WeeklyWorker

17.10.2019
John Haylett: victory in strike against Hicks-Rosser clique

Striker and editor

John Haylett, June 8 1945 - September 28 2019

After 35 years of working for the Morning Star John Haylett retired earlier this year because of illness - an illness which finally got the better of him. He died on September 28 aged 74.

I first met him when I began working as an international telephonist for what was then the Post Office in 1973. He was branch secretary of the London Overseas Telephones No2 branch of the Union of Post Office Workers (today part of the Communication Workers Union).

The 1,000-strong LOT2 branch was feared and despised by the UPW leadership for its uncompromising militancy. For most of the 70s it was completely dominated by members of the Communist Party and the branch committee was for a time almost entirely composed of CPGB comrades. The 25-strong Exchange branch, to which we belonged, was then the largest CPGB workplace organisation in the country. Faced with our militancy, Post Office management, struggling to cope with a high turnover of staff and rapidly rising international traffic before the days of direct dialling, was forced to make concession after concession.

Comrade Haylett had been branch secretary during the UPW’s 1971 all-out strike of Post Office workers - perhaps his finest hour in UPW politics. After seven weeks of strike action by postal and telecoms workers, the union leadership claimed the strike had declining support and called for a second ballot. It was Haylett who organised the LOT2 branch meeting, which had a massive turnout and returned an overwhelming vote in favour of staying out, although nationally the vote went the other way. But LOT2 now had a much higher profile within the union and increased influence in workplace negotiations. Regular meetings with management were introduced, much more time was allowed for union business and the branch published a regular journal.

I remember one occasion, during industrial action by some tubeworkers, when branch officers negotiated an agreement whereby telephonists were allowed to go home 90 minutes early in case their journey home was disrupted. In fact the strike was ineffective, but, when management unilaterally rescinded the agreement after a couple of days, the branch under comrade Haylett told members to ignore official instructions and continue to leave early until the deal had been renegotiated. The members obeyed.

The Exchange branch of the CPGB included those like myself on the left of the party and a fair smattering of anarcho-syndicalists - not to mention those who joined the party to advance their union or even Post Office career. Comrade Haylett may subsequently have risen to high places in the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, but at that time he was hardly a tool of the CPGB leadership. We were, first and foremost, union militants, acting quite independently of the party.

In the mid-70s the union bureaucracy suspended our branch leadership, including John Haylett, for insisting on taking industrial action in opposition to UPW instructions. Our reaction was to occupy union headquarters in Clapham in a move planned and coordinated by the Communist Party branch. EC members who came to placate us were subjected to abuse for daring to call us “brothers” (at that time all night telephonists were male), and had to run a gauntlet of mock Nazi salutes by the 30 or 40 branch members assembled. The occupation was called off after a couple of hours when an executive member all but promised to reinstate our branch officers (within a week the EC had done so). But we refused to leave before we were all served tea and biscuits.

Internal dispute

In 1983 John Haylett joined the Morning Star as a reporter, at a time when the divisions inside the ‘official’ Communist Party were becoming pronounced. In 1988 the CPGB split, with the faction around Tony Chater, then the Star editor, forming the Communist Campaign Group. The CPGB was left in the hands of the rightwing Eurocommunists, who within three years established the short-lived Democratic Left (a liquidationist move opposed by the Leninist faction, which took the fight to reforge the CPGB to a higher level by electing a Provisional Central Committee). The CCG renamed itself the Communist Party of Britain in 1988.

Haylett rapidly rose up the Star’s politically reconfigured hierarchy and within a couple of years he was assistant editor - then in 1989 was appointed deputy editor. This was, of course, the year the collapse of the eastern European ‘official communist’ regimes began.

However, the break from the CPGB did not mean there was unity within the CPB and, when Chater retired as editor in 1994, the divisions were revealed in the battle to replace him. While Haylett was favoured by the majority of the paper’s staff, he was opposed by Mary Rosser, chief executive of the People’s Printing Press Society, the cooperative which owns the Star. Rosser, together with her husband, Mike Hicks, then general secretary of the CPB, favoured news editor Paul Corry, who just happened to be Rosser’s son-in-law. But it was Haylett - now closely aligned with the majority faction of the CPB leadership - who won the day and was appointed editor in 1995.

Things hotted up again after Haylett nominated Rob Griffiths to stand against Hicks as CPB general secretary in November 1997. It was Hicks who claimed in a TV interview that the USSR’s collapse was “irrelevant” to the CPB, as “we have our own programme for socialism in Britain”. With the formation of Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party in 1996, the Hicks-Rosser faction ludicrously claimed that the CPB majority wanted to give up on the Labour Party and switch to the SLP. But there was no genuine discussion in the CPB of the real, underlying differences.

When Hicks was booted out from the leadership and Griffiths was elected, that was too much for Rosser, who in January 1998 accused Haylett of “gross industrial misconduct” and suspended him, replacing him with Corry. The journalists employed by the Star voted - with the support of the CPB leadership - by 12 to three to come out on strike in protest against the “trumped-up” charges against comrade Haylett. Incredibly, Rosser threatened to sue the National Union of Journalists under Tory anti-union legislation, but the strikers pushed ahead, while simultaneously publishing a daily entitled the Workers’ Morning Star.

Not that we at the Weekly Worker were neutral in this dispute. As we wrote at the time, “The stand of Star workers against an oppressive management regime is principled, and deserves support” (Weekly Worker March 5 1998). Hicks and Rosser by contrast were insisting on the “management’s right to manage”. We not only joined the strikers’ picket line: we issued the following solidarity letter from the CPGB Provisional Central Committee:

The Communist Party of Great Britain fully supports the current strike action by Morning Star journalists for the immediate reinstatement of sacked editor John Haylett and in defence of their rights as workers.

We recognise the self-sacrifice of comrades who choose to work for a pittance at the Morning Star as their personal contribution to the workers’ movement. If Morning Star journalists and employees failed to stand up for their own rights as workers, they would be incapable of fighting for workers’ rights elsewhere, and their self-sacrifice would be rendered meaningless.

In solidarity, we wish to offer the NUJ Morning Star chapel space in the Weekly Worker, for the duration of the strike, to report developments, argue their case and mobilise support for their action (March 11 1998).

That offer did lead to an approach for us to print the Workers’ Morning Star. Naturally, we agreed. But having their paper printed by a rival organisation was obviously considered politically too risky. Either way, eventually the dispute was taken to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas), which found that John Haylett had “no case to answer” - after six weeks there was a complete capitulation by the Rosser-Hicks faction. “So total was the surrender,” the Morning Star recalled earlier this year, “that Corry never appeared in the newsroom again and the management committee were replaced” (April 12 2019).

Recovery

Following the demise of the USSR the Star’s readership had slumped to around 7,000. Ben Chacko, the current editor, stated in an interview for Radio 4’s obituary programme Last word on October 11 that, when Haylett became editor in 1995, the paper’s position looked very “fragile”, with a “very small readership”. But, under Haylett’s editorship, the Star was transformed from a “paper read by Communist Party members” to a “paper of the trade union movement”.

Today, said Chacko, it has “broadened its appeal” and carries a “huge range of opinions” - he mentioned those of the Scottish National Party and the Greens, as well as varying views within the working class movement. However, although the Star is now a “much broader paper”, it has not “diluted its views”, he insisted.

It is certainly true that it is now much more interesting than it was before Haylett took over. There is often a genuine exchange of views, which is not, as was previously the case, restricted to the letters pages. And this is reflected in a rise in circulation - some say it has doubled over the last couple of decades to around 14,000. The number of pages has increased and there has been a switch to colour printing. And the Star now receives regular sponsorship from a number of trade unions, which pay for extra pages produced for union conferences and major demonstrations.

A lot of this can be put down to the work of John Haylett, who stepped down as editor in 2008, but continued as political editor for another 11 years. He certainly contributed enormously to the improvement, which ended all talk of an imminent closure following the end of the Soviet Union and other such states. Previously the Star depended on the huge number of copies taken daily by the USSR and other ‘bureaucratic socialist’ states, together with other forms of subsidy from eastern Europe.

However, despite the huge improvement, the Morning Star is not a principled communist newspaper. It still upholds the reformist CPB programme, Britain’s road to socialism, and tries to combine its almost uncritical support for Jeremy Corbyn with its left-nationalist cheerleading for Brexit. Nevertheless, the contribution made by John Haylett should not be underestimated l

Dean Woodward.