Today in London striking herstory, 1995: Hillingdon Hospital cleaners strike against casualisation

‘We’ve met people from all over the world who are supporting us: from Russia, India, South Africa, America, Germany – even Winnie Mandela! They know we are low-paid workers. They know we are mostly Asian workers. But the point isn’t that we’re Asian, black, white, women or whatever. This is a struggle of workers against greedy bosses.’

The Hillingdon Hospital Strike began on October 1st, 1995 when 56 domestic and catering workers were sacked by private contractor Pall Mall for refusing to accept a £40 per week wage cut.

The strike continued for five years.

On October 30, 2000, UNISON shop steward Malkiat Bilku led her members back to work on their original terms and conditions with no victimisations, having also won maximum compensation for unfair dismissal.

The women were ‘outsourced’ in 1986. In September 1985 at the civic centre, the District Health Authority had voted to privatise the Hospital cleaning service, with the loss of 213 jobs.

Hillingdon was one of the first private contracts after St Helier, Hammersmith to be forced through by the Tory government.

This had not taken place without any resistance – for instance a One Day strike organised by COHSE and NUPE had taken at Hillingdon Hospital on 23rd May 1985, in protest at the hospital’s privatisation programme and in support of strikers at Barking hospital.

Hillingdon Hospital Management had put a vote to domestic staff – asked them either to lose their bonus or be privatised. The staff voted overwhelmingly against cutting their bonus.

After privatisation, some 320 ‘domestic’ staff at the Hillingdon Hospital found themselves employed not directly by the NHS, but by private contractor ICC Hospital Services Ltd. ICC took over the contract from February 1st 1986.

A series of NHS reforms had been introduced by the Thatcher Government – it was still politically inadvisable to launch a frontal assault on the principles of the NHS itself – which imposed the ‘contracting out’ of specific services, like catering and cleaning, to the lowest bidders in the private sector. ‘They thought that the people could do more work for less wages,’ said Malkiat Bilku. In the process the staff lost sick pay, bonus and pension rights.

In 1989 another company, Initial, took over the contract and cut working hours. The number of staff fell to 220, though the work remained the same. Then, in 1994, the contract was passed on again, this time to Pall Mall, part of the Davies Group international conglomerate, which proposed a 20 per cent wage cut.

Greater ‘efficiency’ at the Hillingdon Hospital was being paid for straight out of the purses of these women – already among the lowest-paid in the country. To increase its efficiency still further, the hospital also announced that it would refuse admission to patients aged over 75.

Then Pall Mall went one step further. The company demanded the women’s passports – an intimidatory move, questioning their immigration status – and presented individuals with new contracts. ‘They told us, if you don’t sign this, you’ve got no job,’ said Malkiat Bilku. ‘We’d already had our wages cut, we’d already been transferred to a private company. We did not refuse to work. We did not even ask for more money. We did not ask for anything. And they asked for our passports and they wanted to force us to accept.’

In May 1995, Pall Mall announced that they were bringing in multi-skilling, intended to cut wages by what amounted to £40 a week, and change working conditions.

The 53 women refused to sign the new contracts and were duly locked out. In October 1995 the strike began, reluctantly supported by their union, Unison. Subsequent negotiations between Unison officials and Pall Mall produced a cash offer of $500 for each of the women as ‘compensation’ for the loss of their jobs.

The membership had voted for action, but the union officials did not call a strike, so the strike started off as an ‘unofficial’ action on October 1st, 1995.

The strikers had to battle with the trade union leaders for nine weeks to force them to make it official. UNISON organised a national demonstration on October 21, 1995 and Hillingdon strikers went along.

They fought to place themselves at the front of the march, as they were leading the fight in the NHS against the privateers, defying the stewards, who tried to physically remove them. At the rally in Kennington, the demonstration demanded that strike leader Malkiat Bilku be allowed to address them, which she did.

There were many demonstrations and marches that the strikers participated in. They organised two lobbies of the UNISON headquarters to demand their strike be made official. At one, where the NEC was meeting, the strikers occupied the building until the then General Secretary Rodney Bickerstaffe came down to speak to them.

Finally on November 17 1995, the UNISON Industrial Action Committee was forced to make the strike official. At the 1996 National Delegate Conference, a resolution was carried unanimously which said that the Hillingdon strike would be supported by the union until the remaining 53 strikers won their jobs back on their old terms and conditions.

But the trade union leaders resisted all calls for national action to win the Hillingdon struggle, while boasting that the strike had stopped Pall Mall cutting wages in their other NHS contracts. The irony being that, largely because of its behaviour at Hillingdon, Pall Mall had been losing numerous NHS contracts – much to the benefit of those who might otherwise have had to work for them, but not of the strikers themselves.

The strike remained official until January 16, 1997, when UNISON declared that the strike was over and told the strikers to accept the Pall Mall offer of £6,000 compensation as this was the best they would get and further, that they would not win their Industrial Tribunal.

They did allow a ballot but, as far as they were concerned, the strike was over!

Everything was being rushed through as a general election was coming in May, and they wanted the struggle out of the way so as not to ‘embarrass’ Labour. However, the strikers rejected the offer, insisting that they would continue until they got their jobs back and the Industrial Tribunal must proceed as well.

On January 16, the strikers lobbied the UNISON head office again where they found two rows of police armed with batons guarding the door of the head office.

At a strike meeting the following Sunday morning they resolved to fight back, continue their strike, and defy the UNISON leadership.
They would not return until they had won back their jobs, on the old terms and conditions.

A conference was called to announce their intention and in spite of the SWP and others, insisting that the strikers must accept the UNISON decision and call off their strike, the Conference overwhelmingly supported the strikers’ decision to continue their strike.

The strikers continued unofficially; they toured the country tirelessly for the next 18 months, winning huge support everywhere and raising enough money to pay £100 weekly strike pay to all the strikers.
They attended every demonstration and challenged Bickerstaffe and TUC General Secretary John Monks if they were there.

Just one month later, the Annual General Meeting of the London Region of UNISON voted to give £10,000 to the Hillingdon Strikers’ Support Campaign – a donation which was stopped by the UNISON leadership. They also tried to stop other branches and districts making donations.

Meanwhile, Pall Mall pulled out of Hillingdon Hospital and media giant Granada – a prominent money-spinner in the catering and media trades – took over the contract.
A High Court injunction was brought by the hospital against the strikers picketting outside the hospital, and refusing them entry. The strikers were forced to move from the hospital entrance but picketing continued (despite racist taunts directed at them from passers-by).

On the second anniversary of their strike, on October 1st, 1997, 3,000 people marched through Uxbridge, to a rally, on a working day, with a number of trade union leaders and MPs speaking at the rally.

In January 1998, the strikers won their appeal to the Employment Appeal Tribunal which meant that their claims for unfair dismissal by Pall Mall would now be heard.

Then at the UNISON conference in Bournemouth in 1998, in the last five minutes of the Conference, overcoming all the objections of Standing Orders and the attempt by the union’s bureaucracy to delay the resolution, the vast majority of the Conference voted for the emergency resolution which called to make the Hillingdon strike official again and restore their full membership.

The strike was once more back to being official, with national negotiations by the union to ‘ensure reinstatement’.

Then at their Employment Tribunal, Pall Mall admitted that they had wrongfully dismissed the hospital workers. Granada was left to meet the unfair dismissal claims.

The Tribunal ruled that the maximum compensation must be paid to all the strikers and that the employers should restore them back into their jobs at the hospital. Although this was carried, Granada did nothing. There were pickets of the Granada HQ to demand they take the workers back.

But Granada challenged the ruling and organised an appeal against this decision. Once again at the Employment Tribunal, Granada was defeated and the decision upheld. The strikers were paid maximum compensation and they also won the right to their jobs back at the hospital.

Every cynic said this would never happen but on October 30th 2000, Malkiat Bilku walked back into the hospital, to the first day back at her job after five years. She was subsequently elected as UNISON shop steward.

In 2004, she stood for the leadership of UNISON challenging for the position of General Secretary and received 30,000 votes.

Today in radical history, 1982: a day of action during the Nurses’ Strike

‘Nurses Are Worth More’: The 1982 Health Workers’ Dispute

An account by Dale Evans, NHS worker

The 1982 pay dispute was the largest strike in the history of the NHS and greatest show of solidarity across the trade union movement since the 1926 General Strike. Unfortunately this complex and often contradictory dispute that coincided with the Falklands/Malvinas War has been forgotten. Historians of trade unionism and the Thatcher era have not recorded it. This is not hard to understand, after all nurses and other women health workers rarely count in the arena of male dominated trade unionism; their disputes – because they lack ‘industrial muscle’ are hardly noticed. But the 1982 health service pay dispute is a great story. It was a strike that involved the workforce of the single largest employer in the whole of Europe, lasted for several months, challenged new anti-trade union legislation, gained enormous public support, received solidarity action from across the trade union movement and was the largest pay dispute of the Thatcher era.

Background to the 1982 dispute

From the beginning of the NHS in 1948 nurses’ pay was regularly falling behind comparable occupations in other sectors. Nurses found themselves campaigning to catch up as their salaries were eroded by government policies on wage restraint and post war price inflation. In 1974 the Halsbury enquiry into nurses’ pay awarded them increases of between 20 and 40 per cent. The severe inflationary period of the 1970s quickly undermined the gains of 1974 and a further enquiry – the Clegg commission of 1979 – awarded nurses 9% plus additional payments. The new Tory government of 1979 implemented the Clegg awards. However, by 1982 continuing inflation and limited public sector pay increases had left the nurses’ pay lagging behind again.

There were other paternalistic and structural reasons for successive governments not taking the remuneration of nurses seriously. Nursing was overwhelmingly staffed by women and nursing was viewed as an extension of caring for a family, that is not a professional occupation. Nurses’ pay was viewed as secondary income for families where the main income was provided by men. However nearly one third of nurses were single, and in places where the economic recession of the early 1980s hit hardest nurses became the main family wage earner. The NHS policy making mechanisms were dominated by doctors and their interests came first. On a structural level the NHS was expanding. Between 1976 and 1983 the number of nurses increased by 16% to nearly 400,000. At the same time the hours worked by nurses also decreased hence increasing the overall wage bill. In 1950 they worked 48 hours per week, by 1982 this had been reduced to 371/2. Successive governments fought to contain the costs of the NHS by restricting pay increases to nurses and other non-medical employees in the NHS, by far the largest section of the NHS workforce. By 1974-75, nurses real income had increased by only 9% since the beginning of the NHS. From this peak the real value of nurses went into decline and by 1982 had decreased by 18% since the mid-1970s.

In order to redress the decline in pay for nurses and low pay for other NHS workers the unions argued for a 12% increase across the board for the 1982 pay round. However, the Tory government had already announced that public sector pay increases would be limited to 4%, but by March Norman Fowler, the Secretary of State for Social Services, issued a statement that more money was available for nurses, midwives, and the allied health professions (radiographers and physiotherapists etc.) and that an offer in the region of 6% would be made. All other non-medical staff (that is porters, cleaners, ambulance personnel, clerical staff) were to receive the 4%. To what was an obvious provocation, the health service unions had to respond.

Beginnings of the Dispute

The trade unions responded to the offer with derision; one NUPE (National Union of Public Employees) official denounced the offer as an ‘unacceptable prescription which will do nothing to alleviate the problem of low pay affecting thousands of health service workers’.

In 1981 health service trade unions affiliated to the TUC had formed the TUC health services committee under the chair of Alan Spanswick from the Confederation of Health Service Employees (COHSE). The 1982 date for the pay round was April 1; for the first time in NHS all staff except doctors were to receive their annual pay increase from the same date. This gave the unions an organisational advantage in being able to organise and negotiate for all employees on the same basis from the same date. The unions believed that their claim of 12% for all NHS staff was reasonable. The rejection of this claim by the government quickly led to industrial action by the TUC affiliated unions.

All the unions were conscious of the fact that public support for their campaign was paramount; they had no wish to alienate the public as they believed the public workers’ dispute had done in 1979’s ‘winter of discontent.’ Although an all out strike was discussed most action in the course of the dispute consisted of work stoppages by nurses and nursing auxiliaries, porters, cleaners and other staff that would not endanger patients. This was the course taken by COHSE and NUPE and the other TUC unions. The first days of action took place in May. These actions were varied across the country. In some places the NHS only offered emergency services on these days, in other areas staff worked by only performing limited duties.

At a local level unions officials received support from other public sector workers. As the summer progressed the Scottish miners came out on strike in support of the day of action. By the end of June sympathy strikes had taken place with miners, shipyard workers, factory workers and staff from government and council offices all taking part. Examples of this solidarity action came from all over the UK. Shipyard workers joined a demonstration by health workers in Glasgow, 77 schools in Nottinghamshire were affected, swimming pools in Yorkshire were closed, stoppages occurred at some of the major power stations in Yorkshire, council workers in Hackney and Tottenham also took action. By July 750 hospitals had only emergency cover. In Wakefield 4 hospitals did not have any services at all on days of action. Further solidarity action saw seamen stop a ferry leaving Felixstowe for 2 days. All of this action was in breach of the 1980 Industrial Relations Act that outlawed secondary action by one group of workers in support of another. However in August the Electricians Union managed to stop the Fleet Street printing presses rolling with a 24 hour stoppage. Sean Geraghty, the shop steward involved. was fined £1300 for contempt of court after ignoring an injunction banning the stoppage. Hundreds of health workers demonstrated in his support on the day of his hearing.

In spite of the stoppages and inconvenience to patients the dispute was widely supported by the public who perceived that the nurses were being given a raw deal. Of course patient care was compromised as waiting lists soared and operations were cancelled but this did not undermine public support.

Divisions between the unions

Outside of the TUC affiliated health service unions were the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) who represented 180,000 nurses, and other smaller unions such as the midwives, health visitors and those representing the allied health professions. These organisations were also professional bodies as well as trade unions. As professional bodies they had a regulatory role over members, provided education, and set professional standards just as the BMA (British Medical Association), and the Royal Colleges do in medicine. For these reasons the RCN did not sit easily with trade unions affiliated with the TUC, COHSE and NUPE, which had 135,000 and 80,000 nurses in their membership respectively and were also the unions representing tens of thousands of other NHS workers. This split between TUC affiliated bodies and non-affiliated unions such as the RCN was to prove crucial in the conduct of the dispute, and its final resolution.

The RCN argued that because of the public support shown for the nurses’ cause it was not necessary to engage in industrial action. Indeed its president Trevor Clay later wrote:

‘The nurses had the high moral ground through balloting at a time when the government were lambasting other unions about their lack of balloting and unrepresentative activity.’

During the days of action members of the RCN worked normally, because strike action would have been in breach of its rules (Rule 12). The RCN had only become a trade union in 1977 and in 1979 its membership had rejected the opportunity to join the TUC. A debate in 1982 concerning amending Rule 12 came to nothing.

Throughout the dispute the RCN acted independently of the TUC health unions, often meeting ministers and engaging in talks without any acknowledgement of the need for greater unity. The RCN only paid lip service to supporting non-nursing NHS staff but made it apparent that it wanted a settlement whereby porters, clerical staff and nursing auxiliaries would receive a lower pay rise than qualified nurses. Unlike the TUC unions it was willing to support the government’s idea of establishing a permanent pay review body (PRB) for nurses that would be similar to that already set up for doctors. The PRB would annually compare nurses’ pay with other sectors of the economy and make recommendations to the government.

The RCN wanted to have its cake and eat it. Its President Trevor Clay genuinely believed that its position of no strike action and talking to the government whilst constantly balloting the membership of the RCN on various matters was the most productive way to settle the dispute. This of course allowed the government to split the campaign effectively into two camps, those for and those against industrial action. Norman Fowler’s statement to the House of Commons on 18 October 1982 clearly thanked the RCN for continuing to work and lambasted the TUC unions.

COHSE and NUPE felt that the RCN was only gaining advantages with the government because of the strength of their action. Without industrial conflict the RCN would not have been invited to the negotiating table. Rodney Bickerstaffe, general secretary of NUPE, diplomatically expressed the differences:

‘I think that the RCN line ….has been that whilst they are still talking there is still hope. I don’t wish to drive any more wedges between ourselves and the RCN. It’s fine to say that whilst we are talking there is still hope, but less people would be hurt if we all threw our weight behind the industrial campaign to get proper talks.’

For both COHSE and NUPE it was a matter of principle that all the health service workers received 12%. They had major concerns about low pay in the NHS that they felt the government should address. These unions had a different approach to striking. COHSE’s 1982 conference rejected an all-out indefinite strike and supported the call for extra days of action with emergency cover only. NUPE’s conference on the other hand voted in favour of an indefinite strike with only basic emergency cover. COHSE’s position was strongly influenced by the winter of discontent. After that the union had drawn up a code of conduct for disputes whereby its members were expected to provide emergency cover and ensure that the dignity and welfare of the patients is paramount. Both unions rejected the idea of the government’s PRB, as both unions believed in annual pay negotiations based on the principles of collective bargaining.

During the course of the dispute the RCN balloted its membership on two offers both of which were rejected by the membership. From the views of the membership its seems clear that the RCN wanted to extricate itself from the dispute as quickly as possible. The members of one RCN branch wrote to the Nursing Times:

We find it distasteful that you [Dame Catherine Hall, an RCN negotiator] held a press conference without first referring the detail of your discussions with the secretary of state to the RCN labour relations committee for a vote….There is no mention in your misrepresented statement of referral back to the membership.’

And another member complained

‘I have just received my RCN News. Cutting through the waffle it seems that the College is attempting to sell us out for an extra 11/2p in the pound.’

Such was the divergence of views that the RCN issued a leaflet in which it fully defended its position against the accusations levelled against it.

The government also exploited the split to argue that the TUC unions had a political agenda, that is that the strike was not about health service pay but was to undermine recent trade union legislation and re-establish the former power that the unions supposedly enjoyed. On the 21 September the Health Minister Kenneth Clarke said:

‘The TUC hopes to smash the cash limits of the National Health Service in order to end pay restraint in the public sector and prepare the way for bigger claims for miners and others this winter. They are taking secondary action in order to challenge the Government’s legislation and defend their old immunities above the law.’

This lack of unity and the government’s endorsement of the RCN’s position undermined the strength and purpose of the TUC unions after the largest day of action on 22 September.

22 September 1982

22 September saw a huge show of solidarity for the NHS dispute right across the country; an estimated 2.25 million people took part in one form or another. In London 120,000 demonstrated, Aberdeen 12,000, Edinburgh 10,000, Liverpool 20,000, Norwich 2,000, Derry 3,000 – and these were just some of the many demonstrations that took place all over the country. Strikes were evident in many hospitals with only emergency cover provided. Some ambulance crews walked out and refused to provide emergency cover.

Secondary support for health workers was also very significant, 80% of the mines were closed as were 43 of 65 docks. Fleet Street workers stopped the publication of the national newspapers and many local newspapers were disrupted as well. There was some disruption to television programmes broadcast by Granada and Ulster TV. Local government services were affected with many schools being closed for part of the day. Supporting strike action was also taken by car workers at Ford and Vauxhall, and Post Offices were closed.

This day was an undoubted success and was the high point of the whole dispute for the TUC unions. Such enthusiasm would be difficult to repeat and the time for indefinite strike action had passed. The RCN was still talking to the government and seeking a way to end the dispute. And the government, very much buoyed by it victory in the Falklands/Malvinas war, took a hard line, proclaiming that the day of action had changed nothing. As many nurses pointed out the government could always find money for wars but not for funding the health service.

The fact that this historic day of action had failed to move the government left the unions in a quandary: what to do next?

The end of the dispute

Attempts to organise further days of action petered out. The dispute dragged on with only a few local actions occurring. COHSE called a delegates’ conference for 14 December to discuss the possibility of an all-out strike. In reality the split in the nursing profession between the RCN and the TUC unions had undermined the possibility of further action. Most of the action had been carried out by the other health workers. As one participant commented:

There was considerable resentment among the ancillaries about the nurses. The press had gone on about the nurses this the nurses that. The cleaners knew that they had stayed solid for months. Most of the nurses had crossed the picket line time after time. The cleaners felt used’.

Many of the nurses did however recognise the contribution to the dispute by other NHS workers:

‘The ancillary workers are helping us by taking action, as well as themselves…

Nurses do not have the power to fight the government on their own, they need other workers’.

By December the RCN was effectively leading the dispute with most of the discussion centred on the establishing of the PRB, which the TUC unions still rejected. The government improved its offer to 12.3% for nurses over 2 years with 7.5% to be received in the current year, and the promise of a pay review body for 1984. The RCN put the offer to its members, 80% of whom accepted. NUPE and COHSE tried to scupper the deal by recommending to its members 6.5% for the coming year without any conditions for future years. The membership rejected this. NUPE and COHSE also found themselves outvoted in the TUC health services committee where each member (14 in all) had one vote even though NUPE and COHSE represented the majority of health service workers between them. Furthermore the RCN and the other professional bodies such as the Royal College of Midwives had a slender majority on the national negotiating committee, the Whitley Council. NUPE and COHSE had been effectively outmanoeuvred. Ancillary staff received a 10.5 % deal over 2 years, receiving 6% in the current year. Both pay deals were only backdated to July even though the date for a new pay rise was the 1 April. No doubt this was an extra punishment for a workforce that had fought for a living wage.

Aftermath

The conservative government won the 1983 general election and the PRB was set up. Nurses were awarded between 9 and 14% in 1985 and 8% the following year. Work done by ancillary workers (porters, cleaners) were increasingly privatised with two thirds of contracts awarded to private contractors by the end of 1984. This section of the workforce was reduced by 40,000 by 1988. COHSE’s membership had peaked at 231,000 in 1982 had fallen to 218,000 by 1988. The RCN membership which had been 162,000 in 1979 reached 282,000 in 1988.

Sources used

The Times

The Guardian

Marxism Today

New Statesman

Nursing Mirror

Nursing Times

Christopher Hart, Behind the Mask: Nurses, their Unions and Nursing Policy, London 1994

Jonathan Neale, Memoirs of a Callous Picket, London, 1983

Trevor Clay Nurses, Power and Politics, London, 1987

Mick Carpenter, Working for Health: the History of COHSE, London 1988

COHSE (Britain Health Service Union) blog 

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Lifted from ‘The NHS is 60‘, a collection of radical articles on health, working in the health service and the history of the NHS, published in 2008 by the Radical History Network of North-East London

According to the COHSE history blog,

“Wednesday 22 September 1982 was one of the largest acts of solidarity in the British trade union history, with millions on strike and a national rally in London with 120,000 taking part. There were demonstrations in the following towns (not full list)

Aberdeen 12,000

Inverness 1,000

Elgin 500

Lerwick 400

Oban 100

Stornaway 500

Dundee 10,000

Edinburgh 10,000

Kirkcaldy 2,000

Glasgow 20,000

Dumfries 1,000

Newcastle 5,000

York 1,000

Sheffield 10,000

Barnsley 1,000

Leeds 6,000

Hull 4,000

Chesterfield 3,000

Manchester 2,000

St Helens 2,000

Liverpool 20,000

Bolton 2,000

Blackpool 400

Wigan 5,000

Leek 300

Coventry 2,000

Gloucester 500

Hereford 400

Swindon 1,000

Milton Keynes 1,200

Cambridge 2,000

Colchester 1,000

Braintree 100

Norwich 2,000

Kings Lynn 300

Harleston 500

Fakenham 100

Southampton 1,500

Bournemouth 1,000

Eastbourne 500

Yeovil 1,000

Belfast 3,000

Derry 3,000

Armagh 300

Ballymena 200

Enniskillen 350

Swansea 1,000

Aberystwyth 200

Rhondda 500

There were also many rallies/marches in London eg in Hackney and Hillingdon.”

Today in London’s striking herstory, 1890: Sweet Victory! East End chocolate factory workers win strike

In 1890, women working in a Mile End chocolate factory went on strike. The chocolate workers’ strike boosted the growth of women’s trade unionism in late Victorian England.

In the aftermath of the 1888 Matchwomen’s Strike in and London Dock Strike in 1889, trade unionism flourished, especially among previously un-unionised workers, often labelled unskilled or semi-skilled. Between 1888 and 1892 union membership doubled from 750,000 to 1.5 million. London’s East End, where both these seminal struggles had taken place, saw a particular spike in union growth – inspiration spreading also because people probably had direct contact and knowledge of the 1888-9 events, taking place in front of their eyes…

Among the many strikes and disputes that broke out was a short sharp stoppage by East End chocolate makers in 1890. Though not high profile, this struggle was victorious, and encouraged others organising among London’s tens of thousands of young women workers.

Although Factory Acts had been passed in the UK through the 19th century to prohibit children working in factories, older children and ‘teenagers’ (a term or concept not yet developed then…) were often exempted.

In the late 19th century, girls of 13 and upward were often employed in confectionary, jam, and other small food factories (while young boys were more likely to be found in rope-works, foundries, paper mills…). The work was often hard, with long hours; as the work was often classes as low-skilled, wages were generally low – compounded by the general attitude among employers (and some trade unionists as well!) that women’s work, and especially young women’s work, was less important or deserved lower rates of pay. Employers also felt they could treat women worse, with poorer conditions, more strict rules and bullying.

A meeting aimed at young women working at Messrs Allen’s chocolate factory was held on 10 July 1890, at the offices of the Women’s Trade Union League, at 128 Mile End Road. Earlier attempts to help workers in the mainly small confectionary factories of East and South London had come to nothing. On this occasion, however, “twelve girls came, and their dread of being followed, watched and subsequently discharged was pitiful,” wrote Black. They were mainly earning around 17 shillings a week, employed packing chocolate into boxes

The next day, Women’s Trade Union League full-time organiser Miss James (a former confectionary worker) visited Allen’s factory in Emmot Street, to distribute handbills and at explaining the objects of the union.

However, arriving at Allen’s, she found that a lockout had already started.

“To her amazement she found the girls standing about in a crowd, though it was not yet seven o’clock. They surrounded her, telling her that they were ‘out’ and asking anxiously, ‘What shall we do?’ ‘Is there anybody who will help us?’

Miss James led them to the office of the Women’s Trade Union Association, where the Union secretary, Clementina Black, was working. Black described how:

“In a twinkling the room was full and over-full of girls, and the street outside was full of those girls who could not come in, and of the fringe of onlookers which gathers so speedily in that great boulevard of the East End, the Mile End Road.”

Six of the young women workers gradually told their story. Their working conditions were hard and management vicious. The workers were banned from leaving the factory in the dinner hour, forbidden to eat between eight and one on weekdays and between eight and two on Saturdays. This meant the women spent all day from 8am to 7pm inside the factory. They also suffered numerous petty fines and fines and deductions from their pay.

The current dispute had been sparked by a fine imposed on one woman had slipped and fallen on the job. The forewoman had issued her with a fine of half a crown for falling over: refusing to pay, she had been summoned to the office the next morning, and threatened with the sack unless she paid up. In response, the other women working on the shop floor had stopped work and demanded her reinstatement. No work got done that day…!

At 5pm, factory owner Mr Allen himself came down to investigate, and locked the women out; told the women to “put on their hats and go home”.

Clementina Black called on well-known union organiser John Burns for help. A meeting for all the factory girls employed at Allen’s was held at Mile End Liberal and Radical Club; a committee was elected and a register drawn up. All those present also joined the union.

The following Monday, John Burns and Miss James accompanied the strikers to the factory gates before 8am, and a “business-like system of picketing” set up. Only eight factory workers went in to work, though occasionally “a clerk would peep out” to see what was going on.

A strike committee room was set up in nearby Skidmore Street, and a “polite note” was sent to Mr Allen requesting for a meeting for negotiations. Some 200 women were on strike by then, many aged around 16 or 17.

Since the Women’s Trade Union League was not able to use its union funds to support strikes, raising money to support the 80 or 90 young women who were out on strike became vital. Funds were mainly raised by personal appeals to other trade unions and workers directly. Very quickly workers began to contribute. Burns himself collected more than £50 in an hour at the London County Council offices; at the Woolwich Arsenal and in the docks, men lined up to donate coppers to the cause. An envelope postmarked House of Commons also arrive – containing £5. Soon the union organisers were able to issue tickets allowing the girls to get lunch and tea.

Many young women working at Messrs Allen’s other East End factories, at Canal Road and Copperfield Road, also wanted to join the strike. Not wanting to escalate the dispute, John Burns persuaded them to carry on working as normal, but promised that they should be called on to join the strike if necessary.

By the Wednesday, Allen had replied to the letter sent by Burns, declining mediation and saying that he would rather deal with his workers directly. “On this, a deputation of girls was elected, and a letter sent in, asking Mr Allen to see them.” They demanded:
– reinstatement for the young woman whose dismissal had sparked the strike,
– a right to leave the factory at lunchtime,
– an end to fines,
– an end to the practice of suspending those who were absent for a further two or three days,
– a promise of no punishment for those who had joined the union.

Allen now changed tack and agreed to meet John Burns before beginning talks with the workers. Burns and Allen engaged in a three-hour discussion which left no-one in doubt that the dispute would soon be over. A further series of meetings between Burns, Allen, Black and the striking factory workers themselves followed, which eventually worked out a solution largely favourable to the women.

Allen agreed to all the demands except the abolition of fines for lateness, though he agreed to reduce them, and to withdraw these at the end of the year as long as workers’ attendance did not suffer as a result.

An agreement was finally signed on 22 July, and work at the chocolate factory resumed.

Emmot Street, the location of this factory, seems to have disappeared, unless it has become Emmot Close, which lies just south of Mile End Road, to the west of the Regents Canal. This seems possible, since Copperfield Road (site of another of Allen’s factories) is just round the corner over the canal, and while another local road named as containing an Allen factory – Canal Road, also doesn’t exist, there’s a Canal Close one street away. Looks like there might have been a cluster of Allen factories within a few streets.  

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Related: Another, slightly later strike among women workers in South London at the Corruganza Box factory

The 1911 Bermondsey Strikes, taking place during another upsurge of working class workplace organising that in many ways echoed the ‘new unionism’ spike, also began among women working in confectionary and jam factories.

 

 

 

Today in London striking history, 1966: A series of guerilla strikes begin at the ENV Engineering Works, Willesden

E.N.V. was an early manufacturer of aircraft engines, originally called the London and Parisian Motor Company, their first model appearing in 1908. E.N.V. engines were used by several pioneer aircraft builders and were produced in both France and the UK until about 1914. They subsequently specialised in camshafts and bevel gear manufacture.

The castings and forgings for its engines were made in Sheffield where the company was originally based, then taken to France for assembly. The reason for this was that there was much more aeronautical activity in France than in England in 1908, but the French were taxing imported machinery.

The French works were in Courbevoie in the Paris suburbs. By 1909 there was more aviation activity in England and E.N.V. decided to begin full manufacture at home, at Willesden, North London. At that time a separate company was formed to produce the aero-engines in Willesden,

In 1964 ENV became part of the Eaton, Yale and Towne group, losing its identity in 1968: the Willesden Works closed in the same year.

ENV’s works in Willesden became a hotbed of rank and file union activity, which peaked in a series of strikes in 1966.

Militancy in the factory is discussed in this article, written at the time of the campaign against the works’ closure, in late 1967.

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A Working-Class Defeat: The ENV Story
(Winter 1967/68)
Joyce Rosser & Colin Barker

Nicked from International Socialism (1st series), No.31,Winter 1967/68, pp.21-32.

Authors’ intro: We are grateful to the shop stewards of ENV and to others in the North London labour movement who gave us so much of their time and help in writing this article. None of them will agree with
everything we say, and we should like to pay tribute to them for their patience with us. All responsibility for this article must necessarily be ours.
We hope we have not done them too great an injustice.

  1. Before the Attack

The initial emergence of ENV as a militant factory seems to have taken place in the period after the War, and particularly in the latter years of the Labour Government. In the context of a Government wage freeze, supported by the great majority of union executives, shop-floor action in support of local wage claims gradually developed.

Under a predominantly Communist Party leadership, the factory had a whole series of small stoppages, go-slows, overtime bans, etc. In general these actions were successful, and there was little managerial resistance to shop-floor demands, provided that the stewards and workers backed these up with action or the threat of action. The workers themselves were prepared to go on strike, as experience had shown that the strike-weapon was both effective and relatively speedy in operation.

In November 1951, however, there was a more serious dispute. One of the shop stewards wished to have a meeting with the works manager, but a foreman refused to arrange this. When the convenor, Bill McLoughlin, took this up with the management the foreman physically threatened him. The factory struck, demanding the foreman’s removal. This strike lasted 13 weeks, and ended with a Government-appointed Court of Inquiry. The issue was one of some importance, for it was the first time that so explicit a challenge had been made to the management’s own prerogatives of choosing their staff. There is some dispute as to whether this was in fact a good issue on which to lead a protracted strike. It is unlikely that, if the men had realised quite how protracted the struggle would be, they would have agreed to go on strike over this issue, in the absence of a long period of preparation, agitation, etc on the issue of managerial functions in the months before the stoppage. The experience of the previous few years had led them to suppose that all strikes would be brief, and no attempt was made to point out to them that no management was likely to give in as easily on an issue of this kind, intimately touching as it did their power within the factory. On the other hand, the strike was over a question of trade-union principle, and this was the central issue. In this connection, it is possible that the Communist Party at this time were anxious to have strikes called in the motor industry, in line with current WFTU (World Federation of Trade Unions, the Communist Trade Union international) policy, and that the Communist stewards at ENV were to a degree more concerned with having a strike than with the principle of the thing.

The strike was made official, after six weeks, and then only by the AEU (Amalgamated Engineering Union). The T&GWU (Transport and General Workers’ Union), however, decided to pay strike-pay to its members, although it did not recognise the strike. Only a small proportion of the strike fund, which amounted in all to some £14,000 by the end of the strike, came from the official unions; the majority of the funds came from factory collections organised by the ENV stewards themselves, not only in the North London area, but all over Britain. Teams went out to Birmingham, the West of England, Scotland, etc, and it was largely through the efforts of the strike committee in organising their own financial support that the strike was maintained for so long. One interesting feature of this collection was the fact that it was by no means from the largest, or reputedly most ‘militant’ factories that the greatest support came: Fords of Dagenham gave the ENV stewards only £25, and the Austin factory at Longbridge gave only £50.

In about the tenth week, the strike began to crumble a little, as about 100 of the men went back to work. (Up to the tenth week at most half a dozen had blacklegged.) In the 13th week the Court of Inquiry reported, and recommended that there should be a return to work on the following terms: that the foreman should be removed from any contact with trade unionists, and that McLoughlin, the convenor, should be replaced in the post by another steward. The strike committee decided to accept these terms, with one dissenting voice (who urged that it was for the stewards and not a capitalist court to elect the convenor).

The obvious candidate for the post of convenor among the remaining stewards was the deputy convenor, Sid Wise, an ex-member of the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party, and for a short time, with Gerry Healy, a member of the Socialist Outlook group. The Communist Party stewards, however, not wanting a Trotskyist convenor, proposed in his place Harry Ford. Much later Harry Ford was appointed safety and security officer by ENV, and was sacked in the summer of 1967 after he had played his part in the breaking of militant organisation in the factory (feeling against him after his promotion to management was considerable: one of his jobs was the setting of traps round the factory to catch the numerous cats that infested the place, and workers went around releasing the cats. Harry Ford complained of ‘lack of cooperation.’)

The two years after this big strike found the rank and file in the factory much more reluctant to take strike action. Until 1950-51 ENV had held a virtual monopoly in the manufacture of gears but from then on the car manufacturers (Austin and Morris in particular) started to make their own and the ENV management, fighting for a place in new markets, toughened their attitude.

From 1953 to the end of 1957 there were numerous strikes, almost without exception confined to particular sections of the factory. The most important activity during this period was the formulation of an eleven-point plan for fighting redundancy. This plan, whose main architect was Sid Wise, provided for a sliding scale of demands. It was discussed on a number of occasions at factory meetings in the middle of this period, and was accepted by the men as their policy on redundancy. It was not to be put to the test, however, until 1957.

A little before Christmas, 1957, the management informed the stewards that they would have to make ten per cent of the workforce redundant. The stewards were extremely concerned about the situation: it was just before the holiday period, the motor industry as a whole was in difficulties, and they were extremely doubtful about their ability to fight the management on this issue. True, they had a plan for dealing with redundancy, but although the men had given their support to the eleven-point plan in a period of prosperity, there had been doubt about it. Many of the men had felt that, although the plan was a good one, the management could not really be expected to pay a man for doing nothing.

At a factory meeting, however, when the stewards informed the men about the position, there was a demand from the men themselves that the stewards remember ‘our eleven-point plan.’ Many of them argued that it was better at least to ‘have a go with the plan,’ since there was nothing to lose anyway. The meeting instructed Geoff Carlsson, recently elected as convenor, to inform the management that they would not accept redundancy.

When Carlsson told Mr Pailing, the senior manager, that the men would not accept redundancy and that there would be a major strike if the management sacked anyone, Pailing walked out in a rage. The stewards told him that the furnaces would be closed down, and, after Pailing’s anger, fully expected to find next morning that the gates were locked against them. However, the management clearly decided that they would box clever, and informed the stewards that it was now their problem, and they would have to solve it themselves. Effectively this meant that the stewards would have to reorganise a considerable part of the production-arrangements, and the management no doubt expected that this would frighten the stewards into acceptance. They were unlucky.

The stewards’ committee accepted the responsibility and began the process of reorganisation. The men were put on to four and four-and-a-half day weeks, and were transferred from departments where there was a shortage of work to departments with enough to do. It took several months to sort the whole factory out, and the reorganisation was a process of continual improvisation. Although the reorganisation led to a certain amount of tension and jealousy, since it proved impossible to guarantee that everyone would suffer the same degree of inconvenience, the factory did stay united for nine months. For the whole of this period, although a number of men left voluntarily because of the work shortage, not one man was made redundant.

There was one incident which illustrated some of the conflicts and problems. Some men were supposed to be moved into one department, but the three men already working refused to accept them. Havelock, the manager, approached the stewards and asked them what they intended to do about their ‘three brothers.’ Carlsson told Havelock that he would either have to listen to the three men, or listen to the whole factory: if the three would not cooperate, then the management would have to sack them. This was done. As soon as the three men had been sacked, the stewards demanded that they be given a second chance. The three were visited and invited back to the factory; one refused, and two returned. This must be one of the few cases in which stewards have, in pursuit of a militant line, had men sacked; the essential thing in this case being, of course, that circumstances had turned the reorganisation itself into a dispute, and failure to cooperate with the majority was equivalent to crossing a picket-line.

The struggle over redundancy had several implications. Firstly, this was a period of fairly widespread struggles over redundancy. At BMC in the summer of 1956 there had been a strike over mass sackings. The labour movement was actively discussing policies for redundancy in various ways. Within the AEU, Communist Party militants were fighting for the acceptance of a rather dubious ‘right to work’ policy, whose principal demand was that workers should be retained on a firm’s books until ‘suitable alternative employment’ had been found for them; this rather legalistic approach left unanswered the whole question of what was ‘suitable’ and what was ‘alternative.’ In this general context the example of ENV stood out as one of the very few factories in which redundancy was actually fought successfully; managements in other local factories found that their stewards were less amenable, and were quoting the ENV example when sackings were demanded.

Secondly, the way the struggle had been conducted raised, although in only a partial way, issues of workers’ control within the factory. ENV management had to accept a situation for nine months in which the workers’ shop-floor representatives took over control of manning scales in the different shops, and organised production within the factory to an extent previously unheard of. It should be noted that this was done without any of the blueprints for workers’ control that are currently being offered on the Left, but was a process of continual improvisation in response to concrete problems in the factory.

Thirdly, the lesson was not lost on management. As we shall see below, when the ENV management finally set about the systematic destruction of the stewards’ committee they at no time attempted to remove the stewards on the pretext of a redundancy, for they knew that if redundancy were threatened the men would fight it. Given the history of the factory, the management’s choice of weapon – the (completely false) assertion that they were going to close the factory down – becomes more comprehensible.

Towards the end of 1958 trade picked up again and there was a return to the earlier pattern of national wage claims and disputes. In 1959 the stewards attempted to bring the factory together for a unified wage claim. The pattern of wage advances within the factory up to that time had been uneven, each shop fighting by itself for its own particular claims, and the whole factory’s wages going up by fits and starts through a process of leapfrogging and comparisons. The stewards, fearing the effects of differentials among the workers, proposed that the factory should fight as a whole, but at a factory meeting a majority of the men turned this idea down.

Six of the most militant shops then went out on strike on their own, in support of their own wage claims. This was not especially successful, since the balance of forces within the factory was now altered: the six most militant departments were outside the gates, and the weaker ones were still inside. As was traditional, the labourers immediately blacked all the work from the six shops on strike. There then arose a division on the stewards’ committee (composed for the occasion of the stewards from the shops remaining inside the gate). The majority of the stewards unfortunately argued that the question of blacking should be put to a factory meeting; the minority of militants urged that this was not necessary, since the labourers were already, on their own initiative, blacking the six shops’ work. But the majority argument was carried, and at a factory meeting (not including the men from the six shops) the blacking was rejected. The labourers then began handling the work again, and, with the factory’s strength evaporating rapidly, the men from the six militant shops had to make the best settlements they could.

Two years later there was again a similar danger that the factory might be divided. Under the National Agreements in the engineering industry piece-workers are supposed to be able to make an average minimum bonus of 45 per cent, or about 8£d per hour. In fact this agreement is completely out of date, at least for all but the most backward factories. At ENV average bonuses ranged from six to eight shillings an hour. But the existence of the agreement provided the ENV workers with a handy weapon; when working a go-slow they could justifiably argue that they were fulfilling the terms of the National Agreements and making the requisite 45 per cent bonus. The tactic was known as ‘working time-work.’

In the grinding shop a go-slow of this kind ran for a number of weeks. The grinding shop was of some importance in the factory’s production flow, and there were pile-ups of work from some departments and shortages in others. The action of one shop could seriously disrupt production throughout the factory, and this could easily create resentment, especially when, as in this case, the grinders were among the highest-paid groups already. In cases like these there was usually a certain amount of grumbling among the men in other shops, although it must be added that this grumbling never actually stopped them from giving the required support. Faced with the grinders’ protracted go-slow, and refusing to meet their demand for more money, the management approached Sir William Carron, president of the AEU, who informed the stewards that they must abide by National Agreements. The stewards’ answer was that they were abiding by these agreements, but Carron replied – in the spirit if not the letter of what the employers had intended – that the grinding shop must resume normal production. The stewards ignored this instruction. As the pile-ups and shortages continued, the rest of the factory decided to go on ‘time work’ as well: At this the management put out a notice stating that the grinding shop must resume normal working by 11 a.m. that day, or be sent home, and that the rest of the factory had until 2 p.m. to return to normal working, or be clocked out.

When these ultimatums were ignored, the whole factory was in fact clocked out. On the stewards’ instructions the men stayed at work. The foremen refused to give them any work-cards, so the men simply carried on with the jobs that were already in the shops. This went on for several days, with the management pretending that it had no workers, and the factory buzzing with activity. No wages were paid, and no record was kept of times on jobs. After a few days the management decided to come to terms, reached a settlement with the grinders and paid the whole factory back pay at a standard, consolidated time rate.

  1. An ‘organised’ factory

The above stories should make it clear that ENV was a highly organised factory from the trade-union point of view. Although there is always the danger of exaggeration, it seems clear, that it was one of the best-organised in the London area. It was the very fact of its high level of organisation, indeed, that was responsible for the major managerial offensive that developed there over the years 1962 to 1967.

In calling ENV an ‘organised’ or ‘militant’ factory one or two things have to be borne in mind. In the first place, the organisation was developed by the stewards and the men within the factory, with very little reference to the official union structure outside. The union outside was of very little importance; indeed, in general the stewards only had recourse to the union officials as a ‘face-saver.’ In situations where a return to work was necessary at the end of a dispute, and there was little possibility of going back on the terms the stewards and men wanted, then the officials might well be called in, to advise the men to go back. In this way the officials rather than the stewards would carry the blame for the element of ‘defeat.’

Secondly, one of the most important aspects of its ‘militancy’ as a factory was ENV’s readiness to help other sections of the labour movement who were in dispute. The stewards claim – not without justification – that the first place in London to which workers would turn for help was the ENV stewards’ committee. Any group of workers coming to ENV could be assured of an immediate donation from the stewards’ funds, and in a number of cases there were regular collections taken on the shop floor in support of disputes in other factories. Some of these collections were very considerable. During the 13-week strike at British Light Steel Pressings, Acton, in 1961, for instance, collections taken among the 1,100 workers at ENV amounted to over £1,500. During the strike of predominantly coloured workers at Marriott’s in Southall in 1963 a weekly collection of a shilling a head was maintained for 30 weeks – amounting to £1,717, or 18 per cent of the national total contribution.

This readiness to help other workers in dispute contrasted strongly with other so-called ‘militant’ factories in which assistance, particularly on this kind of scale, is very much the exception, or is subject to various conditions and qualifications. Mention has already been made of the poor response from a number of factories during the 1951 strike at ENV itself. One of the stewards, at that time a CP member, recounts how he visited the Austin factory at Longbridge and was only able to persuade the convenor there to help the ENV workers when he produced his Party card. During the Marriott strike, indeed, this kind of political exclusiveness led to serious divisions among groups within the Party itself. Due to the involvement of the Socialist Labour League in the dispute, the Southall District Committee, under CP influence, would do nothing to help the strike, declaring it ‘Trotskyite.’ And when Reg Birch and Bill McLoughlin of the London Committee (also Party members) wished to do something to help the Marriott strikers, they were verbally attacked by the Southall Committee. [1] At ENV, although there were serious disagreements over the way the strike was conducted, differences of this kind did not at any time inhibit the basic principle of solidarity with other workers in dispute. Even after it was felt that the strike should have been called off, ENV stewards and workers took part in the Marriott demonstrations, contributed to the strike fund, etc.

Thirdly, and most important, the term ‘well organised’ within the factory refers especially to the relationship that was built up and maintained between the workers and their stewards. Throughout the whole history of the factory this relationship was one of close support. Had this not been so, it is difficult to see how the 1957-58 fight against redundancy could have been kept up. Workers would not take orders from their foremen without reference to their stewards. On average a full meeting of the factory in the works canteen was held at least once a fortnight. What is more important, the calling of factory meetings was something decided by the stewards themselves without reference to management. In fact there was an agreement with the management to the effect that in the event of anyone working during a factory meeting they would not be paid wages. This came about as a result of a threat not to start work after a meeting if anyone had been working. As soon as an issue arose, a meeting would be called; there was no question of delaying a meeting to suit the convenience of the management or their production schedules. In effect, therefore, the very calling of a meeting amounted to a stoppage of production. Through this use of regular meetings the membership in the factory was kept fully informed of all developments in negotiations with management, and their feelings were communicated directly to the stewards. Thus the all too common phenomenon of a stewards’ committee that adopts a militant posture towards management but loses contact with its rank and file was avoided.

The stewards too met frequently. Apart from numerous ad hoc meetings on particular issues, there were regular meetings twice a week of the entire stewards’ committee. These meetings took place on Tuesdays at lunchtime and again after work. Unlike many other engineering factories, it was the policy of the ENV committee to refuse payment from the management for time spent at stewards’ meetings, apart from one hour’s wages every other Tuesday evening when the meeting began an hour before the normal working day ended. (This is a small point, but there are many factories where the stewards do, in a sense, gain material advantage from their positions: they receive payment for time spent at meetings, often after other workers have gone home; they perhaps administer overalls-cleaning schemes and receive a small payment for this. At ENV this kind of practice, which can tend to divide the steward from his ‘constituents,’ was rigorously opposed by the stewards themselves.)

All the various aspects of ‘organisation,’ of course, have a serious purpose: better wages and conditions. And at ENV wages were higher than elsewhere in the North London District, considerably higher than the District average and probably above the level in any other organised factory in the area. In February 1967, when the chairman and convenor were sacked, the average skilled man’s pay for a 40-hour week was just under £28. Like other militant factories, the atmosphere on the shop floor was very friendly. Also, ENV was probably unique in the engineering industry in that women workers got the same pay as men. One sign of the good conditions in the factory was the remarkably low rate of labour turnover: in the late 1950s the management told the stewards that on average 6 men a month were leaving (a rate of 6 per cent a year) of whom the majority were labourers. Of the others who left, most went because they were retiring or moving to another district. In fact the rate of labour turnover, most unusually, was higher among the clerical and administrative staff, and among the management themselves than it was among the men on the shop floor. There can be no doubt at all that militancy at ENV, as elsewhere, paid off in terms of good wages and conditions.

At no time did the stewards meet the management on any kind of formal ‘works committee’ with an agenda laid down by the management. All notions of joint production committees’ and other similar devices to get the workers’ representatives to take responsibility for the failures of capitalist production were strongly resisted as ‘stooge’ committees. Moreover, within the factory there were no rate-fixers allowed; in some departments there were even agreements totally banning the use of stop watches. The management had production departments and production advisers and other similar machinery of control, but in point of fact it was generally the men on the shop floor themselves who determined the amount and speed of production. To some degree this exists in every workshop, but at ENV this type of embryonic control was developed to quite a high degree: the workers had established tight ceilings on their earnings, which they varied as they saw fit, so that they could easily be used as sanctions against the management in case of dispute. At one point the management claimed that 55 per cent of the workers in the factory were on what was termed ‘dispute production.’

In the kind of environment that developed over the years at ENV, in which managerial control over a whole range of issues connected with discipline, production and so forth was hopelessly ineffective, it became possible for individual workers to develop their own special side-lines in open view of the management (some of whom did not even realise what was happening). Thus one man in the factory spent a large part of his time mending watches and clocks for his own customers – who included members of the management – while receiving a high average wage from the firm for his long hours of non-production. A labourers’ rest room gradually developed into a full-scale cafe, complete with a bar, tea-urn and sandwiches. In another part of the factory there was a highly organised cut-price shop. Proprietary rights to these ‘informal institutions’ were passed on from generation to generation. And one legendary worker had a dispute with his foreman, in the course of which he announced that he was not going to work for ENV any more. He came to work each day for six months, but for the whole of that time did nothing at all for the firm, spending his time making fancy metal goods for his mates. The wretched foreman let it pass for a couple of days, but then found that he could do nothing out of fear of his superiors. The possibilities for workers who wish to exploit the contradictions of bureaucracy are enormous! Another worker, who had been on a go slow the preceding week, refused to go home for his holidays without his correct pay, locked himself in the shop stewards’ room and phoned the national press. The management pleaded with him to come out, but he refused, and finally the money was pushed to him through a small hole in the window.

There were many more stories of small individual struggles against the management at the factory, as no doubt every other factory has its stories; what is important about them is that the majority would have been impossible without: a background of a very high level of organisation and control within the factory by the workers and their stewards.

  1. Problems of Organisation

The very fact of having a militant factory creates new problems for the shop stewards. In the first place, there is a constant tendency for the majority of the workers to assume that the situation is a stable one and to depend on their stewards for everything. This attitude threatens the whole strength of union organisation in a factory, which hangs on the maintenance of a continuous pattern of mutual interdependence between workers and stewards. Faced with a foreman attempting to get him to do something he did not want to do, a worker would immediately take the problem to his steward without attempting to handle it first himself. Stewards were relied on to help with all manner of personal problems, the writing of letters, marital questions and so forth. Much of this of course is a sign of the worker’s trust in his steward, but at the same time if it develops too far it tends to separate the stewards from the men as a special race apart.

Maintaining a high degree of organisation, and keeping the initiative in dealings with management, is not a simple matter of just going around ‘being militant’ but requires strategy and continual adaptation. No stewards who wish to maintain their organisation intact can afford to fight on every small issue that comes up for fear of wasting their strength and alienating sections of the factory. Issues for struggle have to be selected to some degree, and estimates made continually of relative strengths and weaknesses. Where, as happens all the time in a highly organised factory in a period of relative working-class political inactivity, workers ‘lean’ on the union there is a constant danger that the essentially fragile strength of the stewards vis-à-vis the management may be exposed. And this kind of problem is endemic. At ENV, for instance, there was a shop in which the men regularly finished work three quarters of an hour early, cleaned up the shop and then stood about waiting for the hooter with their coats on, deliberately provoking the management. The management knew very well that the men had finished their work for the day, and appealed to the stewards to get the men, not to carry on working, but to pretend that they were! On rare occasions men would come in drunk – an open invitation to the management to discipline them – and the stewards would have to get the other workers to keep them concealed until they had sobered up. Again, a rather unpopular worker urinated on the bins of work outside his shop instead of going to the lavatory, and was sacked. The stewards, feeling quite unable to call a strike over the man’s sacking, pleaded for suspension as an appropriate measure, and were relieved when the management agreed to alter the sacking to a suspension.

None of this in any way implies a weakness on the part of the ENV stewards: any militant, acting in a non-revolutionary situation, has to estimate all the time precisely how far he can push without exposing his weaknesses; an unimaginative excess of ‘militancy’ can weaken an organisation quite as much as the lack of it.

There are also various problems concerning relations between groups of workers within the one factory. Differentials are one: although the stewards resisted attempts to widen differentials, it was much more difficult to get them narrowed. Yet the existence of differentials can weaken the fighting capacity of a factory. If a highly paid shop goes on strike there is a danger that others in lower-paid departments will resent the cut-backs in production that follow, even though the higher-paid group are opening the way for further wage claims for the rest of the factory. Over the period from 1950 to 1965 differentials were probably maintained, more or less, in percentage terms, and of course widened quite considerably in cash terms. It must be noted, however, that this potential source of division, although it did on occasion lead to grumbling, did not at any time actually lead to serious divisions in the factory when one section needed support. For the whole of the period, some shops stayed in front of some of the others. In particular, the Hard Test shop were earning a significantly higher wage than the rest; they had a unique agreement whereby the whole shop’s wage was determined by one man’s production – with the result that whenever there was a dispute, all the men but one could go slow, cutting production by 80 per cent without loss of pay, while the one man maintained their earnings level by ‘highly organised scabbing!’ The management tried for years to get this agreement annulled, but without success. Although percentage differentials were not permitted to increase, attempts to reduce them were not very successful. The holiday bonus was changed from a differential to flat-rate system at a factory meeting, but generally it was not possible to overcome the feeling of the ‘skilled’ men (many of whom were in fact up-graded) that their differentials should be maintained. At the same time, the ENV factory did have an unusually high proportion of up-graded men, and the stewards never accepted the argument, regrettably still all too popular among some sections of the Left, that ‘skilled’ men had to have their position especially protected, at the cost of other sections of the class.

Within the AEU and other engineering unions there is, formally, a rule that overtime must not exceed 30 hours a month. This is a rule which is much more honoured in the breach, even in the majority of the organised factories. At ENV it was fairly rigidly adhered to, on the grounds that higher pay should be won through negotiations and not through extra work. The stewards won an agreement with the management whereby, if one man was asked to work overtime, the whole factory was immediately guaranteed three full months’ work. No evening or Sunday overtime at all was permitted, nor was overtime on the night shift. This policy tended on occasion to cause some dissent, especially among the labourers, who compared the hours they were permitted to work with the hours worked by labourers in other local factories. During overtime bans it was the labourers in particular who had to bear the brunt, but still the stewards insisted that if the labourers wanted more money they ought to win it by bar-gaming. The labourers were fortunate in their stewards, however, and their rates were higher than those obtaining in other local factories; thus the unity of the factory was never seriously impaired by this potential division.

Despite the fact that on many occasions the strength of the organisation within ENV was available to help other sections of workers in dispute, it would be a mistake to imagine that the ENV stewards were very popular in other factories. They were admired for the level of their organisation and militancy, certainly, but at the same time this admiration was touched with a degree of jealousy among less successful militants in other factories, a problem that was compounded by political differences between the leading elements among the ENV stewards (in the latter days) and the majority of the District Committee. They made several attempts to get a representative on to the District Committee, but on each occasion were blocked for political reasons. When they succeeded in getting Ron Johnson on, he was virtually isolated by other delegates for most of the time. When the final battle was joined by the management, there were reports of local militants remarking, ‘It serves them right. They were too greedy.’ Thus, through no wish of their own, the ENV stewards were really quite isolated from other local militants. Such a position of isolation is especially dangerous for a highly organised factory like ENV, which tended to stand out for local managements like a sore thumb. In the North London area, ENV was something of a symbol to all the enemies of militant factory organisation, not only the local managements and the Government but the union bureaucracies as well.

Thus for some time it was apparent that sooner or later the management at ENV, with the backing of other local employers, the majority of the AEU executive and others, would initiate action against the ENV organisation. The same thing had happened at other organised factories in the London area: the British Light Steel Pressings strike in 1961 and the Ford debacle in the winter of 1962-63 were the most obvious examples. There is a danger, therefore, in such a situation that the stewards will grow over-confident, over-estimate their actual strength and work on the assumption that they will be able to hold the situation in the factory static for as long as they like. This very much bothered a couple of the stewards’ committee, Carlsson and Hogan, who were convinced that sooner or later they would have to accept some form of increased productivity, if only to avoid a major management offensive against their whole position. Carlsson and Hogan did, therefore, work out a serious plan for presentation to the management, which would allow for the introduction of new work methods, etc, while keeping the advantage with the stewards. The cardinal point of the plan was a proposal to reduce differentials and demand a higher consolidated rate in such a manner that the lower-paid workers would get much larger rises than the higher-paid. The plan was worked out in the explicit expectation of an attack by the management, and rested on the recognition that some kind of change was inevitable. What mattered was that the stewards should anticipate the management and seek to keep such changes under their control. However, when Carlsson and Hogan presented their ideas to the stewards’ committee, the plan was turned down with very little discussion; the stewards most vocal against it (calling it a ‘sell-out’) were in fact the least politically aware of the stewards, and also the least militant.

Given the failure of this attempt to control the pace of change within the factory, it became almost inevitable that the management would initiate some kind of attack on the stewards. The form that it took was not however arrived at all of a sudden: the managements (who changed with great rapidity over the period 1964-66) tried a number of approaches without success before they worked out the final formula that led to the defeat of the ENV organisation. It is worth remarking in general, however, that in a factory which is both more highly organised than other local factories (and in which wage costs are consequently higher than elsewhere, and management control weaker) and which is isolated more or less from the rest of the local labour movement, the management is bound, sooner or later, to demand changes. The problem for stewards in this situation is one of finding a way of reacting in a realistic manner to preserve the essentials of their organisation, often while accepting that some concessions will have to be made. In a sense the final defeat of the ENV stewards is a measure of their failure to manage this. It is to the story of their defeat that we now turn.

  1. The American Takeover

In 1962 the giant American firm of Eaton, Yale and Towne bought the ENV factories at Willesden and Aycliffe. It seems that they were anxious to get a foothold in the aircraft industry and in the Common Market. Later they bought another factory in Manchester. They immediately set out to change things and in particular to destroy the power of the trade-union organisation at Willesden.

Initially they used a succession of British managers for these tasks. These were frequently given time limits in which to produce results – if they failed they left. During the next four years there was a very high turnover of managers at the factory as new men and new methods were tried. These managers were carefully watched by American managers, some of whom actually worked at ENV. Townsend, who later smashed the factory organisation, worked for six months as General Manager before taking over completely.

Some managers tried to win the support and cooperation of the workers by stressing that in the long run the interests of management and workers were the same; both would benefit from a prosperous factory. They made special approaches to the shop stewards. An American who worked for a year at Willesden as a ‘tool specialist’ took the stewards on trips to other factories and attempted to make friends with the workers. He later became Managing Director of the Manchester factory. Another manager called Hill tried the same approach, stressing that he was also only an employee and that he was really on the workers’ side. He would show his trade union card to everyone and was continually attacking the other managers. Another kept telling the stewards that he was working in close touch with George Brown (whom he assumed the stewards would support) and that the management were keen to do what the Labour Government wanted (which they were!).

A Dr Jarrett from CAV (a part of the Lucas electrical group) was then made Managing Director. He started productivity bargaining throughout the factory. As he said, ‘We want you to earn more money … this is the socialist approach of equality.’ Hill commented, ‘I’m a bit of a Communist myself and Dr Jarrett has got a real socialist plan.’

These crude approaches were hardly likely to fool anyone. Some of the managers brought in were just hatchet men with no experience, including ex-naval commanders and the like. Similarly approaches and offers made specially to the shop stewards were also rejected. For instance, they were offered a proper office, that the management deduct union dues from wages, and some stewards were offered supervisory jobs (as mentioned above, one ex-convenor accepted).

Jarrett introduced into the factory Emersons, the Work Study firm which had been responsible for the Fawley agreements. A meeting was arranged with the shop stewards at which the Emersons’ representative outlined their plan. Jarrett then said that he expected the shop stewards would like to ask questions; but the stewards walked out and refused any cooperation. They threatened that the workers would go out if the Emerson people as much as came on to the shop floor. So although Emersons had an office in the factory for several months, they never did a thing. This is the only known occasion on which Emersons have failed to get any concessions whatsoever.

It was also Jarrett who started productivity bargaining in the factory. The management had issued several statements about the unsatisfactory state of affairs at ENV and how they were losing orders. They stressed that everyone would benefit from greater productivity at the factory – ‘High wages and high productivity go together.’ They also produced outline proposals for a new wage structure, both simplifying it and making it fairer.

The productivity campaign had a certain appeal for the workers, because the management were saying that there was to be more money but no redundancies. Also there was discontent about the existing pay structure and differentials. Even though the stewards realised that productivity deals represented a disguised form of attack on union organisation and working conditions, the plausibility of management’s offer made it difficult for them to refuse participation, unless they were to cut themselves off from the rest of the workers. So the stewards participated in the central and shop committees which were set up. The management were then very desultory over productivity bargaining.

Many of the lower managers were reluctant to suggest changes as they did not want to carry the can if things went wrong. So most of the proposals and suggestions came from the shop stewards’ side. But after many months only a few agreements had been reached and there was no agreement on the new wages structure. Some of the agreements which were concluded revealed both the strength of the shop floor organisation on these issues and the general incompetence of the management. For instance the packers agreed to a reduction from 16 to 12 men when in fact there had been 12 all along and also agreed to help with loading and unloading lorries which they had also always done. For these ‘concessions’ they got 1s an hour extra. The stacker-truck drivers agreed to become ‘mobile’ for an extra 1s an hour. Before this agreement each driver had regarded himself as attached to a particular shop and would only take loads from his own shop but would not bring them back. The failure of productivity bargaining to produce any real result meant the end of Jarrett who admitted at one time that he had been given a deadline of only a few months to produce results.

In 1966 there was a dispute in the milling shop and work from this shop was blacked. The management then sacked a worker who refused to be moved to this department. At this time the management seemed anxious to provoke a strike and get the workers outside; the stewards on the other hand were trying to avoid this, preferring to choose their own issue and occasion for a major fight. A factory meeting was held over the sacking and three shop stewards went to see Jarrett. He refused to meet them, so the meeting decided to go en masse to Jarrett’s office; ‘If he won’t see three of us, he’ll have to see all of us.’ About 1,000 workers marched singing through the office to Jarrett’s office. Jarrett declared he would have a meeting the next day but this was not accepted. Finally he said that the man would not be sacked or suspended. This incident led to the resignation of Jarrett a few weeks later and was also referred to later by the management as an example of the ‘anarchy’ existing in the factory.

  1. The Final Offensive

On Jarrett’s resignation in June 1966 Townsend assumed full control and became Managing Director. Only a few weeks later he notified shop stewards that things had gone too far, the company was losing money and there were too many disputes. He announced that the management were not prepared to negotiate with the stewards until normal working conditions were resumed. He had asked the Engineering Employers’ Federation to approach the Executive Councils of the unions to arrange an informal Joint Composite Conference to be held at the Willesden factory. Until that Conference was held there were going to be no more negotiations with the stewards.

It seems probable that in the meantime Townsend had had a secret meeting with Carron at the Confederation of Engineering and Shipbuilding Unions Conference. Some of the stewards saw a letter from the management to the AEU headquarters trying to arrange this meeting. Carlsson made this public in the local press and was never disciplined for it. Townsend obviously wanted to make direct contact with Carron. There were other examples of contact between the ENV management and the AEU head office: the management for instance, used to collect all references to ENV stewards and workers in the press and agendas of factory and stewards’ meetings, and send them to Carron.

The joint Composite Conference was held on 4th July. Amongst the representatives of the AEU were Carron, Boyd, Berridge from the Executive, Reg Birch (then Divisional Organiser) and District Officials. Carron and Berridge warned the ENV stewards before the meeting that they must be prepared to compromise. National officers of the ETU, TGWU, ASPD and ASW were also present. ASSET were not informed and when Mike Cooley of DATA tried to attend the meeting he was refused admittance because the Conference was just for representatives of manual workers, not staff unions. All ENV stewards attended as did the top ENV management, some of whom were flown over from the States.

Townsend opened the Conference with a prepared statement illustrated with charts showing the company’s position. In his words he was ‘astounded, amazed and shocked.’ According to him the company was losing money and customers. He admitted that in the past there had been weak management at ENV and it was natural that the stewards would take advantage of this. But, he went on, ‘The main reason why we are here today is labour relations; the management will not put up with the actions of the shop stewards and therefore are refusing to negotiate with them.’ He complained of the ‘mass of domestic and verbal agreements’ at the factory, and of the fact that ‘two unauthorised mass factory meetings have taken place, one culminating in the march of an unruly mob through the Executive Offices … this is anarchy and will not be tolerated in the future.’

He went to warn the union executives that although he was asking them to support the management’s actions in making these changes, ‘if the unions are unable to do this, we will take the necessary steps ourselves.’ Even Carron could not accept Townsend’s approach: ‘If you insist on going forward in the way you are, then you must expect a revolution.’ Of course, Carron was merely defending procedure, not threatening anything. He insisted that whatever proposals the management had must go through stewards and local officials.

Townsend then went on to outline the management’s proposals which were presented in the form of two documents called Management Functions and Interim Agreement. The effect of the proposals would have been to wipe out all the gains and benefits won by the trade-union organisation at the factory over the previous 20 years.

Firstly, the management intended to check all domestic and verbal agreements and would renegotiate them in a revised form that would make them clear. Of course these agreements were one of the strengths of the shop-floor organisation, especially the purely verbal agreements which could be interpreted as necessary whenever a dispute arose. The management had often complained that they did not know of the existence of half of the supposed agreements.

Secondly, standards were to be set up by ‘modern time-study methods’ and would include multi-machine operation. At the same time that the new standards were applied a graded wage structure of between five and nine grades would be introduced. Payments to time-workers were no longer to be linked to pieceworkers’ earnings and when an established piece-work rate was in dispute, payment would continue at the established rate until agreement was reached through procedure. Townsend admitted that the management had not yet decided whether in the long run the factory would continue to operate on piece-work or on measured day-work.

Amongst the other management proposals were things like mobility of labour, shift working as required, tea breaks to be limited to 10 minutes, and so on. Also the management would be able to transfer work to other factories as it wished. Towns-end mentioned that if these proposals were not accepted the factory might have to close.

Carron and the other officials made it clear that they were not prepared to agree to this. If the management wanted to change the agreements they must operate through the procedure, which meant first of all discussing it with the shop stewards. Carron reminded Townsend that the employers had as much obligation to go through procedure as the work people. The employers accepted this point.

However after this Conference the ENV management still refused to meet the stewards. So at a factory meeting it was decided to have token stoppages in protest. A series of guerilla stoppages to start on 20th July was planned. Each evening different shops were to be told by the stewards to go out the next morning for a few hours. At this stage it seems clear that the workers were prepared to resist the management. In fact the workers were prepared to resist the management right up until closure was announced.

On the day before these stoppages were due to begin a conference was held at the Employers’ Federation headquarters. At this the ENV management agreed to resume negotiations with the stewards the following morning. However the meeting finished late and so it was impossible to inform the workers at Willesden about the decision.

On the morning of 20 July, as planned earlier, the stoppages started. The management now announced that they knew nothing about the agreement made the previous day. This is one incident quoted by the stewards to illustrate how it was impossible to trust the ‘new’ (i.e. American) management – at least the ‘old’ management did keep their word. This resentment of the methods of the new management was one of the reasons that the stewards used the contrast between the British and American managements and made it a political issue.

Anyway, on this morning the storemen and electricians were already out as planned. They were due to come in at 10 o’clock. When they tried to return to work the management would not let them in and locked them out for the rest of the day. Carlsson, the stewards’ chairman who went out to see them, was stopped at the gate but pushed his way in. Shortly after this the management threatened to sack a stacker driver who refused to pick up a load as a protest in support of the workers locked out. A factory meeting was held and it was decided that if some workers were out then they would all go out. They planned to come back the following morning.

The next day the workers came back to find the electricity switched off, and everyone being herded into the canteen. On the platform were half a dozen managers and two representatives of the Electoral Reform Society. When all the workers had entered the canteen the doors were locked and Townsend made a speech about the crisis the factory was facing. He said that it came down to a choice – either the factory could stay open upon new conditions or it would be closed. He told the workers that they must now vote on whether they were prepared to accept the management’s proposals. Ballot boxes had been placed by each door and as each worker left the meeting he was to take a form and put it in the box. The ballot would be run by the Electoral Reform Society.

After Townsend had spoken Carlsson made a speech from the floor in which he condemned the methods being used by the management and insisted that the proposals must go through the shop stewards. He launched attacks upon the recent change in behaviour of several of the managers on the platform, but excluded Wilson, a popular representative of the ‘old’ management. Mitchell, the convenor, then spoke and said that he was walking out of the meeting and wanted everyone to follow him

stewards and some workers left the canteen, but immediately after they had gone the management locked the doors behind them, leaving the majority of the workers inside. So the stewards and other workers forced the doors open, upturned the ballot boxes, and the meeting broke up. During this meeting police in black marias were stationed near the factory and a manager phoned for them to come round to the back gate. The press and TV came down to the factory immediately after the meeting. Possibly it was a mistake to walk out of the meeting rather than argue the case out in full in front of the workers, showing that there was an alternative and then letting them refuse to vote in the management’s ballot. However the next day a factory meeting was held to which the press were invited and the workers voted unanimously in support of their shop stewards and against the management’s proposals.

At this meeting the workers passed a unanimous resolution stating that they would rather accept closure than any worsening of their pay and conditions. This resolution was continually re-affirmed at further meetings throughout the following period, and to the time of writing (late October 1967) still represents the attitude of those who remain at ENV.

Townsend announced that this sort of ‘intimidation’ would not put him off and he was going to organise another ballot, but this time it would be a postal one. Again it was organised by the Electoral Reform Society, who used the same pre-paid envelopes which they had used in an ETU ballot. Apparently the ETU did not object to paying for this ballot; they said they were not interested in taking the matter up. On another occasion one ETU official remarked that the ENV stewards ‘deserved to be shot’ if the management’s story was true.

Reg Birch protested about the postal ballot, but Townsend refused to drop it. However a few days later the ENV management called it off themselves because of ‘interference’ by the stewards – ‘once more the stewards had wrecked it.’ The vast majority of workers had returned the ballot forms to their shop stewards.

At about the same time a factory meeting was held at which the stewards attempted to settle outstanding disputes. This was done in order to prevent management having an excuse for locking workers out. Several disputes were settled as a result of this meeting. Negotiations were going on between shop stewards and management over the management’s proposals. On all major issues ‘failure to agree’ was recorded and the issues were passed to local officials.

On 24 August all ENV workers received letters saying that the Willesden factory was going to close. There was to be a phased close-down to be carried out over the next few months. The management gave as the reason the financial position of the factory which was, they said, aggravated by the government’s economic policies.

The major issue for the next few months was whether this announcement was genuine or only a bluff. The majority of workers and stewards tended to believe that the closure was genuine; only the convenor and chairman believed consistently that it was a bluff and that they must act accordingly. Yet there was plenty of evidence that the picture the management painted of the financial situation at ENV was inaccurate. Firstly, the aircraft sections at ENV were always busy and work from other departments too was deliberately being transferred to Aycliffe and Manchester or abroad- Secondly, the Annual Reports of the company showed large profits and increases in orders. Finally the management’s account of the effect of government policy was clearly misleading. For instance ENV as a manufacturing firm would stand to gain considerably, not lose, from the Selective Employment Tax.

Looking back it is now easy to say that it was a bluff but at the time the great majority of workers and stewards were not sure. The ENV management’s campaign had had a long build up over the previous years, with frequent announcements of ‘crises.’ Now they stressed continually that the factory was to close, and without any qualification. And of course even if one did not accept the firm’s reasons for closure, there was still the possibility that if in the last resort they could not defeat the trade union organisation in any other way, they would close down the factory, even if only temporarily. Whether this would have been possible is more difficult to say; the fact that the aircraft sections had plenty of work throughout the next six months suggests that the management would have found it very difficult to transfer all the work that the factory was doing.

The other issue which became of increasing importance was that of redundancy payments. The workers started to think of these payments and what they were going to spend them on. Since most of the workers had long service, the sums involved were quite considerable – many of them over £500. The management argued that if there were a strike, this would count as misconduct and would mean that the workers would lose redundancy payments. The stewards denied this and got lawyers to back them up, but this type of rumour had a considerable influence.

  1. The Campaign Against Closure

At the beginning of September the unions challenged the management’s case at the longest Local Conference on record. McLoughlin, an ex-ENV convenor, now local AEU official, opened the union’s case. He rejected the management’s figures which showed falling profits and losses of orders, and quoted Eaton publications which gave a glowing report of trade prospects. The President of the Employers’ Federation, who had just been to the USA at Eaton’s expense, then said that the closure was definite, and even if the management’s earlier proposals were accepted by the workers, it would not make any difference. He stressed that this was the result of the government’s economic policy.

At the end of this Local Conference, a failure to agree was recorded and in October 1966 the issue went to Central Conference at York where there was still no agreement. The night before the conference Carron stated that he did not see why he should take up the reference since both the management and he had been criticised sharply by Carlsson, and he had to be reminded that the jobs of more than 1,000 workers were at stake. After the closure was announced the ENV stewards began organising their campaign. In their publicity, they attempted to show that the closure announcement was only a bluff to defeat the workers’ organisation. They also attempted to get support by arguing that the ENV management’s policies were against the Labour Government’s policy of increasing exports. They argued that the bulk of the goods produced at ENV were exported and that the balance of payments figures would suffer if the factory did close and the work was transferred out of the country. The ENV stewards got the support of Brent Trades Council which organised meetings and marches about ENV. Marches were held in Willesden and Wembley. The issue was also brought up at meetings of the Shop Stewards’ Defence Committee, which had originated months before out of a legal dispute concerning the ENV convenor, Mitchell.

Deputations of ENV stewards and workers went to the TUC conference at Blackpool and the Labour Party conference at Brighton where they held demonstrations. A group of workers went to the Farnborough Air Show and picketed the ENV stand in order to illustrate the conflict between reports of the factory closing down and attempts to get new orders.

The stewards issued regular statements to the press about ENV. They told the press that work was being transferred from Willesden to factories in the USA. But although some of the journalists were interested in the stories, nothing appeared. The stewards found out that some of the journalists had been warned by the AEU head office that if they did print the stories about ENV then they would not get any more stories from the union.

The stewards organised lobbies of MPs and tried to get support and questions asked in Parliament. When they first tried to contact the MPs, many of them, especially the Left-wingers, agreed to help. But very few of them did so. Russell Kerr, who expressed great interest, later walked into one of the ENV meetings by mistake, much to his embarrassment as he had done nothing. The MP for Uxbridge, Ryan, promised to help but never turned up. But perhaps the worst case was that of the two Willesden MPs, Laurie Pavitt and Reg Freeson. They had been in close touch with the factory for years and had often held factory gate meetings there. ENV had raised canvassing teams to go out for them at election times. When the closure was announced, the stewards arranged a meeting with both of them. Pavitt and Freeson came and announced that they could not interfere as they had just discovered that ENV was not in their constituencies! In fact it was just inside the boundary of North Hammersmith, and so the ENV stewards were told to go to their own MP, Tomney. Pavitt and Freeson then went off to a meeting with the ENV management and didn’t see the stewards again.

When a meeting of MPs at the House of Commons was called to discuss ENV, only four turned up. Two of these, Stan Orme and Norman Atkinson, who were AEU MPs, said that they could not stay because they had been advised not to listen as the AEU Executive was going to advise them on the case. The only MPs who did consistently try to help were Sid Bidwell and Bill Molloy. Bidwell and Molloy were warned for taking the matter up and Molloy lost his chance of promotion.

In general the Left wing MPs were useless on an issue like this. A few were genuinely sympathetic, but where they were required to be more than ‘social workers with connections,’ they were too frightened to come out openly.

A few questions were asked in the House of Commons but these were mostly ‘safe’ questions, about the value of exports which would be lost and so on. The fact that the gears which ENV made for defence purposes could not be made elsewhere in Britain and would have to be made in the USA or on the continent was never mentioned, although at the time it would have created quite a controversy.

It was known that the ENV management had already had meetings with members of the government. One of the American managers went to a meeting with Austin Albu and he took a copy of the Shop Stewards’ Defence Committee’s pamphlet on Incomes Policy with him.

The ENV stewards and the union officials had a meeting with Douglas Jay and then with Shirley Williams, both at the Board of Trade. Mrs Williams said that they seemed to have a good case and if any union asked for an investigation it would take place. Only the DATA representative took up this offer, but nothing happened.

The results from this type of campaign – contacting MPs, questions in the House, and so on – seem to have been nil. One serious criticism which has been made is that it diverted attention away from the factory and took up effort which could have been used in trying to get opposition organised inside the factory. In point of fact, the campaign outside was only an alternative because there was no action within.

Regularly after the closure was announced, calls for a factory strike were put to factory meetings. The shop stewards recommended strike action as they knew that this was the only way they could win. Yet the strike calls were always turned down by large majorities. Among the workers and some of the stewards, doubts about whether the closure was a bluff or not persisted. Most workers were prepared to let the stewards attempt to avert the closure but they were not willing to risk sacrificing their redundancy pay. In the meantime they were anxious to increase their earnings in order to increase the amounts of these payments.

During this period the management were transferring work from Willesden to Aycliffe and Manchester in order to lay off Willesden workers. This was well known at the time. One criticism of the stewards was that they should have foreseen the situation arising out of this transfer of work months before and should have prevented it. When the Manchester stewards offered to black this work, the Willesden stewards turned down their offer on the grounds that since there was no opposition in their factory it was not fair to leave it to Manchester when they themselves were doing nothing. In this way they deliberately passed the buck back to their own workers.

In October the management announced that they wanted another stock-taking and therefore some workers must do overtime. Since they were proposing to lay off workers because there was not enough work, the factory banned overtime. As a result some sections were locked out and others went out in support. The management then locked out the entire factory for a week, with the exception of the storekeepers. When the management tried to do the stocktaking themselves the storekeepers walked out.

During the lock-out a meeting of ENV workers was organised at Hammersmith Town Hall with 800 workers attending. (However the following day, Saturday, when a march was held in Willesden only 14 people turned up, and these were mostly stewards.) At the Hammersmith meeting Birch and Cooley spoke, as well as the ENV stewards. A solicitor also explained that any strike action would not lead to loss of redundancy pay. The meeting supported the fight against redundancy and closure. The stewards had previously agreed that those workers who wanted to leave ENV should be allowed to go as this would make the rest of the factory stronger, but no vote was taken on this at the meeting.

But after the Hammersmith meeting, nothing happened. The men returned to work the following week. Resolutions for strike action at factory meetings were still turned down. Although various proposals for departmental strikes were discussed and sometimes agreed, they never came to anything. In the continued absence of any action from within the factory, the stewards attempted to get an official strike.

At the end of October the AEU District Committee took the rare step of calling for an official strike at ENV. However this had to be endorsed at the next AEU Executive meeting. When this took place Reg Birch moved that the North London District Committee’s decision be endorsed, but could not even get anyone to second the motion (Hugh Scanlon, who was at the meeting, just kept quiet.) So the official strike came to nothing at all. No attempt was made to strike in the few days before the EC met, since unfortunately the majority of the workers wanted to wait for the EC’s decision. Thus the chance for a strike was missed, although some of the stewards now think that the majority of the workers would have come out then. One difficulty was that it was getting near to Christmas and hence there was a greater unwillingness to strike. Quite a few of the workers could remember the long 1951-52 strike which began before Christmas.

In November the first group of workers were sacked. Each week more followed. A large number of stewards and other militants went in the first weeks, often in spite of their seniority. Early in the new year the management offered to make a deal with some of the remaining shop stewards, especially Carlsson. If they would get the workers to agree to the management proposals then they would not be sacked. This Carlsson insisted on reporting to a full factory meeting. The factory refused to make any deal of this sort. After this, both Carlsson and Mitchell were sacked.

It was now clear to everyone that the management’s only interest was in getting rid of the militants and then keeping the factory open. Soon after the sackings of Carlsson and Mitchell, they announced that ‘due to changed economic circumstances’ they would be keeping the factory open with a labour force of between 400 and 500. The workers who remained at ENV, however, stuck strongly to their earlier decisions and refused to make any concessions on pay or conditions. At the time of writing, eight months after the chairman and convenor were sacked, the management has still not succeeded in changing one agreement. The new ENV stewards, as we went to press, had just won back control over overtime at a Local Conference, where the management was forced to stand by the agreement that forces them to ask the shop stewards for permission before they could approach any worker to ask him to work overtime.

  1. Assessment of the Fight Against Closure

Once the ENV management had announced their intention of closing the factory, the problem that faced the shop stewards was that of finding some realistic way of opposing the management and carrying the men with them. It must be remembered that only a minority of the stewards – and an even smaller minority of the men – were convinced from the start that the management’s declaration of imminent closure was in fact a fraud. As we have seen, the men were already planning how they would spend their redundancy pay, and the stewards’ efforts to convince them that a strike would not affect their right to redundancy money were not entirely successful against a barrage of management propaganda.

In the period before the actual announcement of closure, the stewards, aware that a wholesale attack of some kind was about to be launched, followed a policy of ‘clearing the decks for action.’ They urged workers to settle outstanding departmental disputes in order to avoid giving management the opportunity to provoke a strike before they were ready or on an issue of management’s own choosing. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems perhaps that the management would not anyway have risked provoking a major stoppage at this stage, for they had not seriously begun to shift work from the Willesden factory elsewhere (indeed some sections of the factory remained busy throughout 1966 and 1967). At this stage it seems that the management’s hope was still that they would make some kind of breakthrough in the negotiations, through their attempt to divide the stewards from the rank and file by devices like the ballot. However one unfortunate result of the ‘clearing the decks’ policy was that some of the men, not fully realising the way that the management were shaping up for a major struggle, began to think that the stewards were ‘going soft’.

It has been suggested that during this period the stewards should have pursued a militant policy on all fronts and tried to secure a large-scale strike before the closure was announced, in order to keep the initiative. Some critics have condemned the ENV stewards for not turning the dispute into a major political campaign in the North London area. But this criticism ignores the current level of consciousness in the labour movement. Certainly any realistic review of .the movement’s experience over the past three years suggests that the formula, ‘incomes policy equals political struggle’ is quite wrong, over-simplified and Utopian. The campaigns which have been successful have depended on the presentation of issues in very low-level ‘trade union’ terms: the role of the State has been seen as an additional cause for working-class indignation, rather than as the central element in a larger pattern. Outsiders see only the abstract possibilities – down on the ground in North London, the real response of other workers looks quite different. Of course, this does not mean that every issue must be reduced to the lower common multiple. A campaign of solidarity must operate on at least two levels – aiming to rebuild, through activity in fragmented day-to-day struggles, a meaningful labour movement, and to re-group the existing militants and formulate a more coherent and revolutionary political programme.

If a campaign outside the factory was, in the concrete conditions of the moment, almost fruitless, the campaign among the workers within the factory was also difficult. For, although the stewards knew very well that a management offensive was imminent, it was not easy to communicate this general awareness to the men until the management showed its hand.

The actual announcement of closure quite seriously disoriented the stewards’ committee. For one thing, there seemed to be no precedent for this – how, after all, does one fight a closure? Furthermore, as we have already seen, it was only a minority of the stewards who believed that the management was bluffing. And in face of the management’s repeated insistence that it would be shutting up shop in Willesden (and for economic reasons not directly connected with the shop stewards) it was by no means easy to win the other stewards over to a realisation of the actual state of affairs. (We might add, too, that it is by no means impossible that if a more successful fight had been waged by the stewards the management would have closed the factory for a time.) The belief that the management were serious in their stated intentions was in fact not really dissipated until early 1967, by which time a number of stewards had already been ‘made redundant.’ It took the management’s offer of a ‘deal’ to Carlsson and Mitchell to convince even some of the most militant and ‘political’ spirits on the stewards’ committee.

Unless this background is understood, it is difficult to attempt a fair criticism of the policy of the leading stewards. They were, and through no fault of their own, faced with a situation of undoubted difficulty, being the only ones who saw even that a fight was necessary. There was by this time, it is true, an IS [International Socialists, pre-cursor organisation to the modern Socialist Workers party. Ed] factory branch with about 12 members, most of them stewards. This met fortnightly after work. But it would be a mistake to see this as a highly conscious organised group. Throughout the ‘fifties and early ‘sixties, Geoff Carlsson had been completely isolated politically in the factory. The bulk of the stewards had been members of the Communist Party or had accepted a Party lead, although disillusion had gradually been setting in. It was not until well into 1965 that it proved possible to recruit the militant stewards to IS. Inevitably, given the political histories of these comrades, the development of the branch had hardly begun when the attack came. In a very real sense, as one of the ex-CP stewards remarked, the IS branch ‘came too late.’ Partly as a result of this immaturity of the branch, the group did not act in a very organised way on the stewards’ committee.

Given the failure of their repeated attempts to get a majority of the workers voting for strike action (although the minority in favour grew steadily) the question that arises is whether a minority or departmental strike of some kind was possible. In the past, faced with different circumstances, the stewards had encouraged the development of a tradition at ENV of abiding always by majority decisions. This stress on factory democracy – by no means present in all ‘militant’ factories – was of course very valuable. This kind of democratic procedure is particularly well fitted to a situation where workers and stewards are on the offensive, for then the more advanced can afford to wait for the more backward to catch up. In a defensive struggle, whose terms are set by the management, however, an unwillingness to lead, even from a minority position, is a definite weakness. And it is on these grounds that we feel the ENV stewards were open to criticism.

In a real sense, the stewards lost the initiative. It is not for us, at this remove, to specify that on such and such an occasion they ought to have pursued a particular line of action. What we do feel, however, is that they should have done something. Various suggestions have been made, from a ‘sit-in’ by the militants to a departmental walk-out. And many ideas were discussed by the stewards, but in each case they seem to have weighed the advantages to such a degree that they partially paralysed themselves. They were – quite rightly – afraid of being ‘adventuristic,’ but adventurism is better than nothing. In a way, the stewards’ legitimate fear of substituting themselves for the majority of the workers was, we feel, carried too far. Action cannot be determined mechanically by the existing level of consciousness; a spark of action could, perhaps, have altered the workers’ consciousness too. The stewards had a large fund of goodwill that they could rely on, and they should have risked more than they did. At the most general level, they saw only that substitutionism was a danger, but did not see that the theory of substitutionism (with which IS has often been identified) implies no rejection of the need for leadership. [2]

Would they have been defeated anyway? Almost certainly. But for socialists and militants this is not the sole question. What was sad about the defeat at ENV was that it was so quiet. For the stewards to go down without a fight was to miss the opportunity to generate any kind of campaign that could assist in the further linking of the militants in the engineering industry. Even if for example the pickets on the Myton and Sunley sites in London go down in defeat (as seems sadly probable at the time of writing), other militants in the building industry will have gained from their struggle, and from the solidarity movement that was built around it.

At the same time, the extent of the failure should not be exaggerated. An employer can be defeated fifty times, and he will still be there. A stewards’ committee cannot survive one major defeat. And in no sense was it a ‘sell-out.’ No concessions were made to management. Even today, fifteen months after the management’s final attack began, none has been made. One worker, still at the factory in October 1967, was amazed at the very idea that there had been a defeat: ‘We’ve never given them anything!’

And the positive elements remain. For years ENV provided a powerful instance of the possibilities of strong factory organisation. And it was, in a very real sense, the centre of militancy in North London engineering. Its defeat, as other militants in the area recognise, was a serious loss. The memory of the years of the struggle at ENV will serve for some time to come as an example to all those who are involved in the struggle for workers’ control and a new socialist movement. The unhappy manner of the final defeat should not be allowed to obscure that.

Footnotes

  1. This kind of division among the Communist Party’s industrial membership in the engineering industry undoubtedly played an important part in the development of the later split in the Party’s ranks over the question of the AEU Presidential election, the Shop Stewards’ Defence Committee and ultimately the expulsion of Reg Birch from the Party.
  2. See T. Cliff, The Revolutionary Party and the Class: Trotsky on Substitutionism, IS 2, Autumn 1960.

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past tense note:

NB: Regarding the question raised in the final section, Assessment of the Fight Against Closure,how, after all, does one fight a closure?” it is interesting that at this point factory occupations by workers as an attempt to prevent closures had not yet come to the fore. Occupations were to be a major tactic in the 1970s and into the early 1980s. Here’s one account of such an occupation only five years after ENV, at Briant Colour Printing

Today in London’s radical history, 1912: Great East/West End tailors strike 1912 ends in victory

London’s long history of tailoring work goes back centuries. By the 19th century clothes production expanded, as the capital’s population rocketed, and the increasing middle classes and workers created a mass market for new clothes. Working for low pay, often for long hours and in dismal conditions, London’s tailors also had a long history of getting together to fight for improvements in their working lives.

London had a long history of local production of garments for the capital’s inhabitants, usually focussed in small workshops. The West End, particularly Mayfair, (at its most famous, focused on Savile Row) became the centre for the high end of the tailoring trade: good quality clobber for the well to do, providing for the governing classes, the rich, and the growing middle classes as they achieved status, power and influence.

But the East End had a parallel tailoring trade. East London was well known for its secondhand trade in clothes since the 16th century at least, often through its rag markets. The eastern fringes of the city had built up a clothing and textile industry, notably in silk weaving; it relied on its proximity of the City and wealth districts, closeness to the centres of power and people who wanted fancy clothes. More and more this evolved into making clothes for those who wanted new clothes fast (of varying qualities). Silk production gradually gave way to tailoring workshops.

In the early 19th century, this end of the trade expanded into the cheap production of new clothes. The Industrial revolution had led to growth in factory tailoring, the production of cheap cloth and reduced production costs. East End tailoring had also always taken lots of subbed work from the West End: this increased as demand for new clothes rocketed. As the 19th century went on, gradual prosperity among the middle and emerging working classes led to a greater demand for consumer goods, including clothes. New clothes were a mark of having made something of yourself.

Separations and divisions among trade were multiple – between skilled and semi-skilled, English and foreign workers, male and female, factory worker and home/workshop hand worker… A complex web of prejudices and demarcations was aggravated by a growth in new technology, and older craft, male apprenticeship-based traditions built over centuries had been substantially challenged… The trade remained also wildly affected by trends and by seasonal demand.

Organising in the tailoring trade was as old as the trade. From the middle ages journeymen tailors had tilted at the control the masters of their guilds; in the eighteenth century, London’s tailors were such a trouble to their employers they were nick-named ‘the tailors’ republic’. Battles between workers and bosses almost always centred around long hours and low wages that afflicted the trade. Splits and tensions between groups of workers frustrated attempts to unite the journeymen; the most concerted effort at building a strong tailors union in the capital, contributing to the creation of the Owenite Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, ended in a disastrous strike in 1834 that caused the general union’s collapse.

Later in the century the trade revived, but gradually became divided between a self-selecting, highly skilled craft, high end, taking on few apprentices but recruiting from outside the capital, and the larger, lower paid, workshop or factory-based tailors, poorly treated and often precarious.

Separation between workers in the East End and the West End was further complicated by the large-scale Jewish migration into the area around Whitechapel and Stepney in the late nineteenth century.

In 1881 the assassination of the Russian Tsar Alexander II, and the wave of anti-semitic pogroms that followed it, forced thousands of Russian Jews to  introduced a new era in Jewish migration. The first wave of Jewish immigrants to Britain came after the May Laws of 1882, restricting Jewish trades and settlement. It was followed by a second wave 10 years later when the Jews were expelled from Moscow. Most landed in Britain having lost most of their possessions, or been robbed on the way, charged extortionate amounts to travel etc; they usually disembarked in St Katherine’s Dock, Wapping or Tilbury, and so gravitated to the poor parts of the East End. Between 1880 and 1905 Whitechapel and part of Spitalfields were transformed into a Jewish zone. Brick Lane became the main street of what was truly a ghetto, around old Montague Street, Chicksand Street, Booth Street, and Hanbury Street. By 1901 many streets around Brick Lane were 100 per cent Jewish, and in the western part of Spitalfields Jews also came to dominate life: in Wentworth Street, 48 out of 85 shops were Jewish run by the 1890s.

Overwhelmingly the majority of the Jewish workers were engaged in the tailoring and clothing trades, always an important industry in this part of the East End. Tailoring had long been associated with the Jewish diaspora. Partly this evolved from practicality – for long persecuted communities having to up and move often when facing violent attacks, this was a trade needing few tools and small space to operate but universally needed. Christian laws across Europe also banned Jews from many trades, forcing them to congregate in work like tailoring that was not proscribed. Another factor was orthodox religious tenets in judaism, which set out that observant Jews had to buy certain clothes from co-religionists.
A migrant workforce needing to survive moving into an area with a tradition of low-paid manufacture quickly led to a widespread Jewish presence in the East End tailoring trade.

But whether the masters were English or ‘aliens’ hours were long, working conditions bad and pay low; the seasonal nature of demand for new clothes also meant weeks or months when trade was slack and work was scarce. Jewish migrants escaped persecution in their homelands only to find themselves exploited in the sweatshop conditions of London’s textile industry. Like the silkweavers before them, East London’s tailors struggled to survive, workers often having to hang out, ‘on call’ waiting for someone to offer them work. Both the social nature of this process and the quiet small scale organisation of the trade combined with crap conditions to create discontent and political radicalism.

Among Jews in Eastern Europe there was a long and powerful tradition of political radicalism and trade unionism, which art the time of the migrations was evolving into a strong socialist movement.

A powerful Yiddish speaking working class movement would also develop among the East European Jewish immigrants in London’s East End. This created Jewish Socialist groupings and unions in the mid 1870s, and brought contact and alliances among the early English socialists, themselves inspired by continental migrants.

Organisation was strongest in the trades where the majority of the migrant Jews worked – in the tailoring trades, and to a lesser extent in bootmaking and among the bakers. A core of jewish workers and intellectuals who arrived came with experience of involvement in populist and nihilist groups in Eastern Europe; many developed radical critiques of their religion as well as social and political theories. For other immigrants religion became more important in a strange and hostile land, giving sense of belonging etc: this was to lead to many divisions in Jewish political and social struggles over the decades.

As ever, this migrant community aroused racism and xenophobia from the existing settled and ‘native’ residents. In the East End, Jewish communities were the targets vicious ‘anti-alien’ campaigns (like Flemings and Irish before them, and Bengalis and others after) – orchestrated usually by nationalists of rightwing stripe, but often supported by elements of the working class, and usually a substantial proportion of the local trade union movement. ‘Alien’ cultures raking over our area, threatening our way of life, taking our jobs… Some trade unionists and even socialists  justified anti-semitism by labelling Jewish workers as scabs, who would undercut existing wages and work for less because they were desperate. On occasions such accusations could even be borne out, since some migrants would by skint enough to work for less, scab during disputes, and/or feel that solidarity with trade unionists who were attacking them and calling for their expulsion from the country was not rally an ideal they could afford to subscribe to. In any case scabbing was hardly limited to migrant workers…

Jewish trade unionists and socialists were keen to build bridges with the ‘native’ movements, and besides trying to build organisation and unionisation among the Jewish workers, encouraged support for other workers’ strikes and refusal to strike-break. But they faced not only hostility from English unionists, but also from the Jewish religious establishment and many religious Jews, opposed to co-operation as they feared it would lead to ‘assimilation’ and the loss of Jewish identity, and also feared and hated leftwing ideas. Tensions between different Jewish migrant groups also hampered their work. Though there was a constant effort to build tailoring trade unions, for example, tens of such unions were launched, but split, collapsed, or failed to gain ground. Short term success was often followed by frustration and having to rebuild. The largest tailoring union, the Associated Society of Tailors, dominated by craft traditions and based in Manchester had a habit of the executive settling strikes over the heads of the members actually on strike without consulting them; this caused further splits and divisions. While many of the union organisers were socialists and anarchists, with wider visions of how workers’ organising and strikes could build towards a social revolution, the most successful activity came from battling for pragmatic and immediate demands.

A large-scale tailors strike in 1889, partly inspired by the historic Dock Strike, and organised largely through the efforts of socialists and anarchists from the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League, saw a highpoint, with 6000 tailors on strike in the East End. This eventually forced he master tailors to raise wages, reduce hours and improve conditions across the area, though the concessions (which were historic) were gradually eroded by connivery of the employers over the succeeding months.

The emergence of the anarchist Arbeter Fraint group around Rudolf Rocker, several of whom were working tailors, helped cement links between Jewish and English workers. The group were centrally involved in many tailors’ strikes, including a 3-week mass strike of June 1906, which emerged from a growing militancy, sparked by a masters lockout, leading to mass walkouts and sympathy strikes. Rocker was a central inspiration and propagandist, and the strike won mass support. But the workers were driven gradually back to work by increasing hardship, and though it was settled with concessions on hours and abolition of piece work, masters also forced concessions, and union membership suffered.

By 1911-12, a general improvement in conditions of trade and employment was seeing Britain come out of a recession that had dominated the early part of the 1900s, when prices rose and wages fell in real terms. After 1910, the re-emergence of growth partly resulted in an increase in trade union action. There was also a rise in syndicalist ideas, partly under influence of the French CGT, and from the US from the de-Leonists/IWW. The theory of the General Strike as the method of workers taking over society gained some currency on the UK.
But syndicalism also proved attractive as a way of organising more immediate struggles, and also expressed trade unionists’ widespread disillusion with the business as usual union models and habits of compromise of union leaders. Syndicalism had influence in the East End – a Jewish Syndicalist Tailors Union was founded in 1908, and also developed among the Jewish anarchists.

Through 1911 a wave of strikes swept the UK – dockers, transport workers, miners, seamen struck for higher wages and better conditions, many winning improved deals. The struggle spread to many factory workers, among them people who had never unionised or gone on strike before (for instance the Bermondsey women workers who erupted in August 1911).

In 1912, the strike wave spread to London’s tailors. In April that year, 1500 tailors in the capital’s West End put in a demand for an increase in wages and better working conditions. Some were mainly members of the London Society of Tailors and Tailoresses, who backed their claim. Others, members of the larger Amalgamated Society of Tailors (and Tailoresses) West End branch, received no backing from their union. The West End master tailors rejected the workers’ demands with little consideration, resulting in an immediate strike call.

Unfinished garments in tailors workroom, due to tailors strike, Conduit Street, London, 7th May 1912.

In the East End, Rudolf Rocker saw an opportunity for Jewish tailors to not only show that Jewish workers could stand by their ‘native’ counterparts, but to fight for improvements in their own situation. The Arbeter Fraint published an editorial proposing the strike be extended to East London; following this a mass meeting of 8000 tailors, called by Rocker and Philip Kaplan secretary of the London Ladies tailors’ Union, met in the Mile End Assembly Hall, and voted for a general tailors’ strike. Two days later, over 13000 East End tailors were on strike; most of them not members of a union. “English, Jewish, Italian, French and Czech men’s tailors and mantle-makers in the bespoke, readymade, high quality and slop sectors of the industry had, for the first time, taken joint action in an attempt to increase wages and improve conditions in an industry renowned for its low pay and unhygienic workshops.” (Anne J. Kershen)

By this point in May, London dockers were also on strike, as the Port of London Authority had already reneged on its agreements after the dockers’ strike the year before. The striking tailors took in striking dockers’ children, and joint dockers and tailors strike meetings were held on Mile End Waste and at Tower Hill.

After three weeks on strike, the West end tailors and strikers in the men’s civil and military tailoring trades reached agreements with employers; leaving the East End tailors fighting alone, facing the decision as to whether they could also win…

Here’s Rudolf Rocker’s account of the 1912 strike:

“By 1912 we felt that the Jewish labour movement in England, and especially in the East  End of London, was strong enough to challenge the detested sweating system. The opportunity was provided by a strike of tailors in the West End of London in April 1912. It was called by the London Society of Tailors, and was soon actively supported by the members of the Amalgamated Society of Tailors. though the leaders of the Amalgamated were against the strike. It did not take them long however to realise that their members would do nothing against the strike.

There were about 1,500 tailors on strike, all highly-skilled craftsmen, doing the very best class of West End work. These tailors of the West End were an international crowd, Englishmen, Germans, French, Italians, Czech, and a few Jews. It was a completely different kind of work from the mass-produced sub divisional sweatshop tailoring of the East End Jewish workers. It soon became clear that strike-breaking work was being done in small East End tailoring workshops. There were so many of these that it was impossible to know of them all and to control them. The Jewish trades unions had never been able to accumulate enough funds to call a general strike. Their members didn’t earn enough to pay contributions large enough for strike pay. There was also a big mass of unorganised workers, some of whom were strike-breaking. We felt we must do something to remove the stigma of strike-breaking from the Jewish workers. lf the West End strike collapsed, the Jewish workers would be blamed for it. The entire British trade union movement would become hostile to the Jews. As it was, the English workers distrusted the Jewish immigrants, because of the sweatshop system, which they rightly saw as a danger to working class conditions. They couldn’t go into the reasons which had created the sweatshops. And it wouldn’t have altered the facts if they did.

It was therefore a point of honour with us to rouse the Jewish workers to abolish the sweatshops. It was even more Important morally than economically.

Our comrades in the Jewish trades unions brought up the question of the general strike in all of them. On 10th May I published a call in the Arbeter Fraint explaining to the workers what was at stake.

Our efforts got things moving. Over eight thousand Jewish workers packed the Assembly Hall for a meeting called by the United Jewish tailoring trades unions, which adopted the decision to strike. More than three thousand others stood outside, because the hall couldn’t hold more, waiting to hear what was decided. There was feverish excitement, and a real determination to act.

Kaplan opened the meeting. He was followed by MacDonald, the Secretary of the London Society of tailors and Chairman of the London Trades Council. The I spoke. I repeated more or less what I had already said in my call to the Jewish workers in the Arbeter Fraint. There was so much tension in the hall that no other speakers could get a hearing. The workers wanted a decision. When the vote was taken not one hand was lifted against the strike.

The strike was on. Eight thousand workers were out the first day. Another five thousand came out the day after. A small minority remained at work, but they were so few that it made little difference.   .           .

There was a strike committee of fifty members, representing all the tailoring trades unions in the East End. There were three sub-committees – finance, to raise funds for carrying on the strike; negotiations, to discuss agreements with employers prepare to accept the workers’ conditions, and one which set up the local strike committees, which were controlled by a committee of seven, to which Kaplan and I belonged.

We decided to issue the Arbeter Fraint for the duration of the strike as a four-page daily, to keep the workers informed of the progress of the strike.

Most of the strikers were not organised trade union members. Our problem was how they could get strike pay. Even the best organised trade unions in the strike, like the Mantle Makers, had no funds to meet anything like the call that was made on them. The other trades unions outside the tailoring industry had no funds with which to help. But the spirit of the workers was wonderful.

Except for the employers, who were interested parties, the whole East End was on the side of the strikers. The better-paid workers who had some savings refused to take strike pay. They even contributed to the strike fund. It didn’t swell our treasury very much. I was the Chairman of the Finance Committee, so I knew. We needed a lot of money to help the families of those strikers who were absolutely destitute. We opened canteens on the premises of all the trade unions in the East End. We were not able to provide much more than tea and bread and cheese.  But sometimes we also gave hot meals.

The Jewish Bakers Union supplied bread, and the cigarette makers provided cigarettes. All the Jewish trades unions put a levy on their members for the strike fund. Many who were not workers themselves and had no contact with the labour movement sent us money. The Yiddish theatre gave several performances to benefit the strikers. As a result we were ale to pay the strikers a few shillings during the first weeks.

The strike had started in sympathy with the West End tailoring workers. Now we had to draw up our own strike demands. What we wanted was to sweep away the whole sweating system. So our first demand was a normal working day. We asked for the abolition of overtime higher wages and above all, no more small workshops where decent hygienic conditions were impossible, and closed union workshops in all the rest. Without trade union labour there could be no guarantee that the better working conditions we obtained would last.

The employers association was as little prepared for the strike as the workers were. The Masters’ Association had about 300 members, which was only a fraction of the many hundreds who had small tailoring workshops in the East End. But the Masters’ Association had the backing of the big city firms for whom its members worked. The city firms had decided not to give any of their work to master tailors who accepted the workers’ conditions.

It was no secret that we had no funds. The Masters’ Association was therefore sure that we could not hold out more than a couple of weeks, and that sheer hunger would drive the workers back, ready to agree to anything. They had in answer to the strike retaliated with a three weeks’ lock-out. They had no doubt at all that before the end of the three weeks the workers would come begging to let them return.

The spokesman of the Master Tailors’ Association, a man named Samson, tried to create feeling against he strikers by alleging in statements to the English press that they had no real grievances, and were being used as tools in a pot by foreign anarchists to disrupt the industry. He produced false wage-sheets according to which the workers were earning anything between six pounds and ten pounds a week. Reading the reports he put out one got the impression that the infamous sweatshops of the East End were a paradise.

But the workers who slaved in those sweatshops knew what they were really like, and they were determined to stay out on strike whatever happened, in order to win better conditions. All our agitation would have been useless if the workers had not themselves stood firm. People often say the masses don’t know their own mind; this time they did. Attempts were made to play on the natural fears of the womenfolk, for who the strike meant literally no bread in the house. But the women too of the Jewish East End stood firm. There were big mass meetings of women at which they proclaimed their determination to stand by their menfolk in the strike until the end.

It so happened that the big London Dock Strike was on at the same time.

The common struggle brought Jewish and non-Jewish workers together. Joint strike meetings were held, and the same speakers spoke at huge joint demonstrations on Tower Hill and on Mile End Waste.

I was busy attending all the meetings of the strike committee, acting as Chairman of the Finance Committee and editing the daily Arbeter Fraint. I worked on the paper from six in the morning till eleven. I addressed three or four strike meetings every day. I never go finished before two in he morning. Luckily I had a robust constitution. I wasn’t the only one who worked these hours. We were all at our posts day and night.

Three weeks after the strike started he workers and the employers in the West End reached a settlement. The result was that the East End workers employed in men’s tailoring, including uniforms, also went back to work, their employers having agreed to their most important demands – shorter hours, no piecework, better sanitary conditions and the employment of union labour only.

The strike in the women’s garment industry continued. This was the branch of the industry in which the East End Jews, masters and workers, were overwhelmingly engaged. Both sides were suffering badly. The master tailors had lost their season’s trade and were getting worried. The workers had no funds left, and were going hungry. The Masters’ Association decided to meet the men’s representatives, and said they would agree to shorter hours and higher wages, but not to closed union shops.

The strike committee called a meeting of the strikers in the Pavilion Theatre. It started at midnight, after the performance was over. The place was packed. Crowds who couldn’t get in stood outside waiting to hear the decision. Kaplan, as Chairman of the strike committee, opened the meeting. The strikers listened to him silently. There was no interruption, no opposition, no applause. A murmur ran round the building when I stood up as the first speaker. I saw those pale, pinched, hungry faces, those thousands of people who had come together at midnight to decide what to do about this strike for which they had sacrificed so much. I felt that I dare not conceal anything from them. I must tell them the whole truth. I explained the position to them. I said that if they held out a few more days I was sure they would win. lf they decided to go back now the masters would make them feel that they had lost. “But the decision,” I said,  “rests with you. I am not going to tell you what to do. You must decide for yourselves.” There was an outburst of applause, and from all sides came the cry: “The strike goes on!”

When the Chairman took the vote, not one single hand was raised against the decision to continuo the strike.

The Masters’ Association met the following morning. Samson insisted that they must hold out. But the great majority had had enough. They withdrew from the Association, leaving only a few members to continue the opposition to the workers’ demands. Negotiations started the same afternoon. We were astonished to find that Samson was one or the first who came to ask the trade union to let him reopen his workshop. Our answer was that we could not deal with him until we had settled with all the other master tailors. He had been the leader of the opposition to our demands and would therefore have to wait to the last. Even after he had signed the agreement nobody wanted to go to work for him.

I had played a leading part of course in the organisation and conduct of the strike, but legends began to grow around me as though I had been the sole organiser and architect of the victory. People ascribed to me things I had never done and had never even heard of. There were many others who had done as much as I did. But the popular mind and tongue insisted that I had done more, that I had done most of it. It was terribly exaggerated, it was fanstastic. It was most embarrassing. I couldn’t put my foot out in the street without becoming the object of a demonstration. One day as I was walking along a narrow Whitechapel street with Milly, an old Jew with a white beard stopped me outside his house, and said: ‘”May God bless You! You helped my children in their need. You are not a Jew, but you are a man!” This old man lived in a completely different world from mine. But the memory of the gratitude that shone in his eyes has remained with me all these years.

The London dock strike was still dragging on. A great many dockers families were suffering real want. The Jewish workers who had just won their own strike felt they must do something to help their fellow workers.

The Arbeter Fraint took it up; we started a campaign. We called a conference of the Jewish trades unions. A committee was set up, and our comrades Ploshansky and Sabelinsky were elected secretary and treasurer. It was decided to ask Jewish families in the East End to take some or the dockers’ children into their homes. Offers poured in. Unfortunately we couldn’t accept them all. Members of the committee always went first to see the house and too often the family couldn’t feed its own children properly. When we found a suitable home, Milly would go to the docks area with one or two other women to fetch the children. They were in a terribly undernourished state, barefoot, In rags. We placed over 500 dockers’ children in East End Jewish homes. Shopkeepers gave us shoes and clothing for them. Trade union leaders and social workers in the docks area spoke publicly of the kindness shown by the East End Jews. The docker parents used to come to the Jewish homes in Whitechapel and Stepney to see their children. It did a great deal to strengthen the friendship between Jewish and non-Jewish workers.”

Anne J Kershen identifies this strike as qualitatively different to many previous tailors’ strikes, achieving victory and inspiring a rapid increase in union membership in the various tailors’ societies. A number of factors had on this occasion combined to tilt the scales in favour of the workers, including the gradual assimilation and Anglicisation of Jewish workers which was breaking down prejudice and separation, a growing integration in various (previously quite separate) branches of the trade; the fact that it took place in May, always the busy season, when masters were most desperate for workers. The dedicated leadership of Rocker, Kaplan and the Arbeter Fraint group had also been crucial.

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The introduction to this post describing the London tailoring trade is a brief and very simplistic account; if you are interested in reading more on this, Anne J. Kershen’s ‘Uniting The Tailors’ is a brilliant write-up of tailoring and trade unionism in London and Leeds.

Rudolf Rockers account of the 1912 strike is taken from his autobiography, ‘The London Years’.

William J. Fishman’s East End Jewish Radicals is also a mesmerising read on this period.

All this week in London radical history, 1926: fighting in Southwark during the General Strike

The 1926 General Strike in Southwark

In May 1926, the leaders of the Trades Union Congress called a General Strike. Nearly 2 million workers all over the country joined the strike, in support of a million miners, locked out by mine-owners for refusing to accept wage cuts of up to 25 per cent, after the ending of the Government’s coal subsidy. The General Council of the TUC didn’t want to call the Strike: they were pushed into it for fear of workers taking action themselves without them…

Nine days later, afraid of the losing control of the situation, in the face of massive working class solidarity, the TUC General Council called the Strike off. Since then the General Strike has entered into the mythology of the working class and the left in Britain.

This text describes some of the events of the General Strike in the then Metropolitan Boroughs of Bermondsey, Camberwell and Southwark, now united into the London Borough of Southwark.

Scenes of clashes between strikers and police at the Elephant and Castle and surrounding areas were immortalised in photographs taken at the time, and the Thames seemed to many as a barricade between the plutocrats of the City of London and the insurgent working class south of the river.

The General Strike was of course a massive defeat for the working class. The TUC General Council capitulated; many of the strikers were forced to accept lower wages add conditions: the miners in whose support the Strike was called were eventually starved into submission.

This text was originally published by Southwark Trades Council: unsurprisingly then it concentrates mostly on the activities of local Trades Councils and unions. It describes some of the main events & the atmosphere reasonably well. 

The TUC leaders sold out the Strike, but despite their anger, support for the miners and resentment towards the TUC, neither the Councils of Action, the Trades Councils, the militant left, nor the insurgent workers they claimed to represent, significantly broke out of the official structures, to either broaden the Strike while it was on or to continue it after it had been called off.

Party-obsessed lefties like Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein in their “Marxism & the Trade Union Struggle” have argued for nearly 80 years that what was lacking was a strong centralised Communist Party to direct the struggle. The Communist Party of Great Britain that existed in 1926 was small and weak, for many reasons, including its own rightwing idealogy, the complex history of British communism, the social & economic conditions of the time, and state repression immediately before 1926. But clearly no party however strong or centralised is a substitute for a working class organising for itself. When the union leaders called the strike off, millions of workers, after an initial upsurge, obeyed, whatever their feelings. Workers told not to strike or to go back to work even before the Strike ended, did as they were told. And the CPGB in fact made little attempt to challenge the TUC running of events in fact calling for “All power to the General Council.” There’s an an analysis of some of the reasons for the failure of the Strike here

… and here’s a roundup of events in London during the Strike

1000s of working people fought the cops and scabs for nine days, all over the country. But only by breaking out of TUC control and extending the struggle on their own behalf could the outcome have been any different.

NINE DAYS IN MAY

the national scene

On May 1st 1926 the main industrial dispute in the country was the battle between the miners and the coal-owners, and it was this battle which was to lead to the calling of the General Strike. This dispute was the focus of the power struggle between the owners and the workers. In the coal industry the owners had, for over a year prior to May 1926, been attempting to force reductions in wages and increases in hours worked. On July 31st 1925 the Tory government was forced, in return for industrial peace, to offer a nine month subsidy to the coal industry, a condition of which was the withdrawal by the coal-owners of notices of wage reductions. This subsidy ran out in April 1926 and immediately the coal-owners posted lock-out notices in the face of the total refusal by the miners to accept any reduction in wages or increase in hours worked: “Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day.”

By this time the masses of the workers were calling for a General Strike in support of the miners’ struggle, which they saw as their own. They forced this view on the General Council of the TUC, who proposed “coordinated action” – and this proposal was endorsed on May lst at Farringdon Hall by a conference of Trade Union Executives representing 4 million workers. The leaders of the Trades Union Congress were still intent on negotiating with the Government. The government, however, broke off negotiations on the morning of May 3rd on account of the action taken by the printers of the Daily Mail ~ who refused to print the editorial which attacked the steps taken by the Trade Unions. The leaders of the TUC were left with no alternative but to call a General Strike to begin on May 4th.

OVERWHELMING SUPPORT FOR THE STRIKE

That day-saw a response to the call which surprised everyone. All transport ground to a halt, no papers appeared, manufacturing industries stopped, workers who were not called out by their unions came out independently (Note 1), and many who were not even in a union joined the strike.

Of the two sides, the Government was definitely the better prepared. Since the previous year they had been working to ensure that they would be the victors in any protracted industrial struggle. In September 1925 they formed the ‘Organisation for Maintenance of Supplies’ (OMS) composed of upstanding members of the middle class, run by retired army officers. Its function was to collect lists of volunteers who would be willing to run the country in the event of a General Strike. On May lst the Government declared a State of Emergency, which suspended civil liberties and allowed them greater freedom to arrest and imprison so-called ‘dissidents’.

WORKERS ORGANISE COUNCILS OF ACTION

On the other hand, the organisation of the TUC was totally inadequate for the requirements of a General Strike, which could only mean that they thought, or indeed hoped, that the strike would be lost very quickly. At a local level, however, the Trades Councils responded by organising in an impromptu but efficient fashion. They formed themselves into Councils of Action and altogether there were 131 of these throughout the country.

The various functions taken over by the Councils of Action included: control of traffic, picketing factories that were on strike to ensure that the “volunteers” didn’t get in, picketing factories not on strike in an attempt to persuade the workers to join the stoppage, distribution of food and information, and alleviation of cases of great distress. In many places the Councils of Action became the only authority, the nearest thing to local control and autonomy in the history of modern Britain. And they had the support of the vast majority of workers in most cases. Their main headache was the constant need to convince workers who hadn’t yet officially been called out to go back to work.

This spontaneous development of the Councils of Action worried the Government more than anything else, and it was these organisations that were subjected to the toughest repression by the police. The possession of a newsletter produced by a Council of Action became a crime that could lead to two or three months hard labour – whilst the rather tame organ of the TUC, ‘The British Worker’, which urged the strikers to go for walks in the country, was allowed to continue printing after an initial five hour stoppage.

…AND THEN THE BETRAYAL

After days of secret negotiations with the Government, the TUC informed Baldwin, the Tory Prime Minister, that the strike was off, and the news was broadcast at 1 pm on May 12th. The news shattered the strikers and the Councils of Action, who saw the strike gaining in strength every day and the probability of success with it.

It seems it was precisely this strength that intimidated some members of the TUC General Council such as J.Thomas, who said he “dreaded” that the strike would “get out of the hands of responsible executives”.

When the strikers discovered that the settlement had not included any guarantees about reinstatement they initially decided to stay out, and on May 13th there were actually more workers on strike than on any other day. But the end had come and the workers were left to barter with their individual employers over the terms of their return, with the result that many people didn’t get their job back and many others had to “eat dirt” in order to do so.

Only the miners were left on strike, remaining out until November when they were finally starved into submission and forced to accept the owners’ terms.

Fighting at the Elephant & Castle during the Strike

The strike: south of the river

In 1926 the borough of Southwark was very different to the one that we know now. In the area presently covered by Southwark there were the three Metropolitan Boroughs of Southwark, Bermondsey and Camberwell.

The major industries in the three boroughs then were the docks, transport services, engineering works and printing. The workers in these industries were well organised, as shown by the example of Hoe & Co. Hoe and Company Ltd, were a printing press manufacturers in Borough Road, Southwark. They employed 900 men, and the printing engineering workers were amongst the best organised and the most militant in South London. There were three large engineering firms near the Elephant: Hoe’s, Waygood-Otis, and Durants.

In early January 1926, the 900 employees at Hoe’s began an ‘unofficial’ 10 week strike to protest the hiring of non-union workers, and to demand a £1 per week pay increase. The employers threatened a national lockout in the engineering sector involving 500,000 men. (South London Press, March 26 1926) And the workers marched to the Memorial Hall in Farringdon Street to protest against the threatened lockout.

During the General Strike the workers were militant in their picketing of the firm. Stan Hutchins reports that only 20 apprentices remained at work and that they later contributed to a 100 per cent turn out.

TOUGH CONDITIONS FOR THE JOBLESS

Unemployment in the three boroughs around the national average of 12 per cent. The situation of the unemployed was hard. In 1926 unemployment benefit was about 15 shillings per week for a single man. This rate applied for 26 weeks only, after which unemployed received Poor Law Relief administered by the Board of Guardians for the Borough. After this was exhausted many of the unemployed in Southwark were sent to Labour Camps at Hollesey Bay and Belmont in Surrey, where they were forced to work under overseers.

A statement in the House of Commons (reported in the South London Observer, Wednesday March 24th, 1926) disclosed that one man in seven, and one woman in three were refused benefit at the Labour Exchange, and left to starve or apply for Poor Law Relief. The unemployed also had to sign on every day of the week.

The National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWCM) was very active in the area in organising unemployed workers before and during May 1926. Membership was very high in Southwark and meetings were held outside the Labour Exchange, where speakers would address the people waiting to collect their money. Many members of the organised unemployed were sent to prison during the period 1925-6 because of their political activities.

SOUTHWARK AND CAMBERWELL IN CONTRAST

There were, however, noticeable differences between the three boroughs, especially in the question of social conditions and political organisation, being dominated by different political parties.

Southwark was the smallest of the three, and it also had the worst and most densely populated housing of any metropolitan borough. Its population density was 160 people to the acre, compared with 77 for Bermondsey and a very low 59 for Camberwell. The conditions in one part of Southwark are described in ‘The Book of Walworth’ published in 1925: “It is in the blocks especially in and adjacent to the New Kent Road that we have the greatest concentration of population. Here in streets that are little more than gulleys when their narrow width is compared with the great height of the buildings, live hundreds of people with no outlook in front except the gulley, and none in the rear except a still narrower gully into which at one time inconsiderate tenants threw their rubbish to everyone’s inconvenience.”

On the other hand the borough of Camberwell, with its coat of arms emblazoned with the motto “All’s well”, could, in its official guide book of 1926, proudly boast of the quality of life that its inhabitants enjoyed, with magnificent green spaces, fine educational institutions and other attractions offered to people wishing to move into the area. The handbook states that the council had purchased land for housing up to the tune of £300,000 and mentioned in particular a new estate of 7 houses and 174 flats that were occupied by “the more thrifty and respectable members of the class for whom they were intended” and that at a rent of 10 shillings to ll shillings per week, the estate was more than self supporting with the account showing a “substantial surplus” after paying loans and interest etc.

BERMONDSEY’S LABOUR COUNCIL

Bermondsey Borough Council was distinguished not only from the other two but also from the vast majority of the metropolitan boroughs by the fact that it had a Labour controlled council. lt was also distinguished by its policies, many of which ran counter to the London County Council, with which it was having a continual running battle.

One particular fight was highlighted in the October 1925 edition of the Bermondsey Labour Magazine. The council had applied for permission to build a housing project covering four acres; the LCC first tried to block it by withholding permission until it was almost too late, but then gave permission for the same amount of dwellings to be built in an area of one and a half acres, ordering the council to sell the rest of the land. Some facts about the health of the people show the way that the Bermondsey administration was changing the quality of life in the borough. During the three years from 1921, while the Independent Labour Party (ILP) had been in the majority, the average death rate dropped by 30 per cent and the infantile death rate dropped from 16 deaths per thousand to 76, whilst the death of mothers in became the lowest of all London boroughs.

HOW THE THREE COUNCILS RESPONDED TO THE STRIKE

Obviously the political and economic structure of the boroughs colored their response to the General Strike, and it is noticeable that the three boroughs had very contrasting attitudes during that period.

Southwark Council’s response was rather limited, not in intensity but certainly in its democratic base. The mayor was the subject of a special meeting called on May 19th “to consider the action of the Lord Mayor Alderman J.R.Want”, who’d called off all the council meetings, taking power into his own hands, and had sent threatening letters to all local authority workers warning them not to strike. A motion regretting this action as “thereby depriving the elected councillors of their right to share in the government of the borough” was defeated & an amendment expressing “entire confidence in the Lord Mayor” was passed by 49 votes to 14.

Camberwell Borough Council fully supported the Government against the strikers, it was cooperative with the Emergency Powers Act and its functionaries, and it appointed the Treasurer and Town Clerk as the officers in charge of food and fuel.

Of the three boroughs it is not surprising that Bermondsey showed the closest cooperation between Council and strikers. As soon as the strike was announced, “the Borough Council, being Labour, formed an emergency sub-committee which was in close touch with the Council of Action and both the Town Halls [ie Rotherhithe and Bermondsey] were passed over to the Trades Council during the strike, which were used for strike meetings and strike committees.”

In fact, the Council in effect suspended itself and delegated all its powers to this Emergency Committee, which consisted entirely of Labour members.

A comparison of the minutes of the London councils just before and after the strike shows very clearly how they responded to the situation.

Various local authorities passed motions and then circulated them to other local authorities to be endorsed. Of the many, two reflect their contrasting nature. Hackney requested all other Councils to join them in urging the Prime Minister to ensure that after the strike the local authorities would be able to discriminate against the strikers in favour of blacklegs. Southwark and Camberwell both agreed to endorse that Motion. However, the motion from Bethnal Green condemning the action of the government in breaking off negotiations with the TUC on May 2nd was consigned to the waste paper bin; whereas Bermondsey’s Emergency Committee seems to have passed a resolution in support of the Bethnal Green Trades Council motion. The Government had to appoint a retired Army Captain as its Food and Fuel Agent in Bermondsey, because cooperation was not forthcoming from the Council.

TRADES COUNCILS WERE AT THE HUB OF ACTION

At the outset of the General Strike responsibility for the coordination of the strike in the locality fell to the lot of the Trades Councils, which were in the main very unprepared. Bert Edwards writes about Southwark that: “It’s hard to say how the Trades Councils became the centre of things. The only thing you can say is that the publicity had indicated that the Trades Council would be ‘the centre … We had no machinery set up … we didn’t have a typewriter or a duplicator.” There had been a lot of general debate throughout the country about the possibility of a strike and this of course had been a subject of discussion in the Trades Councils. However the actual declaration of the strike on May 3rd caught everyone on the hop. “On the first day of the strike I went around to the Trades Council offices – and I saw to my amazement that there was quite a crowd of people wanting advice. Nobody knew what they had to do.” However, “there was immediate response to the appeal that the Trades Council turn itself into a Council of Action. The Council of Action formed sub-committees dealing with press and propaganda, a contact committee for keeping in touch with the TUC, a finance committee and an enquiries committee.”

We have very little information on how Camberwell Trades Council organised themselves. There is however a letter to the TUC from G.W.Silverside, General Secretary of the Dulwich Divisional Labour Party in which he explains that at a meeting on May 3rd it was decided to collect money and distribute literature. Also “the question of the possibility of duplication arose” and Mr. Silverside explained that he had been in touch with the “Secretary of the Camberwell Trades Council who informs me that there are three duplicators available and that they are prepared to duplicate anything that may be necessary.”

In Bermondsey, where the great majority of the population of the Borough were behind the strike, the cooperation between the Borough Council and the Trades Council was much closer than in the other two boroughs. The Trades Council formed a Council of Action which was given the use of the two Town Halls which were put to use every day as meeting rooms, committee rooms and for giving out strike pay. Each afternoon meetings of strikers’ wives were held, and each evening there were mass meetings of strikers, “always packed to suffocation, with hundreds, sometimes thousands, unable to get in.” The Council of Action “sat continuously from day to day and endeavoured to coordinate all local efforts for forwarding the strike.” It also had the use of the local Labour Party offices and their stocks of paper, typewriters and office equipment.

GETTING OUT THE NEWS

The production of news-sheets was a very important part of the work of the Councils of Action. All national newspapers had ceased publication on the first day of the strike, although some managed to produce limited editions with scab labour. These were not widely distributed and of course were in opposition to the strike. The Government also produced a news-sheet, ‘The British Gazette’, under the editorship of Winston Churchill but this was naturally very hostile to the strike and carried only very biased or false information. The local papers in South London were also opposed to the strike. The ‘South London Press’ (SLP) was the most widely distributed paper in the Southwark area. When it was unable to produce a full issue it came out with a single sheet ‘Strike Bulletin’.

On May 7th its front page, announced: “We offer no apology for issuing this week the South London Press at half its normal size. The fact is, we are under a double obligation – firstly to our readers to give them as full a statement as possible in the circumstances which led to the country being plunged into a deplorable strike and unwarrantably involving this journal in the dispute, second to our Advertisers …”

The paper constantly referred to pickets as “hooligans”, “gangs of ruffians” etc. On May 7th it reported that “A great deal of trouble was caused by women who, shouting hysterically, flung themselves into the fray”. Headlines on May 14th announced “How Rowdyism was overcome by Police and Specials”, followed by praise of the cheerful way in which the uniformed forces restored order with their three-foot riot-sticks.

A scab car overturned at Blackfriars

The issue of Friday 21st carries an article on “The SLP in strike time – how it met the great blow against Liberty and Freedom”. The report states that by the night of Wednesday 5th all composing and mechanical staff of SLP were out “most of them unwillingly”. The following week the SLP was without linotype operators except one lion apprentice and two compositor apprentices. All nine members of the machine and stereotyping staff were on strike. So the directors and four of their sons, together with ‘volunteers’, produced the paper and distributed it by using disguised vans.

The only other form of communication was the BBC radio service, but this was entirely under the control of the Government.

There were a number of publications produced by the Councils of Action with varying degrees of success. This was because the Government tried to suppress the strikers’ news-sheets and prison sentences were handed out to those producing, selling or even possessing such publications.

In Camberwell at least two publications were brought out. The South London Observer of Saturday May 15th reports that a man was convicted of selling the ‘Peckham Labour Bulletin’ which was produced in Central Buildings, High Street, Peckham, by Ernest Baldwin (Secretary and Agent for the Peckham Labour Party) and James McLean. The paragraph headed “French workers refuse to blackleg” was thought by the court to be provocative. Police Inspector Hider in his evidence stated that it would cause “a certain feeling among certain people”.

Inspector Hider also saw copies of the ‘Camberwell Strike Bulletin’ also produced at Central Buildings on a duplicator by Eddy Jope, who denied any connection with the Peckham Labour Bulletin.

Southwark Council of Action also produced a news sheet but this was done with some difficulty. To start with they had no duplicator or typewriter, but Tommy Strudwick, a member of the Council Of Action from the National Union of Railwaymen managed to provide this equipment. It was hidden away in a recess in one of his room but after only a few issues the police raided his house and found it. He was arrested and sentenced to two months’ hard labour for spreading disaffection. Strudwick was also involved with two other publications, called ‘Juice’ and ‘The Young Striker’.

Bermondsey Council of Action was much better prepared than the other two. They not only had the stocks of paper, typewriters and office equipment belonging to the Labour Party, but also those belonging to the Borough Council. They produced a daily news-sheet, 6000 copies of which were distributed from seven official points. Much of the information for the Bulletin was collected by Dr. Alfred Salter, the Labour MP for Bermondsey. He spent much of his time during the strike collecting “every scrap of authentic news available in the House of Commons and from the TUC head office, and reported it in detail to the nightly meetings in the Bermondsey Town hall” or phone it in for the news-sheet in the afternoon. According to Fenner Brockway of the ILP Bermondsey was probably the best informed centre in the whole country during the nine days of the strike.”

STRATEGIC IMPORTANCE OF THE SOUTHWARK AREA

The three Boroughs were strategically very significant during the General Strike. Bermondsey included the Surrey Commercial Docks. Camberwell was important because it housed Tillings Bus Co., one of the largest in London, (1200 people worked here, making it one of the biggest local employers) and many of the main roads from the south coast passed through the borough. Southwark’s significance lay in the Elephant and Castle, which was the meeting of six major roads which were used by many bus routes and by lorries coming in from the docks and the south.

The police were often evident at the Elephant chasing the people away, by riding at them swinging their long truncheons – but the crowd would reform. According to Stan Hutchins there were stewards from the Council of Action, distinguished by red arm bands, who tried to ensure that only traffic with permits from the TUC were allowed through, but many blacklegging volunteers would try to force their way through, and this led to several occasions of violence and even some instances of death. The Sunday Worker on May 9th reported that a volunteer driver who panicked when the crowd tried to stop him, knocked down a motor cyclist and drove onto the pavement, killing two people. On another occasion a bus driven by a blackleg and escorted by police and special constables was stopped by the strikers, emptied of its passengers, and set on fire.

Another bus met this fate in St. George’s Road (just north of the Elephant & Castle) where a No.12 on its way to Dulwich was seized and burned. All in all, the bus service, even with the help of the many volunteers (including students from Guys Hospital and Dulwich College who were recorded as heartily laying into strikers, shouting: “Up College!”) was very limited. [3]

By May 5th it was reported that forty-seven General Omnibus vehicles had been immobilised and, according to a TUC intelligence report, Lord Ashfield, Chairman of the General Omnibus Company, was resisting Government pressure to get More buses on the road. He was only willing to allow the oldest type out because of the danger from volunteer drivers and pickets.

The trams were in the main kept off the roads, but there was an attempt to bring them out of Camberwell Depot on Wednesday May 5th. This was possible once local electricity generating stations had been brought into use with the help of naval ratings. However a large group of strikers and their wives had gathered outside the depot and even the very large numbers of police and OMS could not stop them from smashing the tram windows and pushing it back. The British Worker (the daily paper put out during the Strike by the TUC) reported: “BANNED TRAMS SCENE: An unsuccessful attempt was made shortly after four o’clock on Wednesday afternoon to run LCC tramcars from the Camberwell depot.

Earlier in the day two lorries with higher officials of the tramways Department and OMS recruits arrived at the Depot, where a strong force of police had been posted.

A large crowd, including tramwaymen, their wives and sympathisers, collected, and when the first car came out of the Depot gates in Camberwell Green there was a hostile demonstration.

Some arrests were made. Following this incident the cars were driven back in to the Depot to the accompaniment of loud cheers.” (British Worker, 5th May.) [4]

Buses were also stoned in Camberwell on the Saturday night (8th May).

There was also rioting in Tower Bridge Road, in fact there seems to have been fighting here several times. 89 people were hurt in one police baton charge here.

No vehicle could proceed far without a permit issued by the Councils of Action. Main roads were barricaded and cars which did not have authorisation turned back. If a driver attempted to defy the strikers, his car would soon be lying on its side. Bermondsey Labour MP Dr Salter (a staunch supporter of the strike) only just missed this experience. He was driving down the Old Kent Road without the usual Council of Action symbol on his windscreen: strikers on the kerb threw stones which broke the car’s windows and, as it slowed down, they rushed into the road yelling “Throw ’em over.” However they apologised when they recognised Salter (a popular figure locally) The car was speeded on with the cry of “Good old Alf!” [5]

POLICE AND SPECIALS ATTACK WITH BATONS

This wasn’t the only incident reported in Camberwell. Charlie Le Grande, a striker from Stockwell who received his strike pay from the Camberwell Bus Depot talks about the huge public meetings held at the triangle near the Eaton Arms and at Peckham Rye. [6] Another eye-witness account describes the police activity during a public meeting at Camberwell Green as terrifying. He was ten years old at the time. He had been taken by his father and was standing on the edge of the meeting only to see waves of police with drawn truncheons marching on the people, who broke and ran after repeated baton charges.

It wasn’t only on the streets that the strikers were subjected to attacks from the police. On the 6th May police invaded the Bricklayers Arms, a pub on the Old Kent Road used as a meeting place by the National Union of Railwaymen members working from the Bricklayers’ Arms Depot (an important centre of picketing), and arrested strikers. On May 7th the police raided another pub nearby, the Queen’s Head, and it was reported to the House of Commons by Dr. Haden-Guest, Labour MP for Southwark, that police had attacked people in the pub and had later chased and attacked women and children in the street. [7]

Another important area of activity during the strike was the Surrey Dock. Two thousand men were employed here, and yet only seven dockers turned up for work on the first day of the strike. Lock gate staff continued to work normally, and electric and hydraulic power was kept going by one foreman, but there were no tugs operating. and three ships with food stuffs were held up with no-one to unload them.

As a bonus – the Transport and General Workers Union reported a response of “wonderful solidarity” from the Port of London Authority clerical and supervisory staff in the Surrey Dock – their first-ever strike. The gates of the dock were effectively closed by a very strong mass picket stationed there from the beginning of the strike. The need to open the docks soon became acute as food began to get short in London, but it seemed an impossible task for the Government, given the large pickets at the Surrey Dock.

“Eighty men taken to the riverside to unload foodstuffs on May 7th refused to move without protection from a large and hostile crowd, the police protection was so long in arriving that when it had arrived the eighty men were found to be missing and the cargo was still awaiting their attention”. Later on, a party of Naval ratings were put into Surrey Dock, followed by volunteers brought in from Westminster by boat, who spent the weekend unloading food stuffs to be taken further up river on barges.

STUDENTS AS BLACKLEG LABOUR

Tooley Street, which saw heavy picketing every day, was also the scene of solid resistance to the police and blacklegs and on Thursday May 6th there was a police baton charge that led to thirty-two arrests. Here too the government were determined to open Hays Wharf and ferried in blackleg labour, mainly undergraduates from Oxford and Cambridge.

As a group, students were some of the most active blacklegs. On Thursday May 6th the South London Press reported that many students from Guys Hospital had signed on as special constables “being involved with a strong sense of patriotic duty”. On Saturday May 29th the South London Observer reported that the Governors of Guys Hospital had from the secretary of the TGWU branch at Lower Road, Rotherhithe, a protest against the blacklegging by students and a statement that the branch would no longer contribute to the hospital’s funds.

Hays Wharf

The South London Press of May 14th reported that “Oxford undergraduates, numbering 250, together with 400 other volunteers, are unloading foodstuff from ships at Hays Wharf Ltd., Tooley St. The manager of Hays Wharf said: The undergraduates are receiving the usual pay of dockers. They moved between 1500 and 2000 tons per day. Normal output at the wharves is 5000 tons a day’.”

THE END OF THE STRIKE – UNCONDITIONAL SELL-OUT

Mass support for the strike was growing in the three boroughs throughout the time it lasted. Bermondsey reported to the Labour Research Department that on May 12th there was no sign of weakening whatever. The workers were more solid the last day than on the first. The spirit of the workers, both men and women, could not have been better. When the “sell-out” was announced “there was a feeling of complete shock and disappointment in Southwark. The Labour Party passed a message through the Council of Action to the TUC urging them to continue the strike.. Then everything collapsed, it collapsed as suddenly as it started. The Council of Action went back to the original small organisation. The employers said on account of the stoppage, they couldn’t take everyone back.”

There were many cases of victimisation and attempts by employers to break the strength of the unions. On May 14th the South London Press reported that Tillings Ltd., the privately owned bus company which employed 1200 men on 400 buses (many of who has struck) had posted the following notice at their depots. “Men should realise that there is no agreement in existence, the Union having broken this. They should also understand plainly that we do not propose to make further agreement with the existing Union as this is the third occasion on which they have broken the agreement. Every man should fully understand these conditions before restarting.”

At Hoe’s engineering works, the employers refused to take the men back as a group “because they were no longer employees”, but agreed to take them back if they applied individually, at their former rate of payment and for their former jobs. Hoe’s said “They are being taken on as vacancies are available.”

The Labour Exchanges received instructions that those who withdrew their labour were disqualified from benefit on the ground that they left their employment without just cause. Sections of the workers were luckier and/or stronger – for instance, the dockers and railwaymen held out for agreements against victimisation. The dockers at Surrey Dock maintained their pickets until May 15th when Ernest Bevin came to an agreement with the employers.

Within a week of the ending of the strike, only the miners were still left out. They remained out until November when the employers finally starved them into submission and forced them to accept their conditions of less pay for longer hours. Bermondsey Council however continued to support the miners families even after the ending of the General Strike and all in all they contributed £7000 to the mining village of Blaina in Wales.

NOTES

1) Strikers were initially called out on strike in waves, so that not all workers were out straight away. Large numbers of people wanted to join the strike but were ordered by the TUC & the unions to continue working, the idea being they would join later if the strike dragged on – the TUC General Council of course hoped (and made sure) this would never happen.

2: Hoes employed 900 men; their printing engineering workers were amongst the best organised and the most militant in South London.

They had struck in the 1922 engineers lockout; from then until the General Strike workers here were said to be in “open revolt”. In 1925 Amalgamated Engineering Union members here began an overtime ban in a campaign for higher wages; as a result in January 1926 some were sacked and replaced by non-union labour. This led to both shifts starting a stay-in-strike: Hoe’s then locked out all 900 workers, who began an ‘unofficial’ 10 week strike to protest the hiring of non-union workers, and to demand a £1 per week pay increase.. Hoe’s went to the Employers Federation, who threatened a national lockout in the engineering involving 500,000 men, unless the Hoe’s men went back to work. (South London Press, March 26 ‘ 1926) Hoe’s workers marched to the Memorial Hall in Farringdon Street to protest against the threatened lockout, but the AEU ordered a return to work, saying the men had been morally right but technically wrong. Bah!

During the General Strike Hoe’s workers struck straight away, though not called out by the AEU, and were militant in their picketing of the firm.

After the end of the General Strike, Hoe’s workers were forced to re-apply individually for their jobs. The firm considered they had sacked themselves.

3: A large number of posh scabs volunteered from Dulwich College. Sons of whores, literally, since 17th century actor Edward Alleyn founded the College with help from the profits off his brothel in Bankside. Shame the suffragettes failed to burn it down in 1913, eh?

4: Note on Camberwell Green: Rumours spread by the South London Press that women pickets stopped trams by putting kids in front of the vehicles seem to be just typical SLP rightwing proper gander?

Trams were also attacked in other areas: in Old Kent Road, near the Dun Cow pub, a tram was overturned by crowds. The passengers were pulled off and scab drivers assaulted. In Walworth Road, crowds blocked tramlines with railings: bricks and bottles were chucked at police when they cleared the lines.

5: Salter, a convinced Independent Labour Party pacifist, did not like this violence, but according to Fenner Brockway he “recognised that it was only incidental to the real significance of the struggle. He was thrilled by the sacrificial solidarity of the workers. “Something happened,” he wrote, “that had never happened in the world before. Millions of men and women deliberately risked their livelihood, their future, their all, to win a living wage for their miner comrades.” Not a man or woman in Bermondsey expected to gain a penny, yet “eagerly, joyfully, unflinchingly,” they came out. “I felt humbled and overwhelmed when I saw what was happening. A transformation of character seemed to be taking place. Small men suddenly became great, mean men became generous, cowardly men became heroes. Self‑regarding thoughts were brushed aside, and ‘our brothers of the mines’ filled every heart. The strike was the most Christlike act on a grand scale since Calvary. I can never pay high enough tribute to the Bermondsey folk amongst whom I moved during those never‑to‑be‑forgotten nine days. The working people of this district are capable of the mightiest acts of effort and heroism if only their best instincts can be touched and roused.” “

6: Mass meetings were also held at Peckham Winter Gardens. Several thousand strikers, families and supporters met there for a social gathering organised by Peckham Labour Party on the evening of Sunday May 9th.

7: Queen’s head Pub, Southwark: 2 lorries full of cops ordered drinkers out of the pub & beat them up, when strikers ran in here after ‘allegedly’ roughing up a special constable at the Power Station…

8) W F Watson: A leading activist in the militant shop stewards movement during World War 1. In 1918-19 he was at the heart of the syndicalist London Workers Committee, an attempt to co-ordinate workers committees in different industries, along the lines of the Clyde Workers Comittee. He wrote a column in Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers Dreadnought, which served as an unofficial organ for the Workers Committees 1917-19. Watson was jailed for sedition (for a speech encouraging soldiers not to fight against the Russian Revolution) after the LWC office was raided in March 1919, but on his release it emerged he had given information to Special Branch in return for cash – though he claimed he’d fed them useless info and used the money for righteous causes. The arguments this scandal caused led to the LWC’s collapse. Watson had dropped out of politics shortly after. He was widely distrusted but must have been a capable organiser, & not entirely suspect, if as Stanley Hutchins says he was allowed to carry on working in the Council of Action’s office.

For more information on Watson and the London Workers Committee, see Barbara Winslow, Sylvia Pankhurst.

9) Archbishop’s Speech: On May 7, the Archbishop of Canterbury issued a statement suggesting the dispute should be settled by negotiation, “in a spirit of co-operation and fellowship” – effectively a return to the pre-Strike status quo, ie end the Strike, continue the mining subsidy, and the mine-owners to withdraw their wage-cuts. In the event the Government ignored the speech, feeling they had the upper hand anyway (and just to make sure the speech had no influence they leaned heavily on the BBC not to publicise it).

Barclay & Perkins Brewery: only 2 workers on strike according to the South London Press: others enrolled as specials.

This text was originally published as part of a pamphlet by Union Place Community Resource Centre/ Southwark Trades Council, 1976.

Republished 2005 with new pictures and a new foreword by Past Tense

 

Today in London history, 1987: Michael Delaney killed by scab TNT truck, Wapping.

The 1986-7 Wapping Dispute claimed many jobs – and Michael Delaney’s life.

Traditionally newspaper printers on Fleet Street newspapers were well-organised, with a long history of militancy and support for other workers (dating back to the 1926 General Strike and beyond). Not a history calculated to endear them to their bosses…

In 1986 Rupert Murdoch’s News International, producers of the Sun, Times, News of the World etc, in a well-prepared move, provoked a printers strike by demanding drastic changes in working conditions and promptly moved production from Fleet Street to a fortified plant in Wapping, sacking 500 printers & introducing new technology – all with the carefully laid plan to break the printers’ power over the presses.

Cue a year-long battle, fought out on the streets of Wapping, with daily mass pickets, blockades and attempts to stop the lorries leaving with papers, and battles with police round Wapping & the Highway, as well as mass sabotage, solidarity actions and occasional arson against News International, their papers (and the scab TNT lorries carrying them) all round the country…

A high-tech plant was built in Wapping, the union-busting plan disguised with false claims that a new title, The London Post, would be printed there. Secret deals were then drawn up to bus in electricians from outside London to run the machinery; members of the EEPTU (electricians) union were quite happy to shit on the printers and line their own pockets doing this work.

News International blue collar staff were issued with an ultimatum – work to new inferior contracts or face the sack. Then journalists were offered £2,000 to cross picket lines and work behind the razor wire and security cameras that surrounded the new East London headquarters.

When this provoked strike action and mass sackings among printers, Murdoch hired the transport company TNT to deliver his titles direct to retailers, breaking up the nationwide distribution system shared by other publications and doing away with many more jobs.

Picketing repeatedly erupted into riots, barricades were built several times (on occasions holding up paper delivery for hours). Spoof versions of the Sun and an independent satirical Wapping Times paper were brought out by strikers and their supporters.  The printers were well supported, especially locally, with police tactics  – such as towing locals’ cars away to allow lorries movement, raiding local pubs and blocking people off from their homes – alienating residents. Many of who were never big fans of the Met; alot had trade union backgrounds, and general anger at LDDC/Council-sponsored yuppification in the area was held to be linked to the dispute. TNT vans and distribution points became targets for strikers and their supporters.

The leaderships of the then-existing two printers unions, Sogat and the NGA, constantly tried to control and limit the struggle, especially when it (necessarily) turned violent – union officials went to the lengths of identifying and grassing up rioters.

Have a read of issues of Picket, the unofficial bulletin of the Wapping strikers.

Eventually despite widespread support and mass action, the print unions gave up the fight, leaving sacked workers high & dry and encouraging similar moves by other newspapers. The printers were the latest in a long line of workers with strong traditions of solidarity & standing up for themselves to be battered by the capitalist class in the ‘80s.

The dispute would also claim the life of one local teenager.

On the evening of 10 January 1987, 19-year old Michael Delaney was on his way home after drinking with friends to celebrate his birthday of the previous week.

At the junction of Butcher Row and Commercial Road in Stepney, one of the preferred routes for Murdoch’s delivery boys, the lads spotted a TNT lorry used by News International to distribute papers during the bitter Wapping dispute that had been going on for a year.

There was a red light at the junction and Michael Delaney tried to remonstrate with the lorry driver, Delaney got close enough to slap the door but, as the lorry moved off, he was dragged underneath and crushed by the wheels.

The lorry did not stop again until it reached the Heston Services on the M4. Michael’s body was left lying in the road, until an ambulance took him to the London Hospital, where he died in the early hours of 11 January. Meanwhile his companions had been taken off to Leman Street Police station.

At Delaney’s inquest in Snaresbrook, Essex, in April 1987, the driver, Robert Higgins, was not called to give evidence, but was seen by Michael’s distraught family during the lunch break, laughing and drinking in a nearby pub – in the company of one Inspector Pickard of Leman Street Police Station. Was there collusion with police to prevent any evidence coming out that would lead to a prosecution of the driver – embarrassing for News International?

The inquest coroner advised the jury to return a verdict of accidental death. Instead, they decided it was a case of unlawful killing. Afterwards, the director of public prosecutions ruled against launching a prosecution on the grounds of insufficient evidence. A year later the inquest verdict itself was quashed in the high court. (The first the family heard about this was on the TV news).

As then Wapping resident Mike Jempson (who knew Michael from his youth), later pointed out, (in the run up to the Leveson Inquiry into tabloid phone hacking):

“Given what is now known about the unhealthily close relationships between News International and the Metropolitan Police over the years, the whole sad saga deserves a full investigation.

Sir Paul Stephenson, who resigned as head of the Met under a cloud last summer, told the Home Affairs Select Committee that almost 25% of the Met’s public affairs unit had previously worked for Murdoch papers. Former Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman, who resigned after allegations of impropriety, became a columnist for The Times, and a former News of the World editor Neil Wallis was hired by the Met as a communications consultant, at a time when questions were being asked about the full extent of phone hacking by his old paper.

Another of Stephenson’s colleagues, Assistant Commissioner John Yates, also resigned over the phone hacking scandal in July 2011. All three senior officers are still under investigation, along with about three dozen Murdoch employees, police officers and civil servants arrested as part of police investigations into aspects of the hacking scandal.

These sensational facts may never merit attention in Murdoch’s Sun but they deserve to be recalled at the Leveson Inquiry. Will Michael Delaney’s fate get a mention? Perhaps those scandalised by the cover-up over his death will ensure that Murdoch never forgets the young man who died so The Sun could hit the streets.

The big question still to be answered is whether law officers and Murdoch’s News International conspired to avoid a prosecution that might have revealed how and why Michael Delaney died.”

Heartbreakingly for Michael’s family – we will probably never know.

Policing of the Wapping dispute became a day to day issue – with 100s of police drafted in to bash pickets and defend Fortress Wapping. But policing was also going on behind the scenes – Special Branch were keeping a keen eye on those organising picketing, and their Special Demonstration Squad department – consisting of undercover officers infiltrating protest can campaign groups – were there on the picket line, pretending to support the dispute. At least one SDS spycop – Bob Lambert – regularly attended Wapping demos. Now well known as having acted as an agent provocateur in animal rights groups and initiated the plot to fire bomb Debenhams stores in July 1987. Wonder if he also acted an agent provocateur down Wapping too?

Check out the Special Branch files revelations on their surveillance of the Wapping strike

In memory of Michael Delaney

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An entry in the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar – buy a paper copy here

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Today in London’s striking herstory, 1908: Corruganza boxmakers win a strike against wage reductions.

In August 1908, 44 young women box makers went on strike. They were part of a 1,500-strong workforce from the Corruganza Box Making works, off Garratt Lane, Summerstown, South London, and they had never struck in their lives before.

Below we reprint Bronwen Griffiths’ account of this strike, originally published in the South London Record, journal of S. London History Workshop.

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The Corruganza company made cardboard boxes of all types for shops and industry and the women concerned worked in a department dealing with tube rolling, cutting and glueing. The cause of the strike was simple. Mr Stevenson, the manager, had ordered a reduction in the wages paid for piece work. In some cases he wanted to cut the pay back to half the previous rate.

Miss Mary Williams, the forewoman, refused to accept the new wages even though she herself had not been affected by the reductions.

“I asked him for a revised price list to put before the hands” she said, “and he gave me the prices on a piece of paper and said ‘If they don’t like it they can clear out’. I told the girls and they struck there and then. I and two of the others were supposed to be the ring-leaders and we got the sack.” (Wandsworth Borough News Aug. 1908).

The strike got considerable public support as well as the backing of the National Federation of Women Workers, which had been formed only two years earlier. Mary MacArthur, Secretary of the Federation, came to address the workers on the picket lines and provided them with strike pay. Within two weeks this had been increased to 5 shillings a week because people like the writer John Galsworthy had sent in sums of £5 and more.

Much of the argument between managers and workers centred around the issue of what was a reasonable piece work rate. The young women were prepared to accept a reduction on one type of the work but, according to Miss Williams, “He (Mr Stevenson) reduced plain work and they could not agree to that, especially as the girls had already lost on the first reduction. Taking all the year round and taking busy times with slack times, our wages do not average 12s. per week. We are supposed to work 91/2 hours a day.”

When we are busy, we work those hours and earn perhaps 17s. a week but for the rest of the year we don’t do nearly so much, and are lucky to get 10s. a week. Under the new conditions, I don’t suppose we could earn more than 10s. a week at the best of times, and our average would certainly be a lot lower than that”.

Another of the strikers was more emphatic. “He won’t give us a blooming chance to live. We used to earn from 15s. to 17s. per week and now we shall get from 6s. to 9s. per week. That is not enough to keep one, let alone a family on”. (Wandsworth Borough News Aug. 1908).

This was at a time when average wages for box making were from 10-15s. a week, with a pound a week being the highest wage. However, according to the ‘Women’s Industrial News’ (1912) ‘workers hardly ever get a full week’s work’.

Nor was the work easy. Polly, who was quoted in ‘The Woman Worker’ of August 21st described how she was exhausted by working on one of the large, heavy rolling machines: “Don’t yer all know that I often gits knocked up with pain in the stommick and ‘ave ter lie in bed all day through ‘andling it? They don’t remember that when they’re reducing their rites and slinging nimes abart”.

Mr Stevenson was adamant however that the women were idle and had ‘tyrannised’ his factory.

“For the past 15 years” he told the ‘Borough News reporter covering the strike “there has been no reduction in wages in the works. More than one attempt has been made to reduce the wages to a proper basis and in proportion to the small amount which the firm receives for the goods. The girls have always objected to any reduction and the managers have always given way to them. That is not my habit and 1 do not intend to start now”.

He continued: “I wanted to put little girls on the machines some time since, but they refused”. (‘They’ referring to the older women). “In fact, they have ruled the place and tyrannised for over 10 years and I don’t intend to stand it. Under the new arrangement the girh will be able to earn from 15s. to 25s. per week and that 1 consider a fair wage for girls”.

The ‘Boro’ News’ reporter toured the factory, claiming that the women could earn between 17s. and 26s. a week at the new prices. These young women were novices. The strikers were very indignant with what they alleged to be ‘mis-statements’ in the paper. “What do ‘e say in yer piper! That we could earn free paand a week at the gime. Lummy, we should just ‘alf like to have a go at it. Fifteen bob is not so bad, and a quid is a lot, but free paand!! So ‘elp me, it’s a bit fick, I don’t fink! “

Although the ‘Boro’ News’ reported Mr Stevenson as saying that no additional women would go out on strike ‘The Times’ of August 14th wrote:

“Peaceful picketing was carried on during yesterday, and one result of this is that seven girls, who were taken on yesterday morning, have signified their intention of not going in this morning”.

The strikers, together with the Federation of Women Workers, arranged a demonstration at Trafalgar Square on Saturday August 22nd. The women came from Earlsfield Station carrying banners with the words ‘Box Makers At Bay’. They marched in a downpour from Waterloo Station via the Embankment to Trafalgar Square where they were met by a crowd of between-five and seven hundred supporters. Mary MacArthur opened the proceedings and the crowd heard speeches from the women themselves, from Frank Smith of the London County Council and from Victor Grayson MP.

The ‘Woman Worker’ of August 28th gives the following account of the demonstration:

“When we got to Waterloo it was raining. My word, it did rain. We marched three a line over Waterloo Bridge and along the Embankment. The rain soaked through and through us. It got into your bones, so to speak” as Polly said.

“And the mud. It was slush up to our ankles, but we felt real gay all the same.

‘Ye waited for a bit under the archway, till all at one it cleared. Polly started to sing, ‘If you can’t do no good, don’t do no harm’.

(This was the women’s strike song).

We were all still singing when we marched into the Square, and all at once the sun started shining, and the big crowd started cheering.

“Miss MacArthur told the people all about the goings-on at the Corruganza works. Then she asked Alice -to speak up and tell the people all about everything. Alice is what they call a fine girl. She’s the big dark one what does the heavy work. Her as Mr Stevenson calls the ‘Battersea Bruiser’. She told ’em how we had been cut down so as we couldn’t earn nothing, and how she stood up to Mr Stevenson and the Galloping Major (what Miss MacArthur says is a commissionaire) and how she got the sack. Then Polly up and spoke. She told the folk how heavy the work was, and what hard times we had been having before the prices were cut down. Then it was Annie’s turn. She has always kept respectable, has Annie, though she has had an awful struggle.

“Annie told them as how she had lost her mother before she was a year old, and her father when she was seven. ‘I have always kept strite up to now” Annie said. ‘Gawd ‘elping me, I will still’.

“All the speeches were fine. Miss Margaret Bondfield and Mr Frank Smith spoke up for us grand, and Mr Victor Grayson, who looked a very young boy to be a member of Parlyment, was spiffin’.

“When the speaking came to an end the crowd flung no end of money up to us. Not only pennies, but crowns and half-sovereigns too.”

Support continued to pour in after the demonstration in the form of money and letters. A group of box-makers from Manchester wrote to the ‘Woman Worker’ saying: ‘We know how hard it is to make a living wage, and we realise that it is our battle the girls are fighting as well as theirs. So we made a collection amongst us, because we think it is our duty to help one another as much as lies in our power’.

On September 3rd the dispute was settled by the Board of Trade. The firm agreed to reinstate all the strikers and the piece work rates were to remain as before, except in the case of tube rolling for incandescent mantle boxes where the rate was to be reduced. Mary Williams, the fore-woman, decided not to return but was sent £10 by a well-wisher to help her until she found another position. The Women’s Suffrage League Paper saw the victory as an important step for women. ‘The amount of sympathy and help given to the strikers by the public shows that, thanks to the Suffrage agitation, fair play towards women has now made decided progress’.

Later in September, however, ‘The Times’ reported Mr Stevenson as saying that the strikers had agreed to accept the reductions as originally proposed and that ‘the strike was entirely without justification. The charge of ‘sweating’ which was really too absurd to need refutation, disposes of itself’.

Miss Sophy Safliger, who represented the strikers at the conciliation proceedings replied immediately to Mr Stevenson’s letter of the 17th September: ‘The reductions agreed to at the conciliation proceedings were only in respect of one class of work, and had already been agreed to by the girls before the strike took place. In the interests of the girls and their helpers, a statement that the strike was entirely without justification cannot be allowed to pass. It is not to be supposed that work-girls, most of whom had worked many years with the firm and were entirely dependent upon their own earnings, with no organisation or funds behind them, would be likely to throw up their work and risk hunger for an imaginary grievance’.

In fact, the ‘Woman Worker’ had already reported on the 11th September Mr Stevenson’s attempts to hide the facts behind the strike. ‘It seemed that at the first meeting the negotiations had not progressed at all, and a fierce resumption of the war had appeared probable. But on the second day a great discovery was made. The strike was an accident – a carelessness. Mr.Stevenson had been misunderstood by the girls, by Miss Williams, by Miss MacArthur, by the Press-men, the Board of Trade – everybody. Reductions? Bless you, he had intended one only: a little one. applying merely small percentage of work, and not seriously affecting wages … It was agreed at last that a settlement should be accepted in good faith and Miss MacArthur reminded the girls that they were organised now and therefore no longer helpless, no longer likely to be agreed upon’.

At the same time as the strike, the Women’s Industrial Council, as reported by ‘The Women’s Industrial News’ of September 1908, was investigating the box-making industry reporting that ‘fifteen or sixteen years ago the wages of. the women employed were, comparatively speaking, good, and the average wage throughout the trade, including that of learners, was, at a guess 15s. If it had been possible to form a strong trade union the same rates might perhaps prevail today. But some employers lowered prices by introducing a great many young learners, who often received for the first few weeks, or even months, nothing at all and only a very small wage afterwards’.

By 1910, ‘The Women’s Industrial News’ was able to report that it is particularly pleasing ‘those who saw at the time of the Council’s enquiry the growing underpayment in this trade, to find it included among the first four in which Trade boards are being instituted; and to learn that the women, stimulated by the hope which these Boards offer them, are joining a trade union by hundreds’. These Boards were set up to regulate wages.

The Corruganza box-makers strike, starting from personal hardship, had now become history and part of a larger struggle. It is an important landmark in working class women’s history.

SOURCES

Clapham Observer Aug 1908
The Times Aug-Sep 1908
Tooting & Balham Gazette Aug-Sep 1908
Wandsworth Borough News Aug-Oct 1908 .
Women’s Freedom League Papers 1908
Women’s Industrial News 1908-1912
Woman Worker Aug-Sep 1908
Women in British Trade Unions 1974-1976. Norbert Soldon. Publ. Gill & Macmillan, 1978.

 Typist’s Postscript:

About ten years later there was another strike at the Corruganza factory; after a popular forewoman was replaced by a strict disciplinarian, who cracked down on what some of the workers thought to be a relatively free and easy work regime, the new gaffer was assaulted by a number of the workers who then walked out on strike. As far as I can work out they were all sacked and not taken back. 

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An entry in the
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Today in London striking history, 1965: Foyles bookshop strikers go back to work

In May 1965, the staff of Foyle’s went on strike for a month to demand payment of a living wage and the recognition of their right to join a union, and reinstatement of a dismissed employee and improvement in wages.

As a result of talks which took place between the parties, agreement was reached on a number of points and work was resumed on 25th May. Subsequently, however, there was disagreement over wage negotiations and this resulted in a further strike.

Below we reprint an interview we found with the Foyle’s worker whose sacking sparked the strike.

Sebastian Harding – How did you begin at Foyles?

Marius Webb – I was born in London. My father was English, from Battersea, and he was working for Battersea Council when war broke out. My mother had come to the United Kingdom from New Zealand via Australia. After the war, they decided that London was appalling and they should get out, so they came to Australia. But I left when I was twenty-one and came back by ship to Europe.

My first experience of London was the grim reality of staying with my aunt and uncle in Balham. One day, I saw an advertisement in the paper for a job at Foyles that paid £10 a week. During my University year I had a part in establishing a small bookshop in Melbourne called ‘The Paperback’ and I had also studied English at University so had a good knowledge of literature. I passed the interview and was told I could begin work on the following Monday.

I remember the first week at Foyles very well. The policy was that all new staff went directly into the mailroom. You sat around this enormous table and opened all the mail that came in. Someone would come up from transport area with a huge sack full of mail and dump it on the table. There were a couple of stout old ladies who managed the room and they would sort the mail out. Christina (Christina Foyle, owner of the Foyles business from 1963) was an avid stamp collector and, equipped with a paper knife, you had to open the invoices in a particular way so that the stamp was saved.

Bucket loads of money orders was what came in most most frequently. Talk about having a cash cow! We were at the fag end of the British Empire and people all over the world were members of the Foyles book club. They would send off monthly for a new book sent with a money order. Foyles also ran a book club which did reprints of famous books from the twenties and thirties. This was a considerable part of their business and so the mailing room was quite an operation.
It was good for someone new because you could speak to the people opening mail on either side of you. The mail room was the fulcrum of the whole place with approximately twenty people working there at one time.

Sebastian Harding – Can you describe Charing Cross Rd in the sixties?

Marius Webb – I loved it. I had come from Melbourne which was a recently planned city where every road was straight but London still had that ancient air. I loved Charing Cross Rd because it had such a distinct character. Everything south of Tottenham Court Rd station was just full of little bookshops and music shops, and I guess most of that has gone now. It had so much character and interest. Some of the smaller bookshops were unique and, of course, there was the proximity of the theatre where you could get in for nine pence in the Gods. London felt like a really creative force.

Sebastian Harding – Many have fond memories of the eccentricities of Foyles, did that affect working there?

Marius Webb – They did not trust staff with money so there were a number of queuing systems. The customer would queue up first to a till where a staff member gave them a note of the cost of their book. The customer would take a written piece of paper over to the till where they paid. This was incredibly naïve as it meant staff could steal quite easily and many of my colleagues did.

For instance, if their friend came in wanting to buy a book they would write down one shilling for a book worth a pound. Their friend would take it to the cash till, pay the shilling and then come back to their friend who would stamp their receipt and no one would be any the wiser!

I remember people would go up to the Art department, help themselves to a few books and then go down and sell them to the second hand department. Took them ages to work that one out! Many staff knew about regular shoplifters but there was an attitude of, “Oh that’s too bad.” I remember I once saw an old lady behind a stack. When I came round to see what was going on I saw she was sweeping a whole heap of books into a suitcase!

Sebastian Harding – Do you remember the interior of the store?

Marius Webb – None of the rooms in the building were large because it had been cobbled together from a group of buildings that had once served a whole series of other purposes. The ground floor had much higher ceilings and the ‘New Releases’ area of the store felt like a Victorian salon with cornices from an earlier life. I remember the windows were quite splendid which meant they were great for displaying books.

Sebastian Harding – Can you remember the people who ran the store?

Marius Webb – Christina Foyle’s husband, Ronald Batty, was the manager and he was quite formidable. I did not realise at first that he was married to her but he was a hands-on military sort of chap. He would sweep in and out, ordering the old ladies around and calling people out from the mail table and giving them orders to go to one of the departments. He was the General Manager, the Human Resources Manager, Chief Personnel Officer. Everything went through him as far as staff were concerned. There was an Australian called Mr Green who was in charge of new releases. He was very fancy but ultimately quite sad – he was gay and had obviously come to London to get away from Australia – very efficient but not very strong-willed.

Sebastian Harding – What began the chain of events that led to your dismissal and the strike?

Marius Webb – In my second week working at the store, I was assigned to the ground floor ‘New Releases.’ It was a terrific area to be in. I got to know authors like Len Deighton (writer of The Ipcress File), who would come in to see how their books were selling. One of the things that struck me from the outset were some of the more Victorian ways of the organisation. I remember arriving for my shift, running up the marble stairs and there would be two or three old ladies on their knees scrubbing the stairs by hand with rags. Coming from Australia, I was just appalled but that was actually quite typical of the London of those days –  the remnant of the old working class being kept in their place.

The other thing that I remember was having a surprise at the end of the second week when we got paid. We were paid nine pounds ten whereas the advertisement I had answered said quite clearly £10 a week. Dropping ten shillings does not sound like much, but when you are only getting paid ten pounds it is quite a lot. It did immediately make me question what sort of employer advertises a wage and then does not pay it. I was used to Australia where we had minimum wage and an eight hour day – these were things we accepted as normal.

As time passed, the style of management at Foyles became abundantly clear. The first thing that happened was an incident with a fellow from Sweden with whom I had worked with in the mail room. He had his own small art bookshop and had come to London to better his English and make some contacts. In the second or third week, I ran into him and he was wearing a dust coat and pushing a trolley and told me he had been put in the transport department, after originally applying to work in the Art Department.

I said “That doesn’t sound right. Go and talk to Mr Batty as it sounds like some sort of mistake.” Later that day, I saw him again and he had just been sacked. He explained the situation to Mr Batty and he was told: “Well you’re working in the Mail department and if you don’t like it you’re sacked.” I thought“Crikey! This is very strange.” This was a guy who wanted to make connections between Foyles and his own successful bookstore in Sweden, and there there was a good possibility it would have been beneficial to both parties. That chap’s dismissal was one of quite a few sackings that happened over my first month of working there, most workers did not have any comeback and it just became endemic.

I was getting increasingly concerned at the number of people getting dismissed and I mentioned it to my uncle. He was a draughtsman and the draughtsman’s union was one of the toughest. He told me I needed to speak to the Shop Workers’ Union (USDAW) which I had no knowledge of.

I met one of the organisers and he said, “You are entitled to this amount but they can still pay you what they like.” He told me to be careful that my employers did not hear I had been speaking to the union, as previous Foyles employees had lost their jobs as a result of this. He told me I could join up, but to have any influence I would need a lot of people to join.

A number of us became friends and every so often we would go to the Pillars of Hercules for drinks after work. One evening, I brought the subject up and we all agreed that the way we were being treated was not up to scratch and that we should  join the union together. There were about three or four of us at the start and we agreed to keep mum, but before long we had about twenty.

We needed to have union meetings and I was appointed to lead them even though I had not a clue how to run a meeting, and it was after one of these that I was ratted. One fellow who was a bit of a goody-goody and quite close to Mrs Foyle had been invited to a meeting. He was generally pro-management and, of course, he passed on the word to Mr Batty. Not long after that, I was called into Mr Batty’s office and told I had not been satisfactory and I had been late for work.

I rang the union and this guy told me to get my arse up to the offices real quick. They had an offset printer and we created some very simple leaflets and posters. We got down to Foyles the following morning so we could give out these leaflets to people as they arrived for work.

All the people coming into work were all my friends, so even if they were not members of the union, when they found out what had happened they decided to join the strike. The twenty people who were already part of the union joined me outside immediately and it was not long before we had fifty to sixty people. The union cranked out more leaflets and we were soon handing them out to every customer trying to enter the building. This had a devastating effect on business because 50% of customers said,“Oh in that case, I’m not coming in,” and this escalated very quickly. Then, because we had the placards in the street, someone phoned the newspapers and within an hour or two the Evening Standard had us on the front page.

The story was even reported in Australia and my auntie kept all the clippings from the local newspapers because she thought it was fantastic. For the first few days, there was a huge amount of media attention because Foyles was a well known institution so it was a good hook to hang the story on and the strike was led by young people. There was a lot of unexpected support from the customers, the authors and the publishers.

Sebastian Harding – What was the outcome?

Marius Webb – The strike actually lasted for just three days. At first the shop’s owners ignored it and tried to solve it themselves. At the end of the second day, Christina Foyle walked around the shop and apparently offered people £5 to stay and work the following day, but some people were so offended by this they came out to join the strike just to spite her. By the third day, the management realised they were in deep trouble because they saw from the tills what was happening.

They immediately convened a Foyles conference with the union, as well as further talks about the rates of pay and the conditions that people were working under. We were all quite pleased and back at work by the end of the third day, and I was put into a new department.

After four or five days, it became transparent that nothing had changed. They refused to change anything and so we had a meeting with the unions where they let us know they were not getting very far with their own negotiations. We decided that we needed to go on strike again and this second strike ended up lasting for six weeks. We had no idea it would last this long! This was about 50% of the workforce, around 100 people. The fact we stayed outside the shop, continually leafleting meant that eventually they had to resolve the issue. It was not hugely satisfactory, but we did get pay rises and a bit of respite from the continual sackings.

I remember there was one worker in the transport department who was a real cockney. He started out against the strike, then joined the union and by the time I left he wanted to be the union boss!

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London fashion history, 1768: hatters strike for a wage rise

“This day the hatters struck, and refused to work till their wages are raised…”
(Annual Register, 9th May 1768)

This is an interesting snapshot, exposing a glimpse of a struggle; little is then heard of the hatters strike. We know it went on for at least five weeks though, as on 21st June, John Dyer, hatmaker of Southwark, swore that ‘on Thursday last, a gang of Hatters, to the number of thirty, came to his house in the Maze in the Parish of St Olave’s, Southwark, about one o’clock at noon, in a riotous manner, and insisting this informant turn off the men he then at work, which he refused; and, upon such refusal, the gang of Hatters threatened to pull his house down and take this Informant thereout. And this informant saith they would have begun to execute such threats if it had not been for one Mr Phillips who accidentally was at this Informant’s house and did prevail on them to omit it. And this Informant saith there was one Thomas Fitzhugh present aiding and assisting among ye said mob, and came and asked this Informant, and came and asked this Informant whether he would turn off his men which refused; and upon that the said Fitzhugh declared, if he would not, ”damn them who would not have you out(meaning this Informant) and the house down.’ Thomas Fitzhugh was later charged with a breach of the peace and a misdemeanour at the Surrey Sessions, and bailed to appear on 21st July… there is no other record of what happened to him… or of the outcome of the strike. Did they win a wage rise?

The hatmakers appeared to have used the common tactic, where work was organised in small workshops, of marching from workshop to workshop to ensure the workers were paid the going rate, or the rate they were trying to win… This generally involved some intimidation of the masters, and on occasion, any of the workers who were working at less than the rate…

Interestingly,  this is a very early use of the term ‘strike’ by a non-sailors to mean a work stoppage… since the origin of the term is said to have come from the sailors’ strike of the same year, 1768, when they showed their refusal to work by ‘striking’ the sails (cutting the ropes to drop them to the deck).

Hatters are mentioned in reports of the Wilkite riots of 1768-71, as being prominent among Wilkes’ supporters. 1768 was a year of turbulent political rioting, in support of Wilkes’ vague program of reform and liberty, and protests and strikes by numerous groups of London workers… these two intertwined and merged, and sometimes diverged… The trades disputes inspired others, spreading like a wildfire…

On the same day as the hatters struck,  9th May, there were demonstrations by a ‘body of watermen’, complaining of their working conditions to the Lord Mayor, and a protest, probably pro-Wilkes, both at the Mansion House, in the City. The next day. 10th May, was to be even more uproarious, with the Massacre of St George’s Fields, on the hatters’ door step, and across town in Limehouse, Dingley’s sawmill pulled down by angry out of work sawyers.

The Annual Register entry doesn’t specify the location of the hatters’ dispute, but given the later reports about intimidation, it was almost certainly based in Southwark or Bermondsey, London’s main areas of hatmaking for centuries. Hats were manufactured ‘to a greater extent in London than anywhere else’… at least 50 years after the 1768 strike, there were 3500 hatters, pretty much localised to Southwark.

From at least the time of Queen Elizabeth I, the Parish of St Olave’s, Bermondsey, was once the centre of hat-making in London and was called the “Hatters’ Paradise.” There were many hatters, or felt-makers, who had premises on Bermondsey Street; they had, at least in the 1590s, a willingness to riot in defence of each other.

In 1770, there was a strike of journeymen hat-dyers in Southwark, again accused of forming a mob to enforce wage rates: ‘at all shops they came to they obliged the men to strike in order to have their wages raised’.

Around 1800, the ‘Maze’, Tooley Street, the northern end of Bermondsey Street, and other streets in the  immediate vicinity, formed the grand centre of the hat-manufacture in London; but in the following decades, the hatmaking scene shifted farther westward. By the 1840s this meant the hat-making trade was mostly concentrated between Borough High Street and Blackfriars Road (though some hatters remained in Bermondsey). Note the name Hatfields, a street west of Blackfriars Road where many hat manufacturing companies were based in the 19th century. It forms the boundary between Southwark and Lambeth.

Being a fashion trade, subject to extreme variations in demand, hat makers could be busy or idle depending on the season, which made it difficult to earn a consistent living. Changes in fashion could mean new hat styles, which could mean having to quickly learn new skills, working with new materials, new techniques… Very much like the Spitalfields silkweavers at this time, and later the East End tailoring trades, haymaking was very much dependent on its proximity to the well-to-do customers in the City and Westminster.

A lot of workers were “out workers”, collecting materials from a ‘master’, carrying out the work at home, and then delivering the finished goods for payment.

The job was unpleasant and dangerous. An important chemical during the shaping of the hats was dilute sulphuric acid, a highly poisonous substance – hence the saying ‘as mad as a hatter’.

Hatters had been active in wage disputes in Southwark in 1763 – a Hatters Society organizing hatters had possibly formed in 1759, later existing as the union of silk hatters.

In 1777, master hatmakers complained to the House of Commons that the journeymen of the trade had entered into a combination, which they called a Congress, passed bylaws, prevented the hiring of apprentices, and threatened strikes to raise wages.

This union exercised what was described as a ‘despotic power’ in the trade in the 1840s; it was involved in inter-trade political organising, and sent money in support of a hatters’ strike in Lancashire in 1840.

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

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