My friend Victor
Guest post by Mick Rice
Above: Saltley Gates mass picket, 1972
Vic Collard was a friend of mine. We met in the late 1960’s when the heady days of revolt embraced the young. I was a “child of 1968” when the French events demonstrated that different politics were possible. Vic was 10 years older than me and a worker intellectual of the finest calibre. As well as being widely read he was also an AEU Shop Steward! There could have only been a handful of AEU Shop Stewards who knew about Marshall McLuhan never mind being conversant with his theories. Vic knew about the Frankfurt School. He was deeply interested in philosophy and psychology. He knew about Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse.
How much different the world might have been if the Left had concentrated on perfecting the “Orgone Box”! It has, unfortunately, so far, been singularly unsuccessful in promoting world revolution.
Vic once confessed to me about his role in the Second World War. I thought I was going to be entertained by a humorous Spike Milligan type – Adolf Hitler-My role in his Downfall – story. But Vic was ashamed of his behaviour. He had gone out, with a relative, for a walk by the canal. He must have been 5 or 6 years old. Alongside the towpath a group of German prisoners-of-war were clearing overgrown vegetation. Vic, our intrepid Brit, took a run at the first German POW and kicked him in the shins. No doubt thinking the juvenile equivalent of: “Take that you dirty Hun!” The Dandy and other boys’ comics of the time have a lot to answer for as they, of course, were bastions of British Imperialism. Vic had not yet read Marx.
The poor prisoner was probably just a conscripted German worker. However, if Vic felt that he had something to atone for, he certainly made up for it in later years. In the early 1970s the Birmingham East District Committee of the AEU was considering submitting motions to the union’s National Committee. One branch had sent in a motion supporting the boycott of goods to Pinochet’s Chile. If I remember right a Scottish factory with AEU members had already blocked the export of vehicles. Ted Williams, the leading right-winger, was pouring scorn on the motion. “These do-gooders want to interfere with international trade”, he thundered. “They risk putting in jeopardy AEU jobs”. Normally the later point was the ace that floored left-wing opposition as “AEU jobs” was paramount.
Vic played a blinder which completely changed the meeting. “No doubt”, said Vic, “If Brother Williams had been a member of this committee in the 1930s’ he would have been in favour of exporting Gas Chambers to Hitler’s Germany so long as they were made by AEU members”. Yes Vic was great with words and great at thinking on his feet.
Another time the full time officer was singing the praises of equality as he proudly told us he had negotiated an agreement to allow women to work night shifts! Vic had to point out that we wanted equality up and not equality down as working nightshifts was bad for men. It could not be regarded as a giant leap forward for womankind that they were going to be subjected to the same anti-social, unhealthy working patterns!
In the mid 1960’s Vic and his friend Geoff Johnson, were members of the “Labour Loyalist” group. They would go around meetings campaigning for an end to Incomes Policy which had been introduced by the Labour Government. Of course their intention was to be entirely disloyal to the Labour Government of the day. Calling themselves “Labour Loyalists” confused their opponents and, as they explained to me, it was really the Labour Government that wasn’t being loyal to the workers! A neat strategy that put Labour apparatchiks on the back foot!
Vic and I were both members of the AEU District Committee when the successful mass picket of Saltley Gates took place during the miners’ strike of 1972. It now seems almost unbelievable that ordinary workers could mobilise in tens of thousands to down tools right at the same time and set out to walk en masse to close the gates. This, the greatest act of solidarity of Birmingham’s working people, came about because of organisation and leadership. The AEU District President, Arthur Harper, the Convenor of British Leyland’s Tractors and Transmissions plant at Washwood Heath was a member of the International Socialists. Arthur Harper was a militant trade unionist. He was no socialist theoretician but he knew that trade unionism wasn’t enough on its own to change society. Arthur prided himself on being good at tactics. He was once instructed by the AEU Executive to end a strike and tell his members to go back to work. He did precisely as instructed and then said “As your Convenor, I’ve done what I’ve been instructed to do by the union – but as your mate I’m telling you, that you would be stupid to accept the union’s advice!”
When Arthur Scargill came to the District Committee to ask for help, Arthur Harper knew what to do. A meeting of all the Shop Stewards was summoned for the following evening and over 300 of them agreed to pull out their members in the morning and march on Saltley! The remarkable thing is they had the confidence to know that they could do it!
At the time Birmingham was the centre of the car industry. There were full time senior stewards and most factories had on-site union offices. The AEU had a functioning Broad Left – over 30 convenors and shop stewards would meet on the first Saturday morning of the month in the upstairs room of the White Lion in the Horsefair. There was Kenny Davis at SU Carburettors’, Pat Smiley at Serck Radiator, Peter Nicholas at Rover Tyseley, Gordon Vaughan at Pressed Steel Fisher, Joe Harris at Rover Solihull, Peter Hunt at Lucas Great King Street, Jack Lynch, (later Larry Connolly), at Lucas Shaftmoor Lane, Albert Rice at Swish. There was Dick Etheridge the Convenor at Austin Longbridge. These were all sizeable factories with thousands of workers. The Austin at one time employed over 30,000.
The union convenors were well-known and were respected. Dick Etheridge was often quoted in the local paper and when Arthur Harper married it appeared on the front page of the Birmingham Evening Mail. Of course the late 1960’s and early 1970’s saw significant industrial militancy and car workers were regarded as the well-paid shock troops always demanding better pay.
All of the Convenors were men. There were women shop stewards – particularly at SU Carburettors and Lucas. The SU women had been active in the campaign against the Industrial Relations Act in 1971 and had formed a “marching choir” for demonstrations. They were a very formidable collective force. They were the sort of women that didn’t take prisoners!
Another occasion, which is not often recognised as a victory for the trade union movement, took place over the Birmingham Pub bombings. The day after the Pub bombings the whole city was traumatised. When we came to work it felt disrespectful to just start working. Machines were not switched on. People hung about in groups and talked about the atrocity of the night before. The atmosphere was electric, it just needed some hot head – probably motivated by the Fascists – to demand a march on the Town Hall and the city-centre would have suffered an anti -Irish riot. Management did not know what to do. They got hold of the Union Stewards and demanded that we hold a mass meeting to discuss the events and try to secure a return to work. So it was that Larry Connolly, the Dublin born AEU Convenor, addressed the meeting. After everyone had their say, we walked back to work united. Similar events took place all over the city as the union shop stewards ensured that the workers of Birmingham stayed united and did not give vent to anti Irish sentiment. The atmosphere first thing that morning was so tense – one could feel a collective surge of emotion so strong – that the workers could have been led to the barricades. Complete unity of will and the need to do something. It just wasn’t the right issue but it felt like we could have led the workers anywhere that day.
For a time we shared a flat with a number of other comrades. One such was Colin Sparks an emerging intellectual in the International Socialists. I think he was attending the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham.
Young earnest left wingers of the day would debate late into the night on the differences between the theory of “State Capitalism” and “Deformed / Degenerated Workers’ States”. It apparently all revolved around whether Russia and Eastern European states would require a social or a political revolution. The later seemed to me to be a workers coup d’etat with the organs of the state staying the same but with a leadership change with real workers’ representatives in charge.
Anyway, Vic and Colin set to – debating the role of Stalinism and the precise moment when State Capitalism had triumphed in Russia. Was it the introduction of the New Economic Policy? Was it the defeat of the Left Opposition? Or perhaps it could have been the commencement of the Show Trials? Was it the commencement of the Second World War? Vic got Colin to agree with each of these in turn and then to recognise that he must be completely muddled. Eventually, Colin gave up and admitted that he could not give a precise date for the victory of State Capitalism and also accepted that as State Capitalism was a change in the social nature of the state that it needed to have a defining moment. It was a conundrum. It seemed to me that Vic had proved that the Russian Revolution was an “Impermanent Revolution”.
I don’t know whether Vic was personally pleased that the “real intellectual” had admitted defeat but I was less comradely. I thought it was great that in our flat in Handsworth we could turn over great intellects like Colin.
I don’t know what earnest left-wingers intellectualise over today. Presumably since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin wall other issues have come to the fore. Personally, I always thought that building a wall to keep the workers in a socialist paradise (or even some sort of workers’ state) was contradictory – but then I have always been state cap inclined.
At one time we had 31 AEU members in Birmingham who were also members of the International Socialists. I remember one comrade, a teacher, was involved in some School / Business Liaison meeting with a Personnel Officer from Lucas’s. He asked in an innocent a way as possible whether the company had any problems with subversives. The Personnel Officer replied that Lucas’s had IS like some people had mice! I think that Victor was rather proud of that for he was undoubtedly the “éminence grise” of the AEU group.
Unfortunately, a left-winger called Laurie Smith, who was a member of the Socialist Labour League, did extremely well in an AEU Executive election. In fact he was subsequently elected to a National Officer post. Laurie Smith was a long standing union activist in London and a Toolmaker. Toolmakers were the backbone of the AEU and, in my view, Laurie’s vote was largely due to support from fellow toolmakers as they were often regarded as “craft chauvinists” who referred to semi-skilled workers as “Tom Nods”.
The IS leadership (in the process of becoming the SWP) thought otherwise. Laurie’s vote indicated that the workers were moving to the left and ditching Labour. The IS /SWP needed to field candidates to all AEU positions to win the thousands that were moving leftwards. They called a snap meeting at the IS national conference to change the line. The AEU group in Birmingham could not go along with this triumphalism and we were systematically expelled for our failure to comply with the requirements of democratic centralism. We were characterised as “trade union routinists” by the central committee as the organisation went to rank and file extremes. I remember Tony Cliff extolling the virtues of workers who had not been tainted by trade union tradition. Shop Stewards and especially Senior Shop Stewards were the new trade union bureaucrats.
During the 1970s’ Vic smoked Park Drive cigarettes. Nearly everyone smoked. I could always find an open packet somewhere in Vic’s room to feed my habit. For many years I smoked Park Drive as I had been converted from Gold Leaf by the availability of Vic’s fags.
Vic had a great turn of phrase. He used to say things like: “It makes you want to vomit blood!” when he disapproved of anything. He said it in such a vitriolic way that it made you think that you ought to vomit blood just to prove him right! He was very sharp at knowing the right thing to do.
Vic was a checker. A checker is an industrial “weights and measures” person who verifies the stock and throughput of work. He was employed at the Lucas Chester Street factory. In the early 1980’s, Birmingham lost over 100,000 manufacturing jobs – more than the whole of Scotland. One such was Vic’s job.
The company proceeded to systematically close down the Chester Street factory. Departments were shut and the workers were told to report to another factory in the Lucas group. Not so Victor. Eventually, there was only him and the Security Guards left. This went on for months. Vic said he felt like Rudolph Hess in Berlin’s Spandau Prison as Hess was the only prisoner and had a prison all to himself!
In the end Vic was served with a redundancy notice. The union official came down and threatened the company with a tribunal case for constructive dismissal. So the company then offered to pay both the redundancy as well as the compensation that Vic could have won from a Tribunal case. The union official advised Vic to take the offer. I think that the old Chester Street factory has now been pulled down and replaced by a Campanile Hotel.
Vic was then unemployed for a while – but embarked on a second career as an administrator (eventually manager) for Greenspring Training. This was an initiative put together by Richard Bashford, Vicar of Handsworth’s New Road Church, Labour Councillor, jazz fan and TGWU activist. The funding for the project was provided by the Manpower Services Commission, a government agency. Vic likened the M.S.C. and its subsequent metamorphosis as Eastern European Stalinist bodies that were operated by rejects of the Stasi. They were only interested in targets and outcomes! Greenspring somehow kept going and as it recruited trainees with some of the worst life chances, this was no mean achievement.
When I was a Labour councillor, I would on occasion be the subject of adverse comment as somebody would want to tarnish me with all the sins of Blairism. Vic was a loyal supporter. He told me that a fresh-faced youth took to running me down in his company. In the end, Vic turned on the youngster and said: “Mick has worked for many years in the trade union movement. He has done things – just what have you done?”
The last time I met Vic he confessed that we would now have to rely on the young. Socialist advance was the prerogative of the young. He felt that it was very difficult for them – much more difficult than when he was young. Now there were hardly any major workplaces left. When he came to Birmingham from Stockport it was easy to get a job. There were loads of factories – many of which employed thousands of workers. There was collective organisation and the unions were strong. For me his death marks the end of an era.
He always took an interest in young people and measured the state of the labour and socialist movement by their capacity for combativity and organisation. He wasn’t hopeful for early successes.
Vic was right. We shall have to work with young people to discover new tactics and new forms of organisation.
But there are some things that he thought were immutable – organisation and leadership. They are as necessary as ever.