political differences.
In 1938 I was elected onto the Manchester district committee of the aeu and before that, at the age of 23, had been elected a shop steward. After the war and the election of Fred Lee to Parliament, I took over his job as chairman of the works committee, which in those years represented membership of about 25,000 to 30,000. These were the years when the pent-up, frustrated feelings that had had little or no expression because of war-time legislation developed into real struggles. With Stafford Cripps’ wage restraint the situation was very similar to today’s. The job of full-time chairman was a unique experience and good preparation for future full-time activities in the trade-union movement. Then in 1947 I was elected divisional organizer for the North West and remained in that position for 16 years. In the meanwhile I had also been elected Confederation District Secretary, and had contested the Executive Council and lost by 400 votes. In a subsequent election which was made void by the Executive Committee, I fought a legal action, and had to contest the election again. I was eventually elected in 1963, and re-elected last year for a further period of 5 years.
What were the particular shop-floor experiences that contributed to your militancy?