Reading this book reminds me of Brecht’s poem, “Questions From a Worker Who Reads” (1935). It reminds us of our trade union history – the lives of women and men who, over the years in this country, have contributed to making this a fairer, more democratic society- a history that is absent from the books, television and radio programmes that dominate our media, our education system and our lives. And if we don’t research and write our own history –who else will?
“All In a Day’s Work: Working Lives and Trade Unions in West London 1945-1995” is a tremendous achievement. It began with an oral history project which collected over 100 interviews between 2009 and 2013. Its aim was to cover fifty years of working class history, looking at everything from family background (and importantly how people came to this area of London), as well as their lives at work, their involvement in trade union politics and how this affected their lives.
The project focussed on a particular area of West London, which included the many global factories which dominated the industrial belt, as well as smaller firms, and the growing public sector. Many of the interviews were done by volunteers with the people interviewed playing an important role in providing photos, union membership cards, as well donating their time and views to the project.
This is a successful project and book because of the people involved. The National Britain at Work oral history project was set up by Professor Nina Fishman (now sadly dead), who was not just an academic, but an activist working in trade union education across the region. It also has an inspiring introduction by John McDonnell, an MP for the local area, who reminisces about his own experience of political and trade union activity. He sums up the importance of this project; “The Britain at Work Project helps us to listen and learn from past lives and past struggles. For that we owe it and all its participants a debt of thanks.”
Central to the story of West London is the manufacturing industry: it had one of the highest concentration of manufacturing, not just in London but in the whole country. In 2016 it’s hard to imagine the scale of the number of factories and of people working in them. Just five West London factories employed 6,000 people, for instance.
They needed lots of workers, and immigrant labour provided an important source of workers, like Rose Madden who was born in Ireland in 1939, and in 1957 moved to Kilburn to live with her sister and find work. She says; “I was given a job in McVitie and Price’s biscuit factory towards Harlesden. There were machines that wrapped biscuits and I was working, making chocolate…it was fascinating really, like Heath Robinson.” Rose wasn’t alone, as many people from across the world were attracted to West London to find employment and make a home in the region. Many of them experienced racism, sometimes from their own union members or officers, and it is important that these stories are included in the book.
It was a time of full employment for 30 years after the Second World War, and a time when trade union organisation and activity flourished.”Many West Londoners became part of a massive social movement through this activity, a movement that was increasingly linked with communities at a London-wide level and with the national trade union movement.”
One of the fascinating stories is of the women workers at Trico-Folberth factory in Brentford, who in 1976 stayed out on strike for 21 weeks for equal pay and won. I love the comments by Sally Groves as she took part on the picket line ; “We had such tremendous support from other trade unionists- it was fantastic, to make the picket possible…We obviously had a right to speak to the drivers. Yeah it was a huge battle…I was dragged away and then Eileen was dragged away.”
It wasn’t just women and men in factories who were out on strike, it is great to read about the hairdressers walking out of Ivan’s salon in the West End in 1973, and a strike at BHS HQ in Marylebone after it sacked a trainee manager for being gay.
Reading this book is inspiring for me. It’s not just the stories of ordinary people fighting for equality at work, but the fact that we can read their stories, see their pictures, and remind ourselves that we can change our lives at work, at home and in our community. It is a history that needs preserving and promoting, but one that needs to be taken seriously by the trade union movement and other progressive organisations and individuals.
Today we are living in a time when trade unions play a declining role in workplaces, but trade unions are its members and they can make a difference, just look at the Blacklisting Campaign. Lucky for this campaign, they have produced a book that tells their story, unfortunately many other disputes have been forgotten or just written out of the trade union histories. I hope this book can inspire other people to write up their own history of activism, and perhaps create a blog to publicise it. You can buy it here see
Questions From a Worker Who Reads
Who built Thebes of the 7 gates ?
In the books you will read the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock ?
And Babylon, many times demolished,
Who raised it up so many times ?
In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its builders live ?
Where, the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished, did the masons go?
Great Rome is full of triumphal arches.
Who erected them ?
Over whom did the Caesars triumph ?
Had Byzantium, much praised in song, only palaces for its inhabitants ?
Even in fabled Atlantis, the night that the ocean engulfed it,
The drowning still cried out for their slaves.
The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone ?
Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Did he not even have a cook with him ?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada went down.
Was he the only one to weep ?
Frederick the 2nd won the 7 Years War.
Who else won it ?
Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors ?
Every 10 years a great man.
Who paid the bill ?
So many reports.
So many questions.