This article first appeared in the winter 93/94 issue of Inqilab, South Asia Solidarity Group’s quarterly magazine
The Burnsall Strike - A Glimpse of the Future
By Sarbjit Johal
On June 30th 1993, after a year of bitter struggle the strike at Burnsall a metal finishing company in Smethwick, in the West Midlands was betrayed by the local and national leadership of the GMB one of the largest and most powerful unions in Britain. One of a long line of heroic struggles by black workers the Burnsalls strike was however unique in its political significance.
A sweat shop struggle in the middle of the recession, it was not only a source of inspiration hut was a hint of the shape of things to come in the fragmented workplaces of Britain\s declining manufacturing industry. The strike also demonstrated the need for strikers support groups at a time when the trade union movement has lost much of its traditional base.
It began in June 1992 when nineteen black workers most of them Asian women walked out demanding union recognition, equal pay and basic health and safety. In fact health and safety at the factory was so bad that the statutory
Health and Safety Executive (not the most radical of organisation) upheld the workers' right to withdraw their labour and in acknowledgement of this the strikers were allowed to claim DHSS benefit. As for wages women workers were paid £115 for a 56 hour week. The directors' got £78,613 (in 1990). In addition to this acute exploitation there was compulsory overtime, frequent racist comments and refusal of medical treatment for injuries at work.
Bumsall Ltd is in fact a fairly typical factory in Britain's motor industry. It supplies car plants such as Jaguar, Coventry and Rover, Solihull and Longbridge. Situated in an area which was at the heart of manufacturing industry but is now all but destroyed by the effects of Thatcherism, the experiences of black workers in factories like these demonstrate the nature of Britain's industrial decline. The motor industry for example now employs comparatively few skilled workers in increasingly automated factories; the rest of the work is contracted and sub-contracted out to sweatshops like Bumsalls where components and components of components are manufactured in conditions comparable to those in the Free Trade Zones in 'Third World' countries. At the end of the chain there is (as in Burns alls) a multinational company like Jaguar or Ford.
'The employer was breaking the law by not providing decent health and safety conditions, giving unequal wages to men and women, not allowing workers to join a union, but when mass pickets were organised we were threatened. And when scabs attacked us with knives and we were injured seriously it was we who were arrested. Whose side is the law on?" Burnsall striker
There are no longer many gradations of skill because the middle-levels of skill and wages have all but gone - the male industrial worker working at this middle level of industry has practically vanished and with him has gone a large chunk of the traditional base of the British trade union movement. Now thanks to subcontracting the workplace has been deliberately fragmented into small workplaces like Burnsalls and is likely to be fragmented further as Japanese methods, JIT and outworking becomes more widespread.
The motor industry (and also the foundries and textile industry) were rebuilt after World War 2 mainly by Asian men who had come to this country in the fifties and sixties. These workers had after bitter struggles fought and won union recognition and other basic rights but now most of those workplaces have closed down and there is massive unemployment. The decline of the industry and the introduction of sub-contracting has meant that the same bitter struggles are being fought under far harder conditions in these small workplaces often by the wives and daughters of the same workers who are now redundant. What these women face is not only the acute exploitation as sweat shop workers hut intense racism and blatant sexism not only from their own communities but from the well heeled white men who are their trade union officials. (In the whole of the West Midlands there is not a single black woman trade union official)
But the role of these men cannot simply be categorised as racist and sexist. Shackled by the law, prevented from calling mass pickets or sympathy strikes the trade union leadership appear to be quite happy doing the job demanded by them by the government and employers - keeping the workers under control. This at Burnsalls was done in a variety of ways - threats that the strikers would he arrested if they showed any militancy, keeping the strikers isolated by making sure that they did not attend any branch meetings and in fact did not know what their branch was, colluding with the police in their harassment of the strikers; consistently attacking anyone from the community who supported the strike, and finally of course calling off the strike soon after it began to show signs of becoming a major national issue. Britain's Trade Union leadership has for many decades played the role of managing the conflict between Labour and Capital Now they are doing this in the name of keeping within the law. The fact is that the laws governing and preventing industrial action are now draconian. Without mass pickets for example it is virtually impossible to win a strike and this means that no strike can he won within the law. In this situation the role of the trade union local officials at Burnsalls was simply to police the strikers and their supporters to try and prevent them from breaking the law.
‘We have to realise that the unions - the paid officials of the union - will not break the law to win strikes. But strikes cannot be won without breaking the law. This does not mean we cannot win strikes. We have to organise to force the employers ourselves. Independent action by the support group was the most effective thing in both pushing the union and frightening the employer.’ Burnsall strike supporter
In the past many black workers struggles involved taking on the racist trade union officials as a first step.
Burnsalls has shown that this confrontation -as of course the confrontation with the employer cannot any longer be undertaken by the workers alone.
Workplaces are too small, too isolated, and trade unions leadership wields too much reactionary force. The strikers must then have new support networks from the community, from among unemployed workers, women's groups and so on. However the Burnsall strike shows that the role of the support group needs to be looked at carefully. The Burnsall Strikers Support Group London (in which SASG members were active) was successful in publicising the strike and raising its profile nationally but an assessment of the strike suggests that we spent too much time and energy in trying to push the union into action. We should have concentrated more on strategies independent of the union - such as mass pickets - to win the strike, irrespective of whether the union was going to support or block us.
Nirmal Kaur took one Friday off sick last summer and returned to work the following Monday but when she received her next weekly pay packet she had been docked a full weeks wages for "failing to produce a sick note*'
Kuldip Dhaliwal slipped at work and injured his ankle. The management refused to allow him time off to go to hospital and he was given work sitting down including imposed overtime. He was then off sick for four days.
A young woman worker who was refused visits to an anti-natal clinic and her requests for lighter work were ignored. She continued the heavy task of lifting metal parts in a cage out of a tank with a jig. She finally suffered a miscarriage at three months which her doctor believes could have been triggered by her workload.
Racism and sexism of paid GMB officials:
GMB officials Joe Quigley and Danny Parry called off the strike on the eve of a national demonstration organised by the Support Groups which the GMB had earlier agreed to support. They simply called the strikers and told them the strike was over, if they continued the picket they would be arrested, if they criticised the union their cases against the employer pending at Industrial Tribunals would not be taken up and they would not be given the money raised for them through donations. When asked why he had called off the strike without even taking a vote, Joe Quigley justified his behavior by explaining why Asian women were not fit to take democratic decisions. He said, “I feared that if the strikers went home without a clear decision to end the strike - a decision coming from the union -the women would be put under intolerable pressure to carry on regardless. One woman in particular has a violent husband and there were realistic grounds for fear if she had said that she had voted to end the dispute”
The lessons of Burnsall are that the Trade Union bureaucracy must now be seen clearly, and dealt with, for what they are - a dead weight on the backs of workers in struggle.