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From our history - the 1974 Imperial Typewriters strike
How oppressed workers fought back against racist 'divide and rule'
Heather Rawling, Leicester Socialist Party
This year marks the 45th anniversary of the 14-week Imperial Typewriters strike which had national repercussions. It involved courageous, mainly Asian women workers new to struggle, ruthless employers who used divide and rule tactics and a racist union convenor and full-time official. It was to pave the way for the more famous Grunwick strike a couple of years later.
In the 1960s Leicester had relatively full employment, mostly in its hosiery, engineering and boot and shoe industries. The city had survived the depression of the 1930s better than other parts of the country.
However, the economic boom years that followed World War Two had ended by the early 1970s. Leicester's manufacturing industry was struggling. Foreign competition was blamed as the hosiery owners moved plant to developing countries where labour was cheaper.
In 1972, 27,000 Ugandan Asians, legally UK citizens, were forcibly expelled by Uganda's tyrannical ruler President Idi Amin, with some of them settling in Leicester.
Asians from India had been brought to Uganda as part of British Imperialism's divide and rule policy. Many had jobs in the civil service, professions, and so forth, and were materially better off than most African Ugandans.
Idi Amin - who had come to power through a military coup in 1971 - scapegoated the Asian population, accusing them of disloyalty, non-integration and commercial malpractice and expelled them with only days' notice.
The influx of Ugandan Asians into Leicester coincided with the end of the long post-war economic boom. British workers had been promised ongoing economic stability and
employment. But workers were now suffering from pay restraint and job losses under the Conservative Ted Heath government. The racist and fascist National Front (NF) made much mischief out of this, blaming this new wave of immigration.
The NF had polled 9,000 votes in the previous elections in Leicester and had their national headquarters on Humberstone Road only a mile or so from the Imperial Typewriter factory. However, there were many who actively opposed the National Front and in the mid-1970s workers organised to prevent the NF from selling their racist newspaper on the streets of Leicester.
Militant and the Militant-led Labour Party Young Socialists mobilised thousands of youth, black and white, on more than one occasion, to oppose the National Front, often being met with police brutality for their efforts.
Some of the Leicester Ugandan Asians found work at Imperial Typewriters. Its shareholders undoubtedly looked forward to the profits they could make from a growing pool of 'cheap East African Asian labour'.
These workers were now being discriminated against, denied bonuses and promotion. A rapid change in their political consciousness occurred as they were plunged into the ranks of the working class.
The Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU - forerunner of Unite) at the factory should have fought for equal pay, but instead the union leaders sided with the bosses and allowed them to divide the workforce on race lines.
In the course of their demands to the union convenor, Reg Weaver, the Ugandan Asians found out that they were being cheated on their bonus. And he was complicit in this.
They were being paid on a target of 200 or more machines, rather than 168 that the white workers were receiving. They were also being blocked for promotion or access to the higher-paid jobs in the factory and wanted to elect their own shop steward from their section.
The dispute broke out on May Day. Workers from four firms in Leicester walked out: 300 workers at the British United Shoe Machinery; 300 at the Bentley Engineering Group, 200 at the General Electric Company factory in Whetstone, and 39 Asian workers at Imperial Typewriters factory.
The other factories went back but Imperial Typewriters didn't and the strikers convinced 500 more workers to strike.
During the February 1974 miners' strike, Ted Heath called a general election on 'who runs the country?' He didn't get the answer he wanted. Labour won most seats. Labour leader Harold Wilson became prime minister and the miners won most of their demands. The Imperial Typewriters strikers must have followed and learnt from how the miners had organised and won their dispute.
They did their best to work within the trade union structures. The right-wing bureaucrats did their best to undermine them, blocking their struggle with rules and regulations at every step.
TGWU negotiator and full-time official, George Bromley, a magistrate and a stalwart right-wing member of the Leicester Labour Party said: "The workers have not followed the proper disputes procedure. They have no legitimate grievances and it's difficult to know what they want. I think there are racial tensions, but they are not between the whites and coloureds. The tensions are between those Asians from the sub-continent and those from Africa. This is not an isolated incident, these things will continue for many years to come. But in a civilised society, the majority view will prevail. Some people must learn how things are done..."
Bromley took the side of the bosses in this dispute.
The trade union council used bureaucratic rules to prevent the strikers from speaking at one of their meetings. But the strikers did receive support from the wider labour movement and community.
Militant supporters and Leicester West and South Labour Party Young Socialist members were active on the picket line, in the meetings and raising their dispute in the labour movement. The strike gained support from other workers at Corah's a major hosiery factory and other factories.
Asian women defied the stereotype of the time as being passive. They were active on the picket lines and gave scabs a hard time.
The TGWU refused to make the strike official so there was no strike pay.
The strike had an impact on Asian youth who demonstrated in support of the strike and later would play a major role in preventing the National Front from organising in the city.
The strikers elected leaders and held mass meetings. They began to get support from other workers and grew in confidence. So the company sacked them.
Tom Bradley - the right-wing Labour Leicester East MP who later defected to the Social Democratic Party - played a disgraceful role and told the strikers to return to work, as did Reg Weaver the factory convenor.
It became a bitter dispute. There was daily mass picketing and intimidation and arrests from the police. On Sunday 19 May, the strike committee called a mass meeting and 2,000 people demonstrated.
As the strike entered its tenth week, George Bromley accused the strikers of being funded by China. Benny Bunsee, a political activist, had been adopted by the strikers as one of their leaders. In fact the strikers were suffering extreme financial hardship, despite some successful fundraising.
Although the strikers won their demands, shortly afterwards Imperial Typewriters owner, Litton, decided to close down its Leicester and Hull factories - sacking over 3,000 workers - claiming they were unprofitable.
In response, workers at the Hull site went into a lengthy factory occupation and demanded action by the Labour government.
The Imperial Typewriters strike was extraordinary. The strikers had been forced quickly to adopt the methods of trade union struggle, instinctively turning to their trade union, despite its right-wing and racist leadership.
They were also let down by Jack Jones the left-wing TGWU general secretary and national organiser Moss Evans, who instead of actively supporting the strikers promised an inquiry but then referred the inquiry to the regional officials who had already refused to back the strikers!
The courage and militancy of this group of workers was inspirational. The mainly Asian women at the Grunwick film processing factory in north west London drew on the Leicester workers' experience when they struck in 1976.
A major part of that dispute was the solidarity action by other trade unionists, especially postal workers, along with mass picketing of mainly white workers who joined these Asian women on the Grunwick picket line.
The Imperial Typewriters dispute holds many lessons for workers today, not least understanding the ruthlessness of the bosses and that even if you have a just cause, workers need to fight have any chance of success.
Also, notwithstanding the limitations of some leaders both locally and nationally, the trade unions are the fundamental collective organisations that workers turn to in order to defend and advance their interests and which have the potential power to defeat the bosses.
And even when workers lose a dispute, union struggle can still have a positive and inspiring impact on other workers.
Socialists therefore should carry out patient, consistent work alongside their fellow workers and trade union members; to raise their political sights and confidence to engage in struggle.
In order to remove rotten union leaders that act as a brake on struggle and to turn trade unions into combative workers' organisations, socialists should also campaign for regular democratic elections, and the right of recall, and indeed contest leadership positions.
Accountability to the rank and file also requires that full-time union officials should receive no more than an average skilled worker's wage.
Unity of the working class
"Our struggle has taught us also that black workers must never for a moment entertain the thought of separate black unions. They must join the existing unions and fight through them. Where the unions fail in their duties to black workers they must be challenged to stand up for their rights.
"The union is an organisation of all workers, regardless of race, colour or sex. Right now the trade union movement in Britain is functioning as a white man's union and this must be challenged. In challenging this, we believe in the unity of the working class. This unity must be solidly established in deed and not in words. It is the main task of the trade union movement to create this unity."
Strike Committee statement Imperial Typewriters 1974, quoted in the Labour Party Young Socialists pamphlet 'Black Workers and the Labour Party'.
Exhibition: Imperial Typewriters
Andy MacQuillan, Leicester Socialist Party and Unison member (personal capacity)
Newarke Houses Museum in Leicester is celebrating the 45th anniversary of the Imperial Typewriters dispute. Some inspiring historic photos are displayed showing Asian women and youth in particular, defiant and united in their struggle.
There are oral accounts of the struggle, including a Socialist Party member who was a student and Militant supporter at the time.
Shamefully, one poster shows Leicester City Council advising the expelled Ugandan Asians not to come to Leicester because the city was 'full':
"In your own interests and those of your family you should accept the advice of the Uganda resettlement board and not come to Leicester."
The exhibition shows how the fascist National Front tried to exploit the influx of Asians into Leicester, which coincided with a rise in unemployment and wage stagnation. But it also shows that solidarity was built including black workers, Guajarati and Punjabi speakers and Muslims. Rank and file trade unionists, regardless of colour or faith, understood the importance of the strike and the need for a united struggle.
However, the exhibition glosses over the disgraceful role of the trade union leaders, locally and nationally, at the time. The local right-wing local TGWU leadership was openly racist and supported the bosses against the striking workers. The left-wing national leaders were lukewarm in their support and proposed an enquiry which dragged on for seven months, even if it did exonerate the strikers.
The strikers won all of their demands only to see the factory close shortly afterwards. However the struggle paved the way for greater unity between workers, reduced support for the National Front and galvanised the Asian youth in combatting racism,
- The Strike at Imperial Typewriters exhibition runs until 26 October 2019. Newarke Houses Museum & Gardens, The Newarke, Leicester, LE2 7BY
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