Revolutionary Reflections | The Roberts-Arundel strike

Stockport trade union history
Workers march in support of the Roberts-Arundel Strike

Fifty years ago, a remarkable strike took place at the small Roberts-Arundel factory in Stockport. At the time, Stockport (a few miles south of the centre of Manchester) was a centre of engineering factories, and a strongly union town. Within the engineering industry, a leading role was played by the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) – later the AEF, and later again the AUEW – a union marked by a high level of internal democracy: all its district officials were elected, whereas in most unions they were appointed from above. Among the different districts, Stockport had for many years been a centre of militancy. The AEU district secretary, John Tocher, was a long-time member of the Communist Party, and had won his official’s position on the basis of his record as convenor of the Hawker-Siddeley aircraft plant at Woodford, on the edge of Stockport.

The management at Roberts-Arundel were attempting to break the unions, an obvious affront and challenge to local trade unionism. When news of the strike spread, I contacted John Tocher with an offer to write a short pamphlet setting out the strikers’ case. I was at the time a member of the fledgling Manchester branch of the International Socialists. John Tocher took the offer up, and arranged for me to meet members of the strike committee. Aided by a few comrades, I printed 1,000 copies of the resultant pamphlet under the title “Support the Roberts-Arundel Strike” and sold them at a Stockport Trades Council meeting. A little later, when I visited the AEU offices on Wellington Road South, I found that the union had taken over production of the pamphlet and were running off thousands of copies.[1] These were used to garner support for the strike up and down the country. It was one of my most successful publications!

The strike ran from November 1966 to May 1968. It involved mass picketing, two “riots”, the implantation of a pro-union “spy” in the factory, and an immense work of “blacking” of the Roberts-Arundel company (embargoing its goods), and also of companies that traded with it, and was regularly reported in national newspapers. If the eventual outcome of the strike was somewhat flat, it did establish that no anti-union management could set up shop in any Stockport factory.

When the strike ended, I wrote a new pamphlet under the title “Roberts-Arundel – the inside story”. For reasons I now much regret, the pamphlet was never published. For years I assumed that the text was lost, until I recently found it at the back of a filing cabinet in my cellar, inside a folder marked with mildew. Re-reading it, it seemed to be of sufficient historical interest to merit final publication. My thanks to Ewa Barker for undertaking the re-typing of the whole manuscript, and to local labour historian and friend Geoff Brown for helping locate photographs to illustrate the text. Geoff and I would like to thank the Working-Class Movement Library for access to their extensive files. The text is almost unchanged, apart from the addition of a story recording one aspect of the special role played throughout the strike by John Tocher – perhaps the most impressive union official I have ever met.

I’d like to dedicate this publication to the memory of both John Tocher and Paul Casey, the remarkable “SuperScab” whose story I try to re-tell, and to the thousands of trade unionists who gave unstinting support to the workers of Roberts-Arundel during their long struggle.

Colin Barker, November 2017

Photo by Michael Danyliw
Photo by Michael Danyliw

Foreword

It was necessary that this pamphlet should be written, in the interest both of the labour movement and of Paul Casey. Both have taken a beating from the professional committee men and the ambitious careerist officials, of both “Right” and “Left”, who have unfortunately not got out of the habit of capitalising on workers’ strikes.

The main justification behind a publication like this is the sharp lessons that a strike of this magnitude teaches us. The knowledge and experience gained in one practical struggle is worth all the theoretical and abstract argumentation. A wise trade unionist learns by the past mistakes of others; a foolish trade unionist learns by his own. The rank and file of the labour movement must, in their own interests, study the full implications of such an important one as that of Roberts-Arundel, and learn the lessons that are there to be taught.

Trade unionists may ask why we found it necessary to give an account of this interesting case of “SuperScab”. Others may feel we should have nothing to do with a scab, regardless of his contribution to a strike committee. If I may make one simple observation on the subject of scabs, disregarding their strike-breaking activities, which no one can defend. We should bear in mind that the blacklegs are misguided proletarians whose level of consciousness is such that they know no better. The real scabs in a dispute like Roberts-Arundel are the government of the day, the Ray Gunters of the country, the Executive Councils of the Unions who cannot hope to claim mitigating circumstances for lack of understanding. No Executive can say they have done all in their power by making a strike official, by passing resolutions calling on other unions to assist and by asking Ministry Departments to change sides.  Resolutions without the necessary pressure to ensure action are like paper tigers.

Those responsible for this pamphlet would like to pay tribute to the real winners of the strike: the members who put their jobs in jeopardy while supporting the blacking of all goods; the whole of the AEU membership in No11 Division for their 6d a week contribution to the strike fund; the Stockport branch of the Foundryworkers for their levy of 2s6p per member; the many shop stewards and branch committees who organised collections; the activists and militants who attended and assisted on the picket line in the face of extreme provocation by the Stockport Police Force; and, last but certainly not least, those remarkable union members who stayed out on strike during those long lonely months, through the deep troughs of depression and despair, when the whole establishment of the capitalist press were using every dirty trick in the book to break their determination. The whole of the British trade union movement stands in their debt, for a job well done

– Dennis Langley. Ed. Rank & File Engineer.

Introduction (1968)

In Paris, in May 1968, 30,000 students fought the police on the barricades and detonated a bomb in the French working class movement. Ten million French workers went on strike.  The red flag flew over the factories, occupied by the workers. The Government was almost toppled.  The French ruling class feared revolution.

At that time, the British press asked “Can it happen here?” Many people said it couldn’t, especially those who wanted the answer to be no – the employers, trade union officials, all those who long for a quiet life with no upset or social change.

But some people gave a definite yes to the question – all those who know the potential for militancy and solidarity that exists, locked up for the moment, in the British labour movement.

In one sense, that is what this story is all about. In February and September, the British press and TV screamed out “Riot!”, “Disorder!” “Ugly scenes” etc. The Times, under a headline “Police clubbed in Factory Siege” reported as follows:

More than 3,000 demonstrators laid siege to the American-owned textile machinery factory of Roberts-Arundel Ltd at Stockport today. A line of 70 policemen battled with groups of men who wielded banner poles as clubs. Glass from windows broken by the demonstrators showered the crowds as they marched three times round the cobbled streets surrounding the factory, chanting slogans…

The Daily Mirror headlined, “Thousands storm factory”. There were pictures of battles with the police, tales of large-scale arrests and all the sort of thing that can never happen here.

That they can happen here is a fact. The story of the Roberts-Arundel strike proved it. Not on a national scale, for the dispute was a local one, but all the same on a scale that seriously worried the employers.

It’s because of the importance of that fact, firstly, that we are publishing this pamphlet. At almost 18 months, not only was the 18-month strike at Roberts-Arundel of Stockport one of the most protracted and bitterly fought disputes of modern times, but its history is a dramatic tale of courage and solidarity, of violence and espionage, exciting enough in itself to make a film.

But the story is also more than that, for it reveals a number of lessons for the labour movement that should not be ignored. As Bro. Langley says in his foreword, “A wise trade unionist learns by the mistakes of others; a foolish trade unionist learns by his own”. The story was written by Colin Barker, who also wrote the two pamphlets published during the dispute by the Strike Committee. It was written with the help of a number of local trade unionists who participated in the strike.

UK working-class history
Photo by Michael Danyliw

Under new management

The firm of Arundel-Coulthard employed about 150 people in the production of textile machinery in its factory at Chestergate, Stockport. The Chestergate works is an old brick building, partly re-constructed, standing in an area of 19th century working-class housing, some of it now cleared.

For as long as anyone can remember, the factory has been a union shop, organised principally by the Stockport District Committee of the AEU, but also including members of a number of other unions, the T&GWU, the Sheetmetal workers, the Plumbers, the Electricians, the Metal Mechanics, the Foundryworkers, the Draughtsmen and the United Transport Workers. The firm was a member of the Employers’ Federation, and in line with the industry’s procedure recognised the shop stewards committee.

The factory was “not too bad” as a place of work. The wages paid were not particularly high, by local standards, but the “Happy Family” atmosphere in the factory seemed to the employees to provide them with reasonably satisfactory employment. Many of them had worked there for years, and there had been very few disputes.

However, the firm was slowly going downhill. The rather old-fashioned products were not doing too well, and it was ripe for takeover. When the Roberts company moved in and bought the old owners out, they immediately started to “rationalise” production. Under Mr. John Cox, the new managing director, they closed five other factories in the group. The old line of machines was scrapped and production was turned over to a more advanced machine, developed in the Company’s home plants in Sanford, North Carolina.

It was soon clear that the new management was very different from the old one. Their handling of some of the redundancy claims of their old workers, thrown out during the “rationalisation” programme, rapidly won them a reputation for great meanness.

At Stockport itself a redundancy of 51 men was declared. The stewards were given no names, and when local union officials approached the management for negotiations the management refused to discuss anything but the payments to the men they proposed to sack. The principle of “last in/first out” was refused, and the management insisted on a completely arbitrary system of selective redundancies.

In protest at the decision, the men imposed four-day working, in line with official AEU policy, and after two weeks a compromise was struck whereby certain payments were made to men over 65 and offers of re-employment were made to some of those who had been sacked.

About the same time, during the summer of 1966, the men’s kettles were removed and tea vending machines installed. The management, inspired by the common managerial “tea-break phobia”, wanted to get rid of the morning tea break. What was extraordinary about this was the way the management went about it. After negotiations on the subject had begun, a holiday intervened and when the men returned they found that the management had unilaterally broken off negotiations and installed tea-vending machines.

A little later, the men came in one morning to find that all their tea mugs had been smashed.  Some of these mugs were the men’s personal property. And the men’s stools were broken up so that they were forced to stand all day – in contravention of the Factory Acts.

Dissatisfaction was not confined to the workers on the shop floor – in the period before the strike at least seven men on the staff side were either sacked or resigned in disgust at the way things were going. The chief inspector and the production manager were sacked at a moment’s notice. In his relations with his staff, as with the shop floor, John Cox was making it all too clear that there was to be only one authority in the factory, an authority that could not be checked in any way – the authority of Mr. John Cox.

The new management appeared to hold their workers in complete contempt. They were carrying through improvements to the factory and were prepared to pay higher wages than the old management. But the price they demanded was excessively high – they wanted to treat their workers as sub-human cretins who would be satisfied by higher wages alone and not give a fig for their conditions of work or their rights to consultation.

Causes of the strike

On 10th November, the Stockport men learned that the Company’s Preston factory was to close. The personnel manager, Mr. Mangham, called the convenor and chairman of the shop stewards to his office and told them that the future of the Stockport factory was assured. As they were leaving, he announced casually, “There’s just one other thing. We may want to take some women on.”  The convenor told him the matter would have to be discussed with the unions.

All the following week Mangham was away at Preston. Then, without warning, an advertisement appeared in the Stockport Express (17th November) inviting applications from women for jobs that might be created at Roberts-Arundel. The stewards informed the management that while they had, of course, no objection to the employment of women, they were concerned about two things: first, that there had been no proper consultation with the unions and, second, that the management proposed taking on the new workers so soon after considerable redundancies. In some cases the women would be doing the jobs of the very men who had been sacked, at considerably lower wages.[1] Mr. Cox said that he didn’t care, he was bringing in the new workers whatever the union might say. “Those machines from Preston smell of perfume,” he declared.

The stewards arranged for a meeting between the management and the local AEU secretary, Bro. John Tocher, for Wednesday 23rd. November. But on Monday the 21st the management started three new women workers on drilling machines which had been brought in and set up secretly over the weekend.

The men downed tools in protest, but the stewards asked them to return to work to enable negotiations to take place. In informal discussions between management and local union officials on the 23rd the union side registered a failure to agree and asked the company not to aggravate the position further while negotiations were under way. Meanwhile the men in the factory voted unanimously to stop work if more women workers were taken on without consultation. The following Monday, 28th November, the management started two more women. This was in complete breach of the national procedure agreement. The men walked out.

There can be no doubt that the management provoked the dispute. The unions were asking nothing more than that management abide by the terms of the national procedure. This piece of management provocation was the climax of a general campaign against union organisation in the factory. The timing of the provocation, less than four weeks before Christmas, was no doubt intended to strengthen the Company’s hand against its workers.

The strike took place, not over the question of the employment of women, but over the firm’s breaches of national procedure agreements on consultation. This has to be stated again, as the national and local press represented the strike time and again as a strike against the employment of women. This was never true, in any sense.

At the same time, one could say that the past history of trade-union policy towards women did give the management an opportunity to use “divide and rule” tactics. For years, as many women trade unionists will remember, unions have officially been in favour of equal pay for equal work – in other words, against sexual discrimination. But they have never done anything about it, beyond passing pious resolutions. As a result of the criminal inactivity of the unions on this issue, women workers are a super-exploited group in the majority of industries – and, not surprisingly, less of them have joined the unions. The Roberts-Arundel management, although it was paying its women workers less than its men, tried to pose as noble defenders of women’s right to work.

In a way, therefore, the unions themselves are responsible for the particular way in which this dispute arose. It must be said, however, that if it had not been this issue which started the strike, the management would have found another. They were clearly out to break union organisation in the factory.

Negotiations

Local officials of the Employers’ Federation tried to mediate, but their efforts were rejected by the Company on 2nd December. Cox demanded that the unions accept an unconditional return to work.

Four days later Roberts-Arundel advertised in the local press for new workers. The half-page advert announced management’s intentions clearly. It was addressed to

THOSE INDIVIDUALS WHO APPRECIATE WORKING IN A FREE ATMOSPHERE RATHER THAN THE BUREAUCRATIC AND RESTRICTIVE ENVIRONMENT OF A UNION SHOP

In an interview with the Manchester Evening News the same day, Cox declared:

“I see no point in negotiating with union officials who have lost control of their men.  If they try to interfere with our business I shall call in the Minister of labour and ask him to intervene. And if he won’t do anything we will leave our premises in Stockport and transfer production to another of our factories elsewhere. I will not be intimidated by a rabble.”

On 5th and 6th December the “rabble” received letters offering them re-engagement under new conditions. The offer included: changed rates of pay; abolition of tea-breaks; changed working hours; reduced holidays; no union recognition. Not one man accepted. On 6th December the Executive of the AEU declared the strike official, and other unions followed suit rapidly.

The Company resigned from the Employers’ Federation, becoming, as one journalist later put it, a “Wildcat firm”. Cox and his associates had decided to ignore British industrial procedure.

The day after the firm’s withdrawal from the EEF the apprentices joined the strike. They were followed by the draughtsmen and by union members among the foremen and supervisors.

In resumed talks on 21st December, the unions stated their demands:

  1. Recognition of the Trades Unions and Shop Stewards.
  2. Conditions of employment to be negotiated between the unions and the management.
  3. All workers involved in the dispute to be re-employed without loss of service.
  4. Their conditions of employment to be the same as before the dispute.
  5. A procedure agreement to be drawn up between the parties.

These demands provided the only possible basis for a settlement. Cox rejected them.

On 30th December, the president of the Roberts Company, Mr. Pomeranz, wrote to Harold Wilson to ask him to intervene. He stated:

“We have invested so far about 2.8 million US dollars in our manufacturing programme in Great Britain. In view of your efforts urging increased productivity to maintain British industry as a leading exporter throughout the world, I address this letter to you. The vicious criticism of an ‘American-owned Company’ by the unions could damage many American companies who have extensive operations in the United Kingdom… Perhaps through your good offices the Ministry of Labour could assist in bringing calmness and reason to this situation.”

The text of Wilson’s reply to Pomeranz has never been published, but the strikers’ message to Pomeranz was widely circulated:

“You can talk to who the hell you like, but in the end your management will have to sit down and discuss the matter with our trade-union officials.”

On January 24th there were further talks, attended by the American boss, at which workers were offered a new procedure agreement. The main point at issue in this agreement was the right of representation. According to the Company, a worker with a complaint would be allowed to take a representative with him – a full time union official, a solicitor or a clergyman, but not a shop steward. The “paraphernalia” of a shop stewards’ committee, the normal arrangement in the industry, was totally unacceptable – as presumably was collective bargaining of any kind. The talks ended after three and a half hours, with no progress achieved at all.

Robert-Arundels strike Stockport

The picket line

In the meantime, picketing at the factory had been in progress, with support from other local factories in the Stockport district. Collections were held for the strikers in local factories, some of them raising hundreds of pounds. On mornings when a good number turned out on picket, there were attempts to prevent blacklegs getting in to work. The police at this stage, while they assisted blacklegs to work, often against considerable opposition, were making no arrests.

On 12th December there were more than a hundred pickets there to try to stop the first of the blacklegs getting to work. Some of the new workers agreed to try to find work elsewhere, and those that insisted on going in received a rough passage. On a larger mass picket the following week, Cox himself had difficulty in getting to work, and the scabs only got in because the police were there to drag them through the crowd. The management began complaining about “harassment” of their workers.

At this stage the police were already seen to be acting partially. They did all they could to prevent effecting picketing, while at the same time doing nothing about management’s own flagrant breaches of the law.

In the first week of the strike, the unions had approached the Regional Controller of the Ministry of Labour to ask why work permits had been issued to two Americans who were working in the factory. The regional Controller said no work permits had been issued, and the matter was then taken up with the Chief Constable. The police let the issue lie, until finally the men left for the US on a management decision. The police claimed credit for this, but to little effect, for two days later three more Americans, again without work permits, started work at Stockport. Once again the police gave the unions the run-around, and did nothing.  Six weeks later the Americans, who had been engaged in setting up machines – work that had been performed by union members – left again. The police had not interfered in any way. (Readers can imagine what a different story it would have been had strikers been involved in breaches of the law of this nature!)

In January, a special meeting of local shop stewards was arranged by the Confederation of Engineering Unions. The local union officials stood down from the chair so that the meeting could take on an “unofficial” appearance.  Bro. Walmsley, a local convenor, was elected Chairman, presumably by some pre-arrangement. The Stockport shop stewards were in favour of setting a date for a token stoppage in the local factories, but the Chairman talked them out of this. Bro. Smith, convenor of Oilwell Engineering at Stockport, declared that there was a danger of the meeting doing no more than “setting up a committee to set up another committee” and that, unless a definite date for a stoppage was arranged, nothing would happen. In the event Bro. Smith was proved all too right. No date was fixed, and a committee was elected which never did anything. The result of the meeting, in the words of one shop steward, was “recurring nothingness”.

The initiative, therefore, passed elsewhere. On Saturday 18th February the Stockport Trades Council organised a large public meeting in the centre of Stockport, followed by a march around the factory. The meeting and march were attended by several thousand trade unionists from Stockport and Manchester, and were led by local and national officials of some of the unions involved.

At the end of the demonstrations, stewards from several local workplaces (in particular the Shell plant at Carrington) announced that they would be stopping work the following Wednesday to take part in a monster picket.

Picketing had been getting more and more active during the previous two weeks. There had been lively scuffles on several occasions. One morning a scab attempted to stab a picket with a screwdriver, and another morning scabs inside the factory hurled bricks and bottles over the main gate. On another occasion the personnel manager, Mangham, lost his nerve and would not go through the picket line. He paced the pavement opposite the gate for an hour, laughed at by the pickets. Finally he was saved from his misery by Bro. Tocher, AEU District Secretary, who told the pickets to let him in.

On Monday and Tuesday, 20th and 21st February, police tactics began to harden. Several arrests were made, on a very arbitrary basis, and indignation against the police rose.

February revolution

On Wednesday afternoon, 22nd February, several hundred workers gathered in steady drizzle outside the factory – including a large number from Craven Bros. a local firm, who had struck for the afternoon. At first there was a feeling of disappointment at the small numbers who had turned up to support the picket, until from the end of the street came an excited cry – “They’re Coming!” Around the corner came a march of hundreds of workers, giving the clenched fist salute and carrying placards. The Carrington workers (from the Shell plant and several nearby construction sites) had arrived.

Suddenly the street was full of pickets. Estimates of the numbers vary, but probably something like 2,000 workers were there. During speeches, through a portable loudspeaker, attacking the management, a worker appeared at the door with his cards, saying he would not work anymore for a scab firm. He was greeted with cheers and cries of “Get all the scabs out!” The police tried to push the crowd back from the doors, and the workers, angered at police behaviour, shoved back. In one charge the main gates nearly gave way. Missiles started flying about and a number of the factory’s windows were smashed. (A number of these missiles were provided by a very militant old lady living around the corner, whose tea warmed up literally hundreds of pickets during the long months of the strike.)

Three workers who got near the side door of the factory were pushed inside by the police, and inside they were deliberately beaten up by the scabs under the management’s surveillance.

Outside, a constable, who had been seen kicking workers earlier, was struck in the face with a stone. The police panicked and charged forward. When the men pushed back in the confined space of the street the Deputy Chief constable was trapped against the main gate by the weight of his own men and his wrist was broken.

More police were brought in from Manchester and other local areas in coaches. Some behaved with great brutality, while others were simply cowed and amazed by the picket’s determination. At 4.30 the AEU District Secretary, Bro. Tocher, arrived and called on the pickets to disperse. The police had told him that if the men did not go then they would use extreme force. After some argument, the majority decided to go back on the coaches that had brought them from Carrington.

The rest remained – a mistake, as rapidly became apparent. Up to this point, the police had been outnumbered and had not dared to attempt any arrests. But now the relations of forces had changed, they began to arrest men. In all nine men were taken in.

These arrests were entirely arbitrary, as proved later when two of those taken in appealed against their fines and won. Fortunately for them someone had taken photographs during the demonstration, and they were able to prove that they had been wrongfully arrested. As so often happened, they were arrested simply because the police felt they had to pick someone up.

The day after this all demonstrations near the factory were banned by police order. For a time pickets were not even allowed to function properly. Even people living in the street had to prove their identities to get home!

One important aspect of the demonstration should be noted. The Wednesday afternoon demonstration was completely spontaneous. The decision to bring the men out on strike at Cravens and Carrington was not taken by the strike committee, by any District Committee or by the “Support Committee” set up in January. The solidarity strikes were called by a few shop stewards on their own initiative.

But even these shop stewards were not responsible for the way the demonstration developed.  The anger of the workers themselves carried them forward into one of the most serious labour battles of recent years. The convenor of Shell Chemicals at Carrington, for instance, spent that drizzling afternoon trying to quiet the demonstration down. There was no organised body of workers who led the “riot” (as the press chose to term it). In fact this very lack of an organisation of the militants was to prove a weakness later.

Nonetheless, the publicity that the demonstration received, and the shock it gave to the establishment, were enough to provoke a flurry of negotiations initiated by various local dignitaries.

More talks

The Sunday after the mass demonstration, Maurice Orbach, Labour MP for Stockport South, flew to Manchester and took the chair at a private meeting at the Airport in a new effort to reach a settlement. But the talks were useless – the management’s position was now that they would accept shop stewards, but wouldn’t take back any of the men on strike. In other words, shop stewards for the scabs, while the Roberts-Arundel workers looked for work elsewhere!

Two days later, on the 28th, the Mayor had a go at settling the strike. The management announced this time that they were ready to take back twenty men, leaving the remaining one hundred and twenty on the stones. These talks were adjourned to see if the management could arrange to take back all the men. But when talks were resumed Cox announced that he had a “loyalty” to his existing labour force (the scabs) and would take back only twenty-five. On 21st March a group of trade-union MPs saw Mr. Gunter, then Minister of Labour, along with a group of national union officials. They pointed out that the firm had raised its wages by up to two shillings an hour during the dispute, to attract blackleg workers, in the middle of a period of “severe wage restraint” that Gunter had initiated as a member of the Labour Government.[2] Gunter agreed to look into the matter and give them a reply. Three months later he had still not replied (we don’t know if he ever did). He also agreed to meet Cox, but nothing is known of that.

Then, on 28th March a letter from Pomeranz to Gunter announced that the Stockport factory was to close its machining department. A “substantial number” of workers would be made redundant. This letter was written less than a month after Cox’s statement about his “loyalty” to the scabs. (Some of those who were sacked were so enraged that they sabotaged the machinery before they left.)

Cox was removed as managing director, and put in charge of export sales for the Roberts Company. He was replaced as managing director in Stockport by Mr. Charles Clayton.

Shortly after his appointment, Clayton told a factory meeting of the scabs (including Paul Casey – see below) that his instructions from the American chairman wwere to “make peace with the unions”. He told them that the unions were “here to stay”, and that therefore he would have to sack a large number of scabs quite soon. At this point the scabs gave him a prolonged round of applause!

New negotiations were arranged by the Ministry of Labour for 3rd April.  Until the actual meeting, everyone thought that a settlement was possible. Pomeranz’s letter to the Minister had stated “Mr. Clayton is ready for further discussions at any time”. However, at the meeting Clayton announced that he had no power to negotiate. Pomeranz’s letter, he said, had been “misinterpreted”. “The word ‘negotiation’ was not used at any time,” he explained. The Sun of 4th April quoted Clayton as follows:

“Our three-man delegation had no power to negotiate. At Easter I was under the impression that I had the power. But in several telephone conversations with my American-based chairman since then it was apparent that this was not so. It would seem I am something of a messenger boy at the moment.”

Later in April Pomeranz went to see Mr. Gunter, on his own request. Again, the details of this meeting are not known, beyond the suggestive fact that the American chairman found the Minister “charming”.

For some time after that there were no meetings of any kind. In Parliament, Eric Heffer, MP for Liverpool Walton, called on the Ministry of Labour to support the unions in this case, but was told that the Ministry did not think it ought to take sides…[3]

The only further development was an intervention by the Tory candidate for Stockport South, who arranged for a question to be asked in the Commons by the Tory MP for Runcorn. This MP called for a Government inquiry into the strike and as good as alleged that it was not a real trade-union dispute. His brilliant contribution to a settlement amounted to the following remark:

“The firm may well have been a pawn in the Socialist and Communist power-game under a trade-union cover.”

In June Mr. Cox’s wife held a sherry party in support of Tory funds.

SuperScab arrives

With the collapse of negotiations in March and April the first phase of the Roberts-Arundel struggle came to an end. There can be no doubt that the flurry of negotiations that followed the “February Revolution” was prompted by the events of that Wednesday afternoon, when two thousand rank-and-file trade unionists had shown in no uncertain terms their determination to defeat this anti-union firm.

But after 22nd February there was a loss of impetus in the struggle. The picketing, suffering from the police ban, fell off, and the management’s hopes of victory rose. The strike entered a new phase of what the AEU District Secretary called a “war of attrition”. The blacking of all Roberts-Arundel goods and supplies, which had already been declared union policy, had to be put into effect in even more earnest.

In the weeks after February 22nd, the dispute appeared to be dying on its feet. The blacklegs became very cocky, since the pickets outside were small and slightly demoralised, and the firm was having little trouble with its supplies. The management issued boasting statements to the press about the level of production it was attaining.

A local trade-union militant, Paul Casey, read about the way things were developing at Roberts-Arundel, and decided that he ought to take a hand. He had had no previous connection with the dispute – he had never worked in the engineering industry, and he lived in the Manchester area. An ex-chairman of the Bakers Union Branch, he came to the conclusion that the only way in which the dispute could be won was through adequate blacking of Roberts-Arundel deliveries and supplies. So he went to work at Roberts-Arundel.

One morning in March he walked up Chestergate to the factory, and was approached by a picket. “You’re not looking for a job there, are you?” they asked him. Yes, he was, and it was no business of theirs. They called him a blackleg, but he shrugged his shoulders and walked in. After an interview, he was engaged as a toolroom labourer.

After a few days at Roberts-Arundel, Paul Casey went out one lunchtime and phoned the AEU office. He asked to speak to John Tocher, but was told the District Secretary was not available. So, he left a message – “Mr. Cassidy” had phoned, and thought Mr. Tocher might be interested to know that a packing case was being delivered to Manchester Airport for transhipment on a KLM airliner. He gave details of the contents of the case, the time it was being moved, the flight it was taking, and so on.

When the strike committee heard the message they didn’t know quite what to make of it, but since there was nothing to be lost they decided to check out the information. A delegation from the strike committee drove over to the airport and approached the shop stewards there.  A Roberts-Arundel crate had indeed been loaded onto a KLM plane. The airport stewards immediately informed the authorities that the crate must come off the plane, or every KLM flight would be grounded at Manchester. Less than an hour after the strike committee’s delegation had arrived, the packing case was sitting forlornly on the tarmac and the plane was on its way to Europe one case lighter. Mr. Cassidy’s information seemed to be very useful indeed!

After that call after call came in from “Mr. Cassidy”. Each time he phoned, however, he missed the District Secretary, and it was several weeks before the two spoke to each other.  John Tocher said he would like to meet “Mr. Cassidy”, and a rendezvous was arranged in a Manchester pub.

At the meeting it was agreed that any information that Paul Casey could obtain would be useful – details of rail consignments, shipping dates, names and addresses of suppliers, contracts with new companies, delivery and collection arrangements, packing case numbers, import invoices, etc, etc. It was left to Paul Casey to get what he could.

From this time on there was a steady flow of information about the activities of the management at Roberts-Arundel. It is not an exaggeration to say that almost every move the firm took was known to the union. Paul Casey worked long hours at the factory, arriving early in the mornings and working till late in the evenings. He was a very keen worker, and the management thought the world of him!

This “James Bond of Roberts-Arundel” lived on his wits, and on a succession of pieces of good luck. He would call into the offices, on a variety of excuses (which usually raised his prestige with the management) and while there examine such papers as he could see lying about.

When he first started there, waste paper from the offices (a prime source of information for any resourceful industrial spy) was disposed of on a shredding machine that ripped it up into useless little pieces. On one occasion the shredding machine operator left it for five minutes, and at great risk to his fingers Paul Casey managed to snatch the paper off. The top of each sheet had already been shredded, but the rest was a mine of information.

The sheets gave details of recent orders for Roberts-Arundel machines and parts, of the movements of the sales personnel in Europe, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. There were letters of complaint from sales agents who had not been paid, and even the names and addresses of Roberts-Arundel sales agents in Moscow and Czechoslovakia. Through this haul, Paul Casey was able to inform the union that machine parts were being shipped out of Britain under the disguise of personal effects of employees. (We can only assume that HM Customs Officers were in on the act…)

But the shredding machine caused problems for the union spy. So he suggested to the management that they build an incinerator to dispose of waste paper. The Chief Industrial Engineer at the factory, Mr. Pooley, was by this time very impressed with Casey’s abilities as a worker: “Good fellow, Paul Casey – if you want anything done, he’s the man to do it,” he said. He took up the suggestion, had an incinerator built – and put Paul Casey in charge of it!

The union owed a lot to that incinerator. Literally hundred-weights of documents were sent to Paul to be burned. He would spend two hours each morning sorting out the waste paper in the yard in front of the offices, stashing away what looked useful and burning the rest. About this time he was promoted from toolroom labourer to maintenance labourer – a promotion which brought him an extra 6d an hour. This was a lucky stroke, for at the same time as his promotion the management, concerned at the theft of tools and materials by their “loyal” labour force, announced that no one could leave his department without written permission. No one, that is, except the maintenance crew, including the new maintenance labourer…

One of Casey’s biggest coups concerned an order for the Century Rayon Company of Bombay. A 49-ton load of machine parts, in 38 cases were intended to join up with 13 cases that had been sent from Stockport to Birkenhead. All 51 cases were due to sail for Bombay on 19th June. Casey’s information sent the strike committee over to Merseyside. The dockers there refused to allow the case to be handled, and on 20th June the ship was already on its way, leaving 13 cases tied up in a warehouse somewhere in Birkenhead. The other 38 cases hadn’t even been brought across the Mersey from Liverpool! All the documents on the Century Rayon order had been sent to Paul Casey to be destroyed…

Another machine, weighing seven tons, arrived in Manchester docks for delivery to Stockport. After sitting there for ten weeks, it had to be sent back to Germany.

Time and again Roberts-Arundel production, supplies, deliveries etc. were held up, at great cost to the firm, on the basis of the information provided by the “scab” inside the factory. None of this would have been possible, of course, if Paul Casey had been working alone. But outside the factory the strike committee were travelling all over Britain to make contacts in ports, factories, railway yards, British Road Services depots etc. Almost everywhere, they found workers ready and eager to help. The solidarity of many sections of the British working class was shown at its best in the course of this dispute. Dockers, railwaymen, postmen, Post Office engineers, factory workers, lorry drivers, depot clerks and many others did all they could to assist their brothers at Roberts-Arundel.

Blacking Arundels

Something like 80 percent of the Company’s output was destined for export. The development of an embargo on their supplies and transport was therefore crucial to the winning of the dispute. It was made all the more necessary by the fact that there appeared to be nothing else that would bring this anti-union management to its senses.

The method of blacking was simple. As soon as the strike committee learned that a firm was dealing with Roberts-Arundel they would write to them asking them to stop trading with Roberts-Arundel. If no reply was received within ten days or so, a member of the strike committee paid the management a personal visit. Those firms that still refused to stop trading had their names listed on a widely circularised “blacking sheet”, which was sent all over Britain. Despite the work entailed in this procedure, there can be no doubt of its effectiveness – several hundred firms applied during the course of the strike to have their names removed after publicity, apart from the countless firms that agreed to stop trading as soon as they were informed.

The fact that Roberts-Arundel was quite a small firm made the blacking that much easier – many companies were afraid that if they did not abandon their quite small orders for the Stockport factory they would lose other, more lucrative business elsewhere. It was not only the strike committee who maintained the embargo, however. In case after case, shop stewards and other vigilant trade unionists forced a firm’s hand by instructing their own managements to stop trading with a firm listed on the “blacking sheet”.

There can be no doubt that the continual publicity and information that flowed out to other sections of the labour movement from the strike committee was instrumental in winning this strike. Often a strike committee, however just its case, does not use all the means of publicity open to it and suffers accordingly. Not so the Roberts-Arundel strike committee: they sold thousands of pamphlets telling the story of their strike (incidentally making a few pounds for the strike fund in the process), they published regular blacking sheets, got stories into the local and national press and did all they could to keep their strike in the forefront of every trade unionist’s attention.

The biggest difficulty occurred on the transport side. All the large haulage contractors agreed to cooperate with the strike committee, for fear of repercussions from their own workers, as did many smaller firms. But one firm in particular continued to trade with Roberts-Arundel: M&M Hauliers of Moss Side, Manchester. They acted as the principal hauliers for the company, from their two depots at Moss Side and at Mobberley in Cheshire.  A great deal of attention had to be focussed on their activities. The two depots were picketed and an unofficial group of supporters from Manchester University did a useful job one night with a couple of brushes and a pot of paint, informing local traders etc. that the M&M Depots were “black”.

Also a 24-hour watch by pickets in cars was instituted at the depots to look out for movements of transport carrying Roberts-Arundel supplies or products. After a time the M&M management resorted to extreme tactics to shake off the pickets. They began to send off their drivers in pairs. Two lorries were used when a load was to be moved from Mobberley. The first went out with the Roberts-Arundel products on board, closely followed by a second, empty articulated lorry. The aim was to prevent the pickets from following the actual load and discovering its destination. Around Mobberley are narrow winding country roads and the two lorries took them at around 50mph, doing their best to block the road completely. Any driver attempting to overtake the rear lorry found that the driver swung his trailer out trying to knock the car off the road. At least two of the pickets’ cars were struck in this way, and it was only by good fortune that the M&M drivers did not kill someone with their Chicago-style methods.

But M&M could not act alone as hauliers to Roberts-Arundel. Their vehicles were completely blacked on the docks and they therefore had to transfer their loads to other hauliers for transhipment to the docks. The cases were no longer marked with Roberts-Arundel’s name.

The cost to Roberts-Arundel must have been very heavy. They had on occasion to move goods a hundred miles and more out of the direct route from Mobberley to the docks, just to lose the pickets. They had to pay extra hauliers, to cover the cost of running two lorries for one load, and to pay for unnecessary mileage and storage costs. What is more, their association with M&M must have cost them heavily. M&M lost many contracts because of the strike, yet managed to double the size of their fleet during the dispute. The owner had enough money to buy a new car and carry out extensive alterations to his bungalow at Mobberley. Someone must have paid him for his “trouble”.

Manchester UK strike history
Photo by Michael Danyliw

SuperScab again

In the early summer the Roberts-Arundel management attempted what they referred to in code as the “Shamrock Deal”. Pomeranz was in the process of purchasing a factory on the river Bandon in County Cork, in the Republic of Ireland. Everything was going well for him. The only thing standing in the way of his purchase, at that time a strict secret, was the question of “effluent” from the factory. The Irish Department of Fisheries expressed concern at the effect of this effluent on the river.

Even the management at Robert-Arundel in Stockport knew only a little about the deal. But one man in the Stockport factory was better informed than they were – Paul Casey. He intercepted and borrowed a Telex message saying that Pomeranz would be arriving in Dublin to finalise the deal.

Quickly a telegram in the name of the AEU went to Barry Desmond, the industrial relations officer of the Irish TUC, who rapidly put a firm trade-union block on Pomeranz’s purchase. Pomeranz would not be allowed to set up in Ireland as long as he had not settled his relations with the British workers. Later the same sort of thing happened in Northern Ireland.

Wherever Pomeranz turned, he was met with a wall of resistance from the unions – informed resistance!

By now Casey was getting “a little more ambitious”. He had been taking documents out of the factory, inside his shirt. But one Sunday he had an urgent delivery to make, including “top priority” documents giving details of the Roberts Company’s exhibition arrangements for the Basle fair. The documents he had included information on the Roberts Company’s stand and building number at the exhibition, the sections of the Roberts Company that would be sending in machinery for the exhibition, a list of the Company representatives who would be coming in for the Fair and the hotel they’d be staying in. This information was vitally important.

But the security man on the gate was searching men on their way out – not to look for “waste paper”, but to cut down the amount of theft of materials and tools from the factory. Casey was in a fix. So he phoned the security man, telling him that a car was wanting to come in through the back gate. As the security man walked through the factory to the back gate, Casey slipped out of the labour office entrance.

The following day the security officer asked if Paul had telephoned him. It looked as if the game might be up this time, but the guard went on to say that there hadn’t been a car trying to get into the factory – only a car backing round in the street. Saved again!

By now the management was in a state of panic. Orders were not coming in, for firm after firm was finding that delivery dates could not be met, spares were unobtainable etc. In addition to this, the men working for the factory were not skilled at their work, and a number of jobs were returned because they hadn’t been done properly. Morale was dropping at the factory, and the company became more and more suspicious that there was a leak somewhere.

They hired private detectives. Casey was approached by Mr. Pooley, who asked him if he’d mind having his photograph taken. The excuse given was that the firm wanted to put out some publicity material, showing British workers on the machines. Paul suspected the real reason, but complied.

The next night he was followed home by a car, which parked opposite his house. When he went out for a drink that evening, the car was still there. When he left the pub, the same car was parked in the pub’s car park. But for a long time the “private eyes” could prove nothing.

Picket line again

In the months after the “February Revolution” the picketing varied from spurts of activity to relative quiet. Apart from the blacking, which was beginning to make its effect, there appeared to be a stalemate.

On John Tocher’s initiative, local militants gathered together in an upstairs room at Bredbury Labour Club to discuss how to get some steam back into the strike. They proposed calling a special meeting of Stockport Trades Council to discuss the dispute in early August. They decided they ought to get something positive out of this meeting. If the August meeting was not to be the same directionless shambles that had occurred in January, they would have to have a plan of action ready in advance. After a discussion it was agreed that they should press for the calling of a “Roberts-Arundel Protest Week” at the end of the month.

The Trades Council meeting was well attended, and the whole atmosphere was one of militant solidarity with the strikers. Several speakers emphasised the backward role of the TUC etc. in the dispute, and the militants’ proposals were unanimously accepted. There would be mass pickets every morning and evening of the “Protest Week”, culminating in a general stoppage of work and demonstration on the Friday afternoon.

In this way the small “get-together” of rank-and-file militants acted, as it were, as a starter motor for the whole engine of the Stockport labour movement. The militants had taken a leaf out of the officials’ book. The officials had pre-arranged the January meeting, which typically produced no positive results. This time the militants had taken the initiative, and their practical proposals won the strikers the real support they needed.

The policy won ready support in local workplaces. Factories whose convenors were not noted for their militancy voted to stop work on the Friday afternoon and join the demonstration.  The rank and file of the union membership, asked to do something positive and meaningful, responded well.

During the week’s pickets, there was a general stepping up of pressure on the scabs. The individual pickets varied in size, but everyone was looking forward to the Friday afternoon demonstration. The management was sufficiently worried to decide to close the factory that day.

On the Friday afternoon, some two to three thousand workers turned up to the meeting on the waste ground behind Roberts-Arundel.  (In all about 29,000 were out on strike.) On the way, one group of workers had their banners smashed by the police. The feeling among the crowd was that this demonstration would be a real test of trade-union strength, and would provide the final impetus that was needed to force the management to give in.

After a short meeting, the demonstration marched to the factory. As soon as the march started, bricks began to fly and windows gave. The demonstration marched round the factory twice, the temper of the crowd rising all the time. One or two policemen (young inexperienced constables) tried to make arrests, but they were beaten off by the workers. Most of the police were careful to keep out of the way.

Given the feeling of the men, there can be no doubt that the chances of getting into the factory were good. If this could had been done, the propaganda effect would have been enormous. (Anyone who has read about the May 1968 events in France will know this.) If the strike committee could have occupied the factory, even for a few hours and hoisted the workers’ flag over the building, the effect would have been tremendous. The majority of the men on the demonstration had already shown their militancy and their readiness to have a go. The police had shown that, faced with the combined strength of more than two thousand workers, they were afraid to intervene. All that was needed was a strong lead.

But a strong lead was just what the demonstration did not get. Leading members of the Stockport Trades Council got cold feet and tried to divert the demonstration. (At least one of them, in fact, stayed at home, possibly drafting a “Left wing” election manifesto…) On the third time round the factory, some leading right-wing members of the local Communist Party went to the head of the march, to lead it away from the factory. “We mustn’t have any violence,” they declared. (Marx and Lenin must have been spinning in their tombs!) For a couple of minutes the demonstration stopped, and a furious argument developed between the right-wing Party members and the more militant sections (who also included members of the Communist Party). In the end the right-wing members won, and the march moved away from the factory towards the centre of Stockport. For an hour after that the demonstration marched round and about in the centre of Stockport, causing traffic jams.

The result was that the population of Stockport was inconvenienced by the demonstration, while the management of Roberts-Arundel could sit back and breathe a sigh of relief. All the militancy of the original demonstration, all its impetus, was marched out around the main streets of Stockport.

Not all the Communist Party members agreed with those who led the march away from the factory. Some, the real militants, were profoundly disgusted by the antics of their “comrades” and heckled them at the end of the afternoon. But the militant section, together with the workers who had been ready to have a go at the factory, were not as influential as those who gave a weak lead.

It should be understood that this is not an argument for the use of violence for its own sake. At the same time, against a management as anti-union as this, in a situation where the police had prevented effective picketing time and again, and given the relation of forces that afternoon, an attempt should have been made to enter the factory. The only circumstance under which this should be attempted is the circumstance where the majority of the workers involved will follow such a lead. That Friday afternoon, 1st September, they had already shown that they would. When the right-wing of the Communist Party led the workers away from the factory they led them backwards.

UK biggest strikes
Photo by Michael Danyliw

More negotiations

A couple of weeks after the failure of the September demonstration, which still resulted in a flurry of press comment etc. (some of it very favourable, like the Guardian’s editorial on “Wildcat employers”), John Boyd, a member of the executive of the AEU, suddenly announced that he had negotiated terms for a settlement of the dispute.

The presidency of the AEU, which had been held by Sir William (now Lord) Carron for a number of years, was now vacant. Carron had consistently been associated with the right wing of the AEU. Partly through his influence, numbers of strikes by AEU members had not been recognised by the union executive. The union had taken a consistently right-wing stance on a whole range of matters, from support for the wage freeze to support for Government policy on Vietnam, and as a result Carron had become more and more unpopular among wide sections of the union membership. The establishment had been so pleased with Carron that he had been showered with honours of various kinds, a knighthood (and eventual peerage) and a directorship of the Bank of England.

Now that Carron was resigning, a battle developed in the AEU over the election of a new President. The two main contenders for the throne were, on the right, John Boyd, a Salvation Army bandsman who followed the same policies as the retiring president, and on the left, Hugh Scanlon, executive member for the Division that included Stockport and Manchester.

In early September, the first results of the first ballot for the Presidency were coming in, and Scanlon was seen to have a lead over Boyd. It was in this situation that Boyd announced that he had personally negotiated a settlement of the Robert-Arundel dispute (in which he had shown little interest before). The story of Boyd’s negotiations was widely reported in the press, generally with comments that this would help Boyd’s chances in the election. (Most of the press openly supported Boyd.)

A “Senator X” in North Carolina had suggested to Pomeranz that an approach be made to Boyd, because of his Salvation Army activities. “Senator X” approached “Mr. Y”, a trade union leader in Britain, who in turn contacted John Boyd. Boyd carried on secret negotiations with the Company’s London director, and then by telephone with Pomeranz himself.

The terms demanded by Boyd were substantially those the unions had laid down from the beginning, and the Company stated they were “sensible”. The firm would recognise the unions and shop stewards, would negotiate an agreement on wages and conditions and take back all the strikers on a planned basis, without victimisation. Boyd was reported to have claimed:

“This is the result of the superiority of Christian thinking over materialistic thinking.”

A summons from the Confederation meeting in York brought Stockport union officials over for negotiations, and a settlement seemed in principle to be arranged. Those who supported Scanlon in the election were somewhat concerned, for they feared that Boyd might reap some votes from his “Christian victory”. The Morning Star devoted a long article by its Manchester correspondent to belittling Boyd’s role in the settlement and building up Scanlon’s case.

In further negotiations between the union officials and the Company, however, the “settlement” was rejected. What was agreed was that 30 men would be taken back on 2nd October and a further 15 men twelve days later. The remaining 41 men on strike were the problem. The firm argued that they could not afford to take them all back immediately, or give a definite date for taking them back. They refused to sack the remaining scabs. When the union stuck out, the negotiations collapsed. The Boyd “settlement” was discredited. Hugh Scanlon won the Presidential election.

The end of SuperScab

As we have already said, the Roberts-Arundel management hired private detectives to spy on Paul Casey. On 4th September, the Monday after the end of “Roberts-Arundel Week”, he was called into Mr. Pooley’s office. The first question he was asked was: “Are you a member of the Communist Party?” (In point of fact he wasn’t.) Casey treated the matter as a joke, and told Pooley that he was not entitled to ask a question like that. A man’s political and religious beliefs were his own affair.

Pooley told Casey that he had good reason to believe that Casey was passing information to the unions, and the firm could not permit this. There were some very tough people working in the factory, he warned, and if they got to hear what Casey had been doing the management could not answer for his safety. Casey refused to confirm or deny that he was a spy. For some reason best known to himself, Pooley said that he would leave Paul to “sweat” for a while.

For several weeks, however, far from sweating, Paul Casey carried on as before, if anything even more successfully. During this period he recruited another worker at the factory to carry on his espionage activities in case he had to leave.

On 23rd October, Casey was again summoned to Pooley’s office. The interview started with Pooley saying that he was sick and tired of hearing of the way Paul was spreading alarm and despondency in the factory. He was certain Casey was a spy.

“I’m afraid”, said Pooley, “that you’ll have to go.”

“I insist,” said Casey, “on my right to see the managing director, as set out in the Works Contract.”

“You can’t – he’s not in.”

Nor, it seemed, were any other senior management “in”.

“I don’t know what to do with you,” Pooley complained.

“You could shoot me as a spy, like they do in Russia, I hear,” suggested Paul, all helpful.

“Couldn’t you go and sabotage a machine – preferably a little one – so we’d have an excuse for sacking you?” asked Pooley.

“Surely,” offered the ever-helpful Paul, “you can sack me if you’re convinced I’m a spy for the unions?”

“Of course we can’t – we’ve had enough bad publicity already.”

After three hours, Pooley made his final threat: Paul Casey must leave at once, or Pooley would see to it that every employee there knew what he’d been doing. (In other words, Paul would get beaten up.)

“Would it help,” asked Paul politely, “if I resigned?”

“Thank you very much.  Get your cards!”

So ended the saga of “SuperScab”.  For two weeks more another spy operated in the factory – a former blackleg whom Paul had recruited to the union cause – but he was rapidly detected and had to leave. After that the sources of information in the factory dried up somewhat – although in the middle of one night, John Tocher and one of the militant local convenors helped Paul Casey climb over the factory wall to collect bundles of useful information from the offices while they kept guard.[4]

No one can seriously doubt that Paul Casey did more than almost anyone else for the Roberts-Arundel strike. His methods may have been “unorthodox”, but his courage in sticking out in such a difficult position was truly remarkable.

After he left, he was for a time feted by the official “Left”, but when he began to voice criticisms of the way the strike was being run the mood changed. On one occasion a Manchester AEF official called him a “scab” in public. He applied for re-admittance to the Bakers’ Union, but the officials (in whose side he had always been something of a thorn, because of the way he spoke in the interests of the rank and file) refused his application – picking up the allegation that he had been a “scab”. A local official of the T&GWU attempted to intervene on his behalf, but to no avail. Thus did the official trade-union movement express its gratitude to a courageous militant.

Photo by Michael Danyliw

The last phase

After the 1st September demonstration, the impetus again went out of the picketing. A further demonstration was organised after the collapse of the “Boyd settlement”, but it attracted only half the number that had come on 1st September.  This time the organisers made sure that it stayed strictly within the bounds of “law and order”. The spirit had gone.

The police recovered their nerve. One morning before Christmas several pickets were arrested, and were beaten up in Stockport police station. There were protests over this in local factories, but there was no attempt to organise a general mobilisation of workers in protest at this open brutality.

There were still occasional well-attended pickets – a particularly good one was held on the morning of the strike’s anniversary – and in the period before Christmas the picket was swelled by a number of students from the local University Socialist Society, who came in solidarity with the Roberts-Arundel men. But there were no more mass actions. Talk of a Lancashire-wide stoppage in support of the strike never came to anything.

After the collapse of the September negotiations, the AEU Executive discussed the dispute. Hugh Scanlon (who had won his election) was sent to Stockport to try to wind up the strike. The Company had declared that production had stopped. Boyd, his attempt at a settlement in collapse, had made various completely unfounded allegations about the strike committee – to the effect that they were spending all their time canvassing support for Hugh Scanlon, and were getting strike pay in excess of £20 a week.[5] The strike committee was up against a wall, for if union support was to continue they had to prove that Roberts-Arundel was continuing production. (What a miserable state of affairs, when a group of men who have been on strike in defence of basic trade-union principles for a year have to prove their right to stay on strike to their own union!)

Only at the last moment was the situation saved. Bro. Ron Williams, a local militant, and Paul Casey visited local mills, posing as representatives of “Williams Light Engineering”. They obtained access to two mills where Roberts-Arundel machines were being erected by scab labour. Their last-minute documented report enabled the District Committee to force Hugh Scanlon to get the AEU Executive to grant an extension of the strike.

All this time Roberts-Arundel was more and more paralysed. Sooner or later Pomeranz had to settle. He couldn’t afford to abandon his production facilities in Britain, for they were an essential part of his marketing strategy: the Stockport works linked up with his factories in Belgium and Italy, and gave him a point of entry into the growing Commonwealth market for textile machinery. The dispute cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars, and did him no good at all.

In March 1968, therefore, sixteen long months after the beginning of the strike, talks with the unions began again. On 29th April an agreement was finally signed. Its terms were substantially worse than those rejected the previous September. Just 12 men were taken back, on 13th May, under a new convenor. The rest of the men who had stayed out on strike for so long were found work in other local factories. The strike was wound up quietly and rather miserably. Six remaining scabs were sacked – an event which provoked the generally anti-union Manchester Evening News to call on the unions to be “human”! Pomeranz’s final comment was:

“I am a lot sadder and wiser.  I didn’t know much about labour relations when we launched our venture in Britain.  Now at least I know what not to do.”  (The Sun, 30th April)

Lessons of the strike

The story of the Roberts-Arundel strike is important for a number of reasons. In the first place, it explains a lot about the recent behaviour of the employers.

As everyone knows, the great majority of the employers hate trade unionism. It isn’t so much the official union machinery that they dislike, for that gives them remarkably little trouble. This was shown recently by the Royal Commission on Trade Unions, who reported, among other things, two very interesting sets of figures on strikes in Britain recently.

The Royal Commission gave details of the number of official and unofficial strikes. The following table shows that the number of official strikes has not risen in the last few years:

 

Numbers of official strikes

 

1960   68 ……… 1964   70
1961   60 ……… 1965   97
1962   78 ……… 1966   60
1963   49 ………      

 

In short, there are very few official strikes, and they don’t generally bother the employers very much.

What a different picture when we look at unofficial strikes! Leaving out coalmining (where mass sackings have demoralised the workers), there has been a remarkable growth in the numbers of strikes:

                                                      Numbers of unofficial strikes

1957   635 ………. 1963   1,082
1958   670 ………. 1964   1,456
1959   780 ………. 1965   1,496
1960   1,166 ………. 1967   1,694
1961   1,220 ……….      

                       

In other words, in the last ten years the number of unofficial strikes has nearly trebled.

This is what worries the employers. Not the union head offices, but the shop-floor organisations, the shop stewards and the rank-and-file members of the unions. They are the ones the bosses want to control, to bring to heel like obedient little puppies.

And how they would love to do it! They would love to use real laws with teeth against the “wildcats”. If only they could break the organised power of the working class in the place where it really hurts them – on the factory floor!

But they dare not try it. That is why the Royal Commission was so pussy-footing in its approach. That is why, despite all the threats, no trade unionist has yet been sent to gaol for breaking the Prices and Incomes Policy, even though the Policy has been defied successfully in many factories.

Why don’t they dare? Quite simply, because of the reaction it would provoke. If they tried to push the workers too far, they would risk losing all the things they love most dearly – their power and their wealth. If one small management in Stockport could not get away with attacking shop-floor organisation, how much greater would the response of the organised working class be if bigger employers tried it! 25,000 men went on strike for 120 men in Stockport, there were “riots” and demonstrations – all over one tinpot little firm.

The employers looked at Stockport, and shivered. They looked at the recent events in France, and they trembled.

Many managements in the Manchester district made a special point of telling their workers that they “deplored” the behaviour of the Roberts-Arundel managers. Not because they loved the unions, of course, but because they feared them. They are terrified that one day the workers will take them on, seriously, and take away their factories, take away their power and their wealth, and throw them in the dustbin of history. And for the moment, they dare not risk it.

Lessons for the labour movement

The employers learned plenty from Roberts-Arundel! But they aren’t the only ones who can draw lessons from the strike. In the course of the struggle, many of the workings of the British labour movement were laid bare.

The most obvious point is that all the achievements of the men depended on one thing – organised, militant solidarity. Without the support of thousands of men and women who provided financial assistance, the strike committee could never have held out so long.  Without the active help of thousands of trade unionists in all parts of the country – many of them acting entirely on their own initiative – they could never have blacked the factory so well. Without the militant support of thousands in the North West, men and women who stood by them on the picket line, demonstrated with them and distributed their pamphlets, they could never have won the international recognition that their struggle achieved.

But even this is only the bones of the story. Militant solidarity is not a ripe apple that can just be picked off a tree.  It needs to be fought for. It needs a fighting lead. And this lead can only come from the rank and file of the movement.

This was shown time and again. Apart from John Tocher, the AEU District Secretary, who played a fine role throughout (aided occasionally by one or two other local officials) the role of union officialdom throughout was to hold back the movement.

Left to run things by themselves, the officials will do little. In the last phase of the strike, there was little rank-and-file activity, and no rank-and-file initiatives. And the end of the strike was miserable.  Twelve men went back to work at the factory. Their original convenor and chairman were not with them.  Most had to find work elsewhere. The strike ended, but can such an ending be claimed as a victory?  If it was, it was a pretty shabby victory. At the end not a few of those most deeply involved were very disillusioned. The strike was just pushed away out of sight, to be forgotten.

The terms on which the men went back to work in the end were worse than the terms which were rejected in September 1967. Why could this happen? To understand the answer we have to look at the ideas current in the Manchester and Stockport “Left wing” at the time.

Broad Left?

The majority of the trade-union militants in the area, at the time of the strike, were involved in what they call the “Broad Left”. The main direction of this movement comes from the Left wing of the Labour Party and the Right wing of the Communist Party.

In the main, the chief interest of the “Broad Left” is in elections – particularly the election of “Left wingers” to offices in the union machinery. Its aim is to replace one set of officials with another, slightly preferable set. In other words, the “Broad Left” is not a militant united front of workers, aimed at destroying the wage freeze through militant action, taking on the employers etc. It is based on the officials, not on the activity and organisation of the rank and file. Its policies are determined by the career aspirations of a few hopeful officials, not on the hopes and aspirations of the workers themselves. Because of its policies, the “Broad Left” is always having to compromise itself in a variety of ways. In the interests of what is termed “Left Unity”, criticism of “Left wing” officials is actively discouraged, even if they do not serve the interests of the workers. The results can be quite amazing.

For instance, the Communist Party (who are deeply involved in the “Broad Left”) never say a word against Frank Cousins, yet he has never once made a statement condemning his own union’s “Black Circular” – which prevents Communists from holding office in the Transport and General Workers Union. Militant demonstrations are “cooled down” – as in Stockport in September – in the hope of maintaining a façade of “respectability”. Local union officials who serve the movement badly are not criticised in the “Broad Left” press (Morning Star, the Voice papers etc.) – if, of course, those officials are aligned with the “Broad Left”.

Yet there are good reasons for criticising the role of the majority of the officials during the dispute. Bros. Casey and Williams had to rush around to find evidence to force Scanlon to continue support for the strike. The national unions did nothing to help the strike, apart from making it “official”. Only the AEU even bothered to ballot its local membership to organise a levy in support of the strikers. Only rarely was a union official seen on the picket line.  Occasionally they made great speeches in support of the strike. But in practice, their support was rather less great.

One story in particular reveals the role of the local “Left” officials. Rank Xerox, the copying equipment manufacturer, was regularly listed on the strike committee’s blacking sheet, because it continued to trade with Roberts-Arundel. At the Mirrlees National factory in Stockport, Rank Xerox attempted to install a new machine. The electricians, supported by their shop stewards, quite naturally refused to allow the machine to be connected up, since it was “black”. But Rank Xerox complained that they didn’t understand the fuss – the week before, they said, they had met no opposition when they installed a new machine at the Manchester offices of the AEF![6] Every full-time official at the Manchester office is supported by the “Broad Left”. One of them was the “Broad Left” candidate for the vacancy created by Scanlon’s to AEF President. Did the “Broad Left” print this story in any of its papers? They never mentioned it.

The result of “Broad Left” policies is that the initiative, courage and self-sacrifice of rank-and-file workers, always displayed at their best during a struggle, are held back and dissipated instead of being given a fighting lead. The result of policies of continual compromise is that the employers are effectively strengthened and the finest hopes and aspirations of the ordinary worker are betrayed.

Looking at the final settlement from this vantage point, there is cause for uneasiness. September, the time of the Boyd “settlement”, was also the time of the election campaign for the AEF Presidency, an issue which occupied the main attention of the “Broad Left”. We have already seen how the Morning Star made great play in its discussion of the “settlement” about the effect on the elections.

The “Broad Left” was seriously concerned that the “settlement” might help Boyd win the election. The fact that the management refused to take all the men back on an agreed date provided a magnificent opportunity to discredit the Boyd “settlement”. It should be clear, of course, that a really militant union would do as the AEF did at that time. There should be no return to work that does not involve all the men returning on the same day. And this, more or less, was the stance of the AEF’s “Left Wing” in September.

What makes this stance rather unconvincing, however, is the fact that six months later a settlement with the management was reached on even worse terms than were rejected in September. Instead of 45 men going back, as was proposed in September, only 12 went back. On both occasions the Company used the same argument to justify the terms of the settlement. They couldn’t, they said, afford to take back more.

There was some truth in the management claim. They were being worn down by systematic blacking. They were having to go further and further afield to get materials – to Lanarkshire for nuts and bolts, to Slough for timber, to Birmingham for steel and cast materials. Textile firms, both in Britain and abroad, were reluctant to place orders while the Company could not promise firm delivery dates.

The only work being done in the factory in September was labouring. Production was almost at a standstill. For several weeks the main part of the work force was engaged in grinding down a set of shafts returned from Dunlops in Dunfermline because they were too large. The grinding was being done by hand, with emery paper!

In September, therefore, the firm argued that they could afford to take back only 45. The unions rejected the claim. Very militant. In April the same case was argued by the Company.  By then they were even worse off, and said they could take back even less. This time the unions accepted the argument.  Why?

Really the “Broad Left” cannot have it both ways. Either it is a militant united front, determined to defend workers’ rights and to make no concessions, or it is not. It can’t be one thing one month, and the opposite thing a few months later. It isn’t enough to wave the Red Flag during elections, and then forget all about it.

Strike policies cannot be subordinated to the needs of election strategies. If this happens, then the interests of the members themselves are sacrificed to the needs of the officials’ careers. And what kind of policy is that?

The rank-and-file alternative

“Broad Left” policies have won the day because the rank and file, in general, have not organised themselves to push for an alternative policy. And such an alternative does exist, as we can see from the best moments of this dispute.

All the real initiatives came from rank-and-file trade unionists, men and women who did not stop to ask their officials if they could do this or that, but went ahead and did it. Bros. Williams and Casey would never have collected information on the way the Company was continuing production if they had listened to the officials. “Don’t do it,” they were told, “you’ll be prosecuted.” They went ahead regardless – and as a result the AEF executive was forced to continue its support.

Always it was the rank and file, when they organised themselves, who pushed the struggle forward. Here the contrast between meetings called to discuss the strike is most revealing. At the first meeting, in January 1967, although the officials stepped down from the platform because their position did not allow them to run such a meeting, their hesitancy and slowness in giving a lead did not step down with them. The “rank-and-file” Chairman – who was himself later elevated to union officialdom – would not let a decision be made on a date for a general stoppage in the area. The result of the meeting was that a “committee” was elected, which promptly did nothing. If the rank-and-file militants in the Stockport area had organised themselves independently in advance of the meeting, it might have been a different story. As it was, the February demonstration was called by just a few shop stewards’ committees, purely on their own initiative. No lead at all came from the “official” unofficial committee.

The contrast with the August meeting is interesting. This time the local militants discussed a strategy for organising solidarity in advance of the meeting. And because this time they were ready with practical proposals, the Trades Council meeting set in motion the “Protest Week” which culminated in the 1st September demonstration.

Yet that demonstration was a failure, considering what it might have been. This was not because the two thousand workers who came were somehow less militant than in February, but because the “professional committee men” were allowed to move in and take the lead. Those who saw the salvation of the Labour Movement in “getting the Left officials in”, rather than in the active mobilisation of the rank and file, were anxious to keep things “respectable”. The fact that they were leading members of the Communist Party makes the situation all the more wretched: those who once sought to give a fighting lead to workers’ struggles everywhere were now holding the movement back.

How could they do it? The plain answer is that the militants had not organised themselves independently before, and could not give the demonstration the lead it needed.

All the way through, the pattern was the same. The rank-and-file militants, together or in isolation, wished to push the struggle forward. The officials, and those who looked to them, hesitated timidly. When the balance swung to the militants, the result could have been a boost to the struggle. When they failed to organise themselves independently, they lost the initiative and the struggle went backwards.

We have told the story of Paul Casey here. Casey probably did more than any other individual to help the strike, but on his own initiative. A lead like that could never come from any union office.

This poses a question: what should be the role of a fulltime union official? In our view, the job of the official is to act as the mouthpiece of the workers themselves, not as their “leader”, or even worse their “general”. The labour movement is no army, to be organised and commanded bureaucratically; it is a living movement whose strength and achievements depend on the extent to which the ordinary membership is organised and militant, regardless of its full time officials.

The job of the militant, therefore, is not to concentrate his main attention on getting Fred Bloggs or Charlie Bliggs elected; it is to do all he can to organise the rank and file. Officials can be useful, but they should not be the centre of attention.

Only the rank-and-file militants know the mood, the aspirations of the men and women on the shop floor – and these must be their guide. The militant’s task is to link up the workers in the various factories and workplaces, to try to develop their ideas and their struggles. The issue of union elections is purely secondary. If it is given first place, then the best hopes of the movement will be sacrificed to the personal aspirations of a few hopeful careerists. As the Roberts-Arundel story shows, the choice is not an abstract one.  Victory lies in the self-organisation and self-direction of the rank and file. Defeat follows from reliance on union “leaders” and elections.

And the choice is becoming urgent. The present wave of mergers and “rationalisation” is landing a crop of redundancies throughout the industry. Under the guise of “productivity”, the working conditions and the very jobs of thousands are threatened. The Labour Government is pressing on with its wage freeze and its attacks on union organisation (especially its attacks on shop-floor organisation).

What sort of response is there to these mounting attacks by the combined forces of the bosses and the Government? Where are the rank-and-file policies for fighting the wage freeze, for defending conditions on the shop floor, for opposing redundancy? Are the militants forever going to let the employers pick off one organised shop after another?

As long as the matter is left to the union leaderships, we’ll get what we’ve been getting so far: occasional verbal protest and opposition, but no action, no organisation. Whether it’s Cannon, Cousins, Greene, Jenkins, Mortimer, Paynter or Scanlon (or uncle Tom Cobbleigh, for that matter) the story is the same. The officials mean nothing unless the rank and file are ready to kick them along the right road.

But to kick them effectively, the rank-and-file militants have to be organised independently of the officials, to be sure of determining their own policies. The “Broad Left” policy binds the militants and the “Left” officials together in one net, and the officials make the running.

The militants must re-group themselves. They have let themselves be trampled on for too long.

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[1] The new women workers were earning something in the region of £10 a week, where the men who had been sacked only a couple of months earlier were making about £20.

[2] One odd facet of the dispute was that the Stockport labour movement had always opposed the Prices and Incomes Board, yet when the scabs had their wages raised the AEU District Committee rushed to ask the PIB to intervene. How to have your cake and eat it!

[3] The Ministry’s “not taking sides” was a complete sham from the start. In the early days of the strike the local Labour Exchange was sending men to apply for jobs at the factory. Although by rule they are not supposed to do this, the officials were threatening men with loss of benefits if they refused employment at Roberts-Arundel. Only heavy pressure from the unions ended this particular bit of “not taking sides”. Later, when Cox raised wages far above the “nil-norm”, the Ministry again did not intervene. The firm was allowed to get away with murder time and again. But who would have expected anything else, after the four glorious years of this Government?

[4] This event was but one of the things that marked out John Tocher’s remarkable role in the dispute. Who ever heard of a fulltime official doing such a thing? At the time this pamphlet was written, this story could not be told, for obvious reasons.

[5] John Boyd’s charge was given wide publicity in the press, and some union members even believed it. What in fact happened was that, because not one other union organised a levy among its members, the AEU men signed for much more strike pay than they actually received. The whole amount each week was divided among all the men, regardless of their union. Not once did strike pay per man get even as high as £20 a week, despite Boyd’s lurid tales to the press.

[6] The AEU had amalgamated with the Foundrymen’s union to form the AEF.

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