Strikes

The last time the government evoked the ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ slogan

The new Home Secretary Amber Rudd has, in the wake of Brexit, evoked the slogan ‘British jobs for British workers’, which has been used in the past by Gordon Brown in 2007 and by the British National Party and the National Front in the 1980s. While she has been heavily criticized for her statements, this is an on-going issue. The following is from a 2010 book chapter on discourses of ‘race’ and immigration in the UK under Thatcher and New Labour, which looks at the last time the slogan was widely used – at strikes in 2009 where a section of the British labour movement embraced Euroscepticism. In the aftermath of Brexit, these strikes reveal some of the debates that the left were unwilling to have about the EU, European workers and a consistent anti-racism.

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In their 2009 European Parliament elections, UKIP gained 16.5 percent of the vote and thirteen seats,[i] heavily campaigning for withdrawal from the EU and limiting immigration from Europe. Their campaign document for the European Parliament elections, intertwining opposition to the EU with an anti-immigration position, declared:

Our membership of the European Union is already costing jobs in the UK. Major construction projects now hire many of their staff overseas, with British workers not even having the opportunity to apply…

The only people who should decide who can come to live, work and settle in Britain should be the British people themselves. We can only do this outside of the EU political union. The open-door immigration policy has been voted against by only one party–UKIP.[ii]

The 2009 European Parliament elections saw a swing by British voters, albeit a low voter turnout, to the right, with the explicitly Eurosceptic and anti-immigrationist UKIP and the British National Party (BNP) gaining votes and/or seats, and the Conservatives, with a more toned down rhetoric on Europe and immigration, winning a majority of British seats.[iii] However anti-EU politics are not always defined by the right, with the Labour Party until the era of New Labour traditionally opposing British involvement in the forerunners of the EU, and are not always linked to anti-immigrationist politics. The labour movement has also traditionally opposed British entry into Europe, viewing the EU and its predecessors as a capitalist super state that allows the flow of economic benefits into the hands of a supra-national ruling capitalist class and away from the working classes.

The 2009 European Parliament election also saw the creation of a new left-wing anti-EU party, the No2EU: Yes to Democracy party, which sought to promote withdrawal from the EU on less nationalist and xenophobic grounds, but did not make much ground against the Eurosceptic right. No2EU had originally emerged from a crisis in the British labour movement over the free movement of labour within the EU, with wildcat strikes breaking out across Britain in response to several companies employing non-union workers, primarily from Italy and Portugal. The aim of the strikes seemed to be quite varied, with a wider range of different organisations and interest groups intervening.[iv] Some saw the strike as a response to employers using non-union labour to drive down wages, while others focused on the supra-capitalist structures of the European Union.

But the most controversial element of the strike was the slogan, “British jobs for British workers”, used by some involved in the strike. This slogan had been first used by the National Front and the British National Party, but had been revived by Prime Minister Gordon Brown in several speeches in 2007, including the TUC Annual Conference and the Labour Party Conference.[v] The slogan was evoked by some rank-and-file striking workers,[vi] which drew fierce media attention to the strike and divided the labour movement over how to support the strike. The reluctance to explicitly support or condemn the strikers using the slogan can be seen in the comments from the trade unions involved. Derek Simpson, a joint leader of Unite, asserted that “[n]o European worker should be barred from applying for a British job and absolutely no British worker should be barred from applying for a British job”, while General Secretary of the GMB, Paul Kenny said, “You simply cannot say that only Italians can apply for jobs”.[vii] TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber stated:

Unions are clear that the anger should be directed at employers, not the Italian workers. No doubt some of the more distasteful elements in our towns and cities will try to use the fears of workers to stir up hatred and xenophobia.

But I am confident that union members will direct their anger at the employers who have caused this dispute with their apparent attempt to undercut the wages, conditions and union representation of existing staff.[viii]

Some “distasteful elements”, such as the BNP, tried to make political capital out of the strikes, using the slogan “British jobs for British workers” in a council by-election in the ward of Newton Hyde in Greater Manchester. In May 2008, the BNP had polled 846 votes in the ward, compared to Labour’s vote of 1,124, and this gap of only 278 votes was expected to close as the economic downturn worsened and the BNP campaigned on the “British jobs” slogan.[ix] But this did not happen as the BNP vote increased marginally to 889 votes, but Labour’s majority soared to 1,379 votes.[x] James Purnell, Labour MP for Stalybridge and Hyde, which encompasses the Newton Hyde ward, said, “I think it’s a victory for hope and solidarity over people who want to bring division and hatred”.[xi] However four months later, the BNP had a surprising result in the European Parliament elections, winning two MEP seats for former National Front members Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons, in the North West and Yorkshire, exploiting populist anxiety over immigration and the European Union. On the other hand, No2EU only managed to gain around 1 percent of the vote across Britain.[xii] What the wildcat strikes and the No2EU campaign demonstrated was that it is difficult to disentangle anti-EU politics from nationalist and anti-immigration rhetoric and left-wing, and generally anti-racist, opposition to the EU is a minor part of the discourse, unfortunately trumped by the right, who continue to dominate the discourses on immigration and the European Union.

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[i] UK Office of the European Parliament, “Results of 2009 European Elections in the UK”, 17 July, 2009, http://www.europarl.org.uk/section/european-elections/results-2009-european-elections-uk, (accessed 30 November, 2009)

[ii] UKIP, “Campaign Policies Euro Elections 2009”

[iii] UKIP’s vote increased from 16.2 percent in 2004 to 16.5 percent in 2009, with 12 seats in 2004 and gaining one seat in 2009. The BNP gained two seats in the 2009 election, even though their overall vote declined. The Conservatives lost two seats in 2009, but still hold ten more seats than Labour with 25 seats and 27.7 percent of the vote. See: UK Office of the European Parliament, “Results of 2009 European Elections in the UK”; House of Commons, “European Parliament Elections 2004”, House of Commons Research Paper, 04/50, (London, 23 June, 2004) 11

[iv] See: Audrey Gillan & Andrew Sparrow, “Strikes Spread Across Britain as Oil Refinery Protest Escalates”, The Guardian, 30 January, 2009; “This is a Strike Against Bosses”, Morning Star, 1 February, 2009; Socialist Party, “Lindsey Refinery: Workers Show Their Strength”, The Socialist, 4 February, 2009; James Turley, “Critical Support for Wildcat Strikes”, Weekly Worker, 5 February, 2009, 4; “Blame the Bosses not ‘Foreign Workers’”, Socialist Worker, 7 February, 2009, 1, 3

[v] Vincent Keter, Government Policy on “British Jobs for British Workers”, House of Commons Library, (16 September, 2009) 2, http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/briefings/snbt-04501.pdf, (accessed 4 December, 2009)

[vi] See: http://www.bearfacts.co.uk, (accessed 17 February, 2009)

[vii] Cited in, Unite, “Unite’s Three Point Plan for Dealing with the Current Wave of Unofficial Strike Action”, http://www.unitetheunion.com/news__events/ latest_news/unite_has_today_proposed_a_thr.aspx, (accessed 17 February 2009); “This is a Strike Against Bosses”, Morning Star, 1 February, 2009

[viii] Cited in, “This is a Strike Against Bosses”, Morning Star, 1 February, 2009

[ix] Jon Land, “Labour Sees Off BNP’s ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ By-Election Challenge”, http://www.24dash.com/news/Local_Government/2009-02-06-Labour-sees-off-BNPs-British-jobs-for-British-workers-by-election-challenge, (accessed 8 February, 2009)

[x] J. Land, “Labour Sees Off BNP’s ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ By-Election Challenge”

[xi] Cited in, J. Land, “Labour Sees Off BNP’s ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ By-Election Challenge”

[xii] “Crow’s No2EU Gain 153,000 Votes”, BBC News Online, 8 June, 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/8088911.stm, (accessed 30 November, 2009)

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]

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[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.

 

 

 

Communist Attitudes towards Polish Migration to Post-War Britain

This post was inspired by a recent analysis on the reception of Polish migrants by the NUM in Wales in 1940s and 1950s by Daryl Leeworthy over at his History on the Dole blog. It had formerly been an article that I was trying to write on the subject, but has been on the backburner for a long time. Sections will be included in my forthcoming book on the Communist Party of Great Britain and the politics of ‘race’, which will be published by Brill’s Historical Materialism series. As usual, feedback is welcome!

Harry Pollitt, General Secretary of the CPGB and opponent of Polish miners in the UK

Harry Pollitt, General Secretary of the CPGB and opponent of Polish miners in the UK

The CPGB and colonial migrants

When Afro-Caribbean workers started to migrate to Britain in large numbers during the 1940s and the 1950s, the Communist Party was one of the principal organisations that appealed to these immigrants. Many of those who were attracted to the Communist Party had been political activists or trade unionists in their home countries and looked to the Party, as both an anti-colonial force internationally and an influential trade union presence domestically. The Party had a tradition of involvement in the anti-colonial movement, with chief theoretician on anti-colonial policies, R. Palme Dutt, citing Stalin’s Foundations of Leninism: ‘Stalin emphasized that “the victory of the working class in the developed countries”, e.g. in Britain, “is impossible” unless this common front and alliance with the struggles of the colonial peoples is established’.[1] Viewing the people in the British colonies as ‘fellow fighters… against the common enemy’ of British imperialism,[2] the Party welcomed the black immigrants and attempted to incorporate them into the Party, with varying levels of success.

The Communist Party acknowledged that racial discrimination was evident in Britain, but for the most part, this was attributed to a ‘prejudiced, stupid and sometimes vicious minority’, identified as ‘fascists’, ‘Tories and employers’ and ‘Leaders of the Government’.[3] This largely absolved the working class from being responsible for acts of racial discrimination as race prejudice was largely seen as ‘a conscious part of the policy of the most reactionary sections of British capitalism’.[4] However the Party did admit that ‘amongst a minority of workers, some racial feelings still exist’.[5] In the 1955 pamphlet, No Colour Bar in Britain, the CPGB welcomed immigration from the Commonwealth, claiming that the arrival of ‘colonial workers’ was a ‘great opportunity before British working people’.[6] In a declaration of CPGB policy, the pamphlet stated that the ‘attitude of the Communist Party is clear… It welcomes the arrival of colonial immigrants’, stressing that ‘colonial people are British subjects’ and were entitled to enter Britain freely.[7] For immigrants from outside the Commonwealth, the Party’s attitude was much more divisive.

The campaign against Polish resettlement

In May 1946, the Labour Government announced the formation of the Polish Resettlement Corps, a ‘noncombatant military unit… in which Polish veterans were encouraged to enrol by promise of resettlement’ to direct Polish workers into ‘essential’ industries, such as construction, agriculture and coal mining.[8] The TUC and various unions ‘voiced suspicions about threats to jobs and conditions of employment’, as well as the ‘potential threat’ to British working class politics and culture posed by these European recruits.[9] The Communist Party was heavily involved in opposition to the migration and settlement of Poles and other Eastern Europeans in the late 1940s. As the polarisation of the Cold War began to take place, the CPGB greeted the establishment of the People’s Democracies and was, in the words of socialist journalist Paul Foot, ‘upset that anyone should not volunteer to enjoy the rigours of Stalinism in the Russian satellites of East Europe’.[10]

The Polish workers were labelled ‘fascist Poles’ and were treated with ‘accustomed shabbiness and chauvinism’ by the Party.[11] In the Parliamentary debate on the Polish Resettlement Bill in early 1947, the two MPs who opposed the bill were Phil Piratin and Willie Gallacher (Communist MPs for Mile End and West Fife respectively). Piratin declared that the Polish Resettlement Corps was ‘an affront to the Polish Government and a hindering of its progress’, and a ‘dangerous move for this country to maintain a body of men under a reactionary leadership’.[12] In a 1946 leaflet titled ‘No British Jobs for Fascist Poles’, the CPGB claimed that ‘at least a third’ of the 160,000 Polish troops in Britain ‘actually fought for Hitler’, while ‘the remainder are fascists who do not wish to return to their own country’.[13] The CPGB claimed that ‘nearly 2 million organised British workers have expressed their opposition to the presence in this country of these Polish troops’ and the Party proposed repatriating them to Poland where ‘they should accept the democratic will of the majority of the people and work for the reconstruction of their own country’.[14]

As well as these ‘political’ objections, the Party press made other accusations towards the Poles, particularly the sexual threat of the Polish migrants to British women and the Poles taking vacant housing away from homeless Britons during a shortage of adequate housing. The Daily Worker accused Polish officers of fraternising with young girls at a Polish Army camp in Yorkshire, with the ‘majority of the girls [being] between 14 and 18 years of age’.[15] A few months earlier, at the height of the Squatters Movement led by the CPGB,[16] the paper reported that Poles were being given accommodation at various camps, while squatters were being fined and removed from housing.[17] Syd Abbott declared in the December 1946 issue of the Communist Review:

if the Government would send home Anders and his Poles, many of them fascists, a further 265 camps occupied by 120,000 Polish troops, could be freed, and made available to house the people.[18]

These accusations were similar to the racist falsehoods that numerous people accused Commonwealth migrants of, which the Communists routinely refuted in their anti-racist activities.

The CPGB saw the Polish Resettlement Corps, routinely described as ‘Anders’ Poles’ after conservative Polish leader General Anders under British command, as an ‘anti-Soviet [and] anti-democratic’ force, whose presence in Britain was ‘obviously insincere’.[19] While depicted by the British Government and British industry as a solution to the post-war labour shortage, the Communist Party claimed that the Poles of the Resettlement Corps had no desire to ‘be absorbed as loyal citizens of this country’, but looked to ‘use Britain as a temporary base from which to pursue, at some future date, an armed crusade against the U.S.S.R. and the new Poland’.[20] The Daily Worker quoted a statement by the Polish Embassy in London, saying that the resettlement of Poles was ‘nothing but diplomatic eyewash’, adding ‘No sensible person… can understand why training for civilian jobs should be carried out according to units and arms’[21] – evidence for the Communist Party that Poles in Britain were organising resistance to the Polish Government.

Welsh miners’ leader and member of the CPGB’s Executive Committee, Arthur Horner announced in 1945 that the Communist Party would ‘not allow the importation of foreign – Polish, Italian, or even Irish – labour to stifle the demands of the British people to have decent conditions in British mines’.[22] In the 1946 leaflet, the Party declared that there was ‘no room in Britain for fascists’ and that there was ‘no reason why British jobs should be given to these Poles’.[23] In February 1947, Horner, now General Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), spoke against foreign workers in the mining industry, declaring that the Government ‘might get Poles or displaced persons but not coal’.[24] The Party declared that the Poles ‘should be sent home, to work out their own salvation’ and according to Paul Foot, Piratin and Gallacher ‘never missed an opportunity to point out that the Poles were dirty, lazy and corrupt’.[25] In Parliament, Piratin routinely asked the Government whether Polish workers were trade union members or willing to work as directed by the Ministry of Labour. Piratin was accused of having a ‘vendetta against Poles who want to work here rather than return to Communist Poland’, but Piratin claimed that his persistent questioning was ‘merely to ensure that such Poles who are in this country do not in any way scab or blackleg on British labour’.[26]

Even in 1955, while the Party tried to combat racism amongst workers against Commonwealth immigrants, Party literature claimed that the ‘real menace… comes from the far greater number of displaced Poles and Germans whose attitude is hostile to militant trade unionism’.[27] This was compared with the black immigrant workers, who were seen to have the ability to ‘greatly strengthen the fight of the trade unions’.[28] The contradicting attitudes can also be seen in the oral history of CPGB member and Secretary of the Armthorpe NUM Branch, Jock Kane, originally recorded by radical journalist Charles Parker. In one section, Kane described an argument with the NUM area leaders over black workers:

Then I’d another run-in with them about coloured labour. He wasn’t going to have coloured labour. He wasn’t having any ‘half-caste bastards’ running about the streets of his villages. I said: ‘You’re a Nazi. We fought a bloody war to defeat bastards like you.’[29]

But Kane’s description of the Polish miners was very different, accusing them of being work-shy and a hostile class:

I can remember in 1947 we paid wages to thousands of Poles for months and months on end. They never came into this industry and never did a bloody day’s work… There were thousands of Polish ex-army men in camps… A shower of arrogant bloody swine, ex-officer bloody class, and the coal board paid them wages for months on end.[30]

In a 1961 pamphlet, John Moss wrote that immigration had little effect on the total population increase that Britain had experienced in the early post-war period,[31] but the Party still objected to the presence of around 100,000 Poles and other Eastern Europeans and their apparent drain on resources. This campaign against Polish immigration and settlement ran counter to the very arguments the CPGB had been using to convince British workers that immigrants from the Commonwealth were not in competition for employment, housing or welfare.

Back in 1947, R. Palme Dutt discussed that the ‘crucial shortage of man-power’,[32] linking the CPGB’s anti-colonial programme with opposition to the Polish workers. As Dutt argued continually through the late 1940s and into the 1950s, Britain’s maintenance of its colonies, its role in NATO and its other activities during the Cold War caused a huge drain on its economy, resources and manpower.[33] Dutt cited that in November 1946, over 1.5 million men were in the armed forces, while another 474,000 were ‘engaged in making equipment and supplies for the armed forces’ – ‘a total of close on two millions [sic] or one-tenth of the available man-power’.[34] Meanwhile more than half a million workers were needed in British industry to assist with reconstruction, with the British Government enthusiastically recruiting European labour, including the Poles. Dutt lamented the fact that the Government’s solution was ‘sought to be found in the settlement of Polish fascists in Britain or the retention of German prisoners of war’.[35] For Dutt, decolonisation and end of Britain’s involvement in ‘imperialist commitments in the Near East or the Far East’ was the solution to Britain’s labour shortage, rather than recruiting Polish ‘fascists’.[36]

The Communist Party were also sceptical whether the deployment of the Polish Resettlement Corps to the mines would actually have any impact upon the labour shortage, with the Daily Worker reporting that less than 2,000 Polish workers – ‘not half of whom are trained miners’ – would be available by mid-1947.[37] In an interview with the Evening Standard’s Industrial Reporter, Arthur Horner, under the headline ‘Foreigners: Mr. Horner Says NO’, stated that ‘[e]ven if the Poles were willing to come into the industry they could not be taught English and be trained to work in the mines in less than six months’.[38] Thus the Daily Worker’s Industrial Reporter, George Sinfield, asked rhetorically, ‘Is this infinitesimal force worth the big and detrimental repercussions it might have if it were used?’[39] If this was the case, the implication the Communists were making was that the British Government was not interested in recruiting Polish workers to fill the gaps in the labour market, but for a more sinister political purpose, possibly to rein in militancy amongst the miners or provide assistance to anti-Communist forces in the early manoeuvres of the Cold War. The Daily Worker posed rhetorically whether to Labour Government’s moves to nationalise coal production was to be counter-balanced by ‘the introduction of men who hold trade unionism in contempt’ or ‘the introduction of men who are avowed opponents of their own Government, which is backed by all working-class parties in Poland’.[40]

The Trades Union Congress and immigration

The reasoning that the CPGB opposed the Polish migrants purely on the grounds that the CPGB was devoted to the Soviet Union and the Peoples’ Republics in Eastern Europe can only be part of the reason for the hostility towards the Poles. While this can be an easily identifiable target for criticising the CPGB, it doesn’t explain why anti-Polish sentiment was expressed by a large number of trade unionists and why the TUC voted against the settlement of Polish soldiers in 1946. As Paul Burnham wrote, ‘[t]his was not just a campaign of the Communist Party’.[41] At the TUC Congress in 1946, the General Council of the TUC demanded that, ‘no Poles should be employed in any grade in any industry where suitable British labour was available’, with a bloc majority of 884,000 voting for this.[42] Although the TUC is not a monolithic organisation and cannot be seen as interchangeable with the various policies and actions of the entire labour movement, some authors have seen a convergence at this point between the protectionist nationalism of the TUC and the sentiments put forward by the CPGB. Both Keith Tompson and Robert Winder have used a quote from Harry Pollitt to demonstrate the hostility of the labour movement towards the Poles and a reflection that the unions were ‘traditional opponents of migrant workers’ in general:

I ask you, does it make sense that we allow 500,000 of our best young people to put their names down for emigration abroad, when at the same time we employ Poles who ought to be back in their own country…?[43]

But it would be rash to conflate the attitudes and motives of the Communist Party with that of the Trades Union Congress. Although the CPGB was influential in some trade unions, it would not have been able to influence the decisions of the TUC General Council. It is also important to note that it was during this time that Cold War was taking shape and that anti-communist sentiment started to grow within the British trade union movement, specifically within the higher echelons of the TUC. As Richard Stevens has demonstrated, during the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, ‘[t]he TUC remained deeply involved in anti-Communist activity’.[44]

While the CPGB’s opposition to the Polish workers can be viewed, ideologically at least, as contradictory to their general anti-racist position, the TUC’s policy on ‘race’ and immigration during this period has long been described as ‘muddled’.[45] The exclusionism of the trade unions opposed Polish and other Eastern European workers can be viewed as similar to their opposition to workers who migrated from the Commonwealth. The general policy of the TUC, as Barry Munslow wrote, had been to ‘play down the subject, stress the need for immigrants to integrate and oppose special provisions’.[46] The TUC General Council expressed the need for immigration controls and implicitly accepted that it was the immigrants that were ‘the problem’ and the ‘view that immigration should be controlled flowed logically from that premise’.[47] While the Congress opposed, on paper, racial discrimination, their position on immigration was that ‘immigrants were a problem and their arrival in Britain should consequently be controlled’.[48]

Neville Kirk has recently argued that in the early post-war period, in comparison with the explicit racism of the Australian labour movement, the British labour movement ‘adopted a predominantly positive attitude to the issues of immigration and “race”’, stating that the TUC ‘prided itself on its efforts to promote trade unionism and worker solidarity, irrespective of colour’.[49] But the fact is that the TUC did support immigration controls and in the case of the Polish workers, called explicitly for Poles to be prevented from entering the British job market, or if they were employed, that the Poles would be the first dismissed. The trade unions may have ‘opposed on economic grounds’ to the introduction of the Polish workers, as ‘trade union leaders and members feared alike the return of the mass unemployment of the 1930s’, but Diana Kay and Robert Miles have also suggested that there was also a ‘vigorous nationalism [that] ran through the trade union movement’.[50] Citing Kay and Miles, Kenneth Lunn noted that the argument has been made that the British labour movements’ response to European immigration was ‘not racist’.[51] A similar argument is made by Stephen Catterall and Keith Gildart in their study of trade union reactions to Polish and Italian miners in the post-war era, arguing that, rather than racism or xenophobia:

[h]ostility from rank and file members arose from the perceived ‘threat’ that the workers posed as a result of prodigious output performance and the mining skills they brought or through domestic and social tensions.[52]

While fears about job security and unemployment may help to explain why racist sentiments were expressed by trade union members, it cannot excuse that Polish workers faced discrimination based on their nationality. As Kenneth Lunn declared, ‘[b]y any reasonable definition, a policy of “Poles out first” is racist’.[53]

Conclusion

In 2004, Paul Burnham stated that ‘[t]he response to the Polish migrants is not an episode that reflects any credit on the left in Britain’.[54] The opposition to the Polish workers in Britain in the late 1940s has been overlooked by many historians of the British left and of British immigration, contrasted with the research concentrated upon the impact that black migration had upon post-war Britain and the left’s anti-racist work in the 1960s and 1970s. But when it has been the focus of research, the opposition has been construed in several different ways, with the actions of the Communist Party of Great Britain during this period under particular scrutiny. Some have used the TUC’s opposition, shared by the CPGB, to portray the British labour movement as nationalistic protectionists, who opposed Polish migrants, just as they opposed migrants from the Caribbean and South Asia. Others have used the CPGB’s opposition to demonstrate their loyalty to Stalinism and their descent into nationalism, following the Popular Front politics on the Second World War. However the Party’s opposition to the Polish workers has not been contrasted with their acceptance of West Indian migrants. This presents a dilemma for those who want to essentialise the CPGB as either inherently racist or inherently Stalinist, as both inclinations can be found within the Party’s disparate approach to post-war migration. The Party’s support for the Soviet Union did affect their position on Polish workers who did not want to return to the Soviet bloc, but it doesn’t explain why they were receptive of West Indian workers or why the TUC adopted a similar approach.

This piece has argued that the CPGB’s opposition to the Polish workers was partially inspired by the Party’s loyalty to the Soviet Union, but the Party was also imbued with a sense of Soviet-inspired internationalism and anti-colonialism which saw the Communists (on paper at least) champion West Indian migrants who came to Britain in the late 1940s as comrades against imperialism and capitalism. The Party welcomed these migrants who arrived in the early post-war period, declaring in 1955, ‘It is most urgent that the Labour movement… set out to welcome the coloured workers who come to this country and win them for the trade unions’.[55] However the anti-racist rhetoric of the CPGB literature did not always filter down into the Party’s rank-and-file, nor was the Party able to counter the often xenophobic attitudes of the wider labour movement. The CPGB was primarily made up of skilled and semi-skilled workers and in the in the early post-war era, it was significantly representative of the nation’s working class.[56] The Communist Party, by recruiting workers, could not be immune to some forms of racial prejudice amongst its members, with racist beliefs harboured within the working class and the institutions of the labour movement, such as the TUC. This wider chauvinism in the labour movement can also be a partial explanation for the hostility directed towards the Polish workers, that reflected a streak of nationalism or ‘jingoism’, but also a misplaced apprehension towards migrant workers in a time of economic and industrial uncertainty. The opposition to Polish workers put forward by the CPGB is a murky episode in the Party’s history, but the reasons for this opposition, like that of the wider labour movement, are much more than complex than other scholars and commentators have previously suggested. At the same time, the vocal (and leadership endorsed) opposition to the Poles seems an aberration in the history of the CPGB’s anti-racist work, where the Party made quite significant efforts to highlight the issue of racism in Britain and recruit Commonwealth migrants into the CPGB. But similar to the longer history of the CPGB’s anti-racism, the Party tried to balance its position between its commitments to the anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles and its attempts to maintain its influence to the wider labour movement, which in the end, cost the Party support from both sides.

The different ways in how sections of the British labour movement have reacted to migration from Europe is still a contentious issue today, as the free movement of labour within the European Union allows many migrants from Central and Eastern Europe to work and settle in Britain. In early 2009 a significant number of workers went on unofficial strikes across Britain in response to several companies employing non-union workers, primarily from Italy and Portugal. The aim of the strikes seemed to be quite varied, with a wider range of different organisations and interest groups intervening.[57] Some saw the strike as a response to employers using non-union labour to drive down wages, while others focused on the supra-capitalist structures of the European Union. But the most controversial element of the strike was the slogan, ‘British jobs for British workers’, used by some involved in the strike to rally against foreign workers, the European Union and the New Labour Government. Although many denounced the use of this slogan, the fact that it was raised shows that issues faced by the British Labour movement, and the Communist Party, in the 1940s and 1950s in regards to migrant workers still remain today. The response to migrant workers by the British labour movement has often been one of solidarity, but resistance has reared its head on many occasions, but even this resistance is informed by a number of different factors, including xenophobia/racism, fear of competition, issues of class and international concerns. As Catterall and Gildart have argued, ‘even the most enlightened sections of organised labour could take reactionary measures when faced with economic uncertainty and threats to job security’.[58] This article has shown, despite the anti-racist, anti-fascist and anti-colonialist work that the British labour movement and the British left has conducted over the years, opposition to foreign workers has been an problem that it has suffered from on a number of occasions, and one, unfortunately, that seems to still be of concern in the twenty first century. But while any forms of racism or xenophobia within the labour movement must be countered, it is just as important to understand the reasons for this racism and how it is manifested.

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[1] R. Palme Dutt, ‘Britain and the Colonies – II’, World News, 9 January, 1954, p. 25; J. V. Stalin, Works vol. 6, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1954, p. 150

[2] Harry Pollitt, Britain Arise, London, 1952, p. 18

[3] P. Bolsover, No Colour Bar in Britain, p. 10

[4] P. Bolsover, No Colour Bar in Britain, p. 10

[5] CPGB, Brothers in the Fight for a Better Life, London, 1954, p. 11

[6] P. Bolsover, No Colour Bar in Britain, p. 3

[7] P. Bolsover, No Colour Bar in Britain, p. 10

[8] K. Paul, Whitewashing Britain, p. 68

[9] Ken Lunn, ‘Complex Encounters: Trade Unions, Immigration and Racism’, in John McIlroy, Nina Fishman & Alan Campbell, British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics, vol. II: The High Tide of Trade Unionism, 1964-79, Aldershot, 1999, p. 74

[10] Paul Foot, Immigration and Race in British Politics, Harmondsworth, 1965, p. 118

[11] Harry Pollitt, No British Jobs for Fascist Poles, CPGB flyer, London, 1946, Ref. 35/3, CPGB Leaflets, Working Class Movement Library, Manchester; P. Foot, Immigration and Race in British Politics, p. 118

[12] Hansard, 12 February, 1947, col. 428

[13] H. Pollitt, No British Jobs for Fascist Poles

[14] H. Pollitt, No British Jobs for Fascist Poles

[15] Daily Worker, 16 December, 1946

[16] For further information on the Squatters’ Movement, see: James Hinton, ‘Self-Help and Socialism: The Squatters’ Movement of 1946’, History Workshop Journal, 25, 1988, pp. 100-126; Noreen Branson, The History of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1941-1951, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1997, pp. 118 –128

[17] Daily Worker, 23 August, 1946

[18] Syd Abbott, ‘The Mood of the People’, Communist Review, December 1946, p. 7

[19] Daily Worker, 18 December, 1946

[20] Daily Worker, 18 December, 1946

[21] Daily Worker, 22 August, 1946

[22] Arthur Horner, ‘The Communist Party and the Coal Crisis’, 25 November, 1945, from Marxist Internet Archive, http://www.marxists.org/archive/horner/1945/11/coal.htm, accessed 28 July, 2010

[23] H. Pollitt, No British Jobs for Fascist Poles

[24] Cited in, Paul Flewers, ‘Hitting the Pits: The Communist Party of Great Britain and the National Union of Miners’, New Interventions, 7/1, Winter 1996, p. 21

[25] H. Pollitt, No British Jobs for Fascist Poles; Paul Foot, ‘Immigration and the British Labour Movement’, International Socialism, 1/22, Autumn 1965, p. 10

[26] Hansard, 19 February, 1948 col. 1333

[27] P. Bolsover, No Colour Bar in Britain, p. 7

[28] P. Bolsover, No Colour Bar in Britain, p. 7

[29] Jock Kane, with Betty Kane and Charles Parker, No Wonder We Were All Rebels – An Oral History, http://www.grahamstevenson.me.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=697&Itemid=63, accessed 1 December, 2009

[30] J. Kane, No Wonder We Were All Rebels

[31] John Moss, Together Say No Discrimination, London, 1961, p. 8

[32] R. Palme Dutt, ‘Britain and Empire’, Labour Monthly, February 1947, p. 34

[33] See: R. Palme Dutt, Crisis of Britain and the British Empire: Marxist Study Themes no. 7, CPGB pamphlet, London, 1953; R. Palme Dutt, The Crisis of Britain and the British Empire, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1957;

[34] R.P. Dutt, ‘Britian and Empire’, p. 34

[35] R.P. Dutt, ‘Britian and Empire’, p. 34

[36] R.P. Dutt, ‘Britian and Empire’, pp. 34-35

[37] Daily Worker, 23 December, 1946

[38] Arthur Horner, interviewed by Anne Kelly, Evening Standard, February, 1947, from Security Service file on Arthur Horner, KV 2/1527, National Archives, London

[39] Daily Worker, 23 December, 1946

[40] Daily Worker, 18 December, 1946

[41] Paul Burnham, ‘The Squatters of 1946: South Bucks Squatting in the National Context’, paper presented at the New Socialist Approaches to History seminar series, Institute of Historical Research, London, 23 February 2004

[42] TUC, The General Council’s Report to the 78th Annual Congress, TUC, Brighton, 1946, p. 171; p. 364

[43] Cited in, Keith Tompson, Under Siege: Racial Violence in Britain Today, London, 1988, p. 71; R. Winder, Bloody Foreigners, pp. 323-324

[44] Richard Stevens, ‘Cold War Politics: Communism and Anti-Communism in the Trade Unions’, in Alan Campbell, Nina Fishman & John McIlroy, British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics, vol. I: The Post-War Compromise, 1945-64, Aldershot, 1999, p. 171

[45] Beryl Radin, ‘Coloured Workers and British Trade Unions’, Race, 8/2, p. 161

[46] Barry Munslow, ‘Immigrants, Racism and British Workers’, in David Coates & Gordon Johnson (eds), Socialist Arguments, Oxford, 1983, p. 204

[47] Robert Miles & Annie Phizacklea, The TUC, Black Workers and New Commonwealth Immigration, 1954-1973, Bristol, 1977, p. 7; p. 11

[48] R. Miles & A. Phizacklea, The TUC, Black Workers and New Commonwealth Immigration, 1954-1973, p. 2

[49] Neville Kirk, ‘Traditionalists and Progressives: Labor, Race and Immigration in Post-World War II Australia and Britain’, Australian Historical Studies, 39/1, 2008, p. 64; p. 67

[50] Diana Kay & Robert Miles, Refugees or Migrant Workers? European Volunteer Workers in Britain 1946-1951, London, 1992, pp. 76-77

[51] Kenneth Lunn, ‘Race Relations or Industrial Relations?: Race and Labour in Britain, 1880-1950’, in Kenneth Lunn (ed.) Race and Labour in Twentieth-Century Britain, London, 1985, p. 24

[52] Stephen Catterall & Keith Gildart, ‘Outsiders: Trade Union Responses to Polish and Italian Coal Miners in Two British Coalfields, 1945-54’, in Stefan Berger, Andy Croll & Norman LaPorte (eds), Towards a Comparative History of Coalfield Socieities, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2005, p. 164

[53] K. Lunn, ‘Race Relations or Industrial Relations?: Race and Labour in Britain, 1880-1950’, p. 24

[54] P. Burnham, ‘The Squatters of 1946’

[55] ‘Talking Points On… Colonial Workers in Britain’, World News, 19 March, 1955, p. 238

[56] K. Newton, The Sociology of British Communism, p. 55; Geoff Andrews, Endgames and New Times: The Final Years of British Communism 1964-1991, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 2004, pp. 23-24

[57] See: Audrey Gillan & Andrew Sparrow, ‘Strikes Spread Across Britain as Oil Refinery Protest Escalates’, The Guardian, 30 January, 2009; ‘This is a Strike Against Bosses’, Morning Star, 1 February, 2009; Socialist Party, ‘Lindsey Refinery: Workers Show Their Strength’, The Socialist, 4 February, 2009; James Turley, ‘Critical Support for Wildcat Strikes’, Weekly Worker, 5 February, 2009, p. 4; ‘Blame the Bosses not “Foreign Workers”’, Socialist Worker, 7 February, 2009, p. 1; p. 3

[58] S. Catterall & K. Gildart, ‘Outsiders’, p. 174

Thatcher, the Brighton bombing and the British left

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Like July 1981, October 1984 was a crisis point for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. The miners’ strike was now six months in and Thatcher faced possible strike action by the pit deputies’ union, Nacods, which would have increased the severity of the strike. If Nacods had initiated strike action, many believe that Thatcher would not have been able to endure the effect that it would have on the British economy. In July 1984, Thatcher had addressed a private meeting of the 1922 Committee, a pressure group within the Conservative Party, and has referred to the miners as the ‘enemy within’. From papers released by the Margaret Thatcher Foundation this month, we now know that she was going to return to this theme at the Conservatives’ 1984 Party Conference, to be held in Brighton.

However the Brighton Conference became known for a different set of events. On the morning of October 12, 1984, a bomb planted by the Provisional IRA exploded in the hotel hosting the conference. Five people, including one MP, were killed and another 31 were injured. It was revealed this week that Thatcher ripped up her original ‘enemy within’ speech and gave a defiant speech to those who remained at the conference.

In the week of the bombing, the Tories lead over Labour was 2 per cent, according to The Guardian/ICM polls, but this rose to 9 per cent the following month. The Tories experienced a fillip in the polls until February 1985 when they returned to a 2 per cent lead. But resentment towards Thatcher was still high and many were unsympathetic about the near miss.

Cabinet's response to the bombing

Cabinet’s response to the bombing: CAB 128/79/10, National Archives, p. 1.

I wondered how the British far left responded to the bombing in the midst of one of the most important strikes in contemporary British history. Thanks to the staff at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford, I was able to get copies of the Morning Star and Socialist Worker from the days following the bombing.

As a way of bit of background information, the Communist Party of Great Britain, to which the Morning Star was still nominally attached at this stage, was opposed to the bombing campaign of the Provisional IRA. At the Party’s 1981 Congress, a resolution on Ireland stated:

Congress unreservedly condemns the military campaign of the Provisional IRA in Britain and Ireland. The result is not just continual violence taking the lives of hundreds more people, Irish and British, but also a deepening political polarisation within the working class in Northern Ireland…

The SWP, on the other hand, supported the Provisional IRA in their struggle against British ‘imperialism’, but did not necessarily condone their bombing campaign. A 1980 pamphlet (scanned by the Irish Left Archive) stated:

As socialists we give full support to all those who fight oppression and for the right of self-determination, whereever in the world they may be. This applies equally to the Provisionals, who are fighting a war against the oppression of a minority in Britain’s oldest colony. But this does not mean that we necessarily support the politics of the Provisionals, nor we consider them socialists, nor that we support all the tactics they use.

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The Morning Star covered the story on the front page of the newspaper the day after the bombing, complemented by a statement by the paper’s staff under the headline, ‘No to Terrorism’. The statement began with the sentence:

The Provisional IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton was a piece of reckless adventurism which should be condemned without reservation.

The statement continued with the proposal that a ‘democratic solution’ to the problems in Northern Ireland (and in Britain) would ‘need not terrorism, but mass extra-parliamentary activity combined with the struggle inside parliament.’ It followed with:

Terrorism divides the working people and makes it more difficult to establish the unity between the working people of Britain and Ireland which is needed to solve problem in Northern Ireland.

It opens the door of more and more authoritarian measures which are then applied to the left as a whole.

The statement condemned the failure of the British labour movement to effectively mobilise around the issue of Northern Ireland and concluded with this passage:

The failure to grasp this problem, and mobilise the mass movement needed, leaves the vacuum which is then filled by desperate acts of terrorism.

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The Socialist Worker in the week following the bombing (20 Oct) did not put the bombing on the front page, instead focusing on the breakdown of ACAS proceedings between the NUM and the government. Coverage of the bombing was relegated to page 2. The paper featured two articles detailing the violence of the British Army and the RUC in Northern Ireland, explaining why the Provisional IRA enjoyed popular support. And like the Morning Star, the paper carried a statement from the SWP on the bombing under the headline ‘No Way to Win’. This statement acknowledged that many socialists would not have been upset if the bombing had inflicted more casualties amongst the Conservatives, but still condemned the bombing as the incorrect way to defeat Thatcher and to remove the British from Northern Ireland. The paper said:

We think the IRA made a mistake in planting the bomb last week, because such methods are not going to inflict a real defeat on the Tories…

In fact, the result would have been very different. The establishment would have found another set of Tory politicians to represent them, and these would have used the confusion caused by the bombing to push through repressive measures aimed at anyone sympathising with the cause of Irish freedom…

Indeed it would have made it easier for the system to continue in both Britain and Ireland. In Britain it would provide a wonderful excuse for the Tories to increase their repressive powers. In Ireland, it would have encouraged the illusion that a few courageous people with guns and bombs can act as a substitute for the struggles of the mass of the people.

The SWP stated that they would not condemn the IRA in the manner of the right-wing press, but also understood that the IRA ‘cannot win by bombing campaigns’. The SWP concluded:

The only thing which can shift an employing class is the mass activity and resistance of those its exploits. No amount of individual heroics or clever military stunts can substitute for that.

I wasn’t able to find copies of Militant or Newsline from this period, but due to the wonders of the internet, I thought it would be interesting to also look at how Red Action, a small splinter group from the SWP dedicated to militant anti-fascism, reacted to the bombing, as all copies of Red Action are now online. The attitude of Red Action towards the bombing is significant because Red Action was probably the most pro-Republican leftist group in Britain at the time. As Mark Hayes has written on his chapter on Red Action in our forthcoming volume on the British far left:

Red Action supported local Irish activities and sustained practical political contact with Republican paramilitary organisations. Red Action believed that genuine revolutionary socialist groups should place Irish national liberation high on their agenda.64 According to Red Action the liberal left in Britain had, in effect, abandoned the issue of ‘Northern Ireland’ when the struggle for civil liberties was transformed into an armed insurrection. Even the Trotskyist left, which had the habit of offering ‘conditional support’ for Republicanism, was decidedly equivocal when it came to the use of armalites and semtex… Red Action, on the other hand, resolved to offer unwavering support.

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Issue 15 of Red Action from November 1984 contrasted the IRA bombing with the sinking of the Belgrano by the British (under Thatcher’s orders) during the Falklands War and argued that violence was given a moral worth depending on who perpetrated it. The paper noted that the reaction from the working class towards the bombing was quite muted and that this had changed from the anti-Irish sentiment that was prevalent during the 1970s. It was argued that this latest bombing incident was different because it ‘attacked an obvious and clearly political target’ and because the government ‘had done no favours to the British working class since it had been in office’.

Using the example of the 1981 riots, Red Action stated that the paramilitary policing tactics employed in Northern Ireland were now being used on the British mainland. The group thought that this might create a greater understanding in Britain of the Republican cause. The article finished with this:

Perhaps some of the working class are now beginning to realise that the IRA/INLA are not looney crazed terrorists – just people who realised that the only way that their voice would be heard was by their taking direct physical action against the state.

It cannot be said that the news of the Brighton bomb brought cheers of ‘up the provos’ [sic] but there were plenty of people who thought that it would hsve been better if it had been more successful.

The Brighton bomb gave Thatcher a brief respite from the pressure of the miners strike and public opinion swung behind her momentarily for the first time really ‘since the Falklands War. But many of those who were involved in the strike did not sympathise with Thatcher in the wake of the bombing, although most were critical of the strategies used by the Provisional IRA. The bombing also solidified in her mind that the ‘enemy within’ was a clear and present threat, even though if she wasn’t willing to say it on October 13, 1984 – Irish Republicans, trade unionists, communists, etc, were to be handled with the necessary toughness that the situation required. This line of thinking informed the political and criminal justice outlook of the Thatcher government until its end in November 1990.

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.

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

 

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.