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Pete Glatter

London Busmen:
Rise and Fall of a Rank & File Movement

(January 1975)

From International Socialism, No.74, January 1975, pp.5-11.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


THE LONDON Busmen’s Rank and File Movement is a unique example of mass organisation in the workplace. It never grew into a general opposition movement like the Minority Movement, its immediate forerunner. But the Minority Movement had little organised base in the factories despite its size and influence. The busmen’s movement, on the other hand, led the biggest strikes of the thirties, had organised groups in the garages, won key positions in the union, issued its own mass circulation paper and literature and functioned independently of the union bureaucracy for five years. Bevin, TGWU General Secretary, called it ‘an internal breakaway’.

The Communist Party never controlled the movement but it did provide some of its leaders. The party adopted the policy of building rank and file movements in 1932 during a brief pause in a lurch from left to right. ‘Left’ had meant breakaway red unions and attacks on ‘social fascism’ (the Labour Party). This had helped kill off the Minority Movement and had left the Communist Party without an industrial base. Right was to mean ‘The People’s Front Against Fascism’, or as a Labour Party left put it, ‘trying to help Labour to win a majority in Parliament’. [1] Such zig-zags crippled the Communist Party’s resistance to mass unemployment, wage cuts, rationalisation, falling union membership and the brutal victimisation of militants by employers and union leaders.

In those days, the London busmen had relatively good wages and conditions. They were organised in garage branches (each sending a delegate to a monthly conference) and had quite a militant history. Bevin had separated them from the rest of the passenger transport trade group after a successful bus and tram strike had brought London to a halt in 1924. The London Bus Section had the exceptional status of a national trade group with its own full-time secretary directly under the executive. In 1929, Bevin began to accuse the Communist Party and the Minority Movement of stirring up disputes on the buses. But the Communist Party had no more than a dozen busmen in January 1932, when the London General Omnibus Company (LGOC) decided to impose a 1/- wage cut.

The Battle Against the Cuts

THE COMMUNIST Party members got the one union branch where they had influence to pass a resolution against the cuts and to circulate this round the fleet with a call for a mass meeting. This tactic gave form to the busmen’s awakening resistance. As a result of the mass meeting, a growing number of branches endorsed the resolution. Before long the whole fleet stood for rejection and the men’s resentment became so strong that the LGOC was forced to withdraw their terms. The Communist Party recruited in five or six garages and its monthly duplicated paper, The Busman’s Punch, grew rapidly from 1,500 to 8,000 copies.

After a pause to allow the feeling to die down, the company again proposed modified cuts. The officials dragged out the dispute through spring into summer. Word leaked out that Bevin and the Central Bus Committee (CBC) were reaching an agreement with the company behind the busmen’s backs. The tramwaymen accepted a wage cut on the understanding that a similar cut had been agreed with the busmen. On 31 July, the LGOC announced the proposed dismissal of 800 men. Numerous mass meetings threatening strikes forced the company to postpone the dismissals within a few days. On 10 August, Bert Papworth, secretary of Putney branch, called a conference of garage delegates for the 12th. Papworth had been working with the Communist Party for ten years and had just won the union’s silver medal for recruiting 170 new members. The conference represented about half the garages. It attacked Bevin and the CBC, called for mass meetings in the garages and set up a Rank and File Committee to run the campaign against the cuts.

The R&F Committee issued tens of thousands of leaflets and pamphlets among the busmen and the public over the next few weeks. It organised a series of mass meetings culminating in big demonstrations in central London. Its supporters picketed the official delegate conferences. Hundreds of pounds flowed into the campaign fund. ‘In one area, an underground branch called mass meetings and united with tram and bus branches to form a joint committee to prepare action against the cuts.’ [2] Bevin was caught off balance. ‘No section of the union causes me so much trouble as the busmen,’ he complained.

The CBC held a ballot which rejected the modified cuts by 16,500 to 4000 despite the official recommendation to accept. On 30 August, a mass deputation of busmen invaded Transport House and forced their delegate conference to listen to their demands. The conference voted by 51 to 7 that the executive should authorise strike action from 23 September, the day the cuts were due to come into force.

Bevin quickly persuaded the company to make a number of concessions – ‘no doubt fearing that the militants might take control completely’ [3]: no wage cuts, no redundancies, maximum time on duty reduced from nine to eight hours and increased payments for Sunday duties. To get them, the busmen would have to accept the principle of speed-up, which was the main item on the LGOC’s rationalisation programme. In this way Bevin was able to outflank the R&F Committee which had neglected the issue of speed-up in its eagerness to defeat the cuts. He squeezed the draft ‘Speed’ agreement through a delegate conference by eight votes four days before the strike deadline.

Outside the conference, one of the R&F leaders told a mass meeting, ‘It is one thing to secure the acceptance of speeded schedules at this conference and quite another to actually operate those speeded schedules.’ After an eight month battle the company had been forced to withdraw its wage cuts and redundancies completely and to concede a couple of improvements. For a rank and file movement only a few months old and without formal organisation it was a big success.

The Strike Against Speed

THE NEW movement prepared itself for the coming struggle at a conference held a couple of weeks after the speed settlement. Union branches were invited to affiliate and set up R&F garage committees, each sending six representatives to the monthly meeting of the central R&F committee. This closely followed the official union structure. The central R&F committee elected an organising committee which controlled the day-today running of the movement and an editorial committee for The Busman’s Punch which was taken over from the Communist Party. Three of the five members of the organising committee were in the Communist Party and all of them paid tribute to the Daily Worker’s support during the dispute. The movement pledged itself to fight within the union against wage-cuts, redundancies and speed and for the closed shop, the 7-hour day and the election of all union officials.

Soon after, one of the Communist Party members of the organising committee won a seat on the CBC, beating his nearest rival by 1,100 votes to 500. The movement also led a successful strike in a small independent garage. But the main issue was the fight against the speeded-up schedules which the LGOC was trying to introduce garage by garage. In the three months following the settlement, seven local garage actions successfully resisted the new schedules. As the R&F committee had predicted, the company was finding it almost impossible to put the speed agreement into effect.

Then, on 17 January 1933, the LGOC posted drastically speeded-up schedules for a route in Forest Gate garage which was known to carry the heaviest traffic in the world. This time the company refused to back down. By midnight the 500 busmen in the garage were on strike. A 300-strong picket made sure that none of the buses went out. Next day, R&F representatives addressed the strikers, several hundred of whom then marched to Upton Park, the neighbouring garage, and brought out a further 1,100 men. The strike spread rapidly as the R&F movement persuaded one union branch after another to call mass meetings on the issue.

Within four days, 26 garages covering nearly 13,000 busmen – over half the fleet – were on strike. Workers at three tramway depots came out in sympathy in defiance of the 1927 Trades Disputes Act which made sympathy strikes illegal and punishable by fines and imprisonment. Tube workers at Morden also voted to strike.

‘In almost every case, in spite of the unofficial character of the strike, in spite of the furious campaign of the capitalist press against the strikers and in defiance of the repeated orders of the reformist union officials to remain at work and their refusal to pay strike benefit, the strike decision, once taken in a particular garage was loyally observed by the men, and in no case did more than three or four buses leave the garages affected.’ [4]

The TGWU executive issued a statement declaring that it was ‘unable to recognise the strike’ as it required its members to ‘observe agreements made on their behalf’. Another significant statement was issued by Lord Ashfield, chairman of the LGOC. ‘In this strike,’ it ran, ‘we stand in the same position as the union leaders.’

On the sixth day, representatives from the striking garages met on the initiative of the R&F movement and decided to send a deputation to the union’s head office. The deputation demanded an immediate meeting of the executive to consider the withdrawal of the Forest Gate schedules and a guarantee against victimisation. The union leaders and the CBC met on the spot, despite their official attitude, and accepted these terms.

Immediately after the strike, the Forest Gate schedules were improved so much that the strikers were saying, ‘It would have been worth a three months’ strike to win such schedules.’ Schedules in other garages which had been a cause of dispute for months were suddenly revised. There were no victimisations. The growing influence of the R&F movement was reflected in the circulation of The Busman’s Punch which leaped to 10,000 copies a month.

George Renshaw, one of the Communist Party’s London organisers, explained how the strike was important ‘not alone for the successes gained, but also for the weaknesses displayed’. Chief among these was the rank and file leadership’s delay in establishing ‘an authoritative central strike leadership’. This

‘was the principal factor in causing doubts and hesitations to arise, and is undoubtedly the reason why only a partial strike was achieved and why larger numbers of tramwaymen and tube workers were not brought into the struggle. The lack of a daily strike bulletin to put authoritative statements before the strikers, the isolation of garage from garage which arose from this left the rank and file strikers open to the full force of the terrific barrage of propaganda poured out by the company and union officials through the press and wireless, and enabled the officials to weaken the strikers by scare stories of garages returning to work.

‘The Central Rank and File Committee, which was already representative of the majority of the garages, should have taken immediate steps to draw in elected representatives of the strikers from every garage in dispute, and to secure the election of a broad representative strike committee at every garage where the men were on strike. Such a strike organisation, consolidated both locally and centrally, issuing frequent statements in a strike bulletin, would have been able to draw many garages into the strike which remained at work more through lack of leadership and lack of knowledge of the situation than through actual unwillingness to join the strikers.

‘The real character of the struggle and the bitterness of the opposition to be expected from the officials was also underestimated. Actually the strike was an attempt to smash the whole agreement which existed between the TGWU and the London Traffic Combine. Had a complete stoppage been achieved, and the company forced to withdraw its whole programme for the speeding up of schedules, it would have constituted a smashing blow at the influence of the reformist officials, and in the eyes of the mass of the busmen would have almost completely destroyed the right of the union bureaucracy to speak in the name of the busmen.’ [5]

The movement held a series of mass meetings to explain the lessons of the strike. Its influence among the tramwaymen began to grow. Its example inspired militants and Communist Party members attempting to build similar movements among the railwaymen, cabmen and dockers. The strike against speed was the first widespread strike to take place under independent leadership. This was a time when there were hundreds of police baton charges against workers, thousands of political arrests and hard labour sentences, when many militants were automatically unemployed and when most strikes ended in defeat. Against this dark background the London Busmen’s Rank and File Movement stood out like a shining light.

Interlude: 1933-37

THE UNION bureaucracy lost no time in trying to prevent the movement from establishing itself inside the official union machine. At the biennial conference in July 1933, Bevin accused it of being ‘controlled by outside influences’. The conference obligingly armed the executive with the power to sack any officer who did not keep strictly to the official machinery of the union. Expecting this, the movement had purposely intensified its drive to win elected positions. Ten of the 13 London bus delegates to the conference were R&F men. When, after the conference, the R&F member of the CBC refused to disassociate himself from the movement on request and appealed to the union’s Finance and General Purposes Committee, he was left unchallenged. At the end of the year, the movement won five out of the six seats on the CBC and kept them until 1937.

Meanwhile, the Busman’s Punch was going from strength to strength. The months after the January strike brought a debate on the organisation of the movement. In the June issue, Papworth was pushing ‘the importance of organising R&F groups in the different garages’ and announced that ‘A Hendon member got 121 members in three weeks.’ The meetings on the lessons of the strike should be used to get such groups off the ground. ‘Rank and Filers should endeavour to get on all the committees possible,’ he added, ‘as all these committees ... have some bearing on your everyday life in the day-to-day work.’ By the next issue, the R&F committee was already discussing how to overcome the isolation of garage groups and organising area group meetings which would give them a realistic picture of rank and file feeling.

The Communist Party, on the other hand, was not doing nearly so well by the end of 1933. ‘In the early days of the campaign among the busmen we recruited 60 into our ranks, but the majority (although still actively working in the rank and file movement) have left,’ admitted George Renshaw. ‘We number the rank and file militants in thousands – we count our Communist recruits on our fingers ... The Party does not work in the trade unions and factories as a Party, but as individual militants ... The Party loses its identity in the very movements which it itself has helped to create. The Party is 90 per cent in the streets and only 10 per cent in the factories. Yet the factories are the fortresses. It is 60 per cent non-union. Yet the trade unionists are decisive.’ [6] With the arrival of the People’s Front policy in 1934, the Party subordinated the industrial struggle to parliamentary politics and the wooing of the Labour left.

On 1 July 1933, the London Passenger Transport Board (LPTB) took over nearly all the local passenger transport services within 30 miles of Charing Cross. The two full-time members of the Board were Lord Ashfield (at £12,500 a year), former chairman of the LGOC, and Frank Pick, formerly Ashfield’s chief lieutenant on the underground. The seven Board members held 38 directorships between them. John Cliff, the TGWU’s assistant general secretary, left his union post to join the Board with special duties in staff matters. The unions and the major employers had wanted nationalisation for some time. The Busman’s Punch called it ‘state capitalism’. The Board paid massive sums in compensation and nearly £26 million in interest to stockholders in its first five years. These payments were used as an excuse for rationalisation and fare increases.

Rationalisation had been delayed by the R&F movement under the old LGOC. But the LPTB was to change the face of the bus industry. Out went the frequent, reliable old ‘B’ type bus which carried 34 passengers at 12mph and stopped wherever you hailed it. In came a 60-passenger monster, hammering down the road at 30mph. Journey times were cut by up to 50 per cent despite heavier traffic, new traffic lights and Belisha crossings. Services on many routes were cut and busmen began to swell the ranks of the unemployed. Between 1935 and 1936, passenger accidents of all kinds shot up by 32 per cent. The formerly friendly relationship between busman and passenger disappeared. Inspectors harassed the crews. Between 1930 and 1935, 3,785 men left the industry. Of these, 877 had died and 1,006 had been discharged through ill-health. Only 343 reached the retirement age of 65. The Board’s wage bill grew by only 2 per cent per employee from 1933 to 1938.

The R&F movement’s answer to this was the demand for a 7-hour day. The cost – about £1 million – could have been amply covered by a cut in the rate of interest on the Board’s stock to 3 per cent. The movement also demanded a common delegate conference and joint negotiating machinery for all the Board’s workers. Over the next few years it made a number of attempts to expand itself into a ‘TOT’ (Trains, Omnibuses, Trams) movement. A TOT conference in 1934 planned a joint campaign on wages and conditions and set up a TOT Anti-Fascist Movement.

But there was some disagreement in the April committee meeting which adopted this perspective. One delegate said that the 7-hour demand was utopian unless there was a TOT movement behind it, as ‘The Board will soon give financial concessions than the 7-hour day or any shorter hours.’ Another argued that the demand was totally unrealistic considering the large number of rest-days then being worked.

Isolated within the bus section, the R&F movement could not resist Bevin and the Board indefinitely, let alone win the 7-hour day. The crucial task was to build a base outside the buses.

The underground, dominated by the right-wing NUR, never showed much interest. But the tramwaymen looked more promising. They had similar problems to the busmen about schedules, earned less and were faced with conversion to the faster and more profitable trolleybuses at tram rates. A ‘Justice for London’s Tramwaymen Committee’, supported by 21 depots was formed in 1935 as slow wage negotiations were causing unrest among the men. But when the Trams Council-advised by the T&G executive – accepted an offer already rejected by the majority of branches, the unofficial committee was unable to lead independent action. It did not build an organised base in the depots such as the busmen’s movement had in the garages. It collapsed in June 1936 after failing to lead two strikes against union officials and threats of dismissals.

A few Green Line coach garages were represented on the central R&F committee. Both they and the London Country Bus section came under the LPTB while in a different area of the union from the central busmen. On 26 July, 1935, Slough and Windsor Green Line garages struck against speed and insufficient rest-days. Bevin blamed the Communist Party and the Minority Movement – which had been dead for three years. 24 of the 33 Green Line garages (nearly 3,000 men) were out within a couple of days. On that second day, Papworth and Snelling, both members of the R&F organising committee and of the CBC, met with full-time officials. Then they went to Slough as R&F representatives and advised a return to work. The strike collapsed. The growing popularity of the movement on the green buses came to an abrupt halt.

Papworth and Snelling were forced to resign from the central R&F committee – they were its two most prominent leaders. They were reinstated within a month on the grounds that they had acted ‘in good faith’. But the movement’s organisation was tightened up. The organising committee was expanded to include one member from each affiliated branch and no member of it was to make a public statement on any dispute until an emergency meeting had decided the whole committee’s position.

The Green Line dispute was the first sign that the movement might be departing from its first principles. It was still stuck in the bus section. Bevin still ruled the rest of the union with a rod of iron. The Communist Party was abandoning the idea of rank and file movements. In February 1935, it had adopted a programme which condemned Labour Party leaders who fostered illusions in ‘Parliamentary and "democratic" methods’. [7] But by June 1936, the London District Committee was openly

advocating that ‘the right to appoint the Transport Board should rest with London’s municipal authorities’, that this would be an ‘extension of democratic control’, and that ‘a solution to the problem requires parliamentary action.’ [8] The movement’s own leaders were no longer unknown rank and file members: they were the elected leaders of 25,000 organised workers. Their power among these men was second only to that of the executive. They mixed with the highest union officials in the course of their union work. In 1935, Papworth was elected top of the poll as one of the two area representatives on the union’s executive.

The R&F leaders apparently found the executive sympathetic to the demand for a 7-hour day on grounds of ill-health. Accordingly, the CBC decided to pursue their aim by official means alone. It took them until May 1936 to get the Board round a negotiating table and even then it consistently refused to consider any reduction in hours. Yet at the bus conference only eight delegates – none of them R&F members – voted for an unofficial strike. An anonymous letter to the Busman’s Punch asked bluntly, ‘why the R&F sold the Busmen?’ Bill Payne, treasurer of the organising committee replied that the aim must be ‘unity in the Section, with the support of the Central Bus Committee and the Executive Committee behind them.’ [9] Eight months later, Payne himself and Bill Jones, secretary of the organising committee, were complaining that

‘After 12 months of talk ... we find ourselves challenged by the Board by their "lousy" proposals, while we find uncertainty and doubt as to the future line of the Central Bus Committee.’ [10]

The movement had never raised any objection to unofficial strikes before the Green Line strike. In January 1935, the bus delegates called a strike over a nonunion conductor who signed up at the last moment. In June – only a month before the Green Line strike – the movement had led an unofficial strike of 5,000 busmen which forced the Board to drop disciplinary charges against a single crew, to pay them for time lost and to overhaul the disciplinary procedure. Support and leadership of unofficial strikes was the real foundation of the movement. The battle against the cut and the strike against speed had created ripples of militancy which spread for several years. J.J. Mills, the busmen’s full-time district secretary, explained how this forced him to act as the servant of the men.

‘When acute difficulties arise and he made reasonable proposals for easement he was frequently turned down until the men threatened to strike; then what he had suggested was secured. This had happened at Hammersmith, Forest Gate, Barking, Mortlake and Hanwell and elsewhere in the last two or three years.’ [11]

Now the movement did a rapid about turn. Within months of the start of official negotiations the CBC was getting strikers back to work before taking their grievances to the Board. The busmen’s delegate conference instructed branches to consult the CBC before taking ‘drastic action’. A promising attempt to involve the craftsmen was dropped when none of their official leaderships would support the 7-hour day demand. Before 1936, the movement’s isolation had been no fault of its own. Now it was cutting itself off. The Board steadfastly refused to discuss the question of hours. Negotiations dragged on into 1937. The TGWU executive reduced the official demand to 7½ hours. This was tamely agreed to by the bus delegates.

By the end of April, time had run out. The Board had been given notice of a strike for 1 May if no agreement was reached. It gave a final refusal on hours but suggested further talks in June, after the coronation of George VI. A joint meeting at the Ministry of Labour got nowhere. Two days before the strike, the executive granted plenary powers to the bus delegate conference. In practice, this gave the movement official control of the bus section. It also placed them in a very exposed position as Bevin could withdraw plenary powers at any time.

On 1 May 1937, the busmen struck as a solid mass. Thousands of them paraded in uniform in a massive May Day march which was five miles long and took 1 hour 35 minutes to pass a given point. On the same day unofficial strikes were spreading from Kent and Sussex to thousands of provincial busmen in Essex, Luton, Bedford, Cambridge, Norwich, Oxford, Northampton and East Yorkshire. But Bevin was able to keep the two disputes quite separate. After all, they were in two completely different sections of the union, concerned different demands and one was official while the other was not! He got the provincial busmen back to work by 5 May. The R&F leaders had failed to develop a flexible combination of ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ tactics. They were relying more and more on the official machine. It was an ominous development.

The Coronation Strike and After

THE CORONATION Strike was one of the biggest British strikes of the 1930s. It became a standard joke among the strikers that the changing of the picket was more popular than the Changing of the Guard. The movement produced a pamphlet whose title – London Busmen Demand the Right to Live a Little Longer – became the slogan of the struggle. Leaflets asked for support from passengers and trade unionists and a special tabloid issue of the Busman’s Punch was produced. Beneath an advert for the strike pamphlet, it asked branch secretaries to ‘form a pamphlet-selling squad and plan its job to cover particularly stations and other busy points, also factories in the dinner-hour and when the workers are leaving.’ Meanwhile, the Board had got the Ministry of Labour to hold a Court of Inquiry into the dispute. It issued an interim report on 4 May. Unable to come to a decision on the 7½-hour day, it recommended further negotiations and a health inquiry. On the same day, the tram and trolley-bus section asked Bevin to grant them plenary powers as well, although their agreement still had some months to run. Naturally, Bevin sat on the idea, and on 5 May a delegate conference accepted his firm recommendation to remain at work. Both sections, he later argued, had previously agreed that it was a purely bus strike for a purely bus claim.

Papworth bitterly attacked Bevin over this at the union inquiry a month after the strike.

‘Even supposing you could not bring the tramwaymen out with us on our application, which I agree you could not in view of the agreement, when you found the Tram members against their will carrying our normal passengers and paying in our normal revenue the situation had changed ... Two days after the strike began three branches circularised the fleet demanding that either the trams should be brought out or that they should be stopped from doing our work. Not one member of our delegate conference ever believed that the executive would permit the conditions of the road as happened during the strike.’

Unfortunately, Papworth himself had been encouraging such illusions for over a year.

On 8 May, the Board made a final offer of negotiations on the basis of the interim report if the strike was called off. A delegate vote rejected the offer by 47 to 3. Three days later, the union executive recommended the same terms again, arguing that they were a ‘75 or 80 per cent victory’. The delegates again rejected this by 46 to 4 and were backed up by a branch vote of 17,459 to 1,776. A R&F leaflet had claimed that this would win the confidence both of other LPTB workers and of the executive. Tramwaymen at Hanwell and Wood Green did, in fact, vote for a sympathy strike. Bevin merely wished the busmen an ironical ‘good luck’.

The movement was working at full stretch. On 5 May, a mass meeting at Shoreditch Town Hall was addressed by Papworth, J.R. Campbell (of the Communist Party), Jennie Lee (of the Independent Labour Party) and no less a figure than Sir Stafford Cripps MP, at that time the leader of the Labour left. Two days later, Papworth led a march to a Daily Worker meeting. The diary of Bill Waters, a rank and file busman, shows how the campaign was carried throughout the London labour movement.

‘30 April. Poplar Town Hall Eve of Strike meeting ... Also midnight meeting of Barking branch ... 3 May. Picket duty 4 to 6 a.m. ... 7 May. Addressed meeting on Bus Strike Position at Cock Hotel on platform of Communist Party ... 9 May. Picket duty 4 to 6 a.m. ... 10 May. Addressed meeting of Bloomsbury branch Socialist Party of Great Britain on Strike position. 11 May. Addressed meeting at Cock Hotel on platform of East Ham Trades Council... 13 May. As 11 May.’

On the 23rd, Waters addressed a meeting in Dagenham after a march from three East London garages. The marchers had their own song, which went to the tune of Clementine:

‘London Busmen stick together
This is your fight see it through
For though buswork may be thrilling
We can prove it’s killing too.
Only four men in a hundred
Reach the age of sixty-five
What’s the use of having a pension
Unless you are still alive.’

Once Coronation Week was over, Londoners began to accustom themselves to trams, trolleybuses and other forms of transport. Clearly, the strike had to be extended. At a rally in Hyde Park on 16 May, Papworth declared that

‘Any means we can adopt to call out other sections of London Transport ... we shall adopt. If it means picketing every tram and trolley-bus depot, every country service bus depot and every tube station in addition to the Main Line railways, the London Busmen will undertake that task. If it means that we have to throw our bodies across the lines of the London Tramway system, we shall throw our bodies across in hundreds and hundreds.’

The pity of it was that this never happened.

Instead, Papworth and Snelling appealed to a meeting of the Trams Council – with the permission of Bevin who already had it sewn up – for an unofficial sympathy strike. They rejected the idea by 31 to 9 and unanimously pledged themselves to ‘assist in carrying out anything the executive council desires.’ So the CBC, clearly at the end of its tether, sent a forlorn request to the executive, to call the trams out officially. This was promptly denied. Over £100,000 had been spent in strike pay.

Bevin was now playing with the busmen like a cat with its prey. On the 25th, their delegates again rejected his advice to approach the Board. He replied to sharp criticisms of his leadership – or lack of it – with biting sarcasm. The CBC had been given plenary powers at their own request and this placed the onus of leadership on them alone. The executive, he concluded hypocritically, had sought ‘purely to assist with advice and help in every possible way’.

He stabbed them in the back the very next day. The executive revoked plenary powers and arranged a return to work within two days on almost exactly the same terms the Board had offered three weeks earlier. Only the day before, the delegates had voted to go on by a majority of nearly 5 to 1. Would they try to continue and spread the strike unofficially? Bevin relied on the assumption that they would not and he was right. They lost the last chance of outmanoeuvring him. Four months later, Payne understood what had happened. They had all been very happy that the strike was official, he remembered bitterly. ‘How wrong we were,’ he wrote in the last issue of the Busman’s Punch.

‘In my judgment, the EC never had any intention of assisting the busmen ... They were all the time concerned about destroying the R&F movement who had been preventing unofficial strikes and organising the men 100 per cent solid behind the EC.’

The movement was still very popular and the June issue of its paper retained an optimistic note. But on 7 June, Bevin suspended all the bus section’s officers except full-timers and paid officials pending an inquiry into their connections with the R&F movement. Protests were the movement’s only sign of life. After the inquiry, the July biennial conference of the union ‘strongly recommended’ the executive to destroy the movement. Papworth, Payne and Jones were expelled and four other leading figures barred from office for up to 3 years. Again there was little response from the movement.

By now it was beginning to split. One faction led by Payne and Snelling wanted to form a breakaway union. They were narrowly defeated in the last meeting of the central R&F committee. In February 1938 they set up the National Passenger Workers’ Union (NPWU). This was the signal for a bitter and wasteful inter-union war. TGWU and NPWU branches in the same garage printed pamphlets attacking each other. It helped to drive the TGWU militants into the arms of the bureaucracy. It finally collapsed after the war when the Trades Disputes Act was abolished and the buses became a TGWU closed shop.

Papworth and Jones were allowed back into the union in April 1938 on condition of a 4-year ban from office and assurances of loyalty to the executive. In 1942, they were re-elected to their old positions. Soon afterwards Papworth was elected to the TUC General Council. Jones later joined him on the TGWU executive and became chairman both of the CBC and of the No.1 Area Passenger Group Committee. ‘During the war and in the years immediately following, the Communists worked closely with the union’s executive and officers.’ [12] So closely, in fact, that the bus driver’s wage fell from 50 per cent above the national average in 1938 to only 17 per cent above it in 1948. This was the real beginning of the decline in the status of bus work.

Despite their high office, Jones and Papworth were quite unable to prevent the 1949 biennial’s 2-1 decision to ban Communists from union office. Jones nevertheless maintained his position (he resigned from the Communist Party) and virtually controlled the bus section from an increasingly right-wing stance for many years. Most of the full-time officials in the London bus section probably owe their appointment to his influence and his presence has graced many a conference of the Communist Parly’s Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions. The main opposition to him came, ironically enough, from the original Platform, edited for 17 years by George Renshaw, the former London Communist Party organiser. Renshaw left the Communist Party in 1946 over the question of doorstep recruitment and retained until his death the spirit of struggle that his former comrades had so obviouslv lost.

The Lessons of the Movement

THE BUSMEN’S movement combined mass agitation in the garages and among the public with an obstinate struggle inside the official union structure. This is what gave it its great strength in the early years. It led its first battles long before capturing electoral control of the section. It used unofficial action to catch the officials off-balance, to take the initiative out of their hands and to bend them to its will. Its leaders fought for elected positions in order to prevent victimisation and to provide unofficial action with some official backing. Both the elected representatives and the paid officials were made to feel the heavy hand of rank and file militancy organised into a permanent mass movement. One false step and the local R&F group would expose you to the world in the pages of the Busman’s Punch.

The movement laboured under tremendous difficulties from the start. Workers everywhere were still suffering the aftereffects of the General Strike. In 1931 alone there were over 100 baton charges against workers and more than 1,300 political arrests. Yet when the busmen marched and picketed, not a finger was laid on them. Unemployment was over 2 million. Yet not a single unofficial strike on the buses weakened at the regular threats of dismissal. But they were isolated, even within their own industry, even within London Transport. They won the bus section for the election of full-time officials but they did not lead a union-wide fight for it. Even so, the movement never really lost ground until its leaders tried to rely on official action only.

The movement could have continued after 1937. The new CBC was mainly composed of R&F supporters who wanted nothing more than the return of ‘the true leaders of the busmen’. But those leaders were controlled by a party which no longer wanted the R&F movement. It seems unlikely that the Communist Party ever recruited large numbers of busmen. But even control of the leaders meant a big responsibility, for the movement was much larger than the party itself. The bigger the organisation, the more crucial becomes the role of leadership. ‘All combined labour on a large scale requires, more or less, a directing authority in order to secure the harmonious working of different activities,’ Marx observed. ‘A single violin player is his own conductor; an orchestra requires a separate one.’ The idea of a rank and file movement is not to destroy all leadership. It is to build an alternative leadership to the reformist one. This cannot be done solely inside the structure controlled by the officials. The truth was that the Communist Party no longer wanted to build such an alternative leadership.

This does not mean that the movement should (or could) have been ‘non-political’. Without the 12 Communist Party members’ careful preparatory work during the first seven months of 1932, the movement would never have existed. The perspective of building, such movements came not only from the shop floor but from the Communist Party’s central committee and from the Red International of Labour Unions. Rank and file militancy needs its own organisation between the party at one extreme and union officialdom at the other. It must find expression independent of the bureaucracy while remaining far broader politically than a revolutionary organisation. A front organisation for the official leadership is just a voting machine which actually disorganises the militants. A front organisation for the party would be sectarian, unable to win the trust of the workers.

A rank and file movement gives revolutionary socialists a far bigger arena than they could otherwise hope for. If they serve the movement faithfully, they can grow much more quickly than before. In a big movement, the party as a whole has to come out into the open much more in front of masses of workers. Party members have to work as an organised unit, not just as individual militants. Their leaders have to be closely linked with this work, the better to integrate the different areas of party work and give a unified lead to the organisation.

The truth is that the ‘Popular Front’ line of the Communist Party, a line that required winning the support of trade union leaders and ‘progressive’ MPs (Liberals as well as Labour), ruled out party support for a real Rank and File movement. The Communist Party played a vital and extremely progressive role in the earlier years of the busmen’s movement. The collapse of that movement followed the party’s swing to the right. For though a genuine Rank and File movement must be far broader than a revolutionary party, it is equally true that without a nucleus of revolutionaries, it will wither and die. By the middle 1930s the Communist Party had ceased to be a revolutionary party.

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1. G.D.H. Cole, The People’s Front, p.57, Gollancz, Left Book Club edition.

2. J.A. Mahon, The Problem of Building the Revolutionary Trade Union Opposition in Britain, RILU Magazine.

3. N. Branson and M. Heinemann, Britain in the 1930s, p.124, Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

4. George Renshaw, The Victorious Strike of the London Busmen and its Lessons, p.5, RILU Publications 1933.

5. See 4 above, pp.15-16.

6. George Renshaw, How Does the Party Work?, Communist Review, December-January 1933-34, pp.428-9.

7. For Soviet Britain, CPGB, p.5, February 1935.

8. Arthur Downton, The London Transport Scandal, pp.25-6. London District Committee CP, June 1936.

9. The Busman’s Punch, June 1936.

10. The Busman’s Punch, February 1937.

11. The TGWU Record, May 1937.

12. H.A. Clegg, Labour Relations in London Transport, pp.132-3, Basil Blackwell 1950.

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