History CP early 50s early 60s

In complete contrast to the reactionary slide to the right in the ETU, a balancing slide was now all too evident in the Transport and General Workers Union. But the formal constitutional ban on Communists holding office in the union was still a thorn in the side of the Party. By 1961, there were only three unions with an outright ban on Communists, NUBSO, the Boot and Shoe Union, and the National Union of Seamen along with the TGWU and the ETU affair had yet to reach any kind of fruition. The T&G was clearly an important target for Communists and it was clear that the union would be a potent source for left politics for years to come and increasingly so. Thus, in 1961, the Party put Sid Easton, one of its activists from the T&G taxi cabs section to work on the campaign to lift the bans on Communists holding office in the union. Easton had been a taxi driver since he had retired as Harry Pollitt’s driver cum bodyguard – it has been necessary at the height of the cold war to appoint such a person!).

A campaign began to put the case right inside the union. The Party produced a “Meet the Communists in Transport” four-page folder, written by Erik Rechnitz. Then `Let nothing divide us’, a 1961 Communist Party pamphlet by the markets activist Bernie Holland celebrated honoured fighters of the T&G who were all subject to the iniquitous ban on holding union office.  Bernie Holland himself, a highly respected branch secretary of the Covent Garden branch joined the Communist Party around 1959 and found himself banned from office. “Strangely enough the man who took over from him turned out to be a Liberal”! [WN March 18th 1961]

But first amongst equals in the cohort of Communist T&Gers was Bert Papworth, who had received three gold medals for service to the union and had served as the first busworker ever on the General Council of the TUC. Then there was Wally Spencer, one time Chair of the London and South-Eastern Regional Committee, also holder of the gold medal. Jack Dash, dockers’ leader had been awarded the TUC’s Tolpuddle Medal for services for services to trade unionism.

Jock Gibson, holder of the TUC Tolpuddle Medal, had been presented with a gold wrist-watch by his own branch as a mark of appreciation by his own branch. In later years, he would be convenor of the Rootes (later Chrysler) plant in Coventry and promptly elected to the T&G General Executive Council when the bans were lifted in 1968. A Scotsman, Jock had worked since the war years at the plant when it was engaged in war production and was one of those close to Jack Jones, when he was Coventry T&G District Secretary. Derek Bale of Newport docks, had been awarded the TUC Diploma and the TGWU’s bronze medal, had joined the dockers’ union in 1917 and had been a member of the TGWU from its inception. Jack Killen, a Bradford busman now retired, was holder of the union medal in 1950. His branch had presented him with a gold medal inscribed: “For long and faithful service to the 9/8 branch TGWU 1950.” There were too many Communists with faithful and distinguished service to mention in detail. Men with records like Trevor Stallard and Harold Smith of Southampton Docks, who had struggled to organise the port over decades.

It was clear that there was little appetite for actually maintaining the ban – at least in practice. The July 1962 Third Rules conference saw a motion seeking the amendment of the banning clause stood in the names of as many as 35 branches from the London and South East region, 16 from Scotland, 10 from Liverpool and 26 scattered around the rest of the country.  A number of senior bodies in the union joined with nine local bodies in a safeguard composite motion deleting the whole clause. The minutes do not record the vote but once again it was lost.  Loosing no momentum, at the 1963 BDC a motion calling for the “removal of all bans and proscriptions within the labour and progressive movement in view of the immediate need for working class unity to remove the Government” was moved but it could not be taken, however popular it was, since it was out of order in that the issue was the prerogative of the Rules Conference. But the main factor was that there was a Tory Government but a General Election was pending and media controversy was to be avoided at all costs, it seemed. No doubt the adverse publicity in the ETU case did not help the process. Privately, Communists inside the union were told that the formal removal was unnecessary since a blind eye would be turned to it, at least where it really counted in the appointment of shop stewards.

It is necessary to briefly step outside of the years covered by this volume to tidy up the story of the T&G bans for the sake of completeness. The next BDC in 1965 saw another motion, this time to remove “the bans and proscriptions within the labour movement in view of the immediate need for working class unity to help the present Government”. There was now a Labour Government of course. By this stage, there was no serious opposition to loosing the ban, indeed apart from the major committees in the union – and the BDC and Rules Conferences, the ban on Communists had hardly been observed for some years now.

In the end, arguably it would be mass action that laid the basis for the removal of the bans. As so often in history, it would be discontent at the actions of a Labour Government which formed the backdrop to much of the drama, But the easing of tension between east and west increasingly made it difficult to cast the staunch defence of working people in struggle, in which many Communists distinguished themselves, as instances of unpatriotic mischief making as it had been in the late 1940s and 1950s. A new generation of TGWU leaders at all levels of the organisation understood these basic principles. Another factor was the re-emergence in national leadership of people who felt that Frank Cousins’ prevarication on the issue of the bans was his main weakness.

There is considerable likelihood that Jack Jones pressed Cousins on the issue whilst the latter was facing retirement. Jones had been appointed Assistant Executive Secretary in 1963, then Acting Assistant General Secretary in 1964, in 1968 he was elected as Cousins’ successor and was to take over on the latter’s retirement in September 1969. Certainly, Jack Jones’ understanding of the difficult situation on the docks would lead him to want a constitutional settlement to be made before he assumed the mantle. It would be better for the outgoing General Secretary to face the membership on such a potentially explosive issue, and there was also the factor of several key, senior officers jostling for position, who might use the issue negatively.

Also, the Communist Party Industrial Department was by no means inactive. Something of a campaign was building up which could either embarrass Cousins’ departure or create awkwardness for Jones arrival. It was patently clear that the 1968 Rules Conference would be a field of battle on a number of issues. Jones was eager to restructure the Byzantine obscurity of the TGWU’s ramshackle structure. In this new situation, Communists and lefts in the union, none more so than Sid Easton, allocated to the campaign full-time, badgered and pressured activists and officers throughout the trade groups and the regions to come clean on the issue and provide the leadership with a backing for change.

In his autobiography, Jack Jones notes that this Rules Conference was the first since he had assumed executive office, in preparation he drafted a series of proposals for the GEC to consider. “One change I considered necessary related to the discriminatory practices which precluded members of the Communist and Fascist parties from holding office, It was a form of discrimination and I felt it to be contrary to good trade union principles. Such discrimination was brought to an end by my proposals, which ensured that members were to be treated on an equal footing but with continued safeguards against disruptive action from any quarter.” [p200]

On February 27th 1968, the GEC of the TGWU decided by 32 votes to 2 to recommend support for the removal of the bans at the Rules Conference [Jack Dash records the vote in his autobiography on pp1 70-171]. Whilst the March GEC received resolutions from Regions 2 and 8 regarding Schedule I Clause 2, asking for clarification on the operation of rule to the position of shop stewards who were Communist Party members. The GEC noted that there had been a wide variation in approach in applying the rule in this particular respect, depending on whether or not the matter had been raised formally. Some regions were not applying the need for the Declaration rigidly and this had been more than clear in the Docks Group. In an obvious reference to the problem of the NASD, it was noted that there were difficulties where shop stewards were elected by members of more than one union. Increasingly, in this situation the GEC thought it impractical to operate the rule as far as shop stewards were concerned. Membership of official union committees was another matter. The Rule Book had to be altered to deal with this.

On June 11th, the GEC convened in special session to instruct its representatives on its policy positions on amendments to rule. At long last the Rules Revision Conference met in Belfast in July 1968 and removed the ban. Some delegates opposed the recommendation, but the death of the ban was a certainty. The deletion of the entire offending Clause 2 in Schedule 1 and the insertion of a new clause 7, which gave authority to the GEC to use it’s discretion in declaring ineligible any particular organisation was agreed.



Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply