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Sylvia Merrill

England: Strike Action Led by Shop Stewards

(December 1942)

From Labor Action, Vol. 6 No. 51, 21 December 1942, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Socialist Appeal, organ of the Workers International League (Fourth International) and the New Leader, organ of the Independent Labor Party, report that 40,000 Tyneside shipbuilding workers went on strike in October and stayed out for eight days.

The strike received a stab in the back from the trade union officials who, in cahoots with the bosses, sprang a new agreement on the workers without consulting them. However, While it won no major concessions for the workers, the strike was a reflection of the growing militancy of the English workers and the importance of the shop stewards who ran the strike.

The workers refused to accept an agreement in| which two days’ pay would remain in the hands of the bosses by moving back the day on which they were paid from Tuesday to Sunday! When strikes took place after this announcement by the bosses, they agreed to make up the two days’ pay the workers would lose over a period of twenty weeks.

Although this was a concession, the shop stewards had not been consulted and the workers refused to accept it. The workers proposed that the old agreement stand until the shop stewards could investigate the proposal. They refused to report to work what the bosses would not have this, and 80 per cent of the workers in the yards stayed out.

The government, through the so-called labor representative, Bevins, told the workers that it did not intend to depart from the agreement made by the trade unions and the employers.

The strike dragged on and the shop stewards decided to recommend to the workers that they go back to work as a body. To show that this strike had not been an adventure and that the workers had confidence in their shop stewards, all the stewards resigned and a new election held.

At the election, every shop steward who had stood with the workers during the strike was re-elected. This meant that the Stalinists, who had acted as strike-breakers were thrown out of the workers’ committees.

Special mention must be made of the role of the Stalinists in the strike. Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of workers supported the strike, the Stalinists issued leaflets, called meetings of their own people in order to keep them in line, and appealed to the workers to go back to work. A militant in the Stalinist ranks attacked the strike-breaking policy of the CP and received good support, indicating that all was not rosy among the followers of Kremlin Joe.

The workers at the Tyneside yards saw clearly on whose side the trade union bureaucrats were when their own union organization refused to support them despite the fact that the workers had democratically decided on their course.

Stewards Lead Belfast Strike of 10,000

Another manifestation of the militancy of the British workers was the strike at Belfast, where, on October 26, 10,000 workers went out.

Here again, the shop stewards took the lead because the regular trade onion officials disregarded the wishes of the membership.

When the workers went on strike, refusing to accept the bosses’ request to remain at work while the conferences dragged on, the district committee of the Engineers Union AEU (equivalent to our Machinists’ Union), called a meeting to order the workers back to work. The workers boycotted the meeting, which was attended by three persons. Several . hundreds of strikers stood on the opposite side of the road watching the unwanted officials arrive and depart. This was not just an ordinary boycott. The workers came out and impressed their union leaders with their seriousness while not attending the meeting.

The British New Leader reports that the strikers did no insist on the maintenance of the old earnings in full, but they declared that the substantial reductions imposed on top of the large deductions for income tax reduce their pay, in many instances, below a (decent) living standard.

The workers maintained that they would stay out until an official report by a court of inquiry was made. This they did. They were out for three weeks and by a vote of 1,254 to 175 on the part of the electricians, and 1,617 to 771 by the engineers they decided to go back.

The electricians’ strike started because a non-unionist had been employed by a company in an effort to introduce an open-shop. The engineers’ strike started over the demand that they be permitted to work on Sunday because of the higher rate of pay for Sunday work and in order to increase their earnings, which are not adequate to meet their needs. The bosses refused to allow Sunday work. A movement to come to work on Sundays was nevertheless organized by two shop stewards, who were promptly fired.

The spirit of the strikers was very good, especially in view of the fact that they held out for over three weeks against the opposition of the government, the trade union officials, the Labor Party and the Communist Party. And despite all of this opposition, one-third of the strikers voted against going back to work.

Here again we must note that the Stalinists campaigned against the strike. Harry Pollitt came to Belfast, and pleaded with the shop stewards to get the men to go back to work. The men paid about as much attention to his pleadings as he deserved.

From All Parts of England ...

From all parts of England come reports of strikes small and large. Four hundred shipwrights won a wage increase after striking when the company refused to grant concessions. Just a little militant action, and the company decided to talk turkey.

In Glasgow, 2,000 workers struck. They returned to work on the promise of the company to negotiate. The company is still stalling. Two thousand dock workers struck in London when wages for one week were held up for the who refused to go to Manchester to work under a compulsory order. The workers returned to work pending negotiations.

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