Month: June 2014

Before the ‘unity’ of Grunwick: 40 years since the Imperial Typewriters strike

I am currently in Birmingham and have spent the day in the archives of the Indian Workers Association, held in the new Library of Birmingham. Amongst the papers of the IWA is a lot of correspondence linked to the Imperial Typewriters strike on the summer of 1974, where South Asian workers went on an unofficial strike and had little support from the TGWU. The strike lasted from May to August 1974 and can be seen as a low point in the relations between black and white workers before the Grunwick strike broke out two years later. Below is an excerpt from a conference paper I presented at the 2008 Social History Society conference in Rotterdam that discusses the Imperial Typewriters strike. Some of it will be incorporated into a forthcoming monograph manuscript on the CPGB and the politics of ‘race’.

RaceToday

In May 1974, over 500 Asian workers went on strike at the Imperial Typewriters factory in Leicester; their grievances, like those at Mansfield Hosiery Mills, had come from the lack of opportunities for promotion for Asian workers and unpaid bonuses. The striking workers saw the local TGWU as complicit in their underpayment and as the strike got underway, they felt that ‘the struggles being waged by them were not merely unsupported but were actively opposed by their union’.[1] While both Imperial Typewriters and the local TGWU denied any racial discrimination, the strikers claimed that the ‘white workers don’t suffer from the same degree of discipline as blacks do’, although they were quoted in New Society as stating, ‘This discrimination is quite peculiar because it is so hard to nail. It is the racialism that you feel but cannot overtly see, that exists at Imperial’.[2] The representative of the TGWU for Imperial Typewriters was George Bromley, who objected to the unofficial nature of the strike and the demands being made. Bromley criticised the unofficial measures being taken by the Asian strikers and their apparent disregard for the ‘proper disputes procedure’, stating that the strikers ‘have got to learn to fit in with our ways’ and then claiming, ‘the way they have been acting… means they will close factories and people won’t employ them’.[3] The refusal of Bromley and the TGWU to fully support the industrial action at Imperial Typewriters led to the strikers relying on the black community, instead of the solidarity of their fellow unionists.

The support for the strike, as Robert Moore wrote, ‘reached right down into the community’, not amongst the white working class or within the union, but amongst ‘members of the local Asian society’.[4] Race Today reported the ‘move away from trade union directives’ had given the striking workers ‘a source of political strength’, with the strikers’ autonomy bringing the strike ‘a spirit, an approach, a willingness to try any tactic’.[5] This autonomy and reliance on the black community presented a challenge to the labour movement, which promoted the traditional path of union politicisation as the key to affecting change for Britain’s black population, although black workers were wary of what use the trade unions had in asserting their political rights.

The Communist Party and the International Socialists did report on these strikes in their newspapers, the Morning Star and Socialist Worker respectively, but were criticised for their alleged limited practical actions. In the Imperial Typewriters dispute, the fascist far right organisation, the National Front, tried to take advantage of the refusal of white workers’ to join the strike and held demonstrations against the black workers. A counter-demonstration was held in August 1974 against the presence of the National Front that included a large contingent from the International Socialists. Hasmukh Khetani, one of the leaders of Imperial Typewriter Strike Committee, criticised the International Socialists for ignoring the actual strike and using the demonstration as a recruitment exercise. Writing in Race Today, Khetani complained that ‘One got the impression that the white left organisations… were more concerned about a fascist threat… than actual support for Black workers struggle’.[6]

Some have seen these strikes as a clear demonstration between ‘the national union model’, where the leadership has made conciliatory gestures towards equal opportunity for ethnic minorities, and ‘the local model(s)’, which generally, ‘if not actively opposing the pursuit of equal opportunity… are apparently much less committed to opposing racist discrimination’.[7] The International Socialists viewed these wildcat strikes as the ‘beginning of workers’ control’ against union officialdom, who allowed racial discrimination to occur in the workplace.[8] The trade union leadership, Paul Foot wrote in an IS pamphlet, ‘have passed their motions, but done nothing whatever to combat racial discrimination… or the racist ideas which exist in the minds of many of their members’.[9] The solution to the ineffectiveness of the union officials against racial discrimination, for the International Socialists, was to turn black workers towards their rank-and-file movement. Rank-and-filism was an industrial strategy that opposed the ‘reformist’ actions of the trade union leadership, proposing that ‘strong defensive rank-and-file organisations’ be formed to challenge the unions’ ‘reformist bureaucracy’ who, left unchallenged, would lead workers down an ‘increasingly blind and occasionally bloody alley’.[10] In an IS pamphlet, aimed at readers of the short-lived Urdu and Punjabi IS newspapers Chingari, the party stated that the ‘only fight back’ against racism ‘comes from rank and file workers’ and with this rank-and-file organisation, ‘a real fight can be waged on the conservatism and outright racialism of many union leaderships’.[11] Despite the emphasis upon the rank-and-file as the core of a revolutionary organisation to overthrow capitalism, and therefore the vehicle for defeating racism, the IS/SWP never reached a the level of influence in the unions that the CPGB had and the strategy floundered,[12] with the SWP being a much larger influence in the anti-fascist movement with Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League.

The trade union leadership, as seen in a 1974 pamphlet produced by the TGWU, blamed white workers and the intervention of the National Front for the racism at Imperial Typewriters, with no mention of the complicity of the local union officials. For the TGWU, the lesson of the Imperial Typewriters strike was to establish a ‘consistent recruitment campaign to bring black workers into trade union membership’ and to ‘involve them in union ongoing activities’.[13] For the white union leadership, the strategy to combat racial discrimination was to adopt black workers into the existing structures of the trade unions, with ‘special representation for black members… at different levels’,[14] rather than unofficial militant actions by black workers. Despite this declaration to promote anti-racist actions within the trade unions, by 1986, only 4 per cent of black workers held elected posts within their unions, compared with 11 per cent of white workers.[15]

A number of academics have viewed the strike at Imperial Typewriters as part of a wider history of autonomous black industrial action that spans from Woolf’s Rubber Factory in Southall and Courtaulds Red Scar Mill in Preston, both in 1965, to the defeat of the Grunwick strike in late 1978, which highlights the controversial issue of ‘the relationship of trade unions to external community-based minority ethnic groups’.[16] As John Wrench and Satnam Virdee have noted, this issue ‘pricks a number of sensitive points in British trade union history’,[17] where the left and the labour movement have had address the fact that shopfloor racism fractured the supposed inherent unity between black and white workers.

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[1] Mala Dhondy, ‘The Strike at Imperial Typewriters’, Race Today, July 1974, p. 202

[2] Robert Taylor, ‘Asians and a Union’, New Society, 30 May, 1974, p. 511

[3] Cited in, M. Dhondy, ‘‘The Strike at Imperial Typewriters’, p. 201; ‘Two Worlds in Conflict’, Race Today, October 1974, p. 275

[4] Robert Moore, Racism and Black Resistance in Britain, Pluto Press, London, 1975, p. 81; p. 83

[5] M. Dhondy, ‘The Strike at Imperial Typewriters’, p. 205; ‘Imperial Typewriters Strike: The Continuing Story’, Race Today, August 1974, p. 223

[6] H. Khetani, ‘Leicester Anti-Fascist Demonstration’, Race Today, October, 1974, p. 287

[7] Richard Jenkins & Gary Parker, ‘Organisational Politics and the Recruitment of Black Workers’, in Gloria Lee and Ray Loveridge, The Manufacture of Disadvantage: Stigma and Social Closure, Open University Press, Milton Keynes, 1987, p. 67

[8] International Socialists, The Black Worker in Britain, IS/Chingari pamphlet, London, n.d., p. 24

[9] Paul Foot, Workers Against Racism, IS pamphlet, London, n.d., p. 19

[10] Steve Jeffreys ‘The Challenge of the Rank and File’, International Socialism 1/76 (March 1975) p. 7

[11] IS, The Black Worker in Britain, p. 28; p. 25

[12] John McIlroy ‘Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned’: The Trotskyists and the Trade Unions’, in John McIlroy, Nina Fishman & Alan Campbell British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics vol 2: The High Tide of Trade Unionism, 1964-79, Ashgate, Aldershot, 1999, p. 285

[13] TGWU, Racialism, Fascism and the Trade Unions,TGWU pamphlet, 1974, p. 6

[14] TGWU, Racialism, Fascism and the Trade Unions, p. 7

[15] Satnam Virdee & Keith Grint, ‘Black Self-Organisation in Trade Unions’, Sociological Review, 42/2, May 1994, p. 206

[16] John Wrench & Satnam Virdee, ‘Organising the Unorganised: “Race”, Poor Work and Trade Unions’, in Peter Ackers, Chris Smith & Paul Smith (eds), The New Workplace and Trade Unionism, Routledge, London, 1996, p. 257

[17] J. Wrench & S. Virdee, ‘Organising the Unorganised’, p. 257

 

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Disobedient Objects at the V&A blog: The Grunwick strike

Grunwick Strike Committee Banner, designed by Jayandi and painted with Vipin Magdani, UK, 1976. NMLH.1993.604, ©People’s History Museum, Manchester, UK.

Grunwick Strike Committee Banner, designed by Jayandi and painted with Vipin Magdani, UK, 1976. NMLH.1993.604, ©People’s History Museum, Manchester, UK.

Disobedient Objects is a forthcoming exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum (26 July 2014 – 1 February 2015), curated by Catherine Flood and Gavin Grindon, which brings together materials related to activism and social movements from across the world. In the lead up to the opening of the exhibition, the curators have been running a blog looking at some of the items that will be on display. The latest addition to the Disobedient Objects blog is a piece by myself on the Grunwick strike and a particular banner made by striking workers, now held at the People’s History Museum in Manchester. You can find the piece here.

The British left and immigration: Weekly Worker cites Hatful of History blog

WeeklyWorker

This post is just a brief one to note that Peter Manson from the Weekly Worker (the newspaper of the new-ish CPGB – more info on their origins here) quotes from this blog at length in a discussion of the British left (primarily the Communist Party of Britain and the Socialist Party) and their position on immigration controls.  The article quotes extensively on the position of the old CPGB and argues that this forms the basis for the CPB’s (and thus the Morning Star‘s) current position, which is in favour of ‘non-racist’ controls. Manson’s main argument is that the CPB and the SP (the main group behind electoral party No2EU) are playing a ‘fool’s game’ which takes the lead of UKIP. The CPGB hold the position of no immigration controls whatsoever, but Manson doesn’t mention that this is also the position of the Socialist Workers Party, which I think would’ve been worth making clear – even though the focus was on the CPB/SP.

You can read the original post that Manson cites here.

The Conversation (UK) On Rik Mayall, The Young Ones and Thatcher

I just thought I’d mention that The Conversation (UK) has published a short piece by myself on The Young Ones as Mayall’s ground-breaking achievement and what the show reveals about Britain under Thatcher in the 1980s. You can read it here.

Mayall

In tribute to Rik Mayall: The Young Ones, Thatcherism and the People’s Poet

It is very saddening news to hear of the sudden death of Rik Mayall at the age of 56. As Rick, the lefty sociology student in The Young Ones, Mayall helped create one of the greatest contemporary portrayals of life in Thatcherite Britain, while indulging in surreal and off-the-wall comedy. The longevity of The Young Ones is a topic that I have written about at length. In a paper under consideration for publication at the moment, I wrote:

The Young Ones can be viewed historically and gives us insight into how Thatcherism and the 1980s was experienced by sections of British society. The show can be read as a text that portrays popular opinions about Thatcher’s Britain and satirises contemporary issues… However this does not mean that The Young Ones is an accurate reflection of the times per se – the show is obviously an over-the-top and surreal portrayal of student life in Thatcherite Britain. We, as historians and students of history, don’t watch The Young Ones to observe an authentic depiction of life under Thatcherism as it actually was, but because we can see certain themes and concepts (important for understanding Thatcherism and 1980s Britain) depicted in the television show. The show works as an excellent demonstration of the zeitgeist of Britain under Margaret Thatcher, but at the same time, it is factually inaccurate and stakes no claim to historical authenticity… 

Janine Utell has written that The Young Ones ‘challenge[d] the hegemony of Thatcherism’, using laughter to highlight the ‘profound ruptures and transformations in society’ under Margaret Thatcher’s Prime Ministership.. Characters that espoused left-wing positions had been in British television comedies before, but had often been the focus of ridicule. Robert Lindsay’s character of Wolfie in the late 1970s sitcom Citizen Smith was a stereotypical Marxist attempting to start a socialist revolution in suburban London via the Tooting Popular Front… On the other hand, The Young Ones were obviously critical of Thatcher and capitalism in the 1980s and sympathetic to the ideas of the left, but also willing to poke fun at the left for its sanctimonious tendencies.

The Young Ones doesn’t show us Britain in the 1980s as it really was, but it is a depiction of how the 1980s were experienced. The references to phenomena such as unemployment, police racism, popular capitalism, student activism, sexism and class stratification in the show are taken from the real life experience of living in Britain under Thatcher and depicted as icons/symbols that could be popularly recognised, but satirised to an unreal level. The Young Ones captures the zeitgeist of Britain in the early 1980s under Thatcherism by making reference to many symbols of the era, but the context in which these symbols are represented is often contorted and push to the bounds of the absurd. The juxtaposition of the political and social commentary with surrealism and cartoon slapstick makes the show enjoyable to watch, while telling us much about the recent past – this is why historians should rewatch The Young Ones.

Other alternative comedy television shows broadcast around the same time as The Young Ones, such as Not the Nine O’ Clock News, Spitting Image and OTT, were predominantly made up of topical sketches and stand-up performances and could be immediate in their satirical take on the politics of the day. However The Young Ones had to weave its satire into the broader narrative of the episode and accordingly its parody of aspects of Thatcherite Britain had to have broader resonance that were not so instantaneous. Arguably the longevity of the show’s satire and the significance of its comedic targets makes The Young Ones much more valuable for historians of Britain in the 1980s than other television shows that have not had the same durability.

This paper is based on a bunch of blog posts I wrote after the death of Margaret Thatcher in 2013. You can read the series, titled ‘What can The Young Ones teach us about Thatcherism?’, here:

Part One: Introduction

Part Two: ‘Race’ and the police in the 1980s

Part Three: Unemployment

Part Four: Neo-liberalism, market populism and crony capitalism

Part Five: Activism and the left

Part Six: Women and sexism

Part Seven: Higher education and class

And here’s Rick with the final word:

For those thinking of attending the far left seminar/book launch on Monday June 23…

far left cover

Can you please let me know (via this blog, facebook, twitter or email) whether you think you may come along? I am trying gauge numbers.

Details of the seminar can be found here. The book, Against the Grain: The British far left from 1956, can be pre-ordered here.

June 4, 1976: Sex Pistols play Manchester for the very first time…

In the history of British popular culture, June 4, 1976 is a significant date. The Sex Pistols played at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall to a small room of people. It is one of their first gigs outside London. Like the saying about the first Velvet Underground LP, nearly everyone in the audience that night went on to have a cultural impact on Britain (and beyond). Here is a collection of what several people have written about that gig.

From Tony Wilson, 24 Hour Party People: What the Sleeve Notes Never Tell You (London: Channel 4 Books, 2002) pp. 23-24:

4 June, 1976. Lesser Free Trade Hall. People dotted around. Desultory. Strange.

A thin, handsome mekon appeared on the small proscenium stage. ‘Hi, we’re the Buzzcocks but we’re not ready yer, so we’re not playing tonight, but this is the Sex Pistols.’

A band emerged. Who knows what the drummer, bass player and guitarist looked like. The guy who took centre stage took the mike, took your mind. A swagger to make John Wayne look a pussy. A sneer so dismissive of everyone and everything, of God and civilization, in just one pair of twisted lips. And then they started playing…

They stared, open-mouthed, transported to a place where you didn’t need to pogo (it wasn’t invented till three months later). That place was real life; that place was the clearing in the undergrowth where meaning and elucidation live, that place where the music came from and the place it would take you back to.

But they knew nothing, these forty-odd strangers, gathered by chance and chat, they just knew their world would never be the same again. A past obliterated and No Future.

From Peter Hook, Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division (London: Simon & Schuster, 2012) pp. 35-37:

Reading the small ads in the MEN was how I found that the Pistols were playing the Lesser Free Trade Hall, 50p a ticket…

So that was it anyway, the group of us who went and saw the Sex Pistols at Lesser Free Trade Hall. A night that turned out to be the most important of my life – or one of them at least – but that started out just like any other…

There to greet us was Malcolm McLaren, dressed head to toe in black leather – leather jacket, leather trousers and leather boots – with a shock of bright-orange hair, a manic grin and the air of a circus ringmaster; though there was hardly anyone else around… Look at the photographs of the gig and you can see that everybody in the audience was dressed the same way, like a Top of the Pops audience. There were no punks yet. So Malcolm – he looked like an alien to us…

The Sex Pistols’ gear was set up and then, without further ceremony, they come on: Johnny Rotten, Glen Matlock, Steve Jones and Paul Cook. Steve Jones was wearing a boiler suit and the rest of them looked like they’d vandalized an Oxfam shop. Rotten had on this torn-open yellow sweater and he glared out into the audience like he wanted to kill each and every one of us, one at a time, before the band struck up into something that might have been ‘Did You No Wrong’ but you couldn’t tell because it was so loud and distorted…

We just stood there, stock still, watching the Pistols. Absolutely, utterly, gobsmacked.

From Mick Middles & Lindsay Reader, Torn Apart: The Life of Ian Curtis (London: Omnibus Press, 2009) p. 35:

In the summer of 1976, Terry [Mason] convinced Barney [Bernard Sumner] and Hooky [Peter Hook] to go along with him to the Sex Pistols gigs at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall.. Although some believe that the importance of the Lesser Free Trade Hall Pistols gigs have been somewhat overstated, they were almost certainly a trigger for the musical ambitions of many in attendance.

Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto famously shelled pout the necessary £32 to hire the hall on FRiday June 4, 1976, and, to more poignant effect, on Tuesday July 20 where they would make their debut appearance as Buzzcocks. The first gig… saw Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, clad in black rubber, accosting pedestrians on Peter Street like some downbeat and desperate spiritual street hawker. Even when he succeeded, many of the wary Pistols gig goers were immediately swamped by the music of the support band, a progressive rock act called Solstice.

From James Nice, Shadowplayers: The Rise and Fall of Factory Records (London: Aurum Press, 2010) pp. 8-10:

Situated upstairs from the much larger Free Trade Hall, the venue was small, seated and salubrious, yet sufficiently unorthodox, and city central. The Sex Pistols date was set for 4 June 1976…

Lacking a regular bassist and a drummer, Buzzcocks were unable to perform at the Lesser Free Trade Hall on 4 June, and instead drafted ina local heavy rock group called Solstice to open for the visiting Pistols. Most present number the audience at around forty, although Devoto maintains the figure was closer to 100… Future musicians present in the room included Mark E. Smith (of The Fall), Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook (Joy Division) and Steven Morrissey (The Smiths), then a New York Dolls obsessive, who afterwards sent an ambivalent ‘epistle’ to NME describing ‘discordant music’ by ‘bumptious Pistols in jumble sale attire.’ Others included Steve Diggle, soon to join Buzzcocks on bass, fanzine editor Paul Morley, photographer Kevin Cummins, Eddie Garrity (better known as Ed Banger) and Alan Hempsall, a progressive rock fan later to form Crispy Ambulance.

From Morrissey, Autobiography (London: Penguin Classics, 2013) p. 115:

Back on Manchester’s inscrutable streets I find a tatty leaflet stuck on a Peter Street lamppost telling me that the Sex Pistols will play the Lesser Free Trade Hall. They are not the saviors of culture, but the destruction of it – which suits me quite perfectly…

Morrissey also wrote a ‘review’ of the gig as a letter to NME (reproduced on the Passions Just Like Mine website):

Review by Steven Morrissey of a Sex Pistols concert: “I pen this epistle after witnessing the infamous Sex Pistols in concert at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall. The bumptious Pistols in jumble sale attire had those few that attended dancing in the aisles despite their discordant music and barely audible lyrics. The Pistols boast having no inspiration from the New York / Manhattan rock scene, yet their set includes, “I’m Not Your Stepping Stone”, a number believed to be done almost to perfection by the Heartbreakers on any sleazy New York night and the Pistols’ vocalist / exhibitionist Johnny Rotten’s attitude and self-asserted ‘love us or leave us’ approach can be compared to both Iggy Pop and David JoHansen in their heyday. The Sex Pistols are very New York and it’s nice to see that the British have produced a band capable of producing atmosphere created by The New York Dolls and their many imitators, even though it may be too late. I’d love to see the Pistols make it. Maybe they will be able to afford some clothes which don’t look as though they’ve been slept in.”

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Here is Paul Morley’s recollection of the same gig (via The Guardian). The Huffington Post also did a piece on the same gig here.

People might also be interested in this paper written by cultural studies scholar Sean Albeiz on the popular memory of this gig, and my article on how the Manchester music scene (including this gig) has been portrayed in film.