At the September GIHS meeting we had a talk by Scott Reeve about a strike at the Charlton United Glass works in 1960. Here is an article on which his talk was based.
The Anatomy of a Strike
At 11 am on Friday the 12th, February 1960 the Manager, Mr Morris, of the United Glass Bottles factory in Charlton, S.E London thought he could improve industrial relations in the factory by talking directly to the workers in one of the factory’s shops. The shop he chose was the shop whose steward, Mr Morton, was Chairman of the Shop Stewards’ Committee We do not know what he wanted to say to his employees but it must have been connected with the national engineering unions’ claim for a cut in the working week and a substantial increase in wages. The unions meeting in York on the 11th of February accepted the National employer’s offer of a cut in the working week from 44 to 42 hours but no increase in wages. The Shop Stewards Committee at UGB consequently ended the workers working to rule in support of the national claim on the morning of the 12th of February.
We do not know what he intended to say because the men did not attend the meeting but carried on working. Again he sent instructions to the workers to come along and listen to his wise words. Again no one turned up. He then sacked with one hours notice Wally Morton the shop steward who he blamed for the workers not attending his meeting. By noon on the same day all work had stopped at the factory as practically all the firm’s 1,400 workers had walked out in support of the Chair of their shop Stewards Committee.
The Shop Stewards established a strike committee with Les Doust an AEU UGB Worker and a senior official of the South London AEU as its chairman. In addition he was a well known Communist. They organised a picket rota, called a mass meeting of strikers for Monday morning, contacted their union Officials, members of at least 6 unions were on the Shop Stewards Committee, and stewards at other UGB factories. They had factories in Glasgow, Liverpool and Yorkshire.
Time now for the strikers and management to take stock of the situation, at 11am management tried to address their employees, they tried again, and then sacked the Stewards’ Chairman and by midday practically all of the factories’ 1,400 workers had walked out on strike. This was clearly a spontaneous strike, there was little or no time for the Shop Stewards to call a strike, news of the sacking must have spread like wild fire through the workforce scattered throughout the large site and their reaction was to immediately walk out on strike. Labourers as well as the engineers, warehouse men as well as electricians all walked out. The strikers’ position was simple. No return to work until the Chair of the Shop Stewards got his job back.
The management’s position was exactly the opposite. “It can not be acceptable for any employee to countermand management’s clear instructions. Management must be able to hold a meeting with their employees, on their premises and in the firm’s time”, they sent out a letter to all 1,400 strikers making these points. The strikers view was that if management had anything to say to the workers they should do it through, the Shop Stewards Committee, the workers elected representatives. The stewards maintained that there was a local agreement covering this very point. This was the accepted practice in all factories where management recognised the unions.
The employers said they would not discuss the situation with the unions at UGB until all the strikers had returned to work.
The strikers mass meeting on Monday morning unanimously agreed that Wally Morton’s sacking was a flagrant act of victimisation. They resolved to continue the strike until he got his job back, and organised strikers to go round other factories, depots and the docks to ask them to black UGB bottles. The factory like many other factories in the area was on the south side of the river Thames and barges delivered raw materials for the glass manufacture directly to the factory site and collected glass bottles. In addition UGB had a contract with the Co-op to supply them with the glass bottles for children attending L.C.C schools. At the mass meeting a fulltime organiser of the South London District of the AEU spoke supporting the strike saying he expected it to be made official. He also said that union officials had met management that very morning but had got nowhere with them.
If all this was not serious enough for the Management the factories’ boiler workers struck on the Monday. The significance of this was that if the furnaces are not working no glass can be produced and it would take weeks to restart the furnaces once they had stopped working. The strikers knew this and stopped the oil coming into the site to fuel the furnaces. Management managed to keep them working until the end of the week.
By the middle of the week the bottles had been blacked by Co-op workers and Thames stevedores who crewed the barges. Workers at the firm’s factory in St Helens’ had held a token strike in support of the Charlton strikers. In addition the Glasgow UGB workers had threatened an all out strike on Friday if the dispute had not been settled by then and the workers of Harveys a neighbouring factory had offered to organise collections for the strike fund.
On Thursday a mass meeting of the 1,600 strikers was told that Management had contacted the Trade unions’ full time officials begging for an end to the strike. A meeting was taking place that very day between the District officials of the AEU and UGB management at the Ministry of Labour offices in Central London. Management still refused to talk to the Shop Stewards
Meanwhile the strike had become a local and political news story. It was the front page lead in the 2 local newspapers, the Kentish Independent and the Kentish Mercury with headlines “Shop Steward sacked so 1.400 strike and “Shop Steward sacked: 1,600 strike” respectively. As Communist Party members played a leading role in the strike it was not surprising that the Daily Worker covered the strike, they gave it limited, but daily coverage, small paragraphs on page 3. They did not report the deal that ended the strike. More surprisingly the Trotskyist Socialist Labour League of Gerry Healy sent Brian Behan down to the picket line. He wrote a detailed account of the first week of the strike which made the front page of the SLL’s weekly paper “The Newsletter.” With the headline London: Bottle workers out”
The AEU lead by their full time South London District official, Mr Parker, agreed the following with the UGB’s management:
1. Wally Morton’ sacking would be withdrawn and substituted with 3 days suspension commencing with the return to work by the strikers.
2. Management asked the AEU to examine the fitness of Wally Morton to be a shop steward
3. Representatives of the 6 trade unions at UGB would meet with management to discuss the functions of the shop stewards.
Mr Parker and another union full timer Mr Biggin then met the strike committee to inform them of the deal but they were divided on the compromise agreed with the AEU and decided not to recommend ending the strike to the mass meeting of strikers on Friday morning.
The union officials sold the deal to the strikers as a defeat for management even through the terms of the deal are not completely satisfactory from the workers point of view. A striker moved that we should not go back until our leader Wally Morton is in the front of our march back to work. This was rejected by 2 to 1 and when a resumption of work on the terms agreed by the Trade Unions was put to the meeting the Chair of the Meeting Les Doust declared the vote 50-50. He then put the vote to the strikers again, this time asking everyone to remember the gravity of the situation, the vote to end the strike was narrowly carried.
After the vote Les Doust said “The meeting whilst accepting the recommendations for a resumption of work does not regard the terms of the settlement as entirely satisfactory. Morton’s credentials are satisfactory to us”
The SLL talked to the strikers about the deal and described it as a shoddy little deal. They sold 125 copies of the Newsletter and some workers asked about joining the SLL. The Daily Worker reported that strikers bought 130 copies of the paper.
Return to Work
Next week the newsletter had a story on the return to work where they said everything seemed to indicate a resounding victory for the strikers. But instead a shabby compromise was negotiated between management and union officials.
The return to work and the deal that made it possible were factually reported in the following week’s Independent and Mercury but the Mercury had an editorial attacking the strike headed Power with out responsibility. The Editorial accused the shop stewards of flouting the agreed local agreement between unions and management and acted on impulse.
The workers would say it was management who broke the local agreement by sacking their leader and they immediately walked out without any instructions from their shop stewards. It was management who acted on impulse. By taking immediate action the workers got the job of the chairman of the shop stewards back.
On the deal that ended the strike, management revoked the dismissal of Wally Morton and suspended him for 3 days. This must be a victory for the strikers. Wally Morton was still a Shop Steward, the workers still recognised him as their chairman. Management can ask a T.U to withdraw a steward’s credentials but only ask. Management do no not veto the appointment of shop stewards. It is clear that the unions and management would have to sit down and discuss how industrial relations can be improved and come to an agreement how they would work together in the future.
This is also an example of how the communists played a positive role in industrial relations: They negotiated the deal; they sold the deal to the workers and were responsible for ending it.
28 September 2010