Sunday, 31 December 2017

Anniversary of the Roberts Arundel Strike

by Brian Bamford
THIS YEAR is the 50th anniversary of the Roberts Arundel strike at an engineering works in Stockport (although the actual walk-out first began on the 28th,  November 1966).  The Morning Star has described the strike as one of the 'biggest strikes in the history of the trade union movement and it involved the most basic freedom of all workers – the right to organise.'
At the time, the Stockport firm of Roberts Arundel was owned by anti-union North Carolina businessman Robert E. Pomeranz, who bought the UK business in the mid-1960s.  Attempting to undermine the Amalgamated Engineering Union [AEU] he imposed sweeping changes to working practices, made union members redundant and advertised for women workers as ‘cheap labour’ to replace them - a tactic according to 'Labour Briefing' he had used in the US.

Picketing stopped goods coming in and out and led to scabs walking out of the factory. On 22nd February 1967 a mass picket resulted in the chief constable threatening to read the Riot Act as bricks and missiles flew and the pickets blockaded the site. Negotiations to settle the dispute were led by full time AEU Executive Council member for the North West, Hugh Scanlon, and District Secretary John Tocher. Prime Minister Harold Wilson tried to intervene but Pomeranz announced that while there was no harm in talking, the union 'should find new jobs for its members.'

This strike was in itself a local dispute involving some 150 workers, which may not have had the signicance that it did had it not been led by the militant former convenor at A V Roe (now British Aerospace), Woodford, John Tocher, who was then the AEU's full-time District Secretary.  John Tocher was a communist official, who backed me with the legal support of the AEU, when I was arrested while on a picket with another engineering worker called Paddy Byrne in early 1968.

In a debate in parliament on the 6th, December 1967, the MP for Stockport North, Arnold Gregory said:
'There has been a continuous daily picket of the factory, and there have been clashes between pickets and workers and between pickets and police. People have been bruised and injured, and there has been 1626 a most distasteful series of incidents in the town. On 22nd February, over 1,000 workers marched through the town, and there was a similar demonstration on 21st March and another to celebrate May Day. In September, we had a protest week. Sometimes the demonstrations brought about serious disturbances. People were hurt and there was a number of arrests. Great trouble and concern followed the incidents. For the town and the country Roberts-Arundel has become an ugly symbol.' (Hansard)

Throughout 1967 Stockport captured national headlines. One hundred and fifty workers walked out late November 1966 when their new boss Robert Pomeranz from North Carolina refused to talk to the union. The issue was his decision to start a handful of women working at a lower rate than men had been paid for doing the same work until Pomeranz had made them redundant a few weeks earlier. The dispute quickly escalated when in less than a week he sacked every striker – only four shop floor workers didn’t join the action – and immediately advertised 235 jobs in the Manchester Evening News.  Despite numerous attempts to settle the dispute, the strike lasted until April 1968 when Pomeranz finally closed the factory.

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