Looking Back at Class War in the 1970s: Fifty Years Since the Strike at Imperial Typewriters

On 1 May 1974 a group of thirty to forty, mainly women workers out of a total of around 1,600 employees at Imperial Typewriters in Leicester joined the May Day workers rally. It was not then a Bank Holiday. (It would be four years before that moveable feast was introduced by Labour’s favourite left-wing MP, Michael Foot.) Nor was this a ritual walk-out by a bunch of trade union stalwarts. Though the majority of the workforce were in the TGWU (forerunner of Unite), it certainly was not sanctioned by the union whose local branch officer was a particularly nasty racist. Not only did women make up the majority of the workforce in Imperial’s two factories in Leicester, most were not white and around two thirds were of South Asian origin, including those expelled from East Africa. Equal Pay Act notwithstanding, they were paid substantially lower bonus rates than the minority of their white ‘co-workers’. Sometimes bonuses weren’t being paid at all. This was the immediate trigger for the walk-out which turned into a three month marathon strike-cum-lockout.

With inflation mounting and at a post-war record of around 20%, wages were falling way behind the cost of living. Unsurprisingly 1974 also saw the highest number of strikes since the beginning of the post-war boom. In February, Edward Heath’s Conservative government had fallen over the question of “Who governs Britain?” … or rather the impact of the class struggle and the calamitous three day working week introduced to conserve energy in the face of an overtime ban by coal miners and railway workers. Within days of Heath’s election announcement the NUM began an all-out strike for a 30-40% pay rise. One of the first acts of Harold Wilson’s minority Labour government was to increase miners' wages by 35%.

What reason not to strike? Or at least down tools and join the May Day procession. In Leicester the workers from section 61 of Imperial Typewriters were joined by 300 more from British United Shoe Machinery; 300 from the Bentley car works and 200 from the local General Electric Company. Most returned to work but the majority of those from Imperial came back out on 3 May and brought a further 500 workers with them. Inevitably, given the divide and rule management, the strikers’ demands went beyond the non-payment and under-payment of bonuses to black/Asian workers to a range of other malpractices from lack of promotion opportunities to humiliating supervision of toilet breaks.

The dissenting workers began to leaflet outside the factory for a strike on Friday May 3 after rejecting the solution proposed by the shop stewards’ committee, the workers drafted four demands: the backdating of bonus payments to January 1973 at the rate of 125 percent and from May 1974 at 140 percent; equality of promotion in the factory, equal rights to become foremen, supervisors, charge-hands, utility workers; special attention be paid to exploitation of women workers; and no victimization of those participating in the strike. The twenty-two-year-old Ugandan Asian spokesperson for the strike committee, Hasmukh Khetani, wrote to the TGWU regional secretary, Brian Mathers, to outline their consolidated demands: more transparent and democratic elections of shop stewards (without manipulation by incumbents), a properly regulated wages system without overwork and bonus cheating, and the equality of opportunity for all workers.(1)

The shop stewards committee ruled out the strikers’ delegates from joining them, so they announced that Hasmukh Khetani and N.C. Patel were their unofficial leaders. Similarly, the local TGWU branch refused their support. The local full-time official, George Bromley: long-standing member of the Leicester Labour Party, magistrate and an outright racist said:

The workers have not followed the proper disputes procedure. They have no legitimate grievances and it’s difficult to know what they want. I think there are racial tensions, but they are not between the whites and coloureds. The tensions are between those Asians from the sub-continent and those from Africa. This is not an isolated incident, these things will continue for many years to come. But in a civilised society, the majority view will prevail. Some people must learn how things are done…(2)

Despite all this, the strikers were not exclusive: they insisted on black and white unity. It is worth quoting from their first strike bulletin:

There is one thing we wish to make clear. We do not see our strike as only for the benefit of Black workers. What we fight for is the general interests of the whole working class in Britain. The Black working class is part of the working class of Britain. We believe that the white workers in Imperial who do not see this at the moment will one day realise this. For this reason we will NEVER regard them as the enemy. Our hand of friendship will always be stretched out towards them. ... we realise that we have a common destiny as workers, we call upon the white workers to join us in the battle against our common enemy—the bosses—who are only interested in making profits out of us.(3)

Almost inevitably, though, the strike was increasingly presented as a race issue. Once the Indian Workers Association became involved — with its own agenda of establishing itself as part of the official race relations industry — almost all the public statements for the strikers were made by the local Indian Workers Association official, Benny Bunsi who brought in the Race Relations Board to investigate. (As yet there was no Race Relations Act.)

Yet, despite sackings and without strike pay, around 400 strikers persisted in battling on their own account. At the end of May around 150 of them travelled to the TGWU headquarters in London to get official backing from the union. Moss Evans refused entry to Bunsee because he was not employed by Imperial but at last H Khatemi, with two other delegates, was allowed to speak for his fellow workers. It would be another 6 weeks or so before the strike ended by a deal brokered by the factory management, the TGWU, and the Department of Employment conciliators. It included promises of pay increases, the right to promotion, no victimisation, and so on.

The catalogue at the National Archives also records that the:

Migrant workers on strike also issued a statement in which they called for solidarity between black and white workers within the trade union movement.(4)

There is no happy ending here. Imperial Typewriters was part of a US multinational company, Litton Industries, which had built up an empire round various sales to the US military and was notorious in the US for maltreatment of its workforce. Part of the reason for its move to the UK was the existence of a cheap and what they presumed to be a supine labour force. There is a grisly irony about the fate of Imperial workers in Britain whose destiny was decided by Litton Industries decision to scale back and ultimately withdraw production in the US after a strike in February 1969 at its portable typewriter plant in Springfield.

The plant was closed on March 27, 1969 after a shooting incident involving a picket captain; no termination agreement was signed and twenty-five hundred unionized workers lost their jobs, severance payments, and other benefits.(5)

Production was later outsourced to a Portuguese firm working under the Salazar dictatorship (who bought the Springfield plant’s machinery). For a time Litton continued producing in the United States at Hartford, Connecticut under the name Royal. At the same time, though, production was being moved elsewhere in Europe, including Hull and Leicester. The Hartford plant was shut down in 1973. Only six weeks earlier the company president had promised workers “an exciting era of new and better opportunities for the future.”(6)

Shortly after the strike, Litton announced its intention to close both of its Leicester works as well as the sister plant in Hull. (Where workers had done nothing in support of Leicester but held a sit-in in the vain attempt to prevent closure of the Hull works.)

The Leicester strike has gone down in labour history as the forerunner of the two year Grunwick struggle of “strikers in saris”: a step forward in race relations, equal pay and for more enlightened trade unionism.

For those of us who want to see an end to capitalist exploitation and a world of truly emancipated human beings, there are different lessons to be learned. The first is that workers must keep control of their own struggle: Watch out for willing spokesmen (such as the Indian Workers Association) to step in with their own agenda. Don’t call in the union which will only try to put a lid on things. Instead hold regular assemblies of the whole workforce/strike force. Obviously, not every struggle has the potential to turn into a class-wide, mass movement ready to challenge capitalism across national boundaries. But every experience of real struggle, not passive behind the scenes deals between the unions and bosses, is a step in the right direction.

By the 1970s the cyclical capitalist crisis of low profit rates was kicking in. It was not limited to dodgy multinational companies like the owners of Imperial, nor to one sector, nor to one country. This was the start of an existential crisis for world capitalism to which the capitalists and governments would respond with massive shutdowns, and ruthless clampdowns on workers’ resistance. It was a situation which required, and still requires, a class-wide response: not a blind explosion of outrage but a co-ordinated political struggle to achieve the overthrow of capitalism and its iniquitous wages system.

The World Economic Forum estimates that “at the current rate of progress”, it will take 132 years until women worldwide get equal pay, never mind the wider measures needed to make for social equality for women. Tell that to the thousands of grossly underpaid female textile workers in Leicester who are still working in plain sight for dodgy sub-contractors in dilapidated sheds and factories (like an old Imperial Typewriter building).(7) Meanwhile, capitalist wars and capitalist destruction of the environment, not to mention capitalist exploitation of workers’ labour power, continue apace. We haven’t got 132 years to achieve a spurious gender equality. The answer is staring us all in the face.

Liz Rayner
Communist Workers’ Organisation

A shorter version of the above article can be found in the current edition (No. 67) of Aurora, bulletin of the Communist Workers’ Organisation.


Image: University of Leicester (CC BY-NC 2.0), specialcollections.le.ac.uk

(1) The Imperial Typewriters Strike, 1974, Ron Ramdin. Excerpt from The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain (1987), pp. 271-280. thoughtsofaleicestersocialist.wordpress.com- typewriters-strike-of-1974/

(2) The Struggle of Asian Workers in Britain, The Race Today Collective, 1983 p.22

(3) Racialized Obsolescence: Multinational Corporations, Labor Conflict, and the Closure of the Imperial Typewriter Company in Britain, 1974–1975, Matt Myers

(4) The Imperial Typewriters Dispute — The National Archives, available online.

(5) Myers p. 28

(6) loc.cit.

(7) See, for instance, the most recent Low Pay Commission report of 2022 which provoked a Financial Times piece, entitled Leicester garment factories still exploiting staff. The fact is of course, that it is not only sweated workers in Leicester who are paid below the minimum wage.

Thursday, April 25, 2024

Aurora (en)

Aurora is the broadsheet of the ICT for the interventions amongst the working class. It is published and distributed in several countries and languages. So far it has been distributed in UK, France, Italy, Canada, USA, Colombia.