‘To be effective, trade unionism must be militant, immediate and democratic,’ writes a shop-stewards’ convenor in this account of his job in a highly skilled Midlands aeroengine plant. A study in the workings of militant shop floor organization, his article clearly articulates both the need and the struggle for workers’ control that begins on the shop floor. Now in his early forties,ph has been a communist since his youth, and is a member of the aeu. His many outside activities include being on the Executive Council of the Midland Federation of Trades Councils.
The voice of the city is sleepless,
The factories thunder and beat,
How bitter the wind and relentless
That echoes our shuffling feet.
The words of the revolutionary song are still relevant to workers waiting on a cold winter’s morning for a bus that is always late. But when a worker is driving to the factory on a fine morning in his own car, as I and hundreds of others in my plant do, the link at first sight may not seem so obvious. Yet if you look below the surface you’ll find that the more things change the more they remain the same.
From the Coventry journeymen of medieval times to the workers of 1917 who struck for the recognition of shop-stewards, our city has had a tradition of
Since our factory is part of the crisis-ridden aircraft industry, the immediate contradictions are apparent to most of our workers. Advanced technological methods exist in our plant alongside First World War buildings and antiquated managerial ideas, greater output per man is counter-balanced by growing mountains of paperwork and bureaucracy. Over all hangs the lack of planning for the industry and the threat of cancellation of contracts, short-time or redundancy. But while these contradictions are obvious, the long-term answers are not so apparent to the same workers. It is here, in the influence of reactionary ideas in the Labour movement—ideas that labour and capital are reconcilable, that capitalism is the best system we’ve got, that the class struggle no longer exists—that for me, as a militant trade unionist and communist, the biggest problem lies. For the basic issue remains what it has always been; to advance our: struggle against the ruling class and, as part of this advance, to exert and extend our control on the shop floor. Despite the difficulties, I welcome the struggle, it is life; the absence of struggle is stagnation and death.
Our factory is highly organized and highly skilled. Starting as a rather paternalistic concern at the turn of the century, it has grown by a series of amalgamations and take-overs—the latest quite recently when it was swallowed up by its rival—into a combine of some eighty thousand workers and technicians in plants all over the country, a size equalled only by a similar concern in the usa. Our plant employs about 4,000 manual workers, over half of whom are highly skilled, and roughly 2,000 staff workers, mainly technicians, draughtsmen and clerical workers. We make one complete jet engine and the components, including discs and compressor blades, for a number of other jet engines, including those now being tested for the Concorde.
The amount of machining that goes into the components is very high indeed, sometimes involving removing nine-tenths of the weight of the original casting or forging which we receive from sub-contractors. Much of the work is done by highly skilled operators on conventional machines—lathes, milling and grinding machines—while some of the rest is carried out on specialized machines like tape-control drilling machines and copying lathes which also require highly skilled workers. Because the work has to reach such a high standard, there is one inspector for every four workers.