Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

When Rank and File Won Shorter Hours

(August 1959)

From The Newsletter, 15 August 1959.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

As the movement for the 40-hour week develops, trade union officials tell us that rank-and-file initiative means ruin.

Presumably they are banking on their listeners’ having forgotten how the crucial battle for the nine-hour day was won by the engineers – though this is the classic example of a victorious fight by British workers for shorter hours.

It was in 1871, when engineers worked up to 60 hours a week, that the Nine Hours League arose on the north-east coast. A purely rank-and-file movement, it brought out the engineering workers in Sunderland in April of that year, in complete disregard of the stick-in-the-mud officialdom of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers.

The society’s executive council hastened to call a meeting of the district committee, which the general secretary attended in person, to condemn ‘the hasty action of a few members ... which precipitated the strike’.

Despite one of the largest Sunderland firms having already given in, they appointed a deputation to meet the local employers and negotiate a settlement.

Employers gave in

The employers offered to introduce the nine-hour day on June 1, and the official deputation accepted this.

But the strike committee, backed by a mass meeting of the men, refused to agree, and within a week the employers had given in: the nine-hour day was introduced in Sunderland on May 2.

That same day, a struggle for the same demand began, still under rank-and-file leadership, in Newcastle. There the fight was tougher, but after five months complete victory was won.

Only after the strike had been on for seven weeks did the union’s executive bestir itself sufficiently to organize collections in aid of the strikers; but there was much solidarity through unofficial channels.

International solidarity

An attempt by the employers to bring in scabs from abroad was met by an appeal from the strikers to Karl Marx’s International Workingmen’s Association.

The latter sent representatives both to the works where foreign workers had been taken on and to the countries where they were being recruited, to explain the situation, and soon the employers found themselves deprived of the foreign labour they had relied on to break the strike.

The engineers who won the nine-hour day in 1871 were as unafraid of taking the help of an ‘extremist political organization’ as they were contemptuous of officials’ attempts to suppress rank-and-file initiative.

And so they won their historic battle, to the advantage of all sections of their class.

A fuller account of this episode will be found in the official history of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, The Story of the Engineers, by James B. Jeffreys (1945).

They are wonderful

Our ruling class has a technique for disposing of awkward questions by appointing Royal Commissions to sit on them until public concern has blown over.

This was applied, for instance, when the Metropolitan Police came under criticism for ‘third degree’ methods in the Savidge case in 1928.

An elderly man and a young woman went into Hyde Park. Soon afterwards two policemen pounced on them and they were charged with improper conduct.

When they appeared in court the magistrate found the evidence so flimsy that he not only dismissed the case but awarded substantial damages against the police. The magistrate’s comments led to the question of a charge of perjury against the policemen concerned being raised.

Grilled for five hours

A policeman then called on the young woman in the case, a Miss Savidge, at the factory where she worked, and took her to Scotland Yard.

There, as she afterwards told a Labour MP, she was grilled for five hours by what were then spoken of as ‘American’ methods, in an effort to get from her a confession incriminating herself and her companion in the park.

When Tom Johnston raised the matter on the adjournment in the House of Commons, the Tory government of the day appointed a tribunal to investigate. The majority report of this tribunal exonerated the police, and was widely characterized as ‘whitewash’.

So a Royal Commission on Police Powers was set up. It reported in the following year that no important changes were needed – by which time most people had forgotten about the original case and its implications. Which was, of course, the object of the exercise.

The Royal Commission trick does not always come off as the government of the day wishes, of course; but it has succeeded all too often.

Free hand for another MacDonald?

Gaitskell’s blunt declaration recently that a Labour government would not be bound by conference decisions of the Labour Party has come as a shock to some party members.

In 1932, after the educative experience with MacDonald, the Labour Party conference resolved to subject any future Labour prime minister to conference decisions and to national executive committee guidance between conferences.

That was in a period when Left-wing trends were on the upgrade in the party. After two or three years, however, for reasons which are worth studying today, the Right recovered its ascendancy – making possible the Tory victory at the 1935 election and the subsequent continuation of Tory rule into the outbreak of war in 1939.

When the post-1931 mood had been successfully dissipated, the idea of democratic party control over a Labour government was ‘tacitly dropped’, as Attlee puts it in his As It Happened (1954).

Last updated on 12.10.2011