This feature on migrant labour and the TGWU in the 1960s and 1970s is a work in progress, with ongoing research into relations in West Midlands foundries in the 1960s, the ban on bus workers wearing turbans in the late 60s to early 70s and the regional union inquiry into events in Leicester in 1974 all the subject of likely future revisions.
Readers are very welcome to contact me with any material and reminiscences in the meantime. I am always open to corrections.
How is it that a union like the TGWU could arguably be seen as institutionally racist three decades after its foundation and as it entered the second half of the 20th century; yet, part way through the passage to a new century, find itself electing the first ever black general secretary of a trade union, whilst finally entering the next century becoming noted for having a culture of organising migrant workers in a way never seen before in British trades unionism?
The contradictions in all of this are rooted in the maintenance of the British Empire, whilst the constant tensions in the TGWU between right and left that bedevilled it from its start, arising from its political significance for the Labour Party, meant that a strong anti-racist conscience never left the Union. The expression of this can be easily traced to two overlapping but quite different experiences of migrant workers who encountered both trends in the union, especially during the 1960s. How the union managed the issues in places like the West Midlands or West London varied and things would take time to change in some areas like Leicester.
It had all started out far worse than was known at the time. Only a short while after MV Empire Windrush had berthed in 1948 with its cargo of immigrants from the Carribbean, the Labour Party and the TUC was secretly discussing “coloured people” from the point of view of preserver of Empire. A private and confidential paper, No. 320 from Labour’s International Department had been discussed at an advisory committee on imperial questions.
Authored by Mr K Little, the paper, “The Colour Problem in Britain and its Treatment” was a briefing to a group that had benignly viewed white immigration from Eastern Europe of, mostly former pro-Nazi anti-Communist combatants, and was now focused on defeating the diplomatic policy aims of the Soviet Union as a means to defend a policy of holding on to the Empire, even if that meant decolonisation whilst retaining economic dominance was focused on the problems.
We learned from Little that, to then, “coloured people” in Britain were seafarers, students, professional men; and “a miscellaneous category which ranges occupationally from boarding house keeping to music hall entertainment”. There were “relatively few coloured people in clerical employment outside such organisations as the Colonial Office”.
Yet there were real difficulties: “Coloured people in Britain labour under a number of peculiar handicaps which vary in intensity according to circumstances and the racial characteristics of the individual concerned. Generally speaking, the darker his or her complexion, the more likely the individual in question is to encounter difficulties … it is generally much more difficult for a person of colour to obtain lodgings or accommodation in a boarding, lodging house or hotel than for a white person. In a large number of cases, the difficulty amounts to a definite bar on the grounds of colour.”
It was estimated that “about one in every two persons engaged in letting accommodation is very averse or positively refuses to accept a coloured guest. On occasion, coloured persons are also refused admission to dance halls and denied service in a cafe, a restaurant or a public house. More particularly, in certain cities, such as Liverpool and Cardiff, it is quite often impossible for a coloured person, qua his colour, to obtain the lease of a house in particular residential areas; and in London, as well as elsewhere, there are clauses in the leases of property which specifically forbid its letting or sub-letting to persons of colour … On the economic side, the coloured worker has quite often to face the difficulty of obtaining work owing to the reluctance of employers to take him on or to the refusal of white employees to work alongside him. Sometimes, the employer’s refusal is the direct outcome of the latter contingency rather than a matter of personal prejudice.”
There was not much that could be done, it was thought, beyond long term education. “Perhaps consideration could also be made of the possibility of persons setting the ‘tone’ in English life, such as members of the Royal Family inviting distinguished coloured scientists and other notabilities to their homes.”
Or even marrying BAME people, might be the thought occurring to the contemporary reader!
But the truth was that those in positions of authority, like the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, although discomforted by the thought of mass BAME migration, thought the problem could be managed behind closed doors. The Labour Government set up a Cabinet Committee in 1950 to review “… the further means which might be adopted to check the immigration into this country of coloured people from the British Colonial Territories”. Rather than admit the racist assumption behind concerns – that black and ethnic minority peoples were seen as different and inferior – the aim was to discourage too much of an influx and manage the problems discreetly. (Bob Carter, Clive Harris & Shirley Joshi, The 1951 Conservative government and the racialisation of black immigration, Centre for Research in Policy Papers in Ethnic Relations No.11, University of Warwick, p2, October 1987)
But Labour was soon out of office and, from the time of Churchill’s premiership, new Commonwealth immigration rose from 3,000 in 1953 to 46,800 in 1956 and thence to 136,400 in 1961. By this stage, many viewed the issue as a problem rather than an opportunity. This was now the scene set for those in the TGWU now dealing with BAME workers looking for support. How the Union comes out of the affair is best illustrated by some examples.
Our first story concerns Courtaulds Red Scar Mill in Preston where, in May 1965 management’s decision to force workers to manage 50% more machines for proportionately less pay. ((Paul Foot, The Strike at Courtaulds, Preston, IRR, July 1965). Essentially, the burden of this fell on Asian workers, who did have a shop steward but he was other only one. The union under Deakin had been an enthusiastic participant in the so-called productivity movement and Courtaulds had been one of the most enthusiastic employers. The TGWU full-time official looking after the company had signed an agreement and told the stewards after the fact to (only one of whom was Asian) to convene a meeting and get the workers to accept the new arrangement. A very small additional bonus equivalent to about 3% on the wage was apportioned to workers in recompense. Subsequently, the union insisted on the employer and the worker sharing any benefits equally.
With the workers having made clear their opposition, the company had boundary lines along the machines allocating the new requirements. Refusing, the workers staged a sit-in and then walked out for three days. Although, early in June, 120 Afro-Caribbean workers involved in the action returned to work after the intervention of the High Commission an the dispute collapsed, the concerns of black and Asian workers at Red Scar were the same as their compatriots in the union everywhere and related to the democratisation of the union as much as it did to institutional racism.
The second case concerns Indian migrant workers in Southall and the TGWU’s Region 1, covering London and the South East. What happened after the decision in
1951 by R Woolf & Co. (Rubber) to open a factory at Hayes Bridge in Southall would have massive implications for the future.
Finding it hard to get local labour to do what was a very dirty job, a member of the firm went to India to recruit labour. The Woolf rubber factory was the first one to employ non-whites because the recruiting officer was a military man who had been deployed in India. It took time but eventually the factory became 96 per cent Punjabi Sikhs. (28 December 1967 – Birmingham Daily Post) These workers would stand up for their rights and eventually became strong and active members of the Transport & General Workers’ Union (TGWU), paving the way for others to follow their example. Working conditions were unpleasant and Indian workers were only taken on for labouring jobs at lower wages than white colleagues doing similar jobs.
Some organisation had been established at the firm as far back as 1959 but in the face of the excessive anti-trades unionism of the firm membership had been lost. When the firm was reorganised in 1963, a significant membership base was obtained. The following year a failed attempt to get a separate branch was made but this was followed by a strike for union recognition that succeeded. A condition won by the union was that paid suspension would apply whilst potential dismissals were considered through procedure. The management must have resented this because in May 1965, ten sackings took place. The company accepted the dispute about this proceeding through the National Joint Industrial Council for the Rubber Industry, where agreement on reinstatement of half of the dismissals was reached.
In October 1965 a strike broke out about this practice The dispute arose over the suspension of an employee who had requested leave of absence and when this was denied still took the time. Workers took solidarity action but management had then written to all saying each would have to individually apply if they wanted reinstatement.
Groups of workers at the factory with the active support of the Indian Workers Association (IWA), said they had recruited 452 Indian workers to the TGWU. Thus, in November 1965, 600 Asian workers went on strike, demanding safer working conditions, only to be locked out. It would be seven weeks before most returned to work.
The mainstream media at the time was making much of the supposed damaging effect so-called ‘unofficial’ strikes were having on Britain’s economy. The fact that there was a Labour government enabled the largely Tory press to peddle the notion that it was `soft’ on strikes. It was a fact that most strikes were not officially recognised at the time of their starting, since workers generally had to wait on the lengthy process for making strike `official’ before getting dispute pay. This entailed taking a report to a committee of elected lay officials, in the case of the TGWU, the General Executive Council which could make strikes official and that generally only met quarterly. Occasionally, the monthly Finance & General Purposes Committee could take action that would later be ratified by the GEC.
Either way, it was a lengthy wait in a process that, until Frank Cousins became General Secretary, had not altered since Bevin’s day. Increasingly, roundabout ways would be invented to ease the process. A decade later, it was common for Regional Secretaries to make a grant from regional funds equal to Dispute Pay, pending a decision from the GEC. In many ways, it was the dispute at Woolf’s that paved the way to this.
Back in 1965, the first time the Southall strike could have been declared `official’ was January 6th 1966, when the F&GPC received a report on the dispute that explained that “National and Regional Officers were endeavouring to satisfactorily resolve the difficulty” It was actually an interim period, with elections to the GEC being currently held and the March GEC meeting was the next time R Woolf & Co (Rubber) dispute could be discussed, as it was in the General Workers Trade Group report. Region 1 had sought an Executive inquiry into the matter. 654
Around the same time, a grant equal to dispute benefit had been provided to the largely Asian workforce of Sterling Metals in Nuneaton by the Acting Assistant General Secretary J L Jones, who had previously been the Midlands Region 5 Secretary. (GEC Minute 326, 14 April 1966) This was a very Region 5 thing to do, having been common in cases of multi-union disputes and knock-on lay-offs in car manufacturing. Now, the practice offered a quick way forward for disputes like that at Woolf & Co, where new members quickly went on strike without building up the required length of service to obtain benefits such as strike pay.
The Acting General Secretary, Harry Nicholas (Cousins was seconded to the Labour cabinet) reported on the Woolf Inquiry at the GEC of 10 June 1966. The full complement of officers for the region and the regional trade group as well as and national trade group officers had been interviewed. Both the regional and national officers were decidedly of the right-wing faction in Labour. The sole left officer was Fred Howell, the junior regional trade group officer for General Workers. He would, in due course, become close to chief negotiator at Ford Motors, one Ron Todd, who 25 years later would decide that his union was too white faced and needed to change.
It was established that the lockout by Woolf had actually begun on 10 December 1965. The main administrative difficulty had been that some members were `in compliance’ and others were not. This would have arisen due to the spontaneous nature of the rebellion against management, with workers joining up unaware that a period of membership was expected before any of the many financial benefits would normally be available.
Only in the evidence given by Fred Howell did it become clear that Bert Fry, the Regional Secretary, in claiming that although he had told a mass meeting on 12 December that the union would give “official industrial support” he had been wrongly misunderstood in a telephone conversation with the national officer that must have got further confused by the workers “due to the language difficulty”. Fry claimed he was not meaning that the workers would be “financially assisted” by an equivalent grant to dispute pay from regional funds, he had meant solidarity assistance at Ford Dagenham, which was a customer for Woolf’s products. The regional trade group secretary had prepared the necessary authorisation for Fry to sign but he had refused, hence the matter had been referred to the executive. (Appendix III, GEC minutes 10 June 1966)
The inquiry noted that the workers’ shop stewards had not actually been seeking Dispute Benefit, being aware than many locked out were not in benefit compliance. Though much credence was given to misunderstandings and confusion, Fry had made it clear that, because of the mix of compliant and non-compliant members in the dispute he was opposed to “full official support”.
The difficulty was that this confusion had spread to the picket lines. Lorry drivers only needed to be able to tell their employer that they had been stopped at an official picket line and had to return to depot not to suffer penalisation himself. Later in the 60s and early 70s, even this distinction didn’t really matter and left-wing officers started producing their own official letters, stating that a dispute had been recognised by their district, effectively elevating the scenario that Fry sought to undermine.
The conclusion was that, despite there being only 57 members out of a workforce of 700 in a benefit state, the moment that a lockout had been declared by the employer, all should have been treated equally “to avoid division and disunity”. Fry’s claim that he favoured a grant to all in dispute might well have been a workable option but it should have been effected much earlier by the Regional Committee. There had been only 36 members at the commencement of the dispute but this had risen to 130 drawn into compliance by Christmas Day.
The Institute of Race Relations published an account of the strike, which was rather more balanced that comment in ultra-left newspapers, which at the time focused heavily on some of the flaws, which have become simplified over the decades. Although the strike was not immediately declared official, resistance to the lockout did gain immediate official support. Although many Asian workers were not immediately paid strike pay, their representatives did not ask for this and explained at the time why it was problematic. Although a boycott of Woolf’s goods was not immediately apparent, the request was made but had been muted by the onset of seasonal holidays and the closure of union offices.
To break the strike, management deliberately tried to bring Pakistani workers from Bradford to scab but this did not succeed. Importantly, the whole affair began a massive change in attitudes, especially when the union made clear that lessons had to be learned. At the time of the union inquiry reporting, 240 members were back at the firm and 71 members had not gone back but were being offered alternative employment. Within only a few years, R Woolf (Rubber), facing a systematic inquiry into its working practices and levels of pay, sold out to P B Cow Ltd, a historic rubber company. (Joan S. Skinner, Form and Fancy: Factories and Factory Buildings, Wallis, Gilbert & Partners, 1916-1939)
It could have gone better but the union had emerged from the gloom of right-wing officialdom into a period of sponsored militancy, from suspiciously stand-offish attitudes to people of colour to an understanding that such attitudes would be challenged. Plenty of problems remained and not every Union office had converted to the cause of anti-racism but things were moving.
Perhaps because there was more of a critical mass of Asian migrant labour in the Midlands, the TGWU made more of a success of evolving a way forward, though, again, some disputes gained notoriety when perhaps the reality was more complicated.
A later Midlands regional secretary of the TGWU, Brian Mathers, a genial Irishman with a left-wing bent, in 1971 recalled an unnamed dispute in 1964 in Wolverhampton when he had been a district Officer. (Page 216-7 Leeson 1960-1971) interestingly, there is no record of such an event in local newspapers at the time but Mathers’ comments were in a well publicised book. Essentially it shows little difficulty with the union supporting Asian workers.
His experience was that “many strikes have one root cause – frustration … many strikes are what I would call exhaust valve strikes”. Add to this the procedural delays of many months in managing disputes in the engineering industry meant that it was not unusual for months to go by. Although the Wolverhampton involved only one factory, “it caused something of a change in our industrial relations in the Midlands. Before this strike in 1964, immigrant workers would join the trade unions, but take no part active in them … But one day … a Jamaican chap came to me and said, ‘Look I was in the union back home. But in this factory, where it is mostly Indian labour, there is no union and the foreman rules with a rod of iron.’
Mathers gave him some application forms and he came back to him with an Indian whom he introduced as a community leader. “We chatted and he asked for 500 application forms. Now I had heard such stories before, but I was astounded when two days later, all the forms were filled in, signed and one week’s subscription paid.”
Shop stewards were elected but a fortnight later, the West Indian member was sacked after the foreman accused him of threatening him with a hammer over a piecework price. Mathers recalled: “Now he was an inoffensive sort of chap and it seemed incredible to me. I told him he should go back and ask his mates if they were prepared to stand by him. The next thing I heard was that the factory was at a
standstill and the employers’ association was complaining of an unofficial strike. Meetings were held in a Sikh Temple … after three weeks the employers’ association suggested a peace formula; the shop steward was to be suspended with pay while the case went through procedure. When this proposal was put to a meeting through an interpreter there was pandemonium. When this quietened, the strikers replied – yes they’d accept this provided the foreman was suspended as well.”
A fantastic story emerged. For a long time the foreman had been extracting money from the workers. If there was a vacancy for a fork-truck driver he would offer it to a labourer on the basis of £5 immediately, which could be a third to a half a week’s wages, and so much a week thereafter. There were plenty of examples, and with the help of the Birmingham Community Relations Officer, statements were drafted and signed.
“There were hair-raising stories of people taking gifts, bottles of brandy, shoes for his wife, to the foreman’s house. I presented the statements to the Chief Constable of Wolverhampton. After a complex series of happenings, ending with the foreman attempting suicide and going into a mental home, the shop steward was re-instated. Now men at the factory could get down to the business of improving the conditions of work, and since it was foundry work, they were extremely heavy, dirty and distasteful conditions.
I believe it was one of the first such successful actions by immigrant workers and its example spread through their community to other factories. It brought other immigrant workers into union activity and the Indian shop stewards later on played a big part in demonstrations against the Industrial Relations Bill.”
TGWU membership in the Midlands lifted to over a quarter of a million, enabling several key strikes to take took place in the western part during the 60s and 70s that propelled the region and, via its strong links with Jack Jones and Moss Evans, the whole Union into alerted awareness of the need to accommodate its growing ethnic minority membership. Sadly, although part of the same regional administration, the east, south-east, and south Midlands areas of the union lagged behind, disastrously so in Leicester and, less evident but nonetheless problematic, in other parts of the East Midlands.
In all this, the Indian Workers Association (Hindustani Mazdoor Sabha) was a key force in both benefiting from and driving the leftwards shift within the TGWU. But, like its big brother, the IWA was always a broad organisation, with contested and varied views, The earliest public record of the IWA are from wartime Coventry and rooted in the campaign to achieve independence in India. From thereafter, the ever present knowledge of the current state of politics in India itself was always at play, alongside the benevolent work for migrants, often fought for tenaciously. (Sasha Josephides, Towards a History of the Indian Workers’ Association 1991 p) Thirty years or so after the initial forays into the TGWU, even the most ultra-left of activists within the differently orientated local IWAs was supporting him enthusiastically, mainly because of his ethnicity and despite their knowledge that his politics were left-centre at best.
The IWA was an organisation founded and controlled primarily by Indians from the Punjab: “wherever there are Punjabi immigrants in Britain, there is an Indian Workers’ Association with an impressive membership”. (John Dewitt, Indian Workers’ Association. London, 1969, p1) Understanding the IWA requires mastery of a bewildering array of initials! Mainly reflecting the labyrinthine turns, splits, and competion on the left in India. Most of its founding members during the 1950s and 60s were of the Communist Party of India (CPI), very many of whom also became members of the CPGB (later CPB, though few entered this body, some have allied to it.) Today, long-standing activists often hold communist opinions, with many allied to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), though in some local IWAs there are adherents to the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), or the CPGB (ML), or various “Naxalite” or armed struggle Maoist forces in India. Activists also joined the Labour Party or Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party.
Unquestionably, the figure of Jagmohan Joshi, a charismatic and exceptionally able leader of the IWA, or some parts of it, from the 1960s, until his death in 1979, from his base in Birmingham, dominates any research into this arena. Reflecting the propaganda emanating from what awash then called Peking, Joshi was inspired by the idea of intercontinental unity of non-white peoples. Emulating the style of figures such as Malcolm X, Joshi in his later activity began to forge a successful alliance of black groups. Those around Joshi in the IWA were sympathetic to active force defence committees, a position others thought was positively suicidal, and were strongly opposed to affiliating with Commission for Racial Equality and, before that, broad ‘liberal-minded’ campaign bodies.
But, for the TGWU, it was his role during the walk outs in Black Country foundries in the 1960s that was critical. A staunch Maoist with a strong commitment to the idea of `Black Power’, Joshi treated even sympathetic left-wing, or even Communist, trade union officials negatively. Increasingly, it seemed that the aim was to make Birmingham IWA a separate ‘black’ trades union. An intervention by the Communist Party, with the support of left allies in the union, to ensure, firstly, the promotion of a rising star in Birmingham TGWU engineering circles, one Bill Morris, to the union’s General Executive Council and subsequently to office status did much to divert the mood for separation.
More to follow on IWA
After Joshi’s death, Avtar Johal, an active trade unionist and shop steward in the foundries until the late 1980s when he moved into trade union studies lecturing, became the General Secretary of Joshi’s IWA, but this in practice meant the Birmingham and Sandwell based IWA, located at premises on Soho Road, Handsworth, which published this IWA’s ‘Lalkar’ (Challenge) newspaper.
But it was events in the 1960s as far as the attitude of the Midlands TGWU towards Asian foundry workers that became central to perceptions of either the union being a force for good or not. In the main, despite local IWAs adopting the most critical position, the strength of the left in the West Midlands meant that the signals were all positive. The foundries of the region were then all geared towards making parts, in particular shell moulded crankshafts without supplies of which car assembly simply ground to a halt. And the massive car industry was firmly controlled by shop stewards’ movements, nearly always led by Communists, who had been foremost amongst progressives in actively opposing colour bars.
At the Coneygre foundry in Tipton, Dudley, from 29 April 1967, a strike over redundancies took place. TGWU members, mainly Asian workers, wanted to work-share, a three or four day week, instead of loosing jobs but the AEU members, who were mainly white, disagreed. A ten week strike saw employers bring in scab labour but heavy picketing saw strike breakers fail to cross the picket line. AEU members were mainly with long service in the foundry and a last in first out policy would mostly see relatively recently employed migrant workers out of the door. TGWU members, mainly with jobs designated as ‘unskilled’ rather than semi-skilled or even skilled, were mostly BAME and took a stance of unity against injustice. Although initially sympathetic to the AEU position, Conygre was forced to agree to work share instead of redundancies. Rightly, it was seen as a compete victory for IWA activists, though Mathers’ account of a dispute some years before, not so far away,
A spate of other strikes occurred, with Newby foundry in West Bromwich strike in 1969, rapidly followed by Dartmouth Auto Castings, Midland Motor Cylinder Company and Birmid Qualcast foundry in Smethwick, Coventry Art Castings, and Birmingham Aluminium Castings (BAC). Firms such as Birmabright, at Clapgate, Quinton, made the aluminium used for Land Rover panels.
Qualcast was a major iron foundry group and manufacturers of metal goods and lawn mowers, with a foundry and a separate lawn mower plant in Derby, both of which employed significant Indian labour. Its Crane Foundry in Wolverhampton was and manufacturer of kitchen furniture, tubular chairs, carpet sweepers, domestic appliances, pottery, jigs and tools, and general engineering. Its Sterling Metals in Nuneaton would also host a major dispute and Birmid took over all the foregoing companies.
A weakness of trade union organisation in this sector was the failure to develop a strong joint shop stewards’ committee across the myriad of sites, as the movement focused on the car industry per se. Division between white and BAME workers overlaid the increasing militancy of the TGWU set against the increasing ‘aggressive moderation’ of the AEU, something not quite seen in the north west of England or the London and West Middlesex industrialised areas.
Many employers in the Midlands used the hiatus to introduce or defend an insidious notion, a clause in union facility agreements that only employees who had sufficient command of English could become a shop steward. The problem was how to define ‘sufficient’ and managements were expectedly too flexible in favour of choosing who they wanted to be shop stewards rather than workers. The TGWU dug it’s collective heels in, a tongue in cheek principle emerged that the union would allow management a say in who its stewards were when the company consulted them on who to appoint as directors.
The 1968 Commonwealth Immigration Act was rushed through Parliament in three days of emergency debate after a Labour government decide it wanted to restrict the entry into Britain of Kenyan Asians holding British passports, ex-colonials with white skins were given the continued right of entry. For the first time, migration policy was defined by racial identity. Rather famously, this generated a new mood, though the union worked hard to limit any damage.
As has been noted , attitudes towards migrant workers in the TGWU were much less satisfactory in the East Midlands. In 1974, it took a strike at Imperial Typewriters in Leicester to bring this out into the open. On May 1st 1974, workers from four firms in Leicester walked out – 300 workers at the British United Shoe Machinery, 300 at the Bentley Engineering, a knitting machine manufacturer, 200 at the General Electric Company factory in Whetstone, a turbine and power station manufacturer. and 39 Asian workers who left section 61 at Imperial. Only the latter truly involved the TGWU. Soon 500 workers were on strike at Imperial and the other firms were working normally. Nine days after the strike started, the company sacked 75. (Ron Ramdin, The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain (1987), pp. 271-280.)
The workforce of 1650 had only 550 non-Asian employees and it now emerged that, secretly, bonus payments were being manipulated with the knowledge of the white senior shop steward (there were no Asian stewards) and this this was at the very best condoned by the full time official, George Bromley, JP, who was also a leading member of the Leicester Labour Party.
The company had been acquired by Litton Industries in 1966, and it had gradually introduced models largely assembled from parts shipped from its United States factories. Migrant labour had been introduced in Leicester, seemingly as part of a global strategy to cut costs and take over markets. In May 1974, Asian workers went on strike over unequal bonus payments and discrimination in promotion after finding out that, although they were being paid bonus on a target of 200 typewriters produced or more, they were in fact entitled to bonus on 168, an agreement which dated back to 1972. It does not seem coincidental and (further research to be written up) it will become clear that the roots of the strike went back to the expulsion from Uganda in early August 1972 of a minimum of some 80,000 people of Asian origin. The deportations were ordered by President Idi Amin, providing only 90 days notice to leave the country. Many of the expellees were citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies and 27,200 subsequently emigrated to Britain with many opting to go to Leicester.
There is very much more original research to write up here about the dispute.
On the advice of Reg Weaver, the TGWU factory convenor, neither the elected shop stewards committee and the local Transport & General Workers Union branch would give their support, yet the strikers stayed out for almost 14 weeks, with picketing being especially enthusiastic, there were often over 200 on the line.
Bromley’s public interventions were astonishingly inept. At one point, he fancifully claimed the Chinese Communist Party was funding the dispute and, blindly asserted that the only tensions based on ethnicity were those between Asians born in Kenya and those who had come direct from the Punjab. In the meantime, the National Front, then the main overtly racist political force, made much of the dispute, not an insignificant matter since it had polled some 9,000 votes in Leicester.
In support of the continuing of Weaver as TGWU members’ spokesperson, Bromley cited a TGWU rule to the effect that workers could not be elected as shop stewards until they had been a member for two years. But this failed to take account of the situation in newly organised establishments and echoed right back to the Woolf dispute a decade before. There was always discretion to vary such rules but a new rule book in 1972 had been necessary due to Tory legislation and the exception always proved the rule, as had been the case with the Woolf dispute.
Showing the enthusiastic locals opportunity, a mass meeting took place on Sunday 19 May, when a couple of thousand marched through Highfield. In late May, 300 were mobilised by the IWA to lobby the union’s head office in London. Moss Evans, Mathers’ predecessor as Midlands Engineering Trade Grouo Secretary was now National Organiser, a kind of practical executive officer role, and he made clear an internal inquiry would resolve matters. (1 June 1975 Birmingham Post) External resolution was problematic and the union wanted to find a way forward that was unifying.
Race Relations Conciliation Committees had been set up in 1969 and there was one for the East Midlands. The standard procedure following a complaint under the Act was, in the first instance, for a local Conciliation Committee to consider the complaint and to try and resolve it. If this failed then it would be referred to the Race Relations Board and potentially taken to court. It is not clear that the Imperial strikers were willing to follow this procedure but David Stephens of the Runnymede Trust had put the suggestion of a statutory committee of inquiry to Michael Foot, then Secretary of State for Employment.
But Foot had only just got the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act (1974) on to the statute book, which emphasised many positive rights for workers, and was in the midst of seeing the Employment Protection Act (1975) into legislation. Gone were old style arbitration boards as the Act established the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) as a statutory body and provided a framework of industrial tribunals to settle questions of dismissals. It was left to John Fraser, MP, Under Secretary of State for Employment (1974-1976) to turn down Stephens.
With only an internal inquiry, details of which were never published it was left to speculation and later, internet blogs to report what happened. The Midlands region of the Union instituted a committee of inquiry, which included Avtar Singh Jouhal, also a Birmingham and Smethwick IWA member, and was serviced by Brian Mathers, the regional secretary. Bromley, the district secretary, and Weaver, the convenor initially refused to co-operate due to Jouhal’s links. Mathers then called Moss Evans in London and it was communicated to the officials that if they refused to take part, disciplinary action would be taken against both of them.
Something and nothing occurred. Some workers got jobs, others refused them. Compensation was given, open elections were to be the norm everywhere, whilst secret terms and conditions were never to be condemned. Heads didn’t roll, both Bromley and Weaver would soon retire. IWA members in Leicester were welcomed in as they had been in Birmingham.
On July 18, the workers agreed to return after the company agreed to review bonuses, in the knowledge that a union inquiry was under way. (Daily Express July 19 1974)
The Midlands region of the Union instituted a committee of inquiry, which included Avtar Singh Johan, also a Birmingham and Smethwick IWA member and was serviced by Brian Mathers, the regional secretary. Bromley, the district secretary, and Weaver, the convenor initially refused to co-operate due to Jouhal’s links. Mathers then called Moss Evans in London and it was communicated to the officials that if they refused to take part, disciplinary action would be taken against both of them.
The company ended manufacturing typewriters when electric models and then word processors and personal computers became popular. The manufacture of typewriters ceased at Leicester and Hull in 1975. Intriguingly, 76 workers at Imperial Typewriters plant in Hedon Road, Hull ended a six month occupation, admitting defeat. High court wrists against the occupation had been resisted throughout but Clare Tate, TGWU factory convenor, had hoped a last minute deal for a new enterprise would save the factory but it was not to be. Hull Ports liaison committee, led by Walter ….had backed an embargo against any Litton industries products. (Birmingham Post, 17 July 1975) Oddly, much retrospective comment had conflated the two quite separate disputes, although in the end perhaps the Hull and the Leicester factories were engaged in much the same struggle. Whilst outside commentators speak of these events of almost half a century ago as if the entire bunion was still in the grip of the paranoia of officials such as Arthur Deakin, it is certainly the case that, if there had still been residues of institutional racism left in 1975, the appalling attitudes displayed in the Leicester district had ensured that the beginning of its elimination was now certainly underway.