Sunday 15 May 2011

Ray Challinor and the 1965 Courtauld Strike

From LSHG Newsletter, # 42 (Summer 2011)
By Ian Birchall
Ray Challinor, who died in January, will be remembered as a socialist historian who wrote on topics from Chartism to the Second World War. But Ray was also a lifelong activist, and he was able to write so well about the labour movement because he knew it not just from the archives, but from the inside.

As a tribute to Ray (whose articles I first read and learned from in 1959) this is a short account of an episode in the history of the British working class in which Ray’s role had a certain significance. I have told it mainly through contemporary documents, especially various articles and letters by Ray himself. [Readers will note the language of the time, in particular the use of the word “coloured”, much more common then than now. Also, as far as I know, all the strikers were male.]

Racism had come to the centre of the political stage in the 1964 election, when Tory Peter Griffiths in Smethwick won a seat against the national swing with an openly racist campaign.

In the following May the Courtauld strike began. The causes of the strike, and the problems it raised, were set out in an article written by Ray in the mid-June issue of Labour Worker (forerunner of Socialist Worker and reprinted as an appendix to this article.

Ray also reported on the strike in The Week, a weekly socialist news analysis sponsored by various Left Labour MPs and socialist intellectuals. [See issue of 10 June 1965] He travelled to Preston as am member of the Labour Party in Westhoughton, near Wigan, where he was then working.

The fullest account of the strike is a document called “The Strike at Courtaulds, Preston”, written by Paul Foot and published as a supplement to the July 1965 issue of the Newsletter of the Institute of Race Relations. Foot was then a young journalist on the Sunday Telegraph and about to publish his first book, Immigration and Race in British Politics. [Harmondsworth, 1965].

Foot’s account is about 3500 words long, and is followed by an anonymous appendix of some 5500 words, presumably added by the IRR, providing a lot of additional information. [Though cited as a source by several historians, this is a very rare document, and the only copy I know of is in the LSE Archives [reference HT E131].

There is also a very good article, “What Happened at Preston”, by Hamza Alavi of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination in Tribune [18 June 1965], and a much less good one in New Society, by John Torode, previously a leading light of the right wing in the Oxford University Labour Club. Alavi had grown up in Pakistan, and seems to have had a rather better understanding of the largely Asian strikers than most other commentators.

Most accounts note the active involvement of four “outsiders” in the dispute. These were Malik Khaliq, an experienced Asian trade unionist from Bradford, who came to help the strikers; Ray Challinor; and Roy Sawh and Michael de Freitas (sometimes known as Michael X) of the Racial Adjustment Action Society [RAAS]. According to Torode, who believed that the problems that produced the strike could be resolved by “shop floor education”, “Once the strike started the ease and speed with which outsiders seized control of it was alarming.” [New Society, 17 June 1965]

The rather better informed Alavi rubbished this notion: A.A. Chaudhry, the Chairman of the strike committee and his colleagues were, however, very much in the saddle. Union officials have tried to use the presence of the outsiders to suggest that the workers had been misled by a few outside “troublemakers”. They are kidding themselves.[Tribune, 18 June 1965]

As Ray pointed out, the strike leaders were no innocents. AA Chaudhry, chairman of the strike committee, was a man of considerable experience:

 A former officer in the Indian police force; a captain in the army during the war, decorated for gallantry in the defence of Singapore; an executive in a large firm in the United States; and a highly qualified textile technician, having completed a three-year full-time course at Blackburn Technical College, where he was secretary of the Students’ Union. Would you expect a man, with such qualifications, to be doing an unskilled, dead end job at Courtaulds? The fact is that Chaudhry, and others like him, stands no chance of promotion. [Letter in Peace News, 25 June 1965]

In fact the role of the four “outsiders” seems to have been markedly different. Accounts vary, but Sawh appears to have briefly advocated separate black unions, though he was not supported by de Freitas. [IRR Newsletter Supplement, p. 5] After the the strike de Freitas claimed, in response to Torode’s article:

Far from attempting to “undermine” the more “moderate leaders”, my recommendation after thoroughly investigating the situation was that the strikers return to work... Within three days of my arrival in Preston, they did so. [Letter in New Society, 24 June 1965]

Malik Khaliq proposed to fast, to the death if necessary, outside 10 Downing Street if the talks with the T.& G.W.U. came to nothing; over a hundred strikers volunteered to join him. While this might have been a useful publicity gesture it was no substitute for industrial action. Ray appears to have been ambivalent about this; “Mr. Challinor was reported as intending to sit down but not to fast.” [IRR Newsletter supplement, p. 11]

For his part Ray devoted himself to raising money for the strikers from the labour movement, to show that the attitude of the local bureaucrats was not typical of the British working class. As the Lancashire Evening Post [8 June 1965] reported:

Mr Challinor, of Hindley, near Wigan, has been lobbying trade unionists in Oxford, Cambridge, London and the Midlands. He has also contacted universities and written to a number of MPs but refuses to disclose which. Said Mr Challinor: “The response has been good with promises of donations towards the strike fund.”

How much money was raised is not known – perhaps not very much, given the small size of the far left and the fact that the strike finished fairly quickly. Certainly Ray was highly regarded by the strikers, Foot reports that:

Indeed, perhaps the most popular of all the “outsiders” was an extra-mural teacher from Wigan, Mr. Ray Challinor, a leftwing socialist and former Labour parliamentary candidate, who underlined the need for the support of the trade unions if the difficulties were to be sorted out properly.

And Alavi explains:

The strike committee’s attitude was certainly not racist; they welcomed support from British workers and organisations who went to them to offer their support. Ray Challinor of the Westhoughton Labour Party, for instance, enjoyed the confidence of the strike leaders when he went among them. At a mass meeting of the strikers, which I attended, he was given a standing ovation by the 900 immigrant strikers. This was a moving and dramatic expression of their desire for solidarity.

Ray spoke out against those who wanted to wind up the strike; as the Lancashire Evening Post [9 June 1965] reported:

Two white speakers also addressed the meeting - Mr Ron Yates, a member of the TGWU, Preston Trades and Labour Council member and Preston Fabian Society chairman, and Mr Ray Challinor, CND member and executive member of Westhoughton Labour Party.

Repeating that it was an unofficial strike, Mr Yates appealed to the workers to return to work so the union could still negotiate on their behalf. Mr Challinor disagreed with Mr Yates' advice. He declared: “He is asking you to return to work when the personnel manager at Courtaulds has said he will pick and choose. This means quite a number of your more militant friends will be out on the tiles.”

Nonetheless after three weeks the strikers returned to work defeated. In an assessment of the strike in a long letter to Peace News, Ray was under no illusions about the seriousness of the defeat or the dangerous feelings that had been aroused:

During the strike itself undoubtedly relations were very strained; most of the leading figures received anonymous letters and threats of violence. A very definite danger existed that, after the pubs had shut at night, a brawl might break out which would develop into a race riot. Preston was an ugly place during the strike, fraught with many dangers. [Letter to Peace News, 2 July 1965]

However he stressed that the defeat was not total and that the struggle had not been futile. He argued that the strike “will probably be shown in the long run to have improved race relations” by showing that black workers were not a source of cheap labour who would undermine white workers’ conditions:

But Courtaulds got more than they expected. The strike disorganised production in an extremely costly way. In the end, when the men returned, the company was compelled to adopt a more conciliatory attitude. It has been unable to impose the intended speed-up and, a member of the strike committee informs me, conditions “are now 80% better”.

The company has also been forced to accept all the strikers back, without any victimisation. It will now have to reckon with men whose knowledge and ability has been developed by the strike. Whereas in the past coloured workers were largely inarticulate and prepared to accept anything, now they have changed and become less bashful. They have found their voice, which they intend to use.

All this is of the utmost importance. For, in my opinion, the bedrock reason for racial prejudice in this country is economic. It is the fear that coloured workers will accept lower standards, be used as cheap labour, and thereby constitute a threat to white workers. But Preston has proved the opposite. Coloured workers have not been prepared to accept lower standards. They did, in fact, conduct a struggle in the finest tradition of trade unionism and, by their actions, have made it more difficult for the Courtaulds management to impose a speed-up in other departments.

Was there a real threat of separate unions for black workers, as Ray argued in his Labour Worker article? In retrospect it is all too easy to suggest there was no such possibility. Certainly the strikers seem to have had little time for the idea. But as Hamza Alavi pointed out, it was not inevitable that unity would prevail. Responding to a report in Peace News[11 June 1965] he wrote:

Your reporter referred to the idea of coloured trade unions. Given the isolation and frustration of the immigrant workers, it is remarkable that this idea did not catch on. But this demand was never made by the strikers, who declared that anyone who talked of coloured unions was an enemy of the coloured worker. [Letter to Peace News, 25 June 1965]

The failings of the official trade union movement were all too real, and Ray’s perception of the danger was based on direct experience of the strikers. And if separate unionism had got a toehold, it might well have grown in plausibility when dockers and other white workers struck in support of Enoch Powell in 1968. Ray’s involvement must have provided an argument against separatism. Certainly Ray’s response – not to engage in abstract polemics about black separatism, but to show practical solidarity - was right. A decade later, when the whole labour movement gave support to the mass pickets at Grunwicks, they were moving in the direction that Ray had pointed to.

And certainly Ray was right to stress the unity of interests of black and white workers, even if had been too optimistic in his account of the results of the strike. Some time later at a T.& G.W.U. school, a white shop steward admitted that the white workers had been wrong:

In this instance, by accepting dual standards and giving up trade union principles, the white members of the union allowed the dispute to be turned into a colour strike. The shop steward told of how the white workers were subsequently compelled to accept the conditions originally given only to the coloured workers. [Stephen Castles and Godula Kosack, Immigrant Workers and Class Structure in Western Europe, Oxford, 1985, p. 155]

There have been several accounts of the Courtauld strike in books dealing with black workers in Britain. Unfortunately in all of them the stress on the – very real – racism in the British labour movement has given the impression that the Asian workers at Courtauld were completely isolated. Thus Castles and Kosack argue the strike showed “how the workers’ solidarity can be broken when racial differences are allowed to obscure the real industrial issues involved” (op. cit, p. 154)

Peter Fryer cites Courtauld as an example of a struggle which “struck no echoing sparks of solidarity in the white trade union movement”. (Staying Power, London, 1984, p. 386). A Sivanandan merely notes that the strike “exposed the active collaboration of the white workers and the union with management”. (A Different Hunger, London, 1982, p. 15). Ron Ramdin stresses that the workers were resolute but “disorganised and lacking in trade union experience”. (The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain, Aldershot, 1987, p. 270). All doubtless true, but somewhat one-sided. If these authors had checked out Ray’s role and some of the things he wrote about the strike, they might have given a more rounded picture.

Worst of all, the only account that mentions Ray does so in a very hostile manner. A book produced by the Race Today Collective argues:

For the first time the left wing of the Labour Party, in the person of a Mr Ray Challinor, offered assistance to the strikers in the form of attempting to get the left wing trade union movement to respond with support and solidarity motions. In every succeeding strike, with the exception of one or two, notably Imperial Typewriters in Leicester in 1974, the strike committees of Asian workers have been solicited by politicians of the left wing of the labour movement in search of a mass base. These politicians, the last of them to enter the public eye in the glare of Asian industrial struggle being Mr Jack Dromey of Grunwick, have one thing in common. They don’t believe in the independent movement of the black section of the working class. Their expertise with union conventions and constitutions, their undeniable ability to get resolutions passed in left wing dominated branches and connections with a labour movement network, inevitably give them, for a week or two, the appearance of men who know their way about the class struggle. [The Struggle of Asian Workers in Britain, London, 1983, p. 15]

This is lamentable ignorance. Challinor was a Labour Party member and doubtless used the fact when making contact with the strike committee. But he was hardly an agent of the Labour Party, which had just removed him from his position as a parliamentary candidate. It seems absurd to suggest that there was anything sinister about Ray’s attempts to get labour movement support; certainly the Race Today team seem to imagine they knew better than the rank-and-file Courtauld workers who welcomed and applauded Ray.

As for the comparison with Jack Dromey at Grunwick, it is grotesque. To those of us who knew both Ray Challinor and Mr Dromey [I almost wrote Lord Dromey, but that would be slightly premature] the differences are all too obvious. [Dromey once threatened to “ban” me from the Grunwick mass pickets because I was carrying a banner of the Right to Work Campaign which was not a “bona fide trade-union organisation”.]

Ray’s intervention at Courtaulds did not change the course of events, but it was a brave and principled stand, one that was typical of Ray, an intellectual and an activist for whom theory and practice were always inseparable.
Ian Birchall

Appendix from the June 1965 Labour Worker:
Coloured workers fight TGWU and ghetto conditions
By Ray Challinor

The strike at Courtaulds’ Preston plant – the first strike to degenerate from an industrial issue into a racial one – has a momentous significance for the whole Labour Movement. We must invoke traditional working class principles, that injury to one is injury to all, and give a practical proof that working-class solidarity is something more than a pleasant phrase; otherwise we will see a terrifying new development – trade unions formed on a purely racial basis.
The facts of the Preston dispute are as follows: a department is almost entirely worked by Pakistanis, Indians and West Indians. The work, amid hot acids, nauseating fumes and in searing heat, proves to be too exacting for British workers. They spend a few weeks there, usually working far less effectively than their coloured brethren, only to be promoted to some more congenial and better paid job. But the coloured workers remain – however hard they work. Some have been at Courtaulds for as long as 12 years, but none of them have been promoted to any responsible positions. Even highly skilled men labour on at unskilled work – because of the colour of their skins. Despite all their protestations to the contrary, there is no doubt that Courtaulds (with Lord Butler as a director) have been practising racial discrimination, and that, in fact, they have created a black industrial ghetto.

The explosion came when the firm tried to introduce a speed-up plan. Hitherto one worker tended one machine; now he would be responsible for one-and-a-half machines. As a reward for increasing the production norm by 50 per cent, the management would give them the princely sum of 3d. an hour more. But the workers protested. Most of them said that it was not a question of wages, but one of health. They just could not work any harder. As it was, many suffered from ill-health – eye, ear and nose complaints, and increased effort was an impossibility. They approached their union – the Transport and General Workers Union – only to be rebuffed. The organiser told them that the new agreement was “fair and equitable.” So, receiving no help from “their” union (which had tacitly agreed to the Company’s policy of discrimination over the years) they set up their own Action Committee. This has so far issued a number of statements:

Firstly an appeal to workers, irrespective of colour and creed, for financial assistance.
Secondly, an attempt [sic] to the T.& G.W.U. to meet them, so that some attempt at agreement could be made.
Thirdly, an appeal to Frank Cousins to intervene in what could easily develop into the ugliest racial issue in British history. [Cousins was General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, but was at the time a Labour MP and a minister in the Wilson government. IB]

It is highly important that a solution be quickly found. The basis of most racial prejudice in Britain is economic – the fear of the black men’s threat to white men’s jobs. If the strike continues, resulting in a shut down of other sections of the works, then this imaginary fear will become a reality: Smethwick will smell like a fragrant lily to the racial cesspool of Preston. And, what is worse, the future could contain many Prestons – for, without assistance from outside, the cold logic of events will push strikers towards the formation of separate black unions. If this calamity is to be avoided, it must be by British workers showing quite clearly that they do not believe in “white” trade unions, and that they will accept their coloured brothers as equals.

The following practical steps must be taken NOW:
First, the strike must revive maximum support – non-coloured workers should demonstrate solidarity by joining the picket lines.
Second, agitation must bring pressure to bear on the T. & G.W.U. to adopt a more tolerant attitude and represent all sections of their membership.
Third, money should be sent, as soon as possible, to:

Edited to add:
LSHG Meeting
Saturday 25th June, 1pm [Germany Room, Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, London] Ray Challinor- Socialist Activist & Historian.
Speakers include Stan Newens

Finally, Ian Birchall will be launching his new much anticipated biography Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time, with videoclips of Cliff, at Marxism 2011

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