Issue 185 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
'Here we were, just about winning the war, and losing our trade union rights. So what the bloody hell had we been fighting for?'
With these words, one socialist summed up the bitterness and resentment felt by workers in Britain towards the end of the Second World War. The sacrifices they were asked to make in the 'national interest' increasingly entailed poor pay, intolerable conditions, and the infringement of their basic right to organise at work.
There was widespread determination to defeat Hitler's Nazis, but the war also created tensions which raised questions in the minds of many about its real purpose. It was apparent that bosses were reaping huge profits off the back of the war effort. For the rest of society, long hours, inadequate air raid provision and meagre rations were their only reward, and the future promised little improvement. As the war went on, ordinary working people became more and more unwilling to tolerate this unequal sacrifice, and they expressed their anger at it where they had the greatest means of making themselves heard--in the workplace.
Far from the class struggle laying dormant in these years, it actually intensified, reaching a peak in 1944. In that year the official number of strikes recorded was 2,194--up to then, the highest ever. The number of working days 'lost' was more than 3,700,000, the highest for more than a decade, and a figure which would not be exceeded for another ten years. These strikes were almost without exception completely independent of the trade union bureaucracy, and in most cases they were illegal.
The first serious wartime dispute took place in 1941. It involved engineering apprentices, first on Clydeside and then in Coventry, Lancashire and London. They had struck demanding pay increases in line with time-served engineers and at one point threatened to bring out apprentices all over the country. Young workers recalled the successful tactics of strikers in 1919 and marched from factory to factory bringing out their workmates.
In Coventry the apprentices took a significant step forward and included women at the local munitions factory in their campaign. In this way they departed from the attitude that the influx of women was actually making things worse for men at work. In fighting they had discovered the greater importance of unity. Their militancy won them a better pay deal, but even then the Lancashire apprentices held out for the full demand, and only returned when they had earned the distinction of being the first group of workers to be prosecuted under the government's 'emergency' anti-strike laws.
This strike was important because it was the action of apprentices, a group traditionally seen as conservative--on signing up with an employer they were prohibited from taking strike action and often even from trade union membership. Now they were emerging as a new layer of militants.
The demands of war had thrown together huge numbers of workers who had not suffered the demoralisation of the 1930s. And these new workers, like the apprentices, quickly demonstrated a newfound confidence in collective action and a rapid recognition of the benefits of militant rank and file organisation.
The new mood of resistance against employers' attacks was also reflected in another way. The huge numbers now thrown together at work began to take action, not just over pay but also to fight for trade union rights which would fundamentally alter the way they dealt with employers.
On Tyneside at the beginning of 1943 workers at the Neptune ship repair yard came out for six weeks over the refusal of five men at their firm to join the Amalgamated Engineering Union. They received massive support from workers in other firms and trades, and forced their employers to concede a 'closed shop' agreement, setting a precedent which would be followed up and down the country.
This was also the year of the famous Barrow engineering strike at the enormous Vickers Armstrong yard there. When the workers downed tools it sent shock waves throughout the country. Engineers, apprentices and other allied trades at the yard stopped work because Vickers refused to pay them a decent increase. The basic rate at Barrow had not risen for 29 years! Yet Vickers' profits had rocketed when the government began rearmament. Every morning, between 1,500 and 2,000 workers formed a mass picket outside the gates of the yard. Scabbing was kept to an absolute minimum. As the strike wore on, the National Arbitration Tribunal was called in to decide what a fair pay settlement should be. To a public outcry, it sided with the employer. But even this did not deter the Barrow strikers, and they voted unanimously to stay out.
While the Barrow strike was unofficial, it did have the backing of the local AEU district committee. It was this that worried trade union leaders most. They were having a hard time as it was, trying to enforce the industrial truce that they had agreed with the Employers' Federation, and they could not allow the local leadership to jeopardise their credibility in the eyes of employers and government.
To this end they dispatched Wal Hannington, an AEU executive committee member and a respected Communist who had led the National Unemployed Workers' Movement a decade earlier. Hannington got short shrift from the strike committee, however, which was not impressed by his advocacy of the 'people's war'. When he returned to London he complained that the strike committee had not been prepared to listen to him, and when he had pressed the point the committee members had threatened to throw him down the stairs!
For the bosses and government though, the worst was yet to come. In 1944 the government was faced with a coal crisis. Coal was absolutely fundamental to the production demands of the war economy, and on top of this, plans were well under way for the opening of the Second Front in Europe, which also required vast amounts of home produced coal. Yet these extra demands were not received warmly by the miners when their demand for a minimum wage was met with a compromise deal falling far short of what they had expected. The 'Porter pay award' as it was known aroused massive anger in the pits. Within 24 hours of its announcement almost every single pit in South Wales and Lancashire was idle. These were soon joined by pits in Kent, Yorkshire, Durham and Scotland. Just when it needed coal most, the government had provoked the biggest single mining dispute since the 1926 General Strike with more than 180,000 miners stopping work.
The government claimed that the miners had been duped by a Trotskyist conspiracy which would only aid Hitler. As far as Ernest Bevin, the minister of labour, was concerned, the strikes in the pits were 'worse than if Hitler had bombed Sheffield and all of our communications had been cut.' The TUC said that the miners had 'struck a blow in the back of their comrades fighting in the armed forces'. Yet there was massive public support for the miners.
At the same time as they were making huge profits out of coal production for the 'war effort', the coal owners were directing work into shaly seams which would not have been profitable in peacetime, and oversaw a decline in safety standards which by 1944 meant that you had more chance of being injured as a miner than if you were fighting in the armed forces!
Such profiteering put the issue of coal nationalisation onto the political agenda, and it was this which was the central aim of a dispute which marked the high point of industrial militancy during the war: the Tyneside apprentices' strike.
The government needed coal desperately, and with miners out indefinitely it put greater emphasis on the Bevin Ballot Scheme, a measure which aimed to conscript 10 percent of all apprentices to the coalface to increase production. This was one of the most unpopular measures of the entire war and nowhere was it met with more opposition than on the Tyne. The apprentices were bitter about being made to pay for a coal crisis which was not of their making.
After three or four years working for a pittance in the hope of becoming skilled workers, the apprentices were being directed to the pits with no guarantee that they could resume their trade when the war was over. In the absence of any official trade union support they formed their own organisation, the Tyne Apprentices' Guild, which became, in the words of one of its members, 'the government of the apprentices, by the apprentices, for the apprentices'. Then they set about preparing to take on the government, linking up with apprentices in other areas and securing the support of their fathers, brothers and workmates in their firms.
In March 1944 they gave notice of strike action unless their demands for nationalisation of the mines and for exemption from 'the pit compulsion plot' were met. When no reply came, they were itching for a fight. 'Bevin won't climb down, so we'll pull him down,' was the battle cry of one of them. So at the end of March 26,000 apprentices, on the Tyne and then in Glasgow, Huddersfield and Teesside, came out in direct conflict with the government, against the Bevin Ballot Scheme and in support of the call for nationalisation of the mines.
The apprentices' strike only lasted two weeks and--while no Tyneside apprentice was directed to the pits--it did not achieve its immediate demands. Nonetheless, it was the culmination of a process of rank and file recovery which saw workers advance from the defence of pay and conditions to unofficial, illegal action which directly challenged the political authority of the government.
It was little wonder then--after such a wave of working class revolt--that the 1945 Labour government embarked on the most systematic reform programme in British history in an effort to stem that tide of anger mixed with high expectations. When John Major eulogises the spirit of national unity during the war, it is worth remembering that the conditions created by the war led workers to recognise a different kind of unity, with each other, and they made use of it in spite of the warmongering and jingoism which Major wants us to remember.