Today in London history: War is the Ruin of the Drinking Classes, 1917.

Immediately after the outbreak of World War I, Parliament passed the Defence of the Realm Act  (on 8th August 1914) criminalising anything they could think of that could impede the war effort. A notable section of the Act restricted licensing hours in pubs, to reduce drunkenness, hangovers and nipping off work early for a swift one impacting on war production… Before the war, pubs could open from 5 am in the morning to 12.30 pm at night. The DORA slashed licensing hours in cities and industrial areas, which could only now open 12.00 noon to 2.30 pm and 6.30 to 9.30 pm. (However, in most rural areas, people could continue to buy alcoholic drinks throughout the day. Mostly cider, presumably.)

Other governments involved in the conflict were also worried about this problem. In August 1914 Tsar Nicholas II outlawed the production and sale of vodka. This involved the closing down of Russia’s 400 state distilleries and 28,000 spirit shops. The measure was a complete failure, as people, unable to buy vodka, produced their own. The Russian government also suffered a 30% reduction in its tax revenue. Attempts to reduce alcohol consumption were also made in Germany, Austria-Hungary, France and Italy.

This drastic reduction in British opening times was only the beginning of a campaign against alcohol that was to last throughout the war. “David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, led the campaign against alcohol. He had been told by shipbuilders and heads of war factories, that men’s wages had gone up so much that they could earn in two or three days what would keep them in drink for a week. A Newcastle shipbuilder complained that double overtime on Sunday meant no attendance on Monday.” In January 1915, Lloyd George told the Shipbuilding Employers Federation that Britain was “fighting German’s, Austrians and Drink, and as far as I can see the greatest of these foes is Drink.”

This campaign was to reach absurd proportions.

“Lloyd George started a campaign to persuade national figures to make a pledge that they would not drink alcohol during the war. In April 1915 King George V supported the campaign when he promised that no alcohol would be consumed in the Royal household until the war was over. Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War and Richard Haldane, the Lord Chancellor, followed the king’s example, but [Prime Minister] Herbert Asquith, who was a heavy drinker, refused to take the pledge. The National Review commented: “The failure of the Prime Minister to take the King’s Pledge has naturally aroused comment.” Asquith retorted angrily that Lloyd George had “completely lost his head on drink.” Not in that way, I mean, he’s gone over the top on the sub- oh forget it, poor me another one. Lloyd George being a welsh chapel lad was a teetotaller anyway, so it wasn’t exactly a stretch…

With mass enlistment from young men, to be followed (as the first wave of recruits died en masse in France and Belgium) by mass conscription, women were recruited in large numbers to work in many industries where male workers had previously rigidly excluded them (often through the trade union structures), as well as particularly in making munitions and other war materiel. This was to open up all sorts of opportunities to women, sparking social change that shot off in all sorts of directions. However, one that most bothered the government, pro-war press and the Daily Mail-reading swivel-brained, was that the wages these women workers were al of a sudden receiving gave them massively increased spending power. And they liked to spend it on drink:

“The government was particularly concerned about the amount of alcohol being consumed by female munition workers. A survey of four pubs in London revealed that in one hour on a Saturday night alcohol was consumed by 1,483 men and 1,946 women. Newspapers claimed that soldiers’ wives were “drinking away their over-generous allowances”. The Times reported that “we do not all realise the increase in drinking there has been among the mothers of the coming race, though we may yet find it a a circumstance darkly menacing to our civilisation”.”

The moral outrage sparked by women living it up gathered pace. The Liverpool Echo – under the headline “Light on the ways of women drinkers” – reported in 1916 that “the great increase in the number of women visiting public houses during the past year has demanded drastic treatment”. Press reports and letters from the public talked about “the army of women crowding the public houses”, that the amount being drunk by women was “abnormal”, drinking the pubs dry so that and that male workers heading home from work were “unable to obtain any refreshment”.

Women drinkers were compared to prostitutes; a new scare warned soldiers would return at the end of the war to “find their wives dishonoured and drunkards”.

The bizarre range of measures thought up to “eradicate this blot” included banning women from pubs, selling licences to BUY drink, fitting clear windows to pubs, removing “partitions, snugs and other obstacles likely to facilitate secret drinking”.

In October 1915 the British government finally fell off the edge, announcing a number of several measures to enforce further reductions in alcohol consumption. “A “No Treating Order” laid down that any drink ordered was to be paid for by the person supplied. The maximum penalty for defying the Government order was six months’ imprisonment. The Spectator gave its support to the legislation. It argued that it was the custom of the working-classes to buy drinks for “chance-met acquaintances, each of whom then had to stand a drink to everyone else” and believed that this measure would “free hundreds of thousands of men from an expensive and senseless social tyranny”.

It was reported in The Morning Post on 14th March, 1916: “At Southampton yesterday Robert Andrew Smith was fined for treating his wife to a glass of wine in a local public-house. He said his wife gave him sixpence to pay for her drink. Mrs Smith was also fined £1 for consuming and Dorothy Brown, the barmaid, £5 for selling the intoxicant, contrary to the regulations of the Liquor Control Board.”

Ernest Sackville Turner, in his book, Dear Old Blighty (1980) has pointed out: “In Newcastle police reported a licensee who, with his manager, had sought to evade punishment by causing a customer who had ordered eight drinks to consume all of them. As time passed the Order began to be flouted, to the relief of bar-room scroungers who had been having a thin time, but the police fought back. In Middlesbrough fines on innkeepers went as high as £40. The licensing authorities had powers to close public-houses which allowed treating and occasionally exercised them.” 

The government also increased the level of tax on alcohol. In 1918 a bottle of whisky cost £1, five times what he had cost before the outbreak of war. This helped to reduce alcoholic consumption. Whereas Britain consumed 89 million gallons in 1914, this had fallen to 37 million in 1918. Convictions for drunkenness also fell dramatically during the war. In London in 1914, 67,103 people were found guilty of being drunk. In 1917 this had fallen to 16,567.”

Another effect of the war on drinking was a huge increase in prices. However wages were also increasing. Price and wage inflation rocketed during WW1. Prices had scarcely increased since the 1850’s, in some cases actually having fallen. In four years of war, they doubled. Pre-war the average weekly wage varied from 26s. 4d. per week to 34s. 4d. Half the women employed were paid from 10s. to 15s. per week. In 1917 London bus drivers were earning 60s. per week, cleaners, never the best paid, were getting 40s. By 1918 even agricultural labourers, the lowest paid manual workers, were earning 60s. to 70s. a week. Munitions workers earned considerably more – from £6 (120s.) to as much as £10 (200s.) or £20 (400s.) per week.

So drinkers had, for the most part, plenty of money to afford the higher price of beer, but the problem was a limited supply of beer available. Pubs were allocated a ration of beer based on their pre-war sales; however in some areas the population had increased dramatically – for instance where there had been an influx of munitions workers. In some places, there was just not enough beer to go around. And this caused trouble. Shortages encouraged publicans and brewers to raise prices; this narked their customers, but when some landlords couldn’t resist breaking agreements to put up the price of a pint across a neighbourhood, all sorts of aggro broke:

“The Price of Beer Yesterday – Threatened Strike of Publicans. —- BATTLE OF THE BAR.
Weekly Dispatch, April 8th 1917

There were some remarkable fluctuations in the price of beer in London yesterday, with a tendency to go back to the old prices.

At the Black Dog in Shoe Lane, London, bitter was only 3d a half pint – 2d. less that the price fixed by the Licensed Victuallers’ Central Protection Society London: at the Temple in Tudor Street the charge had also gone down to 3d.; at the Mail Coach in Farringdon Street it was still at 5d.; at Gatti’s Restaurant in the Strand itt was 4.5d.; at the Wellington Restaurant, Fleet Street, 5d.

In South London, in Camberwell and Peckham, there has been a battle of the publicans ever since Monday last. At a meeting it was agreed to put up the prices, but when the time came a minority did not do so. The news spread quickly and the old-price houses were beseiged. Another was held and again an agreement to raise the price was reached, but this time a few of the publicans had a vendetta against the men who played the trick on Monday. One man in Peckham Road put outside his house a notice stating that as other publicans in the district had been disloyal the old prices would be charged until further notice. Many others are doing the same. Yesterday in these old-price houses, it was fighting room only. In Manchester a boycott of formidable character is taking place.

In Manchester and Salford yesterday pickets were stationed near many beerhouses in the industrial areas, and the takings of hundreds of licensees decreased by over 50 per cent.

In Liverpool the boycott also continues. There has been a great drop in the trade and, contrary to expectation, the workmen have shown no sign of buying beer at the new price. At Sunderland the premises of one publican who declined to advance the prices and charged 4d. a pint were crowded to the doors, while people intending to enter premises charging 6d. and 7d. were assailed with cries of “Come out, you blacklegs” from pickets.

A strike was threatened by publicans in Chatham and Rochester yesterday. The licensed victuallers and beerhouse keepers there have decided to accept no further supplies of malt liquors from the brewery until they reduce their rates to the prices prevailing in the greater
part of the county of Kent. According to present arrangements the public is henceforth to pay 10d. a quart for its mild ales and 1s. 6d. a quart for bitter ales.

PROHIBITION BY PRICE.
“It’s prohibition by price – so far as beer is concerned.” said a London publican yesterday. He said that his sale had dropped by 50 per cent since the prices were increased in his establishment last Tuesday.

Old walked in and asked for “a pint of bitter,” and when told the price had been raised to tenpence walked out without touching the drink – a remarkable example of self-denial but typical of the kind of protest the British workman will always make when he feels, rightly or
wrongly, that he is being badly imposed upon.

The new rise in the price of beer in a consequence of the war, which to many men is a more startling fact than the inflation in the prices of foodstuffs or luxuries. Twopence on on tobacco was serious, but as one ounce lasts the average smoker two or three days he did not feel the
call on his pocket so much. But tenpence for the morning pint every morning has come as a brutal shock. Mild ale is only 7d., but to a man accustomed to bitter the change is extremely distasteful.

SPIRITS AS ALTERNATIVE.
But the consequence of the prohibitive price would not be serious if it simply compelled a man to become a total abstainer.

The truth is that beer drinkers are not becoming total abstainers; they are becoming addicted to spirits.

The other day a man walked into a well-known buffet in Fleet Street and ordered a small bottle of Bass. At the same time the man standing next to him asked for a Scotch whisky. For the Bass the barmaid demanded the new price, 7d.; for the whisky she turned to the other customer and said, “Fourpence, please.”

The beer drinker hesitated, then looking at the whisky, said: “Will you change the Bass for a Scotch?” The barmaid said that she could not do that, and the convert to whisky grunted, “Well, this is the last bottle of beer I’m going to buy. I shall save threepence by drinking spirits.” At the same place a customer had two glasses of mixed vermouth and they did not cost him any more than a pint of beer.

A manager who controls many public-houses, both in the City and the East End, said yesterday that there had been a very sharp rise in the consumption of whisky.

“Several men I know,” he said’ “who for years have had a pint of beer every morning, which was their only intoxicating drink for the day, and never touched spirits, now call for a ‘double Scotch.’ It costs them twopence less than the beer.”

He says that the same habit is also growing among the dockers.

The publican, of course, refuses to condemn these customers for giving way to what is a bad habit merely because the country’s food peril makes it imperative that the brewing of beer should be drastically cut down. The publican’s attitude is that beer is a very important food to a numerous body of workers, whose constitutions have become so habituated to the drink that they feel ill without it.

OLD STOCKS AT OLD PRICES.
A curious situation created by the new prices is that many public-houses which have large cellars and a considerable supply of barrels bought at the old price have not yet raised their charges. The result has been a migration, temporary, of customers from a new-price house to an
old-price house close by.

The new scale of prices as fixed by the Licensed Victuallers’ Central Protection Society of London is:

half pint ______Glass
Mild ale ______3.5d. _____-
Bitte ________5d. ______4d.
Stout ________5d. ______5d.
Burton _______6d. ______5d.
Mild and Bitter _4.5d. _____3.5d .
Stout and Mild __5d. ______4d.
Mild and Burton _5d. ______4d.

Other prices: Small Bass 7d.; Guinness 8d.; London stout (screws) 5d.; pale ale (screws) 5d.; barley wine nips 6d.; lager, light or dark, 8d.

It has been pointed out on behalf of the brewers that the existing large stocks of malted barley, sufficient to brew the 10,000,000 barrels of beer authorised for this year, are useless for any other purpose.

This has been denied by Dr. Saleeby, who says that malt cake is an admirable food for cattle, and can be turned directly into meat an milk, and that if the cakes were supplied to farmers they would release for food the unmalted barley, oats, and sedes now being used as food for cattle.

In any case the public have got to make up their mind that, high price or low price, there is not enough beer to supply the old demand, or anything like it, and a good many people have got to do without it.

It is stated that a dozen or more metropolitan brewers have decided to offer their customers (or “tied” houses) the old “four ale” at 90s. a barrel and a trade discount, which will enable the publicans to sell at 3d. a half-pint and make a reasonable profit. These brewers have always maintained that 100s. per barrel, the present price, was more than the circumstances warranted. There is a feeling that the present prices for beer will come down before the end of this month.”

Many licensing laws and restrictions introduced during World War 1 remained on the stature for decades. Because social control during wartime tends to become entrenched. Wars are very useful for that.

The above article was nicked from here…

Other bits were taken from here (sure the telegraph was somewhere there slagging women off for drinking back then)

And here.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London rebel history: William FitzOsbert, or Longbeard, executed,1196, after popular disturbances.

‘Around this time I noticed that there was bad feeling and conflict in the city of London between the rich and the poor’. (Ralph Diceto)

‘And in the same yere an heretyke called with the longe berd was drawen and hanged for heresye and cursed doctrine that he had taught.’  Chronicle of London, 1196

‘He (King Richard) used England as a bank on which to draw and overdraw in order to finance his ambitious exploits abroad.’ A. L. Poole in the Oxford History of England

In the early 1190s, taxation was provoking serious tensions between the rich and poor people of the city of London. King Richard I, bafflingly nicknamed the Lionheart (read either ‘pschopathic warmonger’ or ‘little bloke who wants to kick off in the playground but gets battered’) by centuries of groveling muppets, urgently ‘needed’ vast wodges of cash to fund his pointless dynastic wars to defend the parts of his lands he really cared about, in France, and his inept attempts to go down in history as a valiant defender of the holy faith by re-conquering a few slivers of territory in Palestine. Being the king, he felt it was his right to extort this from the population of England (though he only every spent two very brief periods in England in his whole life, amounting in total to less than six months.) In the process he would nearly bankrupt the country, increase poverty and desperation, and spark dissent among even his own family.

This would also contribute to a little-known incident in London history, a brief flash of anger and rebellion, the true significance of which is shrouded and will likely never be known: the ‘revolt’ of William Longbeard.

The late 1180s and early 1190s saw a succession of taxes imposed to fund the crusades, wars, and later the ransom for king Richard when he lion-heartedly managed to get himself kidnapped by a rival prince. London, being the largest and most important city, had to bear the largest share, including for the massive ransom demanded when the king was captured on his way home. A levy for the aid of Jerusalem, known as the ‘Saladin Tithe’, in 1188, a tax to contribute to the king’s ransom in 1193, and another tax in 1194, were all on top of the regular sums extracted from the city of London, such as the farm, which was paid once a year. The crown’s exceptional demands on the city brought taxation to the forefront of the civic political agenda.

Like most taxes, in theory the better-off pay more, as in the same percentage of earnings of property means more if you earn or possess more. As usual, however, the rich and powerful of London tried, (and often succeeded) in passing on the main burden of the taxes onto the ‘poorer sort’, commonly evading or getting out of their duty to pay. How things have changed eh? You wouldn’t see the authorities allowing that sort of behaviour these days.

The poor of London in the 1190s complained that they were far more heavily taxed than the rich.

In 1196 a brief and abortive rebellion sparked in London against the heavy taxes, led by one William Fitz Osbert, nick-named Longbeard, because, he and his kinsmen had ‘adhered to this ancient English fashion of being bearded as a testimony of their hatred against their Norman masters’. (Matthew Paris). Apparently long beards then were viewed as symbols of pilgrims, and of learning, but also had the implication of ‘resistance to authority’… The hippies would like that (though as to hipsters…? Hmmm) His striking beard which ‘made him more conspicuous in meetings and assemblies’.

It is thought William was a Londoner, the son of ‘Osbert the Clerk’. The family wasn’t rich but was certainly well-to-do, thus William had been able to study law at university, supported partly by his brother Richard. Later he went on crusade to the Holy Land, returning about 1192-3, when he became involved in the internal civic politics of London. He was said to have been endowed with ‘a sharp mind’, was ‘moderately educated but unusually eloquent’.

The chronicler Gervase of Canterbury, who was one of FitzOsbert’s most hostile critics, adds that ‘he was most eloquent’. Even allowing for the chroniclers’ exaggeration of FitzOsbert’s charisma, which was intended to explain why he secured a following among the masses, it seems clear that he must have been an articulate and sophisticated man, with a forceful personality.

At this time the collection of taxes and levies was ‘left to Londoners themselves’. The aldermen of each city ward met at the ‘wardmoot’, an institution that went back to Anglo-Saxon times. Consent needed to be obtained and then each citizen was meant to contribute according to his wealth, although normally wealthier citizens were expected to pay at a higher rate than poorer people. If anyone possessed a ‘stone house’ they were deemed to be wealthy and ‘singled out and required to contribute at a higher rate’.

This Anglo-Saxon custom was being increasingly bypassed and ignored by the wealthier citizens of London, many of whom were the French-speaking descendants of the Norman conquerors; the poor being mostly the English.

“Great and frequent were the talliages imposed upon the City of London, for Richard’s ransom: and the burthen, according to the popular opinion, was increased, by the inequality of its apportionment or repartition. London at this period, contained two distinct orders of citizens: the Aldermen, the “Majores” or “Nobiles”, as they are termed in the ancient Year Books of the City, the Patricians or higher order, constituting (as they asserted) the municipal Communia, and constantly exercising the powers of government. To these, were opposed the lower order, who — perhaps being subdivided amongst themselves into two tribes of plebeians — maintained that they were the true Communia, to which, as of right, the municipal authority ought to belong. And in these conflicting ranks, an historical theorist may suppose that he discovers the vestiges of the remote period, when London was inhabited by distinct races or nations, each dwelling in their own peculiar town — the Ealdormannabyrigy still known as the Aldermanbury — inhabited by the nobles or conquering caste: whilst the rest of the city was peopled by the tributary or subject community. All contemporary chroniclers tell the same story: there was massive discontent because the wealthy and powerful were trying to avoid their share of the levy being raised to pay the king’s ransom. (Sir Francis Palgrave)

By 1194 King Richard’s ransom had been collected from the citizens of London and from the rest of the country, and early that year Richard returned to England for a brief visit. At this time, William Fitz Osbert, who might have known the king, them being together on crusade, denounced his own brother, Richard Fitz Osbert, and two other rich Londoners to the king. He claimed they were not only avoiding paying their fair share of the taxes that were still being raising for Richard’s campaign plans in France, but that they had traitorous discussions against the king as well.

“A document preserved in the rolls of the curia regis confirms that in a November session of the court in the sixth year of the reign of Richard I (1194), Richard FitzOsbert, Robert Brand, and Jordan Tanner were accused by William FitzOsbert of having held a meeting in Richard FitzOsbert’s stone house at which treasonous statements were made. Richard was accused of resenting the obligation to pay royal taxes. Jordan Tanner was held to have expressed a desire that the king never return home, and Robert Brand was charged with declaring that London would never have any other king except the mayor.”

The thrust of the accusation may have been family jealousy or an attempt to win favour with the king; in any case the accusation ended in either no action being taken against the three, or it being dismissed. Hostile chroniclers took it as evidence that FitzOsbert was really motivated by a desire to acquire his brother’s possessions or personal animosity.

However, it marks the beginning of FitzOsbert’s rise to prominence as a critic of the rich as tax avoiders and, briefly, a popular agitator.

From personal accusations against people he knew, FitzOsbert moved onto a more general campaign of disruption and propaganda. He is reported by the chroniclers who tell the story as alleging that ‘on the occasion of every royal edict the rich spared their own fortunes and because of their power placed the whole weight on the poor and defrauded the royal treasury of a large sum’.

All the chroniclers suggest that FitzOsbert was organising a popular movement, under his leadership. There is no record of FitzOsbert ever serving in any recognized or elected post, as a sheriff or alderman: he seems to have gained influence without holding office. Prominent and established Londoners dominated the ranks of the mayors, sheriffs and aldermen. Aldermen at this time probably inherited or bought their position, without being directly elected; it is possible that Fitz Osbert achieved prominence by speaking out at the wardmoots or the folkmoot, effectively public meetings usually used for agreeing and ratifying local decisions.

The Folkmoots, assemblies of male citizens held at St Pauls, and wardmoots, local meetings in each ward, served as venues of London community self-government, on the level of local decision-making, but could also inevitably be opportunities for popular discontent and agitation, especially in times of particular grievance or pressure.

A charismatic speaker, such as William FitzOsbert is said to have been, might well become popular by being a loud voice of dissent and criticism at such meetings. According to Newburgh, Fitz Osbert disrupted public meetings, and Diceto, the dean of St Paul’s, suggests that he “bound the people to himself with oaths and that his rhetoric was responsible for a riot in St Paul’s.” (Note that the folkmoot was held next to St Pauls, so perhaps a riot that began at a folkmoot?)

Disrupting official meetings, and binding the citizens with oaths, represented a threat to the established political order. FitzOsbert was also prepared to appeal to the king, according to Newburgh FitzOsbert ‘deemed it necessary to go overseas to complain to the prince that he suffered the enmity… of the powerful’. Again, the budding popular leader may have been trading on personal contact with the king developed in the crusades, and made a point of public support of the king while challenging the immediate authorities in he city. Howden asserts that FitzOsbert ‘obtained [the king’s] peace for himself and the people’. If so, it was a temporary peace…

Although, the chroniclers use a variety of terms to describe FitzOsbert’s supporters, including paupers, plebs, and cives Lundoniarum, this may not mean all of FitzOsbert’s support came from the very poor. At a time when the idea of the poor having a voice in the city’s politics, or wider political decision-making, was not considered at all, or would have been seen by the elite to be a joke, an impossibility, or represented a threat of chaos and disorder, this emphasis may be deliberately aimed discrediting the movement. FitzOsbert’s supporters could in fact have included many people from the ‘middling sort’ and had wealth worth taxing – certainly people who had something to lose to the extra tax regimes, not people who had nothing. Proof is impossible to come by on this, though when Hubert Walter, archbishop of Canterbury and Justiciar of England, was drawn into the troubles, and pressurised London’s citizens to hand over FitzOsbert, he ordered the arrest of London merchants visiting fairs in the surrounding counties. It’s not clear whether the merchant classes were known as supporters of Fitz Osbert, or merely being used as hostages.

In antagonising Hubert Walter, responsible in the king’s absence for keeping order in the realm, Fitz Osbert over-reached himself. Walter ‘convoked the common people, spoke to them squarely . . . and admonished them to give hostages for being loyal to the king’… but FitzOsbert, ‘supported by the crowd proceeded with a show of pomp and organized public meetings on his own authority’.

Hubert Walter saw the threat of disorder would be reduced by removing the figure at the movement’s head, and used both persuasion and threat to try to convince Londoners, including ordering the arrest of any Londoners caught outside the city (‘at Stamford Fair [March 31] some merchants… were arrested’.) But by April 1196, Walter resorted to force, after his men sent to bring FitzOsbert to trial were intimidated by the latter’s supporters. Walter sent armed men, supported by ‘noble citizens’, to arrest FitzOsbert; the latter and some of his followers fought them off, by all accounts, FitzOsbert personally killed one of the officers.

Realisation might have set in then that the forces arrayed against him might outweigh the 1000s he was supposed to by then command, or at least influence. FitzOsbert and a few supporters legged it to St Mary le Bow church, and took sanctuary refuge in the church tower, relying on the inviolability of sanctuary. But Hubert Walter decided to violate the sanctity of the church (very controversial at the time) and the steeple was burned to force FitzOsbert out, while more soldiers were sent into the city to overawe the common people.

FitzOsbert surrendered when the church was ‘besieged with fire and smoke’. Once captured, William FitzOsbert was taken to the Tower, tried, and then on April 6th, 1196, brought to Smithfield for execution, dragged “through the centre of the city to the elms, his flesh was demolished and spread all over the pavement and, fettered with a chain, he was hanged that same day on the elms with his associates and died”. This was unusual for the time, as “the public execution of a prominent public figure was clearly not part of the normal political process.”

His execution, and the occupation of the city by archbishop Walter’s soldiers, squashed the immediate threat of class disorder in London, though it did also, for a while, turn FitzOsbert into a martyr.

“Gervase of Canterbury relates that ‘a sudden rumour spread through the city that William was a new martyr and shone through miracles’. People started seeking out his place of execution. Newburgh notes that the gibbet was stolen and ‘the earth underneath, as if it were consecrated by the blood of the hanged man… was scraped away by the fools in small bits until a considerable ditch was formed’.

Even in death FitzOsbert was a threat to order, and Newburgh remarks that the ‘multitude continually kept watch’ at the execution site ‘and this very vain error became so strong that it could have misled even the wise’. The intensity of the spiritual focus on him after death does suggest the strength and depth of his support within the population at large, and could have sparked further imitation of his methods – or so the authorities though. Again, they resorted to violence. Gervase of Canterbury records that ‘an ambush was laid and those who came at night-time to pray were whipped’.” (John McEwan)

The budding cult of William Longbeard was suppressed.

It remains unclear, and is unlikely to ever be clarified, at this distance of time, how much William Longbeard FitzOsbert was the head of a genuine popular movement, how large the discontent spread, and how much of a threat to the London authorities it was. It seems to have dissipated quickly under the repression led by Walter and the London notables. And how much was Longbeard seeking to exploit anger for his own ends – power in the city? Impossible to tell.

Its clear that the events caused no immediate change in the power structures in London; “the civic leadership was disconnected from the population”, and it remained so afterwards. But the incident shows that popular pressure could have an impact, and that there the civic authorities could not necessarily expect unquestioning deference, and that there was a preparedness, at least from some elements in the lower and middling strata, to protest the unequal financial economic burden of taxation.

“The chroniclers maintain that the lower orders were willing to express their opinions, and indeed that they believed that their interests should play an important role in determining the policy of the community. The chroniclers also make clear that there were recognised mechanisms whereby public opinion could be made manifest. Public meetings provided a vehicle for the expression of sentiments of dissatisfaction, and indeed it was possible for a man such as William FitzOsbert, who was not in the first rank of London merchants, to acquire influence by articulating the critical opinions of an angry section of the population. Furthermore, even though poor and middling men did not serve as mayors or sheriffs, their opinions ultimately mattered in civic politics, because they were not easily coerced. When a restive section of the population opposed their methods of organising taxation, the authorities could not implement a policy.” (John McEwan)

William Longbeard’s posthumous reputation in written sources was initially dim, as the main chroniclers of London at this time generally took pains to portray him in negative terms, while acknowledging the anger the unequal burden of tax had aroused. But this was to change in the years following the events. To some extent the memory of Longbeard chimed with the tales of outlaws like Robin Hood: the good rebel, supporter and friend of the good absent king, who is being betrayed by evil counselors or rapacious sheriffs, who are oppressing the loyal people.

Less than a century after his savage death, in the hands of Matthew Paris, FitzOsbert was transformed from a villain into a hero. “Paris presents a stridently sympathetic portrait of FitzOsbert, describing him as the leader of a movement which resisted the unreasonable impositions made upon the poor by the mayor and aldermen. He calls the attack on St. Mary le Bow church a ‘sacrilege’ … Paris’s account, in addition to providing a perspective which contrasts with those of the earlier chroniclers, provides evidence that FitzOsbert lived on in the popular imagination. In part, this was because of the dramatic nature of his death, but it was also because taxation and conflict between the rich and the underprivileged continued to be relevant issues that excited passions and sparked debate.”

Alot of this was nicked John McEwan, William FitzOsbert and the Crisis of 1196 in London

https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/flor/article/viewFile/14454/15526

 

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s unruly history: mock executions of hate figures in effigy, Tower Hill, 1771.

Effigy burning – although best known now for Guy Fawkes night, twas once one of the most prevalent political symbolic acts. Still gets used now and again too, and not just at the kind of ritualised and acceptable fun-poking/social comment at events like the Lewes bonfire…

Burning or otherwise ‘executing’ a fullsize (or larger) mock up of a real person is obviously extremely effective. When it’s a well-known figure, political, religious, or otherwise, it becomes satire of the highest order: mocking the solemn state rituals of public execution, and turning it round on the powerful. If only in fun and threat…

The eighteenth century was one of the high points of effigy burning in England. Political protest in the form of organised or semi-organised crowd violence was endemic throughout the century; effigies formed part of the vocabulary of many of these events.

One such took place on April 5th, 1771:

“About noon, two carts preceded by a hearse were drawn through the City to Tower-Hill, In the first cart sat a man representing an executioner, having the care of three figures painted on paste-board, near as large as life, hanging on a wooden frame in form of a gallows, which reached quite across the cart. In the front the figures were painted with nightcaps on, and handkerchiefs over their eyes; on their backs were written, in large characters, the names of to persons of rank, and an alderman: in the second cart were four figures painted, and hanging in the same manner, with names also on their backs. When the carts, &c arrived at Tower-hill, the gallows was fixed up, and in a short time after the figures and gallows were set on fire and consumed.

A man in the crowd being observed taking down the names, written on the back of the figures, was seized as a spy, and ducked in the Tower-ditch, till he was almost dead, though he assured the mob he copied them only to satisfy his own curiosity.

An hour after the above transaction, the dying speeches of some supposed malefactors were cried about the streets.” (Annual Register)

This had followed a previous incident days earlier on April 1st, (a more usual date for such foolery) “Two carts filled with persons intended to represent some imaginary criminals of rank, which were followed by a hearse, went through the city to Tower-hill. In the first cart was a chimney-sweeper, who acted the part of a clergyman. When they arrived, the person in the first cart, was pretendedly beheaded, then put into the hearse and carried off. In the second cart were some stuffed figures, which, after having the heads chopped off, were burnt, amidst the huzzas of the mob.”

The writer coyly avoiding naming the ‘personalities’ being thus burned in effigy…

In fact, on April 1st they were the Marquis of Bute, former PM and royal favourite, and the Princess Dowager (mother of king George III), burned because they were held to be staunch opponents of the political reform movement, headed by populist demagogue and darling of the London mob John Wilkes, at that time again at odds with the establishment. Bute’s likeness had been burned a number of times throughout England in the previous few years, “in some counties, they dressed up a figure in Scotch plaid, with a blue ribbon, to represent the favourite, and this figure seemed to lead by the nose an ass royally crowned.” The perceived influence of Bute and the princess over royal policy had been translated by ‘the mob’s Hiero-glyphics’ into the visually recognisable symbols of the Jack Boot (for Bute) and the Petticoat (the king’s ma). Bute’s influence was popularly held to extend to being the princess’s lover; but Bute was also unpopular after concluding a treaty ending the Seven Years War, in which he gave up land in Canada to France and Spain. He also imposed a tax on cider, which understandably faced fierce opposition in the West Country. The Bath Chronicle reported the following on April 14th 1763:

“Last week a great Number of true Lovers of Cyder and Perry assembled in Hereford, and having prepared an Effigy of a certain Great Man, finely plaided, first exposed it in the Pillory, then exalted it on a Gibbet, and lastly threw it into a large Bonfire, where it was consumed to Ashes, amidst a general Huzza.”

The campaign against Bute was fuelled also by his being Scottish, so along with a slightly dubious suggestion of misogyny in the ‘Petticoats’ bit, there was also a blatant anglo-patriotic element to the effigies here. The idea that the politicians are selling out the national interest embodied by an angry crowd has a long ring to it…

Even after his resignation as PM Bute was hounded, mobbed, his windows broken, and was still receiving anonymous threatening letters 20 years later.

The immediate context of these protests in April 1771 was the Lord Mayor of London, Brass Crosby’s showdown with the crown and Parliament, which had led to him being imprisoned in the Tower of London. Crosby had intervened in support of the publishers Miller, Thompson and Wheble, who had printed accounts of debates in Parliament without a licence – something Parliament generally repressed. After warrants were issued to summons the men, but they refused to appear and were being blatantly supported not only by Wilkes (a City of London Alderman) but by the Lord mayor. When Crosby discharged Miller after his arrest by parliamentary agents (who he had assaulted), the Lord mayor himself was summonsed to Parliament (followed by a huge mob) and sent to the Tower.

The pro-Wilkes elements in the London mob feted Crosby as he went off to his cell on March 27th; the effigy burnings were a direct response to what they saw as an attack on the independence of the City of London and the broadly pro-reform party (Wilkes, Crosby and the printers being generally lumped together, though it was more complex than that), by a corrupt and venal court and Parliament. Riotous crowds threatened the minsters of the crown…
Crosby was eventually freed when Parliament was adjourned a month later, and the events led to the relaxing of the rules against unlicensed reporting of debates.

That a chimney sweep was acting as the executioner is interesting. If in romantic back-projection from Charles Kingsley’s scribbles usually seen as pathetic waifs doomed and wan, and by some used as a metaphor to represent submerged or latent Desire: there was a darker more realistic side to the child sweep. They were also often collectively unruly, and individually were known for turning to crime when their work was slack or they grew too big to scramble up chimneys… Sweeps were popular symbols of subversion during the Wilkes agitations of the 1760s and early 70s… Symbolism gathers around them, which they willingly exploited in a bid to beg money; they had evolved a traditional role as guardians of the City’s water conduits, a potent symbol of survival and the intricate moral economy of the urban jungle; and they also became a leading ‘trade’ in parades for the Mayday holidays… In these 1771 charivaris, the sweep combines the spirit of disorder, the sweeps’ link to the holiday of April 1st, and a suggestion of their being in some way a moral guardian, albeit fighting for an unruly collective morality, in defence and defiance…

A final note on effigies: the Marquis of Bute was one of the figures most burned in effigy during the eighteenth century; interestingly, possibly only surpassed by radical writer Thomas Paine, author of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. In response to the ‘threat’ of revolutionary France and reformist/radical ideas at home, loyalist associations of conservative citizens sponsored by the government and local magistrates took to burning Tom Paine. Everywhere. Every week for a few years, in massive shows of force, intimidation and reactionary community solidarity to warn off anyone thinking of putting on a revolution; or even discussing reform.

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2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s history: Richard O’Brien killed by police, Walworth, 1994

Richard O’Brien died on 4 April 1994, after being arrested for being drunk and disorderly and taken to Walworth police station, South London. He had 31 separate areas of injury to his body including cuts and bruising to his face and fractured ribs.

Richard, a market trader, was 37 and weighed 19 stone. He was placed face down on the ground with his hands handcuffed behind his back and his legs folded behind him, while cops pushed and racially abused him, then held him there with his face to the pavement while one of them, Constable Richard Ilett, knelt on his back.

The police said that he was drunk and disorderly outside the English Martyrs Club in Walworth Road. His family said he was waiting for a taxi.

Richard called out, “I can’t breathe, you win, you win”, One officer replied: “We always win.” Richard’s wife Alison was also nicked, as was their 14-year-old son, also called Richard, who was slapped and arrested by another officer after pleading with them to check on his father; and another of their children.

(A Crown Prosecution Service lawyer later argued in court that Richard Junior may have caused some of his fathers injuries. Seriously.)

Richard O’Brien had 31 sites of injury on his body, including cuts and bruising to his face, a dislodged tooth and fractured ribs. He had pinpoint bleeding suggestive of haemorrhaging after blood vessels on his face burst. The cause of death was given as “postural asphyxia following a struggle against restraint.”

After being held on the ground, Mr O’Brien was carried to a police van by six officers. He was then said to have been half-pushed and half-dragged into the vehicle.

His wife, Alison, who was already seated in the van with their son Richard, recalled an officer shouting: “We can’t get the big fat Paddy in,” before another grabbed him by the hair or head.

Police officers claimed they tried in vain to resuscitate Mr O’Brien after he was taken out of the van at Walworth police station.

At an Inquest in November 1995, PC Ilett insisted that Mr O’Brien had been drunk and struggled violently on arrest. He said that he had not seen any of the 31 injuries Mr O’Brien sustained and said he had shown nothing but concern for him. Patrick O’Connor, counsel representing the family, held up a photograph of Mr O’Brien showing his bloodstained and battered face and asked the officer: “Does this show your concern?”

The inquest jury brought in a verdict of unlawful killing. Sir Montague Levine, the Southwark coroner, said the case had shown an “appalling lack of instruction” in the training of police officers in restraint techniques. He went on to recommend the regular retraining of officers and improved education in methods of monitoring individuals involved in restraint.

Alison O’Brien, said after the verdict: “I’m delighted. The truth has finally got out now and after 18 months someone actually believes our story.”

The then Police Complaints Authority announced that two police officers concerned in the death would face disciplinary charges for neglect of duty, which enraged his family.

The Director of Public Prosecutions later admitted that decisions in the cases had been ‘fundamentally flawed’.

Alison later, in conjunction with Olamide Jones, partner of Shiji Lapite, also killed by the police, went to the High Court to appeal to have the DPP’s decision not to prosecute any officers overturned. This was successful, forcing the CPS to prosecute.

Three officers — Richard Ilett, Gary Lockwood, and James Barber — were eventually charged with manslaughter, but they were acquitted in 1999, when the defence argued successfully that O’Brien had had a heart attack when he tried to remove himself from custody.

In 2002, the O’Brien family won a £324,000 payout from Scotland Yard, partly for the arrests of Alison and the 2 children, but they received no apology.

The cops say they always win. They often do. Will that ever end?

Support Inquest, the organisation which has been working to help relatives of those who have died in custody and detention.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s penal history: the Fleet Prison finally closes, 1844.

The Fleet Prison, the first purpose-built gaol in London, stood for around 700 years on the banks of London’s the Fleet River. It went through several incarnations. The first Fleet prison was built in early Norman times, on a tiny island in the River Fleet, just outside the walls of the city of London, the river providing a protective moat for a square tower. It was, like the Tower of London and the many castles that dominated the English landscape, a visible symbol of the power of an aristocracy and monarchy which had dispossessed the existing population and ruled by force and by threat of force.

Later, when this first Fleet Prison fell into disrepair, in the 14th century, it was rebuilt where Old Seacoal Lane (a short alley off Farringdon Street) now runs.

This immediate neighbourhood was famed for centuries for a concentration of prisons: Ludgate, the Fleet, Newgate, the bridewell, Giltspur St Compter, were all in a relatively small area inside the City wall, and outside. In fact some of them had begun life in the wall, as two of the City Gates, Ludgate, and Newgate) already strong fortified points, so ideal for holding offenders… Some of them were outside the City walls, because building land was less of a problem, and people didn’t want prisons next door to them. Also to cope with fact that cons used to leg it out of City to escape jurisdiction… Near to liberties and rookeries too? But the clustering of communities of the excluded: foreigners denied entry to the city, the poor and outcast, workers I dirty and anti-social trades, which lined the Fleet river, in the dubious and debated authority between London and Westminster, may also have had its impact: prisons developed where they could directly overawe the people who they existed to control, where hauling someone off may have been a shorter journey. But the various prisons also housed offenders against the myriad different and often mutually hostile jurisdictions and courts which then judged offences ranging from debt, through heresy and political subversion, pissing off the powerful, to murder and robbery. However, imprisonment was in itself for many years not a punishment; prisons were often holding cells while waiting for court lists to get round to you, when you would be sentenced to either death, a fine, a visible period of public humiliation of abuse, banishment, and later on transportation to penal colonies. Or, occasionally, got off. If you were imprisoned for debt, however, locked up on the compliant of whoever you owed money to, you could languish there until your debt got paid. Which it might never be.

Once a City of London Prison, by the late fourteenth century the Fleet held prisoners from Westminster courts such as Common Pleas, the Exchequer and the Kings Council and Chancery. It also held people who owed money to the king, or had crossed him.

The Prison’s Keepers were royal appointees. It was often a hereditary position, very profitable, with lots of money to be extorted from inmates, so was much sought after (generally obtained by payment of a large bribe). Warders below the Keeper also bought their positions from the ranks above them (a low-ranking position cost £20, then a fortune, in 1558), as they could also make a mint by selling every conceivable service or commodity to prisoners. The screws received no wages, so had to extort every penny they could from those they guarded. Inmates with cash could obtain reasonably comfortable quarters, have good food and drink brought in; those convicts who couldn’t pay found themselves in the coldest, dampest cells, supplied with the roughest food etc.

Like all prisons, the Fleet was hated by the London poor. On 13th June 1381 the prison was burned to the ground by revolting Kent peasants and London rebels, after they’d released all the prisoners. After the rebellion the Fleet had to be rebuilt.

While the vast majority of its guests were poor and mostly forgotten, the Fleet did house some notables. In the era of dissent leading up to and through the English Civil war, the Fleet held inmates locked up for their political beliefs. From 1638 to 1640, John Lilburne, radical Puritan activist and later Leveller leader, was held here, having been arrested for helping to publish and distribute puritan books attacking the state-sponsored Anglican Church. His then mentor William Prynne was also a guest here. While held in irons Lilburne sent a challenge to Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud to debate with him the issues that had got him nicked. At Whitsun 1639, Lilburne sent out an appeal to his fellow apprentices, in the form of a pamphlet thrown among holidaying apprentices in Moorfields, asking them to a campaign for a public trial for him… As a result they marched to riot outside Lambeth Palace in support of him, attacking Archbishop Laud.

The Fleet later held Leveller leaders and other political prisoners during the English revolution. The poet John Donne was also imprisoned there, on the petition of his father-in-law, who he had neglected to ask permission from before marrying his daughter.

In 1666, like most City prisons it burned down in the Great Fire.

Most prisons were hothouses for disease and ill-health, being overcrowded, cold, damp and neglected. Those on the banks of the Fleet River were, like many of the buildings on its banks, heavily affected by the river’s dank and polluted flow. The only viable local sewer, a dumping ground for the animal carcasses of Smithfield and the foul chemicals of tanneries and dyers vats, the Fleet was not a healthy neighbour. (The ‘moat’ around the first prison building became so clogged with carcasses you could allegedly walk across it).

Filth, disease, torture and daily extortion in the Fleet Prison led to a petition to parliament for relief of debtors held there. In 1691 Moses Pitt published The Cry of the Oppressed during his incarceration here (the authorities tried to suppress the publication). One abuse he complained of was the unique right of creditors to apply to have prisoners transferred to the Fleet from other prisons. The Fleet was the most expensive debtors prison to be held in; Fleet screws would routinely bribe creditors to provide fresh pickings for them in this way.
Pitt’s pleas changed nothing, for thirty years later things were running much the same. At least one Keeper, Thomas Bambridge in the 1720s, was so blatantly corrupt and sadistic that he was officially accused of extortion, and that he had “arbitrarily and unlawfully loaded with irons, put into dungeons and destroyed prisoners for debt”. The authorities may have been more worried that he had taken money to allow escapes and even provided a special door for the purpose! Also that a couple of his victims weren’t poor nobodies: Sir William Rich, unable to pay for better conditions in the jail, was threatened with a poker, then shackled and thrown into a freezing hole above an open sewer. Robert Castell, scholarly author of The Villas of the Ancients Illustrated, was forced to sleep in a sponging-house where smallpox was rife, even though he begged the Warden for mercy, and died as a result.

In the ensuing outcry, a parliamentary Committee was appointed in 1729 to investigate what was going on in the Fleet. The Committee laid before the House a catalogue of brutality, incompetence and corruption. It was admitted by Bambridge’s predecessor ‘that so many prisoners had escaped, during the time he was warden, that it was impossible to enumerate them.’ Healthy women had been forced into smallpox wards; casual cruelty was an everyday occurrence. When the Committee moved on to look at the Marshalsea and King’s Bench, they found things to be much the same. Investigating the overall management of London’s prisons, they uncovered a Byzantine web of lets and sublets, transfers of ownership and corrupt charities.

The Prisons Committee had been painted at the Fleet by a rising young artist called William. Hogarth. Hogarth’s sketch caught the moment when Bambridge was brought face to face with his accusers.

Bambridge was tried but acquitted, leading to such strong anger that parliament framed an act to sack him. But despite the horrific descriptions of torture and brutality they took no action. Not even the Prisons Committee could break the inertia of the House of Commons. The hours of evidence and cross examination, the long reports to Parliament and stories in the press, still didn’t result in a Prison Reform Act. (Bambridge, incidentally, cut his throat in his Chambers at Paper Buildings on Fleet Street in 1741. So something good came out of it.)

As with all London prisons, inmates continued to struggle against its conditions, via escapes, rebellions and protests. In June 1731 “the prisoners in the Fleet Prison caused a riot and insulted the keepers… they alleged they were ill-us’d and stood up for their rights and privileges.”

On 6 June 1780, the Fleet was stormed by the Gordon Rioters, and all the inmates freed – bar some who asked politely for time to get their stuff together and find somewhere to go, having been inside for years. To give them time, the crowd decided not to burn the prison that day, but came back the next day instead! A fire engine that arrived to put out the flames was also set on fire. A witness, George Sussex, imprisoned for debt, said later that he observed a man in the gallery of the prison pouring a flammable liquid onto the floor and another man in a sailors jacket setting it alight; in about two minutes the gallery was aflame from end to end. However a company of Light Dragoons arrived and opened fire, (killing up to a hundred rioters according to one source, but only one, according to another?!). Passing rich folk in coaches were stopped and money demanded from them – in the Fleet Market, the Duke of Gloucester, the King’s brother, was held up and robbed as the Prison burned.

Though it was rebuilt after 1780, conditions didn’t substantially improve… Reformer John Howard condemned it as crowded and dirty;

he was surprised by the scandalous neglect of all discipline, and the shameful violation of all morality.   ” They also play in the court,” he says, “at skittles, mississippi, fives, tennis, and other games ; and not only the prisoners : I saw among them several butchers and others from the market, who are admitted here, as at any other public house. The same may be seen in many other prisons where the jailer keeps or lets the tap!  …Besides the inconvenience of this to prisoners, the frequenting a prison lessens the dread of being confined in one. On Monday night there was a wine club; on Thursday night, a beer club—each lasting usually till one or two in the morning. I need not say how much riot these occasion, and how the sober prisoners, and those that are sick, are annoyed by them. “Seeing the prison crowded with women and children, I procured an accurate list of them, and found that when there were 243 prisoners, their wives and children were 475.”

The Liberty of the Fleet arose from the late fourteenth century, when prisoners could get the day out if they posted bail or were accompanied by a warder (obviously for a fee…) This grew into a custom that instead of residing in the cells, prisoners could take lodgings in neighbouring houses, on a kind of semi-parole, so long as they paid the Keeper. This Liberty grew to be a mile and a half across; both in and around the prison, many people sheltered from creditors, who were legally barred from pursuing them there; if you had some cash you could live it up, with sports, games, drink etc. In 1820, inmate Robert Mackay became world rackets champion.

For a while the Fleet also gave its name to marriages. People could get married in the Fleet – the advantages being they were cheap, and could be performed at any time, without banns or licenses, and without a clergyman. This was especially useful for women friends of sailors; a wife could receive his wages if he vanished or died, where an unofficial companion couldn’t. Women also married insolvent debtors here, to clear their own debts. The only feasible kind of wedding for much of the London poor, with useful economic advantages, the institution was hated and denounced by the authorities, and was abolished in 1753.

As all London prison held radicals and rebels, especially in the in first half of the 19th century, radical ideas also spread within them. So on occasion in the Fleet – (probable) spy and promiser of money (that usually never materialised) to radical causes, Pierre Baume, wrote to Robert Owen in 1827, telling him he was preaching Owen’s socialist ideas in the Fleet Prison (where Baume was temporarily detained for debt…).

Pressure for reform of the grim and corrupt prison system in the late 18th and early 19th century gradually led to more critical views of jail regimes. Reform was proposed to both improve prisoner’s lives, but also to try to institute a more rigid and sobering ethos that would reduce re-offending by upgrading the morals of inmates, and separating people, under tighter and surveillance and control. New pentitentiaries and prisons were planned and built, along these lines, in London’s then outer suburbs (slightly further from the public gaze) – Brixton, Pentonville, Wandsworth, Wormwood Scrubs (three of which remain in use today) and at Millbank.

Gradually the older prisons were closed down; the fact that they stood in areas of the city now becoming prime real estate may have also been an impetus. The Fleet Prison was ordered to be closed in 1842 during prison reforms, including the ending of imprisonment for debt, and the building was finally demolished in 1846.

On the site of the old prison, the Congregational Memorial Hall was built, which was to become an important venue for London’s left and trade union movements…

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An entry in the
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Today in London radical history: Visteon workers occupy their factory, Enfield, 2009.

A Post-Fordist struggle

Report & reflections on the UK Ford-Visteon dispute 2009

NB: This is a long post. No apologies. It was written by a supporter of the Visteon occupation shortly after it ended, (a longer version of an article originally written on request for the Wildcat group in Germany) and published online (on libcom) as well as put out as a free pamphlet by past tense. It’s worth re-posting in its entirety. 

In June 2000 Ford Motor Company outsourced the production of certain component parts to a new company called Visteon – in reality a spin off company of Ford and in which Ford retained a 60% holding. Visteon runs factories all over the globe: in America, Europe and Asia, for example. In England a deal between the Ford company and the union promised all former Ford workers – now employees of Visteon – that they would keep the same wage and pension conditions they’d had with Ford (ie, mirrored conditions). But all newly hired Visteon workers were employed under inferior contracts.

On 31st of March 2009 Ford/Visteon announced the closure of three factories in the UK and the sacking of 610 workers(1). The company was declared insolvent and put into receivership. The receivers visited all three plants; with no prior warning workers were sacked with only a few minutes notice and told only that the company had gone bust. No guarantees were given concerning redundancy or pensions payments. The management had made the workers work up to the last minute, knowing that they would not even receive any wages for their final shifts.

On the 31st workers in Belfast responded to the closure announcement by occupying their factory spontaneously. After a clash with security guards, workers secured the building and within two hours several hundred local supporters had visited the occupation. Two KPMG administrators were on the premises at the time of the occupation and refused to leave. So the workers locked them in a portakabin – where they apparently stayed for 36 hours with no food, before finally agreeing to leave! Such pointless dedication to their job… Some managers’ cars also remained locked in the occupation.

Having heard the news about Belfast, the Basildon (Essex), and Enfield (north London) Visteon plants also occupied the next day. The Basildon plant contained no stock or machinery of much value to the company; so the workers trashed the site offices. A group of riot cops appeared and the workers were ‘pursuaded’ to end their occupation, presumably under the threat of ‘leave or you’ll be nicked for criminal damage’. They then began 24hr picketing of the plant.

At Enfield the workers were called to a meeting and within six minutes had been made redundant. They were told they could return the next day to collect belongings from lockers. But the next day (April Fools Day) the security guards refused them entry; no doubt on instructions of the company now alerted to the Belfast occupation. After 40 mins waiting – and inspired by Belfast – they decided to also occupy. Knowing where there was an unlocked gate, they returned to the factory and managed to secure part of it for themselves; about 100 workers occupied the paint-shop and the roof.

The character of the dispute at the three plants was determined by local conditions; at Belfast many workers lived close to the plant and had strong links with the immediate local community, having shown solidarity to many local causes over the years. So they were provided with plenty of practical support; within hours local people and shops were providing food and other resources for the occupiers. Unlike the other plants, Belfast was also demanding that the plant be reopened and their jobs saved (though maybe few saw this as a very likely outcome).

West Belfast MP Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein backed the Belfast occupation from the beginning. As one Belfast supporter explained;
“The workforce in Visteon/Ford Belfast was 50-50 Catholic and Protestant so this was not an issue in terms of workplace make-up. However, the plant is in a part of west Belfast that is almost 100% Catholic and while the plant has huge support from both sides of the community, west Belfast is particularly politicised and republican – so Gerry Adams, neccessarily being a populist, jumped behind the campaign. If the plant was in east Belfast, which is mostly Protestant, I very much doubt he’d give a fuck.”

Despite Sinn Fein’s behaviour – typical of a party committed to managing the capitalist economy – of courting bosses to encourage capital investment in the region, Adams could hardly ignore such an issue at the heart of his voter constituency.

At Basildon and Enfield workers travelled from a wide area in and close to London to work there. At Enfield many of the generally middle-aged workers – a lot of them women – had worked for Ford/Visteon for 20-30 years, and had seen the factory shrink from 2,000 to 227 workers, after spark plug and electronic production was relocated to other factories – some of them as far away as Turkey or South Africa. The workers had a diverse composition; about half of them born in India, Sri Lanka, Italy, the Carribean and so on.

[Note; the rest of this account concentrates mainly on the Enfield plant, as this is where we were involved as supporters.]

Workers at all plants were members of the Unite union. From the start at Enfield, Unite’s only contact point and involvement was via the factory’s convenors(2). Some union bosses came down briefly to pledge support, but actually delivered nothing, apart from poor legal advice. The occupiers were left to sustain themselves – despite workers paying years of union subs, no money was given (after 3 weeks or so, it is rumoured that the union finally provided a little finance). The union gave no mention on its website of the dispute, nor encouraged their members to give active support. So all the resources needed to sustain the occupation and picketing were provided by workers and supporters.

At Enfield, local support was very weak – though close to a working class residential area, the plant was separated across a main road on an industrial estate and the workplace, as commuters, did not have the same immediate local links as Belfast. So despite thousands of leaflets being distributed to locals, it brought very little response or involvement. This is a sign of the times and a symptom of 25 years of defeats in class struggles; people are now far less likely to recognise themselves and their own common interests in the struggles of others – solidarity has become an alien concept for many in an increasingly atomised reality. The working class has become largely a fragmented, individualised class in itself rather than a class acting for itself with any great unity. Part of the optimism over recent UK workers’ struggles is that they may be the early signs of overcoming this long and weary fragmentation that has so changed the atmosphere in the UK since the defeat of the 1984-85 Miners Strike.

For most workers it was the first time in their life that they had to deal with complicated legal matters. At the beginning they relied on legal experts provided by the union – who turned out to be quite useless; it was activists with squatting experience who informed the occupiers that squatting was not illegal but merely unlawful (an important legal distinction defining severity of potential consequences).

The Basildon workers found documentary evidence suggesting that the closures had been planned for years, that the spin off of Visteon from Ford may been have part of a long term plan as the most convenient and cost-effective way of closing unprofitable parts of the business. Further evidence of long-term planning was shown by the fact that the management had protected their pensions by secretly moving them to another fund. Evidence was also found that one of the bosses had intentions to reopen the plant with cheaper labour later; so they paid a visit to this boss’s country mansion. Unfortunately he was not at home and Visteon had already provided his house with security guard protection. The workers delivered a letter expressing their demands. (Video here: http://libcom.org/news/video-visteon-factory-occupation-workers-go-bosss-house-08042009)

Protest or class struggle?

The occupation coincided with the G20 protests in London’s City financial centre, where around 10,000 activists gathered to express their anti-capitalism to the gathered world leaders. The City protests were leafletted to inform protestors of the Enfield occupation, but to little reponse. As was later commented on an internet forum:
“It was a real contrast to see how much energy and resources went into the organising of the G20 protests compared to how much support the Visteon occupation was given. This is partly an indication of the difference in priority, for some, given to activist protest on the one hand and class struggle on the other – and partly that many useful G20 resources [which could have been used at the occupation and, later, picket] had already returned to their sources outside London. […] The occupation’s been going for about 10 days now, and I doubt there’s ever been much more than 300 people outside the factory, including workers, family and friends, and SWP. In comparison with the thousands at G20, not all of whom, it’s true, live in London; but many of whom are not ‘class warriors’ either and reject such an outlook.”

Activists sometimes complain that unions, the state etc try to isolate struggles – but some people’s political ideology does the job without any outside help.

In occupation

The occupation organised itself in an informal way – familiar workmates now found themselves together – but with their use and relation to the workplace transformed. Tasks were organised and carried out as needed and according to abilities.

Out of a total workforce of 227, the occupation was maintained by a hardcore of 70-80 ex-workers, plus a handful of supporters. One occupier, a libertarian socialist pensioner involved from the start of the occupation, described conditions;
“70 or so people sleeping in a paint shop , on work benches or the floor, or in chairs, is clearly a difficult position, Some were even without sleeping bags. People kipped down anywhere , though many of the women used a cubby hole that was both warmer and darker than outside,. The lights were always on, as some people were awake to ensure the barricaded entrances were safe. I slept on a work bench. Many people went home for washes or showers , and a soft mattress. Others stayed put, making do with baby-wipes for the time being.” […]
“Food. At first we were overwhelmed with food, specially bread and milk. S and D who ran the “canteen “area, kept everything in its place. The toaster and two microwaves were in frequent use. The area was very crowded especially in the evening when those on the roof came down.” […]
“The food was soon systematically organised.” […] “S P , chair of the Shop Stewards Committee, who had been in a family catering concern, would start early at home and cook up breakfasts for the 70 or so people who were here on average. This was home cooked food and high quality too.
The same was even more true of the evening meal . T. would go home and cook up two or three delicious chefs bowls of curry, rice , pasta or what ever. This was really high quality. Selected contents, without the strong tasting ingredients of restaurants, was eagerly eaten and many had second helpings as well. It was excellent compensation for the hardship.” 
(Ford Visteon Workers Occupation – an eyewitness account and first thoughts; Alan Woodward, CopyLeft, Gorter Press, c/o PO Box 45155, London N15 4SL.)

As the occupation continued, a support network emerged; a rally was called on the 4th day of occupation, a Saturday. Afterwards a meeting was called among the broadly anarchist and libertarian activists. A Support Group was set up, largely (but not exclusively) based around the existing Haringey Solidarity Group, a libertarian community activist grouping. For the rest of the occupation and subsequent 24hr pickets, it was this hardcore of around 15-20 people who provided most of the support to the ex-workers. This was important; the workers have stated that it was the surprising support they received that sustained them in their struggle. Leafletting, fundraising, publicity and picketing was all done as co-operative efforts between ex-workers and and supporters. This was not a workplace with a militant history (though a few older workers remembered a nine week strike in the late 70s), and few had any experience of political activity. So, after the spontaneous decision to occupy, the solidarity that appeared – limited though it has been compared to earlier periods of class struggle – came as a welcome surprise.

The left groups appeared for various events and photo- and paper-selling opportunities(3) but – with one or two individual exceptions – provided very little active contribution to the struggle. In fact, their patronising attitude during the occupation resulted in SWP (Trotskyist – the UK’s main left party) individuals being asked to leave.

After 9 days the occupation was ended on April 9th.

As we said at the time;

“The occupation was an inspiration for many – the spirit of the workers who refused to submit to being blatantly robbed by their bosses seemed to be what many had been waiting for, for far too long – the early possible signs of a resurgence of class struggle. Now that the occupation is ended without any clear victory in sight, some reflection is needed on the strengths and weaknesses of what has happened. It is always easy to be wise after the event, and necessary to be careful not to forget who initiated this struggle and took the risks. Any criticisms are as much of ourselves as supporters as of the occupiers. Still, we’ll never get very far in developing our struggles if we don’t reflect on where we went wrong and how we all might do things better next time.

The union pursuaded the workers to end the occupation today (Thursday Apr 9th) without any details of the rumoured deal being made known to them. They are told all will be revealed on Tuesday. The obvious question is – why then not wait until Tuesday to decide whether to leave the factory? There will be different answers from different interested parties. Some workers may say they are tired from constant occupation and/or that they have been pursuaded/pressured by the union that the bosses have insisted the occupation must end to guarantee the unspecified possible deal. The union may also claim that there could be legal penalties for failing to comply with the undertaking given in court on Monday to leave the factory by noon today. But none of this appears very convincing or in the workers’ interest; they have surrendered their greatest bargaining asset, the possession of the plant, its machinery and stock. So the negotiations restart on Tuesday from a weakened position for the workers. The picketing that is planned to replace the occupation will be less effective in preventing repossession of Visteon property. And legal threats can probably be applied to enforce restrictions on picketing activity too.

The rough conditions in the factory shouldn’t be underestimated, but another few days might have made all the difference to the outcome that may determine the workers’ long-term financial future. (The Ford pension fund is already 100s of millions in the red.) It had already been suggested that a rota system could’ve been set up, with help from supporters, to ease the strain of manning the occupation.

The union may claim that the undertaking they gave in court on Monday – that the occupation would end by noon today – left them open to legal penalties; but even the judge queried if they could guarantee the obedience of the occupiers. One would think that all the union would’ve needed to do to protect themselves is to say that they had made an effort to pursuade the occupiers to leave. The occupiers themselves could have stayed with no legal sanctions hanging over them other than a standard possession order common in squatting cases. The agreed undertaking with Visteon was that they would not seek possession while negotiations continue. Visteon – and the union – made that conveniently obsolete by agreeing to postpone revealing any details of the deal until Tuesday (if there even is any deal). One can speculate that if a really satisfactory deal was on offer the union would already be shouting it from the rooftops.

The union and the left have already begun to claim this struggle as a victory on the grounds that it forced the company to the negotiating table and that it has inspired other workers. These are partial truths, though any real assessment would have to be made after any deal is sealed. But the fact that the workers have been maneuouvred by the union into a vulnerable position where they could easily be screwed is something not to be glossed over, as the left will want to. This false optimism is only a means of repressing reflection on limits and strengths of what has happened, and a recipe for a repeat of the same errors in the future.

In the final meeting of occupiers no real opposition was expressed to the union’s direction to walk out. This despite some occupiers in earlier conversation expressing a desire to carry on until a decent deal is struck. The same union convenors, who in the beginning had said they and the other occupiers would never leave until a satisfactory deal was agreed, were now obliged to convince the workers they must leave with nothing guaranteed, only rumours of a possible mysterious deal to come. Some in the meeting voiced serious criticisms of the union for keeping them in the dark about developments and not giving enough support to the occupation, but most were by now either relieved or resigned to walking out. The union’s authority to ultimately decide the fate of the workers was not challenged. Early on in the occupation, when it was mentioned that the union might pressure an end to the occupation against workers’ wishes, a couple of workers replied “ah, but we are the union”, as if the workers’ collective voice could control the union structure. But once negotiations were organised by officials – on the other side of the world – and the whole process becomes remote and secret from the workers in the hands of specialists, they become dependent not on what they know, but on what they’re told. And we know from long experience that the union hierarchy has its own vested interests to protect that often don’t coincide with that of the workers.
[…]
But it is often awkward to stick one’s neck out; given the general identification with the union, many supporters felt sensitive about being openly critical of the union and its underlying agenda, for fear of being seen to be divisive. But at the end of the day it’s no good repressing these criticisms – or glossing them over for the sake of some image of unity – when only the explicit recognition of these realities may prevent defeat.”
 (http://libcom.org/news/enfield-ford-visteon-occupation-ends-no-conclusion-10042009)

The original court case brought by Visteon against the occupation on April 6th included the threat of legal sanctions (supposedly imprisonable offences) against two of the union convenors. The exact potential charges the union claimed were being threatened have never been explained; all that has been explicitly referred to are the possibility of costs being awarded against the convenors (which the union could have easily covered). Though UK injunction laws are draconian, this is another example of the union failing to inform the ex-workers of the full facts – which, deliberately or not, made it easier for the union to pressure workers to comply with the union’s wishes.

From a video of the final occupation meeting, showing the union explaining why it must end, (video here; http://libcom.org/news/video-visteon-workers-eviction-enfield-14042009) it’s apparent that scare tactics, deliberately vague information and dubious advice were used. The legal arguments and assessment of risks were extremely dubious, on several grounds. If the occupiers had refused to leave and the case had gone back to court it could have been argued in Unite and the occupiers’ defence that the undertaking was originally to give time for negotiations to occur. But as the company did not announce any offer at the previously agreed deadline of Thurs 12 noon – the occupiers were then freed from keeping their side of the bargain to vacate the premises. But union bureaucrats don’t like things like occupations – they get insecure when they see workers taking initiative for themselves.

Only shortly before the Visteon occupation, other workers had broken the law with no prosecution occurring. Prison officers are legally banned from industrial action but had taken action recently. The prison officers’ union leader justified their action with, for a screw, quite ironic words; “The right to strike is the only defence of our freedom. If this means breaking the law, we are prepared for this”.

The same week as the occupation the NUT and NAHT teachers’ unions were preparing to boycott the SATS test for children aged 11 from next year. They planned to get votes at their Conferences. This was clearly illegal, as government Ministers proclaimed on television . This would arguably be a “conspiracy” to breach the law – a criminal offence punishable by prison. The recent Lindsey oil refinery wildcat strikes also escaped any legal sanction. Similarly, the Belfast Ford-Visteon ocupation suffered no legal penalties.

The evidence suggests that the government wanted the Ford Visteon dispute dealt with sensitively. As one of the first major disputes of the credit crisis, with redundancy and pensions the issues, its handling – and possibly workers’ responses – would be a template for future company bankruptcies. A heavy-handed violent eviction of workers who had been blatantly robbed by their employers after a lifetime of employment would be likely to inflame the situation by informing the millions of soon-to-be-unemployed of what they might also expect. As other companies fail, the government is worried that things might escalate.

Meanwhile, Belfast remained in occupation and the company – realising the greater local support there and history of militancy – had not yet applied to the courts for possession proceedings. When the court possession papers did arrive at Belfast, the occupiers ceremoniously burned them and remained in occupation. A supporter described the situation there:
“Since 2000 the negotiation has been an ongoing process. The ‘520’ agreement said that workers at one of Ford’s ‘Visteon’ plants had the right to work in another Ford plant as Ford employees. At one point when a ‘Visteon’ plant in England was shedding jobs many of the employees flowed to a nearby Ford plant and replaced outsourced workers with temporary contracts. The workers at Visteon plants in England have nearby Ford plants in which they are potentially eligible for work, for example the Ford plant in Bridgend was 11 miles from the Swansea Visteon plant [both plants in Wales]. However in Belfast, there is no such nearby plant. The 520 agreement only applies if the workers go to a Ford plant, so obviously the Belfast workers in Finaghy feel this plant closure is ripping the heart out of their community (the majority of whom are from greater Belfast area and a significant minority of which are directly from the immediate Finaghy/West Belfast area.

This is perhaps why the focus of the campaign is not on redundancy pay (as has been reported in the news) but rather the focus is on keeping the factory open. “I don’t want a redundancy package,” one worker told me. It was Belfast workers refusal to leave that inspired similar direct action resistance at the two other closing Visteon plants in Basildon and Enfield (England). On Wednesday a supporters’ march with a couple hundred people started at a local shopping centre and walked out to the occupied plant. The Northern Ireland Parades Commission normally requires 28 days notice before any kind of march can happen (because sectarian marches have resulted in violence). However the police were down to the plant the day before to fast track the permission process so that the March could go forward legally. Support for the Belfast workers occupation has so far been very strong from all quarters.”

With the end of the Enfield occupation, to retain any leverage in negotiations it became essential to prevent stock and machinery being removed from the plant. (Of the three plants, Enfield held the most valuable company property – including expensive plastic moulding machinery.) 24hr picketing of the plant’s five gates began. Still the union failed to provide any resources; braziers, portaloos, tents and a caravan being provided by ex-workers and supporters. The ex-workers were by now very disillusioned by the union – but at the same time the union’s lack of support meant they began to learn some skills of collective self-organisation.

Unite – a force for isolation 

In the car industry the economic crisis means most workers are now on reduced hours. As a relatively well paid manual job, most car workers have mortgages and other debt commitments, so the increased economic insecurity in the present crisis meant workers were unwilling to risk their income for on-the-job solidarity action with the ex-Ford-Visteon workers. But most of the finances were coming from local union branches (not just car workers) sending donations via the support group; though the union finally, after 3 weeks, coughed up some cash. Unite also failed to mention the dispute on their website or send out information to local union branches – showing their real attitude to the dispute and concern to keep it isolated. As the dispute went on, ex-workers’ disillusionment with the union increased to a permanent cynicism – unsurprisingly, given their lack of support and Unite’s failure to keep ex-workers informed. Many felt their convenors were too close to, or influenced by, the union bosses and that this affected their ability to act in the best interests of all. But, without having space here to say much, we must note that any criticism of the union must recognise that it is not simply – as some supporters and workers have implied – that the union is ‘not doing its job properly’, but that it is doing its job all too well as a capitalist institution. As always, it has prioritised its own organisational interests and tried to limit workers’ gains to what can be accommodated to those interests and to the wider interests of the economy.

Union bureaucrats helping Nu Labour manage capitalism in crisis 

The close political and financial relationship between UK unions and the Labour Party continues (often rewarded by a seat and title in the House of Lords for retired union bosses). Disputes like this make clear that unions are one of the mechanisms by which the financial crisis will be managed for capital. The 55% stake taken by America’s UAW union in Chrysler is another example – the deal includes a no-strike agreement until 2015!

The first round

Meanwhile, convenors from the three plants were flown out to the US, alongside Unite bosses, to negotiate with Visteon bosses. Ford bosses refused to participate – they still denied any obligation to their former workers. Therefore a satisfactory deal was always unlikely to be won from these negotiations. According to one report, the convenors were not present in the meetings, but were left in the bar while the bosses on both sides decided the fate of ‘their’ workers.

After this first round of negotiations an offer was made by the administrators – but this was simply 90 day’s wages, which was the minimum statutory obligation anyway! In response to this insult the Enfield pickets now reinforced the barricades around the factory exits. The 24hr picketing was, unsurprisingly, proving far more difficult to sustain than an occupation. But rotas were organised and, between ex-workers and supporters, a presence was kept on the 5 gates. Ford dealerships around the country were also being regularly picketted and leafletted. One account;
“On a Saturday afternoon, 3 of us went to leaflet a Ford dealership in Waltham Cross. There wasn’t a lot of pedestrian traffic – but the dealership was on a corner of a crossroads with traffic lights. So we started leafletting cars as they stopped, waiting for the lights to change – getting out on the road among the cars, giving leaflets thru windows. Then Ian (ex-worker), his partner and daughter joined us – Ian in white boiler suit with “toot for the workers” painted on his back, and they brought placards, whistles and plenty of energy and noise. So we got a good number of cars honking support and taking leaflets, plus some pedestrians. And talking to one not very sympathetic worker who came out of the dealership – who questioned the point of us being there and complained “we’re not Ford, we’re just a dealership who sell their cars”! – she confirmed that, though management don’t work weekends, they would have been informed by e-mail of our presence.”

A New Deal

While the 70-80 active Enfield ex-workers had been maintaining occupation and then picketing the other nearly 200 ex-workers had been passively waiting at home (or seeking other work). When a new improved deal was then announced, many of these passive 200 suddenly reappeared to find out what was on offer, causing understandable resentment. The improved offer was in response to a threat from the sacked Visteon workers to begin picketting the profitable Ford low emission engine plant at Bridgend – the one Ford UK plant still running at full capacity and an essential part of their supply chain. This apparently followed a meeting of Ford Unite convenors in London, where it had been arranged to send delegations of ten ex-workers each from the three plants.

Ford found this more threatening than the previous solitary visits to Ford plants to ask Ford workers to black Visteon products – they didn’t like the idea of ex-Visteon people actually trying to picket out Ford workers. This brought Ford to the negotiating table; they brought the Chairman and CEO of Ford Europe to negotiate with the Joint General Secretary of Unite – Unite then told the ex-workers to call off the Bridgend picket.

There may have also been pressure from the UK government on Ford to offer an improved deal; if Ford-Visteon were to set a precedent for companies of avoiding all financial obligations in such workplace closures this would massively increase the amount the state would have to pay out in benefits in future to sacked workers. (Whereas if workers receive redundancy payouts they cannot claim benefits until that money has been spent – the state specifies how long one can ‘reasonably’ be expected to live on specific sums. So one cannot just blow the redundancy on a flash car and holidays in the sun, then stroll into the dole office expecting money. Unfortunately…) As other global motor giants crash, Ford may also have taken into account their position as, at present, the comparatively healthy survivor of the car industry. If they are to maintain this dominant position, they may feel the need to maintain a minimum reputation as an employer who pays up in the eyes of present and future employees.

While the new offer was being considered, some supporters organised a Mayday picket of KPMG, the accountancy firm administrating the receivership procedure of Visteon. They would decide how much all the creditors, including the ex-workers, would get from remaining assets. The weather was kind, and a sunny day found us outside their offices with around 60 people; a small mobile sound system also turned up with music and some Ford-Visteon ex-workers used its microphone to express their disgust at their treatment. A leaflet was distributed;
KPMG: Those who helped make the crisis now profit from it 
KMPG are one of the biggest accountancy companies in the world, offering ‘creative auditing’, profit laundering and tax avoidance advice to big business (http://visar.csustan.edu/aaba/Davosspeech.pdf) They are currently facing a $1billion lawsuit for malpractices in the US subprime market that contributed to the present economic crisis. Now they are acting as ‘administrators’ for Ford-Visteon motor company – helping to rob sacked employees of their redundancy pay and pensions. This is why we are picketing KPMG today.” […]
Putting people into misery: KPMG are protecting the motor giants’ profits by witholding what is owed to the workers, threatening their homes and futures -Some workers now face repossession orders and many others could lose their homes too, if Ford, Visteon and KPMG get away with their dirty tricks.” […]
KPMG’s job is to protect the profits of capitalists at the expense of those who create the wealth- all through the dispute, they have rejected the workers’ claims and demands, using the same excuses as the Ford-Visteon bosses that “The company is insolvent. Ford and Visteon UK are completely separate companies”. KPMG have used threats of injunctions and sought possession orders in court against the workers’ factory occupations.
Support the workers! But the sacked Ford-Visteon workers are bravely standing up to Ford, Visteon and KPMG- not just for themselves, but for all of us affected by the recession. The attempted theft of their redundancy pay and pensions is how many bosses are sacking and robbing workers-with suitable advice from the likes of KPMG, of course. So the Ford-Visteon workers fight is the fight of all vulnerable workers – support them!”

The vote on the offer

Prior to voting, Enfield workers had the details of the deal read out to them by convenors, and some saw a handwritten version of its points. In their haste to get the vote passed and get this regrettable outbreak of industrial unrest concluded so they could go back the smooth and tidy bureaucratic functions of trade unionism, it was too much to expect the union to type and print out a copy for each worker to study and so vote on their long-term financial futures in the most informed way. The vote on the deal was deliberately arranged by the union so that Enfield and Basildon voted on it on the Friday, May 1st; then Belfast, still in occupation and with a more militant reputation, would vote on the Sunday. So, inevitably, the acceptance of the deal at Enfield and Basildon was designed to encourage acceptance at the Belfast vote. All plants did vote acceptance; the Enfield vote was 178 to 5 and Basildon was 159 to 0. Belfast voted 147 to 34.

Soon after the euphoria of the securing of an improved deal and the acceptance vote, workers began to wonder what exactly they had voted for. The normal shift patterns workers had been on for years had changed in the last months leading up to the plant closure – when workers were working shorter weeks – and these shift patterns were used as part of the calculation of payments. So no one was clear how it would all add up for them. Since then, workers seemed to have gained a clearer idea and, rightly see it as a partial victory – and worth the struggle. They have won as much as 10 times the original offer. But one small group of ex-workers – ‘CCRs’ employed after Visteon took over(4) – had inferior non-Ford contracts and so were given smaller payments. Some workers – both CCRs and ex-Ford – saw this as unnecessarily divisive and blamed both Ford-Visteon and union bosses for this; but, still, there was some resentment between workers about the disparity and at the failure by the rest of the workers to stick it out for a uniform deal (though at Belfast it was rumoured that other workers would each donate £300 to compensate for the shortfall in CCR payments). It’s unfortunate that some are leaving the dispute with such feelings. Part of the reason for this is probably;
1) through the dispute workers didn’t hold enough regular general meetings so they could insist on being fully informed of what was developing and could discuss it between themselves as a whole group. So, eg, at Enfield cliques around certain gates formed (people tending to always be picketting on the same gates), without enough contact/debate between all workers.
2) Prior to the vote, the union didn’t give people a printed document of settlement terms and time enough to consider the deal, discuss and seek advice on it and what it meant for each individual and for different groups of ex-workers. This rushing through of acceptance was clearly deliberate by the union, as was the arrangement whereby Belfast voted after Enfield & Basildon.

Remaining outstanding issues are; the ex-workers’ pensions – this will be decided by a (possibly 2 year-long) court case, unfortunately conducted on workers’ behalf by the union’s so-far incompetent (but no-doubt expensive) lawyers. If little comes of this, ex-workers have been led to expect to receive 60-90% compensation of their pension from a government scheme. But, whereas the pension would be paid from age 58, government compensation begins only at 65. (A more recent calculation has suggested that workers may only get 45% of their original pension under this scheme. As usual, the union has been slow in informing itself and its members of the accurate facts of the pensions issue.)

Rob Williams, a militant union convenor at another spun-off plant, Linamar (formerly Visteon) in Swansea, was sacked for his support of the sacked Ford/Visteon workers. (He was visiting other workplaces encouraging support for the dispute, though this was presumably done only through union channels at convenor level rather than directly appealing to the workforce.) Williams then barricaded himself in his office and workers walked out in his support; he was eventually reinstated under suspension. Shortly after he was permanently sacked. Management removed the door to his office to prevent another barricading and foremen threatened workers with the sack if they walked out again (see; http://libcom.org/news/swansea-union-convenor-sacked-supporting-fordvisteon-workers-28042009). A support campaign has been organised demanding his reinstatement and Linamar workers in Swansea have voted 139-19 (with a turn out of 88%) for an indefinite strike to force Williams’ reinstatement. Probably also prompted by wider issues, such as recent management intimidation, looming redundancies etc, the strike is due to start shortly (In fact on was Rob Williams reinstated on 10th june due to the threat of strike action).

The business of unions as mediators and defenders of capitalist exploitation 

This dispute shows, once again, the contradictions and limits of a rank’n’file level of unionism; shop steward and convenor positions – often taken by the most militant workers – must mediate between shop floor interests and the union bureaucracy’s organisational interests. Workers often see the union as an organisational framework giving them a collective identity and protective strength; and on a day to day level it often does so, within existing conditions and agreements. What workers often don’t acknowledge (or fail to act upon) is that this strength is their own power mediated by the union structure as its representation – and therefore limited by it; a power that has the potential to conflict with and go beyond both the control of their employers and their union leaders. This conflict was made explicit in this dispute when many workers saw that the union was more interested in doing things through its own bureaucratic channels over and above their heads while giving no practical help to the struggle on the ground. This was undoubtably a mixture of bureaucrats’ instinctive dislike for spontaneous outbursts of workers’ unrest – which threaten the smooth functioning and efficient reputation of unions – and an attitude whereby bureaucrats assume they’re the experts who always know best how to handle these situations. But it was also indicative of a class relation; unions are generally run today primarily as financial service brokers – “negotiating deals on insurance, mortgages and pensions, medical cover, holidays and car breakdown services” etc – and investment funds with a sideline in industrial arbitration. Unite boss Derek Simpson, close friend of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, earns more than the PM. A free £800,000 house for life, nearly £200,000 of pay and benefits, 17% pay rises etc, he stays in £400 a night hotel rooms when on union business. Undoubtedly Gordie and Del have discussed how best to manage worker unrest during the present crisis in the best interests of the capitalist system that rewards them so well for their management.

Unions are partly an organisational manifestation of the immediate limits of workers’ own aspirations, values and confidence (and, under normal circumstances, usually the limits of the actual realistic possibilities in a given situation – workers do want a deal negotiated). Often stewards are the most militant and pro-strike of the workforce. By their participation workers animate unions.

The potential struggle against union domination is one within and between workers to overcome the contradiction of being labour power bought and sold and moving beyond that; but workers have to live and eat this side of the revolution! They don’t just accept unions because they’re naive/lack consciousness – alongside their cynicism, they know unions deliver something and to be without a union would usually be even worse under present conditions. (Those employers who want union-free workplaces want to be free of certain union-mediated obligations.)

Any real break by workers with unions will come from confronting the limits of these contradictions in practice – and, insofar as it occurs within a unionised workforce, will probably occur as something emerging out of the union and the role of union militants/stewards (as a radicalisation of stewards and/or a confrontation with their role). That doesn’t mean one has to advocate a struggle within unions (though rank’n’filism etc inevitably occurs) – it means recognising that workers’ power is expressed within union structures, but is not inevitably forever bounded by the limits of union forms. It spills over, makes partial breaks, is usually reincorporated or lapses into a new form of mediation. And we seek to encourage that break further in real struggles – as a development of taking control of our own struggles rather than passively accepting the representation of union or other mediation specialists. Most of the time that occurs at most on a small scale so we are limited by the existing mediation process.

The ability to pursue interests and demands within the union form – and for the form to at the same time function as a limit on radical developments – is a key to understanding its continued strength.

A real workplace radicalisation would see workers not only in conflict with management and union bosses – but also some conflict between stewards and workers, ie, between those stewards and other workers for and against confronting/organising against the union – and also would mean workers confronting their own fears and lack of confidence in making these breaks, confronting their own habits of ‘leaving it to the experts’ – be they union officials or perhaps even the future emerging specialist council delegates of workers councils set up in radical opposition to unions. (In the Russian Revolution, for example, there was a ‘bureaucratisation from below’ as well as from the ruling party above; factory, district & soviet committee delegates spent more and more time away from the workplace on delegate business and so gradually became permanent representatives/bureaucrats.)

So the working class doesn’t only have to defeat external enemies, it has to confront and overcome what internally perpetuates its existence as the working class; the above-mentioned fears and lack of confidence, old habits and structures and their accompanying values, thought patterns, hierarchies etc. Some of these questions were hinted at during the Visteon dispute – but things never developed far enough to really confront these contradictions. This is not just a remote ‘question of revolutionary strategy’ – it is a concrete question of how most effectively to conduct struggles now. Under present conditions this inevitably often means confronting union control of struggles – and it is this that has potentially radical implications.

After 48 days – on Monday 18th May the Ford-Visteon workers ended the dispute at all 3 plants. Partial though the victory is, and with all the limits and weakness it contained, the struggle is highly significant. The ex-workers have achieved more than might have been expected (particularly after Enfield ended their occupation, and despite the absence of solidarity action by other car workers). Despite the pensions uncertainty, under present conditions and compared to most UK labour disputes of the last 25 years it is a pretty good result; and it sends a much more encouraging signal to workers who will face similar situations.

– A supporter

June 2009

(Thanks to Frank, Conor, Georgia & others who provided info.)

For various documents and comments on the dispute, see;

http://libcom.org/search/node/visteon

http://libcom.org/tags/visteon-occupation

Footnotes

1) 17 or so Enfield workers were not sacked but kept on by Visteon. The plan was that they would be used later to prepare stock and machinery for removal from the factory. But in the meantime some of these workers were involved in the occupation and picketing – and when the company called them in to work the ex-workers and supporters group responded by circulating a general call-out which brought a larger presence on the picket lines. All the workers (but one, a manager?) refused to cross the picket line, rendering their skills useless to Ford-Visteon.

2) Convenors are workers elected/appointed from the stewards in large factory complexes with different shops and processes.The nearest equivalent in other workplaces would be branch secretary (the branch may or may not cover a single workplace). So the difference relates to whether a union is organised by workplace or branch. Basically, the branch secretary or convenor have a direct link to the union regional structure and gain legitimacy and influence from that relationship, a legitimacy not so easily gained by a steward. Convenors and branch secretaries are usually entitled to varying levels of paid time off for union duties. Historically, shop stewards’ committees gained their legitimacy from the rank’n’file power they wielded, which forced the district and regional union officials to take notice of the shopfloor. The decision-making process in Enfield illustrates how much that relatively independent power has been eroded and so the terms do not have quite the same resonance these days. In times past convenors apparently worked the day shift and were compensated for loss of shift allowance by levies raised on the shop floor.

3) For example, when the Enfield occupation ended, there had been very little recent presence of the SWP around the plant. But they put a general call out to members to attend: As the occupiers came out, the SWP – never ones to miss an opportunist photo-opportunity – swamped the crowd with their placards and chanted ‘the workers united will never be defeated’. Under the circumstances, this had a hollow and ironic ring. It began to feel, as nearly every strike has in the past 20+ years – like one more predictable stitch up by union bureaucrats – more interested in helping Nu Labour manage capitalism in crisis than feeling the need to win even modest gains for workers.”  (an excerpt from this account)

4) CCR stands for Competitive Cost Rate, apparently introduced for newer employees at Visteon to relate their pay to the going current rate in the industry, not the pay of Visteon staff on existing or Ford mirrored terms and conditions. The argument of the ex-Visteon CCRs appeared to be that the union was negligent in allowing these differentials to develop for what was presumably the same job.

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Postscript: The Visteon workers from four plants faced a long fight to recover large chunks of their pensions which were lost to them when the company went into administration. Five years later a settlement was reached.

This re-post is dedicated the only occupier of the Visteon plant who was not a Visteon worker, Alan Woodward, a veteran union activist and socialist and (among so much else) founding member of past tense’s friends the Radical History Network of Northeast London. Alan was one of the first on the spot after the occupation started and remained inside for the duration. He died in October 2012, and we miss him. His account of the Enfield occupation is also well worth a read.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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