The legacy of Agnes McLean

Submitted by Matthew on 2 May, 2012 - 9:18

Publicity for this year’s Glasgow May Day demonstration and rally refers to the celebrations including “a tribute to Agnes McLean.”

McLean’s politics and activities were representative of a particular period in the history of the West of Scotland trade union and labour movement. But how far one should pay “tribute” to them is another question.

McLean’s generation grew up in the shadow of “Red Clydeside”. Her father was a member of John MacLean’s Scottish Workers’ Republican Party. As a child she attended a Proletarian Sunday School and then a Socialist Sunday School.

It was a generation which gravitated towards Stalinism. The Communist Party (CP) in the 1930s proclaimed itself to be the standard-bearer of the October Revolution (even as it stood foursquare with the Stalinist counter-revolution) and the champion of anti-fascism (even as it hailed the Hitler-Stalin pact).

And it was a generation which often ended its days leading a humdrum existence in or around the Labour Party, with their former socialist aspirations and vision of a different society replaced by personal aspiration for elected office and immersion in local quangos.

Born in the Kinning Park district of Glasgow in 1918, McLean initially worked as a bookbinder before getting a job at the Rolls Royce Hillington plant on the outskirts of Glasgow in late 1939.

She joined the Transport and General Workers Union, but later transferred to the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU, which reversed its ban on women joining the union only after a membership ballot in 1942).

Women workers at Rolls Royce — and throughout the whole of industry — were on lower rates of pay than their male counterparts. Briefly in the autumn of 1941, and then on a larger scale in October of 1943, women workers walked out on strike.

McLean is frequently described as one of the leaders of the 1943 strike. If she was, then this raises a number of questions.

McLean had joined the CP in 1942. After the German invasion of Russia in June of 1941 the CP dropped its anti-war line, backed the British war effort, and opposed strikes.

The CP claimed a membership of between six and seven hundred in the Rolls Royce Scottish plants. It played a key role in the shop stewards’ committee. And it opposed the 1943 strike.

In October 1943 the pay agreement which had been reached between Rolls Royce and union officials and which was so inadequate that it acted as the trigger for the subsequent strike was hailed in a headline in the Daily Worker, the CP newspaper: “Huge Pay Rise for Women Follows Aircraft Works Inquiry.”

During the strike itself, while the Daily Worker carried dark warnings of “Trotskyist strike fomenters working behind the scenes”, the CP distributed a leaflet calling for a return to work on the basis of a promise from management to speed up negotiations.

And the shop stewards’ committee, in which the CP played such an important role, also opposed the strike and worked with union officials to bring it to a speedy end. In the space of eight days the committee held four mass meetings at each of which it proposed a return to work, being successful only on the fourth occasion.

So, if McLean really was a leader of the 1943 strike, how can this be reconciled with her membership of the vigorously anti-strike CP? Or was it a case of “leading” the strike in order to lead it back to work?

And why do the standard labour movement histories of the 1943 strike leave aside the anti-strike role played by the CP?

In the post-war years McLean rose through the ranks of the AEU: delegate to the AEU’s first conference for women (1948); delegate to AEU national conference (1949, attended by just seven women); first female member of the AEU National Executive (1954).

McLean also “rose through the ranks” of the CP, first becoming a member of the CP’s Scottish Committee, and then a member of the CP National Committee. While many of her contemporaries flooded out of the CP after the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution in1956, McLean never wavered in her loyalty.

Playing on her status as a member of the AEU National Executive, McLean attended international conferences as a representative of the so-called World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU).

The WFTU was a Stalinist front organisation, consisting in the main of the fake “trade unions” of the Eastern bloc, plus a few CP-oriented unions in Western Europe.

It was not an organisation which represented the international working class. It was a mouthpiece of the Stalinist bureaucracy which atomised the working class and which crushed and outlawed genuine trade unionism wherever it came to power.

But, as a loyal Stalinist, McLean was happy to lend her support to it.

“Peace was also a crucial issue for Agnes,” as her “official” biographies put it. In practice, this meant that McLean was active in the various one-sided “peace campaigns” of the 1950s which denounced nuclear weapons (unless they were the property of the Soviet Union — see below).

McLean was active in the Stockholm Peace Appeal, a mass petition launched in March of 1950 by the World Peace Council (another Stalinist front organisation, run by the International Department of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party).

The opening speech at the Stockholm conference which launched the Appeal claimed that “the Peace Front” had been “considerably strengthened” by “the victory of People’s China”, the creation of the “German Democratic Republic” and the development of the atomic bomb by the Soviet Union!

Pravda warned, in rather less than pacifist terms, that anyone who refused to sign the Appeal was “an accomplice and henchman of the warmongers”.

Organisers of the Appeal eventually claimed that it had been signed by more than 273 million people, including the entire adult population of the Soviet Union and the other Stalinist states.

In Bulgaria the number of people who supposedly signed the Appeal was larger than the country’s population. And the number of signatories claimed for Hungary meant that the Appeal had been signed by everyone over the age of five.

But this was how CP member Agnes Mclean campaigned for peace.

In the late sixties McLean again became involved in equal pay disputes. The Scottish CP had decided to launch a campaign around equal pay, which was resurfacing as a major issue.

McLean spoke at a series of CP-organised public meetings in support of equal pay and at the 1969 STUC special conference of on equal pay. At that year’s STUC congress it was McLean, as a delegate from Glasgow Trades Council, who moved the composite motion on equal pay.

On the Hillington industrial estate, where she still worked in the Rolls Royce plant, McLean helped organise strike action in support of the equal pay campaign. But, in typical CP-fashion, it was brief, tokenistic, and organised in a top-down manner.

A 90-minute strike in Hillington in October of 1968, for example, saw women workers marching out of work at three o’clock in the afternoon, attending a rally addressed by Rolls Royce convenor George McCormack (also a lifelong CP member), who informed them that “further token stoppages might (sic) be necessary”, and then dispersing.

Beating Jimmy Reid to it by seven years, McLean resigned from the CP in 1969 and joined the Labour Party.

Her explanation was: “I felt the party was unable to convince people that they, the CP, were the party of the future, in spite of splendid work on behalf of workers in factories or unions.”

By the mid-1970s McLean had been elected as a Glasgow District Councillor. From 1978 onwards, shortly after having retired from working at Rolls Royce, she was a Strathclyde Regional Councillor and a member of the Labour Group executive until 1988.

De-selected as a councillor in March of 1994, McLean tried to secure a seat in the East End of Glasgow but was outvoted at the selection meeting. She died in April of the same year.

During her near twenty years as a District and Regional Councillor McLean had variously been a member of such august bodies as the Scottish Opera Advisory Council, the Theatre Royal Board of Management, the Glasgow Association for Conference and Tourism Services, and the Regional Economic and Industrial Committee.

Today’s new generation of union and political activists need to learn from the failings of Agnes McLean’s generation. Paying uncritical “tribute” to her is a deliberate exercise in mis-education.

(In fact, the January meeting of Glasgow Trades Union Council agreed that this year’s May Day celebrations would not be used as a commemoration of Agnes McLean. Members of the Executive Committee were presumably otherwise minded.)

The West of Scotland trade union movement — and indeed the trade union movement everywhere — should be prepared to confront its past and the damage wrought on it by Stalinism. It should cease transforming its history into a mythology which functions as a political comfort blanket.

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