History of the CP 1952-64

History CP early 50s early 60s - 7. Domestic developments: Jan 1960-Oct 1964


7. Domestic developments: Jan 1960-Oct 1964

campaigns and political work
and the transition to a new era

 

A more turbulent industrial-relations scene which had arrived now in Britain would severely test the legal framework of `immunity’ that unions were placed in so long ago by the 1906 Trades Disputes Act, which had effectively removed trade union liability for damage by strike action. The increasing number of short and sudden 'walk outs' in key manufacturing industries would see what the media conveyed as chaotic industrial-relations scene became a focus for much anti-union propaganda. Comment amongst the political elite chattered along the lines that unions had grown too powerful.
In actuality, unions as institutions had become much weaker! But workers self-organisation had not. Albeit that this was often sponsored to an extent by some officials, it meant that the degree of incorporation of unions in the formal structure that the state had erected. In the process, workers had become stronger and more militant. Famously, the Peter Sellers film, `I’m Alright, Jack’, released in 1959, showed British industrial life of the time to be dominated by incompetent or corrupt unions and bosses. It was one of the few films of that time to reflect to any degree factory life but satirised what it saw as an uncomprehending brawn amongst shop stewards and workers.  

In 1958, the Inns of Court Conservative Party published an influential pamphlet entitled, `A Giant's Strength, some Thoughts on the Constitutional and Legal Position of Trade Unions in England’. This raised doubts about the very principle of legal immunities that had guided labour law for so long.

Despite the many protestations that countries such as Britain are based on absolute democratic rights, these rest on all too thin a layer of actuality. The right to strike is only lawful, especially in today’s climate in which even this is beginning to be put in doubt through European Court of Justice ruling but just as much so in the early 1960s, because the 1906 Trade  Disputes Act provided that industrial action is likely to lawful be granted immunity from breach of common law. In recognising the legitimate role of industrial action in collective bargaining, Parliament introduced measures that provide a degree of protection from liability for damages for trade unions, subject to a series of complicated qualifications.

It has always and is still the case that common law enables a case to be made that individuals will almost invariably commit a `tort’ (a breach of legal duty, other than under a contract). For instance, the tort of inducement when encouraging individuals to breach their contract of employment is almost always present. Generally, employers have been reluctant to press the case but they will often stress to employees that striking is a personal breach of contract. This is so much hot air because of the collective nature of the act for which unions are provided with statutory immunities from legal proceedings that might normally arise from a civil tort. Unions are only exposed to claims for damages from employers and others suffering a loss when an unlawful action accompanies a bona fide trade dispute, the definition of which is now complicated by the anti-union laws introduced largely in the 1980s.  Such a course was not politically achievable back then but, as we shall see, a back door approach was eventually resorted to, just as it was becoming clear that the Tories may not have been able to hold on to office. But from the latter stages of Macmillan’s premiership, it became increasingly clear that a strategy of incorporation of the formal machinery of trade unions and of industrial relations had begun embarkation.

The first outing for the Tory governments new line of seeking a more state regulated framework to labour relations issues came with the 1959 Terms and Conditions Act, which mainly refined and extended the position of Wages Councils, which would submit to the Ministry of Labour proposals for fixing minimum wages, holidays and conditions of work in certain trades or industries where suitable joint negotiating machinery did not exist (catering, road haulage, agriculture, tailoring, retail foods trade, hairdressing etc). Tripartite representation on Councils and the Minister could not reject or amend proposals.

Following this, and more for the general labour force, in 1960, the government passed the Payment of Wages Act, which provided for wages to be paid into a bank account, if the worker requested it and the employer agreed. It would take something like a quarter of a century to create a modified system whereby most workers had a bank account and did receive wages in cash. Apart from the elimination of factory wages snatches as a hazard of work (!), this would create a basis for a shift to a credit-ridden economy.

More positively, the 1961 Factories Acts consolidated the earlier 1901 Factory Workshops Act and the 1937 Factories Act and would be followed by the 1963 Office, Shop and Railway Premises Act. This gave a wide scope of control over working conditions, incorporating, in the field of health: cleanliness, overcrowding, temperature, ventilation, sanitation; in the field of safety: the guarding of machinery, safe access to work, fumes, fire escapes; and finally in the field of welfare: drinking water, seating, first-aid, industrial diseases.

 The Trade Union Amalgamation Act of the same year made it easier for unions to amalgamate, by only requiring a simple majority of members of the unions concerned. But the big shift was the 1963 Contracts of Employment Act.  This Act only became effective from 6th July 1966 and had two principal objectives: 1) to provide that employees receive notice based on length of service, ranging from one week for six months to two years continuous employment; two weeks for two to five years employment and four weeks for five years service and over: 2) to ensure that employees are given, in writing, particulars of the main terms and conditions of employment and any changes that may take place.

All this was designed to find means to by-pass workers’ direct representation and to lull unions into a policy of disciplining their own wayward members. This was always going to be difficult, especially in some industries, where workers now found their leverage on the workplace actually worth something and recall darker days. The ports’ industries more than any other revealed a towering ability to castrate economic power in those days, when Britain exports mattered more than their imports; as was later revealed by a major report into the docks industry, “out of 421 strikes since 1960, 410, accounting for about 94 per cent of days lost, have been unofficial. This percentage of days lost through unofficial strikes is substantially greater than the corresponding percentages in a number of other industries involving heavy manual work.” The levels of unofficial action in a range of industries were proffered: shipbuilding (46 percent), engineering and vehicles (49 percent) and construction (36 percent). [Final Report of the Committee of Inquiry under the Rt Hon Lord Devlin Into certain matters concerning the port transport industry, Cmnd 2734, August 1965, pp.4-5.]
In fact, whilst a great deal of nonsense was made about the official or unofficial nature of strikes, the reality is that the real difference between the two was simply in whether of not benefits payments were made by a union to its members. Increasingly, this aspect of union life had faded from significance, especially with the advent of the welfare state and a degree of economic affluence in general. An official dispute was merely one that had gone through the lengthy bureaucratic machinery of a union and had been endorsed by some mechanism unique to that union. Whilst right-wing unions normally naturally tended to abhor any element of industrial action, this was not always the case, especially if no overt political factors were involved and the dispute was highly sectional in character.
Moreover, this was the era still of the formal letter and the postage stamp! Just as mutual dispute procedures no longer matched the speed with which employment relations and the production process now operated at, so too did the creaky internal procedures of unions,  fact often utilised by union bureaucracies anxious to preserve union funds from too frequent demands from members for dispute pay. But this factor was becoming less significant, as unions were increasingly led by those willing to sponsor local militancy. The unofficial nature of strikes was less problematic than the media implied but the tendency to dub these `wildcat’ strikes was suggestive of more chaos than was truly the case.  The term is actually American in origin and arose from the intensely legal character of industrial relations in the USA; there, it really meant a strike that was illegal but no such definition could truly have been applied in Britain.    
The small amount of support given to striking members by unions is made very clear by the fact that the total amount spent by all unions on strike benefits in 1963 was £462,000, a rate of about eleven old pennies per union member per year. (1p, or new pence, equals 2.4d, or old pence; relative value of money is not easy to judge but it may be said that such a level would something a little less than £2 a member in today’s terms.) [Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employers’ Associations, Written Evidence of the Ministry of Labour (London, 1965), p52] Thus, simply because of the vagaries of union constitutions and the inadequacies of procedural agreements, most strikes were unofficial. This was especially so in the car industry, where the level of strikes rose sharply; in the car industry the number of hours lost in strikes in the 1962-1964 period was: [Financial Times, 2 February 1966]
 
 1962 1963 1964 1964
(Jan-Oct)
BMC 2,943,232 1,684,643 1,942,727 5,003,573
Pressed Steel 454,732 199,605 76,424 881,432
Rover 246,178 140,861 282,975 412,327
Standard Triumph 0 237,700 199,500 1,267,921
Rootes 223,003 45,933 88,963 85,967
Ford 793,011 34,201 76,997 185,905
Vauxhall 17 5,202 36,306 202,636
Jaguar 0 0 53,026 15,365

Indeed, the trend ahead would be more of the same. Of the 498 strikes in the car industry in the first six months of 1965 only four were given official backing by the unions. Thirty years before, about one third of strikes were official but the proportion had dropped to about one twentieth and that was just of the officially recorded ones. The small amount of support given to strikes and strikers by the unions is made very clear by the fact that the total amount spent by all unions on strike benefit in 1963 was £462,000, or about 11d per union member per year. Death benefits were larger, at £1,011,000!
The period 1956 to 1964 saw the annual average number of man-days lost through disputes in shipbuilding and ship repair soar by two and a half times that lost in the period 1947-1955, and triple in engineering to a total of 1.8 million days; both construction, food, drink and tobacco doubled. In the summer of 1963, some 200,000 building workers in 20 confederated unions came out on strike across a thousand sites all over the country; it was described as the “finest hour since the federation … was formed in 1919”. [Daily Worker 20th August 1963]

But the area of greatest struggle was in the car industry, where the level of strikes, as measured by the number of hours lost, rose significantly in the latter years of the Tory government leading up to the 1964 general election. Pressed Steel, Rover and BMC (later British Leyland) saw a doubling in hours lost over a two year period. Vauxhall, which had been established in a low wage, depressed are, that of Ellesmere Port near Liverpool, opened in 1960, positively denied the hopes of its hopeful American owners, General Motors, of being likely to be poorly unionised as it massively soared into the league table of militancy. [Financial Times, 2 February 1966]

 1962 1963 1964 1964
(Jan-Oct)
BMC 2,943,232 1,684,643 1,942,727 5,003,573
Pressed Steel 454,732 199,605 76,424 881,432
Rover 246,178 140,861 282,975 412,327
Standard-Triumph     0  237,700 199,500 1,267,921
Rootes 223,003 45,933 88,963 85,967
Ford 793,011 34,201 76,997 185,905
Vauxhall 17 5,202 36,306 202,636
Jaguar     0     0 53,026 15,365

In 1964, even postal workers engaged on their first ever major national battle, when the Government went back on a promise to accept, without reservation, the report of the Armitage Committee over pay issues. A one day strike was called in June, the first in the then 44 year history of the Union of Post Office Workers (UPW), today part of the Communication Workers Union. The UPW had found its position had strengthened by adopting a firm stance. After the union decided to embark upon action to force its wages claim, membership rose dramatically. The one day stoppage led to unofficial action, as members were increasingly frustrated by the apparent inability of their leaders to press their case to a successful conclusion. The main concern of postal workers was that the low wages meant staff shortages, which in turn led to late and delayed mail, which in turn raised doubts about the future security of employment, as businesses turned to alternative methods of information exchange. Even George Woodcock, TUC General Secretary, was moved to tell five thousand postal workers rallying on the eve of their work-to-rule protest that “the only thing that will make the Government reconsider the wages pause is force”. [The Metal Worker, January 1962, p4, EATSSNC]

It should not have been surprising, therefore (even though it was something of a shock to union leaders) when, in 1964, when the judiciary pushed hard against immunity in a Law Lords' ruling over a closed shop dismissal case at Heathrow Airport, in the case of Rookes v Barnard. It had been thought that the Trades Disputes Act had eliminated the tort of civil intimidation. But, for the first time for 60 years, it was now held that the union action constituted just that. The House of Lords’ judges in effect invented a new civil wrong of intimidation to by-pass the 1906 Act protections. Anyone threatening a strike was now liable to be sued. This was not only a massively significant development for unions the judgement became the leading case in English law on punitive damages in general.
Douglas Rookes was a draughtsman, employed by British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) who resigned from the Association of Engineering and Shipbuilding Draughtsman (later to become DATA, then TASS, then part of MSF, amicus and now Unite). BOAC had a closed shop agreement with the union and it threatened a strike unless Rookes either resigned or was sacked. The company suspended him at first and later dismissed him; Rookes then sued the branch chair, Barnard, and other officials. His lawyers argued that he was the victim of unlawful intimidation by means of a threatened trade dispute. After the case wound its way through the system, a law lord cited a case from the 18th century where a ship had fired a canon ball across the bows of another as precedent for unlawful intimidation! Effectively, at a stroke judges had abolished the right to strike. It would take the incoming Labour government to introduce legislation restoring the right to strike.
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In the coal mining industry, nationalisation had taken place within the context of a plan to maintain and development output at a high level. The National Coal Board’s 1950 Plan for Coal had been very optimistic about the future. But by 1957 the total of 950 collieries inherited a decade before had dropped to 822. The Tory Government and NCB now began to implement a systematic pit closure programme. Between 1957 and 1963, no less than 264 collieries were closed, while the number of miners fell by nearly 30%. During this six-year period, Scotland lost 39% of its pits, while 30% of those in South Wales, Northumberland and Durham were wiped out.  Mechanisation in the mines rose dramatically. Less than a tenth of output was power-loaded in 1955. But by the end of the 1960s the position had reversed, less than a tenth was manually loaded. Opposition to the NUM’s official and rather compliant approach began to grow to the dramatic contraction in the industry.

The Party was still strong in its traditional heartlands of Scotland and Wales, reasonably strong in Kent and was present to some degree in every single coalfield. But whilst it was largely standing still in membership terms these areas, it had grown significantly from just around 300 members in the traditionally rather right-wing dominated Yorkshire coalfield in 1954 to 440 by 1960. It was not just the quantity of Communist involvement but also the quality of their leadership that impressed. All this in spite of the revelations of the 20th Congress of the CPSU and the events in Hungary – it might even have been almost said because of it, a slight exaggeration maybe, but it is clear that the events hardly disturbed the growing strength of the Yorkshire mining Communists, who were perceived by the culturally tough men they worked amongst as being just the sort of focused and determined persons to lead the coalfield forward in struggle. The question was how to translate this new-found strength along with the traditional base into transforming the NUM itself.

The Party had opened the 1950s by appointing four full-time organisers to serve specifically in the main coalfields of South Wales, Scotland, Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire. Pollitt’s original advice to the Scottish Party to help in this project by sending one of its most energetic full-time organisers to Yorkshire, in the shape of Frank Watters, to aid the Party there, was calculated entirely upon a mathematical calculation that the best way to upset the hard right triumvirate in the form of the leaders of the T&G, NUGMW (later GMWU and GMB) and the NUM that used their block votes at both the Labour Party and TUC conferences to hamstring any attempt at progressive politics; this dominance also fed into every nook and cranny of the entire labour movement. Put bluntly, no matter how militant and politically sophisticated the miners in the Party’s historic bases were, Yorkshire represented nearly one-third of the NUM membership!

Shifting things in the T&G had already begun; now the key was to turn the balance of power that so delicately rested in mining unionism on the inter-relationship between the semi-autonomous coalfield areas and the entity that was the national union. In that, the General Secretary was more of an administrative functionary, and the Communist who held that post was virtually a prisoner of the right. It was the all-powerful President that called the shots; the former left-winger, Will Lawther, had veered sharply to the right in his period of office from 1939 onwards, his successor Ernest Jones, elected in 1954, was equally on the right. Moreover, Jones had been the Yorkshire Area President. Towards the period of Jones’ presidency, all thoughts turned to the election of his successor in 1960. A sequence of odd events would first give the role to a centre-left candidate, who promptly suddenly very died, and then deny a Communist to succeed to win the Presidency by a wafer thin share of the vote.

At this stage, there was a poor degree of co-ordination with potential left allies and even between Communists from different coalfields. For Yorkshire Communists, Alwyn Machin the Area President who had succeeded Ernest Jones, had been exercising his authority and playing “a very helpful and progressive role”, despite the fact that he had no connection with the Party at all. [Frank Watters]  For example, during the events in Hungary, on the issue of reciprocal delegations from the Soviet Union, the NUM Area EC recommended that these be postponed. But, after a lengthy discussion on the full Area Council, the EC decision was rescinded by a vote of nearly two-to-one. The Council then went on to invite the Soviet miners to attend their Annual Gala. It was known that Machin had not been unhelpful in all this. Moreover, Paul Robeson, the blacklisted American singer, previously refused an invitation by Ernest Jones when he was Area President, was brought to Yorkshire.

On a whole host of issues, such as Suez for example, Yorkshire under Machin was playing a much more progressive role. This even extended to his role of the NUM’s national executive, where he now sat with the Communist, Sammy Taylor, before he was elected as NUM Yorkshire Area Compensation Agent, a full-time position, in 1961. “Progressive resolutions were now appearing from Yorkshire on the Agenda of the NUM Annual Conference. For example, on the issues of periodic election of all officials, peace resolutions, support for Nye Bevan as Labour Party Treasurer, delegations to the Soviet Union, China and the GDR, and a delegation to France as guests of the miners in the French CGT.” [Frank Watters “Being Frank”]

But, when it came to the nominations for the Presidency, there were left-wing contenders aplenty and the main impulse seemed to be geographical alliances that had little to do with politics. As well as Bert Wynn (North Derbyshire), there was Jim Hammond (Lancashire), and Willie Allan (Northumberland) - all ex-members of the Communist Party. The three ex-Party officials had been secretly meeting with other, Communist, officials from South Wales but not with Yorkshire Communists. This disastrous split both in the Party and with the left in the NUM led Frank Watters to reflect that “it was anti-communism that held back the development of a genuine left committed to change in the NUM”. Wynn was the first to be eliminated, but his transferable votes were distributed more to the right-winger than to Machin, who we may call in modern terms a `soft-left’ candidate. Similarly when Hammond was eliminated, an anti-Machin factor in transfer votes emerged. Allan was still in the race for the final count, polling nearly 159,000 votes. Nonetheless, Machin was elected with 254,675 votes.

Machin was elected National President of the NUM with the highest vote in the history of the union but tragically, given subsequent events, he died on the very day the result was announced. Following this extraordinary turn of events, a group of lefts and Communists met after Machin's funeral in Barnsley for a formal review of the situation. There was no hostility to the candidates who had stood against Machin at all and it was thought that, once again, left-wingers Bert Wynn, Jim Hammond and Willie Allan were likely candidates. Alec Moffat from Scotland and Les Ellis from Notts, both members of the Communist Party, also expressed their interest.

In retrospect, particularly because of the interplay between the area sectionalism of the union and the complicated electoral system it maintained, it is easy to see that the criterion that the left had needed to adopt was to support whichever candidate from wherever could win the most votes, and this rather obvious comment meant winning the Yorkshire Area nomination. The candidate at the time who had been best placed for this was, oddly, not a Yorkshire based person, perhaps partly a consequence of the extraordinary success of Party organising work in the area that enabled a transcendence of area loyalties. The Scottish Communist, Alec Moffat, the brother of the more famous Area Secretary, Abe Moffat, who was too near retirement to be a candidate himself, was not only well-known in the Yorkshire coalfield, there were now also many left-leaning Scottish and Durham miners who had been transferred to work in Yorkshire. There were as many as eight candidates nominated in Yorkshire, including Alec Moffat and Sid Ford. Only these two had reached the final vote to select the Area’s nomination, resulting in Moffat winning 1,293 votes against Ford's 857 votes; Moffat had won nearly 50% of all Yorkshire branch votes. Had he had the backing of lefts in other areas, he could have gone on to win the Presidency but most candidates would not withdraw.

The election to replace Machin after his all-too brief sojourn as national President finally took place in mid-1960, with as many as seven candidates standing; the outcome was surprising at the time. As the NUM’s complex transferable votes system that assigned votes in an exhaustive ballot by eliminating sequential preferences indicated by voters during the count, it began to look like a landslide for Moffat as he led by 23,000 votes over Ford in the first round, and then crept up to 24,603. From within the count, Sammy Taylor called Watters with a coded version of the way the count was going: "The sun is shining and getting brighter"! The last votes to be transferred now came and they were those of Les Ellis from Nottinghamshire. But Ellis’ first preference votes turned out to be ordered to give Ford two-an-a-half votes to every one for Moffat. The result gave the right-wing Ford a slim 10,000 majority against Moffat, the Communist; it was a disaster that virtually wasted almost a decade of hard graft.

Between them, the various left candidates received 57% of the poll, Wynn coming sixth out of the seven candidates. But the divided result was a bitter lesson for the left, for in consequence the NUM was saddled with Sidney Ford as President, who was not only a right-winger but “who not only had never worked down a pit but had been employed for most of his working life as a clerk in the NUM offices”. [V L Allen “The Militancy of British Miners” The Moor Press, Shipley (1981) p119] In time, Ford would go on to virtually hand the Presidency to Joe Gormley, who stayed in office to the last day before retirement, giving the right 20 years at the top of the NUM. The Party and the left had almost sleep-walked into this; although a decisive lesson had penetrated through the traditional area insularity. Even so, a massive and utterly ruthless pit closure programme followed.

Nonetheless, the Party came out of the debacle even stronger then ever in Yorkshire and, of even greater long-term significance, now had a base for developing a strong broad left organisation; the rest of the story is for a future history. Although an immediate breakthrough was not  feasible, the election for the Yorkshire Presidency, vacant strictly speaking due to Machin’s election as national President, ended up as a straight fight between Communist, Jock Kane, and Sam Bullough, who had the advantage of being the Vice President and Acting President. The Yorkshire left needed no pressure to accept the need to unite around one candidate.

The result saw Kane win 27,862 votes (40%) to Bullough’s 43,928 votes (60%). Since the last Communist contests in the Area in 1954, a mere six years before, had seen Sammy Taylor obtain a mere 11,000 votes and Jock had won 15,753 as candidate for Vice President, winning an increase of 17,000 votes was seen as a great success. It could not longer be said that Yorkshire was a right-wing coalfield and things were clearly going to change. Indeed, in 1963 Kane became the first Communist to be elected to a full time position of the Yorkshire NUM, when he was elected compensation agent of the Doncaster Panel. His `turn’ had indeed come!

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An unofficial national seamen’s strike in August and September 1960 lasted for seven weeks. This was led by the National Seamen’s Reform Movement, a body set up to campaign for democratic reform within the notoriously bureaucratic National Union of Seamen. Although the strike spread around most of Britain’s ports, it was particularly strong in Liverpool, where most of the leaders of the NSRM came from. This movement coincided and worked with a developing Communist and Left Labour alliance in the NUS. Ultimately, this Broad Left would win a change in the nature of the union, with Communists such as Gordon Norris and Jack Coward, a Liverpool seamen’s leader, played a key role, especially by mobilising the Party’s strength amongst dockers, along with Joe Kenny and Jim Slater, who would become General Secretary.
The strike when, without consulting the rank and file of the union, the EC of the National Union of Seamen made an agreement with the Shipping Federation providing poorer terms than the most had been looking for. The NUS was remarkable cosy in its relationship with employers, considering how poor were the conditions the men (they were then always all men) had to put up with. Britain’s merchant kept a norm (!) of 84-hour weeks. Striking was actually illegal under the Merchant Shipping Acts but there had been unofficial strikes in the past, in 1946, 1951 and 1955. In the latter, seamen were issued with conscription papers threatening them with national service, if they did not resume work.
An unofficial strike began when the men on a Cunard liner, the Carinthia walked off the job in a row over four young men being logged for insolence after playing guitars after midnight. Since the leadership of the NUS, along with the employers were attending a conference in Geneva, there was no smack of firm leadership to discipline the wave of discontent that now took the form of industrial action.
The strikers demanded a 44-hour week, a £4 a month increase and the election of shop stewards to represent them aboard ship. Immediately after the strike began, sixteen seamen were arrested in London. Eight of them were sentenced to one month’s imprisonment. Eight others were sentenced to forfeit six days pay and there were arrests in ports all around the coast. The charge was that, by striking, they had disobeyed a lawful order under the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894. The Liverpool leaders of the NSRM were arrested for ‘intimidation’. In Montreal, 37 British seamen were arrested on the charge of ‘disobeying a lawful order’.
Several big demonstrations ensued in Liverpool and on August 16th, Merseyside dockers struck for a day in sympathy with the seamen. Some 6,000 arched to the Pier Head in a silent demonstration carrying a banner inscribed: ‘Death to the 1894 Act’. Paddy Neary, a Liverpool seaman, was arraigned for disobeying the order of a judge restraining him from conspiring to incite Cunard seamen to break their contract of employment. On August 23rd he was found guilty of contempt of court and taken to Brixton prison. The jailing of Neary saw two thousand seamen march through Liverpool and on August 30th a massive demonstration wended its way through the city.
Eventually, a move to bring the strikers into the official negotiating emerged and the idea of ‘mediation’ as a link with the bureaucracy at Labour and TUC came. Scott, the Assistant General Secretary of NUS visited Liverpool and spoke to a long and stormy seamen’s meeting on September 9th. The question of union branch meetings was a key one, since union officials had been refusing these.
On September 22 the seamen decided to end their strike on the understanding that once a public declaration to this effect was made, branch meetings would immediately take place. In time, there were some changes in the union and the adoption of the election of shop stewards on the ships but more needed to be done and the failure to address many questions would break out in the midst of the 1960s Wilson government as a tokenistic challenge to the power of Communists in trade unions.


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The 1960s began as they would continue. As a solution to Britain’s economic troubles, the Tory Government in 1961 announced a pay pause. This would take the form of a recommendation to private industry and an example to be set by the public sector. Supposedly in an attempt to improve Britain's competitive position in world markets, the Conservative government declared its intention of keeping pay raises in line with what was claimed to be the country's 2.5% increase in productivity. The `Pay Pause’, as it was christened, saved British bosses the equivalent of one year's round of wage boosts but unions bitterly opposed it, especially given the lack of similar restraints for employers, such as a capital gains tax. Labour unrest mounted so sharply that strikes cost British industry more than 4 million man lost `man’-hours in the first quarter of 1962 than in all of 1961 or 1960.
It was not coincidental that negotiations about the possibility of entry in the European Economic Community had begun. Unemployment hit a post-war peak in the winter of 1961-2. By May 1962, unemployment showed a sharp increase even over this position. The August out of work figures were the worst for very many years. Against this background, it is not surprising that the Tories felt themselves under pressure. They had been in government for more than a decade and it had begun to show.
The biggest test for them came when dock workers, in a national bargaining framework, officially demanded a considerable rise. Frank Cousins backed the demand, saying that the Pay Pause was a case of “capitalism showing its teeth against us”. [Time Magazine May 25th 1962] The first nationwide dock strike in 36 years was threatened, when the government backed down and approved a settlement that, with fringe benefits, amounted to a thumping 9% increase for some 105,000 workers. It may come as a surprise to some, thinking of views manufacturing in recent years, but this show down was widely supported by workers. Even Labour’s front bench was remarkably quiet and did not oppose the workers. Especially when, defying public opinion, the government resisted a 2.5% pay raise for the nation's nurses. Many Tories now claimed that the sweeping electoral setbacks they had sustained over the past months were caused by the Pay Pause. The slogan: `You’ve Never Had It So Good’ now rarely looked anything but bad!

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As we have shown, Communists were heavily rooted in the engineering industry and many struggles now ensued in this sector. Frank Stanley, who was soon to become Party national chair, was AEU convenor and Secretary of the Joint Stewards Committee, negotiating on behalf of 6,000 workers at EMI from 1959. In February 1962 a one day strike took place at EMI at which a number of scuffles with police broke out. The local MP was to state that, in Blythe Road, Hayes, the police "appeared to encourage them to drive at the pickets". The next month, 700 AEU members marched from Hayes to Southall protesting at the Government imposed pay pause.

Following the apprentice and young worker movements of the 1950s, attempts were made by official union-dom to channel their rebellious mood into ore long-term organised forms; but these only took off in a few areas. Engineering youth committees in Sheffield and the Clydeside, trades council advisories in Coventry and Birmingham and youth unemployed committees in the North East in the 1962-3 period, during a brief downturn in shipbuilding, were amongst some of the products of this period. The YCL was, as always, heavily involved in these bodies.

But the official trade union youth structure was largely limited to the AEU and to the draughtsmen's and technicians union (AESD, then DATA). Oddly, the AEU’s highly official provisions for Junior Workers Committees (JWCs), constrained by restrictions on their authority for fear of their moving away from `responsible’ approaches probably did more to stimulate demand for unofficial organisation and militancy than would have been the case without such youth committees. The relationship between official and unofficial youth organizations was often problematic. The 1961 AEU Youth Conference did not even record the existence of the previous year’s strike movement in its report.

JWCs were strictly limited in  what they could do; they were supposed to focus on increasing the union’s youth membership and working with its adult District Committee in promoting social, educational and recreational activities for young members. Training-related issues featured regularly in the motions submitted to annual AEU Youth Conferences but they were usually blocked by many representatives unwilling to see piece-work restricted so as to aid the supply of training provisions.

Apprentice strikes in shipbuilding and engineering once again took place in 1960 and 1964. The strike of 1960 was one the year’s biggest in terms of days lost. In central Scotland around 90% of apprentices took part in the 1960 movement. In places such as Wigan and Halifax, local full-time officials quickly instructed their apprentice members to return to work immediately. But, in Scotland, the Clyde Apprentices’ Committee (CAC) was reborn early in February 1960, two months before they organised a token strike, to pursue demands for increased apprentice pay. The CAC set up Finance, Propaganda and Demonstration sub-committees.

Apprentice delegates were sent south by motor-bike to gather support. This was one of the biggest apprentice strikes in history, with more than 30,000 apprentices involved from districts as far apart as Aberdeen and London. Coventry apprentices had not been involved in earlier and smaller strike waves but the 1960 movement extended that far. Apprentice strikes at three Coventry factories in 1960 began after a visit from some Clydeside apprentices.

Apprentice activism in the early 1960s may have been fostered, albeit with a lag, by adult unofficial disputes over the implementation of recent national agreements. In 1960, Communist shop stewards even positively undermined the efforts of union officials to secure a return to work on the Clyde. Yet, in a number of districts that year, full-time union officials quietly encouraged their shop stewards to helping the apprentice strike leaders, seeing this as an opportunity to generate a new outlook amongst employers to union recognition for apprentices. Apprentice and young worker strikes of the 1950s and 1960s effectively unblocked log jams in national negotiations. It was the Scottish Engineering Employers’ Federation acceptance in 1960 of a reduction of the duration of apprenticeship from five to four years and of payment of the adult rate at age 20 that forced the national EEF to follow.

The lack of results from national negotiations for higher age-wage scales in the years before the 1960 strikes was widely attributed among apprentices to a low priority attached to that goal in official circles. Certainly, the dispute pushed the unions and the employers into agreeing a substantial pay rise for all young males in the engineering and shipbuilding industries. A demand on training quality was finally advanced nationally by engineering unions in 1963, when compulsory day release on average earnings for apprentices aged less than 18 was sought by the CSEU. But this occurred only after rank-and-file apprentice pressure was applied.

At eleven o’clock in the morning of 24th August 1963, some 10,000 Clydeside engineering apprentices downed tools for a one-day token stoppage against the injustice of their low wages. Makeshift placards carried their warning to the engineering bosses: “If we don't get more we're out the door. More for pockets, less for rockets.” Eric Park, the Communist secretary of the committee which had led the apprentices to victory in 1952, thought that the demonstration was “at least twice as big” as one he had led. In buoyant mood, apprentices from factory after factory poured into Blythswood Square, Glasgow.  The apprentices from John Brown's shipyard alone brought around a thousand young marchers into the city, all the way from Clydebank - a two-hour march. From Babcock and Wilcox in Renfrewshire, some 600 apprentices came in twelve double-decker buses. As a result of the stop¬page, the Clyde district of the Con¬federation of Shipbuilding and Engin¬eering Unions decided to call a meeting of all Clydeside apprentices to discuss the wage claim. In Greenock, around two thousand apprentices left seven factories and shipyards and held a mass meeting in Thomson’s Halls. [Daily Worker 1st August 1963]

In the 1964 youth dispute, Manchester and Oldham AEU district officials actively encouraged apprentices to strike! Events were dominated by Glasgow and Manchester and in the latter one a particular factory re-appears; AEI (previously Metropolitan-Vickers) saw around 800, or 73% of apprentices, strike in 1952, 700 in 1960 and 570 in 1964. The Vickers shipyard in Barrow was especially affected in 1968, when apprentices went in and out of work over a six month period. The use of air travel was even innovatively used to spread the strike from Manchester to Glasgow in 1964. But the strike also saw leaderless and chaotic mass meetings – though the prior collapse of the strike in Manchester amidst political in-fighting promoted disorganisation on the Clyde.

Political factors were clearly behind the outburst of engineering youth and apprentice committees during 1964 but they were also the cause of some of their loss of momentum. The National Apprentices’ Wages and Conditions Campaign Committee (NAWACC) was clearly a YCL and Communist Party initiative; it used the home address of J F O’Shea of Islington, London, who had been a Communist Party candidate in recent local council elections. The NAWCCC launched the indefinite strike on 2nd November 1964. But ultra-leftist breakaway groups in both Manchester and Scotland reduced the effectiveness of the campaign by their classic in-fighting approach. In Manchester in 1964, the press was excluded from a ‘national’ apprentice conference called by one of two rival strike committees, the Trotskyite-oriented Manchester Engineering Apprentices’ Direct Action Committee (MEADEAC). At the ensuing press conference, Mike Hughes, MEADEAC’s 19-year old organising secretary, appearing nervous, was assisted by an older man, aged around 30, who refused to give his name and fielded difficult questions.

Attempts in Glasgow, Halifax and Sheffield by local officials to promote a return to return had been undermined by widespread sympathy for the strikers among adult workers. Whilst the AEU had previously granted strike benefit to members who had joined before they had gone on strike in the 1952 and 1960 unofficial youth engineering strike movements, it positively refused to do so, even retrospectively, in 1964. 

These strikes were called off on the understanding, as conveyed from the employers’ associations by the trade unions, that industry-wide negotiations on the apprentices’ claims, which had been in progress before the strike, would be rapidly resumed after a return to work leading to concessions. This heralded a move by the official unions, especially the AEU, to harness the issues within procedural forms, effectively cutting out young people as direct advocates of young workers themselves.

No separate apprentice strike movements would occur after 1964, despite the general shift to the left in society and the continuing strength of the Communist Party in engineering. To some extent, this may have reflected the better conditions for apprentices following employer acceptance of the right of unions to represent them but there is certainly a sense that the YCL was less rooted in the engineering industries from the mid-1960s. By 1969, a youth scale increase only came about following formal national union negotiations but the pay increases of 1952, 1960 and 1964 had followed an apprentice strike movement. It took the large scale rises of 1969 and the abandonment of piecework by many employers around that time to move apprentice earnings strongly towards those of adults and for the efforts of the post-war apprentice strikers finally to bear fruit. The combined effects of the unofficial and the official young workers’ movements caused a shift in the training-wages in the metal working sector in the period between pre-war rearmament and the bursting of the post-war boom.
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In the railway sector, the Guillebaud committee finally published its report on 2nd March 1960. This concluded that the pay of railway workers was 10% lower than that of workers in other industries. After allowing for the advantages in conditions other than pay, Guillebaud recommended an 8 per cent increase for most Conciliation Grades and 10 per cent for Salaried Grades, introduced retrospectively from 4th January 1960.
The 1962 Transport Act, which followed, amongst other things refused to allow the rail workshops to compete for engineering orders outside railways. This was a profitable sideline, which the pre-nationalisation rail companies had always sought. The Act also provided the basis for the notorious Beeching cuts. Branch lines were not the only target; the workshops received their share of the offensive. The immediate response of the workshops was to protest vigorously. Some of the biggest British Rail Engineering plants were in Derby.

On Wednesday 29th August 1962, the two plants stopped entirely, staging a gigantic march through the town. It had been announced that, nationally, some 20,000 workshop jobs would go within five years. The fear that Derby would no longer be a railway town was widespread. The procession was nearly half a mile long and wound its way from the Carriage and Wagon, along London Road and Ascot Drive. The protest was both largely spontaneous and unofficial, but the full force of feeling ensured that not only the local NUR organiser, Jim Hall, backed the event, but George Brown MP also declared his support. The latter was careful to stress that he hoped the workers would not “spoil it” by indulging in a series of unconstitutional demonstrations. [Derbyshire Advertiser August 31st 1962]

Thousands of leaflets were distributed at factory gates and football matches. But hopes of an overspill meeting at this more restrained and formal affair proved optimistic, for about 700 turned up to practically fill the haIl. A national one-day stoppage was called for October 3rd, to oppose the Government’s plans. Stations and tracks were deserted. But, in May 1963, the NUR deserted the joint action with the Confed and called off another planned action, a three day stoppage, after further negotiations were offered. However, despite concessions and pay-offs, the bulk of the line closures were carried out.

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THE PEACE MOVEMENT 1960-1964