IS in the 60s: two thousand workers with bricks: the Roberts-Arundel strike

How can revolutionaries build local groups from tiny beginnings? Colin Barker played a key role in the development of the International Socialists in 1960s Manchester. In the first two parts of this interview with Colin Wilson he’s described joining IS at university, and then making links with workers and anti-racist campaigns in Manchester. In this third part he talks about a key event for Manchester IS, an engineering strike six miles away in Stockport.

Roberts Arundel march

Workers march in support of the Roberts-Arundel strike

In 1966 a strike started in Stockport, at an engineering factory called Roberts-Arundel, over union recognition. It was an American-owned company, making textile machinery. Around 140 workers were sacked because they went on strike – protesting, actually, against the employment of women on machines that had been shipped in, the management said, “we don’t have to pay the same wages on these machines as we used to, we’ll employ women on lower rates.”

Anyway, the factory goes on strike in late 1966, and this has been going on for about six weeks. I was inspired by a comrade called Chris Davison in London, who had written a pamphlet about a strike in Southall at a place called Woolf’s. I thought, “that’s a good idea, I could do that.” And by then I was also – this is another strand – the secretary of the Manchester Socialist Education Group, where we’d meet the odd militant worker. We were getting known around the left. No one else had offered to be secretary, so I said I would. So I wrote in the name of the Manchester Socialist Education Group to John Tocher, the District Secretary of the Engineers’ Union in Stockport, and I said “would you like me to write a pamphlet about the strike?” He said “come down to my office.” So I did, I met him, and he said, “Okay, you can do it, but I want to read it before you print it.” So I said, “well, that’s fair enough.” He then introduced me to the strike committee and I interviewed people, got the bones of the story, and wrote a pamphlet with the brilliant title “Support the Roberts-Arundel Strike”.

“What Happened at Woolf’s: The Story of the Southall Strike” by Chris Davison and Peter Finch, 1966

We’d recruited the young guy from the Labour Party through the Campaign against Racial Discrimination, and we’d also borrowed their duplicator – this was the thing about being in the Labour Party. I had it in my flat for several months until they demanded it back. And on it we produced a thousand copies of this pamphlet. We sold the lot in Stockport. After a couple of weeks we thought, maybe we should print another thousand. So I went to see Tocher, to find that they had retyped the whole thing, taken my name off it – I mean, I don’t care – and they were producing thousands of these things as an organising weapon.

Roberts Arundel strike

Roberts-Arundel strikers

Now the strike was won, in part, by the use of blacking, which in those days wasn’t illegal. What they did during the strike was wherever they could discover that Roberts-Arundel had got a contract with some other firm, they would go to the workers in that other firm and say, we want you to “black” Roberts-Arundel, refuse to deal with them – or threaten the employer with trouble. Sometimes this was amazingly effective. There was a guy who spied for the union, called Paul Casey, who went into work every day, a “scab” who went through the picket line, he was a self-appointed spy. He started stealing documents and passing the information on to the union.

His best coup was that he phoned up Tocher and said “at three o’clock this afternoon there’ll be a lorry leaving the factory, and on the back will be a crate with the following markings. It’ll be going to Manchester Airport, and it’s going to take such-and-such a KLM flight to Amsterdam.” Tocher didn’t know whether this information was reliable, but he told his strike committee to have a car ready. At three o’clock the gates open and out comes this vehicle, with a crate on the back with the right markings on. They follow it to Manchester Airport, rush in to see the airport baggage handlers – T&G members of course, completely unionised – who simply told the airport that if that crate flies, KLM never flies out of Manchester again. It had to be returned to the factory. It was a fantastic success.

T&G: the Transport and General Workers’ Union, which became part of Unite in 2007.

Eventually management realised there was a spy. Paul Casey went into work one day, and a photograph was put in front of him of him sitting in a pub with John Tocher. They’d hired a private detective. He was told, “you’ve got ten minutes to get out of the factory before we tell your workmates” – of course they had been abused, punched and kicked on the very militant picket line for months. After Casey was caught, by the way, he told Tocher there was still a lot of important paperwork in the factory office. In the middle of the night, Tocher and a convenor from another Stockport factory boosted Paul Casey over the Roberts-Arundel wall so he could burgle the offices for useful paperwork. Tocher was probably one of the best union officials there ever was.

So anyway, as I said, we’d recruited these building workers. Tocher really likes me. He knows I’m in this tiny little organisation called the International Socialists. He’s in the Communist Party, it doesn’t matter to them. In the spring of ’67, one day, on a picket line, he says to me “would you like to come to a secret meeting?” Yes! He says, “you can bring one person with you. You’ve got to be in Woodley Labour Club, out on the outskirts of Stockport, at seven o’clock. Get there early, get yourself a pint, stand by the bar.” So we’re standing there and a door behind the bar opens and a hand beckons. Wonderful cloak-and-dagger stuff! So we go upstairs, and in this room are all the convenors of all the major factories in Stockport, which at that time was a serious industrial town. Tocher is chairing this meeting about what to do about the Roberts-Arundel strike: it’s been dragging on now for months. He basically laid out a plan for what was to be done. “We need to have an emergency meeting of Stockport Trades Council,” he said. “Bernie” – this is the convenor in one of the factories who he’s grooming as his successor, also in the CP – “you could make that happen, couldn’t you?”

“No trouble, John.”

They know they’ll get this through the Trades Council, in a Labour town with this offensive anti-union employer. So the question is, what should the Trades Council decide? Tocher has one or two ideas. We already had a mass picket one a week, on Friday mornings. “I think we should go” he said “for a week of mass pickets, morning and afternoon, and on the final day we’ll call a demonstration on the Friday afternoon.” This was in August 1967. “We’ll have a strike in three districts: Stockport, Manchester and Tameside.” Those were the ones where the CP and the Labour left had control. “The demonstration will be at the factory.” Now there had already been a demonstration at the factory – a thousand construction workers had gone there in February and smashed all the windows, the police were just there with their mouths open. This was a big story in the Daily Mirror, “riot in Stockport”. So when Tocher says we’re going to have a demonstration with a strike in three districts, this is a major thing, and everybody knows it is.

Tocher’s plan is carried out to the letter. Meanwhile, we’ve got five building workers in our branch, and we’d made very friendly relations with some members of the Communist Party, because we took students down to the picket line – I think it was the first time anybody had taken students to a workers’ picket line. We took them down quite regularly – the workers loved having students on their picket line. There was a lot more laughter. Girls came! This was amazing. Anyway, we had these mass pickets, morning and afternoon, all week. On the Friday, something like two thousand workers gathered on a croft, just at the back of the Roberts-Arundel factory, which was littered with broken bits of brick – which they immediately put in their pockets. Then they marched round the factory twice, and every window that could be broken got broken. The police tried to arrest somebody, who was immediately rescued by a scrum of workers. Basically, the police took the view, “today is not our day” – you don’t argue with two thousand workers with bricks. It was an astonishing demonstration.

Now, the IS had had a discussion with the building workers and with our contacts, the best people in the CP, and we agreed that the best thing to do with this was to turn it into an occupation of the factory. We’d been down and looked at the gates of the factory – five building workers could with ease lift the gates off their pins, they weren’t that big, in which case it would be possible to storm the factory. That was our plan. So, the third time we passed the gates we stopped the march – we had enough weight to stop the march – and we said, we should occupy the factory. There was an argument for five to ten minutes: the orthodox CP people said no, and the full-time officials said no. Tocher wasn’t there: he deliberately was away. He wasn’t available to help the police calm things down. He didn’t want to calm things down, he wanted everything he could get out of it. We lost the argument. But the crowd seriously swayed, one way and the other. We nearly carried it. One of our members had a red flag under his shirt, ready to hoist it up the factory flagpole if we took it. We had a list of all the newspaper telephone numbers, so we could immediately issue a statement. That afternoon in Stockport was the thing that convinced me that we needed a party. With another twenty members we would have won the day.

We didn’t carry it, but by now we’d become a bit confident. We were a group of about twenty people. We’d got the building workers, and we were talking on very friendly terms with one or two CP engineers. By then I think we’d recruited one or two. We look as if we’re going to recruit significant numbers of militant workers to the branch – I don’t want to exaggerate, but we’re a little bit confident, a little bit rooted. We’re distinctive. We don’t know that you can’t do things – that’s quite important, we don’t know of any limits to what we can do. So we take initiatives, try things out, sometimes they don’t work and sometimes they do. This is in ’67 – the next year of course everything changed.

Tomorrow: May ’68 and after – the women’s movement – building a revolutionary party

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