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Robert Williams

 

Williams `enjoyed’ one of the shortest periods of membership of the Communist Party but his collecting of a range of significant positions in a very short period makes it significant that his relationship with the Party be recorded.

 

Born in 1881, the son of a dock labourer, Williams himself also started out as a port labourer and coal trimmer in Swansea. Active in the National Amalgamated Labourers Union, he became his union’s President and was also elected to Swansea Council in 1910.

 

Williams became the first full-time Secretary of the National Transport Workers Federation in 1912, an institution that united most transport workers’ unions and led, ten years later, to the formation of the Transport & General Workers Union.

 

Williams welcomed the Russian revolution and opposed British military intervention in Russia. Whilst he stood as Labour parliamentary candidate in Aberafan in 1918, Williams joined the Communist Party in 1920. He was elected President of the International Transport Workers Federation that year – a non-full time position with a five-year term of mandate ensuing – a post which overlapped with alternative employment elsewhere in the movement.

 

In 1920 he was part of a deputation of British trade unionists who travelled to Moscow for talks on the founding of what would become the Red International of Labour Unions.

 

Williams was expelled in 1921 from the Communist Party on failing to support the miners’ strike during the infamous `Black Friday’, when the executives of the British transport federation and the main railway union announced a decision on Friday 15th April 1921, not to take strike action in support of the miners. The epithet `Black Friday’ at the time conveyed the intensity of feeling about the betrayal and the Communist Party made no hesitation in holding Williams to account.

This event had effectively ended the Triple Alliance, which most trades unionists were looking to be the bulwark against the hostility of business and government in what was already looking to be a major slump. (In 1925, when the government agreed to grant a temporary subsidy to the mining industry so as to avoid wage reductions, the day on which the decision was announced became known as Red Friday. In due course, the expiry of this subsidy led to the 1926 General Strike.)

 Williams was involved in establishing the Amalgamated Marine Workers' Union in 1922 as an NTWF-sponsored rival to what was then the pro-shipowner National Union of Seamen.

 

But, from 1922, Williams was ousted from full-time employment as a union functionary due to the creation of the TGWU and the winding up of the British Transport Workers Federation in favour entirely of the International Transport Workers Federation. Williams had the honorary consolation prize of ITF President to console him but, from here on, his main full time employment was as General Manager of the Daily Herald, strings being pulled for him so that he had a soft berth. When the TUC ceased to be sole proprietor in 1930 he lost even this position.

 

He was chair of the Labour Party conference in 1926, during which he condemned direct action. Williams role at the top of the union movement now took a downwards leap.  By 1931, he was writing in support of National Government and he made a precarious living as a freelance journalist from 1931 with there being little record of his activities.

 

He committed suicide in early February 1936, being found dead in a gas-filled room. A few days before, bizarrely, he had appealed to police for protection following anonymous telephone threats to “`Bump him off’, `Beat him up’, or `Kidnap him’.

 

Sources include: ITF, NZ Evening Post 3rd February 1936, mIscellaneous