The trade unions: capitalism’s fifth column

During the 1970s and 80s at least 23 leading trade unionists passed information to Special Branch and MI5, according to recent media revelations. Among them NUM president Joe Gormley, ASLEF general secretary Ray Buckton, past president of TGWU Brian Nicholson and ‘Silver Fox’, a leading NUM official, who supplied a stream of intelligence to the police during the 1984-5 miners’ strike. No surprise there, then. Capitalism has long relied on sections of the working class to defuse their own movements. After the Bolshevik Revolution, to counter any possibility of a revolutionary movement in Britain, the British state recruited leading TUC members into partnership with the government and employers in return for ‘official recognition’.

Communist witch-hunts
After the Second World War, state and trade unionists collaborated to root out ‘subversives’ and reinforce social democracy in the working class. The TUC worked covertly with the Foreign and Colonial Office to ensure ‘moderation’ among newly-formed unions in the empire. Trade union leaders co-operated with the Economic Co-operative Agency, a CIA front, working through ‘Labour Information Officers’ at the US Embassy. Sam Watson, leader of the NUM, became such a close friend of Joe Godson, the embassy’s Labour Attaché, that their children later married.

The Information Research Department (IRD), successor to the wartime Political Warfare Executive, was a Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) front created in 1948. IRD spread dirty propaganda wherever liberation struggles took place: Cyprus, Kenya, Malaya and later Ireland. IRD channelled information through Herbert Tracey, publicity director of the TUC, and helped publish Freedom First, the magazine of the Freedom and Democracy Trust (FDT). This anti-communist group involved many prominent trade unionists including, George Gibson (former TUC chair), John Brown and Lincoln Evans of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation (ISTC) and GH Bagnall (TUC General Council).

Secret anti-communist organisations operated in several British trade unions. The most significant was the AEU ‘club’. Members included general secretary Cecil Hallett and president Bill Carron. ‘Club’ members dominated the union from 1956 to 1970.

Trade unions and ruling class – a common cause

In the early 1950s most members of the FDT and the union ‘clubs’ joined the Anglo-American anti-communist group, Common Cause. Common Cause shared an office, donated by the Duke of Westminster, with the British League for European Freedom (BLEF). This was linked with the Anti-Bolshevik Bloc of Nations, an organisation run by SIS, and the Scottish League for European Freedom, which organised a conference in Edinburgh attended by Nazi war criminals and collaborators recruited into the anti-communist campaign by SIS. One of the first chairs of the British end of Common Cause was John Brown, ex-general secretary of ISTC and member of the TUC General Council. On its advisory council in 1955 were ex-presidents of the TUC Tom O’Brien and Florence Hancock, Bob Edwards, past general secretary of the Chemical Workers Union, Cecil Hallett of the AEU as well as members of the aristocracy and senior military officers. Common Cause distributed material published or subsidised by IRD and leaflets from the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), a CIA labour front in Europe.

Throughout this period hundreds of British trade union leaders and officers were given trips to the United States and courses at Harvard Business School under programmes financed by the CIA. Tom Williamson, general secretary of the GMWU at that time, was a leading supporter of the programme. He later became a founding participant of the secretive international ruling class forum, the Bilderberg Group.

Funded by Tories and multinationals
In 1956 a new front organisation, Industrial Research and Information Services (IRIS), was created. Based at the headquarters of the National Union of Seamen, its first three directors were Jack Tanner, past president of the AEU, William McLaine, ex-general secretary of AEU and Charles Sonnex from Common Cause. IRIS manager was James Nash, later joining the ICFTU. At other times IRIS officers included James Crawford, Harry Douglas, and Sid Greene, all members of the TUC General Council. In the 1990s it was disclosed that IRIS had been part-funded by Macmillan’s Conservative government.

IRIS ran secret ‘cells’ in trade unions and published a ‘red scare’ journal called IRIS News. By the 1980s, however, IRIS was publishing British Briefing, an overtly anti-socialist journal produced by Brian Crozier, Britain’s leading psychological warfare expert, and a group of other ex-SIS officers. At this time the directors of IRIS included Sir John Boyd CBE, ex-general secretary of the AEU, Lord Harold Collinson CBE, ex-general secretary of the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers, and Bill Sirs ex-general secretary of ISTC. British Briefing was funded by the Industrial Trust, a propaganda front run by British multinationals. Another such group was British United Industrialists (BUI), which funded the renegade Union of Democratic Mineworkers.

Capitalist groups also funded the True Movement for Industrial Democracy (TRUEMID), created by AEU officials and working mainly in that union, the CPSA and the electricians union, EETPU. On its council was ex-SAS chief David Stirling, who, along with George Young, former Deputy Chief of MI6, tried recruiting a private army to defend the establishment in the mid-1970s.

Around this time the ex-US Labour Attaché, Joe Godson, returned to Britain, resuming his old work. Godson was a founder member of the Labour Committee for Transatlantic Understanding (LCTU), which, in May 1976, set-up the Labour and Trade Union Press Service. Its treasurer was Frank Chapple, general secretary of the EEPTU and its chair was Bill Jordan of the AEU. Jordan was later president of the ICFTU.

Labour aristocracy defends its privileges
In all this we are not talking about secret service agents planted in the trade unions or paid informers. In fact, it isn’t really significant whether or not the people involved are aware of SIS and CIA involvement or just believe they are co-operating with government and business officials. The point is that an influential section of the trade union movement collaborates with the state to help the ruling class counter any revolutionary trend within the working class. This cannot be explained away simply as betrayal or corrupt leadership. There is a deeper material basis. Most of these trade union leaders and the members who support them have an income and lifestyle setting them apart from the majority of the working class. Their privileges are paid for by the exploitation of the mass of workers throughout the world. They will fight tooth and nail to defend those privileges and the imperialist system underpinning them. They are the not-so-secret agents of capitalism within the working class movement. m

Much of the information in this article comes from The Clandestine Caucus by Robin Ramsay, a Lobster special issue – see
Jim Craven

FRFI 170 December 2002 / January 2003


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