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Historical Perspectives

very specific and immediate causes, but closer inspection also demonstrated that they had common features that revealed their origins in a rather deeper sense. These general causes were related to the inter-war years, when trade unionism had been pushed to the wall. Thus, for example, while the relatively short 1926 General Strike was firmly embedded in the collective memory, the miners' lockout that preceded and followed it lasted some nine months and inflicted a major humiliation on the miners. Similarly, few engineering shop stewards survived victimisation in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Trade unionism was in headlong decline in these years, as the boot was very much on the employers' collective feet. The consequences were, of course, major declines in working conditions, even if earnings were to some extent protected by stable and even falling prices during the depression. In fact, it is often overlooked that unemployment persisted into 1941 as a mass feature of the British scene, so far had the levels of economic activity sunk in many areas in the inter-war years. The sight of workers, increasingly including of course many women, coming into the workplace encouraged workers to express their reservations about employers with more confidence. Under full employment, the threat of the sack was no longer a real one and workers could feel more confident in relation to employers. Trade unionism enjoyed a period of great membership expansion between 1939 and 1945 (from 6.2 to 7.8 million); even though non-membership persisted, union membership rose dramatically as it had done during the First World War. Yet managers' attitudes had not necessarily changed. Many were the 'Little Hitlers' on the shop floor, who persisted in talking to workers in their old ways learned in the depression years. Here, then, was an important underlying source of conflict. If the war was being fought for freedom from Nazism, then surely authoritarian behaviour was inappropriate in the workshops of Britain's war effort, many workers reasoned.

Employers could hardly present themselves convincingly as either 'employee champions', despite the increase in personnel officers during wartime. They continued to resist pressures for wage increases despite making massive profits from government 'cost-plus' contracts for munitions. Moreover, in political terms, some had explicitly voiced admiration for Hitler in earlier years and were associated with the inter-war Conservative Party's appeasement policies. They were especially concerned not to make concessions to workers that might then be irretrievable when peace returned, and this was an important ground for their strong resistance to demands for equal pay from some women coming into the wartime munitions industries. One underlying cause of management's (and to some extent the state's) loss of authority on occasion was the common perception that neither was organising an efficient industrial war effort. One woman wrote of her husband's experience in a war factory early in the war:

'There is still no work in the Spitfire shop. The men bring shoe repairing to work. They have made frequent complaints to higher authorities. My husband, as shop steward, has written to the Minister of Labour and to Lord Beaverbrook, but to no avail. When the enemy is at our gates, the workers will be blamed for low output. The whole system is rotten...' (1)

It was this sort of complaint that brought government to support the demand for Joint Production Committees to try to involve workers in improving the situation from 1941 onwards, but in many factories these only had one meeting, the first, because managements refused to have their 'right to manage' diluted. Workers'
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Industrial Conflict in Britain in the Second World War by Richard Croucher