The phrase “the spirit of 1945” has inspired many activists this year. Ken Loach’s film of the same name led to discussions of what that spirit was. But what is less known are the deep processes taking place in the working class during the Second War World.
There was a determined effort by militant workers to break Labour from the coalition national government and to use strikes to fight for their conditions against the Labour Party, the Communist Party and the trade union leadership whose line was: don’t strike support the war, we are all in it together against fascism. Meanwhile the capitalists continued to get fat on war profits.
Then, as today new rank and file organisations needed to develop if workers were going to fight and win against the employers and government. It continued an old tradition of rank and file actions.
Post-war history is shaped in part by rank and file committees expressing independent struggle against union leaderships who would not fight, who were opposed for example to calling a general strike and in the Second World War any strike!
Here we re-publish Bill Hunter on the 1944 “Apprentices’ strike”. We are not in a World War but there is a brutal social war taking place. Rank and file struggle is vital today as the TUC majority back the Labour Party just as they did then.
Today we must fight to place decision making into the hands of mass meetings of the rank and file.
In Marxists in the Second World War, Labour Review, December 1958, Bill explains about the rising movement of the class, “Working days lost by strikes, which fell to 940,000 in 1940, rose to 1,530,000 in 1942, 1,810,000 in 1943 and 3,710,000 in 1944. By the beginning of 1944 the government was faced with the prospect of a general strike throughout the coalfields. In the last months of 1943 there had been a wave of strikes, most of them in defence of young workers who had been conscripted for underground work”.
This story is from a chapter of Bill Hunter’s Lifelong Apprenticeship: Life and Times of a Revolutionary, Volume 1: 1920–1959. It is about the struggle of young engineering workers against conscription to the coal mines and the way the State tried to prepare an attack on militant workers by blaming the strikes on Trotskyists.
Strikes in war challenged union leaderships
The Labour and trade union bureaucracy was extremely worried at the biggest wave of industrial action since the 1926 General Strike, and at the growing political movement of hostility to the political truce.
As we have seen, at the beginning of 1944 no fewer than 44 resolutions were tabled for the Whitsun Labour Party conference demanding the end of the coalition government. The following year this movement in the Labour Party was to eject the party’s leaders from the Cabinet.
At the end of March 1944, 50,000 engineering apprentices went on strike. Their rank-and-file organisation, the ‘Apprentices’ Guild’, which had begun on the Tyne, was demanding that Bevin, the Minister of Labour, withdraw the new legislation that would conscript engineering apprentices into the mines, their names being chosen by ballot.
The Tyne Apprentices’ Guild expressed the deep feelings of young workers who, living in a coal-mining area, had the common opinion that they would rather go into the army than down the pits. One of their leaflets declared:
“The Government has adopted, and is now enforcing, the so-called Ballot Scheme. By this scheme, which was introduced without consulting the lads who will be driven down the pits, they claim they will solve the coal crisis. But this dictatorial measure has been taken against lads 18 to 21 years of age, who cannot legally demonstrate their hostility to, and lack of confidence in, the infamous pit compulsion scheme, because we lack the elementary rights of the Parliamentary vote.
“We apprentices declare that it is the greedy coal-owners who are responsible for the present coal crisis. They have soaked the miners for generations, grown fat on the sweat, tears, blood and broken bones of the miners. They have allowed the machinery in their pits to become antiquated, outdated and unproductive in their lust for profit. But the government has consistently refused to take real compulsory measures against the coal-owners. It is against the mass of unprotected youth that further dictatorial measures are taken.
“The government must nationalise the pits and operate them under the control of the trade unions”.
Government blames Trotskyists for strikes
The capitalist press had conducted a campaign against Trotskyists from time to time, but at the end of 1943 and the beginning of 1944 the campaign became more rabid and widespread when the government prepared further anti-working class legislation to curb industrial and political unrest. Bevin was about to introduce a new regulation, 1A(a), which further increased the curbs on strikes and made illegal any proposal of strike action outside of an officially and legally constituted trade union meeting. In the press campaign, Trotskyists were accused of being responsible for the growing number of strikes. It was said they were the ‘hidden hand’ behind the big wave of industrial struggle. The Daily Mail of 7 October 1943 declared that the Trotskyists:
“…play on the weariness of workers who have had four years of war and exaggerate grievances into a campaign to suppress the workers after the war. Why they have been allowed to have so much success is incomprehensible”.
Four Trotskyists, Jock Haston, Roy Tearse, Heaton Lee and Ann Keen, were arrested and charged with conspiracy under the Trades Disputes Act (1927) and with furthering an illegal strike. Under the Trades Disputes Act, a punitive measure against the trade unions passed after the General Strike, an illegal strike was one which “is not a trade dispute within the trade and is designed to coerce the government”.
These four Trotskyists were the first victims of this Act, which had originally been denounced as an infamous attack on workers’ rights by the very Labour and trade union leaders in the Cabinet which used it in 1944. The Newcastle jury flung out the conspiracy and incitement charges, even though, in a summing up hostile to the four accused, the judge directed them to support the charges. The Trotskyists were however found guilty of ‘furthering an illegal strike’, even though, in a previous judgement in the House of Lords it had been ruled that a strike could only be ‘furthered’ if it was already taking place and not before it had begun.
Letters to jail
Letters sent by Rachel Ryan, who then wrote daily to her sister, Ann Keen, in Durham Jail. In a letter dated 18 April, the news is about Regulation 1A(a) and how it appears to be directed against the whole of the workers:
“Anyone who speaks for strike action, however peaceably, except at a TU branch meeting, is liable to £500 fine and/or five years penal servitude. This is really vicious and will shake the whole of the labour movement.
The letter ends by saying that the TUC ‘have apparently’ accepted Regulation 1A(a). The next letter, dated 24 April, reports busworkers’ strikes and the solidarity shown by soldiers who were being compelled to drive and conduct buses:
“The London busmen have gone back to work today, but the Manchester busmen are still out. They are all giving a magnificent answer to Bevin. I don’t know whether you saw the item in the Herald to say that [with] the fares which the soldiers had collected on the buses, amounting to about four pounds at one garage, they had taken the drivers and conductresses out to the local pub and treated them and had a good old sing-song together. Real fraternisation all right.
“I expect you have seen the Daily Worker, although coming out mildly against the new legislation as not necessary, since the Defence Regulations and the E[ssential] W[orks] O[rders] could be strengthened, have lost no time in trying to incite the Government to use the new legislation against us in their article on the bus strike.”
There was a great deal of support from activists in the trade union movement and in the left of the Labour Party in the campaign against the arrests.
All the sentences were later quashed on appeal. The state and press propaganda did not arouse a great deal of hostility to Trotskyism among the working class in the industrial areas. There was wide support among trade unionists for the campaign against the arrests…
To be sure, the state was worried about the increase of struggle, particularly among the miners, and nervous that the circulation and influence of Trotskyist propaganda could rapidly advance. But the state’s main attack was directed against the workers’ increasing combativity, mainly in engineering and mining, and the aim of the witch hunt against Trotskyists and of the arrests was to split and push back those who were struggling. The propaganda about subversives and the ‘hidden hand’ was meant to build up the atmosphere for further drastic measures against strike action, which Ernest Bevin as Minister of Labour was preparing to introduce.
Before I leave the 1944 arrests there is a story to relate of a significant victory against our Stalinist branch president, Len Hines, who was a leading Communist Party member in the area. He was convenor of Lincoln Cars factory, which became part of Ford’s and was at the Chiswick end of the Great West Road.
Members had to attend the Amalgamated Engineering Union branch meetings in order to pay their subscriptions. There would be 60 or 70 workers seated in the room with a queue at the back paying subscriptions. Hines dominated the meeting until we began to win support and eventually defeated him on a number of resolutions, including backing for the four Trotskyists who were arrested.