From Labour Review, Volume 5, No. 1, February–March 1960, pages 15-19.
Transcribed & marked up by Ted Crawford & D. Walters for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL) in 2009.
The strike of Dining Car workers during October, 1959, demonstrated to all trade unionists the power and scope of rank-and-file action and leadership. It also showed the necessity for an overall and unified strategy for railway workers in struggle. In one week this strike spread from region to region on the railways, uniting Dining Car workers from as far apart as Edinburgh and Bournemouth behind a demand that had the support not only of great numbers of railwaymen but of other workers up and down the country.
A brief history of the developments which led up to this strike exposes the role of trade union leaders who in negotiations with the bosses accept agreements and conditions which are directly opposed to the wishes of their members.
At the Annual General Meeting of the National Union of Railwaymen held in Blackpool during July, 1959, a resolution, No. 96d, was carried unanimously by the 77 delegates representing over 355,000 railway workers. The resolution stated that:
‘This A.G.M. expresses concern at reports that under the Modernization Plan a number of trains will be replaced by trains with Pullman Service and staffed by Pullman car staff. We demand from the B.T.C. that any new Pullman trains operating on British Railways shall be operated by the B.T.C. and manned by B.T.C. staff, and further we instruct the Executive Committee to work for the abolition of Pullman Car Services operating on British Railways and their assimilation into the Hotels and Catering Services of British Transport.’
Three months later, on Friday, October 16, the N.U.R. National Executive Committee decided that it would ‘amend’ this policy in view of the fact that certain of its demands had been conceded by the Pullman Car Company.
This change of line was a slap in the face to members of the N.U.R., particularly those who had campaigned for the policy accepted at the Annual General Meeting. A concession on a secondary point in the demands of the Union became an excuse to ‘amend’ the policy as a whole. But instead of merely condemning the N.E.C. in angry resolutions as so often happened in the past, 2,000 workers came out on strike and were roused to a display of militancy not seen on the railways for 30 years.
THE PULLMAN COMPANY THREAT
The British Railways modernization plan included the introduction of luxury Pullman Car trains, notably between Manchester Central and London St. Pancras in the London Midland region. These trains, which would carry only first-class passengers, were to be manned by Pullman Car workers whose rates of pay and conditions were considerably worse than those of British Railways dining car staff. For example, a cook working for the Pullman Car Company had a basic wage which was 30s. a week less than his opposite number on British Railways. In addition he also worked a 52-hour week and did not enjoy the same privileges as men employed by British Railways. The Pullman Car Company is in essence a private company. The equity capital is held by the British Transport Commission, but fixed charges and interest on Preference Shares are paid to private individuals before any profit is made. The Pullman Car Company is also separately constituted within the B.T.C.
As early as March last year, opposition to the introduction of the Manchester-London Pullman express had been expressed by the N.U.R. Manchester and District Council. They warned that they would ‘make a determined stand against catering on a new Manchester-London express being done by an outside firm’. However, Dining Car workers made their position quite clear. They were not opposed to the introduction of luxury trains as such, but they were against the employment of workers whose conditions were worse than their own and who were sacked for being active members of a trade union, as were members of the Clapham Junction Branch of the N.U.R. Oliver Bates, secretary of the Manchester dining car strike committee, in an interview with The Newsletter on October 31, stated: ‘We have no fight with the Pullman car lads and we say, if the B.T.C. want to introduce luxury trains then we will work them alongside the Pullman lads who should, in our opinion, be working for the B.T.C.’ Moreover, the introduction of one Pullman train was seen as a prelude to further encroachment and a threat to the jobs and conditions of B.R. dining car workers.
This threat was obvious when certain facts in relation to the workings of the Pullman Car Co. became known. In the Southern Region, for example, where the Pullman Car Co. were operating with only single cars in a train, they had lost over £55,000 in 1958. On the other hand trains such as the ‘Golden Arrow’ and the ‘Belles’, with exclusive Pullman catering, yielded a high profit. It was upon this type of train that they intended to base their operations for the future. As for the others, it can be assumed that they had no opposition to the B.T.C. taking them over—to operate, of course, at a loss. In reward for such generosity the B.T.C. would build five luxury trains at a cost of £1_ million to be operated by the Pullman Car Co. The only obstacle to this move, lay in resolution No. 96d carried at the N.U.R. Annual General Meeting. Once this was removed, then the way lay open for the Pullman Car Co. to establish a firm foothold in the B.T.C. train catering services.
Consequently an agreement was reached between the N.U.R. and the Pullman Car Co., in which a parity of rates and conditions was to be established between B.T.C. dining car staff and those of the Pullman Car Co. These concessions, which would cost the Pullman Car Co. £25,000 a year, were made on the understanding that all opposition to the further extension of Pullman services was to be dropped by the N.U.R. Thus the policy of 355,000 railway workers was ‘amended’ and Sidney Greene reported back to his members his confidence ‘that they would be well satisfied with the outcome of these negotiations’. Five days later Dining Car workers in Manchester and London came out on strike to express their satisfaction.
THE COURSE OF THE STRIKE
It was immediately obvious that this was no ordinary strike. In it the pent-up feelings of thousands of railway workers were expressed, and the fact that Sidney Greene came in for the biggest onslaught was most significant. At Manchester strike pickets chatted amiably with local officials of the Management and co-operated in seeing that perishable foods were taken off the trains. This attitude demonstrated that the strikers didn’t have, at this stage, any difference with the B.T.C. The real enemy was in Unity House, headquarters of the N.U.R.
With their experience of sellouts over pay claims, the most recent being the 3 per cent. in May, 1958, and the lack of any decisive leadership in their current pay claim, railway workers were unanimous in their condemnation of the N.U.R. leadership. More important, it was clear to most that this wasn’t a strike against ‘the Management’ but against the Union leadership and against years of retreat and class-collaboration.
The ground for the strike had been carefully prepared. Staff Councils, which are joint negotiating bodies consisting of representatives elected by their fellow workers, became the organizing bodies for the strike and formed the strike committees once the strike was on. Members of the Councils led a campaign in the depots and on the Dining Cars, meetings were held and the call for strike action endorsed. Typical of these preparations was the appeal made by Ken Wiggett, Chairman of the Manchester Dining Car Strike Committee, at a meeting of rank-and-file shop-men and carriage and wagon workers in Manchester, who were responsible, for maintenance of the Dining Cars. After he had put forward the views of the Dining Car workers, the delegates carried a resolution to ‘black’ all Dining Cars for the duration of the strike, in order to ensure that no ‘scab’ cars would run.
This was typical of the support that was to come. By the second day the strike had spread to all the Southern and Scottish regions, and a Central Strike Committee was set up in London. On this Committee were rank-and-file representatives of all the areas out on strike. In the first week the main work was to consolidate the strike, but by the end of the week it was obvious that for any large-scale offensive to be waged against Greene and the N.E.C. the stoppage would have to be spread to other railwaymen. No efforts had been made at Unity House by Evans, the N.U.R. President, or Greene to convene a meeting of the N.E.C. to discuss the matter. In fact on Friday, October 31, the entire N.E.C. went home for the week-end. When this news was given to the men on strike there were scenes reminiscent of the lynch-mobs in American Westerns! Things were said about Bros. Greene and Evans that were hardly fit to be written down even in a policeman’s note book. On the same day a meeting was arranged to take place in London at the St. Pancras Town Hall at which a call would be made by the Central Strike Committee for support from other grades. Along with this a demonstration was staged outside Unity House; at the head of this demonstration went a coffin on which was written the words ‘Dining Car Workers—Sold out by Sid!’
At last, when every B.T.C. Dining Car had stopped, the N.U.R. National Executive instructed Greene to ask the strikers’ representatives to meet the N.U.R. Negotiating Committee. The two bodies met on Wednesday, November 4, and a settlement was reached. An interpretation was given as to what was meant by ‘amended’ policy, agreed as follows:
(1) That the three additional Pullman Car trains should be manned by B.T.C. Hotels and Catering Services staff, and that there shall not be any further extension of Pullman Car Services without agreement with this union. (2) Full parity of conditions of service in all respects, including machinery of negotiation. (3) Complete assimilation of the Pullman and B.T.C. staff and services. (4) That the existing Pullman Car Services, be absorbed within the framework of the B.T.C. Hotels and Catering Services for all managerial and administrative purposes.
WHAT WAS GAINED
What lessons are to be learnt by railway workers from this strike?
Firstly, the conditions under which the strike took place are of great importance. Learning from the railwaymen’s failure in the past to take action against the leadership’s constant retreat, the leaders of the strike agreed that this was not just a question of the extension of Pullman cars. The prospects of larger struggles, against redundancy and for better wages, were at stake here. Over the years a succession of general secretaries and N.E.C.s had retreated from a strong position in wage demands. They had always managed to secure a compromise and pass it off as a victory. As a result, strike threats were withdrawn and workers who were preparing for a struggle were let down.
The acceptance of the notorious 3 per cent. pay increase which left the London busmen high and dry only added fuel to an already healthy fire under Sidney Greene. Since then an application for a pay increase had been lost somewhere in the cogs and wheels of the negotiating machinery and an ‘independent’ pay inquiry had been going for so long that its existence was almost forgotten. On top of this the threat of redundancy on the railway was at the back of everyone’s mind. The prospects, then, of having to stage a fight in the future were imminent.
The Dining Car strike was above all part of the preparation for this struggle. Victory cannot be counted only in terms of what was actually gained. The fact is that by their action these workers succeeded in achieving what others had failed to do in the past, that is, to halt a leadership in retreat. The comments of workers who were on strike bear this out. Hardly anyone was completely satisfied with the actual concessions from Unity House, but great satisfaction was achieved from the fact that a tremendous dent had been made in the armour of Greene and the Right-wing.
In some important ways, therefore, this strike provides a blueprint for further struggles. The only weakness was the failure to bring other grades out into the open and involve them in the struggle.
The value of a rank-and-file leadership which has no fear of losing positions and is in constant touch with the broad mass of feeling has proved to be immense. At all times the strikers drew strength from the fact that they could decide the outcome of the struggle and could make direct appeals to other workers for their support. The conviction that the future of all railway workers was involved cut through all the confusion about who owned the Pullman Car Co. and whether it was right to strike against your own leaders.
THE COMMUNIST PARTY’S ROLE
The most powerful grouping of militants in the N.U.R. consists of members of the Communist Party and its sympathizers. They hold many positions and control numerous branches. This is to their credit, and those who used their positions to give more than moral support to the meetings in Manchester of the district council of strikers acted in the most commendable way. However, we must judge not by superficial appearances but by actions. The fact that the the N.U.R. and the mass meeting at the St. Pancras Town Hall did not succeed in extending the strike was not the result of lack of rank-and-file support.
In Manchester in March the Manchester district council had stated that they would make a ‘determined’ stand. Could a resolution calling on Greene to convene a special general meeting be termed as a determined stand? A call from the Manchester district council would have stopped the railways in Manchester within 12 hours, such was the support. Instead nothing more than a pious resolution was passed. We need make no secret of the fact that on the Manchester district council there are a large number of members of the Communist Party and an even larger number of people who will continually pass ‘militant’ resolutions; yet in spite of this no call was made for an extension. No doubt Sidney Greene breathed more easily after that.
In London, centre of Communist Party strength on the railways, a mass meeting of over 400 railway workers endorsed a recommendation of the central strike committee to ‘black all Restaurant Car services including Pullmans’. The meeting also called for the ‘full support of all members of the N.U.R.’ This left open the interpretation of ‘full support’. The Daily Worker of November 3 carried the headline ‘Black all Diners’ and in the same article reported the calling of a meeting by the Manchester Strike Committee, stating that the purpose of the meeting was to ‘win branches for the resolution passed on Sunday by the union’s M.D.C’. The fact was that the meeting had been called to ask branches for open support by coming out on strike. This is not merely a discrepancy in Daily Worker reporting but reflects the attitude of the Communist Party to a whole number of recent strikes. It shows their lack of confidence in the working class, characteristic of the policy of the Communist Party in all sorts of spheres, from ‘peaceful coexistence’ to the concentration on winning positions in trade unions.
Those workers who join the Communist Party because they see it as a means of fighting capitalism soon find their energies being used up in activities which are decided on, not by themselves, but by the Party higher-ups. For those in the railway unions this activity takes the form of capturing positions. The usefulness of these positions of course depends entirely upon the part played by the men who occupy them.
THE LESSON FOR THE FUTURE
We have begun by placing the Dining Car strike in its background. Let us now look at the possibilities which existed in the strike for raising the level of class-consciousness of railway workers. The argument is often put forward that railway workers are apathetic, divided and weak. No matter how true this is, the fact remains that if a fight is to be waged then the tasks confronting those who at this particular stage are the most advanced is always to prepare and educate others in the need for struggle. Many workers who criticize the policies of the Labour Party leadership fail to see any way to organize opposition to change their policy. In the same way, thousands of railway workers see the failure of Greene, Hallsworth and Webber to organize a fight against the threat to their jobs and conditions, and know it is a betrayal, but do not organize and prepare for rank-and-file action.
The Dining Car strike provided the background for both advanced elements and the broad mass of railway workers to draw lessons and enrich their experiences. A tremendous step forward against the Right-wing and the Tories could have been taken. Even a small group of politically-conscious workers could have taken advantage of this situation. But the Communist Party failed completely to measure up to the tasks; there was no campaign for solidarity action in the branches. Members of the Communist Party on the N.E.C. could have come out in the open and led such action and demonstrated their value as leaders to the workers who had elected them. Such actions would not have put them at the mercy of the Right-wing as is argued but instead increased their support amongst the rank and file. The fact that they resort to such arguments really means that they have no faith in the working class, and so the Right-wing can buy them off.
A Marxist view of the strike begins from very different considerations. Railways workers are an important part of the class that will smash capitalism and unless they are made to see their real strength they will take beatings in the future which will not only set back railway workers but will damage the development of the whole working class.
The fact that concessions were won in relation to the N.U.R.’s policy on Pullman Cars is important, but the fact also that the strike was led by rank-and-file leaders who were in a position all through it to draw in wider sections, is of more lasting significance. Compare this to the role of official leaders, who always carefully avoid spreading strikes. The London busmen and the printing workers are victims of such leadership.
The role of the rank-and-file leadership in the Dining Car strike must pose a real question to members of the Communist Party and others who represent workers. Will they continue to put all their hopes in getting majorities in the leading committees of trade unions, or will they work rather for the power of a conscious working class linked together at rank-and-file level, able to go into the struggle fully prepared and with the knowledge that they possess the power to win?
Lastly, the fact that the Manchester leaders of the Dining Car strike associated themselves with the National Assembly of Labour, organized by the Socialist Labour League, shows that this section of workers is open to Marxist ideas and is not in any way put off by anti-red witch-hunts and talk of keeping politics out of trade union affairs. At the National Assembly of Labour, convened by the Socialist Labour League, there was a convergence of different streams of political and industrial militants, all with a contribution to make. The fact that the Dining Car strike was represented highlighted its relationship to the development of the working class as a whole.
Last updated on 1 October 2009