A short history of the unofficial strike at Courtauld’s Red Scar Mill in Preston, 1965, the first of what would become a long list of significant ‘migrant strikes’ (such as Mansfield Hosiery in 1972, Standard Telephones and Cables in 1973, Imperial Typewriters in 1974 and, of course, Grunwick in 1976).
Some firms openly practised discrimination against black workers. Others (the more ‘enlightened’ managements) adopted the ‘soft glove’ technique. Both, however, inevitably had to face the problem of increasing productivity and profit, and the resistance of black workers who were drawn into devious schemes to achieve these targets. Prolonged exploitation led to inevitable reaction.
In May 1965 one of the first important ‘immigrant’ strikes took place at Courtaulds Red Scar Mill in Preston over management’s decision to force Asian workers (who were crammed with a few West Indians into one area of the labour process) to man more machines for proportionately less pay. This first skirmish has become a landmark in black labour history in Britain. The weaving firm, Red Scar, used chemical processes in making its products. Workers in the Tyre Cord Spinning Department supervised a bank of spindles on a machine. Not surprisingly, throughout 1964 Courtaulds was seeking improved productivity from its plants and the person representing management at Red Scar duly negotiated (without consultation with the workers) a deal with the regional organiser of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU). Thus, a devious deal was struck. After signing the agreement, the union official told the shop stewards (only one of whom was Asian) to convene a meeting and get the workers to accept supervision of one and a half machines instead of the existing one. The financial reward for this was a ten shilling bonus a week. Incensed by this, the workers called a meeting with the union’s regional organiser who was asked to explain his ‘agreement’ with Red Scar management. His attempt to explain his indefensible action was jeered. The workers drew his attention to the fact that the agreement meant a 50 per cent increase in output for a 3 per cent increase in their wage!1
Needless to say, they voted against the new proposals. Consequently, the plan to increase productivity at the expense of disproportionate wages, an unviable proposition in the face of unanimous black workers’ resistance, was shelved for a month.
This brief respite was ominous. The ever resourceful capitalist cunning was put into operation. Without warning, the workers on the afternoon shift were suddenly confronted with new work allocations. The line managers moved in with red paint and brushes and drew boundary lines along the machines dividing them into halves. Each worker was now allocated supervision of 1½ machines. The men promptly refused and staged a sit-in, to management’s astonishment. This action resulted in machines being clogged. There was chaos for 17 hours. In their final act of solidarity that day, the black workers, most of them Indians and Pakistanis, walked out.
They went on strike for three days. Predictably, the TGWU Chairman at the factory, Richard Roberts, immediately began a campaign to get the strikers back to work, before any negotiations could begin. Clearly he was sympathetic to management’s threat that they would not negotiate under duress. After all, he was the link man, the mediator, the ‘responsible’ trade union leader. He could not therefore be seen to be disruptive of the smooth operation of the firm’s policy objectives. In short, the trade union officials had to be experts at man-management (for example, keeping workers within established norms of productivity), an approach welcomed by the employers who saw human beings only in terms of labour cost.
Revealing his, and clearly the trade union hierarchy’s position, Roberts told the press that the strike was ‘unofficial’ and ‘racial’. He told Paul Foot, the journalist, ‘I could have said it was “tribal” but that might have been a bit unfair.’2 Playing ‘unfair’ then was not outside the bounds of possibility in official trade union thinking. Uncharacteristic of a ‘responsible’ trade unionist, one might add.
Regardless of his and the union’s views, the strikers had been through a painful experience. Though disorganised (and lacking in trade union experience) they were resolute, staying out until mid-June. During this period, with no ‘precept or precedent’ they made attempts to organise themselves. They were further disadvantaged by the fact that they had ‘no recourse to a black movement equipped to mobilise the assistance they needed to win’. In disarray, an vulnerable, the pressures were indeed great. Early in June, the 120 West Indians involved in the action returned to work after a ‘pep talk’ about ‘responsible behaviour’ by representatives of the West Indian High Commission who had called a ‘strike meeting’. Ultimately, the strike failed but not before it had exposed the active collaboration of the white workers and the union with management.
The strike at Red Scar nevertheless was significant. For the first time in the industrial struggle of Asian workers, the black movement made a well publicised intervention during which Roy Sawh and Michael de Freitas (Michael X) of the Racial Adjustment Action Society (RAAS) made statements. While Sawh called for a separate union of Blacks, De Freitas later said that although he was against white people ‘he was not for separate unions’. In spite of the publicity focused on the dispute because of the intervention of the two RAAS speakers, the workers listened to these to militant West Indians, applauded their spirit and laughed at their anti-white jokes, ‘but couldn’t take them or their organisation as serious channels of industrial struggle. It was apparent to the workers from the beginning that Michael X would bring them publicity in the quality Sunday papers, but no more. RAAS had no experience with mobilising an independent black revolutionary force in Britain, and didn’t seem to the workers as capable of analysing the issue of the strike, let alone mobilising national or international support for it.’3
When the Red Scar strike had ended, there was no shortage of views from reporters. John Torode advocated an educational drive by the union of their Asian workforces in order to avoid strikes.4 But would this alone alleviate the workers’ plight? Paul Foot, the socialist, felt ‘If the Red Scar strike shocks management and unions into greater care over communication with and promotion of immigrant workers, its consequences may not be as disastrous as they once threatened to be.’5
What is revealing is the fact that although the strike was fought by the immigrant workers (with the crucial support of the Asian community and, in particular, the Indian Workers’ Association), they failed to win against their oppressive employers because of a lack of union support.
Taken from The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain by Ron Ramdin.
1.Foot, P. ‘The Strike at Courtaulds, Preston’, IRR, July 1965; New Society, 17 June 1965.
3.The Struggle of Asian Workers in Britain (The Race Today Collective, 1983), p. 16.
4.Torode, J. ‘Race Moves in on the Unions’, New Society, 17 June 1965.
5.Foor, p. op cit.