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Dudley Edwards

1934: How Trade Unionism
Came to Pressed Steel

(1979)


Oxford Militant Pamphlet 1979.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).



Dudley Edwards writes on working class struggle in Cowley (the other Oxford)

Author’s Foreword

In writing this pamphlet I have not aimed at producing a detailed historical document which sets out every incident, name and date connected with the 1934 Pressed Steel recognition strike. On the contrary, I hope that it will bring out the political significance of the struggle at Cowley all those years ago and link the struggle of the Cowley car workers then to the even greater struggle that the car workers are facing today. While those incidents which are described can all be verified from documents published at the time and by eye witnesses, my main aim is to try and draw the lessons of this for the workers of today.

‘With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed ...’
Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Karl Marx

The Growth of Cowley

Oxford, after the First World War, was still the old city of ‘dreaming spires and lost causes’. Few people imagined that this very safe Tory seat would ever be won for Labour. In 1966 the Tory candidate was defeated.

This change was the result of economic developments which began in the 1920s. During this period ‘the dreaming spires’ remained, but the town divided into two communities and the old village of Cowley became a new industrial town on the east side of Magdalen bridge.

A rather sleepy Labour movement did exist before the coming of the Cowley motor and Pressed Steel industries. A Trades Council had operated for many years, but it was mainly influenced by the university printing and railwaymen’s unions which also played an active part in the building of an early but not very lively Labour Party. In 1913 there was the first unskilled workers’ strike of tramwaymen, but most of the working class remained unorganised and voted Tory.

The First World War brought big changes. Bill Morris, the cycleman, taking advantage of a war contract to build army lorries, set up the first really mass production car works in Britain. This became one of the original cornerstones of the large Leyland amalgamation which we know today.

After 1920, the labour situation became very favourable for the new company. The brief post-war boom collapsed, mass unemployment appeared, and large numbers of workers were driven from the crippled basic industries in the north, to seek work in the newer industries of the south. The dejected condition of British agriculture also greatly assisted the future Lord Nuffield.

At that time the agricultural labourers were eking out an existence on a wage of 27/6d a week. Early supplies of labour could therefore be attracted from the surrounding villages and the £3 to £4 a week which the company offered seemed a fortune compared to the wages the workers had been used to. Bill Morris claimed there was no need for unions because he was paying over the rate for equivalent work done elsewhere. As men were earning two or three times their previous wages, thus argument seemed justified. Like Fords in America, the company cleverly combined the ‘carrot with the stick’. As company pay was better than in union shops outside, militant trade unionists were regarded as ‘trouble makers’ who could not bring improvement in wages.

With the growth of a market for relatively cheap car in the mid-twenties, a great flow of labour from the distressed areas began. Workers poured in from South Wales, Merseyside, the North East and elsewhere. This reached the proportions of a ‘mini Klondyke’ rush and by the early thirties many hundreds of impoverished unemployed were taking one way tickets to this new promised land in the south.

The ‘good times’ were very short-lived. Morris was making huge profits at this time, and also spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on his famous Iron Lung Charities, so he could have provided houses for his own workers at low rents.

The Tory Council, which was ever ready to heap praise on the future Lord as a benefactor of mankind, soon found itself embarrassed by a housing shortage, induced by the large influx of labour. At the same time, the cost of living in Oxford was forced up, becoming one of the highest in the British Isles.

Then, as now, the Tory Council majority regarded council house building for the low paid as a rather ‘socialist’ and ‘subversive’ idea. They therefore kept it to a minimum. This, of course, left the field wide open to the private speculators and the jerry builders.

By 1932 Oxford and Cowley were suffering from severe social strains and conflicts and the ancient serenity of Oxford finally disappeared.
 

Cars and the Slump

Despite these social contradictions, the 1929–34 slump did not hit Oxford as badly as most other parts of the country. In fact the growth of the motor industry brought a veneer of prosperity to this fast growing area. Oxford almost doubled its population in 15 years. Morris Motors blossomed into a real mass production plant and the great Pressed Steel plant, run by a separate company, was built to provide the body structures for the new cars coming from the conveyer belts.

By 1934 the overwhelming majority of workers in this great Pressed Steel factory were from the old declining industrial areas. Most of them came from a background of industrial struggle and understood the need for trade union organisation. But, often ragged and exhausted, not a few of these men actually walked the whole distance from South Wales in the late twenties and early thirties. Not only did they walk to Oxford but sometimes back again and groups of such men were a common sight on the road. Such men were in no position to bargain when offered work, and had to accept whatever wages were paid.

At Pressed Steel this meant working for 1/6d per hour with the theoretical possibility of earning another 1s from the piece work scheme. Often when they failed to earn the piece work norm demanded by the management, their basic rate would be reduced by the piecework shortfall which could mean working for the pitiful sum of 9d an hour.

Married men were generally forced to leave a wife and children in the distressed areas. There was no social security for keeping two homes going. The only alternative was to remain unemployed on unemployment benefit which lasted six months, or accept a means tested Public Assistance payment which brought the income of a man, wife and two children to about 30/– a week.

In 1932 after the Labour Prime Minister, Ramsey MacDonald joined the Tory-dominated National Government this semi-starvation allowance was cut still further. In these circumstances, the new married arrival found himself not only desperate for a job but also for accommodation which would put a roof over his family.
 

Houses on Marsh Land

The first large housing estate was built by the speculating builders, N. Moss and Son, at Florence Park on marsh land which had previously been regarded as unsuitable for building. Some time after it was built, a council investigation showed that t had never been properly drained.

Nearly 700 houses were thrown up on this estate in nine months. Many of the workers who built it were themselves products of rather spurious training centres. Here they were expected to learn a new building trade in six months. Naturally the old apprenticed and experienced building workers objected to this.

The result of this excessive haste, and the use of mostly green labour, led to shoddy building as well as to the breaking of a number of local building bye-laws. Desperate for a house, workers often moved in before the plaster was dry. The use of green wood produced buckling window frames and doors which could only be opened by using the full weight of the body against them. Severe damp and fungus soon appeared on ground floors. Very soon deputations were being organised to the Ministry of Housing. During one of these visits a tenant actually let loose a frog which he had found under the boarding of his ground floor.

Space will not permit a detailed description of the Florence Park housing scandal, but when the council was forced to stage an enquiry, it was found that 17 bye-laws had been broken in the construction of the estate. However, by this time the managing director, F.E. Moss, had taken off on a world tour. For some years after, this company collected an average of at least £1 a week from each of these 700 badly-built houses. In recent years, the firm doubled and trebled original capital outlay by selling off houses at modern inflated prices.
 

Tradition of Solidarity

By 1933 many of the workers who had been driven from their homes by the violence of the capitalist slump were beginning to re-assess their new situation at Cowley. They concluded that they were little better off than they had been in the distressed areas they had come from. Many were ex-miners and they began to return again to the tradition of organised solidarity which their fathers had implanted in the mining valleys.

Until the middle of 1934, the vast majority in Pressed Steel as well as Morris Motors were completely unorganised. Morris did not become organised until 1940. In fact to display a union badge openly was to risk dismissal. A very small enclave of AEU members existed in the Pressed Steel tool room. Half hearted attempts had also been made to organise some other workers in the old Vehicle Builders’ Union. There was no recognition by the firm, and therefore no right to negotiate collectively existed.

The overwhelming majority of production workers were totally defenceless. Speed up was the order of the day and frequent dismissals of operators considered too slow took place.

A day’s work in the huge press shop was a test of endurance. No formal tea breaks were allowed and the noise was nerve shattering. The crashing action of huge presses, the rattle of innumerable trip hammers and clatter of sheet metal being carried on hand trucks cause, in some cases, actual deafness. No proper canteens existed and food had to be consumed on the factory floor.

At lunch time hundreds of workers poured out on to Johnson’s Field where they bought cups of tea and sandwiches. If it was raining they had to sit in two rickety and dirty old huts set up by a private trader.

Accident rates were high and no shop stewards existed to take up any of these issues with management. In short the workers were an unorganised mob, as much at the mercy of the boss as were their forefathers during the industrial revolution at the beginning of the 19th century. Here was an apparently docile work force which seemed resigned to what the Tory and Liberal economists call ‘free enterprise’; a condition which they still say we must return to 40 years later.

Then to the astonishment of the Pressed Steel management, who thought everything was going admirably, the spontaneous explosion of 1934 happened.
 

The Strike Begins

On Tuesday July 17th, 180 workers in the press shop walked out. At first they had no clearly defined demands. A few bolder spirits led the way but there was no recognised leadership of any kind. No union existed to call in. Organisation had to be created in the heat of battle. Strike pay was out of the question. The overwhelming majority were in no union.

The strike was than a spontaneous expression of revolt against the ruthless pursuit of profit conducted by an unbridled capitalism. Among the first 180 were a number of women workers who played a militant and loyal part in the struggle.

The first message to the manager, Mr. Otto Müeller, simply stated that the strikers would not go back to work until better wages were offered. No one at that stage knew what specific wages would be considered satisfactory.

After some confused discussion among the unorganised strikers someone proposed that a provisional strike committee be elected. Thus, the traditional form of strike organisation was created before any formal union organisation existed. This was a remarkable illustration that, in essence, the union is no more than the determination of the workers to act in union for the betterment of their conditions of labour.

As a matter of fact the one minute fragment of union organisation in the factory was that of the AEU which played no part in the organisation of the strike. Ironically on the third day, the District Committee even pronounced that, while sympathetic, it could not officially support the strike because it was unconstitutional; of course according to the book, it was.

The strike committee set up was not only non-union but its members had practically no experience of industrial action. Despite this, in a very short time, it became a knowledgeable and astute committee, well able to win friends and influence a wide circle of supporters outside as well as inside the factory.

The committee soon realised that it was playing an important and historical role in the revival of a working class fighting spirit which had been dampened down as a result of the tragically betrayed General Strike of 1926 and the sell-out of a Labour Prime Minister in 1931. The Pressed Steel strike was a sign that the workers were recovering from those defeats. From the first the committee welcomed assistance from outside their ranks. In particular the committee realised that the Pressed Steel workers needed capable propagandists who could spread the justice of their cause far and wide. It was soon to find one, though not himself a Pressed Steel striker.
 

Enter Abe Lazarus

Shortly before the Pressed Steel strike a rather spontaneous strike took place at the Firestone Tyre factory on London’s Great West Road. This was another of the new mass production factories taking in the victims of the slump from the depressed areas. In the courses of this turbulent strike, one of the leading spirits had been a certain Abe Lazarus. During mass picketing scenes at this factory he had been accused of dangerously obstructing a bus load of blacklegs attempting to cross the picket line. After this incident Lazarus had disappeared and the police had issued a warrant for his arrest.

He then came to Oxford to offer assistance and turned up on Johnson’s Field just as the first walk out took place. From then on he played an important part in the organisation of the strike. It has in fact been claimed that in the confusion surrounding the election of the provisional committee he was actually nominated and elected to that body.

The present writer has been unable to confirm this legendary election, but from the first day he certainly became a leading spokesman for the strikers, outside the works, and his chance appearance in Oxford was certainly a factor in the ultimate success of the strike.

In the summer of 1934 he was at first known as ‘Bill Firestone’ and not as Abe Lazarus. This was not because he wished to hide his Jewish origin, which he was proud of, but because at this stage he did not want to be taken from the scene of the strike to face the charge of dangerous obstruction in West London. After the strike when the court case had been settled, he insisted that the assumed name should be dropped and that everyone should know him by his correct family name. Nor did he hide his political affiliation. He was a member of the Communist Party. In his early twenties, he was already an eloquent speaker. He very soon arrested the attention of his working class audiences in Cowley. A sandy complexion and with gingerish hair, he was not only able to rouse indignation against the skinflint attitude of the management, but to set this local struggle into its true setting – the breakdown of the whole capitalist method of production during the great slump. He had a puckish sense of humour and successfully ridiculed all who suggested the workers should accept the pitiful wages they were offered without taking strike action. He was also a good organiser with a shrewd sense of tactics.

To give any serious account of the industrial struggles in Cowley during the 1930s without recognising the role played by this Jewish Communist would be to falsify history. On the other hand it is arguable that too much attention has been paid to ‘Bill Firestone’ activities.
 

The Role of Communists

For the above reason it will be necessary to interrupt this narrative which is largely about the 1934 strike and its consequences, to explain why Lazarus and other C.P. members whom he recruited where able to play a fairly important part not only bringing militant trade unionism to Cowley but in the life of the local Labour Movement generally.

Long before the Pressed Steel became the strongest section of organised workers in Oxfordshire, there had been a Labour Party and Trades and Labour Council. The Trades Council had little contact with the thousands of unorganised workers coming into the growing Cowley factories. There were, therefore, very few people with the experience of industrial organisation, especially of the militant type needed to raise the standard of living and confidence of these thousands of newcomers to Morris and Pressed Steel.

When this sudden industrial revolt broke out at Pressed Steel, Abe Lazarus was the type of militant the workers needed and turned to. He was able to inspire enthusiasm and quickly recruited a small group of young militants prepared to throw themselves into the struggle without counting the cost. They fitted the circumstances existing at Cowley in 1934. The workers did NOT support them because of their communist views, in fact these were very hazy, but because they were industrial militants and the only kind of leadership that could win this spontaneous and rather desperate strike.

As a matter of fact, Bill Firestone (Lazarus) and his followers paid scant attention to the various theoretical lines coming from the Communist Party centre. Rather they succeeded despite the handicap of the official Communist zig zags. Abe and his new recruits were in the right place at the right time.

Indeed any honest effort to write the history of the Pressed Steel TGWU branch would be forced to recognise the role played by this handful of C.P. members at its foundation. Of course, at the same time, their real political influence was very slight. It is an historical paradox that the tactics adopted by the local members of the party, including Lazarus himself, hardly harmonised with the official theory of the party at national level, which in 1934 was still passing through its ‘ultra left’ period.

This was the so-called ‘Third Period’ when, following the analysis of the Communist International, all Labour and trade union officials either at local or national level were described as ‘social fascists’ if they did not accept the official Communist line. All Social Democrats were ‘stirrup holders’ for fascism and, THEY, rather than the real fascists, were considered the worst enemy. Also at this time the main pamphlet issued by the Communist Party was entitled For a Soviet Britain. By adopting this theory the C.P.’s of Europe actually succeeded in alienating millions of sincere Social Democratic workers and this was one of the main reasons for the triumph of Hitler.

Shortly after the 1934 Pressed Steel strike when it became clear that Hitler had consolidated his position in Germany, the Comintern switched over to an ultra right line and began pushing the so-called ‘Popular Front’ with even the Tories becoming acceptable allies.

Abe Lazarus himself until his death was a loyal Stalinist – as was the writer of this pamphlet at the time. However, the actual tactics Lazarus adopted did everything possible to play down the ideological division between the Labour Party and the Communists which the official C.P. wished to be emphasised in all possible ways. Abe strove to win the confidence of the existing Labour Party and gain the support of all the leading local Social Democrats. In fact he anticipated the C.P. switch of 1935 and achieved considerable success. There had existed a small and not very effective C.P. before Abe Lazarus came to Oxford but its revival in 1934 was entirely due to his inspired ‘opportunism’. By 1935 when the new ‘Popular Front’ line became the order of the day at C.P. headquarters, the local C.P., under Abe’s leadership, had already carried out a peculiar form of this tactic, and the local C.P. often was able to have a decisive influence on the Labour Party itself.
 

Manipulating Labour

Soon after the Pressed Steel strike, the C.P. already had about 70 members but less than 5 per cent of these were open members. The majority became undercover members of the Labour Party. So much was this so that two membership books were kept – one of overt and the other covert members.

To the average citizen, the bright and cheerful face of Abe Lazarus, or the handsome one of Ernie Keeling and one or two others, represented the face of the Communist Party. The others were ‘good Labour men’.

Not all Labour politicians were unaware of this C.P. influence behind the scenes and it is ironical that some who are alleged moderates and right wingers still prominent in national politics today condoned these manipulatory tactics of the C.P. in 1934. One of these Labour members was the present Lord Longford, who came into the Labour Party from the Conservative Central Office, and proceeded to build close association with the left wing, maintaining in particular close relations with several members of the Oxford C.P. as well.

Perhaps the best example of how the C.P. could, for a time, manipulate the local movement was the staging of the famous ‘Popular Front’ election in Oxford in 1938. At the time the Labour Parliamentary candidate, Gordon Walker, was forced to stand down in favour of the all-party candidate, Dr Lindsay. This was done in the name of anti-fascist unity.

The secretary of the local constituency Labour Party was an undercover member of the C.P. as were several members of the general management committee and some members of the ward committees. Behind the scenes, the C.P. branch conducted an extremely skilful campaign and won the support of most Labour ward parties as well as the Liberal Associations, even gaining the support of Harold Macmillan, later to be a Conservative Prime Minister.

To be fair, Dr. Lindsay, the Master of Balliol, would no doubt have refused to accept nomination if he had understood what was going on. In this pressure campaign in the Labour Party, the Rt. Hon. Pakenham (now Lord) played an effective part in pushing Gordon Walker off the political scene. The ‘Popular Front’ candidate did no better than a straight Labour man would have done and Dr. Lindsay was easily defeated by the Tory Quintin Hogg. Lord Longford then took Walker’s place as the prospective Labour candidate for Oxford City.
 

The Noble Dupe?

In his book, Born to Believe, Longford presents himself as an innocent dupe.

‘This coup’ he says, ‘was engineered by the Oxford Communists with the rest of us more or less starry-eyed dupes, and I say this as the one person who at the time seemed to profit from his own guilelessness’.

Certainly Lord Longford was politically naive then, as he is now, but was he not less rather than more starry-eyed? It is difficult to put his activities down to ‘sheer guilelessness’ when at the time he was closely associating with the few open members of the C.P. and making visits to the secretary of that party for political discussions, during which he showed a very keen interest in the tactical decisions of the Oxford C.P. It appeared that the noble lord made more use of the C.P. then they did of him.
 

Danger of Isolation

To return to the events at Cowley. By June 18th, the second day of the strike, it became clear that those that took the initiative had a hard fight ahead of them. Not all the workers came out on the first day and the 180 from the press shop ran the danger of being isolated.

At first the Pressed Steel management was arrogantly confident it could defeat the workers. It began by using all the traditional methods of the employing class to break the strike and evidently expected the rather hesitant strikers to go back as soon as the management cracked the whip.

On the first day the managing director refused to see a deputation hurriedly got together to present the strikers’ case, but on the following day this high handed approach strengthened the strike. On July 19th, the Oxford Mail reported that the number out had increased to 600.

The same day a second mass meetings was held on Johnson’s field and for the first time officers from the TGWU, Brothers Geobey and Packwood, addressed the strikers. Other speakers were Harry Jones of the Strike Committee and a C.P. members, and Abe Lazarus himself. At this meeting large piles of TGWU membership forms were brought by car and hundreds of members were signed up. The AEU completely missed its opportunity, partly because of the long winded procedure required by the union before application for membership could be accepted.

It is of interest to note that Bro. Jack Jupp, in an interview with the author of this pamphlet, stated that he proposed at this time the AEU should form a special motor car workers section of the union. This idea was turned down but had it been accepted the basic union organisation of the later B.M.C. and British Leyland might have been in the hands of the engineering union rather than the TGWU.

At the second mass meeting, some provisional demands were formulated and for the first time submitted to the management. These demands seem pitifully small, even in relation to the much lower cost of living in 1934. However, in relation to the pittance which most workers had previously earned, they were a real advance. The essence of the demands was an increase to a guaranteed rate of 1/8d per hour – irrespective of the miserable piece work earnings – and union recognition.

The Oxford Mail, reporting the meeting, quoted some specific examples of the terrible low wages received at Pressed Steel. These cases included some girls who had received as little as [?]/10d for a week’s work. Another example was given of a man earning 1/9d for 3½ hours work and another man paid 6/5d for ten hours work. When one considers that the lowest rent paid at Florence Park housing estate was 11/6d but in most cases £1 a week, the desperation of many workers at the time becomes clear.

On July 19th, management placed a statement on the works gates saying that the factory would be closed on the following Monday. It was in fact a defiant declaration that the company did not intend to give an inch of ground.

By the end of the second day, not only were the Pressed Steel workers themselves getting organised but already support was coming from other workers in the town.
 

A Magnificent Stand

On the first day, Mr. Waterhouse, representative of the Oxford Solidarity Committee, had promised assistance. At the time he was also secretary of the Oxford Communist Party. On July 19th a special bulletin called The Conveyer was issued by the TGWU in hundreds of copies. It stated that ‘the whole of the working class in Oxford is stirred by the magnificent stand of the strikers’ and continued:

‘It is the duty of all workers to support the strike whether they are employed by Pressed Steel or not, the fight of the Pressed Steel workers is the fight of the whole of the working class. The acceptance of the infamous terms offered by the Pressed Steel bosses would lead to a general lowering of the standards of all Oxford workers.’

It was in this spirit of uncompromising class struggle that the strike committee led the strike and it was only by adopting this militant line that the Pressed Steel workers eventually won the day. It was the only way they could have won.

On Friday, July 20th, the fourth day of the strike, an evening mass meeting was held at St. Giles and it reflected the good work done by the Solidarity Committee in the town. Twelve speakers addressed this gathering of well over a thousand people.

Among these were Bro. C. Bowles, chairman of the N.U.R. and Oxford Trades Council; Bro. J.F. Ida, chairman of the Oxford and District TGWU; several Pressed Steel workers on strike; and Abe Lazarus again and his comrade, H. Waterhouse of the Solidarity Committee. One of the speakers said: ‘This meeting must mark the beginning of well organised union shops throughout the motor industry in Britain’. If we look at the organised strength of the motor car and accessories factories today, then the historic importance of the meeting has been proved by the march of history.
 

The Strikers’ Full Demands

At this meeting the full demands were finally set out in print. These included a scale of basic wages for each department, as well as a scale of wages for female labour, boys and youths according to age groups. At the end of the meeting a large collection was taken by Abe Lazarus.

As already mentioned the essence of the strikers’ demands meant a 2d increase all round to be guaranteed irrespective of any piece work earnings which were to be negotiated with properly appointed shop stewards. It is a measure of the ruthlessness of the employers that the workers were forced to fight one of the most stormy strikes in the history of the South Midlands, before the bosses would concede these extremely moderate demands.
 

Don’t Cross the Picket

On Sunday evening, July 22nd, a second and much larger meeting was held at St. Giles. The Oxford Mail reported that over 3,000 people attended, although trade union estimates were nearer to 4,000. At this meeting, speakers from the Oxford City Labour Party brought messages of support and the meeting was also addressed by representatives of the newly-formed Council of Action, the Solidarity Committee, the Trades and Labour Council and the strike committee itself. These speakers called upon the busmen not to transport ‘blacklegs’ through the picket lines and appealed to landladies not to provide accommodation to men transported into Oxford to work the machines. Some few months after the strike, the busmen themselves came out and received support from the Pressed Steel workers.

This St. Giles meeting showed how generally outside support was increasing and was the largest seen in the centre of the town for many years. It showed that the workers now held the initiative and would not be defeated.

A very large collection was taken again by Abe Lazarus.
 

Management Ultimatum

On Monday, July 23rd, the seventh day, the full strike committee of 20 members, including two women, for the first time submitted their demands at formal interview with the management. As a matter of fact, the management did little more than to hand a printed statement to the committee, signed by Mr. Otto Müeller, the managing director. This was no better than an ultimatum and a re-emphasis of the status quo. It ended, however, with a statement that the company would re-open the gates on Tuesday, July 24th, and that those who returned to work on that day would be ‘reinstated without prejudice’.

On the previous Saturday, the management had said that the works would close indefinitely on Monday. This statement, therefore, seemed like an attempt to intimidate, and the workers saw it as an indication that the strike would become a bitter struggle. They unanimously rejected the firm’s statement. Up until then the picketing had been fairly mild, but on Tuesday morning when the gates were opened, really determined mass picketing began. At 7.15 a.m. a bus with would-be ‘scabs’ drove up to the gates and there was a rush towards it by the strikers. But a police inspector was able to clear a path and the bus passed unmolested.

By now the workers were becoming well organised and numerous projects were being undertaken by the strike committee. The strike fund had already passed the £100 mark. A soup kitchen was organised and mainly supervised by Cowley Labour Party women. The very few cars available were mobilised, and parties of strikers were sent out to Birmingham, Coventry and Fords at Dagenham. Generous donations were made by the workers at factories in these towns. Large meetings were held, and at Fords the union representatives pledged that if jigs and tools were sent from Cowley to do Pressed Steel work, their Ford members would not handle them.
 

Strike Slogans All Over Town

During the night of July 24th and 25th, strikers were busy with white wash and tar, and as dawn broke on the 25th numerous large slogans appeared in prominent positions in the town. Suitable slogans were also inscribed outside the houses of a few blacklegs. Unfortunately, some of the work was a little over-enthusiastic and owing to an incorrect address being given to one of the signwriters, an inscription was placed outside the house of a member of the Strike Committee itself.

The atmosphere was now becoming electric in all working class areas of Oxford, but the strike was receiving growing support in other parts of the country. A significant example of this was a report in the Oxford Mail stating that nine soldiers had been sent from the Army Vocational Centre at Aldershot. When these men arrived, they refused to work and joined the strikers. They even sent one of their number back to Aldershot to explain the position to their commanding officer. There is no report of how this gentleman reacted to the surprising news. Another example of the initiative shown by the workers was the organisation of a special Fête in Florence Park in aid of the strikers’ funds.

A peculiar intervention by the ‘League of Industry’ was now made. This body, which was linked to another called the Economic League, as well as the Employers’ Federation, now pushed itself forward as a self-appointed arbitrator in a letter to the Oxford Mail signed by a number of ladies and gentlemen well known in the town. The strike committee immediately rejected the proposition, which indeed it regarded as unwelcome interference. The ad hoc committee appointed by the League then disappeared from the scene for good.
 

Stormy Scenes at the Picket

By Friday, July 27th, the trial of strength which had begun so hesitantly on the workers’ side was coming to a head. This was reflected in the stormy scenes taking place on the picket line. Three men were arrested outside the works while attempting to stop a bus containing a few blacklegs. After the arrest of these men, several bus windows were broken and glass scattered on the road, but no-one was injured. Two of the trio were workers, the other was David Floyd, a leading university Communist, and later a foreign correspondent for The Times. In the previous few days a considerable number of students had offered their services on the picket line. This was unprecedented and an event of historic importance to the future of the Labour Movement. The only time students had intervened in any industrial disputes was in 1926 when several thousands had volunteered to do blackleg duty during the General Strike. [1] At Pressed Steel they were on the side of the workers, indicating how the political climate in the university had changed since 1926. There was now for the first time a strong Socialist left appearing in the colleges and the Labour Club was soon to become the largest political club at the university.
 

Why Students Helped Out

This was undoubtedly due to the changed economic circumstances resulting from the 1930 slump and the collapse of the Labour Government in 1931. In 1932 another event had opened the eyes of many undergraduates. In that year a large contingent of the great Hunger March organised by the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement had passed through Oxford. The students were able to see the grim and undernourished faces of these men, many ex-miners, as they marched against the attempts to cut their miserable dole of 17/6d a week. But it was not just sympathy that was bringing a broader understanding to many of these young men and women. Many were themselves feeling the effects of the recession. In particular, those without private means were finding a dire lack of employment when they went down from the University and saw that they had a common interest with the rest of the unemployed. Another event bringing them nearer the ranks of Labour was the victory of Hitlerism in Germany and the appearance of Mosley’s blackshirts in Britain. The vicious destruction of all working class organisations in Germany and the brutal suppression of all democratic organisation including the Liberals, was disturbing to the traditional atmosphere of peaceful detachment cultivated in the universities. Many of the younger academics were therefore beginning to turn to the works of Marx and Engels in their search for an answer to the fascism which seemed to be conquering Europe. To the workers, many of these young men seemed to be no more than converts to romantic revolutionism which could not last; nevertheless, the welcomed the practical help that was now being offered.
 

Victory for the Strikers

By the end of the first week, the tide could be seen to be turning in favour of the striking workers. On Friday, July 27th, a long meeting had taken place in London between the management, TGWU officials, and representatives of the strikers. At 7 a.m. on Saturday morning, Bro. L.G. Teed of the strike committee informed a meeting of the workers on the picket line that though the terms were still provisional a favourable agreement had been reached overnight, which still had to be submitted to a mass meeting. At this second meeting after a two-hour discussion the terms recommended were accepted by a majority vote. The strike had been won. The main provisions of the agreement included the demands of the workers – a guaranteed basic rate of 1/8d irrespective of piece work earnings, full union recognition (appointment of shop stewards, etc.), outstanding grievances to be settled by negotiation. This did not specify the rates for different grades which had been outlined in the workers’ formal demands. However, in view of the full union recognition where there was none before, and agreement to settle the outstanding grievances in negotiations, the strikers could be satisfied that these questions would be settled in their favour. At the end of the meeting, the strike committee chairman, Bro. Jock Ward, collapsed: but he had won his spurs in a successful working class struggle as had all the members of the strike committee. The TGWU was firmly established in the factory. There were many more battles, some won and others lost, but from that moment the union organisation went from strength to strength.

As has already been said, the gains of the strike seem almost trivial by present day standards. However, looked at in perspective they had won a critical victory for themselves and the working class generally.
 

The Basis of Strength

Although Fords, who had their big strike two years before Pressed Steel, were already organised, the motor industry as a whole still consisted of ‘black shops’ in 1934. Today workers are able to meet in their many thousands to take and organise democratic decisions in defence of their standard of living. The determination and spirit of those very poorly paid workers in 1934 played an important part in making the present all-inclusive union organisation possible.

It is because of the willingness of workers like those at Pressed Steel 45 years ago to go into battle without any thought of strike pay that the basis was laid for the present strength of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. It must be recognised that these battles also helped the AEU to grow. But it is the view of the author that if the AEU had been more flexible at the time, if it had really been prepared to become an industrial union in fact, as it already was in theory, it might have been able to carry out the aims of its first chairman, Tom Mann, who believed in one union for one industry. Today there are still two main unions in many engineering factories and the next step is to achieve Tom Mann’s aim by achieving complete unity.
 

Hands Off Our Unions ...

The lesson for the working class coming out of that stormy strike in 1934 is that it is the ordinary shop member who constitutes the only real strength of the union. Without their determination to control their own destiny, the union can turn into just another institution, manipulated by the capitalist establishment. No form of government can be called democratic unless the unions remain independent working class organisations. This aspect of the struggle is often forgotten. If it is to become the function of Governments to fix wages, then the role of unions in society is under threat.

In opposing a government pay policy or any other bureaucratic attempt to hamstring the independent action of the unions, the working class is also fighting for its own conception of democracy. Under the capitalist method of production unions must represent the organised working class (the majority class) seeking always to advance and defend the workers’ standard of living against the employing class that makes its profit out of the labour power of the workers. However, under a system that is formally socialist, the unions would still have to preserve that same independence, including the right to strike, in order to defend the workers against the dangers of self-perpetuating state bureaucracies.
 

The Need for Social Change

At the same time, the trade union movement cannot simply stand for the ‘status quo’. The social conditions in which it exists force it always to strive for a fundamental change in society in favour of the working class ‘by hand and by brain’. This was the underlying motivating force of the trade union movement right from the early Chartist days. It may not be always apparent and some workers cannot see now how the economic and political struggle are inextricably locked together. But at all times of crisis the necessity to change society is forced into the foreground.

It is becoming clearer to millions of workers that the trade union movement is something more than an effort to put pennies on the pay and take minutes off the day or even just to win adequate pensions, and improve working conditions. To fight for these things is indeed the work of serious trade unionists, but in times of crisis such as we now live in, these reforms cannot be permanently preserved and guaranteed unless the whole structure of society is eventually changed.

The need for the trade union to play a major part in bringing about this social change was never more obvious than it is today.
 

Plan for Fair Shares

Within the present capitalist form of society there is no way that one man’s income can be justly related to another’s; no ‘incomes policy’ is possible when the value of a man’s work is measured by the profit that it produces for those who own 80 per cent of the means of production. Such a ‘just’ incomes policy – which some politicians like to talk about – is only possible when we own all the economic resources of the country and in a planned way can really reward people for the work they actually put in to society. Only when we are able to organise a planned socialist economy will the vast majority be satisfied by their own experience that they are really getting a fair share of the national cake in return for the work they do.

Starting with their struggle for a barely living wage in 1934 the motor workers of Cowley in both factories over the years won for themselves a fairly tolerable standard of living. The organisation they built gave them some dignity and self-respect. Thanks to the post Second World War capitalist boom and the existence of a powerful Labour Movement to take advantage of it, life became better for large sections of the workers. But today the gains which were made over the years are threatened by the decay of the British capitalist economy.
 

Take the Road to Socialism

Now, 45 years after the Cowley strike, both the Pressed Steel and the Morris workers are part of a union organisation in the motor industry 75,000 strong, but the disease of de-industrialization taking place in Britain could well destroy the motor industry as well as the great union organisation the workers have built.

Once again the workers are being told that if they don’t accept stand still wages and conform to management and Government requirements, British Leyland will be closed down. The withholding of Government subsidies is used as a threat to force the workers to give up the bargaining power they have built over the years. But even if the workers were to conform to the demands of the whiz-kid Edwards, it is still very doubtful if economic decline would be stopped. The £280 million subsidy which he mentioned last year, and said would be held up only if the workers don’t toe the line he lays down, is really only another stop gap sum. Nearly five years ago, Ryder of the B.M.C. was declaring the need for a £450 million investment plan. Practically none of that was carried out – a much greater sum is needed now when foreign cars have captured over 40 per cent of the market.

As in 1934, the workers in the motor industry, together with the rest of the working class are standing at the cross-roads. We must go forward to a planned economy and a socialist society or we shall be dragged back to the same terrible conditions which the Pressed Steel workers fought against in 1934.


Transcriber’s Note

1. This isn’t actually correct – students from Leeds University also helped to strike-break during the 1913–14 Leeds Municipal Workers strike. This does not take away from the substantive point however. – ID


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Last updated: 10 April 2016