by Chris Ford
Twenty-seven people attended the Uncaptive Minds forum last night for the exclusive showing of Leeds-United!, the 1974 Play for Today BBC film made by Roy Battersby, dramatising the story of the 20,000-strong Leeds clothing workers’ strike of 1970. The vast majority of the audience were trade unionists, with members of RMT, UNISON, UCU, UNITE, CWU, NUJ and PCS present.
Liz Leicester of Camden UNISON, who has written a study of this seminal dispute, introduced the film. (Her presentation will be available on The Commune shortly). Liz explained how the film provoked controversy at the time, with angry responses not only from the employers but also the bureaucracy of the General and Municipal Workers’ Union and the old Communist Party (CPGB). The latter two clearly played a despicable role in the dispute.
The film itself was acted mainly by people who participated in the strike itself and was a gritty and inspiring account of the strike for “an extra bob an hour”. The dispute was sparked by the unions making a pay deal without consulting workers. Men and women in their thousands downed tools and walked through the streets of Leeds calling in at other factories to encourage other workers to join them. In the words of the chairman of the Leeds and Northern Clothing Manufacturers’ Association, this industrial action was on a scale not seen before – the clothing bosses were dumbfounded!
Most inspiring was the level of self-organisation of the workers. The women established their own strike committee and pioneered the flying picket, dispatching pickets across Leeds and beyond, bringing the industry to a standstill. In one scene bosses lock the gates to keep the flying pickets out of the factory, only to see the women lift the gates from their hinges. Scabs received short shrift, and were terrified by pickets who stood waiting, snapping their scissors (normally used to cut textiles). The entire dispute was ‘unofficial’ with the union, and CPGB turn-coats, repeatedly trying to get the strikers back to work. Time and again the strikers overturned these efforts to sell them short. The official union leaders played no positive role, the General Secretary who was just over the Pennines refusing to set foot in Leeds during the strike.
In the end they did return to work, and the film exposes the bureaucratic manoeuvres of the CPGB union official with the bosses. It was highlighted in the discussion that it was not a complete defeat in terms of the staged pay award. A number of contributions pointed to the self-organisation of the strikers and levels of consciousness amongst the working class that enabled the strike to spread. Whilst there are still unnoficial strikes, there is nothing of the length and level of the Leeds women of 1970. Others pointed out just how much this dispute is hidden from history compared to other strikes of the period.
Overall it was an inspiring session of Uncaptive Minds – The Commune extends a big thanks to all those who attended.