Showing posts with label communist party. Show all posts
Showing posts with label communist party. Show all posts

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Red Union

"We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them" - Clyde Workers' Committee

The United Mineworkers of Scotland - The Red Union


The United Mineworkers of Scotland (UMS), functioned for some six years in the few areas in which the Communist Party had a credible industrial presence. None the less, the UMS never recruited more than 4000 members and this had  fallen to 2000 by 1932, of which 65% were in Fife. Once again, as so often in Scottish labour history, religion had an influence. The UMS was strong in the pits with a history of more militancy but also with a higher level of Irish workers. Protestant Harthill was weak in Communist Party membership, whereas Catholic Blantyre support for CPGB ran high. Abe Moffat, the UMS leader, recalled that during a strike in the Shotts coalfield in 1930 that Catholic miners didn't want to offend the local priest by marching in front of his house. The "Red Union" was dependant upon the strength of Communist Party support and flourished in Fife and Lanarkshire, rather than Ayrshire and the Lothians. Its office was initially in Glasgow but very soon moved to Dunfermline.

Wullie Adamson, the Fife miners' leader ruled with an iron rod, but his post-war trade union position became increasingly beleaguered. During the First World War, a critical left-wing current had developed within the Fife miners' union. These radicals were critical of Adamson's flexibility to coal owners' demands and the lack of democracy within the union. Following the miners' defeat in the 1921 lock-out, criticism focused on the democracy issue. The culmination was a split at the end of 1922 with the formation of a separate Reform Union among the Fife miners under Philip Hodge of the Independent Labour Party. When a general election was called late in 1923, the Reform Union decided to run Hodge as a parliamentary candidate against Adamson, also a Labour MP, in the West Fife constituency. Hodge ran as a Reform candidate and in a straight fight he polled 6459 votes (over 34 per cent), an indication of many miners' disillusion with Adamson. The enmities meant that reunification of the two unions was achieved only in 1927. Several influential members of the Fife Left-wing were now in the Communist Party and that body favoured reunion. The lengthy dispute of 1926 placed a premium on solidarity, but the reunited union had to deal with the consequences of a thorough defeat. Reunification meant new elections both for posts in Fife and for the coalfield's representatives on the Scottish executive. The Left made a significant advance and Adamson and his allies endeavoured by creative use of the rule-book to evade the consequences. The Mining unions in Fife, and Lanarkshire, descended into chaos. The Fife county board suspended Adamson as secretary on the ground that he had broken his mandate, whereupon he resigned and set up a new union, the Fife, Clackmannan, and Kinross Miners' Union. Significantly this new body became the official Fife union within the National Union of Scottish Mineworkers and therefore within the Miners' Federation of Great Britain. The lack of constitutional procedure involved in creating the new union counted for little against a broad agreement among miners' union officials that communist growth must be blocked at all costs. The Communists moved towards their "Class Against Class" policy, which was to produce yet another union, the United Mineworkers of Scotland. But to the radicals in Fife, the creation of a  separate ‘red’ miners' union was seen as the only credible response to Adamson's contempt for union decisions and his new union. The historian John Saville wrote; “The history of the Scottish miner's after the General Strike is a grim record of crooked dealing by the Right Wing officials who, voted out of office by their members, refused to give up their positions to the Left Wing which had triumphed. Whether the Left was correct in allowing itself to be provoked into the formation of an independent union is quite another question...” Perhaps, in retrospect, it was something of a mistake but participants at the time felt that legitimacy was on their side and it did not feel wrong. The creation of the United Mineworkers of Scotland in mid-1929 was not so much a result of the left-turn in the Comintern  but a natural development to local circumstances. In short, the UMS was as reaction to election fraud, exacerbated by the unhealed frictions over attitudes to taking strike action. It had grown out of an initially successful but, in the medium term failed attempt to reform corrupt union districts in the earlier Reform Union. Several villages were now Communist strongholds. A twelve-week dispute at the Valleyfield colliery saw members of Adamson's own union ignoring his pleas to return to work; instead his members co-operated with the ‘red’ United Mineworkers of Scotland.

What was happening in these years in many industrial localities all over Britain was a general challenge to the local hierarchy—not just the extraction of wage increases, the reduction of hours, nor even the emergence of Labour in local government and at Westminster. The wave of local and partial struggles that have broken out throughout the minefields was symptomatic of the revulsion of the working class against the policy of the Labour Government and the sabotage of the trade union bureaucracy. The success of the Communist Party in such areas could be explained by two intersecting causes. The first is the prior existence of a sense of solidarity serving to knit the inhabitants of these working class localities together. The second is the capacity of the local Communist leadership to maintain that solidarity and transform it by giving it a more precise political definition. Unlike most other sections of the working class, these "Little Moscows", as the historian Stuart McIntyre labels such communities, were able to fight for and win improvements in unemployment relief, housing and public health; they doggedly defended work-customs that were destroyed elsewhere and they maintained a fight against wage cuts. They were not always successful but they did sustain a sense of morale in defeat amongst the working class and a belief in its own capabilities when such qualities were in short supply.

In Scotland, under the leadership of the United Mineworkers of Scotland, these feelings  found expression in the number of struggles that have been conducted successfully by that union against the reactionary union officials. In Lumphinnans the miners' lodge was pivotal, and here again an initial coalition of young Communists and ILPers had assumed control. Such was their success in Lumphinnans that most of the miners were carried into the new Reform Union of the Fife miners set up as an alternative to the undemocratic old union. The militants roots had grown deep in Fife, largely as a result of the role of those Communist Party members in the mining industry. The Scottish miners' unions, which were county based, were largely in the hands of Labour's right wing and Adamson but such a leadership was severely challenged by the Left. The Labour-led executive of the Fife miners' union refused to support the popularly supported strikes between 1919 and 1921 and, a 'Reform Union' had been formed in 1923. This was not largely a consequence of action by Communists but arose from a personality conflict between senior officials of the union. In 1926, Fife miners held out longer than the rest of Britain. The split was overcome during the General Strike and the nine months lockout of miners. The two unions reunited briefly in 1927 but at the end of the 1920s a new union, the United Mineworkers of Scotland, was set up when Adamson and the right in other Scottish mining areas refused to accept the result of union ballots. The continued tensions arising from bureaucratic repression of Left forces and the manoeuvring of the right led to yet another split. Nor should sectarian excesses be thought of as all on one side. If the militants sometimes advocated policies that were too far ahead of popular opinion, their opponents on the right of the labour movement went much further in actually seeking to destroy any united front. It was Adamson's union in Fife that refused to accept majority decisions

Once again Lumphinnans took an active role and became a leading branch of the UMS. Abe Moffat was born in Lumphinnans on 24th September 1896. He and his brothers, notably Alex, and Dave, were leaders of the Scottish miners and life-long Communists. They came from a strong tradition of mining unionism; their grandfather had been a pioneer of mining trades unionism in the Lothians during the 1860s but had been forced to move to Fife due to victimisation. Abe Moffat worked in the pits from 1910 until he was victimised in 1926 and was active in all the miners' strike actions from the moment he joined the industry. By late 1922, or early 1923, he had joined the Communist Party. He was involved in the publication of the `Buzzer', a bulletin for militant miners at the Glencraig Colliery, Lochgelly. This was a Communist Party publication, produced on a typewriter and duplicator and costing a penny. Within two years of joining the Party he was elected as a Communist councillor on Ballingry Parish Council. Parish councils had up to then proved to be a useful form of entry by Communists into the elective arena where the main challenger was Labour, by virtue of their small sized and concentrated electorates. They were abolished as a form of local government in 1929. Whilst there were UMS members elsewhere in Scotland it was based mainly in Fife. Just before the formation of the UMS both Alex and Abe were elected checkweighmen (a position of some importance to miners since it encompassed a legal role in overseeing the amount of coal cut and hence the value of earnings). Abe and Alex Moffat in Fife, achieved their leading trade union positions through the support of the members in the traditional trade unions. The leading Communist miners justifiably felt uncomfortable about carrying out the Comintern instruction, which went against the grain of traditional trade unionism, and could not be realised as an effective force in the conditions at the time. Nor was Abe Moffat, contrary to some claims, a key force in the creation of the UMS. He was, at the time of its foundation, a pit delegate - an important but not leading position; however, he was UMS secretary from 1931 to 1935. His leadership of the UMS was primarily devoted to finding a way to achieve organisational unity amongst miners once again. In 1933 attempts to merge with the official union were rebuffed and, in 1935, arising from a proposition by Abe Moffat himself, UMS members balloted to apply for membership of the official Fife union, to maximise the possibilities for unity. Their overtures were rejected and the UMS went into voluntary liquidation.

Davie Proudfoot Proudfoot, like all Communist miners, found himself in the United Mineworkers of Scotland. He was a local miners’ leader in Buckhaven & Methil an activist during the 1926 strike and lock-out. So much so that, when elections for the miners’ union in the Fife coalfield were held, Proudfoot was one of the Communists who won positions. Proudfoot’s father had been a member of the SDF and BSP. He became a Communist a short while after foundation and had been influenced by the Fife Communist League, which set up a bookshop in Cowdenbeath in 1916. He was the main force behind the establishment of `Spark’, the highly influential pit paper produced by the Methil Communist Pit Group, both Party and YCL. Its first issue in 1925 sold 240 copies and a year later it was up to a thousand copies. Initially a fortnightly and then a weekly publication from 1927, it ended its days with the last issue in December 1931. The increasingly vitriolic nature of the publication after 1926, in common with most Communist pit papers of the time, seems to have become an issue for Proudfoot. The bitter internal divisions were, of course, associated with the period of Class Against Class  with the Communists denounced their former allies as "social fascists". Some idea of the scale of such problems is provided by a letter written by David Proudfoot to Allen Hutt at the end of 1928. The Cowdenbeath comrades used their pit-paper to denounce some local miners as hypocrites and traitors solely because they had not supported Communists in a recent ballot. Proudfoot appears to have thought that it all needed toning down. When challenged by Proudfoot, the Cowdenbeath "hundred per centers" claimed that "no personal reflection is being cast on" such traitors, and that the sole purpose of this language was to bring its recipients closer to the Party. Proudfoot's critical position is in some respects close to that of Arthur Horner, the leading Mardy Communist, who also ran afoul of Party purists during the same period because of his refusal to carry out the policy of establishing an alternative miners union in Souh Wales. Proudfoot became the General Secretary of the UMS in early 1931 but only lasted seven months. He did not prove either popular or successful. He then withdrew from activity and Abe Moffat took over, making much more of a success of events and, in 1935 helping to lead the way back towards unity of Scottish miners by the dissolution of the UMS.

Other participants to mention in the passing are CPer Willie Allan also served as general secretary for the UMS as well as with Minority Movement. John McArthur was another miner active in the United Mineworkers of Scotland. McArthur was elected as a Communist councillor for Buckhaven on Fife County Council in the 1930s. Jimmy Shields was born in January 1900 in Greenock, Scotland, of Irish parents and joined the Communist Party in 1921. In 1925,  in search of work, Jimmy moved to South Africa, where he soon became Chairman of the South African Communist Party until 1927 when he moved back to Scotland. He  played an active part in supporting the United Mineworkers of Scotland before moving to become editor of the Daily Worker and on to spy for the Soviet Union!

According to one commentator the UMS leaders in Lanarkshire had a tendency to inflate their successes and became notorious for recklessly placing "far too much emphasis...on getting a pit idle...[using] any kind of issue, real or imaginary...to get the men to walk home, so that they could report that a strike had taken place." During one strike in late 1930, they invited strikers to "demand the death penalty for the 'Industrial Party plotters' then on trial in the Soviet Union."

 The United Mineworkers of Scotland were, in the words of one delegate to the 400,000 strong  Miners Federation of Great Britain conference in 1930, "loud speakers and very few listeners in".

Appendix
In 1938, Abe Moffat was  elected a County Councillor, making the Communist Group of councillors five strong. He remained unbeaten as a councillor until 1944, when he left public elective office to become a full-time official for the miners  union. His brother, Alex Moffat also became an elected Communist Fife County Councillor, serving for 19 years in a seat that was held by the Party for 40 years. In 1938, with the discreet connivance of a full-time union official, both Alex and Abe were able to obtain work at a small private mine, not part of the county owners' association, largely due to their reputation for hard work. Fortunately, the union was then structured on localities not pits, so, in 1939, Abe Moffat was elected delegate for Lumphinnans, amicably replacing another brother, David, who had kept the seat warm for him! The following year he was elected to the EC of the Scottish miners' federation. He was elected President of the Scottish miners in 1942, and then proceeded to lead the campaign for a single Scottish miners' union to be created out of the county associations. After the formation of the National Union of Miners (NUM) in 1944, across the whole of Britain, he was elected the Scottish President, a position he held until his retirement in September 1961. By that time, he served on the Scottish Communist Party District Committee for at least 25 years and the Party's national Executive Committee for 30 years.

Proudfoot appears to have stayed with the Communist Party for the next decade or so. Nonetheless, his eventual break with the Communist Party became very public when he supported Labour Party candidate Tom Hubbard in a by-election in February 1944 for the Kircaldy parliamentary seat. David Proudfoot was himself elected in 1945 as a Labour Party councillor in Buckhaven & Methil and was prominent in the post-war planning and development matters; he died in 1958.

See SOYMB for history of the Communist Party Third Period and the creation of the United Clothing Workers Union





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