1970s ACTIVISM & AUTONOMY: stories from East London Big Flame

Ford group

Ford group

Why we did it

We were inspired by the Liverpool Big Flame group doing activist work at the Fords plant in Halewood and by the recent success of new industrial tactics in car factories in Italy.  Fords Dagenham was the biggest factory in east London, with a history of militancy and with international connections in Belgium and Germany where similar groups were working. There were already activists with Big Flame politics and connections with Italian Lotta Continua politics involved around the Dagenham factory before East London Big Flame (ELBF) was formed and we joined forces.

If we don't hit it - it will fall cartoon

What we did

The Ford (‘Fraud’) group formed in early 1973 to co-operate with contacts that we developed among the workers in the different plants at the Ford Dagenham factory. We met regularly at the local pub and talked to people at the gates to collect information about struggles going on around the plant that workers wanted other people to know about – both inside and outside the factory. The group would talk through what was going on, for example about mobility on the assembly line, and produce leaflets that would circulate around the plant. As people learnt to trust this information and the knowledge we also gained about Ford management initiatives, they would identify with the group and pass on information themselves. This would help spread resistance in the plant and make workers aware of similar struggles against working conditions and pay in Halewood, Langley, Genk, Cologne and Detroit (see News from Detroit). At different times the group visited activist groups in Cologne and visited Detroit car workers and once sent leaflets packed in with components being sent to South Africa.

From the start the group was concerned to develop relationships across the different racial and ethnic groups and so contest the racial segmentation existing across Dagenham. We worked with shop stewards but were also questioning traditional hierarchies at work as we engaged with a wider range of issues to do with stress; health problems from working on the line; mobility unsettling workers by breaking up friendships, solidarity networks and people’s sense of place;  anti-social hours affecting family life and relationships, etc. – see the Take a Ford job! leaflet (early summer 1973). We also made links to community struggles that involved partners and families in the areas in east and south-east London where workers used to share lifts to drive to Dagenham (see What is a Big Flame Group? p.13).
Ford_Fiat cartoonAs we gained widespread trust we could support workers' actions, strikes, pay claims started by the Dagenham work-force and spread information across the different plants in the factory. We were influenced by ideas emerging from Lotta Continua and Potere Operaio in Italy who had been involved in a successful occupation of the Fiat factory in spring 1973 and also by the autonomist groups in Germany. If we were interested in how those ideas resonated in Dagenham (see What is a Big Flame Group? p.12),  we were also concerned with colonial histories and challenging racisms and so with opening up dialogue between different groups of workers who felt unsupported by the traditional trade union structure. We made workers, from one plant to another, aware of autonomous initiatives that ‘put a spanner in the works’ of the production line and had maximum potential to resist management pressure. We identified the speed of the assembly line as a critical site of conflict. To slow the line down, by whatever means, to a human pace was on the one hand an immediate way of bettering one’s everyday experience, and at the same time it was an assertion of autonomy and power; for line-workers rather than management to be in control of their own lives and conditions. We also communicated with workers’ groups internationally to support international collaboration.

In mid-1974 the group was meeting regularly and also having meetings with contacts and workers who identified with the politics of the group, in their homes. We would gather information at the plant and would leaflet to the different shifts every few weeks (e.g. leaflets Strike at Ford Cologne 30/8/73, 40 Hours pay – Work or No Work 6/9/73, Ford’s “Offer” 18/10/73, Ten Grenadian freedom fighters murdered by Gairy’s thugs  6/2/74, Reject the Offer 7/3/74, As the Union caves in the fight begins 13/3/74). We also occasionally produced pamphlets (e.g. Big Flame Ford Special No.1 Feb 1973; Big Flame Ford Special No.2 Dagenham July 1974).

After four Ford shop stewards were arrested for picketing on the day of the AEUW strike in May 1974, we took part in the demo outside Barking Magistrates Court to support them (see Barking and Dagenham Post 1/71974). The four got convicted for obstruction. In September 1974 in Hackney we showed a film Finally Got the News about Detroit car workers. In the same month a Sunday Telegraph article reported on the ‘battlefield’ of the shop floor at Dagenham, blaming ‘agitators’ and reprinting part of a ‘Fraud’ leaflet. In fact the group didn’t see itself as instigating or ‘leading’ others or as being a ‘vanguard’ group/party that others should join. As a libertarian socialist group we were concerned to work with others sharing the particular skills and understandings that we could develop together.

Big Flame was a national organization and we held discussion meetings with other local groups; it was particularly significant for the Fords Group that we could learn what was happening across the country and Europe at different Ford plants (see section on organizing non-hierarchically). We developed different relationships, with some group members taking jobs at Fords and one of the workers we met at Fords joining the ongoing men’s group. Rather than focus exclusively on life in the factory we were concerned to show how it connected with other areas of life. Though we were wary of ideas of workers’ control we did as a group get involved in an occupation at the Dagenham plant in 1974 with a small group of workers and stewards, but it was significant that most of the workers wanted to get home and did not want to spend their week-end occupying the assembly-line plant.
By mid-1975 the group was less active, and after phase of dormancy another group with mostly different members, calling itself the Dagenham Ford Workers Group rather than ELBF, carried on organising at ‘Fraud’ Dagenham in the late 1970s in a non-sectarian group consisting mostly of Ford production workers. Although not itself Big Flame, it was the embryo of a national ‘Ford Workers’ Combine UK’ set up in combination with Ford Langley Action Committee and the Halewood Big Flame group in Ford Halewood, spreading to all the major plants in Britain including Southampton and Swansea. This grouping lasted in some form up to 1988 when things came to a head with the national strike. After that they started closing the factories.
Deflating the union cartoon

Looking back…

Over three-quarters of the Dagenham plant is now closed down and there is little similar industrial production remaining in Britain. When we were active around Fords, robots were being used only in the Paint Shop, but they were to spread to the assembly line and so relieve what had been bottle-necks in the production process. The focus that we developed on the labour process, learning from Italian traditions to see it as the source of workers alienation, became a vital issue for the Conference of Socialist Economists (CSE), and helped to transform the sociology of work. We were also attuned to issues of gender, ‘race’ and ethnicities and ways that Fords would make use of these divisions within the organisation of work. We helped to develop tactics to resist management that are still relevant, and it is interesting that post-2010 there are a number of TUC and other trade union initiatives to link workplace issues with the community and social movements. We were attuned to the idea of ‘struggling in every areas of your life’, but also to the need for sustaining and nourishing relationships. We were also concerned with developing personal and social skills to negotiate conflicts not only in the workplace but also in other areas of our lives.

We were happy to see the ‘Fraud’ logo in use again in 2013 during the dispute at Visteon (see Visteon Protest).