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Over the six years to the end of 1942 more than 5000 people were killed in the coal mines and 700,000 injured. When the miners’ case was debated in parliament on 11 June 1942, Aneurin Bevan, a supporter of the government admitted that ‘there is not the slightest difference between it’ – the government’s forced mine labour scheme – ‘and the economic apparatus of Nazi Germany’. Bevan said ‘This is economic fascism in all its elements,’ and
went on, over protests from the more moderate socialists:
if industry is managed by the State and the unions become a part of State apparatus and the industry remains in private hands, then they make themselves partly responsible for administering it, and that is Fascism. That is exactly what happens in Germany. It is the Fascist labour front, and the nominees of the trade unions become gauleiters.49 Cartoonist David Low’s view of the unofficial miners’ strike As it turned out, Bevan had not understated the miners’ hostility to their subjugation. The Minister of Mines said that during the three weeks ending 23 May 1942 ‘there were 86 strikes involving 58,000 wage earners’ and 141,688 shifts were lost.50 On 9 January 1942 miners at Betteshanger Colliery in Kent struck over rates. The Ministry of Labour decided to charge 1,050 miners for breaking Order 1305. Three local union officials were imprisoned. Branch Secretary William Powell got two months’ hard labour; Branch president Tudor Davies and Isaac Methuen, both of whom were local councillors in Deal got one month’s hard labour. More than a thousand miners were fined.
Still, the Betteshanger miners struck on and other pits came out to back them. By the end of the month the miners won their better rates and the Home Office ordered the officials released. Only nine of the fines were ever paid. ‘During WW2 the Union leadership proved a valuable asset in the state’s war effort in trying to suppress strikes and stoppages within the coal industry’, says NUM activist David Douglass, ‘although this largely failed and widespread unofficial strike action and strikes by branches and lodges increased as the war entered its last year’.51 In 1944, miners struck again, demanding higher pay. They came out on unofficial strike in South Wales, Kent, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Durham, and Scotland, 180,000 in all. Labour Minister Ernest Bevin said it was worse than if Hitler had bombed Sheffield and all the communications lines had been cut, but miners said their sons and brothers in the army backed them.52 Kent miners on the way to the courts, photograph by D.H. Calcraft In November 1939 the London North Committee of the Amalgamated Engineering Union voted to oppose the imperialist war. In the spring of 1941 the Swift Scale factory in Park Royal, West London voted to strike after a union convenor was dismissed, ‘until such a time as we secure the reinstatement of our convenor Brother Leslie’. The strikers ignored the dispute procedure under Order 1305 and seven of them were prosecuted on Ernest Bevin’s orders.53 One of the first major disputes in Britain in the war was in 1941among Engineering Apprentices in Glasgow, Coventry, Lancashire and London over pay. They marched from workplace to workplace to build wildcat strikes. In September 1943 apprentices took part in a large engineers’ strike at Vickers Armstrong in Barrow, where pay had been held down for years. The picket line was a mass protest of more than a thousand. Strikers were backed by local people, and the Irish Nationalist and St Mary’s Clubs. When the National Arbitration Council ruled for the employers, the strikers stayed out. When the Amalgamated Engineering Union sent the veteran Communist George Crane to talk the men around, they threatened to throw him down the stairs. The Union was alarmed that the Barrow strikers were backed by the Huddersfield District Committee, and did their best to damp it down.54 In 1944 Bevin’s scheme for filling vacancies in the mines drafting one-in-ten apprentices by ballot provoked widespread anger. Over Christmas 1943, an unofficial Tyneside Apprentices Guild was set up to fight the plans. The Guild addressed a leaflet to the miners, ‘we also will resist’, it read, and ‘We need your support in our struggles against the BEVIN BALLOT SCHEME’. The first boy chosen under the scheme on Tyneside, Martin, was backed by the Guild that threatened strikes from 14 March 1944 and his call up was cancelled. The Tyneside Apprentice Guild organised mass meetings and lobbied parliament, and on 28 March called a strike. More than six thousand backed them on Tyneside, 4,800 on the Clyde and more in Huddersfield. The Government, the press, Engineering Union and the Communist Party all attacked the strike leaders as ‘Trotskyists’ and the boys as dupes, and Guild leader Bill Davy was arrested – as were some of their left wing supporters (see below). In North Africa, the Eighth Army Signals Corp voted to back the apprentices and their right to strike.55 The number of strikes climbed to a record 2,194 stoppages with 3,700,000 days lost in 1944.56 There were strikes throughout the British Empire, as native people resisted the pressure to yield up ever greater tribute to Mars. In Fiji in March 1943 sugar cane farmers – who in the peculiar racial set up in that colony are the descendants of Indian indentured servants – demanded an increase in the value of their cane in line with the price of sugar from the Colonial Sugar Refining Company. Their organisations, the Kisan Sangh, the Maha Sangh and the Rewa Cane Grower’s Union organised strikes across the colony. The British authorities promoted racial divisions between the Indian farmers and the indigenous Fijians who had been largely excluded from commercial farming. As an escape from village life, military service was valued by Fijians, but Indians were indifferent, or hostile to the allied cause. Strike leaders A.D. Patel and Sami Rudranada were ordered to stay within five miles of their homes and to report to police daily. In the legislative assembly, Fijian leaders Ratu Sukuna and Edward Cakobau attacked the Indians for their poor contribution to the war.
Eventually, the farmers gave in, after about a half of the crop was spoiled. The British got their revenge with the Native Land Trust Ordinance and the Fijian Affairs Ordinance both of
1944. These laws entrenched the racial animosities that would curse the colony for years afterwards, giving Fijians a titular monopoly over the land and the constitution that was in fact exercised on their behalf by the governor.57 In the British colony of South Africa, General Smuts had done all he could to feed the British war machine, recruiting black Africans to meet the demand for gold, coal, iron, chemicals, explosives and munitions so that their numbers swelled to quarter of a million in industry. Unlike their white counterparts, the black union members had no negotiating rights.
Even in industry, where they could earn the most, black workers’ wages were just a quarter of whites’. These new black recruits joined an unprecedented wave of strikes – 304 between 1939 and 1945, involving 58,000 black and Indian workers and 6000 white South Africans.
Black workers had to cope with the pass laws that forced them to live in segregated areas. In 1944 blacks in the Alexandra township who worked in Johannesburg began a bus boycott to protest against fare rises that meant they had to walk eighteen miles a day. The campaign won, and helped build the campaign against the pass laws. Also James Mpanza led a movement to build a shanty town by Orlando, west of Johannesberg, which became known as Soweto.58 In 1942 the colonial officer J. A. Pitout was sent to settle a strike by Africans building
Kumalo Airport under the forced labour scheme:
He was faced by an enormous and surly crowd of insolent and angry Africans. The other Europeans addressed them saying that they must be patriotic and do all they could to help the war effort.
Pitout gathered that this appeal to patriotism was not working and had the interpreter tell them that ‘the Europeans were fighting a war and that in Logenbula’s time fellows like them would be assegaied and thrown to the vultures.’ The men were forced back to work.59 Even in India, where the repression had arrested the push for independence, workers fought back against the combination of a forced production drive and suppression of living standards:60
1941 359 291,054 103.7 107 1942 694 772,653 89 145 1943 716 525,088 67 268 1944 658 555,015 75.1 269 1945 820 747,530 74.9 269 1946 1629 1,961,948 73.2 285 The French Empire saw resistance, too. Indochinese nationalists had been fighting a sustained campaign against France leading to an uprising in 1930. In elections on 30 April 1939 the French administration’s new war taxes were tested. Though the Communists of the Democratic Front supported the authorities they were opposed by a yet more radical Trotskyist group, La Lutte, who opposed the tax and the war, and against forced conscription. All the La Lutte candidates were elected.61 When the French authority recognised the Vichy government, repression of the Indochinese radicals at the hands of the Sûreté became more severe.
Class war in Japan In Japan the special laws against Labour disputes and the Sanpō company unions had an impact, but people were beginning to become cynical about the war effort. According to a Home Ministry Police Bureau report on the Sanpō in 1942 much of the general membership views the organisation merely as a group to facilitate rationing and therefore there are a good number of workers who ridicule the movement and are uncooperative.62 There were strikes at Osaka’s Sumitomo Chemical Plant and also at Kanebō. As the war effort demanded more, the number of disputes tended to rise.63 Also, the impact of reversals in the war tended to undermine morale leading to disorder at work.
Workers reacted to mobility laws with go-slows and unapproved absences. One Home Ministry Report found that young workers who had been made to work were given to not turning up, delinquency, moonlighting, deliberately shoddy work and even acts of group violence. In Uraga, where 9,423 youths were drafted into work there were violent protests when a boy was beaten by his dorm superior. Officials found that a many goods were ruined by acts of sabotage, sometimes as much as 60 per cent of output. Officials noted the destruction of 1422 units at Hitachi’s Kameido plant, and destruction of equipment at the Hatshama Dock Company.64 Labour Disputes in Japan65 Year No of disputes Average no of participants By the end, there were no disputes as such, but absenteeism rocketed from 20 per cent just before the American air raids took hold, to 50 per cent in July 1945.66
MUTINIESCivilians protesting against the war effort were taking some risks. But for soldiers it was an even greater hazard – they could be tried and executed for mutiny. Even so, there were mutinies and insubordination in all the armies fighting the Second World War.
The Greek Army in North Africa In 1943 North Africa, and Cairo in particular was the point where British, Indian, Italian, German, Greek and American troops had been pushed to breaking point over the years of the desert war.
Late in 1943 British soldiers organised their own mock parliament, building on the many talks put on by the Army Bureau of Current Affairs. The men were kicking their heels, and excited about the post-war plans they had heard were being talked about in London. Quite quickly the parliament veered to the left, under the influence of Private Henry Solomons, a Labour Party supporter who had been a union official in Stepney, and Sergeant Bardell who was a member of the Communist Party. Sessions drew as many as 500 men. Resolutions passed in favour of nationalising the banks made the army top brass and the government nervous. Brigadier J.L. Chrystal complained that the typical Army Bureau of Current Affairs talk would be ‘The Future of the Empire’ with ‘some Yid gunner yapping about Freedom for India!’ According to Chrystal there was ‘nothing to be done except keep posting the bloody Reds to different places before they build up any more of their damned cells’. Private Solomons was moved out of Cairo, and the airman who moved the resolution to nationalise the banks, Leo Abse, was put under arrest and taken to Port Tewfik. The Forces’ Parliament template was copied by airmen in the RAF base at Heliopolis. Goebbels broadcast that Cairo was under the rule of soldiers and airmen’s Soviets. Of course the thing that stopped the Forces Parliament from getting out of hand was the leading role played by Communists, who were committed to the Anti-Fascist War. When the orders came to move on to Italy, Sergeant Bardell put up wall-newspapers headed ‘On to Victory’. Not everyone was so enthusiastic – another Forces Parliamentarian and Independent Labour Party supporter Albert Gross scoffed at Bardell’s patriotic fervour.67 Even with the efforts of the British Communists to rally the troops, the military authorities had good cause to be afraid. Cairo was a tinderbox, not just because of the British troops, but also because of Henri Curiel’s Egyptian Communist group – who were talking to the British troops – the Egyptian nationalists and furthermore there were thousands of Greek troops in open rebellion against their Royalist officers. Greece’s armed forces had pushed back an Italian invasion, only to be overwhelmed by the German invasion that followed.
They were a force in exile with conservative nationalist officers integrated into the Allied Command. The fight against the German occupation fell to the more radical resistance movement ELAS while the government-in-exile dithered.