Grunwick

After Grunwick: Trade unions and anti-racism in the 1980s

This is the latest post looking at the history of the turbulent relationship between the British labour movement and black and Asian workers in the post-war era, following on from posts on the Imperial Typewriters strike in mid-1974 and the Grunwick strike between 1976 and 1978. While Grunwick is seen as a turning point, there were still significant problems for black and Asian workers in the labour movement. These were exacerbated by the attacks on the trade unions (and the black and Asian communities) by the Thatcher government in the early 1980s. This post is based on extracts from my forthcoming book with Brill/Haymarket, British Communism and the Politics of Race.

Although the Grunwick strike ended in defeat, it has been celebrated by the British labour movement ever since as compelling narrative of class unity. As McDowell, Anitha and Pearson have argued:

the strike has become constructed as a iconic moment in the history of the labour movement, the moment when the working class recognised the rights of women and minority workers to join a union as part of the British working-class movement.[1]

However the strike did not signal an end to the problematic relationship between the trade unions and black and Asian workers, particularly as the trade unions, as well as Britain’s black and Asian communities, came under attack in the early 1980s.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, many black and Asian workers remained dissatisfied with the trade unions, particularly for their limited reaction to the problem of racism faced by these workers. In 1977, the PEP (Political and Economic Planning) report, Racial Disadvantage in Britain, outlined the problems that black workers faced in their relationship with the trade union movement, noting that while the 1970s had seen developments in most of the trade unions adopting anti-racist and equal opportunities policies, there was ‘a contrast between this formal policy and its practical results’.[2] In interviews with eight of the largest unions in Britain, the report found ‘little evidence that any definite action had been taken’ by the trade union leadership to combat incidents of racial discrimination inside the unions.[3] The report revealed that the trade union leaders were likely to ignore cased of racial discrimination unless they reached the highest echelons of the unions’ complaint structures and as ‘very few complaints filtered up to head-office level,… leaders tended to interpret this as meaning that there was very little trouble of this kind.’[4] The trade unions, along with the Labour Party, were spurred into anti-racist action by the mid-to-late 1970s, as seen with the large scale mobilisation of trade union support for the Grunwick strike and the labour movement backing of the Anti-Nazi League. However as Phizacklea and Miles argued in 1987, the anti-racist campaigning by the trade unions (primarily the TUC) and the Labour Party ‘seemed to die away with the collapse of the National Front vote in the general election of 1979’.[5]

In August 1976, the TUC formed its Race Relations Advisory Committee and in 1981 created a Black Workers Charter, but several studies conducted in the 1980s revealed that these initiatives had a limited impact upon the efforts of the trade unions to combat racism in the workplace and within their own organisations. Phizacklea and Miles cited a 1981 investigation by the Commission for Racial Equality into the AUEW that it was the policy of the union to condemn racial discrimination, ‘no specific instructions about how such a policy should be implemented had been provided for either officials or members’ and this principled opposition to racism was ‘contradicted by both the open expression of racism’ by some union members and ‘the refusal of the officials to take any action to combat that racism’.[6] Gloria Lee stated that when interviewed, black members ‘saw themselves as grossly under-represented within their unions’ and ‘felt that as black members, they [were] more poorly served buy their union than white members’.[7] John Wrench cited in his 1986 paper that certain acts of explicit racism were still occurring in the trade union movement in the early 1980s, but there was also ‘the more passive collusion of union officers in practices which were discriminatory in their outcomes, and a reluctance to change these practices’, such as the use of word-of-mouth to hire people, which worked greatly against non-white applicants.[8]

The traditional position of the trade unions was to have no specific policies to assist black workers integrate into the labour movement, arguing for ‘equal treatment’ for both black and white union members.[9] Despite the actions taken in the late 1970s and early 1980s, such as the aforementioned initiatives by the TUC, the ‘equal treatment’ argument still remained with the trade unions. In 1977, the PEP report stated that some union officials justified their poor record on combating racism ‘by saying they make no distinction between black and white and that this means that no special action can be taken’.[10] Phizacklea and Miles claimed that this was still the case in the 1980s and declared ‘[r]acism can masquerade in the guise of colour-blindness, when there is clear evidence of cases containing discrimination and allegations of lack of support for Asian and Caribbean members from their unions.’[11]

As part of the TUC’s efforts to combat racism, special education classes were created to inform trade unionists about the impact of racism upon black workers and how to tackle this, but critics asserted that as these classes were voluntary to attend, it had not reached the right audience and was not well supported by the unions.[12] Wrench argued that ‘those…who would benefit most from attending such courses tend to stay away as they feel that such provisions are a waste of time and money’.[13] A 1984 report by the Greater London Council’s Anti-Racist Trade Union Working Group found that the GMWU, ACTT and NUT all held equal opportunities and ‘racism awareness’ training courses, but only the AUEW-TASS ran any ‘positive action’ programmes, which supported ‘appointing officials with ethnic background, or females, to the union’.[14]

John Wrench wrote in 1986 about this GLC report, stating:

The findings of the GLC survey confirm the suspicions of many activists that despite the history of disputes and struggles, the research, the educational material, and the prosecutions, there remains a body of trade union officers who simply do ot understand – or are wunwilling to acknowledge – what racism and racial equality are, what their effects are, how they operate, and what sorts of measures are needed to oppose them.[15]

However most of these reports from the 1980s pointed to areas where the trade unions were progressing on issues of ‘race’. Phizacklea and Miles wrote that ‘we have witnessed some concern amongst some unions to increase the participation and representation of Asian and Caribbean workers and restatement of a commitment amongst the same union to tackle racism within their own ranks and the wider society.’[16] John Wrench also noted that in the era of austerity and the Thatcherite onslaught against the trade union movement, ‘there has been an awareness of common cause and common interest’ between black and white workers and that this had been ‘part of one positive development of recent years – the increasing organisation of black workers and their success in making their influence felt within the labour movement.’[17]

This eventually led to the establishment of black sections or caucuses within several trade unions, as well as the Labour Party, which were seen as highly controversial at the time. Despite opposition from Labour Opposition leader Neil Kinnock, the black sections motion was passed by the 1983 Labour Party conference and the Party, alongside several public service unions, established black caucuses or sections as part of their internal structures. In a 1985 roundtable organised by Marxism Today, Stuart Hall and the Indian Workers Association (Southall) General Secretary Vishnu Sharma (also a leading CPGB member) argued that black caucuses and sections were beneficial for the labour movement, while Race & Class editor, A. Sivanandan, described them as a ‘distraction from the struggle that the black community has to face today’.[18] Hall countered this by saying:

If you say that the real problem is maintaining the momentum of the black struggle then I can see that the black sections are a distraction. But if you are concerned, an I am concerned, about the question of the white working class, you have to recognise that the Labour Party is a majority working class party. It has hegemonised the working class since the beginning of the twentieth century, whether we like it or not… So the black struggle must have some idea about how to get into that organisationally, how to transform that organisation…[19]

He argued that bringing the black struggle to the Labour Party was a ‘double struggle which is both with and against’ and required taking the fight to the Labour Party’s constituent elements, as well as the TUC –‘blowing it apart from the inside’.[20] To transform the ideas and actions of the labour movement, Hall proposed, one had to ‘mak[e] the internal structured organisation of the labour movement aware of the impact and history of racism.’[21]

Despite their initial controversy, the general political consensus is that the black caucuses within the trade unions and the black sections inside the Labour Party proved useful for promoting an awareness of issues of racial discrimination and equal opportunity within the labour movement, remaining until today. At a time when Thatcherism seemed at its hegemonic peak and the labour movement was at one of its lowest ebbs, the formation of the black caucuses/sections in the face of fierce resistance was a victory that buoyed those in the anti-racist struggle.

nalgo-blame-thatcher-not-ted

[1] McDowell, Linda, Sundari Anitha and Ruth Pearson 2014, ‘Striking Narratives: Class, Gender and Ethnicity in the “Great Grunwick Strike”, London, UK. 1976-1978’, Women’s History Review, 23, 4, p. 600.

[2] Smith, David J. 1977, Racial Disadvantage in Britain: The PEP Report, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, p. 193.

[3] Ibid., p. 202.

[4] Ibid., p. 204.

[5] Phizacklea, Annie and Robert Miles 1987, ‘The British Trade Union Movement and Racism’, in The Manufatcure of Disadvantage, edited by Gloria Lee and Ray Loveride, Milton Keynes: Open University, p. 119.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Lee, Gloria 1987, ‘Black Members and Their Unions’, in The Manufacture of Disadvantage, edited by Gloria Lee and Ray Loveridge, Milton Keynes: Open University Press, p. 151.

[8] Wrench, John Trade Unions, Equal Opportunity and Racism, Policy Papers in Ethnic Relations no. 5, 1986, pp. 11-2.

[9] Wrench, John and Satnam Virdee, ‘Organising the Unorganised: “Race”, Poor Work and Trade Unions’, in The New Workplace and Trade Unionism, edited by Peter Ackers, Chris Smith and Paul Smith, London: Routledge, p. 245.

[10] Smith 1977, p. 193.

[11] Phizacklea and Miles 1987, p. 123.

[12] Lee 1987, p. 149.

[13] Wrench 1986, p. 13.

[14] GLC Anti-Racist Trade Union Working Group, Racism Within Trade Unions, 1984, London: GLC, p. 16.

[15] Wrench, Trade Unions, Equal Opportunity and Racism, p. 22.

[16] Phizacklea and Miles 1987, p. 121.

[17] Wrench, Trade Unions, Equal Opportunity and Racism, p. 24.

[18] ‘Black Sections: Radical Demand or… Distraction?’, Marxism Today, September 1985, p. 33.

[19] ‘Black Sections’, p. 34.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

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The intersection of race, class and gender at the Grunwick strike

On 23 August, 1976, six workers went on strike at the Grunwick Photo Processing Lab in North-West London, beginning a strike that lasted for almost two years and involved thousands of people over the course of it. The Grunwick strike is now considered a turning point in the history of British trade unionism and race relations. I have written elsewhere about the intersectionality of the strike, but this post, based on an extract from my forthcoming book, expands on how the issues of race, class and gender crossed over during the strike.

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Looking through the lens of critical race and feminist theory, it can be argued that the Grunwick strike was intersectional,[1] where issues of race, gender and class were all present and raised by different people involved in the strike. However while all of these issues were present (and recognised by those involved), the approaches formulated to tackle these issues were disparate and non-inclusive. While the trade union movement recognised racial and sexual discrimination were issues of resentment amongst those striking at Grunwick, the strategy for ‘victory’ was a class-based approach – primarily recognition of trade union representation from the owners of Grunwick.

In the coverage of the strike in the various left-wing, feminist and black activist publications at the time, the prominence given to the various issues of class, gender and race can be seen. The Socialist Workers Party declared in their pamphlet on the strike that, the ‘issue at stake was simple: trade union recognition’,[2] while the International Marxist Group depicted the Grunwick strike as part of a longer union history:

From Todpuddle to Tonypandy, from the Match Girls to the Miners, working people have fought for the right to organise. Trade Unionism is now under attack at GRUNWICK. A defeat for us would be a defeat for the whole working class.[3]

However it was suggested in the journal Race Today that some black workers felt that to mobilise on this issue ‘does not mean that white workers are there supporting a strike by black workers’.[4] Meanwhile A. Sinanvandan, editor of the journal Race & Class, wrote that the strike was ‘no longer about racism’, but was now about the ‘legality… of the weapons that unions may use’.[5] In his eyes, the official union movement was not proving its commitment to black workers, but instead were ‘determining the direction that the strike should take and the type of actions open to the strikers’.[6] For example, in February 1977, APEX’s Grunwick Strike Committee produced a bulletin listing the demands of the strike, which stated ‘What are we fighting for’: the right to belong to a union, for APEX to be recognised at Grunwick, the re-instatement of those strikers that had been fired after belatedly joining APEX, ‘a decent living wage, proper working conditions and an end to the abusive and tyrannical regime of our management’.[7] However, there was no mention of combating racism anywhere within these demands. What the demand for trade union representation by the white labour movement failed to recognise was that the presence of a trade union did not actually equate to countering racism within the workplace at Grunwick. The black workers at Mansfield Hosiery Mills and Imperial Typewriters had been members of a union at these factories and these trade unions had been ineffectual in combating the racism experienced within these workplaces. As the Black Women’s Group Brixton stated in the following years:

The only basis on which the trade union movement and the White left would support the struggle of Black workers was on the condition that they subordinate the main issue of racism to trade unionism, which is of importance, but not sufficient to ignore the racist issue.[8]

The feminist magazine Spare Rib celebrated the role taken by women, particularly Asian women, in the strike, who, according to them, made up 60 per cent of strike. In January 1977, the magazine declared:

It takes a great deal of guts for an Asian woman to come out on strike and stand on a picket line in the full glare of publicity day after day. All sorts of psychological pressures are brought to bear on her. Members of her family may gossip and deprecate her, as it is considered a dishonour for a woman to put herself in the public eye.[9]

The magazine also highlighted the particular hardships faced by women employees at Grunwick and quoted one of the women on strike:

What I mean by slave treatment is that if a woman is pregnant, for example, she can’t get time off to go to the clinic. The management says why we can’t we go on Saturdays, but the cliniuc is not open on that day.

Many of our women have small children at school or in nurseries. The management tells you halfway through the day that you must work overtime that night – but this is terrible because you can’t pick up your children and you can’t contact your home.[10]

Interviewed at the height of the mass pickets in July/August 1977, Jayaben Desai talked positively about the support that came from different areas for the women on strike:

Before the mass picketing began in June the issue was not so clear in our community, it was misty before. But now the Asian community see what we are fighting for.

And before, the trade unions in this country were felling that our community was not interested – this was wlways a gap in our community. But this will bring the distance nearer.We can all see the result – people coming here from all over the country were seeing us as part of the workers now.[11]

These differing persepctives on the focus of the Grunwick strike have led to much debate over whether the strike was a class-based strike or a strike against racism (or both), with the female aspect of the strike overlooked by many scholars. A. Sivanandan wrote in 1981 that the ‘basic issue for the strikers was thw question of racist exploitation’, acknowledging that union recognition was part of this.[12] Ron Ramdin also acknowledged that racial discrimination was an issue at Grunwick, but wrote, ‘[w]hile low pay, racism and the oppression of women were contributory factors, the main cause of the Grunwick strike was the ‘conditions of work’.[13] Following on from this argument from Ramdin, several authors have argued that Grunwick brought black and white workers together as a class to fight for trade union recognition and to combat racism in the workplace. Gary Macfarlane stated that the strike ‘ demonstrated that class unity could be forged in action and racism challenged head on’,[14] while Satnam Virdee wrote ‘during Grunwick, ‘key groups of workers had moved towards a more inclusive lanhuage of class that could now also encompass racialized minority workers.’[15]

Although the main emphasis of APEX and the Brent Trades Council was on trade union recogition, as mentioned above, there were moments when these organisations did not acknowledge that there was a racial aspect to the strike. In a letter from the Basingstoke General branch of APEX to the General Secretary of the TUC, there was a call for a national campaign by the TUC to highlight the struggle at Grunwick, with letter ending, ‘Let all know about the Grunwick employers Dickensian nature of employment, mainly of Asian origin, thus making the issue additionally delicate in the matter concerning race relations.’[16] Furthermore, in a flyer produced by APEX to call for the mass pickets in mid-1977, it was stated in bold capitals at the top of the flyer:

GRUNWICKS STRIKE IS ABOUT

IMMIGRANTS             WOMEN

TRADE UNION RIGHTS

WORKING CLASS SOLIDARITY[17]

However other academics, such as Jack McGowan, have rejected that racism was an issue at Grunwick, writing that a ‘race-driven narrative is a tenacious trope in the accounts of Grunwick from the Left.’[18] McGowan cited the Commission for Racial Equality as stating, ‘It cannot be shown that the management at Grunwick practised racial discrimination’, and further argued that the strike could not be about ‘race’ because the co-owner of Grunwick, George Ward, was of Anglo-Indian descent.[19] Criticising a particular BBC Radio 4 documentary on the strike produced by Melissa Benn, McGowan lamented that ‘Benn’s radio audience might… misinterpret Grunwick as a case of white exploitation of ethnic workers’ and argued:

[Benn] appears to conflate the profound difference between the structural, socio-economic status of a sector of the labour force – regardless of ethnicity – with an implied willingness on the part of an employer deliberately to exploit workers on the grounds of race alone.[20]

McGowan here takes a very narrow concept of racism and does not consider that Grunwick’s owners and management relied on the structural position of the Asian manual workers (especially the female workers), largely informed by their ethnicity and recent migrant status, to treat them poorly as employees. As Pratibha Parmar and Parita Trivedi have argued, Asian women were viewed as ‘passive’, ‘submissive’ and ‘meek’ and ‘pushed into unskilled and semi-skilled jobs’ in ‘small organized sweatshops or doing homeworking’.[21] These racist and sexist assumptions, along the difficulties of trade union organising in these workplaces, made Asian female workers vulnerable to exploitation, but as the Grunwick strike has shown, these women were willing to challenge these assumptions and were able to take the lead in militant industrial action.[22]

The importance of the strike in fighting sexual discrimination has traditionally been overlooked in discussions of the strike, although since Amrit Wilson first wrote about the strike in the 1978 edition of Finding a Voice, it has been acknowledged by feminist scholars that the discrimination that workers faced as women informed the militancy of the women involved on the picket line.[23] As the quotes from Spare Rib above show, women at Grunwick experienced specific discrimination based upon their gender, which was often combined with discrimination based upon their ethnicity. The recent work by Linda McDowell, Sundari Anitha and Ruth Pearson suggests that previous accounts of the strike have ‘neglected the complex intersections between class, gender and ethnicity’ at Grunwick and therefore argue that the strike should be viewed through an intersectional lens.[24] For the labour movement, there was an emphasis on class, although there was an increasing acknowledgement of the extra problems faced by ethnic minorities and by women – but the strategies put forward for combatting the intersecting forms of class, gender and racial oppression always emphasised class unity and using the tools of class mobilisation, such as the mass picket and the accession to the trade union leadership.

Although the strike ended in defeat, it has been celebrated by the British labour movement ever since because of this compelling narrative of class unity. As McDowell, Anitha and Pearson have argued:

the strike has become constructed as a iconic moment in the history of the labour movement, the moment when the working class recogniswed the rights of women and minority workers to join a union as part of the British working-class movement.[25]

————————————————————–

[1] See: Crenshaw 1989, pp. 139-68; Crenshaw 1991, pp. 1242-300.

[2] SWP, Grunwick, p. 4.

[3] Socialist Challenge, 3 November 1977.

[4] ‘Grunwick Strike: The Bitter Lessons’, Race Today, November/December 1977, p. 154.

[5] ‘Grunwick (2)’, p. 292.

[6] ‘Race, Class and the State (2)’, p. 70.

[7] Grunwick Strike Committee (APEX), Strike Committee Bulletin, 29, 21 February 1977, G1548/9, MSS.464 Box 1, in Grunwick Dispute Archive, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.

[8] Black Women’s Group Brixton, ‘Editorial’, Speak Out, 2, 1981, p. 3, DADZIE/1/8/3, in Stella Dadzie Papers, Black Cultural Archives, London.

[9] Rossiter, ‘Risking Gossip & Disgrace: Asian Women trike’, Spare Rib, January 1977, p. 18.

[10] Campbell and Charlton, ‘Grunwick Women’, Spare Rib, August 1977, p. 7.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Sivanandan 2008, p. 130.

[13] Ramdin 1987, p. 288.

[14] MacFarlane 2013, p. 87.

[15] Virdee 2014, p. 135.

[16] Letter from APEX Basingstoke General branch to TUC General Secretary, 18 April 1977, MSS 292D/253.119/3, in TUC Papers, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.

[17] APEX flyer, August 1977, MSS.464/20, in APEX papers, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.

[18] McGowan 2008, p. 389.

[19] McGowan 2008, pp. 389-90.

[20] McGowan 2008, p. 390.

[21] Parmar 1986, p. 245; Trivedi 1984, p. 45.

[22] Although a recent study has suggested that African-Caribbean women, who also went on strike at Grunwick, have been erased from the visual and collective memory of the stike. McDowell, Anitha and Pearson 2014, p. 606.

[23] Wilson 1981, pp. 60-71.

[24] McDowell, Anitha and Pearson 2012, p. 134.

[25] McDowell, Anitha and Pearson 2014, p. 600.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Crenshaw, Kimberle 1989, ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics’, University of Chicago Legal Forum, pp. 139-168.

——— 1991, ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color’, Stanford Law Review, 43, 6, pp. 1242-1300.

MacFarlane, Gary 2013, ‘From Confrontation to Compromise: Black British Politics in the 1970s and 1980s’, in Say It Loud! Marxism and the Fight Against Racism, edited by Brian Richardson, London: Bookmarks.

McDowell, Linda, Sundari Anitha and Ruth Pearson 2012, ‘Striking Similarities: Representing South Asian Women’s Industrial Action in Britain’, Gender, Place & Culture, 19, 2, pp. 133-152

——— ‘Striking Narratives: Class, Gender and Ethnicity in the “Great Grunwick Strike”, London, UK. 1976-1978’, Women’s History Review, 23, 4, pp. 754-775.

McGowan, Jack 2008, ‘“Dispute”, “Battle”, “Siege”, “Farce”? – Grunwick 30 Years On’, Contemporary British History, 22, 3, pp. 383-406.

Parmar, Pratibha 1986, ‘Gender, Race and Class: Asian Women in Resistance’, in The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain, Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, London: Hutchinson, pp. 236-275.

Ramdin, Ron 1987, The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain, Aldershot: Gower.

Sivanandan, Ambalavaner 2008, Catching History on the Wing: Race, Culture and Globalisation, London: Pluto Press.

Trivedi, Parita 1984, ‘To Deny Our Fullness: Asian Women in the Making of History’, Feminist Review, 17, 34-50.

Virdee, Satnam 2014, ‘Anti-racism and the socialist left, 1968-79’, in Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956, edited by Evan Smith and Matthew Worley, Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 209-228.

 

 

 

The role of the Communist Party in the British anti-racist movement

 

Below is something that I wrote as an overview of the book that I have been writing over the last year and with the manuscript finally submitted to the publisher a few weeks ago (and deadlines for other projects looming), I thought I’d post this.

sharma

I have recently completed a book manuscript on the CPGB and the politics of ‘race’ (currently with the publishers) which uncovers the prominent anti-racist role that the Party played in the post-war era. The history of the Communist Party’s role in the anti-racist movement in Britain is one of varying degrees of success and failure from the 1940s to the 1980s. As one of the initial political organisations to actively campaign against the racial discrimination faced by black people in Britain, it was at the forefront of the broad anti-racist movements of the 1950s and 1960s (borne out of the earlier anti-colonial and anti-imperial movements that the CPGB participated in). However by the 1970s and 1980s, the role of the Communist Party in the anti-racist movement was surpassed, on one hand by black activists who formed autonomous black-led organisations and on the other by the groups of the far left, such as the International Socialists/Socialist Workers Party and the International Marxist Group, who proposed a more radical political agenda, including a more confrontational anti-racist/anti-fascist programme. Although the shift towards embracing the new social movements, centred around those writing for Marxism Today, somewhat reinvigorated the CPGB in the 1980s and possibly promised a potentially more nuanced anti-racist strategy, the Party was on the verge of collapse and did not translate into practical anti-racist activism.

In 1957, Claudia Jones, the West Indian-American communist who had been deported from the USA, wrote in an article for the CPGB’s weekly journal discussing West Indians in Britain:

Our Party is judged among colonial workers by its policy, but much more so by its deeds.[i]

Spanning nearly the entire period of what Eric Hobsbawm called the ‘short twentieth century’,[ii] the Communist Party, throughout its existence, had campaigned against colonialism, the ‘colour bar’ and racial discrimination (and racist violence) in the colonial sphere and in Britain. The Communist Party was one of the first organisations within the British labour movement to have an explicit anti-racist agenda, opposing the ‘colour bar’ in the British Empire/Commonwealth then opposing it in the domestic sphere, as the number of Commonwealth migrants rose in the 1940s and 1950s.

The question that I have sought to answer in my book is how successful was the Party’s effort to help fight racism faced by Britain’s black and Asian communities and how successful was the Party in convincing other sections of the labour movement to take up the anti-racist struggle. In assessing this, my argument is that CPGB were constantly in a balancing act between looking to the trade unions and other labour organisations to spearhead the anti-racist movement, making white workers aware of the fight against racism, and working more closely with the black communities at the grassroots level, where there increasing scepticism over the eagerness of the trade unions to combat racism. As a Liverpudlian Party member asked in a letter to the Party magazine Comment in 1981:

On what terms do we involve the labour movement in the [anti-racist] struggle, as the vanguard taking over the direction of the struggle or as supporters of the black community bringing the power of the movement to bear where the black community itself feels the most urgent need?[iii]

Since the reformation of factory branches during the Second World War, and particularly as the Party’s post-war programme The British Road to Socialism saw them as key to any influence upon the Labour Party, the trade unions were central to the CPGB’s agenda, including in the fight against racism. While the Party was attracting a number of black workers, activists and students from across the Commonwealth in the 1950s, its literature focussed on attempts to convince trade unionists to welcome these fellow workers and campaign against ‘colour bars’ in the labour movement and the workplace. In the pages of the daily newspaper Daily Worker in the late 1950s, Party member Kay Beauchamp stressed ‘the need for the whole Labour movement to take up the fight against colour discrimination, for the trade unions to champion the rights of coloured workers and to make a special appeal to them to join the unions.’[iv] Although the trade unions supported campaigns, such as Fenner Brockway’s Movement for Colonial Freedom, at bloc level, getting individual trade unionists to take part in anti-racist activities was a much more difficult task. As others have pointed out, until the mid-1970s, trade unionists favoured a ‘colour blind’ approach that promoted no ‘special treatment’ for people based on ethnicity or nationality, but then offered little assistance to those who needed help in overcoming racial discrimination in the workplace.

The elections of Labour in 1964 and 1966 highlighted the differences between the labour movement and the needs of Britain’s black communities, and the problem that the Communist Party had in attempting to win the ‘mass party’ towards a Labour-Communist alliance and maintaining a credible anti-racist programme. Although Labour did introduce legislation against racial discrimination in public places, housing, employment and in social services in 1965 and in 1968, this was done in conjunction with further restrictions on immigration from the Commonwealth, which tied together the notions of integration with restriction. As Dilip Hiro wrote, this signalled a convergence between Labour and the Conservatives on the issues of immigration and racial justice:

[a]n advanced, albeit minor, on the front for ethnic minorities was conceded by the Conservatives in exchange for a retreat by Labour in the matter of immigration restrictions.[v]

It also signalled to black workers in Britain that Labour’s anti-racist idealism could be countered by the poll-driven necessity to be as ‘tough on immigration’ as the Conservatives. A major part of the Communist Party’s anti-racist agenda throughout the 1960s and 1970s was to campaign for Labour to repeal its commitment to racist immigration control measures and to place further powers in the Race Relations legislation, but the two terms of Harold Wilson in government showed that these were difficult demands to implement. It was absolutely necessary for the Communist Party to oppose these racist actions by the Labour Party, just as much as it opposed those perpetrated by the Tories, but this was juxtaposed with the CPGB’s support for Labour in many other areas, especially in the electoral sphere. This inconsistency convinced a number of black activists and workers that it was better to join black community or single issue organisations, rather than be a minority in the primarily ‘white’ labour organisations. This deviated from the strategy put forward by the CPGB, who were wary that these black community organisations would feed into the ‘black power’ movement and turn black workers away from the importance of the class struggle.[vi]

Even in the 1970s, as the trade unions became more aware of the issues of racism faced by black workers and new networks of solidarity were formed between the labour movement and the black communities, there were still tensions over the direction of political activity in these areas. In his book, Virdee describes the Grunwick strike from 1976 to 1978 and the success of the Anti-Nazi League between 1977 and 1981 as important steps for the British labour movement in overcoming the bifurcation of the working class that had existed in the 1960s and early 1970s,[vii] but these new bonds between black and white workers raised questions over political strategy and the aims of the various people involved in these actions. For example, was strike action at Grunwick primarily about defending the right to strike or combating racial discrimination and harassment in the workplace (or fighting the sexist treatment of South Asian women by the management at Grunwick)? Was the anti-fascist movement more concerned with the threat that the National Front posed to the working class, or did it concentrate on the racial violence and harassment experienced by black Britons at the hands of NF and other fascist sympathisers?

Although the Grunwick strike and the relative success of the Anti-Nazi League showed that the British labour movement could be mobilised around issues of ‘race’ and anti-racism (and both have been celebrated for this in the intervening years since), these achievements came on the cusp of a watershed moment in British history, which upended much of the positive work achieved in the late 1970s. The election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in May 1979 signalled the beginning of a decade long struggle for both the labour movement and for Britain’s black communities. And despite a connection being made between migrant workers and the labour movement at places like Grunwick, many of the younger generation of the ethnic minority communities were still suspicious of left-wing and progressive groups and felt that their problems were not being represented in the political arena. Against this background of disillusionment with the traditional political vehicles open to the ethnic minority communities, large numbers of Afro-Caribbean and Asian youth were involved in public disorder activities across the country in 1980 and 1981.

Meanwhile, as the ideas of Antonio Gramsci and of Eurocommunism developed within the Communist Party during this period, a number of those involved in anti-racist activities acknowledged these tensions and promoted engaging with black workers, activists and youth in other ways. However by this time, the CPGB’s influence within the anti-racist movement had diminished. Other black activist and far left groups, such as the Asian Youth Movements (AYMs) and the Race Today Collective on one hand and the International Marxist Group and the Socialist Workers Party on the other, had emerged who were more radical, confrontational and less beholden to the trade unions and the Labour Party. The middle ground that the Communist Party was holding onto was growing ever smaller.

The isolated position of the Communist Party from others within the anti-racist movement was exacerbated by its acceptance, as laid out in The British Road to Socialism, of the potentially positive role of the state. Many on the left eschewed any co-operation with the structures of the capitalist state and this extended to their anti-racist activism, whilst numerous black activists argued that most black people in Britain had experienced the racism of the state in some form and therefore could not relied upon to support an anti-racist agenda. This was particularly the case with the more radical black organisations that appeared in the 1970s, such as the British Black Panther Movement, the Race Today Collective and the Asian Youth Movements. The Communist Party routinely called for the strengthening of the Race Relations Act and for prosecution of those who incited racial hatred or committed racially discriminatory actions. However the uneven prosecutorial history of the Act, which saw black power activist Michael X jailed in 1967, but no case brought against Enoch Powell in 1968,[viii] made the case for others that were sceptical about progressive political movements encouraging the use of the repressive apparatuses of the state to intervene on their behalf. This was reinforced by the violence wreaked by the police against the mass pickets at Grunwick, at the Notting Hill Carnival in 1976 and against the anti-fascist movement on numerous occasions (which resulted in the deaths of two protestors in 1974 and 1979).

By the early 1980s, the CPGB was promoting the popular idea (amongst the Gramscian and Eurocommunist left, at least) that the Thatcher government had ushered in a new era of authoritarianism and that the working class, particularly black people, suffered at the hands of the police and other state agencies, but still pushed in its ‘Charter of Demands’ for greater state interventions in some areas, such as

Existing race relations and public order law must be firmly enforced against racists. These laws must be given more teeth to outlaw the advocacy and practice of racism.[ix]

The revised version of The British Road to Socialism that was drafted in 1977 also promoted greater co-operation with the state at the local level, with a number of CPGB activists proposing that local councils, particularly those controlled by the Labour Party, could serve as sites of resistance to the Thatcherite neoliberal state at the national level. These local councils became involved in what was described as ‘municipal anti-racism’, which tried to redistribute funding and services to ethnic minority communities and organisations, as well as promoting an ‘acceptable’ form of anti-racism. This was criticised by some, such as the AYMs, for only giving funds to those organisations and campaigns that were willing to acquiesce to the rules of the local council, arguing that this meant that the anti-racism of certain radical organisations was blunted. Others criticised the anti-racist training for buying into the Thatcherite paradigm and viewing racism as a solely ideological and individualistic problem, which overlooked the structural and socio-economic basis for racial inequality and racial discrimination. The result of this was, as Alana Lentin has argued, that independent anti-racist organisations and campaigns became increasingly institutionalised, co-ordinated (and co-opted) by local government agencies.[x] This dissipated much of the radical sections of the anti-racist movement during the 1980s, including the role of the Communist Party, who, for other reasons, was already on the verge of collapse.

BRS1977

In his discussion of the British left and the fight for gay rights, Graham Willett wrote about looking at how these Marxist groups dealt with movements that fought other types of oppression (rather than class oppression) from today’s perspective:

Deciding on these position depends on whether one assumes that socialists can be expected to transcend the limitations of their own times; whether they should be expected to hold to or, alternatively, to move beyond the most advanced politics available.[xi]

Although anti-racism was a much more accepted political objective than gay rights, with the socialist left promoting opposition to racial discrimination since the 1920s, Willett reminds us that those involved in anti-racist activism had to work within a labour movement (and wider political landscape) where racism was not taken as seriously as it is today and we cannot transpose contemporary political values onto the past. Whatever their actions, it is important to remember that the Communist Party of Great Britain was one of the most vocal anti-racist organisations from the 1920s to the 1980s. When black workers started to migrate to Britain in the 1940s and 1950s, it was one of the few organisations to consistently campaign for inclusion of black workers into the labour movement, as well as promoting a broader campaign against racial discrimination in British society. There were certainly limitations to this approach, particularly as the CPGB focused heavily upon the trade unions as a force for change within the anti-racist movement, while it seems that the trade unions lagged behind other sections of the movement to wholeheartedly put their weight behind the issue. From the late 1960s onwards, other left-wing and black activist organisations were able to surpass the position put forward by the CPGB, but their reach beyond the anti-racist movement, the far left and Britain’s substantial black communities was limited, while the CPGB had the potential to reach into the more centrist labour movement. The Morning Star, as a widely read daily newspaper amongst many trade unionists, covered anti-racist issues of a regular basis, forming a significant action on behalf of the Communist Party’s anti-racist programme. The fact that the Communist Party had its feet in both the trade union movement, but also inside radical left milieu and other progressive movements meant that in some ways it was in advantageous position, potentially reaching a broad audience for its programme, as outlined in The British Road to Socialism. But it also meant that the CPGB’s message often fell through the cracks – too radical for some, not radical enough for others – and its actions were diluted by this, with its activists being subsumed into larger social movements and organisations (and in the process losing any identity as a CPGB member). This was the case for the Party’s cohort of dedicated anti-racist activists.

At the 38th National Congress of the CPGB in 1983 (the Congress that saw the Morning Star faction break away from the CPGB over the political line put forward by Marxism Today), the Party’s resolution on the issue of racism criticised the Party for its lack of black membership:

The Congress is concerned at the under-representation of black people in the CPGB and believes that this is in part due to residual racialist attitudes and practices inside the Party.[xii]

From looking at the material published by the Communist Party and examining its internal records, it is hard to agree with this assumption made by in this resolution that racist attitudes existed within the CPGB. It is more likely that while nearly all members of the CPGB nominally agreed to an anti-racist programme, only a number were dedicated to anti-racist activism. The preceding sentence in the resolution is more accurate, that Congress ‘is aware that the [anti-racist] campaigning issues referred to [in the resolution] have not become an essential part of regular activity of every Party branch.’[xiii] Parallel to John Callaghan’s response when Marika Sherwood criticised the CPGB of being racist in the 1930s, while Party had ‘undoubted shortcomings’ in its recruitment of black members, it was just ‘not very good at recruiting any section of the population’ during the 1980s.[xiv] Its membership in 1983 was 15,691 (a loss of more than 14,000 members over the previous decade) and as Willie Thompson wrote, the Party was ‘being rendered incapable of doing anything very much apart from operating on its own body.’[xv] The resolution continued to state that ‘[w]hilst Congress welcomes the work of white comrades involved in anti-racist organisations such as CARL [the Campaign Against Racist Laws], this is no substitute for the task of bringing more black comrades into the Party.’[xvi] This highlights the crux of the problem for the CPGB anti-racist activists in the early 1980s – a section of its membership was heavily involved in various anti-racist campaigns and organisations, but this did not translate into tangible gains for the Party, which was in a downward spiral by now. But it also highlights some over optimistic feelings within the Party at the same time as it was unrealistic to expect many new members joining the Party during this period, particularly from a demographic that had been traditionally overlooked within the broader structures of the CPGB and the labour movement.

This post (and hopefully my book as well) has attempted to outline the importance of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the history of anti-racism in post-war Britain and its legacy, but also to highlight the difficulties faced by the Party and the limitations of its strategies. Without understanding the role that the CPGB played in the formation of the modern anti-racist movement in Britain, we cannot understand how the anti-racist movement has developed in the decades since then. The Communist Party was a pioneering force in the anti-colonialist and anti-racist movements from its birth in the 1920s until its slow demise in the 1980s, but it was also a ‘prisoner’ of this time and although sections of the Party promoted reform, it was unable to survive the seismic domestic and international political shifts of the 1980s and early 1990s and was thus was transcended by a new wave of anti-racist, radical and black activist groups. And with this transcendence, the forward march of the Communist Party and its role in the anti-racist movement had been, in the words of Eric Hobsbawm, halted.[xvii]

grunwick

[i] Claudia Jones, ‘West Indians in Britain’, World News, 29 June, 1957, p. 416.

[ii] Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: 1914-1991 (London: Abacus, 2004) p. 3.

[iii] ‘Letters’, Comment, 17 October, 1981, p. 14.

[iv] Kay Beauchamp, ‘Democracy v Racial Prejudice’, Daily Worker, 16 May, 1957.

[v] Dilip Hiro, Black British, White British: A History of Race Relations in Britain (London: Paladin, 1992) p. 211.

[vi] Willie Thompson, ‘Black Power’, Cogito, n.d., pp. 4-5, CP/YCL/21/01, CPGB archive, Labour History Archive and Study Centre, Manchester.

[vii] Satnam Virdee, Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) p. 123.

[viii] Robin Bunce & Paul Field, Darcus Howe: A Political Biography (London: Bloomsbury, 2015) p. 30; Camilla Schofield, Enoch Powell and the Making of Postcolonial Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013) pp. 251-252.

[ix] Dave Cook, ‘Charter of Demands’, in Dave Cook & Martin Rabstein (eds) Black & Blue: Racism and the Police (London: CPGB pamphlet, 1981) p. 29.

[x] Alana Lentin, Racism & Anti-Racism in Europe (London: Pluto Press, 2004) p. 143.

[xi] Graham Willett, ‘Something New Under the Sun: The Revolutionary Left and Gay Politics’, in Evan Smith & Matthew Worley (eds), Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014) p. 175.

[xii] ‘Racism’, Communist Focus (December 1983) p. 31.

[xiii] ‘Racism’, p. 31; Italics are my emphasis.

[xiv] John Callaghan, ‘Colonies, Racism, the CPGB and the Comintern in the Inter-War Years’, Science & Society, 61/4 (Winter 1997-98) p. 520.

[xv] Willie Thompson, The Good Old Cause: British Communism, 1920-1991 (London: Pluto Press, 1992) p. 218; p. 190.

[xvi] ‘Racism’, p. 31.

[xvii] Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’, Marxism Today (September 1978) pp. 279-286.

Chinese students at Grunwick? An overlooked aspect of the 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.

I am currently looking through the photographs I took in the archives during my recent UK trip and today have been looking through the papers of the Grunwick Strike Committee (held by the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick). This material will probably be used in my forthcoming book on the Communist Party of Great Britain and the politics of race.

Whilst reading these archival papers, I found two references to Chinese students being used as workers during the Grunwick strike and the query by APEX (the union in charge of the strike) as to whether the company was using this labour to break the strike. This is interesting because I had not come across this allegation before in the literature on Grunwick. The strike at Grunwick between 1976 and 1978 is probably most well-known because it brought together South Asian workers and the trade union movement really for the first time for ‘effective’ industrial action, despite the strike eventually failing. The ‘face’ of the strike was Jayaben Desai, who represented the largely South Asian and female workforce that picketed the company during the strike. We also know that a number of African-Caribbean workers (also constituting a large female contignent) were involved in the strike, but as Linda McDowell, Sundari Anitha and Ruth Pearson have recently written, they have ‘largely disappeared from the historical record’. But until now, I had not read anything about any Chinese students working at Grunwick either before or during the strike.

The first document mentioning Chinese students working at Grunwick is an internal APEX memo from one of the union’s research officers to its London Area Organiser, Len Gristey. The memo, dated 24 May, 1977, said:

On Friday 20th May I had a telephone call from Mr. Frank Douglas, who claimed to have some inside knowledge about the workings of [Grunwick Processing Laboratories]. He says at the present time, Grunwick are endeavouring to hire Chinese students from local colleges who cover their staffing requirements over the summer period. He says that he knows that Grunwick are counting firmly on having a supply of labour from this source, and urges us most strenuously to get in touch with local colleges of education, polytechnics, technicals and the like, with a view to making our position on Grunwick known, thus discouraging Chinese students from taking up employment with the company.

The second document is an internal letter, dated 7 September, 1977, from Gristey to APEX’s General Secretary, Roy Grantham, stating:

[N]one of us are able to establish anything at all concerning very recent employees who joined the company around the time of mass picketing, many of whom appear to be of Chinese or Japanese extraction. Some of these are undoubtedly students and I would therefore assume that their colleges would have checked on the question of their entering this country, but as regards those others who are not students I regret that it is impossible at this moment to secure any type of check upon them at all. The police are unable to assist in this matter because, of course, they do not know who the individuals are anyway.

These are the only two documents that I have come across that mention Chinese students at Grunwick, so I am unsure whether the matter was pursued any further than these memos. I have no idea who Frank Douglas was or what his motives were for contacting the union. Was he concerned with Grunwick’s attempts to hire labour to break the strike? Or was he concerned that the workers were Chinese?

One possible reading of the second document is a reinforcement of past prejudices within the labour movement and the suspicion that ethnic minority workers were being recruited en masse as strikebreakers. Neither document confirms that Chinese workers (students or otherwise) were employed at Grunwick and merely alleges that people of ‘Chinese or Japanese extraction’ had been working there during the strike.

It is also interesting that Gristey mentions the possibility of using the police to make enquiries into these workers at a time when relations between the labour movement and the police were very low after the violent clashes between police and picketers in the summer of 1977.

Has anyone come across any other mention of Chinese students/workers at Grunwick? The Grunwick Strike Committee used to produce a weekly newsletter. I would be interested to see if this was mentioned in it.

New book project: British Communism and the Politics of Race

A CPGB pamphlet from 1961

A CPGB pamphlet from 1961

I am very happy to announce that I have recently signed a contract with Brill’s Historical Materialism book series for a forthcoming book, tentatively titled The Communist Party of Great Britain and the Politics of Race, deliverable early next year. Here is a little about the proposed book:

This book examines how the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), as a large and an influential force within the British labour movement, responded to issues of ‘race’ and immigration from the late 1940s to the early 1980s – from the era of decolonisation and large scale migration to the early days of Thatcherism and the inner-city riots. Informed by its anti-colonial activism in the inter-war period, Communist Party was an attractive option for black workers who had migrated to Britain in the late 1940s and 1950s. In this period, the Communist Party was one of the first labour organisations that campaigned against racial discrimination and against racial incitement. However its anti-racism was subsumed by the wider struggle for socialism and industrial militancy, and the labour movement, including the CPGB, was often seen as unresponsive to the needs of Britain’s migrant communities and black workers. The CPGB can be seen as a microcosm of how the British labour movement related to the issue of ‘race’ and how the centrality of class was contested by other forms of politics, informed by ‘race’, such as black power, migrants’ rights and various forms of anti-racism.

The history of the Communist Party’s relationship with black workers was the history of a squandered opportunity, one that saw a steep decline from the 1940s and 1950s, when many black activists were attracted to the Party due to its historical anti-colonial stance, to the 1980s, when the Party was in disarray and the black communities were wary of a labour movement that had for so long minimized the problems of racism that black Britons faced. At the heart of the division between the CPGB and black workers was the belief that colonialism and racism were borne out of capitalism and that anti-racism/anti-colonialism were subordinate to the dynamics of class struggle. The CPGB faced major problems in convincing white workers, including the Party’s own members, to be actively involved in the fight against racism and colonialism – how and why this occurred is the focus of this book.

The theme of how the Communist Party lost its close relationship with black workers and the potential that was squandered frames the book’s investigation, addressing a gap in the cultural history of the British left. The book demonstrates an understanding of the extra-parliamentary forces at work in social policy in Britain and an insight into how government and its critics established social policy at legislative and practical level. The book takes up the argument that while the British left, particularly the Communist Party, has not been able to usher in a socialist revolution, its role in political activism, especially in the areas of anti-racism and anti-fascism, has been significant.

The book will attempt to show how the Communist Party went from one of the most influential political parties for Britain’s migrant workers to one of relative insignificance, overshadowed by other political organisations and by other forms of political activism. It will explore how the Communist Party, as part of the wider labour movement, was traditionally a vehicle for progressive politics and how the British labour movement has historically dealt with issues of ‘race’ and the problems facing Britain’s black communities. The book will argue that the Communist Party, as well as other sections of the British left, are integral to understanding the broader history of anti-racist politics in Britain and the transition from the more abstract anti-colonial politics of the early post-war era to the domestic anti-racism of the 1970s and 1980s.

I am very excited to be contributing to this excellent series of historical and political scholarship and am very grateful for the enthusiasm that the series editors have shown for the project. My recent trip to the UK garnered some brilliant new sources for the book (particularly the material from the Indian Workers Association archive in Birmingham and the Grunwick Strike Committee papers at the University of Warwick), which makes me doubly excited… Now on with the writing!

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.

—————————-

[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

 

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.