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Elsbury Sam

Sam Elsbury

 

Elsbury is noted in Communist history as being the London organiser of the National Union of Textile and Garment Workers (NUTGW) who led a break-away “red” union for a short while.

 

Sam Elsbury was actually a naturalised British citizen, from 1925. His original name was Solomon Elfski, a native of Russia, who was born around 1881 and lived and worked in Leeds before coming to London in 1918. His brother, Albert Elsbury, was already a major figure in East London socialism.

 

Sam Elsbury was a superb orator, who commanded a significant personal following. Once he became active among East End tailors, he soon became chair of the East London Sub-Divisional Workers' Branch of the NUTGW.

 

Elsbury was also a member of the British Socialist Party, which would be a major component of the British Communist Party. The BSP heavily benefited from the support of the Russian Jewish émigré community in the East End of London. Elsbury was also active in local politics in Bethnal Green where he was a councillor in the early 1920s and a founder member of the Communist Party in 1920.

 

Even so, he was chairman of the South-West Bethnal Green Labour Party and in 1922 he was elected vice-president of Stepney Trades Council and Labour Party. Bethnal Green was one of those areas where individual members of the Communist Party continued to play a role until almost the end of the 1920s. Elsbury was secretary of the Communist Party’s Electoral Committee, which managed this area of work and he was elected at the 9th Congress of the party in 1927 to the Party’s central committee. Elsbury also became a member of the National Minority Movement's executive committee in 1927.

 

In October 1928, some six hundred young women workers at the Rego clothing factory in Edmonton, Enfield, North London, came out on strike and Elsbury instantly became its leading advocate. This was no small, or backstreet enterprise; Rego Clothiers Ltd made its own garments to sell direct to the public through some eighty shops in the London district. In the summer of 1928 the factory had been moved from Bethnal Green Road, Shoreditch, to larger, more modern premises in Edmonton. The workers simply had to go with the company, without any provision for the move.

 

Whilst the firm was extremely profitable, it was not a generous employer. Indeed, the employer decided that, as the factory was now `outside’ of London, being almost nine miles from Charing Cross, they did not have to pay the higher London wages and reduced the girls’ pay accordingly. For a 49-hour week, a girl aged 16 earned around 14 shillings, out of which she had to pay 4s 6d for fares, which had not applied before as most lived within walking distance of the old factory, and 3s 9d for dinners and teas, because they could not go home for meals any more, which often left them with 4s or less per week to pay their mothers for food and lodging, and to fund other necessities.

 

Adding to the indignities, Rego also introduced a conveyor belt system, which meant that everyone had to work at the same speed, loosing extra-quick workers their bonuses. Then one woman refused to pay her union dues and was encouraged in this by the management. The rest of the unionised women demanded that the new non-er either pay her union subscriptions, or be sacked. When the management refused this, a strike began on 8th October 1928. The vast majority of the strikers were women, some only about 15 or 16 years old.

 

Whilst the London District Committee of the NUTGW endorsed the Rego strike, the union’s national leadership would not, since it worked against a new national agreement with the employers’ federation.  This failure to recognise the strike meant that there was no strike pay, so the strikers went weeks without a pay packet. To make ends meet, they took to writing “Strike Songs”, parodies of popular tunes of the day, which they sang while marching around London, collecting money or their strike fund. The “Singing Strikers” always opened their performance with the following number (sung to the tune of Donkey Row Lads):

 

We are the Rego Strikers!

We are no dirty shirkers!

We know our manners,

Behind our Union Banners,

We want Justice wherever we go.

When we went to Edmonton,

They thought they had us whacked!

But we know we’re in the right,

And we’re sure to win the fight,

We are the Rego girls!

 

Public sympathy and considerable trade union aid was forthcoming as a result of this. Following talks with the management, a settlement was reached on 21st December, just in time for Christmas and 12 weeks after the strike began. All the workers got their jobs back, a committee was set up to deal with disputes, and Rego recognised the NUTGW.

 

At the time, the ‘class against class’ policies elaborated during the Sixth Congress of the Comintern in 1928 had been adopted, albeit rather formally by the British Party. The main consequence was a sharp rise in rhetoric against the Communist Party. Elsbury was actually a strong supporter of the new line and his reported comments in a rank-and-file Communist newssheet gave the NUTGW leadership, which was largely Leeds-based and sharply hostile to the London `reds’, in March 1929, a chance to sack Sam Elsbury, expel him from the union and seize his office. Elsbury’s connection with Minority Movement’s publication, the `Red Needle, which attacked the executive of the NUTGW, was critical to his expulsion.

 

Given that there was around a dozen Communist Party members among the strikers, the starting of an independent union, perhaps more as a protest than anything else, may not have seemed unrealistic. Thus the United Clothing Workers' Union (UCWU) was born on the 7th March 1929 and immediately affiliated to the Minority Movement. Along with Elsbury, the other major figures in the UCWU were Dave Cohen, a resigning member of the NUTGW executive, and Dave Gershon, a resigning member of the London district committee, also Communists. Gershon subsequently became secretary of the Clothing Workers’ section of the Minority Movement and editor of its publication, `The Red Needle’, which was printed in both English and Yiddish. In 1932, he edited `The Tailors' Measure for Unity and Action’, a UCWU paper.

 

The new union recruited a majority of the London membership rapidly and a substantial minority of the Leeds and Glasgow memberships, however it ran into growing problems. When the overwhelming majority of employees - some 700 workers - at Polikoffs, one of London's largest clothing firms, struck for recognition of the UCWU in 1929, the ultimate outcome was failure. But, initially, Polikoffs recognised the new union. (Alfred Polikoff was a Polish Jew who owned a clothing firm in the East End of London from at least 1915; he died in 1943.) Then, when NUTGW members applied for jobs in the factory, they were informed they would have to transfer to the United Clothing Workers Union. The NUTGW complained to the Wholesale Clothiers Federation, the employers’ body and successfully brought pressure to bear to withdraw recognition from the UCWU. Elsbury attempted to stave off the inevitable trouble, for his union was in poor shape to win, by insisting that his members were prepared to work alongside any trade unionist. Polikoff nevertheless now refused to permit the collection of UCWU dues in the factory and this seriously hit the finances of the UCWU.

 

Elsbury took his problems to the Communist Party’s Industrial Committee, which (he later claimed) promised him that £500 (some sources claim £400) would be available to meet strike pay, through labour movement collections and a subvention from the RILU in Moscow. Faced with this scenario, Elsbury strongly pushed the Party to find special funds to subsidise the new union, although it was not presented in these terms later. At the time, great secrecy was attached to what insiders called "Sam’s Business".

 

On the strength of promises alone, Elsbury later claimed, he called a strike for union recognition from May 4th, which the NUTGW actively sought to break. The NUTGW secured the promise from the T&GWU to embargo deliveries to Polikoff, if the UCWU were recognised causing serious alarm amongst the employer’s camp. Then out of the blue, Dave Cohen, the Chair of the UCWU’s Executive, acquired the necessary finance to emigrate to Canada; rumour suggested that Polikoff had paid Cohen off.

 

By May 9th Polikoff had applied to a magistrate for 67 summonses against UCWU strikers for breach of contract, it even being suggested that some six hundred summonses might need to be applied for. Polikoff’s manager explained to the bench: "It is very difficult for me to say, but we want to teach these people a lesson. At the present time they are members of what is known as a breakaway union – a Communist organisation – and they are not members of the orthodox union which is recognised by the Trades Union Congress. We want to recover from them the money they have lost us.... The damages must be at least a week’s wages.... They have practically shut our works." Polikoff secured a conviction on May 23rd against one of the strikers, who was fined £4 15s 0d, and asked for a further eighty eight summonses. The remaining sixty six cases were adjourned for a fortnight, although there was little doubt as to their outcome.

 

The same day Elsbury called a meeting of the strikers and confessed his inability to provide funds for the strike or to pay the fines. Amid tears and recrimination the strike was called off. Each returning worker was presented with a document to sign in which he or she promised not to join or pay subscriptions to any organisation not recognised by the TUC. Membership of an unofficial union would be punished by instant dismissal.

 

The failure of the Polikoff strike was a major blow and the NUTGW was now so hostile that the wider labour movement was cool towards the new union. The resulting isolation, coupled with a lack of funds to pay organisers, meant that the UCWU had no serious chance of a future. It faded increasingly until it was wound down entirely in 1935.

 

Sam Elsbury stood as a Communist parliamentary candidate in South-West Bethnal Green in 1929. His election agent, J. Valentine, was a political acquaintance from BSP days. But the following year, Elsbury started making more of his claim that the Party leadership had promised financial support, which was not forthcoming causing a return to work in an atmosphere of defeat. It is difficult not to conclude that the election of a Labour government amidst a general fading of Labour-Communist administrations in local government and at constituency level, which  now ensued, was not in some measure in Elsbury’s calculations. 

 

Either way, Elsbury was ordered by the party to relinquish his post as UCWU secretary and to hand over to Ernie Pountney (see separate entry), an activist who had assisted the Party’s work amongst tailors during the Polikoff dispute. Pountney was elected as secretary at an inaugural National Conference,

 

Elsbury tried to resign from the Party, claiming its supposed failure to fund the UCWU as his main grievance, but he was expelled first and the UCWU Executive dismissed him from his post and expelled him from the UCWU office.

 

In 1931 the UCWU was very active amongst women on the question of the forty-eight hour week and 2/6d an hour campaigns. But expansion did not come for the UCWU was largely focused on the Whitechapel area, not well connected to the large workshops, and had not undertaken organised work to win support in the ULTTU. In fact, in 1933 there was an open clash between the two unions, after some twenty unemployed clothing workers were arrested for massing at a spot in Whitechapel where Jewish tailors traditionally came for work and fined either £2 fine or one month in prison.

 

By 1933 the United Clothing Workers was left with only a tiny rump in the East End of London of about two hundred members.

 

The UCWU was formally disbanded in 1935; whilst some members were accepted into the NUTGW, some joined the ULTTU instead.


Elsbury later became a Labour councillor in the east end, along with his wife.

 

In March 1938, he sued Lawrence and Wishart over comments in its newly published history of the Communist Party by Tom Bell.

 

By the war period, Rego had become a major manufacturer of service uniforms and things improved massively.

 

Polikoff’s factory suffered extensive fire damage in 1932, so a new factory was opened in Chatham Place a year later, but the factory was moved to south Wales in the run-up to war and, also amidst the awarding of major forces’ contracts, unionism was set for the future until the factory closed in recent times. The NUTGW eventually merged with the GMB.

 

Sources include:

“East End Jews in politics, 1918-1939: a Study in Class and Ethnicity” PhD thesis by Elaine Rosa Smith [1990]

'Bethnal Green: Local Government', A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 11: Stepney, Bethnal Green (1998), pp. 190-202

http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/llt/49/06mcilro.html