Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History

The Apprentices’ Struggle of 1937

The reports of the Minneapolis Truck Drivers’ Strike of 1934, which I read at the time, were a big inspiration and help to me in advising the Clyde apprentices in 1937. This was shown in the emphasis on the authority of the Central Strike Committee. The main slogan, “All out together, all back together”, was suggested to me by the oldest member of the Leninist League, Hugh Esson, an early member of the Communist Party and an experienced trade unionist and shop steward. It was and should be the axiom of all strikes: the non-observance of this principle was one of the contributory causes of the British miners’ defeat in their 1984-85 strike.

Hugh was responsible for the formula “All negotiations to be based on the demands of the strike. No victimisation. The right of the union to represent apprentices. Increased wages.”

Looking at the reports of the two strikes after more than 50 years, I am struck by the differences between them. Although they emphasise ‘organisation’, only the apprentices give the ‘democratic bare bones of their organisation’. The Minneapolis strike report refers somewhere to a central committee of 100. How that was elected we are not told. I suspect we have here a sign of the tendency in the USA for shop stewards to be not so much delegates from the shop floor as representatives and dues collectors for the unions. In Britain this is the case de jure but not de facto. We have had here recently the shop stewards committee at Ford’s turning down and conducting a successful strike against a decision arrived at by the union leaders and the management.

This difference in the character of the shop organisations may be one of the reasons for the widespread victory of gangsters in the US unions. (Between 1957 and 1983, three of the Teamsters’ presidents, Beck, Hoffa and Williams, were convicted on criminal charges). It is also, I believe, one of the main reasons for the low number of trade unionists in the USA, where only 19½% per cent of workers are in unions. In Britain, even after the drop in employment and union membership, it is approximately 49% per cent.

A not unimportant result of all this is that real wages in the USA have dropped in the last three years, whilst in Britain they have kept slightly ahead of inflation. The 300,000 shop stewards in Britain is evidence that workers’ democracy is not just an ideal to be expressed in a paragraph in a party programme, but a fighting force that brings results. That was one of the important lessons of the 1937 apprentices’ strike.

The following article on the apprentices’ strike is taken from the Workers News Bulletin, Vol.7 No.5, 14 May 1960, which was published weekly for several years during the 1960s by the Workers League, a British Marxist organisation. One of its members, Dennis Levin, had been a member of the Leninist League and had carried out revolutionary work in factories in Coventry during the Second World War. Although I agreed with many of its positions, I did not join it myself because of its opposition to the United Front tactic as applied to the Labour Party.

Ernest Rogers

As one who played a part in the original apprentices’ strike of 1937, an account of the organisation and aims of the 1937 struggle in comparison with that of the present may be of some value. I write from memory, on the basis of very inadequate reports of the current struggle, and at a distance from the Clydeside.

It was in March 1937 when I heard from my political group – the Leninist League, that about a hundred apprentices had come out on strike at the Fairfield Yard and were to meet the next morning. It was suggested that I should get down there and give them a hand.

Next morning, the foundation of the strike organisation was laid; delegates from each trade in the yard to form a yard or shop committee, a delegate from each year or shop to constitute the Clydeside Apprentices’ Central Committee, which was solely responsible for the starting or stopping of the strike in that area, an executive of 12 or 14 to be elected from the Central Committee. These were the democratic bare bones of the strike. Its animating spirit was expressed in the programme of demands and the firm belief of all those involved that they could only rely on their own efforts.

Without this belief there could have been no strike. Willie Shaw, organiser of the Glasgow Trades Council and the District Organisers of the various trade unions involved, all said the same: “Go back to work and we will see what we can do.” The apprentices replied: “You have tried for 40 years to get the right to represent the apprentices and failed, we shall stay out and see what we can do ourselves.” The Communist Party pamphlet on the apprentices’ strike, issued in 1937, lyingly asserted that the apprentices had received the official support of the unions right from the beginning.

The conditions in which the strike originated were those of extreme exploitation of youth. Apprentices’ wages on the Clydeside had not altered since the 1880s. Many received 5 shillings per week in the first year and 30 shillings in the last year of their apprenticeship. Fourth and fifth year apprentices had to do jobs in the yards which, if done by journeymen, would not only have entailed the full trade rate but also dirty and danger money. There was also the widespread custom when a man had served his time at a firm, of sacking him and replacing him with a couple more apprentices.

The Indenture system, a relic of the small medieval guilds, was used by the large capitalist firms as a source of cheap labour.

The slogan of the strike was: “All out together, all back together.” All negotiations to be based on the following demands: “No victimisation. The right of the union to represent apprentices. Increased wages.”

In ten days the strike was 100 per cent on the Clydeside. There were 10,000 apprentices who issued their own strike paper. Large meetings of several thousand strikers were held to receive the reports of the Central Committee. They were the best organised meetings I have ever attended. A representative of each yard stood with his back to the platform, facing his yard or shop group to make sure his section maintained order. You could have heard a pin drop as the Executive explained that they were going to have “law and order”, the “law and order” of the apprentices’ Central Committee.

In spite of the opposition of the district officials, the District Committees of the Confederation of Shipbuilding Unions called a one day token strike on 16 April in support of the apprentices – 80,000 came out in what was one of the biggest demonstrations of class solidarity since the General Strike of 1926.

Although the strikers had to return to work after six weeks out, a revolt of the youth swept right through industrial Britain and the employers were forced to concede the right of the unions to negotiate for the apprentices, boys and youths – although this concession still does not apply to Indentured apprentices. Wage increases were also granted and it was agreed that the wages of the junior male workers were to fluctuate on a national basis and in a fixed proportion to those of adults.

Jack Little, the President of the AEU, in his address to the National Committee in 1938, said:

I am not unmindful of the part that Glasgow played in this accomplishment. I believe that had that demonstration not taken place, we would have been exactly where we were in connection with this matter. This is an achievement which I regard as an epic in the history of trade unionism ...

An attempt was made to consolidate the unity of the 1937 struggle in a more permanent form. I quote from a document which was circulated after the strike:

The strike is ended. Whatever may be said about the resumption of work, this has emerged clearly from the struggle. The apprentices must have a permanent organisation to look after their own particular interests, an organisation which will preserve the magnificent solidarity and ability revealed in the strike, and, at the same time will not cut across the present trade unions and thus endanger the status of apprentices when they become journeymen.

The document then went on to outline a permanent organisation based on that of the strike period. Unfortunately this organisation was not achieved.

The present Apprentices’ Strike Committee has managed to spread the strike much further and more quickly amongst the youth than that of 1937, but they do not seem, so far, to have had the same effect on the adult workers.

The basis of unity with adult workers is the struggle against the use of women and youth as cheap labour. It is imperative that the strike place in the forefront of its programme the demand for the rate for the job irrespective of age or sex. Also the scrapping of the Indenture system, and its replacement by a minimum guaranteed two days off with pay, for attendance at Technical Colleges and Schools for all learners in industry.

The 1937 struggle showed the ability of the youth to unite industrially, cutting across all craft differences and with complete confidence in their own organisation, to fight, and fight successfully, against the bosses, achieving what the unions failed to achieve during 40 years of negotiation. If it were possible to do this in a period of large scale unemployment, it should be possible now, in a period of ‘boom’ to do to the employers' organisations what they have always attempted to do to the workers’ organisations during slumps: smash up their organisation, tear up the National Agreements, scrap the protracted York procedure, using the national trade union machinery to secure advantageous terms from local individual firms.

(The increased wages and reduced hours secured at Ford’s, mainly with the aid of a strong shop stewards committee, are an example of what can be done in this direction.)

The political and trade union leadership in Britain does not begin to measure up to the situation. It is devoid of the two most essential factors for leadership, a belief in the force of the working class and clarity of vision. This is revealed in the irrelevant dog fight between Roman Catholics and Stalinists in the trades unions which threatens to reduce the unions in this country to the impotent position of trades unionism in France.

The revolt of youth in 1960 brings fresh blood in the struggle against these tired, querulous, bankrupt and dangerous old men and can mean new victories for the working class.

Ernest Rogers

Updated by ETOL: 5.7.2003