Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

Choosing the moment

(July 1958)

From The Newsletter, 12 July 1958.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

THE growth of unemployment in the engineering trades, and the prospect of renewed clashes with the employers in industry generally, are turning the minds of many of the older generation among engineers back to the great lock-out of 1922 and the lessons to be drawn from it.

The leadership of the Amalgamated Engineering Union having missed several opportunities to challenge the bosses in favourable circumstances, was eventually forced to give battle when unemployment had grown into a grave menace and union funds were heavily depleted.

Defeat was followed by systematic victimization of militants. My father was at one time a member of the old Steam Engine Makers’ Society, which was absorbed into the AEU, and I remember friends of his still in the trade, who after the lock out had to travel all over the country looking for jobs, everywhere coming up against the employers’ ‘black list’.

March 1922 was a classic example of the need to avoid letting the capitalists choose the time and circumstances for a show-down.

If the union had reacted in April 1921, when the first threats’ began, the outcome of the fight might, have, been very different; the depression was then in it’s early stage, and the engineers’ lock-out would then have coincided with the miners’ strike.

Rank-and-file committees

In such a situation, ‘Black Friday’ might never have occurred. As it was, during the lockout the National Council of Labour, with ‘Black Friday’ behind it, devoted itself not to developing support for the engineers but to attempts at mediation.

There is a good account of the lockout in the official Story of the Engineers by James Jeffreys (1945).

He says nothing, however, about the beginnings of ‘Minority Movement’ activity by militant workers in engineering during this dispute, though he does indicate the important role played by rank-and-file committees and the aid given by the organized unemployed in preventing blacklegging.

Reproduced in the book is the famous cartoon showing a starving family in the background with in the foreground an engineer asking; ‘Must I work overtime while my mate and his family starve of want of work?’

Control of overtime was one of the issues in dispute. One of the demands in a programme drawn up in 1938 by Marxists was for reduction of working hours (without reduction of wages) in proportion as unemployment increases. This is likely to become a live issue again in the near future.

Whispering campaigns

I mentioned recently, during the bus strike, hearing somebody who should have known better (and possibly did) shooting a line about sympathetic and general strikes being illegal.

Since then I have heard the same thing from other quarters, and friends tell me they have had similar experiences.

No doubt this is a ‘line’ being put out from some Right-wing centre in the Labour Party or trade union-movement – just as Stalinist leaders seem to have been spreading the story that The Newsletter and Labour Review are financed by the US Embassy.

The Labour Government of 1945–51 left undone a lot of things it ought to have done, we can all agree: but let’s not let anyone forget that it did repeal the 1927 Trades Disputes Act.

According to Gollan

It is always interesting to read what the British communist leaders write for Soviet newspaper readers – a captive audience where information about Britain is concerned. John Gollan reviews the current political scene for them in Pravda of June 22.

He begins by praising the Declaration of the 64 Parties, goes on to report that the communist leadership in Britain unanimously condemn the Yugoslavs for their ‘revisionism’ (in particular for suggesting that the Soviet Union should be guilty of aggression), and at last gets around to the movement against the H-bomb.

Though the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament is mentioned in passing, nothing is said about the Aldermaston march; on the other hand a paragraph is devoted to the Communist organised marches to the American bases.

The big issue, it appears, is summit talks, and around this the party is developing mass unity.

Somewhat patronising mention of ‘Victory for Socialism’ is qualified by the statement that only in unity with the. Communist Party can Left-wing movements in the Labour Party achieve success.

As always, the party programme, The British Road to Socialism is translated into Russian as Britain’s Road to Socialism. This helps to prevent awkward questions arising such as if a British road why not a Polish road, or a Yugoslav road?

Last updated on 11.10.2011