Rank And File Movement In The World War II

Written by Bill Hunter   

Thursday, 14 November 2013 19:29

The phrase “the spirit of 1945” has inspired many activists this year. Ken Loach’s film of the same name led to discussions of what that spirit was. But what is less known are the deep processes taking place in the working class during the Second War World. 

There was a determined effort by militant workers to break Labour from the coalition national government and to use strikes to fight for their conditions against the Labour Party, the Communist Party and the trade union leadership whose line was: don’t strike support the war, we are all in it together against fascism. Meanwhile the capitalists continued to get fat on war profits.

Then, as today new rank and file organisations needed to develop if workers were going to fight and win against the employers and government. It continued an old tradition of rank and file actions.

Post-war history is shaped in part by rank and file committees expressing  independent struggle against union leaderships who would not fight, who were opposed for example to calling a general strike and in the Second World War any strike!

Here we re-publish Bill Hunter on the 1944 “Apprentices’ strike”. We are not in a World War but there is a brutal social war taking place. Rank and file struggle is vital today as the TUC majority back the Labour Party just as they did then.

Today we must fight to place decision making into the hands of mass meetings of the rank and file.


In Marxists in the Second World War, Labour Review, December 1958, Bill explains about the rising movement of the class, “Working days lost by strikes, which fell to 940,000 in 1940, rose to 1,530,000 in 1942, 1,810,000 in 1943 and 3,710,000 in 1944. By the beginning of 1944 the government was faced with the prospect of a general strike throughout the coalfields. In the last months of 1943 there had been a wave of strikes, most of them in defence of young workers who had been conscripted for underground work”.

This story is from a chapter of Bill Hunter’s Lifelong Apprenticeship: Life and Times of a Revolutionary, Volume 1: 1920–1959. It is about the struggle of young engineering workers against conscription to the coal mines and the way the State tried to prepare an attack on militant workers by blaming the strikes on Trotskyists.

Strikes in war challenged union leaderships

The Labour and trade union bureaucracy was extremely worried at the biggest wave of industrial action since the 1926 General Strike, and at the growing political movement of hostility to the political truce.

As we have seen, at the beginning of 1944 no fewer than 44 resolutions were tabled for the Whitsun Labour Party conference demanding the end of the coalition government. The following year this movement in the Labour Party was to eject the party’s leaders from the Cabinet.

At the end of March 1944, 50,000 engineering apprentices went on strike. Their rank-and-file organisation, the ‘Apprentices’ Guild’, which had begun on the Tyne, was demanding that Bevin, the Minister of Labour, withdraw the new legislation that would conscript engineering apprentices into the mines, their names being chosen by ballot.

The Tyne Apprentices’ Guild expressed the deep feelings of young workers who, living in a coal-mining area, had the common opinion that they would rather go into the army than down the pits. One of their leaflets declared:

“The Government has adopted, and is now enforcing, the so-called Ballot Scheme. By this scheme, which was introduced without consulting the lads who will be driven down the pits, they claim they will solve the coal crisis. But this dictatorial measure has been taken against lads 18 to 21 years of age, who cannot legally demonstrate their hostility to, and lack of confidence in, the infamous pit compulsion scheme, because we lack the elementary rights of the Parliamentary vote.

“We apprentices declare that it is the greedy coal-owners who are responsible for the present coal crisis. They have soaked the miners for generations, grown fat on the sweat, tears, blood and broken bones of the miners. They have allowed the machinery in their pits to become antiquated, outdated and unproductive in their lust for profit. But the government has consistently refused to take real compulsory measures against the coal-owners. It is against the mass of unprotected youth that further dictatorial measures are taken.

“The government must nationalise the pits and operate them under the control of the trade unions”.

Government blames Trotskyists for strikes

The capitalist press had conducted a campaign against Trotskyists from time to time, but at the end of 1943 and the beginning of 1944 the campaign became more rabid and widespread when the government prepared further anti-working class legislation to curb industrial and political unrest. Bevin was about to introduce a new regulation, 1A(a), which further increased the curbs on strikes and made illegal any proposal of strike action outside of an officially and legally constituted trade union meeting. In the press campaign, Trotskyists were accused of being responsible for the growing number of strikes. It was said they were the ‘hidden hand’ behind the big wave of industrial struggle. The Daily Mail of 7 October 1943 declared that the Trotskyists:

“...play on the weariness of workers who have had four years of war and exaggerate grievances into a campaign to suppress the workers after the war. Why they have been allowed to have so much success is incomprehensible”.

Trotskyists arrested

Four Trotskyists, Jock Haston, Roy Tearse, Heaton Lee and Ann Keen, were arrested and charged with conspiracy under the Trades Disputes Act (1927) and with furthering an illegal strike. Under the Trades Disputes Act, a punitive measure against the trade unions passed after the General Strike, an illegal strike was one which “is not a trade dispute within the trade and is designed to coerce the government”.

These four Trotskyists were the first victims of this Act, which had originally been denounced as an infamous attack on workers’ rights by the very Labour and trade union leaders in the Cabinet which used it in 1944. The Newcastle jury flung out the conspiracy and incitement charges, even though, in a summing up hostile to the four accused, the judge directed them to support the charges. The Trotskyists were however found guilty of ‘furthering an illegal strike’, even though, in a previous judgement in the House of Lords it had been ruled that a strike could only be ‘furthered’ if it was already taking place and not before it had begun.

Letters to jail

Letters sent by Rachel Ryan, who then wrote daily to her sister, Ann Keen, in Durham Jail. In a letter dated 18 April, the news is about Regulation 1A(a) and how it appears to be directed against the whole of the workers:

“Anyone who speaks for strike action, however peaceably, except at a TU branch meeting, is liable to £500 fine and/or five years penal servitude. This is really vicious and will shake the whole of the labour movement.

The letter ends by saying that the TUC ‘have apparently’ accepted Regulation 1A(a). The next letter, dated 24 April, reports busworkers’ strikes and the solidarity shown by soldiers who were being compelled to drive and conduct buses:

“The London busmen have gone back to work today, but the Manchester busmen are still out. They are all giving a magnificent answer to Bevin. I don’t know whether you saw the item in the Herald to say that [with] the fares which the soldiers had collected on the buses, amounting to about four pounds at one garage, they had taken the drivers and conductresses out to the local pub and treated them and had a good old sing-song together. Real fraternisation all right.

“I expect you have seen the Daily Worker, although coming out mildly against the new legislation as not necessary, since the Defence Regulations and the E[ssential] Works] O[rders] could be strengthened, have lost no time in trying to incite the Government to use the new legislation against us in their article on the bus strike.”

There was a great deal of support from activists in the trade union movement and in the left of the Labour Party in the campaign against the arrests.

All the sentences were later quashed on appeal. The state and press propaganda did not arouse a great deal of hostility to Trotskyism among the working class in the industrial areas. There was wide support among trade unionists for the campaign against the arrests...

To be sure, the state was worried about the increase of struggle, particularly among the miners, and nervous that the circulation and influence of Trotskyist propaganda could rapidly advance. But the state’s main attack was directed against the workers’ increasing combativity, mainly in engineering and mining, and the aim of the witch hunt against Trotskyists and of the arrests was to split and push back those who were struggling. The propaganda about subversives and the ‘hidden hand’ was meant to build up the atmosphere for further drastic measures against strike action, which Ernest Bevin as Minister of Labour was preparing to introduce.

Before I leave the 1944 arrests there is a story to relate of a significant victory against our Stalinist branch president, Len Hines, who was a leading Communist Party member in the area. He was convenor of Lincoln Cars factory, which became part of Ford’s and was at the Chiswick end of the Great West Road.

Members had to attend the Amalgamated Engineering Union branch meetings in order to pay their subscriptions. There would be 60 or 70 workers seated in the room with a queue at the back paying subscriptions. Hines dominated the meeting until we began to win support and eventually defeated him on a number of resolutions, including backing for the four Trotskyists who were arrested.


Bill Hunter, Trotskyst and workers' leader, is 90 years old


Written by ISL - England  

Wednesday, 21 April 2010 15:03

The International Socialist League invites you to Celebrate Bill Hunter’s 90th birthday, veteran Trotskyist and workers’ leader.

2-5pm, Saturday 8th May, CASA Hope Street, Liverpool.

Bill was born in 1920 into a miner's family in Durham two years after the end of 1st World War and 6 years before the general strike of 1926 and has dedicated his life to the fight against capitalism, against the bureaucracies and for the Fourth International.  

Under the Ministry of Labour transfer scheme Bill started to work in an engineering factory in London in 1936. Two years later he joined a Trotskyist group. During the war he was a convenor in the Chrysler aircraft factory in London, in 1952 a borough councillor in Islington, then in 1954 he and his wife Rae were expelled from the Labour Party.

He was secretary of CAV-Lucas Joint Shop Stewards Committee from 1966-72 in Liverpool and remains an honorary member of Liverpool Trades Council today. Bill has always retained a close connection with the dock workers movements in the unofficial strikes from the 1950s including the dispute of 1996-98 and remains loyal to his class.  

In 1979 he helped form a Joint Trade Union Inquiry into Allegations of Police Violence, and was a member of the Liverpool 8 Defence Committee. Inside the Trades Council he built and won support for a resolution against the Malvinas (Falklands) war. He and Rae started the Liverpool 8 miners support group in 1984 and Bill participated in the first anti-war meeting in Liverpool and attended meetings regularly. He was one of the first to express opposition to the “war on terror” as a cover for the US and Britain’s war for oil and control.

He travelled many times to Europe and Latin America in the fight to re-build the Fourth International and in 1988 he helped form the International Socialist League, the ISL became a section of the International Workers League-Fourth International, an international Trotskyist current with many sections across the world and was on the leading body of the IWL, the International Executive Committee, until the mid 1990s.  

So that’s the first 90 years in a nutshell.    


Bill has written three books, many pamphlets and 100s of articles, however many are out of print. In order to celebrate a lifetime’s work in defence of the working class as a Trotskyist we are launching a book fund to publish selections of Bill’s writings. There is a wealth of material from the 1940s onwards including writings for the ISL, IWL and others throughout the 1990s and 2000s. We hope to raise £1000. Cheques payable to the International Socialist League/Socialist Voice (please write Bill Hunter on the back).

Build the Fourth International


Written by Bill Hunter  


“To unite these Marxian elements, however small their number may be at the beginning, to revive in their name the words of real Socialism now forgotten, to call on the workers of all countries to relinquish chauvinism and raise the old banner of Marxism, this is the task of the day.” Lenin during the First World War.

In September 1938, thirty men and women met near Paris and proclaimed the Fourth International, World Party of the Socialist Revolution. “No conference of revolutionists ever met under circumstances more tense and ominous or faced tasks of such supreme historical gravity than did this one” declared a “Review of the Conference” which was issued afterwards.

It was the brink of World War Two. The reformist and stalinist leaders of the Second and Third International by their betrayals and misleadership had opened up the masses to imperialist war and fascism. Stalin had set as the capital task of his GPU apparatus the destruction of the trotskyist world conference and the assassination of Trotsky. In the year preceding the Founding Conference, Erwin Wolf, Trotsky’s secretary was kidnapped and murdered in Spain. Ignace Reiss, a GPU functionary who broke with Stalinism, and announced his adherence to the Fourth International, was murdered in Switzerland soon after. In February 1938, Leon Sedov, Trotsky’s son died in a Paris hospital under circumstances that leave no doubt of a GPU assassination. In July 1938, Rudolf Klement, responsible for the preparation of the Founding Conference, was kidnapped and murdered in Paris. Documents and reports he had been collecting for the conference disappeared with him. This tiny handful of people was facing awesome world prospects. They could draw strength only from a consciousness that the future of humanity depended on creating a world organisation and strategy for the working masses.

Trotsky in his struggle for internationalism against Stalin had hammered home the truth that the period in which we live is above all a period of world economy and world politics. Trotsky did not underestimate the tasks facing the new International. “We do not need any self deceptions” he wrote, and continued: “The discrepancy between our forces today and the tasks on the morrow is much more clearly perceived by us than by our critics.” He saw the future in terms of what must happen to the masses, and declared : “...the harsh and tragic dialectic of our epoch is working in our favour. Brought to the extreme pitch of exasperation and indignation, the masses will find no other leadership than that offered by the Fourth International”. Trotsky’s confidence in the working class was the axis of his political life and he expressed it throughout the period of sever defeats of the masses before the war.

It has been absolutely vindicated by the vast revolutionary upsurge which began during the last war. The old empires have disappeared; in a great number of countries the feudal and capitalist property forms have been changed. The upsurge carried stalinist and petty bourgeois nationalist forces into power. But history has been determined not just by this upsurge there has been another decisive factor. That factor is the crisis of leadership which remains as acute

today as in 1938. Because of it, all the advances of revolutionary events over great areas of the world have left the world and world economy under the domination of imperialism. Socialism in one Country has been proved a reactionary illusion. But what is involved is not just a question of history or abstract theory but of practical politics today. No section of the masses in any country can resolve any of its problems within its national boundaries - neither in the capitalist countries nor in the workers states can there be any permanent advance except through taking it into an international struggle.

Above all the conclusions of trotskyists in 1938 that the future would be decided on the world arena were absolutely correct.

The only movement which is based on that internationalism which alone can make the advances of humanity permanent is the trotskyist movement.

The principled trotskyist international organisation which exists today is the International Workers League (L.I.T.) Fourth International built on the principles of that conference fifty years ago. The IWL has proved in declarations and practice that it strives to build a world party with sections in every country and with mass influence. By words and deeds it has stood for internationalism and made a decisive break from circle existence in many countries. To our readers we say: If you wish to struggle for internationalism which means building an international organization and taking trotskyism out of propaganda sect existence and building deep connections with the masses; if you want to struggle for a world trotskyist party and carry forward the traditions of the Founding Conference and of Trotsky then join the ISL the British section of the IWL.

Taken from a statement in 1989. Bill Hunter is a member of the ISL editorial team.


Bill Hunter – Biography

Lifelong Apprenticeship – Life and Times of a Revolutionary

Born into the Durham working class six years before the 1926 General Strike, Bill Hunter has stayed loyal to his class and dedicated his adult life to the fight against capitalism, and against capitalism’s apologists in the Labour Party and Communist Party.

A Trotskyist from the age of 18, a factory shop steward at 21 and a borough councillor at 32, bureaucratically expelled from the Labour Party in 1954. Here he recalls these battles with humour, anecdote and documentary evidence.

These pages are crowded with thumbnail sketches of Trotskyist and working class fighters of the period before, during and after the second world war: Harry Wicks, Hugo Dewar, Reg Groves, Gerry Healy, Ted Grant, Tony Cliff, John Lawrence and the stalwart dockers’ champion Harry Constable. There is an affectionate portrait of Bill’s lifelong companion Rae. The book’s heroes are the rank-and-file dockers, engineering workers, and miners in whose struggles Bill played a part, either directly as shop steward or as editor of the lively left-wing journal Socialist Outlook (1948-54).

Lifelong Apprentice shows Hunter’s part in the international struggles of the Fourth International against capitalism and Stalinism, and includes an inside account of the Trotskyists’ response to the 1956-57 crisis in the Communist Party. It ends with the launching of the Socialist Labour League in 1959.

Price £8 including P&P ISL, c/o

News from Nowhere, 96 Bold Street, Liverpool L1 4HY