Home > Economics, unions and work > Work and Trade Unions > A working class hero is something to be: An interview with Willie Black
  • Interview

A working class hero is something to be: An interview with Willie Black

Lydia Hughes speaks to Willie Black, a lifelong trade union organiser, about why we need to build rank-and-file power

8 to 10 minute read

The 1970s were a decade defined by the power of the working-class movement. We may look back now and say that thetrade unions were radical and strong. However, as Willie Black recounts, that strength came from the rank and file. In reality, workers were taking unofficial action and forcing their unions to declare national strike action. Willie talks us through what we need to know for our organising today.

Lydia Hughes

Tell me about your first experiences with organising

Wille Black

I am a seven-days, seven-nights organiser. Always have been. At 16, in 1966, I became employed as an apprentice electrician and ended up immediately in a six-week dispute, which coloured my imagination. Then, our trade union branches met every Monday. There would be 70 or 80 electricians in attendance and it was fever pitch. It was a real baptism of fire.

I was in the company of shop stewards and militants who had rebuilt trade unions throughout the 1960s. But the scale of the shop stewards’ movement was beginning to develop even further. We constantly clashed with the prevailing political machinery: the government and the trade union bureaucracy. My experience was that no dispute went by as an individual, but as part of a political organisation and a trade union. When I was 18, I was made a shop steward for 120 electricians. I was an apprentice electrician and I got a battering from the management because I knew nothing.

The seventies were a high point of worker self-activity. It influenced me to see that there was a difference between changing leaders and changing how workers were organised. That’s how our strong rank-and-file organising came about. There was a period when I was blacklisted from employment during the 1980s. Then I became more of what you could call a community activist.

Lydia Hughes

From your personal involvement, how do you understand workers’ power?

Wille Black

I tell people a story. There was an occupation in Manchester at L Gardner and Sons, a diesel engine builder. We were meeting delegations of the workers. This was a really important part of solidarity. We used to take groups of workers all over the country, whether that was South African trade unionists or Polish workers. After the Portuguese revolution in 1974, we had soldiers that we took round the factories.

It was mainly women who came to Edinburgh to speak about their dispute in Manchester. They had no experience of speaking to the public or union branches. But when they came, everybody was hanging on every word. It was really a great feeling.

We were all in the pub after the trades council meeting, there were probably about 200 delegates there. John, the barman, picked up the phone and it was Gardner’s negotiating team telling them they had to come back because they had won. They needed them to come back to vote at a mass meeting on the wages and conditions package. We all cheered, there were tears, everybody was really emotional. And then, one of the women said, ‘Does that mean we have to go back to work?’

Never give up. You should be a troublemaker, make a difference. Don’t go through life looking at things that are bad and do nothing about it. Have courage and step up

That taught me about alienation. That taught me that those women were at the pinnacle of the trade union movement. They were the leaders for the trade union movement at that moment. They had the power to beat the bosses. And they didn’t even know they had that power. Their power was expressed by the virtue of the fact that they were everything now. That change that happens in people – that’s what you need.

Lydia Hughes

Taking action as a collective changes us and builds our confidence. How does your understanding of class influence your organising?

Wille Black

There’s only two classes in society. There’s the working class – and people who don’t even know they’re working class will soon be taught that they are. Like when you see barristers on strike outside a court with placards and in their wigs. And on the other side, the capitalist class, who don’t leave anything to a draw. There is always upset around the corner.

Somebody once said to me, ‘God almighty, you cannot watch Coronation Street without talking about class.’ You begin to see the world in a particular way when you see that it’s a class struggle and that everything is affected by that. When you can’t even see the connection, you can bet your boots, that’s the class struggle. It’s in the DNA of the whole system.

The working class comes into being because people work. They are working within the means of production, in factories, offices or whatever. And those workers are constantly on the move. People have a typical vision of the working class. It’s a whippet, a flat cap, down the pub and working in the factory, the mill or the pit. That ain’t the working class, just a section of it. Nevertheless, the working class has to change into a class for itself. Not just a class in itself.

You can have a battle, but if we want to win the war, we need unity. And we have to make sure that trade unions adopt a stance which is welcoming to everybody and that everybody’s battle comes from the same source. That there’s them. And there’s us.

Lydia Hughes

With this understanding, why is it important for the rank and file to organise separately from the bureaucracy?

Wille Black

Right from the start, when trade unions were formed, there has been a conservatism in the nature of the people who look after the machine. The fabric of the union becomes itself something to be protected. Beatrice Webb called people employed directly by the unions ‘the civil service of the movement’. She recognised right from the turn of the 19th century that those officials have different conditions. They are not employers but also not workers. They are a group of people who negotiate your terms and conditions and the price of your labour. It doesn’t affect their wages and conditions.

If you see all the anti-trade union laws, it’s about discipline of the rank and file but not directly by the state. They put pressure on the officials to discipline the movement by threatening financial damage to the union for radical action.

Lydia Hughes

Sadly, we’ve seen this dynamic play out too many times. Strong rank-and-file organising is needed to give workers the power to take militant action. As a socialist, what motivated your decades of rank-and-file organising?

Wille Black

I think rank-and-file organising in itself is important, to keep the bureaucracy in check. But that’s not the reason for rank-and-file organisations for people like me. Rank-and-file organisations are the embryo of the future socialist society.

Shop stewards, people who have to go back and speak directly to the members, are meeting with other shop stewards from a whole raft of industries in every town or city. We begin to talk about a thing called dual power. Dual power is when you’re creating an alternative vision of society. Then you’re trying to show in practice how that might be.

You begin to see the world in a particular way when you see that it’s a class struggle

I was involved in mass meetings, mostly in car parks, where we would use our hands to vote. The full-time official is in negotiations and comes out. He said, ‘Right’ to the women and men. ‘Right, we got a fiver, what do you think?’ And everybody shouts ‘No, no.’ God almighty, right? He went back and said they will have another go with management. He comes back out. ‘We’ve got this final offer of ten pound, what do you think?’ And everybody goes, ‘No, no.’ He said, ‘What the heck do you want?’ A wee voice at the back says ‘Socialism.’ He went, ‘The management will never agree to that.’

So it’s that kind of limitation of trade unions – they only negotiate on your terms and conditions. But in these schools of struggle people can sharpen their experience and build dual power.

Lydia Hughes

Trade unions are the perfect ‘schools of war’, but also bring real, material victories. What victories do you take from your organising in the 1970s?

Wille Black

If I had a mantelpiece, I would have a lot of second prizes on it. Occasionally a first prize, but in the struggle that is taken as read. We fought a great fight in the 1970s and won a lot. But mostly, there was a window when workers’ power wasn’t questioned. Nobody could say that workers didn’t have power because they could see on the telly.

They had a three-day working week imposed by the government to save electricity. There was a miners’ leader, Mick McGahey, who was the sidekick of Arthur Scargill during the miners’ strike. I remember hearing McGahey speak. He said, and I think Bob Crow stole the statement, ‘Listen, if we all spit together we will drown the bastards.’ Meaning that we are many, and they are few, but they control everything. Therefore, we have to wrestle and everyone knew it.

Lydia Hughes

We are currently seeing a huge resurgence of worker self-activity. What advice would you give to the organisers of today?

Wille Black

Never give up. In 50 years’ time, who will they remember? They will remember Rosa Parks. They will remember Martin Luther King. You should be a troublemaker. Be a troublemaker, make a difference. Don’t go through life looking at things that are bad and do nothing about it. So have courage and step up.

There will be consequences to that. Sometimes you’ll be there on your own. But often enough people will recognise that kind of organic leadership, that leadership which stays close to its base, that doesn’t climb the greasy pole, doesn’t look to have an easier life as a full-time official. You have to work the overtime, you have to get up and do the night shift, you have to suffer the boss’s tongue and discipline. The closer you are to that, then at the time of the explosion, you’ll be in the right position.

So it’s really important to be a troublemaker. A working-class hero is something to be, actually, so you have to step forward. And if you’ve got youth on your side, then you’ve got 40 years of struggle ahead.

This article first appeared in Issue #237 Power in Unions. Subscribe today to support independent socialist media and get your copy hot off the press!

Lydia Hughes is a co-editor of Red Pepper and of Notes from Below, and co-author of Troublemaking: Why You Should Organise Your Workplace (Verso, 2023)

For a monthly dose
of our best articles
direct to your inbox...