Today in London industrial history, 1969: Punfield & Barstow strike ends

Punfield and Barstow Mouldings was a small firm on the Queensbury Industrial Estate in Northwest London, manufacturing safety helmets, spools for 35mm film, plastic egg trays, tampax containers, and other plastic moulded items.

In June 1969 all 42 Pakistani and Indian workers (from a total work force of about 100) walked out on strike for a wage rise and better working conditions.

Attempts to unionise the factory had previously resulted in sackings, but by the end of February 1969 a majority had become members of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering and Foundry Workers (AEF). The struggle to unionise the workers had been led by its Pakistani and Indian shop-stewards.

The account of the 1969 strike below is reprinted from two issues of Solidarity’s west-London newspaper from 1969.

Punfield-Barstow’s factory was at Basil Works, Westmoreland Road, Queensberry, NW9

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The Punfield & Barstow strike

On the small Queensbury (Middlesex) Industrial Estate history is repeating itself.

What is happening in this industrial backwater and others like it happened elsewhere decades ago. This struggle is a classical example of the fight that is still being waged in hundreds of small factories today to achieve better conditions and shop organisation. A feudalistic management is waging a vicious rearguard action against the right of ‘its’ workers to organise in trade unions. This kind of battle is contagious, and for that reason is being watched with particular interest by the non-organised work forces elsewhere on the estate. Several of the companies have made it their practice to employ high percentage of immigrant labour, the estate being readily accessible to the immigrant communities of N.W. London.

It is quite obvious that the example of Injection Moulders’ workers has inspired their next door neighbours, many of whose demands are those of parity. Links between the workers in the two firms are strong. In June of last year Punfield and Barstow sacked one of their workers for collecting money in the machine shop for the Injection Moulders’ Fund Appeal. On June 27 an Injection Moulders’ worker was arrested by the police for ‘breach of the peace’ when a P. and B. scab tried to pick a fight with him.

Together these two struggles have driven a horse and cart through the old tale that immigrant workers will put up with wages and conditions that white workers wouldn’t touch. At P. and B. production continues – the scabs being predominantly white and non-union.

The firm

The firm produces precision plastic mouldings for a variety of customers, the best known being the General Motors subsidiaries Frigidaire (Hendon), A.C. Delco (Dunstable) and Vauxhall (Luton). It also supplies Smiths (Cricklewood Broadway) with plastics dials and clock facings.

Towards the end of ’67, P. and B. was swallowed into the Capseal Group centred on the Greenock Trading Estate in Slough. Mrs. C.E. Punfield and Mrs. R.Barstow resigned from the Board of Directors, their places rapidly being taken by Capseals’ whizz-kids G.A. Lillywhite and F.R. Heath, both of whom collect company directorships like other guys collect beer mats.

Divide and rule

Punfield and Barstow also donates to the National Scheme for disabled men, yet its philanthropic gestures stop short of its own workers. Language difficulties are exploited to the full while cultural differences on the shop floor are also used by the foremen. Preferential treatment of the mainly non-English speaking Italian group has successfully ensured their non-fraternisation with the industrially-experienced Pakistani workers. Press operators of five and six years’ standing are made to wait while setters repair their machines. Promotion to setter, while virtual.ly impossible for a Pakistani trade unionist, is only too easy for other non-union workers. It’s rumoured that one of the Italian group was promoted so quickly from operator that he can’t even start some of the machines he’s meant to repair. With the recent trouble staff status has been conferred on the ‘setters’ to separate them even more rigidly from the rest of the machine shop. The foremen have done a ‘good’ job. The Italian group are under the mistaken impression that they have more in common with the management than with the pickets outside.

This outlook was encouraged by the management’s crude policy of penalising and victimising shop floor activists. Two previous attempts to organise the labour force at Punfield and Barstow ended in a spate of selective sackings. By February of this year, however, the management were forced to change their tactics as a majority of the shop floor had become AEF members. They resorted to petty spite instead. Everything has been tried, from intimidation of shop stewards (the night shift steward has been threatened ‘jokingly’ with the sack three times since February) to restriction of overtime (by as much as ten hours each week) for labourers in the grinding shop who admitted to being union members. On a labourer’s basic rate (6/5d – 6/7d) it’s impossible to exist without overtime. Also since the influx of men into the AEF a fifteen minute allowance for clearing up, washing and changing at the end of the eleven hour shift has been cut. The men now have five minutes to get out of the place.

Machine operators here are also ‘free’ to work a 55 hr. week of five eleven hour shifts. On a basic rate of 6/9d an hour it’s not surprising that they ‘choose’ to do just that.

The pill is sugared by an incentive bonus of 8d per hour. Unfortunately the minimum job rates necessary to earn a bonus are pushed up by the foremen whenever an operator sweats his way up too frequently to the set target. The blatant swindling that is practiced by the weighing clerk in the weighing and recording processes ensures that the bonus payouts are kept to a minimum.

Two recent examples are fairly typical of this creep’s method of operating:
a) a steward, himself weighing the product of his eleven hours’ work, entered a total of 1,772 moulded pieces in the record book, in the presence of the foreman. The following morning his output slip indicated only 1,570 pieces. Not only had his total shrunk by 200 pieces, but his bonus payout for eleven hours’ work was cancelled as the second figure was now below the incentive target.
b) another operator on a fully automated machine produced 35,000 pieces in an eleven hour shift. The weighing clerk entered only 23,000. When approached by the steward he apologised profusely and begged him not to tell anyone about the ‘mistake’. The clerk had only weighed the contents of two instead of three boxes.

Occasionally, the clerk goes to the whole hog and erroneously records an operator’s total eleven hour output as ‘scrap’. Yet these same pieces still go out on the next delivery.

Nineteenth century conditions

In their enthusiasm to increase production the foremen naturally dislike stopping the machines for anything at all. Some time ago this enthusiasm cost a machine operator three finger tips. They were sliced off in a machine with a mechanical fault. Previously the foreman’s attention had been drawn to the fault by the operator in question. He ignored it. Needless to say that the company has still offered no compensation.

In their enthusiasm for economy the management haven’t thought it necessary to supply the men with lockers or workclothes. Roll towels are left up for as long as two days and used by as many as sixty people. When one side is filthy they are turned inside out.

There are no hot meal facilities whatsoever and the night shift can’t even get cold snacks as the works canteen shuts down in the evening. Working eleven hours through the night the lads are expected to get by on cups of tea. In the machine shop itself there are broken windows that have been that way since ’63. The men have blocked them with cardboard, but it’s still freezing cold in the winter.

The machines are never cleaned from one week to another, and the floor is washed once in a blue moon. Oil and muck are left to accumulate. Given time the operators would willingly clean their machines; the management, however, are more interested in production, so the machines gradually get filthier and break down.

First round: the February demands

By February the men had enough. A series of demands were presented to the management, the crucial one being ‘guaranteed bonus for guaranteed production and standing hours’ (in the event of machine breakdown etc.). Other demands covered a wide range of grievances from machine rates, arbitrary sackings, lack of tea breaks and an end to discrimination in basic pay rate – an immigrant ‘powder man’ oiling machines on the day shift gets 6?10d per hour. A man on the night shift doing the same job receives 12/- per hour.

The management ignored the lot, and in a press statement to the Harrow Observer (June 20, 1969) they claimed to have received no official notification of the men’s grievances. This was a blatant lie. The men spent twelve weeks waiting for an answer from management.

Pickets versus scabs: New Queensbury rules

In the four weeks since the walk-out reduced production has continued, the scabs working 15 and 15 hours shifts to please management. Office women have been seen enthusiastically pushing trolleys piled up with sacks of raw powder.

On the picket line the men are in surprisingly high spirits. The London (North) District Committee of the AEF endorsed the action of the men almost immediately. Lorries from I.C.I. Anchor Chemicals and British Rail have respected the picket line and refused to deliver or collect. A running battle with a scab lorry from A.C. Delco division of General Motors (Dunstable) was won last Friday (July 4) after a windscreen wiper was pulled off in a scuffle when the police encouraged the driver to go through the picket line.

Since then P. and B.’s only large lorry has been knocked out – the windscreen mysteriously smashed altogether. teams of strikers together with workers and students from ‘Solidarity’ have leafleted the estate and support has been given by Poster Workshop, who produced a poster especially for the strike. ‘International Socialism’ and ‘Tricontinental’. Workers from both Injection Moulders and Rotoprint have been very sympathetic.

Bosses begin to wobble

Last Monday July 7) the Engineering Employers Federation met with the AEF divisional officials Elliot and McLoughlin and threw out some concessions to see if the lads would bite. They offered to raise the operators’ basic rate by 3d per hour to a magnificent 7/- together with a guaranteed bonus of 3/6d on the condition that three eight hour shifts be implemented in place of the two eleven hour ones previously operating.

However the men have been out too long now to go back on anything less than their terms. They have been demanding a basic rate of 8/- for operators and 10/6 for labourers (the latter being outside of the bonus system). They also wanted the reassessment of all machine rates as soon as possible in the presence of the shop steward and a management representative. Until such time as this is implemented they are demanding a temporary standard bonus for all operators. Finally they are demanding that all machine shop workers (and this includes setters and foremen) be limited to eight hour shifts.

It is quite obvious that no mater how long it takes these men are going to win, and when they do things will never be the same again inside Punfield and Barstow. Lambert, the managing director, expected them to crawl back after a few days to eat dirt again. He was so sure of himself that he sent each of them a letter inviting them to come back to work.

It’s no thanks to the National Executive of the AEF that this didn’t happen; and the men know it too. They now realise that their strength lies ultimately in their own determination and solidarity one with another. It has taken the National Executive of the AEF almost four weeks to recognise this strike, during which time the men have received no money from the union other than raised by the London (North) District Committee which has supported them all the way.

The strike at Punfields, one of the longest in local history, finished after fifteen weeks on September 12th 1969. Throughout the summer and autumn forty-two Indian and Pakistani workers fought police, scabs management, and some of their full-time union officials for the right to control their own destinies at work. This article, based on interviews with men involved, examines the part played by both the police and the union bureaucracy (AEF); dealing in particular with the attitude of the second to the initiatives taken by the strike committee during the strike. It then goes on to look at the power struggle now being waged on the shop floor, and finally weighs the gains made to date since June when the men were provoked out on strike.

Background to the strike

It was sparked off on the evening of June 11th when the management used police to evict the night shift for beginning a sitdown protest. They were merely following the example of the day shift who had sat in on the shop floor in retaliation for the arbitrary sacking of a press operator. Many other grievances had piled up concerning low wages, bad working conditions, extremely long shifts and the victimization of shop stewards and those known to be trade union members. Demands presented to the management in February had been subsequently ignored. The men saw the sacking as the last straw. The day following the police eviction brought the organized section (mainly press operators) out to a man.

The picket-line struggle

At 6.30 a.m. pickets would begin arriving for duty. At 6.55 a.m. the police would arrive for duty. This was repeated each day for fifteen weeks. For seven weeks the men stuck it out without strike pay, on their own resources – incidents with the management, and the predominantly white workers still inside, occurred daily. One morning in a clash before the police arrived a setter pulled a knife on the night shift shop steward. On a separate occasion a picket narrowly missed being nutted by an electrician waving a piece of lead piping. On the credit side the pickets came off decidedly better in the fist fights that occurred with the junior management.

Beyond the call of duty

Fro, the start the police played a blatantly political role, in spite of their assurances that they had no intentions of taking sides. To them the management were somehow more respectable because of their easy identification with the company’s property. Consequently the pickets were looked on as criminals and treated as such whenever the police thought they could get away with it. It was not long before the pickets came to realise that police and company were on the same side, against them.

Lorry drivers were encouraged to go straight through the picket line and the police set time limits for stewards attempting to persuade drivers to turn round to prevent them getting to a driver’s cab. Two strikers talking together on a little-used pavement would be threatened with arrest for obstruction, while scab lorries unloaded on the road without the police batting an eyelid. Offences committed by pickets were jumped on with commendable zeal. Those committed by scabs were usually ignored.

In the fifteen weeks, fifteen arrests were made, only one involving a non-striker. On September 8th Inspectors from Wembley police station, impatient to wrap up the strike, dropped in to chat with management. Two days later, police under the direction of an inspector arrested ten pickets for blocking the firm’s lorry by sitting down. In collaboration with the management, the police were continuously operating to weaken the strike.

The role of the union

Throughout the strike AEF officialdom’s attitude to initiatives taken by the strike committee remained ambiguous. The divisional level was more interested in getting the men back inside to negotiate “on their behalf” than in supporting the pickets by blacking incoming raw powder and outgoing components. In the early days officials at district level were obviously counting on a quick kill. So in late June there was an official demonstration. Officialdom marched at the head of the workers column once round Queensbury circle and duly got its face on the local press. The ‘demo’ ended with a chest-thumping rally, numerous pledges of solidarity and threats to close the factory down. Men from several factories came out to hear speech after speech from the full-time officials. The pickets came a poor last, the Punfield’s convenor only getting the megaphone when the big men had exhausted themselves.

By September it was a different story. The management, feeling the growing pain of disappearing business, gave significant concessions for the majority of the men but still refused on final points. The men resolved to struggle two weeks longer for the additional demands in the face of increased difficulties. The pickets were being pressed more harshly by police and free enterprise lorry drivers who specialised in picket-crashing. The union after fourteen weeks still hadn’t blacked the goods. On Friday, September 5th, the strike committee held their own demonstration. The megaphone passed from picket to picket and the union bureaucracy was attacked for its continued inaction. Not surprisingly no full-time officials were able to make it to the demonstration. Up to this time deputations of strikers had careered around the Home Counties by car distributing a list of components made at Punfield’s and requesting informal blacking at the relevant factories. Luton district AEF offices were telephoned early on in the strike in an attempt to get the workers at AC Delco’s of Dunstable to refuse to handle components from Punfield’s. Late in August the General and Municipal Workers Union convenor at Delco’s was still assuring the strikers that he’d black incoming components as soon as he got the word from above. It never came. A picket deputation to the offices of the AEU General Secretary Brother Conway was blocked by his secretary. The local branch telegrammed Conway requesting blacking from the National Executive in support of the strikers.

While this was going on the General Purpose Committee met the strike committee on two separate occasions. Both times it attempted to persuade the men back inside and let the negotiation be done by the full-time officials and the Engineering Employers Federation.

Towards the middle of September the men were talking in terms of breaking off relations with the union. They were attempting to make their last two weeks the most militant. All but four labourers had won the major part of their demands on pay and hours; these four were being told by both the company and all of the union officials to accept far less pay and longer hours than the others. Deciding to stay solid and continue the struggle for another two weeks, the men experienced repeated obstructions from the officials, the most blatant they had seen yet.

Divisional organiser talks tough

On Thursday 11th September, the day of the mass arrest, a deputation of shop stewards from the neighbouring factories of Rotoprint and Injection Moulders joined the strike committee and turned up at divisional organiser McLoughlin’s city office demanding to know what the hell was going on. They were more or less told they had no right to stick their noses in, and then in complete contradiction were accused of taking a long time to act for parties supposedly interested in the outcome of the strike. Understandably the stewards left Mac’s office angry and pissed off. The strike committee themselves were told that the Executive had been asked to declare total blacking and had not responded. McLoughlin either could not or would not explain his behaviour. He pointed out that the pickets were also prolonging the strike by their inability to cut supplies and close the factory down. This was said even though the strike committee had received a letter, in response to a request for union help with picket expenses, suggesting that the picket line be cut down to economise. “Heads I win, tails you lose”?
The following day a pub meeting was held in Kingsbury called by the divisional organiser. At the beginning he refused entry to shop stewards from Rotoprint and Injection Moulders. In his speech he insisted the strikers return to work to struggle from inside. Had there been any intention to stay out longer, it was clear which side he would have been on.

Bureaucratic in-fighting?

Why the National Executive of the AEF didn’t declare blacking remains a mystery. The most likely answer is that it would have immediately brought them under pressure from the TUC General Council to get the men back inside. Quite obviously the men would have rejected such a suggestion. The easiest solution might have been to ignore the request for blacking and so slowly throttle the strikers while evading their questions. One informed steward of the local branch mentioned that some infighting bureaucrats foresaw delays discrediting an ideologically-antagonistic incumbent in up-coming union elections. However this is only a surmise. Whatever the motives, the rank-and-file trade unionists at Punfield’s will never know them. The whole episode is a supreme example of bureaucratic attitudes of the officials sabotaging needs of the workers. Not only were the strikers not helped bu the full-time officials, they weren’t even considered worthy of an adequate explanation.

For the future

From this mess some obvious conclusions can be drawn. With regard to blacking there is a crying need for the extension of rank-and-file contacts between related factories. This was proven by Frigidaire’s at Hendon where informal blacking was total after a deputation of shop stewards came down to the picket line and talked with strike committee following information received from the local branch.
The Queensbury estate already has been the nucleus of a joint shop stewards committee in the three-factory deputation that visited Brother McLoughlin. Such link-ups ought to be encouraged if rank-and-file workers are ever to begin managing their own lives in future. The relationships with the full-time officials during the fifteen weeks out on strike makes the point crystal clear: to wait cap in hand on the deliberations of union bureaucracy is to invite defeat, demoralisation and the risk of being used as a political football. If there are to be workers’ victories only rank-and-file initiatives and rank-and-file militancy can ensure them.

Can Punfield’s afford its junior management?

The men returned to work on the 22nd of September. Since that time the shop floor has been the scene of a power struggle between organised workers and the junior management. Basically the petty hierarchy are finding it hard to adjust to the idea of any opposition on the shop floor. The strength of the rank-and-file is being continually provoked, the stakes in the game being the non-organised workers.
Already several women from the finishing shop have joined the union while others in the machine and grinding shops, fed up with being pushed about are waiting to see who comes out top dog. Fearing that coloured workers would automatically join the organised section, the management have virtually stopped taking them on. Newcomers to the factory now are usually ‘safe’ whites, friends of friends of the junior management. Since the return to work one foreman in particular has been intent on provoking the shop convenor into staging a walkout. He deserves special mention.

Derek “The grin”

Some time back Derek ordered the shop convenor to leave his machine and do some grinding. Previously shop committee and management had agreed that union press operators would be called from their machines for grinding only when non-union people were unavailable. Arguing that at the time several non-union men were available, the convenor refused and accused the foreman of making trouble. With this he was clocked out and ordered home. The watching workers wanted an immediate walkout. Derek, grinning at the shop convenor, repeated several times, “You haven’t got the courage.” Not rising to the bait the convenor went home.
Arriving the following morning he demanded to see the works manager, related the incident and underlined the point that he had intentionally prevented a walkout. In return he demanded an end to all arbitrary suspension in the future. The works manager conceded the point and Derek spent an uncomfortable couple of hours standing up for a dressing down in the office with the shop steward present, and sitting down.
The question the works manager and director are beginning to ask themselves is whether they can afford the luxury of such a disruptive underling. Although it took a strike to do it, both now realise that the company remains in business by grace of the press operators and not the foremen.

Then and now

Before the strike, press operators earned a basic 6/9 per hour and the chance of pitting themselves against management-imposed job rates for an incentive bonus of 8d. per hour which was frequently denied on numerous technicalities and fiddles. At the end of a 55 hour week of five eleven hour shifts they took home £23 on average. In September as part of the return to work agreement the management offered to up the basic rate to 7s3d per hour and link it with a potential bonus of 3/6d per hour to come into practice after the mutual re-assessment of all job rates.
While re-assessment was taking place management offered he men a flat rate of 12/- if they combined grinding with their normal work. They agreed. By the end of October the job rates had still not been re-assessed. The shop committee delivered an ultimatum and the following day the management agreed to drop the re-assessment entirely and offered the operators the flat 12/- per hour as the permanent wage wile leaving grinding to non-union workers.
The eleven hour double shift system has now been replaced by three eight hour shifts. In June the men worked 55 hours for £23. Today they work a 37.5 hour week for £24-15-0d. Before the strike operators allowed themselves to be used as makeshift labourers. Today they are no longer prepared to be taken off their machines. Victimisation, arbitrary suspension, and on-the-spot sacking, while prevalent before June 1969, are now almost things of the past.
At present the management are resisting attempts by AEF officialdom to draw the setters into the three shift system. However it will only be a matter of time before the setters realise that working 55 hours a week for the management is a mugs game when the organised workers work 37.5 hours.
While the struggle for the shop floor power is by no means over, it is quite obvious that valuable gains have been made. Less obvious is the fact that these gains are the direct result of the Pakistani and Indian workers’ determination to begin acting for themselves. management never give anything away, it has to be taken. It is a lesson that workers in this country, black and white, are beginning to realise.

(West-London Solidarity no2, December 1969)

Note: the AEF merged with other unions and renamed itself the AUEW in 1971.

Nicked from the excellent Angry Workers

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There was also a later strike here, in May-June 1974

120 AUEW members, mainly Pakistani, occupied the factory over loss of wages due to the three-day week. After 3 days they left the factory for the weekend. They were locked out on Monday morning. There was no money from the union for 6 weeks, nor did the union try to help them get social security payments (which they didn’t receive).

The union District Committee did not organise pickets of financial support. Workers re-occupied the factory once, but promised support from District Committee did not arrive. This attempt collapsed after half a day due to police harassment.

After 8 weeks union officials accepted the management position that the factory was closed down and all the strikers lost their jobs. Union officials told them to apply to the Industrial Tribunal for compensation for unfair dismissal. Very few got compensation.

 

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