Today in London policing history, 1990: cops attack striking Bacton Fashions workers, Hackney

Food delivery couriers in the IWGB union have challenged Labour’s Philip Glanville, the mayor of Hackney, to meet them and negotiate over their demands for a safe parking area in the Dalston, East London, after the mayor denied that an immigration raid on couriers in the area was a result of the couriers’ campaign for free parking space where they can wait for orders.

Eight riders were arrested in Dalston for “immigration offences” in January, just two days after protests were held outside Hackney Town Council demanding safe parking spaces.

London’s Metropolitan Special Constabulary (LMSC) said that the arrests were part of “a joint operation” involving “Hackney Police”. Philip Glanville, however, denied that the Council were complicit on the raids, and claimed they had “gone above and beyond in working to ensure that drivers have safer conditions” and that they were “liaising directly with the drivers and their representatives on their concerns.”

The IWGB union’s Couriers & Logistics Branch dispute this, and in response issued a statement to Granville: “As a majority BAME and migrant workforce who work entirely in public space, delivery riders are already disproportionately targeted by police and immigration enforcement in their personal and daily lives. As you know, this is a community of riders that has also already been subject to, for months, a concerted effort by the police and civil enforcement officers to force them out of their workplace. You should understand, therefore, that the riders’ parking campaign and the issue of immigration enforcement are inextricably linked.

“If you are serious that Hackney Council does not support immigration raids linked to enforcement action, we urge you to come to Ashwin Street to meet with riders, to negotiate on our demands about building a free and safe working environment for couriers in Hackney.” The couriers went on to reject Glanville’s claim that the council had sought to ensure safe working conditions for couriers, saying they had “yet to see any evidence of this”.

Parking at the Bentley Road car park in Dalston will cost £2 an hour from March onwards, which the couriers described as “an unacceptable cost for low-paid workers who can receive as little as £2 an hour during shifts”. The additional cost may force couriers to go back to their previous waiting place, on Ashwin Street, where there has been a concerted attempt to move them off, including through the use of £65 council fines, following plans for the regeneration of a nearby road. The IWGB have previously condemned this as “gentrification in action”, and in their statement to Glanville they said that Bentley Road was much more “isolated and dangerous especially at night” for couriers “who already endure disproportionately high levels of abuse, assault, harassment and theft”.

Financial support for the IWGB Couriers and Logistics Branch can be donated here

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This kind of a ‘holistic’ approach to targetting lowpaid migrant workers is hardly new to Hackney, however – as a strike from more than 30 years ago illustrates… a tale of policing, and immigration raids being used to attack migrant workers (many refugees) on behalf of bosses and the repressive regime the workers had fled…

Bacton Fashions in Somerford Grove, Dalston, was a clothing sweatshop employing up to 90 workers. It was located in an industrial unit along with other clothing sweatshops. Workers from the different firms used the same entrance to go to work.

Like much of East London, Hackney was home to many clothing factories – often small, employing often migrant labour, on low pay in poor conditions. The 1991 census figures showed that 12,000 manufacturing jobs solely in the clothing industry in 1981. Many of these jobs were in the textile sweatshops which were dotted around the borough.

Most of Bactons workers were Turkish or Kurdish, had been living in Britain for less than a couple of years and were waiting for a Home Office decision on their rights to remain in the UK. Within the factory there were some members of TGWU’s new 1/1312 textile workers’ branch. The branch, formed at the initiative of the political organisation, the Union of Turkish Workers, with the assistance of Hackney Trade Union Support Unit and Service Workers Advisory Project (SWAAP) had recruited almost 600 workers locally.

A series of small-scale strikes had led to a union recognition agreement being signed at Dizzi Limited in nearby Well Street. There were regular leafleting sessions of factories and meetings on workers’ rights at community centres.

The workers at Bacton Fashions had many complaints about low pay, long hours, terrible health and safety conditions, no holiday or sick pay, victimisation, continuous lay-offs without pay and a management prepared to act dictatorially.

The workers themselves were not completely defenceless as they included some that had brought revolutionary traditions from the cities and villages of Turkey and Kurdistan. The previous year (1989) over 4,500 refugees had come to Hackney fleeing the war in Kurdistan. They joined, at least, another twenty to thirty thousand Turkish speaking workers in east London. Almost none of these workers were unionised and no major union had thought to change this. For example, none had ever appointed a Turkish speaking official.

When eight workers at Bacton Fashions refused to accept being ‘laid off’ they began picketing. Appeals to other workers to respect their picket line were met sympathetically, but little else. The employer, Mustafa Dill, was sufficiently embarrassed to re-employ the workers and to agree to lay off pay during slack periods. However, he kept breaking his word and there were almost daily walkouts over the next few weeks, as agreements were reached then broken once again.

Bacton Fashions itself was located in an industrial unit along with other clothing sweatshops. Workers from the different firms used the same entrance to go to work

During the Bacton strike, it became a regular practice at the end of the working day for workers from all the firms in the industrial unit to join with the strikers and jeer and handclap the boss and his managerial team as they left work. There was no violence, although tensions were clearly running high. Up to 400 people were involved in this daily humiliation of the boss and managers.

Demands from union branch members for the TGWU to make the strike official were refused, requests for strike pay was therefore ignored and strikers were instructed that they couldn’t even make financial appeals on TGWU headed notepaper.

There was no attempt by the union official, Brian Theobald, to spread the dispute to other factories or to use what was happening to recruit other workers into the TGWU. He came to the picket line on a small number of occasions and took no part in strike meetings.

On February 26th 1990 the evening picket of about 100 people was attacked by the paramilitary Territorial Support Group of the Metropolitan Police. There was a fierce fight, during which the police were initially chased from the scene, before re-grouping and attacking the pickets and their supporters.

Four pickets (all Kurdish refugees) were arrested and charged with riotous behaviour and actual bodily harm. They faced possible deportation if convicted.

Around 150 people picketed Dalston police station until 5am in the morning.

The next morning (27.02.1990) no one from any of the factories located in the same building as Bacton Fashions crossed the picket line, forcing Bactons to close.

The police attack came almost exactly a year to the day after police raided a number of factories in Hackney (on 27/2/1989) and arrested 38 Kurdish and Turkish workers. By the next day, seven had been deported and a further fourteen were under threat. This action came in the wake of a wave of raids across North and East London.

A protest against deportation raids in Hackney, 1989

The February 1989 raids had in fact themselves sparked the formation of the 1/1312 textile workers’ branch in the first place.

A campaign to defend “The Bacton 4” was launched at a demo of 400 on April 7th. The campaign helped to secure ‘not guilty’ court verdicts for all four arrestees when their case came to trial in October 1990. It emerged that Special Branch had visited Bactons and showed the security guard photographs of recent demonstrations in London against a visit of Turkish leader General Evren – these photos apparently originated at the Turkish Embassy.

One striker Tekin Kartel, later received a five figure sum in damages for what had happened to him.

Bactons was eventually forced to close permanently, only to re-open under a different name and at a different location later. Picketing and a refusal by workers to work there led to its closure again.

As Mark Metcalf of the Colin Roach Centre put it:

‘Police Hurt during factory protest’ (Newspaper clipping). Nice slant you’ve got there.

While the workers lost their poorly paid jobs they achieved a degree of success showing the employers that they could not do everything they wanted and needed to take the workers needs into account when making decisions. The workers established a pride in fighting back; they closed down the factory and demonstrated they had the power to not only damage the employers’ profits but get rid of it!

All in all, the strike was not well supported by the local trade union movement and the TGWU’s conduct didn’t impress the workers in local clothing outfits. Branch membership fell dramatically and recruitment became much more difficult.

However, local textile workers would strike again. On January 3rd 1991 over 2,500 London textile workers took solidarity action with their fellow workers on general strike in Turkey on the same day. Factories in Shacklewell Lane, Somerford Grove, Victorian Grove, Tyssen Street, Tudor Grove and Arcola Street were virtually empty as workers refused to cross picket lines.

Once again, police took the opportunity to attack migrant workers on strike. Police vans were driven at speeds of over 70mph to the Halkevi community centre on Stoke Newington High St, and officers jumped from the vehicles to race into a crowd of around 120. Five people were grabbed and when friends tried to stop their arrests, around 20 police officers drew their truncheons and batoned people to the ground, arresting them as they fell. One woman went to St Barts Hospital with a broken leg.

At 2pm a crowd of 150 went to protest outside Stoke Newington police station and when in protest 30 sat down, on the other side of the road to the station, the police paramilitaries of the Bow TSG rushed across the road and violently arrested dozens of people. Others fled, but were pursued by the police in all directions.

62 people were arrested with four being taken by the police to Homerton hospital. Access to the casualty department was denied by police at the entrance.  29 people were charged with  serious public order offences. Many arrestees were beaten whilst in police custody.

Local police monitoring & defendants support group, Hackney Community Defence Association, set up support for the arrested. HCDA identified the January 3rd arrests as pure revenge for the police loss of face over the confrontations at Bactons:

“The facts speak for themselves. TSG officers have an image of themselves as an elite force, and they behave as if answerable to nobody but themselves. There is a certain inevitability that wherever they go, trouble is sure to follow.”

Two of the arrestees, Haci Bozkurt and Baki Ates, both 34 and from Stoke Newington, received a great deal of press coverage when their cases eventually came to trial five years later. Both had been granted political asylum after fleeing Turkey to escape police violence and persecution, when they were arrested for protesting about police arrests and violence, and charged with violent disorder. At Highbury Corner magistrates court in May 1991 no evidence was offered against Mr Bozkurt. Mr Ates was acquitted.


Turkish and Kurdish refugees (like other communities) in Hackney experienced policing as a repressive and violent force; that the police supported employers, acted as frontline troops for immigration deportations, and also tried to attack political refugees on behalf of vicious regimes from other countries was hardly a surprise. Racism and hatred of ‘foreigners’ at a ground level in the force served as the street level strongarm of blatant support for capitalists at a higher level, and the barely hidden hand of secret policing (which often co-operated with/acted as a proxy for repressive regimes…)

That Special Branch had intervened on behalf of the Turkish regime was hardly unique either. Only a couple of years after the events described above, Hackney Trade union Support Unit, which had played a part in assisting the Turkish and Kurdish workers to set up the TGWU branch, and Hackney Community Defence Association, which had helped defend the arrested strikers, together with other local activists, set up the ground-breaking Colin Roach Centre, named for a man who died in a local police station 10 years before), as a meeting and organising space. Police, and specifically Special Branch, would continue their multi-faceted/multi-agency defence of existing power relations, & attempts at repression of those trying to challenge them: Mark Jenner of the Branch’s Special Demonstration Squad was infiltrated to spy on the Colin Roach Centre, due to HCDA/TUSU’s involvement, and the Centre’s affiliation to Anti Fascist Action (AFA). Jenner used this connection to infiltrate trade union activists and reported on their organising back to the SDS, who passed some of this info to blacklisting organisations working to target trade unionists and workers on behalf of employers (he also spied on AFA and other groups).

Police act for the bosses – Never forget it.

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Nicked from the Radical History of Hackney, some bits owe thanks to Neil Transpontine and Mark Metcalf.

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Today in healthcare history, 1990: Ambulance workers dispute settled

In 1989–1990 British ambulance crews took on the tory Thatcher government in a dispute over pay– the largest action by health workers since the 1982 nurses strike.

Overtime bans and strikes lasted from 7 September 1989 to 23 February 1990. Ambulance workers’ pay had fallen behind that of firefighters, with which it had been linked in 1985: the five ambulance workers unions rejected a government pay offer of 7.5%, who instead demanded a 25.8% rise.

The dispute started in September with an overtime ban but as this failed to bring the employers to agreement, action was upped: crews began to refuse to attend non-emergency calls in November. The government brought in the Army, the police and recruited volunteer ambulance crews to cover callouts.

Ambulance provision in the United Kingdom was organised on a local basis by regional ambulance services. The pay and conditions of employees in the emergency services had been agreed by the Standing Commission on Pay Comparability in 1979, which recommended a pay increase of 25.8% (bearing in mind annual inflation was around 16%). Despite this, ambulance workers had gone on strike in 1981–2 over pay, (emergency cover being provided by the police). This strike led to a new salary scale being agreed in November 1985, which linked pay to that of firefighters.

By 1989 the Fire Brigades Union had won favourable pay settlements which broke the link and ambulance workers’ pay had fallen to 11% less than firefighters. The ambulance workers, represented by five different trade unions, increasingly felt forgotten and ignored, and that their service was being run on the cheap.

The full original set of demands were:

    • £20 a week increase to bridge the gap between ambulance staff and the fire service;
    • A formula to determine pay in the future;
    • An overtime rate for overtime work;
    • A reduction in the working week and 5 weeks’ holiday;
    • Better pay and holidays for long service;
    • An increase in standby pay.
    • Restoration of the link established in the 1985 settlement

The unions also pressed for funding to train their members in paramedic skills. Ambulance personnel tended to be treated as the poor relations of the NHS, and also compared to the other emergency services. During the dispute Health Secretary Kenneth Clarke expressed this, labelling them as merely ‘van drivers’.

Ambulance drivers’ pay had been pared to the point that their basic was rarely enough to live on, and they become reliant upon overtime payments to make ends meet.

The unions were pushed into the action by the strength of feeling of the workers from below. In May 1989 the government had offered a 7.5% pay rise; the unions recommended that their members accept this but it was rejected by a large majority of ambulance staff.

Ambulance service crews voted on 7 September by a 4:1 majority to implement an overtime ban and a ban on rest-day working from 13 September. Ambulance services had developed a reliance on workers doing these additional hours to provide non-emergency services like the transport of patients between hospitals. The services responded by hiring private taxis to transport patients or asking patients provide their own transport.

The Thatcher government was determined not to award further pay increases, and also strongly wanted a victory over the unions to bolster its case for planned Health Service reforms (involving heavy cuts in services and marketisation of healthcare). Health secretary, Kenneth Clarke, rejected a union proposal to enter arbitration on 22 September, which led to the collapse of negotiations.

Prior to this there had been some tension between the different unions representing the ambulance crews and the officers. However, in late September ambulance service officers and controllers voted to join the overtime ban from 4 October, and the unions agreed to co-ordinate joint action. Roger Poole was selected as chief negotiator for the workers in the dispute and eventually came to represent members from five separate unions.

However, by early October the pressure of missing out on overtime payments was biting, and there was a feeling that either the dispute had to be escalated to force a conclusion, or the overtime ban would have to end.

In an attempt to restart negotiations, in mid-October unions refused to carry out some clerical work and non-urgent patient transfers (in previous overtime bans, doctors had responded by labelling all transfers as urgent, overloading thinly stretched ambulance services)  and some crews began lock-outs and sit-ins at depots. A public petition in support of the ambulance workers was launched that eventually attracted 4 million signatures. In response the Government put the Army on standby from 30 October to provide ambulance services if needed.

In November emergency ambulance crews their service to emergency 999 calls only and refused to provide patient transfer services. The government then threatened to suspend crews who refused to carry out non-emergency work or to dock their pay. The unions reply was to adopt a policy that if any member was suspended then all members in that ambulance service should declare themselves as suspended. By 7 November, some 2,500 ambulance workers in In London, responsible for 455 ambulances in 71 depots, were suspended.

The Unions asked that these members continue to provide an emergency service, though they would be unpaid, but the government thought this would be bad publicity, and ordered the police and army in to provide emergency coverage. The first army ambulances were deployed on 8 November in London together with police and volunteer ambulance crews. This marked the first occasion that army ambulances had been used since the Winter of Discontent.

The union negotiators were fighting a publicity war, attempting to use the undoubted popular support for the healthworkers as leverage against the government; they also tried hard to keep a lid on grassroots action from below and prevent all out strikes or wildcat actions, and worked hard to prevent serious solidarity action from other unions in support for the dispute. As Roger Poole stated earlier on in the strike, “We don’t want solidarity strikes from other workers” .

But their attempts to keep down ambulance workers’ autonomous activity were increasingly unsuccessful: anger from below was seething and local escalations of the strike began to erupt across the country.

In Glasgow ambulance crews voted, by a narrow margin and against the advice of their union officials, for an all-out strike from 1 December, including the withdrawal of an emergency response. After two days, Scottish Secretary Malcolm Rifkind arranged emergency ambulance cover from 30 army ambulances working from Territorial Army drill halls, in combination with police-manned ambulances.

Rifkind claimed that ambulance crews in Edinburgh had also refused to respond to emergency calls, although this claim was rejected by the unions.

There were some attempts to widen strike action beyond the ambulance crews. Ambulance crews went down to building sitesat Canary Wharf in docklands and persuaded steel erectors to come out on strike in sympathy on December 6th, then turned up on the day to make sure they stood by their decision (300 came out). On the same day Hammersmith council workers linked up support for the ambulance crews with support for the councils’ own striking nursery workers (council workers also came out in Hackney on unofficial strike that day, as did hospital workers at the Elizabeth Garret Anderson hospital in Soho). Around the same time there were solidarity actions by bus workers at Hanwell garage, and workers at Homerton and St. Bartholomews hospitals. Ambulance crews themselves also made links with strikers at Luton, joining a Vauxhall carworkers’ picket line.

By mid-December the Army were also providing emergency ambulance services in Lincolnshire, Hertfordshire, Derbyshire and South Yorkshire, while in Surrey Royal Navy and Royal Air Force drivers were also used, alongside ambulances single-crewed by ambulance service managers.

Union bigwigs expressed their usual hate and fear of the rank and file taking this kind of action: Roger Poole denounced the ambulance workers going on wildcat strike.

As was pointed out by some supporters of the strike, at the time: “Trade Union officials and politicians demagogically talk of People Power, but conveniently ignore the fact that in East Europe People Power at least involves taking over the streets some of the time. The only acceptable form of People Power the bureaucrats praising the ambulance workers want is an obedient crowd clapping their demagogic cliches which they shout to them from on high through a microphone. We’ve heard all their usual “We shall win” rhetoric before, the ‘we’  referring to themselves – professional representatives hoping to make political capital out of a defeat that they help to bring about, since they always do their very best to throw up obstacles to the poor winning any of their battles. After all, their role would be at stake if there really was a movement with a chance of winning… With friends like Poole and co. workers don’t need the Tories’ new anti-wildcat strike laws.”

On January 13th, 75,000 people demonstrated in support of the ambulance workers in central London.

In January, the whole dispute was escalated nationally. In response to an attempt by the unions involved in the strike to tempt the government to return to negotiations by dropping some demands (abandoning the demand for a cut in working hours, and for more leave and long service perks), the government refused to budge. So then Crews were instructed to refuse calls put through by the ambulance service and to only respond to calls made directly by the police, medical services or the general public. The unions gambled this would require the deployment of more army ambulances and thus hopefully swing public opinion behind them.

A Day of Action in support of the dispute was called for 30th January 1990; unions called for the public to demonstrate support for the strike by lining the streets at mid-day.

January 30th saw 10s of 1000s go on strike for the day, and, loads of people from different sections of the working class joined in common actions. For instance, ”the St.Johns Wood ambulance crew on wildcat strike organised the blocking of Kilburn High Road for half an hour: Irish, blacks, O.A.P.s and others joined in, and perhaps as many as 200 had fun stopping the traffic. The cops were obviously furious but, because of their “nice” image of apparent support for the ambulance workers (whilst raking in loadsamoney doing overtime scabbing on the strike), they had to swallow their pride and merely resort to verbal haranguing, rather than their usual physical form of intimidation. An ambulance woman threatened with arrest managed to shame the cop into withdrawing. Bus drivers in Kilburn, though, were worse than the cops – they tried to plough into people. Yet at the same time several hundreds of bus drivers in South London took half or the whole of the day off. In fact, some of them have been on strike in solidarity with the ambulance workers on and off, days or half-days here & there, for a couple of months now (of course, this Good News is hardly ever mentioned in the media – it might actually encourage people; hence the near-total silence in the media about the dispute since Jan.30th). There were doubtless loads of other places where people stopped traffic – for example, the centre of Liverpool and of Newcastle came to a standstill, and in London Old Street and Euston Road were blocked.”

January 30th however, did reveal how limited the reality of ACTIVE support for the strike was… The ambulance men had a vast well of passive public support, but only small numbers in just a few arenas were prepared to turn passive goodwill and sticking a few quid in the collecting tins into taking an active part… Tory anti-union laws, a general feeling of passivity, lack of confidence – lack of experience of or belief in victory – all played a part in this. A decade of mostly heavy defeats of organised workers had bit hard.

Some supporters of the strike, and of autonomous working class action generally, asked some hard questions about the strike, the unions, the potential for wider active action, in a leaflet produced and distributed to ambulance pickets in early February 1990… their thoughts ranged from the immediate strike to other thoughts and arenas…

“EMERGENCY! SOME QUESTIONS ABOUT THE JANUARY 30th AMBULANCE DISPUTE SOLIDARITY ACTIONS AND OTHER RELATED MATTERS

          Judging by the statement of that mass-murderer Kenneth Clarke, the man behind the cuts in the NHS which lead to thousands of deaths mostly amongst the poor, that the deal now being worked out by the Union leaders and NHS bosses shows “the dawning of a new commonsense”, ambulance crews can now look forward to the traditional insulting sell-out, doubtless to be hailed as “the best offer we could hope for under the circumstances” by well-healed bureaucrats who were never in favour of the dispute from the outset. What the ambulance crews are going to do about it, though, remains to be seen. Resign themselves to the deal whilst moaning about the bastard bureaucrats, or something better? Any new initiative from the base will only develop from a reflection of the strengths and failures of the struggle so far. What follows – written before the present talks at ACAS – is intended as a contribution to this reflection. “What is to be done?” is a question that can only he answered – initially at least – by the ambulance crews themselves.

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“IF A COUPLE OF NURSES PICKETTED EVERY PIT, THE WHOLE OF THE YORKSHIRE COALFIELDS WOULD COME TO A STANDSTILL, THERE’S SUCH SYMPATHY”

– South Yorkshire miner, during the ’88 NHS strikes (when two Yorkshire pits were picketted out).

     There are many independantly-minded workers who are good at formulating the problem – “When we struggle together we need to go directly to other workers, unmediated by the Union hierarchy, to persuade them to strike for us and for themselves”. But when it comes to actually doing something – well, the risky moments have been few and far between. Many fear their  Union as much as the bosses: e.g. during the Wapping dispute (’86 – ’87) several sacked printers talked about going directly to printworkers in & around Fleet St. and urge them to go on strike. But they bottled out because putting up an unofficial picket line could have led to being blacked from the Union for life, weakening their chances of a future legit printing job. It’s unlikely, though, that ambulance workers would face a similar threat from NUPE, despite Poole’s menacing diatribe against the wildcat strikers. In the end, it’s a cop-out to blame the Union or this or that bureaucrat for the failure of struggles ~ submission to the Union that insures the “sell-out”. Complaining about officials is all too easy – unless it’s a prelude to action.

     The Union bureaucrats only want a moral image for the NICE ambulance workers, with token appeals, petitions & opinion poll ratings about public support not because they’re Bad Leaders (‘Sell-Outs’) but because it’s their social role. When shop stewards complain that Poole “is still suppressing any move to strike action. He’s even looking to our bosses” or that he’s “duped shop stewards in London into voting against strike action” (both quoted in Socialist Worker,10/2/90) they are deliberately obscuring the fact that the bureaucrats  function necessarily leads them to pursue interests independently of those they represent. Not just because they are not subject to immediate recall by the base, but more essentially because as professional mediations between capital and labour, they must inevitably act like bosses: like when lefty leader Rodney Bickerstaffe called security guards to chuck out ambulance workers who’d tried to speak to him at the TUC headquarters. And that’s why, in the various health strikes, NUPE and COHSE have consistently divided off the workers from each other (as many healthworkers are well aware).

     Trouble is, submission to the divisive effects of Trade Unions'(and bosses’) cynical organisation of workers by role and category, always leads to demoralisation.  Why have so few healthworkers practically supported the ambulance staff? (and few ambulance crews have posed to other healthworkers that if they really took their support seriously they too would only do emergency work). Indeed some healthworkers, despite claiming support, are only too eager to grab the opportunities for extra overtime which the dispute has created. Course, it’s no good just moralistically finger-wagging, since it doesn’t get to grips with the history of why people feel they can’t win, and attack the cynicism which comes from accepting defeat. I heard of one bus driver in Notting Hill who wouldn’t support the ambulance staff because they hadn’t supported the miners in ’84. Miners themselves don’t generally go along with this bullshit type of excuse: on Jan.30th in a great many pits throughout the country, during the day shift, all those who safely could, downed tools for varying periods of time. On the other hand, I’ve heard of a Kent miner cashing in on the dispute by working shifts with the St. John’s Ambulancemen. And I’ve met one ambulanceman who used this fact as a reason not to try to get solidarity actions from miners. It’s these divisions which are the most depressing. When yesterday’s striker/rebel/lucid critic becomes today’s scab/conformist/professional ideologist, doesn’t it make you feel suicidal (whilst dreaming of slitting their miserable throats sometime in the future, of course)? Indifference and resignation to this horror makes bastards out of individuals who, at one time, were genuinely Good People: they become everything which in the past they detested in others. Being betrayed by these ex-friends is always the most traumatic of all.

     One of the reasons for all these divisions is that no-one really thinks authority can be defeated. After years of failure this is understandable, if only because no-one wants to look for some causes for these defeats other than to blame the various enemies (e.g. the Law, the cops, the media, the Union bureaucrats, the passivity of other sections of the working class). Since such enemies will always exist when people challenge authority in some way, the only function such blame serves is to resign oneself to defeat rather than look at how to combat the enemies better. In the meantime, the life or death question facing the poor in the U.K. – “How are we going to prevent the Thatcherite Economy (let alone global capitalism) completely fucking us over?” – has yet to lead to a practical answer.

     The Labour Party – and all those who pin their hopes on a Labour victory which is by no means assured – have a pat answer of course: Vote Labour! (they will save us! Hallelujah!). Never mind – as one ambulanceman pointed out – that the great reforming Attlee Labour government of  45 – 51 sent troops in to crush the ambulance strikers; never mind the troops sent by the last Labour government, including Tony Benn, against the firemen; never mind the fact that Labour has pledged itself to maintaining the outlawing of sympathy strikes; never mind that Labour’s policies are about the same as those of Thatcher’s ’79 election manifesto (they’ve already bluntly stated that their first priority will be to get the Economy right, and that social concerns will come second); never mind all this – Labour will make things better – rather like praying for rain. But any reform of the State which would be of partial – and inevitably temporary – benefit to the poor could only come if the rulers (Left or Right) felt threatened by a massive explosion of autonomous class war. As de Klerk stated in South Africa, “Reform is needed if we are to avoid revolution”. Since we in the UK are as far from any revolutionary situation as Soweto was in May 1976, the rulers can get away with blatant repression. Reform is only resorted to when it’s the only means of asserting social control (that’s why the South African rulers released Mandela: they know his calls for discipline, an end to looting and an end to the theft and burning of cars, his calls for an end to classroom boycotts, etc. are their best bet of getting blacks to submit to the commodity economy there). But in this country autonomous class struggle hasn’t threatened the market economy with anything like as much consistency as the uprisings of the South African blacks. So far, class struggle here has been defeated mainly from within, especially by submission to the prison of Trade Unionism.

     There are historical reasons behind this submission. In the 70s – height of the inspiring “British disease” which still haunts the CBI, Trade Union rules & structures were sufficient means to carry out a United fight against the rules of profit, to go-slow, refuse overtime, work-to-rule, phone in sick and not be disciplined, strike or whatever. Whilst there was always hostility towards the top Union bureaucrats (e.g. lefty Jack Jones got duffed up following the deal he’d arranged to sell out the dockers’ strike of ’72), up until the ’74 Labour victory, workers on a rank and file level, could generally use shop stewards to fight for their own immediate interests – or, at least, to ignore or by-pass those shop stewards who were more compromised with the bosses. Within the framework of the Union, miners in ’72, organised on a rank & file level, won their fight with the Coal Board by going directly to workers in the Birmingham area and getting them to go down with them to picket out Saltley Coke depot (if only miners in ’84 had gone round Sheffield appealing directly to workers to come down to Orgreave instead of leaving it to Scargill to appeal on TV to people to support them). Also within the framework of the Union, in ’72 dockers forced the government to U-turn and release shop stewards and others from Pentonville prison. Though the ‘revolutionary’ atmosphere was more an unfulfilled promise than a reality, these victories did encourage resistance everywhere to the point when, in ’74, Heath, the P.M., called an election based on “Who rules? The Government or…?”, which he lost. With the Labour victory, though, all the social democratic illusions of the working class in Labour and the Unions were sufficient to dampen down any mass class struggle for over 4 years. The incorporation of the Unions onto management boards and a much greater integration of stewards into the Union/State hierarchy helped suppress rank and file opposition. Looking to shop stewards to lead the struggle lost much of its previous rationality. For instance, there were a far greater number of senior stewards on 100% facility time, paid for by the company/State dept., leaving them as remote from the sharp end of an intensifying workers’ alienation as the Union bureaucrat behind his/her desk. However, beneath the Social Contract between Unions and State, a constant subterranean resistance to wage labour was forever causing misery for the bosses. Eventually all this bubbled over into “The Winter Of Discontent” (’78 – ’79), most of which was fought by the base – and won – completely within a Trade Union perspective, despite the years of Union – Government collaboration. Whereas in the 6Os over 9O% of strikes had been wildcat, in the 70s Unions generally made such strikes official, taking on the image of protecting workers’ interests even when, they were de-railing them. The Winter of Discontent saw workers taking the Union into their own hands but not going beyond the Union. And, generally speaking, shop stewards couldn’t put up obstacles to a struggle run by the base (of which, many of these stewards were still a part). With Callaghan, the Labour P .M., labelling strikers as “free collective vandals” and other sections of the bourgeoisie moaning about truckdrivers “taking managerial decisions” (Sunday Telegraph), Trade Unions seemed like the ruling classes’ “spectre of communism”, to the point where Thatcher could label Trade Unionism as the enemy, subsequently entangling the working class in all sorts of laws, falsely labelled as “anti-Union” laws. In fact, those laws have made Unions more overtly the enemy of the class struggle than ever before: fear of sequestration of funds has turned Unions into overt cops. And the new anti-wildcat strike law is making the process even more blatant: witness shop stewards at Fords threatening to discipline anyone going on wildcat strike – and this before it’s become law. Or the way EPIU at Fords is scabbing against the EETPU in a tit-for-tat retaliation for EETPU scabbing at Wapping, really just a cynical desire for recruits, justified out of submission to the Tories’ strike ballot laws (democracy moves in a mysterious way). Or the way Ron Todd (TGWU boss) went personally to the Liverpool docks last year to get the dockers there to call off the strike even though a ballot had made it completely legal. The examples are endless.

THATCHER MAY STILL REGARD TRADE UNIONISM AS “THE ENEMY WITHIN” BUT AS AN ENEMY IT’S BEEN HER BEST FRIEND

     Not just the TUC (Thatcher’s Unofficial Cops), not just this or that leader or Union, but Trade Unionism as such has been a major reason for the failure of the class war here. When, for example, the 1984 striking miners blocked off the Humber Bridge during the dockers’ strike of that year, a great opportunity to break beyond Trade Unionism and develop a direct encounter between two different fronts of the class struggle was missed. However, it wasn’t the NUM or the TGWU in themselves which blocked off this chance of a potentially subversive meeting, but the miners’ and dockers’ reflex to trust only their “own” trade or to look to their own leaders, or stewards/branch secretaries for the initiative for such a meeting. In an epoch when the blackmail of unemployment wasn’t so threatening because it was relatively easy to get another job and social security was an automatic right, workers could win their struggle merely by looking to their ‘own’ trade. In 1978 Ford workers could massively defeat the State’s 5% wage rise limit simply by having a totally solid strike and a token 5-man picket which absolutely refused to even talk with outsiders. But for such Trade Unionist attitudes to continue during an epoch when the “every sector for itself” stance has led to painful defeat seems like some stubborn Death Wish. It’s not that many striking workers have not shown courage and dignity it’s just that will alone is not enough. There’ll be no successful breakthroughs until rebellious workers see the necessity of breaking through Trade Unionism, until they stop looking to the Union for initiatives and look at how to extend their own self-organised initiatives.

     A few see the way forward as being the intensification of shop steward organisation. But since 1979 the number of shop stewards has risen from about 300,000 to 350,000 – and to what effect? Shop stewards generally just represent the lowest common denominator of those they represent: when a minority are militant the shop steward will tend to express the moderation of the servile majority. If the majority are in struggle, the shop steward will often participate in the most radical acts of the active section of the strikers. Though their real contribution is neither more nor ness than this active element, their greater access to contacts, phones, equipment, etc. often make them seem like indispensable leaders. But when there’s a downturn in any particular struggle, their privileged position will often be used to contribute to the ending of the strike. Basically, shop stewards, regardless of their own personal integrity, are trapped within the representative role of their authority position: they will swim with the tide, generally going where the majority goes, showing about as much consistency and coherence as an alcoholic on speed. When it comes to practical initiatives, rare is the shop steward so unconcerned about maintaining their status as to step out of line with what the – mostly passive – majority want of them. And if they do – it’s not because of their position as shop steward. In the end doing something is started by a minority, whether that includes shop stewards or not. If a shop steward is looked to as a benevolent authority, someone who can protect workers against vicious management fingering, it’s also indicative of the extent to which workers become dependant on them, even up to the point of coming to them with all their problems, treating them like a social worker, when, likely as not, these stewards will also have a fucked-up daily life they’re desperate to talk about, but which their specialist position forces them to bottle up.

     To break the impasses, it’s useful to consider the examples of others, not as an ideal to be aimed for, but as something worth adapting to different circumstances. A critical knowledge of other people’s struggles helps to convince us that the danger is not overwhelming; that there will always be more security in organising some innovative subversive activity than in repeating past mistakes.

     For instance it’s worth looking at some of the struggles in France. Like, for instance, the French railway workers’ strike of ’86 – ’87. There, over a month before the strike, a 31 year old class-conscious train driver put out a petition calling for a pledge from other drivers to an indefinite strike, listing the various demands. It was asked that this petition/pledge be reproduced and passed round by those in agreement. It received an overwhelming response, so later a leaflet was produced by other train drivers, 2 and a half weeks before the strike, also to be reproduced and passed around: it clearly set out the strikers’ demands, stating exactly when the strike would begin, asking the unions involved to support the strike, threatening them if they didn’t. The strike began without a single command from the unions  and developed partly by means of daily assemblies of strikers held in each station, in which no particular striker held any greater power than any other. Where delegation seemed necessary, it was subject to immediate recall by the assemblies. Of course, many exemplary actions – such as sabotage – were carried out without discussion in the assemblies, and sometimes against the wishes of the majority. But, without wanting to make out that assemblies and co-ordinations are some insurance for active commitment, they did provide an environment of direct communication which made manipulation difficult and provided the strike with some continuity, although it must he said that there was often a lot of suspicion towards ‘outsiders’ and a lot of division amongst strikers along the lines of their different work roles and later developments of co-ordinations in France sometimes had a reactionary content – e.g. railway workers striking in support of a ticket collector who’d shot and killed a guy who’d aggressively refused to pay his fare. So they’re no fixed model – just worth adapting.

     The ‘co-ordination’ has travelled to the UK – but without the original zing of its inception. The London tube drivers of ’89 were the first to use the term co-ordination but the co-ordinations had specific characteristics related to the fact that the UK suffers under the most draconian labour laws in the whole of Europe (east and west). They were a semi-clandestine organisation defying LRT management and unions alike (particularly ASLEF). Its clandestinity could he very broadly imitated when the recent law against wildcat strikes gets underway. As a body they were devastatingly effective – at one moment doing a kind of syncopation with Tendon bus crews and main line rail terminal staff in order to paralyse London (May 15th ’89, while June 22nd. was the most comprehensive stoppage of traffic movement in London since the 1926 General Strike). In the beginning, bureaucrats (mainly ASLEF) were ordered out of meetings and the coordinators were basically anti~party in the sense of ignoring them. But later Trotskyists began trying out their entryism routine and the coordination faltered in other ways when the national railway strike got underway with full union (NUR) control and ASLEF moved in again on the tubes, with coordinators relinquishing something of a direct democracy to union officials. Even so, the coordinators snapped back into focus when the usual union sell-out deal was handed down and mad-as-hell drivers at a final strike meeting ferociously refused (“listen motherfucker!”) to talk to any of the professional liars of the media – a response not heard since the heady days of the miners strike of ’84. However, the co-ordination had its limitations: it was an intense heart-felt expression of a sectional skill but wasn’t actually opened up to other underground workers.

     Other bits of fertile ground for  coordinations  have been the building trade and the North Sea Oil platforms – but, generally speaking, these have been dominated by shop stewards making decisions behind the backs of the strikers – and have been basically coordinations only in name. Practical development of coordinations remains so far a tiny minority escapade in the UK. Rigid union centralism has regained ground bit by bloody bit. Recent strikes have not been very inspiring affairs and are much orchestrated by bureaucrats acting like public relations personel in tandem with companies like “Union Communacations Ltd.”, taking their theatrical cue from Saatchi & Saatchi which, whilst abstractly influencing passive public opinion, reflects an absent passionless life, where, on the simplest level, picketting is just some routine duty, hardly a lived experience. Hardly the supercession of the sabotage and violence of the miners strike or the Wapping dispute which, though defeated and trapped in the Union form nevertheless, in their rage, really did point to something more than a ‘fairer’ nicey nicey media-cultivated version of the same old order.

“I reckon it will fizzle out – people will just trickle hack to work. The building societies, finance companies, will see to that”
– Camden ambulance worker on unofficial strike, January 30th.

     Whilst, if it does fizzle out, it won’t just be debts that’ll force ambulance workers back, but the Unions as well, it’s also a reluctant form of Thatcherite ideology ringing through peoples  minds that stops them pushing on: “Whatever happens, I’ll find some way to survive within the hell of the market economy, alone, if necessary.” In the end it’s this survivalist fantasy that makes people “trickle back” from the class struggle – putting a tough face on defeat. Why “fantasy”? Because most of the poor know, within their hearts, that every defeat for the struggle is another blow to their lives, another nail in their coffin, another victory for brutal Market Forces, where who sinks or swims is largely down to chance &/or money (Kings Cross, Zeebrugge, Piper Alpha and Hillsborough are just the most obvious examples). Others say “We’ll get them next time” – but that’s generally just bravado – because each “next time” becomes more half-hearted, wearier and warier of committing yourself too far because of the expectation of defeat, the expectation of the pain of high hopes dashed. Sure, despite 10 years of demoralising defeat, we’re not going to roll over and die – as the ambulance crews have shown. But if the ambulance dispute is not to be just another tombstone on the road to hell, and if we’re truly going to get them “next time” (over the next couple of years or so) then each and everyone of us has to analyse the limitations of the present and past struggles – and of our own relation to them – in order to draw practical conclusions for “the next time”.

     It’s this that has made me put this out: it’s so utterly depressing to see another lot go down without at least doing something to try to alter the apparently inevitable course of events. Sure, a text is easy – and it’s not meant to be a substitute for practical risks (unlike the texts put out by Leftist parties and groups, which striking workers are suspicious of with good reason, since these leaflets are always saying “Do this!”, mainly with the aim of trying to get recruits or giving the Party some public image of apparent relevance). At the same time being a spectator of the class struggle, and just commenting on its limitations after the event or from afar, is an impotent role, about as smug and inconsequential as all the vanguardist fantasies of the political sects. So that’s why I’ve put this out. If it gets people – including me and my friends – working out actions they could do – then it’ll not be in vain.

Completed on 22nd February 1990

     P.S. A Camden striker said on TV last night (22nd Feb.) that Roger Poole was completely “out of touch” with the crews, and that the dispute in reality was not so much about pay but about the whole future of the NHS. If the ambulance workers made direct appeals to other workers on the basis of attacking the Government’s run-down of the NHS, then we truly could begin to see the blossoming spring of a united class struggle in this miserable country! The Merseyside crews look like showing the way forward. Who can guess what magic moments may lie ahead?”

Magic moments… or not… Something of the pressures that caused greater divisions and put up barriers discussed in the leaflet above, started to undermine support for the strike within the unions involved.

The unions were spending large amounts of their funds in paying strike benefits to ambulance crews in dispute (the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) alone had paid out almost £1 million while both the Transport and General Workers’ Union and GMB had gone into debt). Some non-ambulance crew members of these unions started questioned why such large amounts were being spent on action which affected only a small portion of the membership.
The costs were so high that a pay dispute for ancillary workers, some of the lowest paid in the health service, was postponed because of a lack of funds.

The tory government attempted to mobilise public opinion against the strike in the traditional way – by lying about the ambulance crews. The press were briefed on alleged incidents where ambulance crews had refused to respond to emergencies, including claims, later proved false, that a crew in Becontree had refused to respond to a call about a newborn baby found in a ditch; that another crew refused to attend a call-out to a man with a severed foot and that one West Midlands ambulance station refused to provide emergency coverage for 48 hours. This tactic got them little traction.

Opinion polls conducted during the strike showed public support of around 80% in favour of strikers, including support of 75% among conservative voters. At its highest, only 10% of the public supported the government. In fact the unions had paid close attention paid to public opinion during the dispute, conducting polling throughout the strike to judge this, and coming down hard on wildcat activity which it felt was bound to lead to bad publicity (though generally didn’t, in the event).

A government indication that it was considering a revised pay offer in early February proved just a stalling tactic, as they were holding out and hoping for public opinion to turn against the strike.

Again, the unions escalated the strike further on 15 February – members were instructed not to follow any orders issued by senior ambulance service managers. At this point the British Army was operating in 18 ambulance service areas.

The two parties were finally brought together for conciliation talks by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. A joint industrial council was formed to consider a deal. Talks initially broke down over the issue of back-pay for suspended workers, which the government refused to countenance, but this was eventually conceded, and talks resumed on 22 February.

In the early hours of February 23rd 1990, after negotiations that lasted throughout the night, a deal was struck between the unions representing ambulance workers (NUPE, COHSE, NALGO, GMB and T&GWU) and the Department of Health.

A pay rise of 16.9% over two years was agreed; the government also agreed to a £500 per year bonus to ambulance crew members with additional medical training, an extra 2 per cent for productivity, increases in London Allowance, and funding to develop the new role the paramedic for the future. The increases were to be backdated, with part of it paid as a lump sum.

Roger Poole, chief negotiator for the Joint Unions, claimed “Today we have driven a coach and horses through the Conservative government’s pay policy!”

However, for many of the ambulance crews, the deal left something to be desired. A major component of the pay claim that year had been the establishment of an annual pay formula linked to the pay systems of police and fire-fighters. But this was dropped during the negotiations.

Put to ambulance workers for ratification; a vote approved the deal by 4:1; members of NUPE, the largest ambulance union, voted 85% in favour on a 74% turnout. Although the pay formula had been dropped, many of those involved had gone as far as they could go at that point. A partial victory felt a bit like a victory still…

Ironically the very building where that deal was struck in the early February morning of 1990 – the Department of Health’s Hannibal House – came to be used as a training centre for London Ambulance Service at which student paramedics are trained at the start of an innovative three-year course.

The strike led to greater recognition of the skill involved in the work of the ambulance crews and began their transformation into today’s multi-skilled paramedics, central to the NHS, with all staff playing a key strategic role, while having a pay determination system looked on with envy by others. One participant later wrote; “Positive change has happened and maybe 89/90 was the birth pains for it.”

Beyond the impact on the job of ambulance crews, there’s no doubt, the strike was one of the most successful of the later Thatcher era. Although there had been other victories in the 80s, they felt few and far between, and an air of general depression had settled on trade unionists and many among the wider working class. If only a partial win, the ambulance dispute seemed a positive sign. And as it was taking place, the movement against the poll tax was just beginning to shape up into a major battle (if in the community arena, rather than that of the workplace), which would also end in victory, of sorts… A sense that tides were turning…

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

—————

The Punfield & Barstow strike

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

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

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

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

The firm

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

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

Divide and rule

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nineteenth century conditions

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

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

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

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

First round: the February demands

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

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

Pickets versus scabs: New Queensbury rules

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

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

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

Bosses begin to wobble

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

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

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

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

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

Background to the strike

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

The picket-line struggle

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

Beyond the call of duty

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

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

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

The role of the union

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

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

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

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

Divisional organiser talks tough

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

Bureaucratic in-fighting?

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

For the future

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

Can Punfield’s afford its junior management?

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

Derek “The grin”

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

Then and now

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

(West-London Solidarity no2, December 1969)

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

Nicked from the excellent Angry Workers

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

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

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

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

 

Today in London striking history, 2006: Haringey Dustbin Workers Strike begins

Bosses bagged and binned

The Haringey Dustbin Workers Strike, 2006

A contemporary report by Alan Woodward (with a tiny bit of explanatory editing by past tense)

Industrial action by about 50 Haringey refuse workers, based at the Ashley Road depot in Tottenham, began on 31 July 2006. The strikers were out solid for two weeks, ran it themselves through their own strike committee, and won some of the conditions they fought for.

The strike had four distinctive features:

  • It was against the London Borough of Haringey (LBH) contractor Accord and can be seen as part of the general disorder following the privatisation of refuse collection. LBH had apparently “bought off” the dispute a few months previously with a payment to Accord at the delicate time of the council elections. Some later felt that industrial action then would have been a tactical advantage.• It was regulated by the intricate web of legislation by Tory and Labour governments who, following the traditions of the last half century, were seeking to frustrate industrial action by employees and support employers’ rights.
    • The strike called was an indefinite one, unusual in the circumstances and in recent years, and was the end of a long process of delay and distraction.
    • It was against the recommendation of both the Transport and General Workers Union and the site T&GWU shop stewards convenor.

The site

The dispute took place at the large municipal depot, next to Down Lane Recreation Park. This workplace houses several hundred workers, over 100 vehicles (including a mobile library], several maintenance workshops and the bulk of the LBH Refuse department, including street sweepers. Other unions on site are UNISON for clerical and supervisory workers and AMICUS for craft employees. They were not affected but one UNISON member who was a street sweeper refused to cross the picket line and thus became involved.

The workers involved – all men – were those normally dealing with domestic waste wheelie bins, and paralleled that covering the separate trade waste section for which Accord had around 80 profitable contracts over NE London. The household waste workers had functioned under the previous ‘in-house’ arrangements as Council employees, and had suffered in recent years a series of cuts in staffing levels, negotiated as a result of technological improvement like the introduction of wheelie bins instead of just black plastic bags. The dispute – a reaction to the proposal to take two out of twelve vehicles off the collections – originated from LBH insisting on a small print contract clause requiring productivity “efficiency savings” every year.

Despite this, LBH publicly washed its hands of the conflict saying Accord was responsible. This devious tactic was accompanied by a complete silence for ten days, before a minimum programme of public notification was begun.

Accord plc itself, parent company of Haringey Accord, is recorded as having made £53m profit in 2005. Internal managers were reported as complaining that little if any of these came from the LBH contract, so they are likely to have been complicit in the efficiency saving plan. This of course would result in more work for vehicle crews that was dangerous, unpleasant and at unsocial hours. Following the offer or ‘bribe’ of a one-off payment to accept the cuts the T&GWU, on its website, did not use the “more work for a one-off payment” argument and stressed instead that this was a heath and safety issue. Work arrangements have traditionally been job-and-finish, of course.

Solid picketing

The strikers picketed the front entrance from day one, from 6am for a few hours, in numbers well in excess of the TUC’s Code of Practice recommendation of six. The police acted to form – at the start of the dispute chatting to workers, and saving their institutionalised violence for any later crisis. Only on the third Monday when mass meetings were held and supporters turned up in some strength, did they give the lecture about “only six workers on the picket, everyone else move away or you’ll be arrested”. In the end matters were settled peacefully with two meetings in the park and the strikers going past the gates for an instant workplace ballot. Some returned to work that day but most went home, after talking about the experience for a while.

The events of the last weekend were the result of the crisis of the previous five days. Accord’s ultimatum – accept the bribe and return to work – expired as the binmen said all along their aim was to keep vehicle crews together, regardless of incentives. Previously, media statements by local manager Doug Taylor had forced the stewards to issue a brief document correcting the management version. This pointed out that Accord had refused to do a full study of the extra work involved and that new housing developments were constantly expanding the work to be done. The shop stewards pointed out that a six week pilot session was not completed and resulted in over-time being needed – very much against company policy and an unexpected consequence.

Of course this voice of reason was ignored in the manner of media preference for His Masters Voice. Even so television local news began to carry the story, including residents complaints of smell, heath hazards etc. It is unclear if alternative media agencies, like Indymedia, made reports.

Relations with other workers going into the workplace remained cordial. Street sweepers lodged their own grievance about a similar cut imposed on them and separate lengthy strike ballot proceedings were started. Much of the ancillary work was in fact already being done by increasing numbers of agency staff. These were still awaiting the promised full time work status. Agencies began to appear in the picture as a way of the Council clearing the backlog and hence undermining the strike.

Staff cuts and agency workers

The truth about cuts illustrates the reality. Staffing levels of 73 had been reduced to 48 over the previous 5 years, while Accord managers in administration grew from 4 to 14. Even allowing for additional street cleaning management this is a big increase. Vehicle crews dropped from 6 persons on each to 3. So workers had clearly co-operated with extra productivity

The other site entrance at the depot, through the re-cycling centre, was left alone. Other London workers under Accord contracts, like Islington, were apparently contacted, but little could be done legally to support Haringey.

Over the last few days, when threats were made by the management and LBH over replacement labour, dustbin workers visited employment offices to remind them of the legal position – no agency workers to be allowed as strike breakers, under the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses Regulations of 2003. PCS union stewards in the Jobcentre were not always “available” though whether this was due to management pressure is unknown. Rumours about exactly who was doing the recruiting abounded but what is clear is the government agencies were sending out text messages all over London to get staff. Several people, travelling long distances, showed pickets their mobile phone text messages on the Saturday or Sunday to prove this. Regarding the use of technology in this dispute, at least one striker used the internet to discover details of the victorious Brighton dustbin strike a few years ago, on the libertarian communist website, “libcom.org/history”. He downloaded the information for the picketers.

In the event, this agency recruitment tactic failed. Many unemployed people, kept ignorant of the strike by agencies like Prime Time of 752 High Road, N 17, and others who were given some information by Hayes Agency, were quickly engaged in discussion and turned back by pickets on Saturday 12 August. A blue T&GWU ‘appeal for solidarity’ leaflet was persuasive for this purpose. In practice wheelie bin workers were very difficult to replace. Not only do some require HGV licences but also special training is required for the special RIAS trucks that were used.

A brief digression here. Many pickets remembered two previous strikes from the past. In 1979, in the fabled winter of discontent dispute, the Army camped in the park by the depot and went out to collect the hundreds of smelly black bags to general amusement. In those pre-Thatcher days workers were confident of their strength. In 1987 the popular and militant shop steward Brian Berry was sacked, having previously been active in opposing Labour MP Bernie Grant over the Broadwater Farm disorder. Allegations of racism were made but some saw it as straight forward revenge, as his nominal offence was minor and usually ignored. Socialists attacked LBH for victimisation, which is how workers saw it. Berry went but stayed active in the union.

A settlement?

Back to the strike. As scab labour was being sought, T&GWU full time official
Paul Fawcett was quoted on the BBC website as saying a settlement was close and would be recommended to the men on Monday, 14 August. On the Saturday a few strike breakers slipped into the depot through the other entrance and a picket was then put on there too.

During that day the “trainees” were put through a basic health and safety programme, described by one man as “a complete waste of time”. No HGV holders had been recruited and only a small number of people with ordinary licences came. These, it was presumably envisaged, would drive ordinary small trucks while the luckless unskilled would tackle the growing mountain of black bags. Even if this plan had worked the focus would switch to the local incinerator at Edmonton. The round-the-clock workers there had traditionally been seen as militant, but did not respond to Greenpeace taking direct action over cancer causing emissions – so the situation remained open. Few bag loaders would last long, the picketers predicted, but even this watered-down tactic was not to be tried.

Public support grows

Meanwhile supporters had not been idle. Supporters came every day
to the picket line, only a few at first but then more. Money was collected as at the support meeting called by Haringey Trades Union Council on Wednesday 9 August. Here a dustbin worker explained the case and spoke of management’s misleading statements. A street collection sheet was printed and hundreds of small stickers. It was decided to lay responsibility back on the Council. Everybody would bring black bags of rubbish to the Civic Centre at 6pm on the Friday. This was done with some secrecy in the expectation that the publicity would produce a bigger action.

20 people turned up to oppose the cuts to services and to support the strikers. This gained much publicity and it was envisioned that such protests would be organised regularly. This helped to garner public support, and inhibit any Council and media slide into attacking the strikers.

The Secretary of the Haringey Federation of Residents Associations attended the depot picket and circulated round local groups a true account of the situation. The publicity demanded more services for residents, not less as the Council obviously planned for. The union steward spoke to one local residents association on the Thursday, and that group as well as another association agreed after much debate to back the strike. HFRA publicised the Monday picket without endorsement – but were due to debate the matter at their general meeting the following day. Socialist newspapers carried the story from the start and supported the mass picket, as their sellers pointed out. Local libertarians associated with Haringey Solidarity Group were by this time attending and publicising the picketing.

A tremendous struggle and a partial victory

Monday, day 15, saw the resolution of the strike. While pickets and supporters discouraged several potential strike breakers from going into the depot, a small number of crept through. They were kitted out generously in protective clothing
but were obviously still ill-equipped. Police got out of their three cars and pointed out the law which had been ignored by all up to now. The union Full Time Officer came and called a mass meeting, and supporters took over the picket line. He reported that the plan to cut two teams had been dropped and that there would be negotiations over one vehicle being cut from the trade waste crews. Opinion was heated and divided – “one more week and we’d have won everything!”. The official was sent back to finalise the deal, payments for clearing up the backlog etc.

A second mass meeting was held and after discussion, but no vote, the workers went inside for an instant workplace ballot. This came out 26 to 18 for a return to work. A payment of £600 would be paid when the clearing up was complete, compensation for two weeks lost earnings.

Some of the supporters muttered about a defeat but most workers saw it differently. “We never wanted their money – all we wanted was to keep the domestic crews together, and we got that said a departing picket. A few ex-strikers got straight in the trucks and pulled out. The fate of the lone supporting street sweeper was similar and a collection was held for him, a hero indeed.

Soon the would-be refuse workers came out too and left in their new gear. The rest of us gathered our belongings, and posters, and went as well. Money still came in and £100 from the Haringey Trades Union Council Appeal letter was handed over to the T&GWU steward.

Strikers had used mobile phones, the internet, and were prepared to use cars to follow any strike-breakers. This had been an extraordinary 100% solid strike, perhaps to a script written by LBH, but more likely a classic balls-up for which they are famous. The strike restored some confidence, united supporters to an unprecedented extent, and showed that, despite difficulties by Blair and Thatcher, you can sometimes win on some of the issues,

Author of the above, Alan Woodward was a longtime socialist, Haringey resident, a member of Haringey Solidarity Group, treasurer of Haringey Trades Union Council and convenor of the Radical History Network of N. E. London.
Alan died in 2012… here’s a brief obituary

 

Today in London striking history, 1968: Injection Moulders lock-out begins, Queensbury

In June 1968, 85 machine operators were locked out of the Injection Moulders factory in Queensberry, North-west London, as a year-long struggle for better wages and conditions came to a climax.

Here’s an account of the dispute, reprinted from an article from Solidarity’s west-London newspaper from 1969

…………………………………………

This article is an answer to those dockers (and other workers) misguided enough to swallow the racialist nonsense of Enoch Powell. It is about a dispute in which a bulk of those involved were Pakistanis and West Indians. It should help explode the myth that immigrant workers are prepared to accept wages and conditions that British workers wouldn’t touch.

The article also shows how a relatively ‘new’ labour force, unfamiliar with the tortuous and time consuming channels of ‘official procedure’ (and lacking cynicism bred of repeated ‘betrayals) can immediately resort to radical methods of action and – through sustained solidarity – achieve worthwhile results.

The lock-out involving 90 men at a small factory in Queensbury should be studied by socialists and industrial militants. It illustrates a rather neglected feature of monopoly capitalism.

We are all too familiar with the usual results of takeover bids: closures and sackings. But in other cases smaller units swallowed up by the Big Boys are in fact kept open. Having studied this article the reader will know why.

It is taken for granted by those with scant knowledge of industry that certain standards are adhered to regarding working conditions and hygiene. Many believe that wages, if not generous, are at least adequate. This dispute should be an eye-opener to them.

Injection Moulders Ltd. is part of the giant Guest Keen and Nettlefold (GKN) empire (total capital £240 million!). It is situated on the small Queensbury (Middx) Industrial Estate. The factory produces plastic mouldings for a variety of industrial products (switches, insulators, etc.). It became a subsidiary of GKN’s last year (1967). The firm held a long reputation for being anti-union. Prior to the takeover, it had been engaged in recruiting immigrant labour to such an extent that Asians and West Indians comprised over 90% of the labour force. Tis recruitment has been continued by GKN. One would like to think that this was a philanthropic gesture by a liberal management, eager to prove itself a pioneer in industrial race relations. However, it is more likely to reflect the firm’s experience with ‘cheap labour’ in South Africa and Rhodesia. Incidentally, GKN is one of the biggest contributors to the Tory Party funds.

Language difficulties and lack of industrial experience limit the area of work open to Asian immigrants. To shrewd managements, these men appear ‘attractive propositions’. But capitalists frequently fall for their own lies: the cheap labour myth was the one Injection Moulders management swallowed. This illusion and many others have taken a knock during this dispute. Workers, irrespectively of race, have to pay the same prices in shops. Asian and West Indian immigrants often fork out a lot more for rent. Therefore acting as cheap labour just wasn’t on.

’Something out of Dickens’

At 5/5.5 an hour for machine operators, the wages at Injection Moulders are among the lowest in the area. In order to take home sufficient to live on the men often exceed a 70-hour week! At the rates GKN are paying, they can afford any amount of overtime.

Only the management can understand the bonus scheme. Errors are often made. The chargehands say ‘We’re only human’ – a claim that no one who has worked for them would endorse.

The working conditions remind one of a story out of a Dickens novel. The shop floor is dusty and hot. Sanitary arrangements are primitive: filthy wash basins, no proper drinking water, only four W.C.s (one of these had to be used as a urinal). Any operator wishing to visit the toilet had to get someone to ‘stand in’ for him. Several workers have been refused permission. The discomfort and indignity caused by such callousness can be imagined. There are no tea-breaks at Injection Moulders. If you do have tea, you drink it while you work. Operators often work from 7pm to 2am without a break. It isn’t surprising that some of them decided things couldn’t continue like that.

The factory has never been trade union organized – and it seemed unlikely that Asian and West Indian immigrants could manage to do what their white colleagues had failed to do in 25 years. Yet this is precisely what they did. It is a remarkable achievement considering the difficulties they faced. Several Pakistani and West Indians had some trade union experience. Several were well educated but due to the colour bar in the jobs they had entered industry – poetic justice indeed! It was extremely difficult to organize openly, but despite this some men were recruited into the AEF. Encouraged by this, the North London Area Organizing Committee of the AEF leafletted the factory.

The management sacked one man who was active in the union – for breaking a moulding pin valued at 6d! Stewards were victimized by being forbidden to talk to their fellow workers. One steward was told not to talk to the men because ‘it could reduce output’. As the number of men joining the union grew to 50% the management decided to use the age-old ‘divide and rule’ policy. They conferred staff status on the setters. Despite this, by March 1968 95% of the machine operators were in the union. They prove to be no mere card holders, but men determined to struggle for better pay and conditions.

Speed-up began after the Time and Motion people had visited the machine shop, The ‘experts’ would study a machine and its operators for 30 minutes (the machine had to be operated 12 hours!). Machine rates were increased and so were the minimum job rates necessary to earn a bonus. One machine set at 65 cycles an hour was speeded up to 90. Not surprisingly, no one could make it pay.

The ‘granulating’ question

Excess plastic from mouldings is trimmed off and re-processed by granulating. This job has always been done in a separate room. The management decided to fit each machine with a granulator. Each operator would have to run this machine as well as his own. Quite apart from the extra work involved, the men objected to the health hazards. The grinders were dusty and anyone drinking or eating would be lucky if he didn’t swallow the dust. Many got sore throats and lost their voices.

The management refused to discuss with the shop stewards using the pretext that they hadn’t been officially informed of the stewards’ names. Negotiation eventually began but one steward was excluded because his name had been misspelt. The management appeared to concede that granulating was a separate job and that lack of space was their problem. But they didn’t seem in any hurry to solve it!.

On June 18, 1968, the steward informed the bosses that their members were no longer willing to operate the granulating machines – until talks began. The management made no reply. The lads worked normally – i.e. refused to do the granulating. On June 24 a Works Conference was held. The bosses refused to negotiate unless the operators did granulating.

That afternoon the manager called one of the day shift stewards into his office (the other steward was ill at home). While the manager and steward were talking, the supervision were busy in the machine shop. They approached the operators and tried to get them sign a book – this would commit them to operating the granulators. This crude attempt to cut off the men from their stewards failed. The lads refused to be intimidated. They wouldn’t discuss anything in the absence of their elected representatives. The management told the men to go out and informed them that they were sacked.

Solidarity

The locked-out workers sent for a night shift stewards, then waited until 7pm for the night shift men to appear. A meeting was held and it was decided that the night shift would go in and work as usual. On entering the factory the night shift workers found no clock cards in the rack. The stewards told the bosses that the men would be willing to work but not to granulate. Within minutes the police arrived and ejected the workers. They came from Wembley, some miles away. It looked as though the whole operation was planned.

Two weeks later the locked-out men received a letter informing them that they were dismissed. They refused to collect their cards. The bosses then sent them to the Labour Exchange.

The North London District Committee of the AEF met on July 1st and decided to support the Injection Moulders workers. Eight days later the Union Executive gave official backing. This encouraged the men – their loyalty and faith in the union is fantastic (it will no doubt take a knock in the future). The slow machinery of officialdom churned into action, soon overtaken by the solidarity of local militants. Collections were held in nearby factories. Workers from Simms Motor Units, Hoovers, Rotoprint, Phillips and Ford, Hilger and Watts joined the marches in solidarity. They also put pressure on to ensure that products from Injection Moulders were ‘blacked’. Students joined the picket lines and were present every day of the dispute.

Many of the locked out men had purposely saved some money for such a dispute. The not so well off were taken care of. Stewards would gather the men around them and ask if any of them had a pound note. Two groups would merge: the haves and have nots. The money was the shared out without a murmur either of protest or gratitude. There was a silent understanding between them.

‘Integrated’ scabbing

The blacking wasn’t extensive and the factory continued some production. The management succeeded in persuading some other workers to do the operators’ jobs. Chargehands would operate fork lift trucks in the road, although they had no license. Alf Payne, local brach AEF branch secretary, got onto the local police. They ‘checked’… but the work continued. The quality of the work produced by the scabs wasn’t up to much. Frigidaires, Fords and Rotoprint rejected much of it.

An American firm called ‘Manpower Ltd.’ supplied 30 scabs. They were a cosmopolitan crowd: white, Asian and Negro. Some were students. One drove his Union-Jack-bedecked motorcycle right through the picket line. Policemen standing nearby ignored the incident. ‘Manpower’ received 11/6 per hour for each scab supplied, out of which the scabs received 7/6 an hour. Obviously Injection Moulders could well afford to give its operators a rise.

Does the P.I.B. know about scab rates which involve less productivity – and bad quality at that? It was nauseating to hear student scabs rationalizing their disgusting behaviour. Another nasty taste was the fact that two white workers who had at first supported their colleagues took money from the strike fund and then went in and scabbed! It was a bizarre situation: black and white students and workers were inside the factory scabbing; black and white workers and students were outside – manning the picket line!

Drivers would be stopped by pickets and told that an official strike was on. TGWU card holders would ring their district officials and were told ‘we know nothing about a dispute’. So much for official help. A sympathetic driver would sometimes be persuaded to come into management’s office ‘to use the phone’. After a few seconds, he would emerge and proceed to unload his lorry. It is not known what passed between them in the office – but it is unlikely to have been a discussion on business ethics!

No mention of the workers’ case appeared in the local rag. It referred to Injection Moulders and peddled lies about the role of ‘professional demonstrators’ (the people referred to were industrial workers and students of International Socialism and Solidarity who were able to assist workers). The article also referred to the coloured workers’ who remained loyal’. White legs?

The bosses start to crack

The AEF officials put pressure on manpower Ltd. who withdrew their men. This was one of the first signs of victory. The bosses no doubt surprised at the assistance the immigrants received from other workers and perturbed at the phenomenon of political groups helping their employees started to talk with the union. Bill MacLaughlin (a dissident CPer) and his assistant Les Elliot met the management who offered 1/- an hour rise but declared that they reserved the right to exclude persons they considered ‘undesirable’. A meeting was held outside the factory and this ‘magnificent’ offer was turned down flat.

The spirit of solidarity had to be seen to be believed. Unlike other groups of workers these immigrants had little choice of jobs – they couldn’t afford to chuck a job in and move on. They had their backs to the wall. They were determined to fight and win. At one meeting in the Queensbury swimming baths the Brent C.A.R.D. people attempted to recruit the locked out men, but were unlucky. The locked out men wanted practical help – they seemed unimpressed by C.A.R.D. claims that 9 out of 10 problems could be solved by union officials or local MPs. C.A.R.D. could have assisted by dealing with the black scabs, or picketing, rather than by trying to recruit members.

Political groups

For a considerable period political groups have joined picket lines (Shell Mex House, the Barbican, etc.). This has often either been resented by strikers or has taken an artificial character – substitution for the lack of real working class support (May day March). The Injection Moulders lock-out saw the emergence of a different kind of student. These were comrades who have now considerable experience of factory leafletting, etc. – they had access to valuable information and time to assist. I.S. comrades and one or two Solidarity members who weren’t on holiday turned up to join the picket line. Leaflets were produced informing local factory workers of the dispute and appealing for funds. Shop stewards were contacted. Posters were made. For a change these comrades formed part of a team: too often students seem to ‘know better’. This time they listened and offered help.

Victory!

On Wednesday, August 14, the management conceded defeat. Tea breaks would be allowed. Improved amenities for meal breaks were promised. A rise of 1/7d per hour was offered (with bonus a rate of 8/6 hour was this guaranteed) and accepted.

The men had planned to resume work on Monday 19th. But on Thursday 15th the stewards discovered that the management had decided to put the machine operators on a 3 shift system (the scabs and setters were to remain on a 2 shift basis). This was rejected by the men as another way of dividing them. Despite the gains already made they decided to stay out until this idea was dropped. It was. A weary and utterly defeated management caved in. The men went back on Thursday, August 22.

This is a victory for rank-and-file trade unionism. It is also a victory against the lies of racialist who spread the bilge about immigrants undercutting British workers. In this dispute a small number of men fought against tremendous opposition. They thought perhaps that they would be alone in their struggle; so apparently did the Injection Moulders management. They both proved wrong.

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The strike at Injection Moulders also helped to inspire a dispute a year later at the nearby Punfield Barstow Works.

Nicked from the excellent Angry Workers

 

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.