Employment trends in West London 1945- 1995

The key trend was the shift from manufacturing, in particular engineering, that was originally concentrated along and around the new arterial roads with large factories such as Napiers, Firestones Tyres, Eastman Kodak, Hoovers and de Haviland. There were also very important concentrations of industry on large industrial estates such as Park Royal which had 500 firms employing 39,000 workers in 1971. Other notable employers included Heinz and Co, Lyons Tetley in Greenford, Cheeseborough Ponds Ltd, J. Lyons & Co, CAV in Acton and ENV in Willesden. There were many smaller companies in the back streets of north Kensington such as Pilgrim Payne Industrial Cleaning, Vulcan Works and Fidelity Radio whilst Acton was famed for its fifty laundries. The major exhibition sites at Earl’s Court and Olympia employed hundreds of people who were sub- contracted to do skilled work such as joinery or mechanical & electrical fitting- jobs that were then safeguarded by apprenticeship training.

From the 1970s, a marked decline in this industrial base had begun with employers relocating their work outside of London, the impact of takeovers & mergers and, particularly in the 1980s, closures due to recession and restructuring- a bloodbath for West London’s post- war industrial base. The transformation of this industrial base also led to low- paid non- unionised firms eroding the tradition of skilled engineering employment in West London which had been strongly unionised from the 1930s by unions like the AUEW. The trade union mood was summed up by Tom Durkin of Brent Trades Council when he described the loss of jobs as ’Gone like the snow in summer’ in Jobs for a Change (1983). By then, over 9,000 jobs had disappeared as ten renowned factories such as Park Royal Vehicles, Callard and Bowser and Lesneys closed. If the representative fifties west London employee was a male worker employed in an engineering factory then by the eighties that employee was at least as likely to be a woman working in a bank, council office or social service department.

This shift was accompanied by the development of the service sector, particularly notable in the growth of Heathrow Airport. Heathrow underlines the switch in West London from a national production centre for aircraft parts to a massive complex for aircraft servicing and the associated passenger services required to run the biggest UK airport. In the immediate post- war decades, West London contained major airframe and aero- engine manufacturers such as Fairey Aviation in Hayes, Napiers in Acton Vale and Handley- Page in Willesden. Employment at Heathrow absorbed some of those made redundant in these years as well as the migrant workers from the Asian subcontinent. But the development of Heathrow also partly led to a reduction in local manufacturing jobs and a corresponding move towards warehousing, offices and hotels. Within the service sector, the BBC’s new post- war location in West London at White City became a cultural hub over several highly creative decades in terms of programming and technical progress.

London Transport

Heathrow was also connected directly to the centre of London with the building of the Heathrow extension to the Piccadilly line in the 1970s. The expansion of major rail depots such as Acton Works, Old Oak Common, Southall and the large bus servicing centres at Chiswick Works and Aldenham (opened in 1956) provided additional continuity until the restructuring of the 1980s. Public transport in the form of a unified system of tubes, buses and trams made West London a relatively accessible place to work in or commute from into the centre with bus routes such as the No. 15 being a particularly important east/ west route. But a sharp fall in passenger usage and shortages of staff were noticeable in West London with cuts in bus mileage and staff shortages of 30% in some west and north- West London garages in the 1960s signalling a fresh crisis for London’s transport. The introduction of one person- operated buses and tubes on a large- scale in the 1980s and 90s was merely a short- term answer to the failure to plan and invest in the capital’s transport system.

From 1945 to 1984, public ownership of London Transport, despite political changes, was a relatively stable and secure form of pension- based employment offering a wide variety of both skilled and unskilled jobs. LT was also an important destination for black and Asian workers and they made up 24% of the workforce by 1984 with the first LT Black Workers Group being founded in that year. Union membership was high with a very combative London Bus Section of the TGWU striking over pay in 1958 and over three decades later its 12 west London garages joining with the NUR and ASLEF staff at 13 depots in a one- day political strike across the whole of London in March 1984 followed by increasingly defensive strikes as LT embarked on re- structuring in the 1980s and 1990s.

Public sector employment

Work in the public sector grew in the post- war period with the welfare state’s range of new and unified services such as health, education and welfare. This was accompanied by a shift within the traditional service sector as jobs in transport, retail and wholesale distribution were declining whilst finance and business services were beginning to expand rapidly in the City of London and the West End. This was soon reflected in the growth of white- collar unions like ASTMS which increased its national membership from 72, 800 to 471,000 in only fifteen years (1964- 79) and BIFU more than doubling its membership in banks like the National and the Westminster. In health, local hospitals like Hounslow, Central Middlesex and St Charles were able to provide a range of services and brought employment opportunities for Caribbean and north African migrants. The opening of modern schools and the new comprehensive ethos of the 1960s offered young West Londoners and their teachers a new world of educational opportunity, one that reflected the support that many young teachers gave to the comprehensive idea embodied in Circular 10/ 65 which was adopted quickly by the Inner London Education Authority and was embodied in flagship schools such as Holland Park and Rutherford/ Sarah Siddons. Careers advice (later Connexions) was also available. The Further Education and adult education sectors were also increasingly able to offer working class people a non- traditional route to higher education through the Access courses at colleges like Kensington & Chelsea, Harrow and North- West London, although by the nineties the sector was engaged in a bitter dispute over contracts between the employers and the college union NATFHE. Statutory local government services grew in number and scope, including libraries, and social work. Whilst there were local government reorganisations, for example the Greater London Council, replacing the London County Council (L.C.C.) in 1965, and cuts in NHS services in the 1970s, the most far- reaching changes came in the Thatcher period with compulsory competitive tendering, rate- capping and the attacks on local democracy. It is hardly surprising that the West London trade union movement attained its most cohesive and comprehensive form in the period 1970- 1992, a period in which it was engaged in a wide range of industrial and political struggles often in collaboration with local anti- fascist campaigns, the Anti- Nazi League, in defence of local democracy with the ‘Save the GLC’ campaign and anti- privatisation battles in the NHS, transport and local government.

Local government became progressively more involved in the local economy as an employer and through its attempts to attract or retain employment at borough level. By the 1980s, urban planning no longer aimed to decentralise London as it had done for over two decades after the war with large- scale slum clearance and comprehensive development, notably in Ladbroke Grove with the building of the Westway. Instead, planners wanted to stabilise and retain London’s inner city population and regenerate its housing stock just as inner-city gentrification of areas like Ealing , North Kensington and Fulham was taking place. Economic development was identified by the GLC in the 1970s as a major role and, after the failures of its grandiose motorway policies, became centred on more realistic economic intervention under Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Enterprise Board (GLEB) in the early 1980s. In West London, GLEB supported companies like the co- operative venture Brenco Engineering in Brent and Standard Bookbinding in Park Royal. The GLC supported a technology network in West London, working closely with the Centre for Alternative Industrial and Technological Systems and Lucas Aerospace shop stewards on alternative plans. The GLC’s Popular Planning Unit worked with trade unions at Kodak, Aldenham Bus Works and Fords Langley truck plant and contributed to the publication of The West London Report detailing the economic challenges facing the area. The abolition of the GLC in 1986 and the subsequent fourteen year vacuum in London’s government have had an untold effect on strategic planning in the capital.

Migration and changes in workforce demographics

There was a massive change in the nature of the workforce, differentiated in terms of ethnicity and culture in West London. From the late 1950s successive waves of migration from the Caribbean, India and Pakistan changed the formerly white workforce into a multi- ethnic group. But there was also migration from Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Canada and Turkey as well as the rest of England. This was a new layer to the workforce, located in small factories doing assembly work, on the tubes as station staff and guards or in the hotels and restaurants of inner London. This came to national prominence in 1975 with the Grunwick dispute at a small photographic processing plant in Brent but there were many other instances in the 1970s where black and Asian workers challenged exploitative employers. Union recognition and low pay became a major rallying- point in the 1970s with the long- running disputes of Chix in Slough, Garners Steak Houses and at Grosvenor House Hotels in the west end. On the shop- floor, trade union attitudes began to change from hostility, indifference or outright racism and in 1974 the trade union movement, which had tended to be concerned with assimilation and immigration, began to register the impact of racial discrimination, the resulting inequalities and the dangers of neo- fascism. Whether or not the trade unions responded robustly to racism, migrant workers pushed for international sections in unions such as the TGWU or did night classes in photography or hairdressing as they worked during the day in Soho or Ladbroke Grove.

Women in the workforce

The impact on women in West London’s workforce was also far- reaching. Reflecting national trends, women began to enter the waged workforce in greater numbers. By 1980, women made up 40% of the UK workforce and female membership of trade unions had risen by 58% in the decade 1966- 76. Women were involved in all the major struggles between workers and employers, but in addition had to fight for recognition by male trade unionists. It is the self- organisation of women that is most impressive, whether organised within trade union structures for equal pay or on the shop floor against discrimination and sexism. From the 1950s, women in unions like the NUT, NALGO and the CSCA launched campaigns for equal pay and this became a defining thread, alongside the issue of low pay, for the next four decades. Women’s demands transformed the workplace. The ’dolly- bird’ of the sixties was also capable of collective action: in 1959, women typists in the civil service demonstrated in Horseguards’ Parade, Whitehall with the message ’Autumn Fashions at the Treasury- Higher Hemlines and Lower Wages for Typing and Machine Grades’. In 1966, women workers at the ENV factory in Willesden won equal pay supported by their union the AEU.

A decade later, in 1976, one of the most important and far- reaching equal pay strikes was successfully won at the Trico factory in Brentford. The women ignored a tribunal decision and continued the strike for 21 weeks, leading to the Great West Road where the factory was located being dubbed the ‘Costa del Trico’. Almost all the 500 workers at the Grunwick factory in Willesden were black and a large percentage were women when in 1976 137 walked out on strike over union recognition and poor working conditions. Although the strike was defeated, there were few trade unionists in West London who did not feel the ‘atmosphere’ created by the dispute- if you travelled by bus in west London wearing a Grunwicks sticker, the conductor would invariably waive the fare! Hundreds of smaller rarely recorded victories were won by women in the 1980s, for example, successfully entering the traditionally male grade of motorman/ train driver on tube and mainline trains. Women teachers in the Westminster Teachers Association combated sexism in education.


Unemployment was the fastest growing feature of West London from the 1970s as a whirlwind of job losses brought 11% unemployment rates in boroughs such as Brent and Hammersmith in 1983. This was a remarkable change in west London’s economy which, in the 1950s and 1960s, had witnessed full employment. Hence the frequent comment that ‘you could leave one job on Friday afternoon and find a new one on Monday morning’. As early as 1966, ENV engineering closed with the loss of 1,500 jobs and, just over a decade later, the massive Park Royal estate had lost 70 firms with the loss of 6,000 jobs. The vast laundry sector in Acton had closed by 1980 destroying another 5,000 jobs. EMI in Hayes laid off 300 workers in 1980 and the Heinz factory closed in 1993 even though the Greater London Council had launched a rescue plan in the mid- eighties. Esso tanker drivers and Eastman Kodak workers were also faced with one of the biggest challenges of the eighties and nineties: the transnational corporations whose priorities did not include the protection of local jobs or the welfare of West Londoners.

Union membership and industrial relations - "It's that West London militancy"

West London was not immune to the wider changes that were taking place in industrial relations in the period 1945 - 1995. After the war, trade union growth had declined and only began to recover in 1946 and continued to grow throughout the following two decades, with minor declines during recessions. The growth in membership of trade unions in the UK was particularly strong in the service sector, especially from the late 1960s. Unions like NUPE, NALGO, COHSE and the NUT grew rapidly, especially amongst women who, for example, were in a majority in the health service union COHSE by the mid- sixties. But union organisation was also penetrating white collar departments in engineering factories, and was extending to women. This was important in West London with its concentration of engineering factories and is illustrated by the Trico equal pay strike.

Two key factors led to a dramatic increase in strike action: government policy which tried to hold down public sector pay and management attempts to rationalise the sector with work study and job evaluation. This lay behind the recurring waves of industrial action in the periods 1968- 74 and 1974- 79 with a high proportion of strikes being over wage claims. But the workforce was also engaged in political strikes against the Conservative government’s Industrial Relations Act, a wave of workplace occupations and, in the 1970s, the development of workers’ plans such as that at Lucas Aerospace in Brent after 600 jobs were lost despite a very militant occupation. The effect of these developments was evident in West London workers’ participation in strike action with widespread support for national strikes over pay and government policy involving civil servants in 1981, hospital workers and rail workers in 1982, local government workers, electricity, gas and water workers in 1983, teachers in 1985- 86, and print workers throughout the early eighties culminating in the Wapping dispute in 1986- 87.

This new militancy helped to create better union organisation, inter- union and rank and file organisation to be found in rank and file bodies in the NUT, UCATT, NALGO, NUJ and CPSA as well as hospital, bus and car workers. The Building Workers’ Charter was published in 1970 and played a part in the 1972 UCATT strike over pay and hours which involved many West London construction sites (the unity and leverage of UCATT being amply demonstrated at a mass meeting in Hammersmith Town Hall). USDAW members struck work at Foyle’s central London bookshop in 1965 over pay and in 1973 hairdressers at Ivan’s in Jermyn Street refused to clean chandeliers. Ford workers at the Langley plant in Slough helped to form the Ford Workers Group (The Combine) which published Fraud News and precipitated the nine- week national strike in 1978, effectively smashing the Labour’s government pay norm. On public transport, West London was the launch- pad for the rank and file magazine Busworker whilst on the tube, Picc Up on the East and Close Encounters on the District Line reflected rank and file discontent. Electricians founded Flashlight in the fight to rebuild their union in the 1980s. The idea of a left- wing Sunday tabloid News on Sunday, launched in 1985, came originally from discussions in Shepherd's Bush.

Alongside all this rank and file activity, the phenomenon of the shop steward was one of the new icons of industrial relations as early as the 1950s and West London had a tradition of militant workplace representation stretching back to the 1930s and much strengthened in war- time Production Committees. The shop steward stepped into the gap between national bargaining and the shop floor, appearing in films like I’m Alright Jack and television serials like The Rag Trade with its catchphrase ’Everybody Out’. The shop steward had come to stay and remained a key figure in the unionised workplace. The shop steward was joined by the health and safety representative from the 1970s. New legislation allowed activists to force employers to meet legal requirements- the extremely poor levels of safety in many smaller West London firms in the post war decades leaving a legacy of long- term injury and disability to this day.

The Britain at Work interviews will be a permanent historical record of work and trade unionism in West London. They will, hopefully, offer an example to trade unions, academic institutions, colleges and schools of the potential to build a unified and more comprehensive collection of oral histories from the last 50 years. More importantly, perhaps, they will help to inspire future generations that will embark on the task of building a better society.

Dave Welsh, Project Coordinator at HISTORYtalk

HISTORYtalk would like to thank the following for their help:


Rima Joebear, Pat Fuller, Dave Welsh.

Tom Vague, Rosa Vilbr, Ama Biney.

Interviews and transcriptions
Beth Kingl, John O’Mahony, Debbie Cotman, Kathleen McIllvena, Duncan Grimes, Rose Vickridge, Ruth Sheldon, Peter Atherton, Jan Pollock, Jessica Vine, Woody Hegedus, Jan O’Malley, Annie Bachini, Myrna Shoa.

Other assistance:
Stefan Dickers (Bishopsgate Institute); photographs: TUC Library Collections, Morning Star.

Heritage Lottery, Amiel Melburn Trust, Phil McManus, NASUWT, TSSA, Amicus Retired branch (West London), UNISON (K&C local government branch), FBU, UNITE (1/684 branch), Amicus General (branch 0974), Amicus Civil Air Transport Branch, RMT South East Regional Council, Ealing & Acton Trades Union Council, Raymond Williams Trust, Society for the Study of Labour History.