ALL IN A DAY’S WORK – Working Lives & Trade Unions in West London 1945-95

Strikers on the picket line at the Grunwicks mail order film processing plant in Willesden
Strikers on the picket line at the Grunwicks mail order film processing plant in Willesden

All in a Day’s Work

Working Lives and Trade Unions in West London 1945-1995

Published by the Britain at Work Project

£12.80 with p&p

ALL in a Day’s Work is a 250-page book featuring over one hundred extracts from oral history interviews carried out by the Britain at Work London group. It chronicles the working lives and trade union activities of people who worked in west London during the years 1945-1995.

Its publishers describe the book as ‘a unique snapshot’ of many types of work and workplaces in both the private sector and public services, covering an area stretching from Hayes in the west to Paddington and from Harrow in the north to the River Thames.

The introduction admits it ‘can do no more than skim the surface of the complex social and economic world of West London as it is largely built around the interviews themselves’. However, these give a vivid impression of the lives and struggles of a vibrant, cosmopolitian working class including large numbers of Irish, West Indian and Asian men and women.

The book is divided into chapters covering manufacturing, public transport, public services and communication and culture. The first ‘It’s this West London militancy’: Manufacturing begins with the battles to improve often horrific conditions in factories such as Kodak, and engineering firm ENV. It goes on to paint a picture of rising trade union militancy.

Paying tribute to the shop stewards movement, the authors say: ‘In the late fifties and early sixties, trade unions were affected by a new ferment of ideas. This was partly due to a thaw in the Cold War and the appearance of a new generation of militant union leaders like Frank Cousins of the TGWU and, later, Hugh Scanlon in the AEU.’

It goes on to say the strikes of the 1960s ‘also prompted a new optimism amongst left-wing activists’. It refers to the attempts at anti-union legislation including Tory employment secretary Robert Carr’s Industrial Relations Bill under the Heath government before a passage on the heroic 1976-1978 strike at the film processing company Grunwick in Willesden.

The largely Asian women strikers were confronted on mass pickets by the Met Police’s Special Patrol Group and were joined by NUM members led by Arthur Scargill. The strikers were defiant and hundreds were arrested trying to stop scabs driving through their picket lines but the TGWU leadership caved in and ended the strike.

The book does not mention this betrayal of leadership but merely says ‘the strike was defeated’. Returning to the Industrial Relations Act, there is a further passage praising the rank-and-file shop stewards movement and photo of Vic Turner being carried aloft after being released from Pentonville Prison when the TUC was forced to call a half-day general strike.

The caption says: ‘Vic Turner, one of the five dockers jailed under the Industrial Relations Act in July 1972, is carried in triumph from Pentonville prison, 250,000 workers were on strike. The “Official Solicitor” intervened to secure their release. The strikes that occurred in support of the dockers represented rank and file solidarity.’

Chapter 2 ‘Tumbling about the Town’: Public Transport begins with the struggles on British Rail and the London Tube network over pay and conditions and against driver-only operation trains.

Mentioned in passing is the 1987 King’s Cross fire and that the fire report ‘had revealed that the underground had not allowed public access to its safety regime: material relating to the 1984 Oxford Circus fire was deemed to be “politically sensitive”, there was no public monitoring and no effective public control. London Transport had been warned about the dangers of fire, particularly in regard to illuminated exit signs, but ignored the warnings and pressed on with money-saving programmes.’

The book goes on to feature the battles of bus workers, including the 1958 London bus strike. The chapter concludes with a section on the struggles of workers at Heathrow and features an interview with TGWU shop steward Iqbal Vaid who led a 1998 strike at airline catering company LSG Lufthansa Skychefs.

The strikers were sacked and fought to get reinstated but the TGWU leadership, under Bill Morris, sold them out. Chapter 3 ‘Born in the NHS’: Health, Education, Council and Social Services features the 1972 strike by hospital ancillary workers with interviews with participants at St Mary Abbots Hospital, Kensington and campaigns against the closure of Perivale, West London and Temple Hill House hospitals, plus against cuts at Charing X, Acton and West Middlesex hospitals.

There was a 1976 nurse sit-in at Central Middlesex Hospital over job cuts. Workers fighting its closure occupied St Mary’s Hospital, Harrow Road, in 1981. In the section on education, the book marks the growth of comprehensive schools, campaigns for equal pay and London schools pay strikes in 1973 and anger at Heath’s 1971 education secretary Thatcher the ‘milk snatcher’.

This section also follows the development of further and adult education lecturers’ union NATFHE. The section on local government and social services features struggles over council cuts and the development of council unions.

Central to these was the battle against the 1986 abolition of the Greater London Council by the Thatcher government following the 1981 election of Ken Livingstone as GLC leader and his Fares Fair policy. However little is said about the fight to defend the GLC, with the authors bemoaning that after the GLC’s abolition ‘London entered a 14-year wasteland, with massively detrimental effects on planning, transport and housing’.

Chapter 4 ‘It’s in the Plan’: Culture and Communications begins with a section of interviews with young actors, photographers, designers and dressmakers, including the development of the Riverside Studios, Hammersmith. Following this, comes interviews with of local journalists and then a section recalling the 1986/1987 printers strike at Wapping.

The link with west London is interviews with a printworker and journalist who lived in west London. With these is a photo of a lobby of the TUC General Council calling for the expulsion of the EEPTU and its leader Eric Hammond over their organised scabbing.

One of the placards reads: ‘6,000 FAMILIES THANK EEPTU and JOURNALISTS FOR THE SACK!’

Opposite this photograph is one of the small group of journalists who refused to move to Wapping and were sacked along with the printers. A brief passage outlines some of struggles to unionise at the BBC. This is followed by section on the development of shopworkers union USDAW; civil servants’ strikes; the London Fire Brigade, including a description of the 1977 FBU national pay strike; before a more extensive look at the struggles of postal workers.

This latter features the 44-day 1971 national pay strike called by the Union of Postal Workers, the forerunner of the Communication Workers Union. The last section of this chapter looks at the London construction industry and includes recollection of the 1972 national construction workers strike over pay, hours and against casual labour.

It has a photo of Des Warren, the leading Shrewsbury picket who along with 24 others was victimised. He and fellow picket Ricky Tomlinson were jailed under the Victorian Conspiracy laws. Des Warren got a longer sentence and died of Parkinson’s disease which had been brought on by being subjected to the ‘liquid cosh’, largactyl, while in prison.

In this chapter’s conclusion, the authors claim: ‘The Leninist model of of change continued to hold sway in many ways, partly because Communist party members in the workplaces were the backbone of resistance to employers in a very down-to-earth and practical sense.’

The book’s overall conclusion states: ‘The “militant minority” that has formed the core of this book . . . was a spectrum, ranging from those who wanted to reform society to those who wanted to overthrow it.’

It goes on to say this movement ‘could not consistently reach the levers of power outside the workplace’ and this scepticism is the political weakness of the book’s reformist and Stalinist leaning authors.

However, with a healthy critical eye on its politics, this is a refreshing reminder of, despite their leaders, the courage, vitality and combativity of workers and youth.

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