CHALLENGE 1950 – ARTICLE ON THE 1937 APPRENTICES STRIKE
“Thirteen years ago this month witnessed the climax of a struggle that was to write one of the most exciting pages in the history of Britain’s young workers. It is a story of Britain’s young engineers and how they won a wage increase. It is a story for those who think it isn’t worthwhile trying to fight for what they want—for those who say: “what’s the use, no one pays attention to us, we’re too young.”
It is one of the proudest stories told in the pages of Challenge.
The battle started early in the year. The Amalgamated Engineering Union had negotiated a 3s. a week rise for adult workers—and holidays with pay and better overtime rates.
But the employers flatly refused to give the apprentices anything—and would not recognise the union as a negotiating body for the lads. In doing this they had left one fact out of account—the militant spirit of youth.
Fed up with working long hours for about 6s. or 8s. a week in the first year of their apprenticeship and about 30s. in the last year, the patience of the lads was reaching breaking point.
In the first week of April ten thousand angry apprentices struck on the Clydeside and in Glasgow. They demanded 15s. a week in the first year of apprenticeship and 30s. in the third year, with corresponding increases later on.
The local press treated the strike as a joke at first. “The lads are seeking adventure,” purred one editorial. “Boyish high spirits,” chuckled another.
But the smile went from the faces of employers and pressmen when the strike grew day by day until 15,000 were out and declarations of support were coming from other apprentices all over Britain. The press began to hint that per¬haps the lads had a case. The employers were urged to meet the union. So the lads went back to work on union advice and waited for negotia¬tions.
But the Edinburgh apprentices came out the next week and were followed shortly after by the lads in Middles¬brough. Tyneside’s young engineers threatened action and the local employers granted an all-round increase of 2s. a week.
By June the apprentices had pro¬duced a national charter on the initiative of the Clydeside lads. It demanded 3s. a week increase; a reasonable ratio of wages with those of the journeymen; trade training, and no sacking at twenty-one; holiday pay and overtime agreement; and most important of all, recognition of the union as the negotiating body for the youth in the industry.
Throughout the summer of 1937 the lads oragnised meetings, demon-strations, passed resolutions, and organised themselves for the next round.
The union met the employers but were side-tracked again and again.
In September came the explosion. Fifteen thousand apprentices struck in Lancashire. From 50,000 others came the demand:. “Pay up—or we quit!”
The Clyde Apprentices’ Committee called a national conference which met in Manchester on October 8. Heartened by support, the Lancashire lads returned to work, contemp¬tuously refusing Is. or 2s. increases by some of the more timid employers.
Fifty-six delegates represented 84,000 young engineers at the con¬ference. They decided to unite in a great fight for the charter and adopted as their slogan:
“Three bob—or else!”
“Amidst great scenes of enthus¬iasm,” reports “Challenge” (October 14), “every hand went up in support of the resolution, which called for an immediate extension of the strike everywhere unless demands were met; and in a further resolution they called for nation-wide strike action on Monday, October 18, if the engineer¬ing employers turned down youth’s demands when they meet the trade unions this week,”
The National Committee of the Y.C.L. declared after the conference:
“Young? Yes, they are young: typical high-spirited lads, fond of a joke, but serious now. Full of fight and vigour, filled with a burning sense of grievance, clear of purpose, out to get their demands.
“They are fighting a giant—the powerful engineering and shipbuilding Employer’s Federation. . . .
“To the boy strikers we say: LADS! STAND SOLID . . . ALL FOR ONE AND ONE FOR ALL. . . .”
The lads stood firm. They decided to call a national strike. “The profiteers can pay,” they said. A week later the Employers’ Federation gave in. They agreed to recognise the union as the negotiat¬ing body for the lads.
On the Spot-Challenge
Turning over the pages of Challenge week after week from those first September days makes inspiring reading. “Leeds, Coventry, Derby, London, Tyneside, Barrow and other centres prepare for action. Manchester lads demand swift settlement,” reports Challenge September 30, and: “Leeds. Employers offered Is. to 2s. 6d. according to age and length of service. ‘Mass meeting lads Wednesday turned this down. Decided remain out to win full demand. Central Executive strike committee elected. Full backing Union,’ reads a wire from that city.
October 21. Challenge reported : “London—three factories, Siemen Brothers, Johnson and Philhps and Harveys all out, then Leeds with 1,300, then Sheffield and possibilities in Rugby. . . . Coventry—Pay up within fourteen days—or else! That is the ultimatum to the employers by the lads who returned to work on Monday. . . .”
Even after the employers had agreed to recognise the union as negotiators for the lads, the battle had to be waged for the bosses to pay up. For instance October 28. Huddersfield employed at Rippon engineers and coach joined the movement on wages. The management pay increases to some who joined the rest and came out on strike.”
November 18. “One hundred and fifty lads; Siemens Engineering W walked out for one day to protest against the broken promise … engineering youth gave an ultimatum which Wednesday. . . . Unless was given, strike promised. … In Sheffield strike committees have been set up in important factories.”
Week after week the lads were given increases; victory had been won and a stage had been reached for a better deal for the industry. The young engineers showed that united action for the demands of youth, the great demand being for the right to live, can win. Such as was achieved in 1937 can now be repeated.
This generational tendency towards youth militancy in engineering not only jostled older workers in the sector along the strike path, it lay the basis for a future groundswell of opinion amongst workers that would change the face of the AEU and provide a platform for the politically conscious militancy of the late 1960s and early 1970s, as those who had been young workers in the 1950s now dominated the workplace.
One Jimmy Reid, later to become well-known as one of the leaders of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ occupation in the early 1970s had been the 19-year old strike leader in Glasgow during the 1952 strike. He was by no means the only member of the Young Communist League in the leadership of the apprentices’ movement. Eric Park, another YCLer and an apprentice engineering draughtsman, was secretary of the CAC when a national conference of apprentices in Glasgow adopted the Charter of 1952, which included demands for apprentice closed shops, apprentice committees in all factories, a reduction in military service to one year and full recognition inside the CSEU. [Clyde Apprentice and Youth Committee, ‘Youth in overalls unite!’(c1952)]
This led to an apprentice strike. Generally, disputes in engineering were short, sharp, localised and invariably at the level of the company plant or shop. In contrast, apprentice strikes more likely were long in duration and covered more than one employer and AEU districts. The strike of 1952 saw more days lost than any other that year.
The geography of apprentice strikes suggests that the political stance of district union organization – a central issue in the AEU in particular influenced strike activity by apprentices. At one end was Glasgow and at the other was Birmingham; the former was left-wing the latter, in labour movement terms, largely right-wing. The north of England hovered between one stance and the other. AEU officials in Glasgow were quietly sympathetic in 1952 but hostile in Barrow. Whilst employers could still behave with ruthless paternalism; in 1952, the management of Rollo and Grayson, a Birkenhead ship-repairer, turned its fire hoses onto apprentice strikers from other firms seeking to cajole their own out on strike.
Again generally, the highest participation rate in this period in apprentice strikes appears to have been attained in central Scotland, where something like two thirds of apprentices in engineering employers’ federation plants took part in strikes in 1952. Something like half of the apprentices and junior workers in the central belt of Scotland and even places like Aberdeen and Dundee came out but only a quarter of those in Manchester and perhaps less than a tenth came out in Sheffield. Birmingham apprentices asked the Manchester strike committee to send a delegate to explain the issues but did not seem to take further action. But even if Sheffield’s walk-outs were confined to a few traditionally super-militant plants, they more than made up for their numbers in enthusiasm. There, apprentices marched through the city centre chanting “it’s not a question of greed, £1 is what we need”. In Glasgow, the chant was “one, two, three, four, we want one pound more”.
Membership rates among apprentices appear to have been as low as 10% in Scotland in 1952, although a thousand young workers had joined a union during the strike, mainly in Glasgow. This was no gesture of self-interest but a genuine conversion to collectivity. The AEU gave strike benefit payments to apprentices who were members before they had gone on strike but not to those strikers who joined during or after it.
Decisively, on the Clyde, shop stewards undermined the efforts of union officials to secure a return to work. For the Ministry of Labour the source of the problem was clear – one regional official complained that Communist shop stewards sent by their committee or union to attend meetings of apprentice strike committees, supposedly to encouraging them to return to work, were actually using their influence in the opposite direction! But it did not always require much agitation; the employers’ crassness was often the best recruiting sergeant. The dispute was prolonged in Manchester by the sacking and replacement by R. Broadbent & Son of the seven of its eight apprentices who had gone on strike, making them something of a local cause celebre. Manchester’s strike committee refused to recommend a return to work until the firm had reinstated all of the strikers. One week later, following discussions with union officials, the company allowed the dismissed strikers to apply individually for reinstatement, stating that their cases would ‘be considered favourably’. The strikers voted the following day to return to work. [Manchester Evening News, 19, 20, 27 and 28 March 1952]
But matters were very fluid, no sooner than one lot of lads (there very definitely no lasses in these days!) were brought back in one factory than another lot went on strike somewhere else. Travelling emissaries were often used to spread the strike to other areas, and inter-district committees formed, particularly in Scotland. When the strike waned, the committee sought to rally support or, when that looked unpromising, to organise a coordinated return to work. Edinburgh strikers in 1952, following a speech from a Glasgow apprentice, agreed to reverse a decision to return to work.
The strike movement of 1952, and similar ones in 1960 and 1964 dealt with later, all started with a token strike. The paternalistic punishment of apprentices for taking part by their employers pushed the mood into that of wanting an indefinite strike. Their apparently spontaneous character is belied by a sense that `sponsorship’ by adult militants both acted on and was influenced by the bravado of young workers. The shop floor nature of these struggles is underlined by the fact that the strikes and the committees were unofficial and unconstitutional; indeed in the apprentices’ movements of the 1950s and early 1960s, there was never any official union approval or any reference to national disputes procedures.
The engineering and shipbuilding industries were covered by a national agreement involving the employers’ federation and the Confederation of Engineering and Shipbuilding Unions (CSEU). Disputes procedures forced differences that arose at a local level through a tightly regulated sequence of joint conferences at works, district and then national levels. Under the agreement, only in the event of failure to agree was recorded at all levels in succession was either party free to take action. The unconstitutional nature of apprentice strikes was promoted by the exclusion from procedure agreements of provisions for young workers for the standard adult option of recourse to shop stewards for handling their grievances. Apprentices were required instead to approach either management, or a full-time district official direct, in order to retain procedural legitimacy, which in turn encouraged them to ignore procedure. Whilst this denial of procedural rights began to be eroded in the 1950s, indentured apprentices, a minority but nonetheless large group, were completely excluded from procedure until 1965.
In 1952, industry-wide negotiations on apprentices’ issues had been in a state of tortoise like progress before the strike. With their point made, apprentices called off their strike since they judged that employers’ associations and unions, would now have to more seriously negotiate on their interests. This was indeed the case, since major increases in national apprentice and youth time rates would follow. It had simply not been a priority and the log-jam had been more than effectively blown out of the water by the strike.
As the 1950s-early 1960s engineering young workers movement gained experience it became clear that, in general, an apprentice and youth strike movement might take six or seven weeks to bite. In high production factories, disputes involving apprentices could stretch for weeks before the effect would be felt. This often arose because, as a test and as a means to keep them occupied, apprentices might be put to doing production work on small components that were sent to stores. Neither the semi-skilled machine operatives – who were often on piece work earnings – who also carried out such work, after a machine was `set’ by a skilled man for them, nor the skilled men who maintained and managed the tools would be prepared to fill in for them. But the apprentices would have to wait until their absence began to slow down production.
But young workers could see the effect of integrated production processes in higher definition amongst other groups of workers who were as aware of their surroundings – and the vagaries of the related market driven upswings and downswings – as any workers is. Even if it had taken grit and determination to show their potential, young workers had demonstrated the ease with which Fordist mass production is disarticulated by breaks in the supply lines of commodity production.
No sooner was the apprentices strike over than the CSEU had put in a claim for a 15% increase in wages nationally in 1953. It was no coincidence; the idea of a national 24 hour strike was even now endorsed. The CSEU had been reluctant to move to the presentation of annual pay demands, but had been forced to do so by worker pressure over high living costs. The AEU was strongly for the one-day strike action, but many TGWU officials were still dragging their heels.
The Transport and General Workers Union was then the biggest union in Britain but more importantly it led the way for all right-wing attitudes within the trade union and labour movement. Arthur Deakin, its General Secretary looked upon all union democracy as a hindrance. Union activist were unreliable elements who had to be watched over. Full-time officials were expected to be ruthless and efficient at keeping member in control, even – perhaps especially – at the expense of not often being very good at resolving conflicts in the interests of workers. Such a form of leadership was more interested in heading off militancy than in giving workers their head.
Nonetheless, a ban on overtime and piecework was decided upon from January 1954 by the unions in the CSEU. In response, the Minister of Labour rather promptly appointed a court of inquiry, which nonetheless proposed an award based on the employers’ offer of 6s 6d for unskilled, 7s 6d for semi-skilled and 8s 6d for the skilled. Thus, a major conflict in the industry was averted, even if the ambitions of engineering workers were not – at least for the long term.
Elsewhere, in industry, on the railways the NUR’s leadership decided upon a national strike both in 1953 and 1954. But the issues went to two special courts of inquiry, which decided essentially in favour of the employees over wages. In 1953, an offer of 4/- increase was improved upon after a total rail strike was threatened. ASLEF and TSSA were offered a review of the wages structure. Only the intervention of the Minister of Labour, Sir Walter Monckton, in proposing such a settlement had prevented conflict. Yet, the NUR had to propose strike action again in 1954, as Christmas approached and the settlement of 1953 had still not been received. Railway workers faced the prospect of a strike from January 9th 1955. ASLEF had obtained more from arbitration causing the NUR to refuse a 15/- offered increase.
A side-effect of the strike-that-never-was actually led to a rule-change by the TSSA. Previously, TSSA could only participate in a strike if it had the sanction of the annual or a special conference. The significance of this arose from the very real problems at work that white-collar rail staffs were now experiencing. Between 1948 and 1956 the railway industry suffered a loss of 78,000 employees. It was not only the shift away from steam that drove the job losses, clerical and technical grades suffered, too. In 1959, for the first time, computers were used to produce timetables; “two people, operating the computer for 30 hours, produced a timetable that previously had taken 5 clerks 2,000 hours”. [`Single or Return – the official history of the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association’ TSSA on-line] By the end of 1962, there were 60 data processing centres equipped with 40 electronic calculators and a number of small computers.
There seemed endless burgeoning problems on the railways that never came to fruition. A strike threatened by the NUR in January 1955 was averted by a Court of Enquiry. A national strike by ASLEF took place from 28th May to 13th June 1955, the first national stoppage on the railways since the 1926 General Strike. The backcloth to this was the increasing meddling by government in a nationalised industry that they had never really warmed to. Indeed, the Tories were gradually and mainly quietly seeking to demolish as many aspects of Labour’s early post-war social reforming agenda. In transport, the Government tried to sell off as much of the road transport that had been nationalised, which traded as British Road Services (BRS), made easier the raising of fares and decentralised British Rail.
As a result of rail nationalisation, railway-owned road transport undertakings, some 700 privately owned companies, with 21,500 vehicles had been taken over one way or another and BRS had been transformed into a single concern with 40,000 vehicles and 75,000 staff and this was now up for sale. A massive campaign against this first and early Tory attempt at privatisation took place, which certainly restrained many asset strippers. Although the government tried hard to break up and sell off BRS in 1954 and 1955, a good part of the corporation remained in public hands.
The left of Labour, in the shape of the Bevanites, not only seemed to be voicing similar concerns to Communists in the realm of policies for peace, they accepted that state ownership of the `commanding heights’ of the economy, as opposed to a wholesale policy of nationalisation, was necessary to maintain control over the economy. But, as well as campaigning against road transport and steel denationalisation, the Communist Party arguably had a much clearer view on the whole issue. “When nationalisation was brought in by the Labour Government it was widely welcomed. Why, then, is there such disappointment with the results? Because it did not bring a new deal for either the worker on the job or the consumer. Too much compensation was paid, and remained a charge on each industry, creating a burden which has kept wages down and prices up. The boards of the industries are full of ex-owners and other people of a capitalist outlook who do not believe in nationalisation. No wonder that the managements’ attitude to workers and staff is the same as in the days of private ownership.” [Communist Party, `A policy for Britain: general election manifesto’, (1955)]
In January 1955, a White Paper `The British Transport Commission: Proposals For the Railways’ suggested a programme of `modernisation’. But much of this was badly conceived and in 1956 and 1959, the Plan was reviewed by the Government, and its persistent intervention led to a brake on investment. Several projects were postponed and to make matters worse, a decline in the national economy brought a lower demand for coal and steel which had its own adverse effect on the railway industry. In 1960, the modernisation programme came to a halt
In 1956, after almost seven years of discussions between unions and rail managements, a new Machinery of Negotiation was established, introducing improved consultation procedures at local, regional and national level. Its terms stipulated that only staffs who were members of a trade union party to the Machinery were eligible to make nominations for, or to be nominated as, staff members for local and sectional consultative councils.
A high-profile national newspaper strike in 1955 featured in the general election and resulted in new bargaining arrangements with the Newspaper Proprietors Association and an era of union power and competitiveness between newspaper titles emerged. National newspapers were unpublished for 26 days due to a maintenance workers’ strike involving the electricians’ and engineers’ unions. 700 workers who maintained printing machinery struck for a wage increase of just over £2 a week. One of the few national papers to be unaffected by the strike was the Guardian which was printed in Manchester. But more than this, a divergence between Fleet Street and the provincial press was inevitable as the former now entered its heyday.
Communist, Charlie Doyle, who worked at Battersea Power Station, was one of the key leaders of the first ever national industrial action in the electricity supply industry in this period. During this dispute, he was attacked by the Daily Mirror as `the most hated man in Britain’. Doyle was a victim of McCarthyism if there ever was one. He had been born in Coatbridge, in Scotland, and, after working in Stewart & Lloyd’s steel mill from the age of 12, he emigrated to the United States of America in 1923 at the age of 18. In the 1930s, he became a CIO organiser amongst steel workers and later became the International Vice-President of the United Gas, Coke and Chemical Workers Union. Having joined the Communist Party of the USA in 1929, he was arrested and imprisoned in 1948, then was harassed and persecuted for six years, being in and out of various prisons and serving a total of over two years. Doyle was one of five prominent Communists who went on hunger strike. This won their temporary release on bail after one week but Charlie Doyle was deported back to Britain as an undesirable alien in December 1953 along with his American born wife, Mikki Doyle, who was much later to become women’s editor of the Morning Star.
But it was the mining industry that earned a reputation for localised militancy, even before young workers had succeeded in spreading the taste for it to the engineering sector. Disagreement with management over piecework earnings became a key factor in a spate of local area strikes during the mid-1950s. Nowhere was this more evident than in Yorkshire. Yorkshire’s coalfield was rife with rank and file militancy that sprang from a system where pieceworkers’ wages weren’t fully related to the amount of coal they produced. Almost half of their earnings came from a complex range of allowances that were negotiated at the point of production.
All too often, the National Coal Board officials negotiating did not have the power or abused their power. Little wonder that, in 1954, the Yorkshire Coalfield had more stoppages than the rest of the country and the highest number in the post-war period. The Party’s one-time full-time organiser in the Yorkshire coalfield from 1953, Frank Watters, described them as “like `bushfires’, flaming up in every part of the coalfield”. NUM officials were incapable of dealing with the volume of disputes and, in some cases, so discredited they would not show their faces at the collieries.
Although the Communist Party was a powerful, even dominant, force in Kent, Wales and Scotland, by this period the volume of coal mined in Yorkshire was making it especially significant. Although there had been voluble and influential Communists in the coalfields of the biggest county in England in the past, the miners’ union had a history of leaders with a right-wing controlling behaviour but of members with determination and grit. This contradiction was to be challenged and a course for its change set with a spark that lit flames across Yorkshire for the next several decades created in the small village of Armthorpe, where several highly-talented and committed Communists lived and worked.
This had been the consequence of a strategic decision by the Communist Party from 1953, initiated by Pollitt himself, to turn a coalfield “rife with rank and file militancy” into a more focused and politically effective direction. As a result of this struggle, Yorkshire miners “saw the need to step up the fight in all coalfields” in a campaign that would later lead to an era of national strikes. More importantly, it was the creation of unity between the rank and file and official movement in the Yorkshire NUM (Scotland and Wales, too, for that matter) that made the NUM such a dynamic and politically decisive force in the coming decades. [Frank Watters, “Being Frank”, privately published, Doncaster (1992) pp23-27]
Yet this transformation had not begun propitiously. In a coalfield of 150,000 miners in 130 pits there were less than a hundred miners in Party membership in a dozen pits. The Party had a mere three members out of the 136 delegates to the NUM Area Council. A strong challenge had come by February 1954, when the election for the National President of the NUM saw the Scottish Communist Abe Moffat ranged against the Yorkshire miners’ leader, Ernest Jones. Moffat was only able to poll a poor 162,396 to Jones’ 348,391. Even so, the Party had done well in Yorkshire, Jones’ home base, to promote itself, with 6,000 pamphlets by Moffat being sold and over two thousand copies of a Daily Worker special with an article by him on miners’ wages. Three hundred people attended a Communist public meeting with Moffat as speaker and 25 recruits were made to the Party during the campaign.
The great unofficial strike of 1955 would probably never have come without the anomalous size of piece workers’ wages that were made up with allowances and the practice of local management rejecting these without knowing the real nature of working conditions. But, in May 1955, the Armthorpe branch acted on the relentless grumbling of its members’ hostility to the situation. The Communist-led Doncaster NUM Panel, a kind of local district federation of colliery branches, backed any action by the Armthorpe branch. The following day, another mass meeting was held in Armthorpe, with all of the pits in Doncaster represented. Jock Kane, then President of Armthorpe, gave a brief report of the dispute. Representing Yorkshire NUM was Fred Collinridge, who was “the most hated and vicious right wing leader; not only incompetent, but lazy and never available when needed … A massive cloud of hands for action went up. The coalfield was waiting for this.”
But there was a need to communicate directly with the men of the west Yorkshire pits, at some distance. This is the first recorded use of “Flying Pickets”, with the NUM Branch Committee sanctioning funds for cooked breakfasts and petrol allowances. The picket was an absolutely resounding success and took both managements and union bureaucracy by complete surprise. Within days the coalfield was at a standstill and 45,000 miners were on strike. As officialdom attempted to restore order and failed, the strike lasted two weeks. It resulted in a resounding victory against the employer over the issue of supplementary payments, even if the miners had to resort to fighting their own union bureaucracies in the process!
Following the 1955 Armthorpe strike, it was decided that, in addition to the union having the elected five Area Officials covering the whole of Yorkshire, there should be five Area Agents embracing the eight Panels. The Party contested three seats and supported two lefts. Communist, Abe Collins was elected, representing Rotherham and Worksop Area. In the Doncaster Area, Jock Kane won on first preference votes alone but it was finally defeated by 155 votes. In the Barnsley Area, Sammy Taylor was also only narrowly knocked out by preference votes. Nonetheless, three Communists had come from nowhere and polled a total of eleven thousand Yorkshire miners’ votes. The Daily Express carried
a story headed “The Reds step up pit drive” and “Three line up”, a reference to “Citizen” Jock Kane and Comrades Taylor and Degnan. It would not be long before Communists would win even more recognition.
In the larger industrial relations sphere, the wartime prohibition of strikes had been finally rescinded in 1951 after prosecution of unofficial leaders of gas and dock strikes lead to demonstrations. The Industrial Disputes Tribunal was established for settlement of disputes by compulsory arbitration and to legally enforce collective agreements. The TUC had refused to co-operate with earlier Government attempts to control wages, but now toyed with the idea. By successive measures over the next few years, culminating in the Terms and Conditions of Employment Act of 1959, compulsory arbitration as a left¬-over from the war was abolished and free collective bargaining substituted. Although some trade union leaders contemplated the possibility of a wages policy directly linked to productivity. This came just as there was a marked trend in industry towards work study. The very complexity of bargaining around these matters brought a greater involvement of local representatives of workers.
Many companies had retained some form of consultative machinery from the wartime experience and the new climate seemed to favour a revamp of works committees with a wider remit than merely negotiating wages. Such bodies were supposed to only discuss working conditions, accident prevention, efficiency of production, incentive schemes, transport to work and recreational matters. But, increasingly these items became negotiable; the thin line between consultation and negotiation was easily transgressed. That improvements in incentive schemes could be considered a matter of consultation would be considered unbelievable within a decade, as local piecework and bonus schemes became the very essence of union pay bargaining and shop stewards became central to this process. Trade union events of the middle 1950s were the crucible in which this change was forged.
Two tier pay bargaining became the norm, as many firms agreed productivity rises or bonus and incentive schemes that rose above nationally agreed minimum rates. These became increasingly irrelevant as a standard from which premium rates and holiday pay were calculated. The 1956 national engineering industry negotiations dragged on as the employers offered little. In response, the unions began a series of cumulative strikes which began on March 16th. The plan was that within two weeks the entire industry would stop. At the height of the dispute, when its full force was about to come, amidst great controversy Bill Carron, the AEU’s extremely right wing leader, used his casting vote to end the dispute. This was almost the first significant task he had undertaken as President of the AEU. Having come from a traditional craft skill background as an apprentice and then a turner in Hull, followed by work in the local maintenance department of Reckitt and Coleman, he had displayed decidedly right-wing and backwater routes to the top. A full time officer of the AEU from 1945, he became an EC member in 1950 and AEU President in 1956.
The employers had offered a 6/- increase on the basic at the lower end of the pay scales. A court of inquiry reported in May, offering an alternative to the unions of either accepting the offer as it stood on the table, or to accept extra cash with strings to control ‘unconstitutional’ strikes, that is to say those strikes that did not wait on the lengthy and cumbersome disputes procedure. This issue of procedure would dominate debate about unions in this period and nowhere were national bargaining procedures more fraught than in engineering.
Merely progressing a constitutional dispute through procedure involved consuming much time; leastways often-times, it seemed that it was deliberately engineered to be so. Disputes did not seem to involve action but merely the bureaucracy of arranging a series of staged meetings, culminating in a national level conference always held in York. Until then, neither party was expected to take action of any kind. The agreement that provided for this tardy procedure, which of course hugely favoured the employers, dated back to the 1922 lock out. It had never really been acceptable to the unions, always seen as something forced upon them at a time when they were weak and lacked the ability to resist the imposition of a one-sided procedure. The employers desired to maintain and even strengthen their control over unofficial strikes, which all of those outside of this procedure would be. Only in 1972 would the unions eventually be able to jettison the more restrictive of the York procedures, with a hearty sigh of relief.
As far as the 1956 negotiations were concerned, these dragged on to the following year, when the CSEU decided by a majority vote to accept the court of inquiry’s proposition of a higher increase, but to seek talks to eliminate the more unpalatable of the strings attached to this. Skilled men got 11/- but unions had to agree at national level to impose a twelve month standstill on all wage applications in the industry. This kind of thing was bound to store up trouble for the future, as the national leadership of the AEU assumed a studied moderacy the effects of wages drift began to undermine differentials and fuelled resentment between time served workers and semi-skilled ones who could boost earnings by deft manoeuvring of piece work systems. However, localised bargaining suited areas like the Midlands, where considerable improvements over and above the national minimum rates were very common. The multiplicity of unions and the imbalance that arose from the AEU’s membership dominance was a brake of progress. Forward momentum on the wages front would never really be made through sector national bargaining in the engineering industry, although the basis for company-level bargaining through combine joint union shop stewards committees was made in the 1950s and lay the basis for much success in later years.
Communist Reg Birch contested the Presidency of the AEU against Bill Carron in 1956 but lost decisively (famously, in the 1960s he would become a Maoist and break with the Party). In time, the Communists and the left in the AEU, which was very strong in the Manchester area, would be able to promote Hugh Scanlon (1913–2004) to be a challenger for the Presidency when it came. As an apprentice instrument maker in Manchester, Scanlon had worked at the Metro-Vickers engineering plant at Trafford Park. There, he became a shop steward, before attaining the position of convener for the plant. He had joined the Communist Party in 1937 and rose through the union, becoming a district official in 1947. Although he left the Party in 1954 – well before what for some were seen as the `crisis’ years – he continued to work very closely with the Party. Indeed, his rise to be the “broad left” candidate within the union can be seen as very closely prefiguring a later development.
It is true that Manchester engineering Communists, notably Eddie Frow, was a long term delegate to the AEU National Committee and secretary to the Manchester District Committee of his union, made strong efforts to link up semi-organisationally with Labour lefts in the 1950s. Benny Rothman was also part of this trend. More famous for his leadership of a mass trespass on the Peak District in 1932, Rothman was convener at the Metro-Vickers’ plant where Scanlon had cut his teeth. Rothman was victimized but won mass support when a dispute arose when a welder was told to do a fitter’s job. Rothman called a meeting – with management permission. The men struck for an hour and the proposal was dropped. The management seized on Benny’s taking part in the hour’s stoppage as an excuse to sack him.
Nearly 3,000 men struck immediately to protest at this blatant victimisation. The AEU Manchester District Committee supported the men. They remained out for eight days. The Strike Committee printed leaflets and a small paper called ‘Unity’ in defence of the right to strike and lobbied the AEU EC to recognise the strike. This was refused, although they allowed dispute benefits. The Strike Committee then became the Re-instatement Committee and in March 1952 the 75 AEU Metro-Vicks shop stewards confirmed their view that Benny had been victimised. The management conceded that an application for re-employment for Benny could be considered ‘after a reasonable time’. Reasonable was never defined and Rothman had to find work at Staveley Machine Tools of Broadheath. He had won his point at Metro-Vicks but wouldn’t go back.
But it was not always so easy to build left unity, especially with Labour’s NEC being so trigger-happy at the time when it came to expulsions of their members for associating with Communists. But it is worth making the point that the very notion of Broad Lefts in unions hardly existed before the late 1950s and early 1960s. Essentially, the left was largely constituted as the Communist Party, with occasional individuals in the Labour Party being seen as `crypto-communists’, or `fellow travellers’.
Whilst it would take a later generation to explore the trend, the departure of some from the Communist Party in the period of the Cold War, for one reason or another, inevitably created a de facto Broad Left, especially if they maintained friendly relations with others, or (as with the case of Bert Wynn, the Derbyshire miners’ leader) even having partners or close relatives who maintained their Party membership. Incidentally, this was not an unusual occurrence; whilst none of the post-Deakin T&G leaders had themselves ever been in the Communist Party, it did not escape the notice of some that Frank Cousins’ wife, Nancy, had allowed her Party membership to lapse, possible to avoid embarrassment for her partner and a damaging of his early career, whilst Evelyn Jones, married to Jack Jones after her first husband, George Brown, the Manchester-based Irish Communist who died in Spain, was in a similar position.
Another Communist in the engineering industry, who pioneered left unity and won a remarkable adulation amongst the mass of AEU members in his locality, was George Caborn. He was leading light on the Sheffield AEU District Committee as a lay member for some years. During the mid-1950s, Caborn was elected to the Executive Committee of the Communist Party, representing it at the 8th Congress of the Communist Party of China in 1956. The right-wing AEU Executive removed his shop steward’s credential in 1960 due to his sponsorship of a rank-and-file conference. Even so, effectively, he remained as convener, simply reverting back to his branch role on the Sheffield DC. At the end of 1960, he was elected AEU District President, a post he held until July 1968 when he was elected District Secretary, a full time position which he held for very many years afterwards, dominating the local union scene.