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30 years ago: The Broad Left Organising Committee's huge impact
Thousands attended BLOC's 1984 conference
30 years ago a national conference took place in Sheffield organised by the Broad Left Organising Committee (BLOC). The meeting coincided with the start of the miners' strike in March 1984.
The miners' strike was a culmination of the rising tide of anger against the Margaret Thatcher government and its attacks on the trade union movement. Thatcher, the Tory prime minister, was preparing to close down the mining industry, mainly to break the most powerful trade union at the time, the NUM.
Thatcher wanted to smash the NUM and the miners as a lesson to all workers that resistance to attacks on their jobs and conditions was doomed to failure.
BLOC was a formation of trade union broad lefts which had been set up earlier in response to developments in the Labour Party and the use of the trade union block vote in an undemocratic way by the right-wing trade union leaders. At that time many of the broad lefts were led or influenced by supporters of the Militant newspaper (the forerunner of the Socialist Party).
Militant argued that, because of the growing list of attacks on the working class and the miserable leadership given by many of the trade union leaders, the time was right to re-launch BLOC as a new initiative. The aim was to try to give a lead from below to all those ready to struggle against the Tory onslaught.
It was clear that the original aims of BLOC would need to be developed. BLOC had developed a certain authority amongst many trade union activists. It needed to develop this rank and file organisation and at the same time continue to put pressure on the official trade union bodies to prepare their members for the coming struggle.
Events can speed up the pace of struggle and the development of new working class formations. For example the most recent rank and file organisation of trade unionists to develop has been the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN). Its original purpose, to rebuild the shop stewards' movement, had to be developed upon with advent of the coalition government's massive attacks on the public sector.
There were some siren voices in the NSSN who said that the NSSN's primary role should continue to be to 'network' trade union activists and nothing else, whatever networking might mean. Socialist Party members argued, however, that the NSSN should launch an anti-cuts campaign to help take forward the battle against the government's austerity agenda, and this was agreed by a special conference of the NSSN in January 2011.
Similarly BLOC's original role had to be developed once the miners' strike started. BLOC had called its March 1984 event just after the beginning of what became the year-long miners' strike against the programme of pit closures. BLOC had been planning the conference for some time but it could not have come at a better time.
As George Williamson, the organising secretary of BLOC and the chair of USDAW broad left, and a supporter of Militant, said in the Militant newspaper in February 1984: "When BLOC was formed we looked in particular to the struggle taking place in the trade unions affiliated to the Labour Party. We saw part of our role as being a focal point of opposition to the undemocratic use of the trade union block vote by the right wing trade union leaders [ie them using the block vote in an undemocratic way; BLOC supported the trade unions having a block vote - Ed].
"We have now set ourselves on a whole new direction - into building the broad left movement throughout the trade unions nationally into a fighting campaigning organisation...
"The outcome of the 1983 TUC rally was the point of departure for this BLOC rally. The TUC general council composition has been rigged to favour the right wing and the white collar unions. The congress itself saw the right wing forcing though an agreement to have talks with the Employment Minister Norman Tebbit.
"All this was in line with the 'new realism' theory. The right wing TUC leaders seem to think that they as 'skilled negotiators' will be able to make the Tories see sense."
BLOC conference platform
The platform speakers at the BLOC event included Tony Benn, who had just won the Chesterfield byelection. It was also addressed by Frank Slater of the Yorkshire NUM who condemned the role of the Notts NUM leaders - who refused to take part in the miners' strike - by saying that "if we had a leadership like that in Barnsley we would have burnt the HQ down by now".
Other platform speakers included Phil Holt of the post office engineers' union POEU executive, who chaired the conference. Joe Marino, general secretary of the bakers' union, Alan Quinn, a member of TGWU executive, and Kevin Roddy, a member of the CPSA executive, also spoke. Terry Fields MP, a Militant supporter, got a tremendous response from the conference when he attacked the "cowards and traitors" of the movement who had "derailed many battles".
Even David Blunkett, Sheffield Labour council leader at the time, welcomed the delegates to the "socialist republic of south Yorkshire". Later on Blunkett became a right winger and a member of Tony Blair Labour government.
As was reported at the time, a "section of the conference repeatedly declared that the ranks of the movement were 'demoralised' and it was the wrong period to build the broad left movement". Alistair Tice of NUPE, along with other delegates, answered this point by explaining that certainly the trade union membership had fallen by nearly two million but this was mainly through mass unemployment. This was unlike the 1930s when membership fell by half through widespread demoralisation of ordinary workers.
Attending the Sheffield event in 1984 were over 2,200 delegates plus hundreds more in two overflow meetings. Another 500 people had to be turned away because there was just no room.
- The trade unions represented and number from each were: NUM 100, TGWU 196, AUEW 135, NUPE 114, CPSA 134, NALGO 178, ASTMS 78, and EEPTU 30.
- Only two TUC affiliated unions were not represented.
- Some of the broad left organisations that made up BLOC were in: CPSA, ASTMS, BIFU, COHSE (Group 81), POEU, GMBTU, UCW, NUPE, NALGO, and one of rail workers. There were also regional broad lefts, including from TGWU and the AUEW. Some of these broad lefts had been recently launched whilst older broad lefts like the CPSA's were being revitalised by the developments in the unions. The reason why some of the older broad lefts at national level were not yet affiliated to BLOC was because they were often secret 'invitation only' groups, little more than election machines.
BLOC played an important role in mobilising workers behind the miners throughout their strike, including organising pickets of the power stations and a 2,000-strong lobby of the TUC conference in September 1984 to demand a 24-hour general strike to back the miners.
BLOC held tremendously important conferences and campaigns throughout the 1980s on many issues, including important international workers' struggles. Regional BLOC organisations were developed and conferences took place throughout the country. This included a London conference in October 1986 against the privatisation of Thames Water.
Second BLOC conference
In April 1986 the second national BLOC conference again took place in Sheffield. The miners' strike had finished in March 1985. The defeat of the miners had a certain effect on the mood of the whole working class, nevertheless 1,800 trade union delegates were at the conference to debate the key issues of the day.
The conference was called in conjunction with the socialist-led Liverpool district Labour Party and its theme was "how to map out a strategy to defeat the witch-hunt [in the Labour Party] and build the left". In 1983 the Labour Party's national leaders had expelled the five members of the Militant newspaper editorial board and in November 1985 they suspended Liverpool district Labour Party, in their drive to suppress socialist ideas. Derek Hatton and Tony Mulhearn, Liverpool councillors who had been sacked from office by the Tory government in 1985 along with 47 others, addressed the conference.
John McCreadie, the broad left candidate for general secretary of the CPSA, also spoke: "Workers owe a great debt to the CPSA broad left for forcing out Alistair Graham (the right wing general secretary) from the trade union movement. Graham has given up the fight and gone to join the bosses". Later on John won the election but the right wing went to the Tory courts and got his election overturned.
The BLOC conference also highlighted the battle by the South African working class against apartheid and discussed how the trade unions in Britain should aid that struggle. The president of the South African TGWU, Jeremiah Zulu, got a standing ovation when he called for direct links between the rank and file of the trade unions in Britain and South Africa.
The conference also heard from representatives of the growing number of strikes taking place throughout the country. "Sacked printers, workers from the long running Addenbrookes and Silent Night disputes, strikers fighting low pay at Downland bedding in Liverpool, Lambeth and Liverpool councillors with their proud record of struggle were all present" (Militant 25/4/1986).
BLOC held a special conference in July 1986 in Birmingham, attended by over 350 delegates. This had the theme of fighting the privatisation of the public sector which had been unleashed by the Thatcher government.
At the time Dave Nellist was still the Labour MP for Coventry South East. He opened the conference by calling for the renationalisation of all privatised services and industry with one third of the management boards made up of elected representatives of workers in the industry, one third from the TUC and one third from a Labour government. Compensation would only be paid based on proven need.
Militant supporter John McCreadie explained that his election to the general secretary's position in CPSA showed how wrong it was to say that socialist ideas were unpopular and that the movement was demoralised.
The conference called for BLOC to create a health service broad left to fight NHS privatisation. All speakers stressed that the broad lefts in the unions had to be active campaigning bodies.
Conference gave a standing ovation to both Nimrod Sejaka, former leader of the iron and steel workers' union in South Africa and June Rosenals, former secretary of the metal union (MAWU).
1988 BLOC conference
BLOC organised another conference on 13 February 1988 which over 1,200 delegates attended, including many from the health service. When it was planned in September 1987 nobody foresaw the explosion of strikes, ranging from the health service to Fords in Basildon and many others that would take place leading up to the conference.
38 nurses on one night shift in Manchester had taken strike action in frustration at understaffing, working conditions and low pay. They then left the RCN and joined COHSE. The strike hit the headlines and forced the government into a U-turn which was massively reported on the TV and media generally. This changed the whole mood of the trade union movement.
The conference called for the TUC to organise a one-day general strike in support of the NHS and the TUC was forced - by the mood of workers - to organise a national day of action on this issue, which included strike action at local level.
Health workers at the conference got together to organise a health workers' broad left to campaign for a national shop stewards' combine in health. Local government workers started organising in a similar way.
The conference also adopted a resolution against the proposed attacks on abortion laws which would have heavily restricted abortion rights.
Programme and role
BLOC's programme sought to unite all the struggles that workers were involved in. It called for:
- Regular election of all trade union officials
- Only the average workers' wage for all officials
- Opposition to all witch-hunts in the Labour Party and the unions
- Building the shop stewards' combines at local, regional, and national level
- A 35-hour week without loss of pay
- A campaign to defeat the attacks on abortion rights
- Repeal of all the anti-union laws
- Full support for health workers and for a 24-hour general strike
BLOC's role was crucial in showing what could be done if the trade union movement got together and acted in unison. Unfortunately, despite BLOC's growing influence, the right wing dominance at the top of the unions effectively blocked the path to more militant action.
The right wing's policies were based on acceptance of the market and capitalism. The argument was that this required a "new realism" - in other words, unlike the 1970s when militancy was the norm which the right wing argued, led to the Thatcher government.
On the contrary, rank and file militancy was essential to take forward workers' interests, as it is today. In addition, working class political representation is needed. As John Macreadie put it in an interview in the Militant: "It is my experience and the experience of millions of trade unionists over generations that you cannot solve the problems of working people on a lasting basis by trade union struggles alone. The day to day problems and struggles of trade unionists are inextricably linked with the need for a socialist society under democratic control and management of the working class".
It was clear that by the end of the 1980s the role that BLOC could play in that period was drawing to a close. The collapse of the Berlin Wall and capitalist ideological offensive led to a fall in political consciousness of many trade union activists. It required new events and a new, younger layer of activists to be brought into the struggle before the human forces for any new similar organisation would be available.
The National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) today has that chance and indeed is beginning to draw around it a new layer of trade union and community activists. It can fight to give an organisational form to the tremendous anger amongst working people against the government's policies.