Aberfan: the sorrow and anger of fifty years

Aberfan: the sorrow and anger of fifty years

Fifty years ago today, on 21 October 1966, at 9.15 in the morning, the children of Pantglas Junior School had just returned from morning assembly to sit at their desks in their classrooms when spoil tip no. 7 tore down the mountainside, taking just five minutes to smash through houses and the school, burying everything in its path in a sea of thick, black mud. By that evening, as miners from the nearby pits toiled under arc lights, scrabbling with their bare hands at the slurry, the village of Aberfan knew that 187 souls were lost, 116 of them children. A generation had been  wiped out. Continue reading “Aberfan: the sorrow and anger of fifty years”

Re-reading Dickens: Hard Times in Coketown

Re-reading Dickens: Hard Times in Coketown

Dickens had a genuine and long-standing concern for the condition of the industrial working class, but when he came to write Hard Times, a novel that makes that subject its main concern, his imaginative powers failed him. His general view of society and the relations between social classes enfeebled the book’s plot and characterisation. That’s not to say that it doesn’t contain scenes of deliciously merciless satire, but it does strike me as being the weakest of the novels that I have encountered so far in this project to re-read, or read for the first time, all of Dickens’s works. Continue reading “Re-reading Dickens: Hard Times in Coketown”

Live Working or Die Fighting

Does the history of working class resistance to exploitation and injustice in the 19th and 20th centuries have any relevance for the activists of today attempting to organise the slum-dwellers of Asia or Africa who, in the globalised economy of the 21st century, cut and pack the fruit and vegetables that end up on our supermarket shelves, sew our jeans and shirts, or assemble the the bits and bobs of our new technology?

Paul Mason thinks so, and he has written a book to illuminate forgotten corners of that history, not to push a line or preach lessons from it, but to show today’s anti-globalisation activists and workers in the new factories, mines and agribusinesses in the developing world that what they are doing has been done before.  Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class went Global (the title comes from the  slogan on a banner carried by striking silk weavers in Lyon in 1831) is that book.  It was published in 2007; I’ve just caught up with it.

It’s an expansive survey of the many and varied forms of resistance to exploitation and injustice thrown up by the working class and the marginalised in the past 200 years. What makes the book unusual and refreshing is a combination of three things. First, Mason’s narrative arc is traced via a collage of vivid ‘micro-histories’, the personal stories of individuals who resisted capitalism, and by their resistance helped shape different strategies and forms of social organisation.  Second, in each chapter he makes a connection between one of these stories from the past and somewhere in the world today where workers or activists – from Bolivia to India and from Canary Wharf to China – continue to resist exploitation in the age of globalisation. And third, beyond being obviously on the side of the downtrodden, Mason doesn’t push a thesis or party line: he leaves his readers to draw their own conclusions.

The closest he comes to advancing the kind of ‘thesis’ that usually dominates a book like this is to suggest that today’s activists need to know that at certain times in the past the working class movement was a vital force, sometimes even a counterculture of cooperation and solidarity (‘a world within a world’, as he puts it) providing education, welfare services and entertainment for men and women whose lives were short and otherwise bleak.

If Mason the Newsnight business journalist allows his sympathies to show, it’s in his account of syndicalism – which, by succeeding in bringing unskilled, unorganised and casual workers into trade unions, offers a beacon to those attempting to do the same today – and in his fascinating account of the Jewish Socialist Bund in Poland in the 1920s and 1930s which probably built the most coherent working class counter-culture in history but has now been largely forgotten because it was a non-revolutionary movement, hated by the Communist International and pretty well ignored by the Socialist International. (The telling photograph at the top of this post is of the May Day demonstration organized by the Bund in Warsaw in 1936).

Setting out his stall in the prologue, Mason says:

Right now in London there are Somali, Kurdish and Brazilian migrant cleaners trying to form unions inside the   headquarters of investment banks, but they are still having trouble with the city’s geography, let alone its history. They have no idea that the Irish and Jewish migrants who lived in the same streets 100 years ago had to fight the same kind of battle, or how they won. And why should they? Amid relentless change we can no longer rely on word of mouth, family, tradition and community to keep working class history alive.

In that last sentence, Mason speaks of something that he knows first-hand. He grew up in Leigh in Lancashire, the son of a miner:

I lived for eighteen years in this tightly knit working class town where people had jobs for life, where everybody was in a union, where the only party that ever won elections was Labour.  They manufactured cotton, cranes, electrical system boards, asbestos and giant wire cables; they dug coal – you could tell the time by the shunt of the winding gear in the distance. During those eighteen years, despite miners’ strikes and numerous walkouts at my father’s factory, I never once saw a red flag or a demonstration. The first miners’ banner I ever saw was embroidered with a scene showing an evening cricket match, with players wearing white and the sun setting behind colliery winding gear.That seemed to be the extent of their dreams. Nobody mentioned the word capitalism; people who used it were seen as radical, and only middle class people were radical . . . and who wanted to be middle class?  What the miners had fought for were pit-head baths, a pension scheme, free health care, sports fields and the leisure time to play on them – and above all jobs.

Now, argues Mason, everything has changed: the close-knit working class communities where the Labour Party and trade unions were central, have gone, shattered by the political and economic changes of the last 30 years:

When there were strong labour movements in Europe, America and the Pacific based in stable communities with an oral tradition, everybody knew the basic history. … Leigh, the town where I grew up, was not so different in the 1960s from how it was when my grandfather went down the pit in 1913: it was a world of white manual workers, devout Sunday marchers for Catholicism and Methodism, brass bands, rugby and the annual Miners’ Gala. It is totally different now: twenty years of globalisation have shorn away most of what was permanent and certain. The miners’ union was destroyed, manufacturing has moved to China, and if you look for the union activists now you will find them mainly in education and local government.The labour market in which workers from Leigh compete starts at their doorsteps and ends at a bus station in Bangalore or a slum in Shenzhen. A culture that took 200 years to build was torn apart in twenty.

We don’t need Mason’s book to tell us that globalisation has created a whole new working class – the people who pick our vegetables in Africa, assemble mobile phones in China or clean an investment bank at night in Canary Wharf.  But what Mason does is to juxtapose stories from this new working class alongside moments from the last 200 years when working people fought for something better, such as Peterloo, the Paris Commune, and so on. Each chapter in this book is a tale from history, opening in Manchester with the Peterloo massacre of 1819 and closing with the great sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan in 1937. The strongest chapters are those dealing with Jewish workers and the Bund in Poland between 1904 and 1939, the rise of unskilled unionism, and the wave of factory occupations that swept Italy, France and America in the 1920s and 1930s.  Less satisfactory is the chapter that tells of the birth of the Chinese working class in Shanghai between the wars.

Juxtaposing past and present in this way has the effect of making those lives from the past, pre-dating mass trade unionism and socialist parties, almost modern: re-lived now in the sweatshops of India, China and beyond where the old struggles for democratic rights, better pay and conditions, education and welfare protection are being fought today.

This was brought home sharply to me when I attended a lecture at John Moores University last night.  In ‘Toxic capital: death and degradation in the de-industrialised city’, Steve Tombs, Brian Ashton and Dave Whyte analysed recent developments in Lierpool’s ‘edgelands’: the north docks and Kirkby industrial estate. The north docks are now the location of the biggest metals recycling operation in the UK.  A huge metal shredding plant disposes of scrapped cars, alongside shipbreaking and other metals recycling operations.  The work is hazardous, dealing with toxic metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic, and appears to be carried out with little or no safety protection.  It’s a similar story on Kirkby Industrial Estate where the Sonae plant recycles wood and chipboard to produce new chipboard. Some of the workers are sub-contracted (three sub-contracted workers died in an industrial accident last year that is currently under investigation, and there have been numerous other accidents and fires at the plant.

But this also highlights a weakness in Mason’s perspective: his sympathies appear to lie with syndicalism, or at least the idea that unionising the new emerging workforces of the globalised economy will advance social and environmental causes.  But, crucial as unions are in the working class armoury, they do tend to be narrowly concerned with jobs.  In the case of Sonae, for example, the union that represents at least some of the workforce in the plant has opposed attempts by the local community (and now the local MP) to get the plant closed down.  250 jobs are at stake.

Mason begins with a symbolic story from Liverpool.  In June 1904, two men working on the construction of the Anglican cathedral, Fred Bower and Jim Larkin (above, later to play a leading role in Irish and American trade unionism) buried under the cathedral’s massive  foundation stone a time capsule addressed to the future.  In a biscuit tin, along with copies of the Clarion and Labour Leader the men buried this note:

To the Finders, Hail!
We, the wage slaves employed on the erection of this cathedral, to be dedicated to the worship of the unemployed Jewish carpenter, hail ye! Within a stone’s throw from here, human beings are housed in slums not fit for swine. This message, written on trust-produced paper with trust-produced ink, is to tell ye how we of today are at the mercy of the trusts. Building fabrics, clothing, food, fuel, transport, are all in the hands of money mad soul destroying trusts. We can only sell our labour power, as wage slaves, on their terms. The money trusts today own us. In our own day, you will, thanks to the efforts of past and present agitators for economic freedom, own the trusts. Yours will indeed, compared to ours of today, be a happier existence. See to it, therefore, that ye, too, work for the betterment of all , and so justify your existence by leaving the world the better for your having lived in it. Thus and thus only shall come about the Kingdom of “God” or “Good” on Earth. Hail, Comrades, and – Farewell.
Yours sincerely, A Wage Slave

Paul Mason writes:

That message still lies where it was buried. It was addressed to the kids in combat trousers protesting outside a Nike store in Seattle, to the rake-thin teenagers sewing trainers in Cambodian sweatshops and to migrant cleaners resting their exhausted heads against bus windows as dawn breaks in London. Few of us can imagine what that message cost to write, in terms of hardship and self-sacrifice. Or the joy experienced on those rare days when the downtrodden people of the world were allowed to stand up and breathe free.

Members of the Socialist Bund march in Bialystok on 1 May 1934 (Yivo)

The stories that Mason re-tells are those of remarkable individuals and considerable working class achievements: self-help co-operatives, choirs and brass bands, community education and factory management. Mason reports, too, from places in the developing industrial economies of the world today, where people still struggle to take control of their lives. Live Working or Die Fighting celebrates a common history of defiance, idealism and self-sacrifice.  To that extent, it’s an inspirational book that rings with ‘the still, sad music of humanity’. Yet it is also a calvacade of defeats (sometimes brought about by divisions, as Mason puts it, ‘between brother and brother’), albeit that the log-term trajectory, at least until the 1980s, was one of advancing democratic rights and wider social protections.

Curiously, as I was writing this, and pondering just how relevant or meaningful are Mason’s stories from the past, I was listening to the new Bruce Springsteen album, and as I heard these words, from the song ‘We Are Alive’, I got my answer.  This is about the importance of history and keeping memory alive.  Springsteen celebrates Americans who died fighting for a better future:railroad workers who took part in the Great Strike of 1877 (mentioned, too, in Mason’s book), civil rights marchers and their children in the 1960s, and migrants seeking a better life in El Norte:

We are alive 
And though our bodies lie alone here in the dark 
Our spirits rise to carry the fire and light the spark 
To stand shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart 

A voice cried out, I was killed in Maryland in 1877 
When the railroad workers made their stand 
Well, I was killed in 1963 one Sunday morning in Birmingham 
Well, I died last year crossing the southern desert 
My children left behind in San Pablo 
Well they left our bodies here to rot 
Oh please let them know 
We are alive 
Oh, and though we lie alone here in the dark 
Our souls will rise to carry the fire and light the spark 
To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart

Remembering Jayaben Desai

What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo. But in a zoo there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your finger-tips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are those lions, Mr Manager.
– Jayaben Desai

In a wonderful Guardian obituary today, Jack Dromey celebrates the life of Jayaben Desai who led the walkout and long-running strike at the Grunwick film-processing plant in 1978.  It was a strike that rallied support and respect from trade unionists across the country, strengthening the recognition of women and immigrant workers as fellow trade unionists.  The death of Jayaben Desai was reported just as an exhibition at the Women’s Library in London is due to open; it revisits the Grunwick dispute, and the Gate Gourmet strike in 2005, to highlight the role of south Asian women in trade union history.

Jayaben Desai on the Grunwick picket line: photo courtesy of Homer Sykes

Grunwick is remembered because it marked the first time that south Asian women were seen to challenge the stereo­type of being silent and subservient. Ruth Pearson, professor of development studies at Leeds University explains:

At the time, the general view of these women was that they were downtrodden, second-class people. They were often depicted as nothing more than passive victims. These women are inspirational. They stood up for their rights and their dignity. They took on management, dealt with prejudice and hostility within their own community and outside, and they managed to retain their sense of fairness and justice.

Recently Desai was asked, how does it feel to be part of history? She replied:

I am proud of what I did. They wanted to break us down, but we did not break.

In today’s obituary, Jack Dromey recalls:

Desperate for work, the newly arrived accepted long hours and low wages, though the need to do so, Desai said, “nagged away like a sore on their necks”. When she decided she had had enough, the 4ft10in employee told her 6ft manager, Malcom Alden, “What you are running is not a factory, it is a zoo. But in a zoo there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips. Others are lions who can bite your head off. We are those lions, Mr Manager.”

As a result of her passion and magical turn of phrase, 100 of her fellow workers joined her on strike. Yet they were not even in a trade union. The local Citizens Advice Bureau gave her son Sunil two phone numbers – that of the Trades Union Congress and mine, as secretary of the Brent Trades Council. The TUC advised them to join the white-collar union Apex, now part of the GMB.

Grunwick was a mail-order film-processing company most of whose trade came from holiday snaps. The decision of postmen at the local sorting office in Cricklewood to black the firm’s mail almost won the dispute for the strikers. But at the start of November 1976, the Grunwick boss George Ward, supported by the National Association for Freedom, a pressure group run by the Conservative MP and publicist John Gorst, launched a legal challenge in the high court. The initiative was backed by the opposition leader Margaret Thatcher, who hailed Ward as a champion of freedom. The blacking of the sorting office was called off and defeat stared the dismayed strikers in the face. Nonetheless, they maintained their picket as winter drew on.

“We must not give up,” Jayaben told a packed meeting of the strikers, by then 130 strong, in the Brent Trades and Labour Hall. “Would Gandhi give up? Never!” The strike committee, of which I was proud to be a member, took their cause to more than 1,000 workplaces, from engineering factories in Glasgow to the coalmines of south Wales. They brought home to the big battalions of organised labour an understanding of the grim reality facing too many.

Then, on Monday 13 June 1977, the police arrested 84 pickets out of 100 who had come to demonstrate their solidarity on what was called Women’s Support Day. The campaigners were angry that the involvement of Acas, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, had not enabled them to obtain union recognition. Jayaben’s nationwide tour encouraged workers from all over Britain, outraged that the strikers had been sacked, to join the picket line outside the factory.

There were 1,300 by the following Friday, and 12,000 by 11 July, the day that 20,000 went on a TUC-organised march to the factory. Once again, the Cricklewood postmen took action, blacking the mail to Grunwick. Colin Maloney, their chairman, observed: “You don’t say ‘no’ to Mrs Desai.” The postmen – all white apart from one West Indian – were suspended for three weeks and threatened with dismissal.

The Labour prime minister, James Callaghan, set up a cabinet committee and persuaded the TUC and Apex to allow a court of enquiry under Lord Justice Scarman to resolve the dispute. “No employer has ever defied a court of enquiry,” said the TUC general secretary, Len Murray. “You don’t understand that we are dealing with a new breed of employer, backed by the emerging Thatcherite right,” I told him. “He will defy the court of enquiry,” Jayaben said.

She was right. Scarman was in favour of recognition and reinstatement. Ward refused to accept. James Prior, the Tory shadow employment spokesman, was supportive of the workers’ case, but to no avail. And, with the movement around the dispute wound down, there were no avenues left to win justice. After a second bitter winter on the picket line, the strikers conceded defeat on 14 July 1978.

Defiant to the end, Jayaben told the final meeting of the strikers that they could be proud. “We have shown,” she said, “that workers like us, new to these shores, will never accept being treated without dignity or respect. We have shown that white workers will support us.” Only 10 years previously, dockers had marched in support of the Conservative politician Enoch Powell, and workforces had polarised along racial lines at Mansfield Hosiery Mills in Nottinghamshire and Imperial Typewriters in Leicester.

Grunwick had witnessed the biggest mobilisation in British labour-movement history in support of fewer than 200 strikers. Defying all the odds, one courageous woman inspired all who heard her. “Mr Jack,” she would often say to me, “my English is not good.” Yet she captured in poetic language all that is best in the human spirit.

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