Live: Coventry Socialists join London protest against austerity

Live: Coventry Socialists join London protest against austerity

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On the bus to London – Tories out!

Coventry Socialist Party members are joining a march against austerity in London today. Trade unionists on the Coventry bus represented a number of unions including Unite, UNISON, Coventry TUC, NUT, CWU and PCS.

Jane Nellist from Coventry NUT said “We are joining the march today because we have to ensure that we build a fightback against Tory plans to destroy our public services.”

Socialists will be building the fight against austerity and arguing for a socialist alternative to capitalism. The Tories are split, the trade union movement needs to organise a 24 hour general strike to co-ordinate the fightback!

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NUT and CWU members from Coventry

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Wartime women – a review of an exhibition at Coventry Transport Museum

Wartime women

War Effort

Coventry Transport Museum

To 5 January 2014 – admission free

Wartime women (image C Vauxhall Heritage)

Wartime women (image C Vauxhall Heritage)

The following review was carried in Socialism Today, the monthly magazine of the Socialist Party. For information about how to subscribe, click here

By Jane Nellist

As early as 1936, the Conservative government started investing in preparation for war. They bought huge tracts of land and buildings, kitting out factories in readiness. Coventry and the West Midlands were pivotal in those plans. What’s more, women were to play a key role in their success – and many of those companies profited from the war effort.

This exhibition at Coventry’s Transport Museum rediscovers the importance of the ‘Shadow Scheme’, the government-funded programme which aimed to utilise the benefits and proven track record of mass production, honed in the car factories, to produce the necessary armaments, especially aircraft, in case of war. The exhibition tells the story of the rise of these factories, and of the women and men who worked in them.

The shadow factories were an entirely new concept. Established firms were either given government funding to expand their own production lines or were given other companies’ products to manufacture, such as aircraft engines. Modern factories with up-to-date machine tools could then churn out the tanks, aircraft, shells and other hardware.

Some of those factories are still in existence, one being the Land Rover plant at Lode Lane Solihull, now producing the Land Rover Discovery. In Coventry, most of the shadow factories have now disappeared – such as Rootes Ryton (which became Peugeot), Massey Ferguson at Banner Lane, and Jaguar’s Browns Lane factory – along with the thousands of skilled, relatively well-paid jobs in the many car companies that fed the city.

Accompanying the exhibition is a new film, Out of the Shadows, produced especially for the exhibition. By using the first-hand experiences of those who worked in the shadow factories, as well as original film from the period, it brings to light what life was like for those workers, including the thousands of women who had been conscripted or volunteered. Christiaan van Schaardenburgh, the museum’s curator, and others add to the story.

One of the issues that this film raises is that the Nazi regime in Germany used slave labour to drive forward the production of armaments. Because of the inhumane way the workers were treated, however, as well as the likelihood of sabotage, this was not as productive as the shadow factory scheme. By utilising female workers in Britain through conscription, which by 1943 applied to all women aged between 20 and 50, there was a much more ‘willing and committed’ workforce. But it didn’t come without problems. Although the exhibition hints at some of these, it does not deal with them in depth, which is a shame because some of the issues are ones that we can relate to today, such as the demand for equal pay and childcare.

Women doing what were considered ‘male’ skilled jobs, such as machine turning, welding and riveting, were just as competent as the men. Despite the initial suspicion and reluctance, they did gain recognition and respect from fellow male workers and the male-dominated trade unions of the time.

Ernie Roberts, a Coventry shop steward, recorded that, “After training they became as good as the men. I must admit that many of us thought they weren’t capable because they hadn’t the industrial background we had had all of our lives…” He was to become the assistant general secretary of the AUEW engineering union and then, later, a Labour MP. Jack Jones, the future leader of the Transport and General Workers Union and a district organiser at the time of the war, helped women in Coventry achieve the equal pay they had been promised.

The male voice of the government newsreel film encourages women to volunteer for the new government-funded shadow factories to ensure that Britain was sufficiently equipped and prepared for war. The enticement was that “temporarily, women will get the same rate of pay”. It went on to say that the women would “lend a bit of colour and charm”. Nothing changes then! The bosses used every trick in the book to deny women equal pay, as they do now.

There were logistical problems of housing all the women workers, many of them conscripted from other parts of the country, especially in a bomb ravaged city. It meant that, as well as hostels being set up to house the thousands of workers, local inspectors were sent round to search out spare bedrooms for the women. As many as 16,000 billets were found for workers in Coventry alone.

There were other practical problems for women, such as shopping. How could you get the daily necessities which were subject to strict rationing and inevitably long queues? If you were rich, of course, you could still get anything you wanted. Women were working ten-hour shifts in factories Monday to Friday, with a further half-day shift on a Saturday. The Factories Act, which had begun to limit hours of work, was relaxed so that the war effort could be fulfilled.

Women with young children volunteered; it is estimated that around one and a quarter million women with children under 14 were working. Nurseries were opened which, for a shilling a day, fed and looked after young children where there were no other family members to do that. But life was not all rosy, as Mass Observation’s detailed reports highlighted. Many women working long hours in the factories still had to juggle all of the other household and caring chores which took a toll on their health. Accidents at work happened because they were so tired.

It was dangerous work, too. Nightly bombing raids continued on the factories. No matter what devastation took place, the factories and the machine tools, serviced by thousands of conscripted women workers, were soon back up and running. They were well camouflaged and extremely well organised with their own Air Raid Precautions wardens and fire crews.

Women were used as a reserve army of labour; when they were no longer needed at the end of the war, they were sent home. The newsreels then showed films promoting a woman’s role in the home! However, some of that freedom that women experienced in the war must not have been totally lost and, maybe, had an influence on their daughters’ attitudes in the more progressive 1960s.

Economic researchers have found after the war, even though private manufacturers had financially benefitted from the factory infrastructure and machine tools they inherited from the shadow factories to kick-start the post-war car industry, they had been profiteering and owed the government thousands of pounds. Only one Coventry company, Carbodies, which is better known as the manufacturer of the famous London taxi cab and is now the only car manufacturer left in Coventry, had not profiteered. The government actually gave it money back. Interestingly, a few months ago, when it looked likely that the company would close, workers appealed to the government for support to keep the factory operating. The help was not forthcoming. A Chinese company has now bought Carbodies and looks likely to move to a new site, leaving the shadow factory to the fate of most of the others.

The War Effort exhibition not only gives you all the facts and figures, it lets the voice of the ordinary factory workers, including all those unsung women, be heard. Its story touches on so many themes of today. It’s well worth rediscovering this episode of our social history. But make sure you set aside a day to visit because the Transport Museum has a great deal more to offer, especially for families.

Postal strike – no retreat from defending jobs and working conditions!

Postal strike called off for now

No retreat from defending jobs and working conditions!

Postal strike in Coventry

Postal strike in Coventry

The following article written by a CWU member in Coventry was carried in ‘The Socialist’ newspaper earlier this month in the aftermath of the postponement of the CWU strike. 

By a Coventry postal worker

Communication Workers Union (CWU) members are worried that their union was the first to blink as they stared into the eyes of the privatised Royal Mail bosses.

Having gained a resounding 78% ‘Yes’ vote for industrial action, members may have felt that they were being led up the garden path as the CWU ‘stood down’ from the planned 24-hour strike on 4 November.

While talks are complicated and on-going – calling off strike action could well play into the hands of the employer who will continue to drag out talks in the hope support for action will drop.

A ground-breaking deal that protects workers’ terms and conditions is worth fighting for but we know that goes against the ethos of a privatised Royal Mail, particularly in the worst capitalist crisis for 70 years.

An improved pay offer is likely to be offered and an agreement is expected before 13 November, as both the CWU and management clear their diaries for talks.

But workers are right to be concerned about their future terms and conditions. The big Royal Mail shareholders will try to call the shots in the years to come – with a race to the bottom.

Bosses want the CWU to sign up to a three-year no-strike agreement. This would be a serious mistake for the CWU even to contemplate this.

It would give management a free rein to pursue its agenda of increased workloads and savage budget cuts.

Instead of taking strike action on 4 November, CWU reps across Royal Mail and the Post Office attended a national briefing in London.

While this was an opportunity to fire up union reps, it was not as effective as the collective workforce taking industrial action.

Pulling back from strike action while a deal is not yet on the table presents a real danger that Royal Mail could undermine the strength of feeling within the union by delaying tactics.

The CWU has a strong mandate for taking strike action. To ensure that no further momentum is lost in this dispute there has to be a strict timetable for the talks with the threat of strike action if nothing productive has been gained.

CWU should meet all other unions currently in dispute to discuss mass coordinated strike action as a step towards a 24-hour general strike to stop the Tory-led austerity offensive.

In any case, if Labour had given a commitment to re-nationalise Royal Mail, the plug would have been pulled on the sell-off.

That inaction should prompt a debate within our union about our continued affiliation to Labour and the need for a new mass workers’ party based on the unions

Boris Johnson – Super rich a ‘put upon minority’

Comment of the day: Boris Johnson – Super rich a ‘put upon minority’

Even less taxes for the rich!

Even less taxes for the rich!

Many people today will have seen the comments by Tory Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, claiming that the super-rich are some sort of oppressed ‘put upon’ minority. We can say that Johnson is at least half right. They are indeed a minority, a tiny minority, the 1 per cent, that he and his Tory party of millionaires represents, and they and their capitalist system are bleeding working class people dry.

The article published on the politics.co.uk website (and many other sites) explains how under Johnson that the number of rough sleepers in London have doubled in the capital over the last 5 years. Many people in London and up and down the country are facing eviction due to the bedroom tax, with ordinary people paying for the crisis causes by the minority at the top. How many of his rich buddies have been evicted recently? So to say that the rich and the homeless are both oppressed minorities is truly something else.

Wages have in real terms got worse, with the cost of living rising. He states that the rich should be given further tax breaks! Despite his ‘fluffiness’ Johnson has shown again exactly what he is, a  vicious representative of the rich minority.

We in the Socialist Party will make no apology for criticising the banks, the city financiers and their lackeys in the 3 Westminster establishment parties. But we go further. We need to build a political alternative not just to individuals like Johnson and the bankers, but the entire capitalist system. We want a socialist society, where production is based on fulfilling human need not private profit.

Help us to fight for such a society, by applying to join the Socialist Party today. Click here