4. JOINING THE RCP
At some point in the winter of 1946/47 I attended a meeting held by the Revolutionary Communist Party which was held in the ILP meeting room in John Bright Street in the centre of Birmingham. Bill Hunter was the speaker, but I cannot recall just what he was speaking about. What I do know however is that I as listened to Bill I began to feel that this party, the RCP, was more in tune with my own thoughts and feelings on many issues than anything that I had heard before. It felt to me as though I had been a Trotskyist for some time but had not known it. And with the arrogance of youth I thought to myself ‘These people have the same ideas as me', not ‘I have some of the same ideas as these people'. At the end of the meeting I approached Bill Hunter and asked him for more information about Trotskyism and the RCP. We had a short discussion and he noted down my name and address. A few days later I had a bundle of papers and pamphlets arrive by post, amongst them was Trotsky's Copenhagen speech The Russian Revolution and J.P.Cannon's speech at his trial in 1941 which had been printed in this country by the then Workers International League (forerunner of the RCP) under the title of The A B C of Trotskyism. I read all the material that Bill sent me quite avidly, I felt a certain excitement as I read the two above pamphlets, since they seemed to sum up and answer many questions that I had been formulating in my own mind. I passed the material around the LLOY, Bob Scott who was older than the rest of us had been reading Anarchist works by then and was not so taken with the Trotskyists, but Rhoda became quite interested.
After this I met Bill Hunter and his wife Rae several times over the next few weeks for discussions. The culmination of this process was a meeting at Bill Ainsworth's house one evening at which Karl Westwood was present. I remember I sat one side of the fireplace and Karl sat on the other side, and the whole evening was spent in quite detailed discussion with Karl and Bill, I had many questions to ask before I was satisfied. The upshot was that I applied to join the RCP, this must have been in February or March of 1947, I cannot now recall the exact date but it was certainly still winter when I joined.
This was to be one of the most exciting and stimulating periods of my life. The branch of the RCP in Birmingham at that time consisted of Bill and Gwen Ainsworth, Percy and Marjorie Downey, Gerry Curran, Bert Atkins, George Lane, Bill Picket and Bill and Rae Hunter. Bill Hunter was a full time worker for the Party and was paid two pound ten shillings per week (if the money was available). Later on Rhoda was to join the Party. Later still, Peter Morgan joined the branch, although he was already a member of the Party, he had been in a sanatorium for TB and was still not very strong. Antibiotics, which eventually helped to wipe out the scourge of TB, were not then widely available, and Peter had been given the usual treatment of rest and plenty of fresh air.
Apart from the obvious excitement of being a member of a revolutionary party, what my membership did was open up some quite new horizons. When I joined I was obviously the youngest member of the branch and the other members went out of their way to ensure that I was made to feel welcome and a valued addition. Bill Ainsworth had an excellent library of books, mostly political but not exclusively so. The books covered the walls of the front room of Bill and Gwen's house, and by anyone's standards was an impressive collection. I had access to these books, so that my political education was now greatly extended and in a more systematic manner than hitherto. I am not suggesting that I was told what to read, rather the two Bill's made suggestions and pointed me in various directions and above all there was now the opportunity to discuss what I read. Instead of my reading in isolation as I had done until I joined the LLOY I now had experienced adult people to discuss with, who shared the same concerns as myself and treated my questions as sensible (even though I am sure not all of them were!). In this milieu I was treated as an equal, as someone who had independent opinions and had something to add to discussions. However, it was some time before I actually contributed to discussions at branch meetings, I was far too shy at first preferring to sit, listen and learn. In fact it took some considerable time for me speak in public. The first time got to my feet to intervene at a public meeting I almost fainted, to this day I still find public speaking an ordeal.
I should point out that at this time Marxist books of most kinds were very difficult to obtain. When I joined the movement it was not possible to obtain new copies of Capital, my own first acquisitions had to be made by buying second-hand copies, none of them of uniform translation or editions. My first copy of volume one of Capital was a Modern Library (Random House USA) edition of a reprint of the 1906 Charles H.Kerr & Co. version, and this cost me eleven shillings, which given that my wages at that time were about £3 per week meant a hefty slice of my income. I then obtained a copy of volume three, this was an Indian edition published in 1946 and that cost me £1-10/-0d, I finally obtained a copy of volume two printed in 1933 for 25 shillings. The only material being published at the time by Moscow - who had all the Marx manuscripts - were small pamphlets, very selected editions etc. mostly geared to bolstering the current ‘Party Line'. And some of the texts were suspect, if they had not actually been tampered with there were often introductions or footnotes which attempted to give a Stalinist twist to them.
As far as Trotsky's writings were concerned we were not in much better condition. The only people who were printing any of Trotsky's writings at that time were the Socialist Workers Party of the USA. Although they had their own printing press the money and expertise for translations was very limited. This meant that there was only a small dribble of such works available, and even those were extremely hard to come by in this country, this was because of the exchange controls then in force which meant that all the material imported had to be paid for in dollars and the RCP had very few resources to invest in such imports. We used to have the occasional small parcel of books from the centre in London, and these were practically fought over when it came to deciding who would be allowed to purchase copies! The RCP/WIL did in fact produce a duplicated edition of Trotsky's Permanent Revolution and this too was a highly prized acquisition for those of us who obtained a copy. (I eventually swapped my copy with Sam Bornstein, many years later, for an Indian edition of the book, since Sam had had a hand in the production of the duplicated version but had lost his own copy!) Duplicated pamphlets were the most common form of production and at times one had to be content with carbon copies of typewritten versions of some works.
It was only in the late 1960s that Marxist books, including Trotsky's, began to be widely available. Why I mention these problems is to highlight the nature of the ‘Marxism' that was then current, and the incredibly meagre resources available. Those of us who considered ourselves to be Marxists were in fact very extremely limited in our access to the original Marx, and thereby our understanding was also limited. Roman Rosdolsky in his Preface to The Making of Marx's Capital mentions that in 1948 when he first came across Marx's Grundrisse there were only three or four copies of it in Western libraries. It was to be 1973 before an English translation of the Grundrisse was to be published. The reader will therefore appreciate just how valuable Bill Ainsworth's collection of books was to me as a source of political education.
But it was not only my political education that extended, for the first time I began to mix with people who actually considered serious music to be enjoyable, I attended concerts, went to the ballet and theatre, I was introduced to serious literature. I was taken into the family life of the Downey's and Ainsworth's and quite unconsciously they demonstrated concepts of family relationships quite different to that which I had grown up with. This small group of people that I had joined demonstrated just what was meant by the term comrade, and during that time I learned to value solidarity. In all, joining the RCP Birmingham branch was rather akin to being taken into an extended family and if I developed any virtues it was because of that family.
I am not suggesting that I joined a group of angels without blemish, far from it, like any group each member had their own personality, good points and bad. What I am saying however is that for several years to come I was to operate in a usually harmonious group which set itself tasks and mostly achieved them.
Percy Downey was originally from Wales, although his ancestors had come over from Ireland in the 1840s, driven out by the great famine of that period. Before joining the Trotskyists Percy had been in the ILP, and was active in the shop workers union USDAW. Percy was a rather heavy set person with a round face adorned by specs, he had a rather short temper at times and this made for very lively discussions at branch meetings on occasions! On the other hand he was also quick to calm down, and he would then grin in such a way that one had to forgive him. Although in some ways rather ponderous in speech, he was an essentially kind person and often generous. He and his wife Marjorie ran a hairdressing business on Beeches Estate Perry Barr. They both gave generously to the party, and I know that for a time - before I joined the branch - they had maintained a full time worker for the organisation out of their own pocket. Marjorie, although not so directly active as Percy, was someone who was always available for help and advice, she had a very engaging personality. Both Rhoda and I benefited from our association with Marjorie. One of the important side benefits of our association with Percy and Marjorie was our introduction to ‘healthy eating'. They were ‘heavily into' wholesome foods, wholemeal bread, fresh vegetables, fruit etc. They were, in fact, the first people I ever heard talk about the dangers of aluminium cooking utensils. At that time such an idea was considered ‘crankish' but time has proven them correct. They introduced us to the idea of concern for ones diet, seeing food as something much more important than merely filling oneself up.
Bill Ainsworth was an interesting person from a number of angles. Originally in the CP, he had a twin brother also in the party. When the war broke out in 1939 Bill's brother had volunteered for the navy, because of the party line against the war, so that he could carry out political work. Bill's brother lost his life when the battleship Hood was sunk, but then the party changed its line on the war, turning a full 180 degrees to all out patriotism when the Soviet Union was attacked. Bill found this very hard to swallow, especially in view of the sacrifice of his brother, and began looking for alternatives. He told me that he was very suspicious of the Trotskyists at first, but eventually came to accept their ideas and became a very active member. He worked at the Rover Car company, and was a shop steward there. Bill was a good public speaker, with a very agile mind. He was also a good teacher, and I was to benefit from his abilities many times over in the next few years. His wife Gwen, was a tall dark haired, very handsome women. She too had been in the CP/YCL before the war, travelling the road to Trotskyism along with Bill. Although, like Marjorie, Gwen did not participate in branch activities to any great extent, I always found that Gwen had her own ideas on most political issues.
Gerry Curran had moved from Coventry to Birmingham, although he had originally come from Liverpool. Gerry was a tall taciturn person. He did not speak much at branch meetings, at least he did not speak at length. Gerry always seemed to be slightly withdrawn, and not an easy person to get close too. This remoteness meant that I never did get on close and easy terms with Gerry, but he stayed on with the Birmingham group for a number of years right into the early days of the Cliff group, but that is running ahead.
Another member of the branch at that time was George Lane. George was undoubtedly mentally handicapped. How he had joined the RCP I never did find out. However, despite his obvious limitations George was treated like any other member of the group, he was an assiduous attendee of branch meetings and would always have an opinion on anything up for discussion. He was always listened to attentively and no one ever, by word or gesture, suggested that he was anything other than an ordinary comrade. George was always drifting from one menial job to another, sweeping up, portering, etc. and seemed to have little life apart from the RCP. He was out in all weathers in the centre of the city selling Socialist Appeal.
The branch secretary when I joined was Bert Atkins. Bert was a man in his mid-40s, an engineering worker at the Austin Motor Company. He was a rather quiet person, who always seemed to melt into the background. Bert carried out his work as secretary quite efficiently, but was not very active otherwise, apart from his trade union activities.
The one minority supporter in the branch was Bill Pickett. He was of medium build, sharp featured with dark hair. Bill was also rather quiet sort of person, but was quite able to hold his own corner in discussions, which he had to do frequently being isolated among the supporters of the majority. However, there was no animosity between the rest of us and Bill and our relations were quite amicable. Bill was an engineer by trade, a member of the AEU and the LP.
A short time after I joined the branch Peter Morgan joined us. Peter was already a member, but had been ill for some time with TB and had been in a sanatorium. He obtained work with the Birmingham City Council in some clerical capacity and joined NALGO and was soon a delegate to the Birmingham Trades Council. Peter was a supporter of the majority faction but worked in the Labour Party. Despite this he was very active as far as possible with many of the branch activities.
I suppose the person who had the most influence upon me, and upon Rhoda, was Bill Hunter. As I have mentioned he was the person who I had initially contacted and he continued to guide me for some considerable time after I joined the party. Rhoda and I would often go to Bill and Rae's lodgings for discussions, socialising and the occasional meal. It had to be the occasional meal since Bill and Rae were so poor. Bill as a professional for the RCP was paid £2-10/- per week, so they relied upon Rae's money to make this up to a subsistence level. Like all those who worked for the RCP Bill had to make many sacrifices, even at best his clothes were shabby and his shoes were always in a terrible state. Rae was not much better dressed. Nevertheless, both Bill and Rae carried with them an air of cheerful confidence, and this transmitted itself to those around them. When the Birmingham branch decided to rent a small room at the Peace Pledge Union HQ in Birmingham for Bill to use as an office I well remember that I went one bitterly cold day to find that Bill was sitting in his overcoat because there was no money for heating. It took a particular type of dedication to be a ‘professional revolutionary' in those circumstances.
The branch met every week, and set the tasks for the coming week, discussed the local and national political situation. This meant that we had a fairly hectic life. The Ainsworth's and Downey's lived on the opposite side of the city to me and this entailed long bus journeys each time we met. Eventually, as I have mentioned, we rented a room at the Peace Pledge Union headquarters in Holloway Head and operated from there. Being such a small party meant that we all had to play an active role to make our presence felt, and we did. I had joined the shopworkers union USDAW to which Percy and Marjorie belonged and we were in the same branch. Sometime in 1947 I was delegated by the branch to attend the Birmingham Trades Council. Percy, Bill Ainsworth and Gerry Curran were already delegates and when Peter Morgan joined us he rapidly became a delegate, as did Rhoda when she joined. This meant that we could act as a faction on the Birmingham Trades Council, which played a significant role in the labour movement in those days. Apart from us as actual members there were a number of other delegates who often looked to our faction for guidance on particular issues. The Stalinists were also very well represented and we were on the receiving end of their consistent hostility, to the extent that sometimes they would oppose a motion if any of us spoke in favour.
Obviously we all attended our trade union branch meetings, the unions being AEU, USDAW and NALGO. Apart from such activity we also sold our paper Socialist Appeal regularly, having selling rounds on Sunday mornings and making sure that we covered all and every political meeting that took place in Birmingham, of which there were there quite a number in those days. Initially Rhoda and I maintained our membership of the Labour League of Youth and Labour Party. We continued to produce Socialist and distributed it throughout Birmingham. We attended meeting of the West Midlands Council of LLOY, yet despite this we were never able to recruit any more young people to the RCP. It was at this time that I first met Walter Kendall, we must have been put in touch via the RCP's Labour Party Fraction. Walter came to my parents home and we spent some considerable time in discussion, but Walter never did join the Trotskyists, although he and I maintained friendly relations since that time.
It was in this same period that the fascists began putting up their heads again, their leader was Geoffrey Ham, and there were several clashes between the fascists and members of the RCP in London, and members of the Jewish ex-servicemen's association. The RCP launched a national campaign against the fascists, producing a pamphlet and leaflets for this. In Birmingham we had no public activity by fascists, but we nevertheless went ahead with the campaign. One of the methods we used was painting anti-fascist slogans on prominent places. This was, of course strictly illegal, and so we had to carry it out late at night. The problem was that we had to use public transport if we wanted to carry out this activity in parts of the city in which we did not live. This meant that we had to paint our slogans before public transport finished running for the night, there was no all-night transport in those days. This meant that we had to carry buckets of whitewash in shopping bags, hoping that no one would notice! Late one night Bill Hunter and I were going to paint slogans in Birmingham Bull Ring. Bill was some way off from me looking for a suitable wall, but I was the one with the bucket, out of the darkness loomed two policeman, who nabbed me. Since I had not actually painted anything at that point they could not book me for anything. However, they demanded my identity card, which everyone was supposed to carry even thought the war was over (I believe they were abolished in 1950). Since I did not have my card on me they took my name and address and told me to attend the Steel House Lane Police Station the following day and produce my card. This I did and the desk Sergeant gave me a ticking off, and attempted to see the ‘error of my ways', but there was little else that he could legally do, so my first brush with the law ended rather like a damp squib, I am glad to say!
I recall that Rhoda and I and became friendly with two leading members of the Birmingham Young Communist League during 1948, just how and why I am not sure since the adult Stalinists still treated Trotskyists as fascists, in fact it was during the period that the notorious book by James Klugmann was produced by the CP. The book, From Trotsky to Tito, must have been one of the most disgraceful farrago of lies ever collected together under one cover. It purported to tell how the Trotskyists and Titoists were agents of the Gestapo, the British Secret Service and the American CIA! One of the things that Joe and Nan told us was that people in other political groups assumed that we had many more members than we actually had because of the number of us that turned out to sell our paper at meetings. The assumption was that if we were able to get six or seven people selling papers this must mean that we had many more members, the reality being that practically every member of the branch would turn out for some meetings! Apparently what had really impressed the local CP was the number of people we had selling papers outside Birmingham Town Hall when Harry Pollitt came to speak on his new book The Way Ahead, not only had the Birmingham branch of the RCP turned out in full force, we had asked comrades from Coventry to come over to help out. This meant that we had about 10 or 12 people all selling Socialist Appeal outside the meeting.
When I first joined the RCP branch in Birmingham the only supporter of the Healy minority faction in the branch was Bill Pickett. This meant that the branch was fairly harmonious. The branch, apart from Bill Pickett, were staunch supporters of the majority leadership of Haston/Grant/Lee. I immediately became a supporter of the majority faction, since its policy was for the open party as the main activity, with only a small fraction working inside the Labour Party, the Healy minority argued for total entry into the Labour Party. My youth and inexperience had directed me towards the majority position, having come from the Labour Party I was fired with the vision of building the revolutionary party, and the prospect of entry work did not attract me at all.
I had been given most of the documents of both factions for several years back when I joined and I had dutifully ploughed my way through them. I read nothing of the minority that convinced me to join them. However, it should be noted that whilst the majority had an economic perspective of a boom developing after the war, which indeed happened; the minority had an economic perspective of slump, mass unemployment etc. The details of this dispute can be found in War and the International: A History of the Trotskyist Movement in Britain 1937-1949, by Sam Bornstein & Al Richardson, so I do not intend to retail here. However, at the time few people seemed to notice the incongruous political conclusions drawn from these perspectives, i.e. that if there was indeed going to be a boom then the prospects for quickly building a revolutionary party were slim and perhaps the best place to work was in the Labour Party. Conversely, the minority's perspective of imminent slump and mass unemployment should have suggested the need for open work making direct appeals to workers. Charlie Van Gelderen did draw some conclusions at the time, i.e. supported the majority's economic perspectives but called for work within the Labour Party.
Looking back it seems to me that the political perspectives adopted by both factions had little or nothing to do with their economic perspectives. In truth it could be suggested that most of the rank and file supporters for either faction followed their inclinations based upon instinct, gut feelings, etc. rather than any rational analysis of the arguments.
Yet the faction fight which raged inside the organisation from 1945 through to 1947 was such as to embitter relations within the organisation. There can be no doubt that a large part of the responsibility for these embittered relations must be placed on the shoulders of Gerry Healy and his clique of supporters. Very few political questions were discussed on their merits, each and every question that came before the organisation was dealt with on a factional basis, i.e. if the majority said A Healy would immediately say Z. Whether this was done consciously or not I do not know, but the net result was that every issue became a test of factional loyalty. This meant that even those comrades, in either faction, who had reservations on any point felt forced to toe the faction line. The virulence of the factional dispute ensured that little real free thought was possible in such an atmosphere. However, I must admit that I never had any doubts myself at that time, I unswervingly supported the Haston leadership. And, although I say there was little real free thought, this must not be taken to imply that the RCP was undemocratic or did not allow a wide range of debate, on the contrary the organisation was one of the few genuinely democratic organisations that I have been a member of. During 1948 the RCP organised a British tour for Max Shachtman of the American Workers Party. Shachtman had broken with Trotsky in 1940 over the issue of the nature of the Soviet Union, this after many years as a close collaborator of Trotsky. That the RCP should organise such a tour indicates the relatively open nature of the organisation. The lack of free thought was something that went much deeper, something that we all imposed on ourselves without knowing it.
During this period also we began to hold public discussion forums in Birmingham. These were never as successful as we hoped for, it being I suppose a symptom of the changing political climate in late 1947 and early 1948. However, we continued our meetings for some considerable time. All of these activities meant that our lives were pretty full, yet we still found time to attend the theatre, concerts etc. and for Rhoda and I to have time together on our own. An amusing incident occurred at one of our meetings during 1947. At this time we were holding public discussion meetings in a small room rented from the Peace Pledge Union in the centre of the city. These were held on a Sunday afternoon (!), one day we turned up for the meeting to find only one none-member present. We went ahead with the meeting, Bill Ainsworth delivering his lecture and then it was thrown open to discussion. One or two of us made contributions, hoping to draw in this new contact who no one had seen before. However, he remained silent, so the meeting was brought to a close. It was then that the new ‘contact' introduced himself, he was Gerry Healy! Apparently no one in the Birmingham majority had ever met Healy before and since the minority comrade was excused attending such public meetings (because he was in the Labour Party), so there was no one present who could have recognised Healy. After an initial surprise we fell about laughing, since we had just gone through the charade of a public meeting only to find our new ‘contact' was the leader of the minority!! Healy was an unprepossessing figure, short in stature, balding, and wearing a rather grubby raincoat. He was not amused, I think he felt slighted because no one had recognised him. However, we all settled down to let him address us on the minority position on entry, this did not move any of us to join him in his faction.
In 1947 the Ministry of Information organised a train to travel around the country touting the benefits of atomic energy. The RCP nationally had produced material warning of the dangers of atomic weapons, articles on the subject appearing in Socialist Appeal. When we learned that the ‘Atomic Train' was coming to Birmingham we asked the national office to produce a leaflet for us. This we distributed outside Snow Hill Station, where the train was located. So, ten years before CND was formed the British Trotskyists were campaigning against atomic weapons, of course at that time this had little or no impact, yet it does indicate that far from being solely interested in ‘sectarian' questions the movement attempted to address very real problems facing the world.
Another aspect of the work carried out by the Birmingham branch at that time relates to German Prisoners of War (POW's). Although the war had been over for two or more years there were still large numbers of POW's in the country. A small German language newspaper was being produced with the help of the RCP. Bill Ainsworth had been in the army during the war and had been stationed in Germany immediately following the end of the war. There he had picked up a smattering of German. The German POW's were kept in this country after the war to provide cheap labour, but some of the restrictions upon them had been relaxed. At week-ends they were allowed out of their camps, and were often to be seen in Birmingham in their odd coloured uniforms with diamond patches on them. Bill used to take copies of Solidaritat with him and mingle with these POW's distributing the paper to those interested. As it turned out a number of them were interested, many of the older ones had been members of the SPD or KPD before Hitler seized power in 1933, and were thus interested in reviving their political activities when they returned to Germany. However, Bill had been spotted by members of Special Branch whilst distributing the paper. This happened after a meeting in the Bull Ring at which Rhoda had been speaking, and whilst I was in the Air Force. Bill was hauled up before the courts and fined.
However, this did not end the contacts with the German POW's. A member of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), Mrs. Jones, organised gatherings at her home for the POW's. We members of the RCP were invited to participate, which we did, and so were able to continue passing on copies of the paper. This gives an indication of the comradely relations which existing between the various left-wing groups at that time. The fact that Mrs. Jones was in the ILP did not prevent her from inviting us to participate in her gatherings.
This collaboration was demonstrated in another way. The Birmingham Branch of the RCP had passed onto them a young German by the name of Johnny; he was in the country illegally, for what reason or purpose I never did find out. However, he had to be fed, housed and found work. A member of the ILP, Doug Kepper, gave us his National Insurance cards for Johnny to use, since Doug was self-employed as a stall holder in Birmingham market. A member of the SPGB, Lou Vine, found Johnny work in a small factory whose owner was sympathetic, and we were able to find lodgings for him with someone who did not ask questions. So, between the various small left-wing groups we were able to fix Johnny up, and he stayed with us for over a year. What became of him when he left Birmingham I do not know, nothing was heard of him after he left. He was a rather odd character to say the least, rather short but muscular, dark complexion and rather intense. He must have been in his very early twenties, but seemed to have travelled quite a bit around Europe, or at least he hinted at this. We were never quite sure what he would get up to, since he was given to rather flamboyant behaviour at times. Despite the fact that he was supposed to be living in the country illegally he always carried a copy of Lenin's State and Revolution in his back pocket, and was forever plucking it out to find a quotation to back any line of argument he was pursuing!! We did our duty by him, but I don't think anyone was too sorry when he moved on.
Another aspect of life in the Birmingham labour movement at that time was ‘Dan's Cafe'. This was a small establishment in the centre of the city, located up a very narrow alley. It was a gathering place for the left, where one could buy cups of tea and toast at very reasonable prices. It had two rooms, the one at the front was where general discussion took place, everyone joining in as they thought fit. The back room was for private talks. The cafe stayed open quite late at night, so that after a meeting once could go there for tea and toast, even if the pubs had closed. I remember seeing such people as Woodrow Wyatt (now Lord Wyatt) and Denis Howell in Dan's very often, being quizzed by various people. At that time Wyatt was an MP, but Howell was only a Councillor, but he went on to sit in Parliament and became a minister, I would have hardly thought he would at the time. And even Roy Jenkins made a few appearances at Dan's Cafe at that time, since he was an MP for a Birmingham constituency. Most left-wing journals were on sale at Dan's, and you could always read them whilst drinking your tea. I do not think Dan's Cafe was unique to Birmingham, most large towns seemed to have such an establishment at that time, they seemed to be a part of the labour movement.
Late in 1947 I decided that I wanted to change my work, and I wanted to work in an engineering factory. Being a butcher no longer appealed to me, but I realised that I would have to learn something minimal about engineering before I could attempt to work in it. Fortunately, Bob Scott was an apprentice engineering tool-maker, and he taught me how to read a micrometer, use a slide rule and a few other simple things. Thus armed I applied for work at the Austin Motor Company at Longbridge. At the time in question - 1947 - there was a labour shortage in Birmingham, and after a short interview, during which I demonstrated the few tricks Bob had taught me, I was told to present myself the following Monday for work.
I was allocated to work in an annexe to the auto-shop, and I was taught how to operate gear-cutting machines and milling machines, plus capstans. Soon I was operating two gear cutters and a milling machine on my own, and shortly afterwards I was changing my own tools and re-setting the machines, which saved me time since I did not have to wait for the tool-setter to do this for me.
The annexe I worked in was long and narrow, with machines running down both walls and two lines of machines down the centre. One side of the shop were women operators and the side men. And it soon became clear that even when women did identical work they were paid less than the men. My new work-mates were a mixed bag, but the shop steward Phil came and joined me to the AEU on my first day, it was a 100% TU shop, and he intended to keep it that way - he didn't get any argument from me about that. However, he did get arguments from me on other matters, since I soon found out he was a CP sympathiser! I began taking in copies of Socialist Appeal, and Phil and one or two more began to buy it.
There was one man who I became quite friendly with, Fred. Fred had worked at the Austin for many years and was nearing retirement age. He was very canny, and knew how to pace himself very well. Fred worked on a semi-automatic capstan, and one Friday afternoon I went to have a word with him about something and as I stood talking to him he continued operating his machine. But then I noticed that the bushes in the two trays he was using were identical, he took one from one tray put it into the machine worked it and then transferred it to another tray. However, the bushes looked exactly the same when they came off the machine as when they went on. I mentioned this to Fred, he glanced around the shop, winked at me and said ‘I've done my quota for this week, no need to spoil a decent rate'. After this Fred instructed me further in the arcane arts of dodging the rate fixers, and soon I found that so long as everything had gone well during the rest of the week I too could doodle along on Friday afternoons! This way we took a ‘reasonable' wage home, but allowed ourselves time to make up for any stoppages due to tool changes, breakdown etc.
There were a least two short strikes within the time I worked in the auto-annexe, and both were originated by the women in the shop. There seemed to be a continual state of warfare between the women in the shop and the rate-fixers, and this boiled over into two stoppages. Neither stoppage lasted more than a few hours, and each time the rate-fixers backed down over their attempts to set new - lower - rates for work. As soon as the women stopped work, Phil would wander along shop giving the nod to the men, and then we would switch our machines off. Phil would then stroll into the main auto-shop and we would hear the huge machines rumbling to halt one by one. Suddenly it was very quiet, and then the white coated foremen would start buzzing around. Phil and the other stewards would then go into the Superintendent's office and the negotiations would begin. The management became almost frantic to get the machines working again, since a lengthy stoppage by our department would result in the tracks grinding to halt, and that had to be avoided at all costs. The state of the market in those years meant that the manufacturers could sell all the vehicles that could be produced, and this gave the workers a powerful weapon when it came to negotiating.
Now, far from workers taking great advantage from this situation, they merely wanted what they saw as a ‘fair wage', and this meant something that they could live on. The actual conditions that we worked in were far from ideal. The actual work-shops were huge sheds with glass roofs, concrete floors and no heating. In the winter they were very cold and in the summer often very hot. The noise was almost deafening, so that one soon learned to supplement verbal language with sign language. The air was often full of ‘suds' spray from the emulsified oils that were used as coolants on the metal cutting machines. The smell of hot metal and ‘suds' made the whole shop stink. Accidents were frequent. In fact, shortly after I had been called up into the Air Force, the young man who took over my machines lost the fingers from one of his hands because the machine guards had not been put into place properly after the tool-setter had changed the tools. I worked there until May 1948 when I was called up for national service.