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Historical Perspectives

representatives on JPCs understandably tried to use them to raise grievances. The government itself was forced to play a more active role in ensuring that worker discontent over immediate grievances was dealt with as quickly as possible. It therefore only undertook prosecutions against strikers when there was no real alternative. In general, government policy was to try to exert pressure on employers to resolve grievances quickly and not to risk repressive measures against strikers since these could escalate the action and bring the law into disrepute with negative results for the war effort.

The war itself overlay the grievances accumulated like tinder in a firebox during the inter-war years with new problems. Workers often found themselves with major problems of housing, were frequently subjected to massive overwork especially immediately after the fall of France, often had transport problems, and shopping or childcare difficulties. All of these pushed many shop stewards towards the role of unofficial workplace counsellors, thereby strengthening unions' links with workers. But they also meant that many workers had to cope with a range of problems inside and outside of work that put them under pressure and made them less likely to tolerate ill-treatment from management.

In general, as the war continued, strikes were most common where trade unions had least membership. Unions, of course, provided a channel for workers' grievances to be raised and resolved through procedures while union policies were against unlawful strike action. However, despite rising union membership, many workers remained outside union ranks. Women and young workers had particularly high levels of non-unionism and also had very real grievances. The result towards the end of the war was a rising strike rate in the munitions industries among women demanding pay improvements. One woman in a Birmingham factory berated her fellow women workers when they did not receive overtime for working a Bank Holiday in these terms:

'The men get overtime for working Bank Holiday week-it's your own bleeding fault for letting them get away with it. Why don't you have the pluck to go and make a fuss about it?. You girls make me sick-you ought to go up about it' (2)

Increasingly, women did take her advice and pursued claims for equal pay with men and important strikes, including that at Rolls-Royce's Hillington plant in Scotland in 1944 took place on the issue. The strike gave rise to a Royal Commission on Equal Pay. Young workers, notably in the apprentices' strike of 1944, also gave the authorities cause for concern when they struck work against the Bevin pit-ballot scheme that sent one in ten of their number down the pits. This strike was dealt with by means of prosecutions brought against the 'agitators' deemed to have been at their centre.

These were not strikes about piece rates: major issues of industrial and state policy were raised, and the state responded accordingly. Thus, industrial action in fact constituted an important and often ignored backdrop to the political events of 1945. Industrial workers and not only returning service men and women demanded political action to change the contours of British life. They had experienced discussion and sometimes industrial action in wartime that changed their perceptions. Unions had expanded their membership, and many new members were persuaded to pay the political levy (3) for the first time. Moreover, in many cases, they had refrained from industrial action and they expressed the pent-up force of their sentiments about the state of working life through Labour votes. This was an important result of the 'secret history' which many activists had themselves suppressed until they were confronted with the evidence that the British state had been collecting highly detailed information on their wartime activities by a young lad with photocopies from the archives.

1) Quoted in Engineers at War, p. 147
2) Quoted in Engineers at War, p.282
3) Contributions to union funds for political activities
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Industrial Conflict in Britain in the Second World War by Richard Croucher