From Journal 20 (2011)
This story of the 1933 strike at the Firestone tyre factory on the Great West Road, is based mainly on reports from The Daily Worker and The Brentford & Chiswick Times. The Strike involved other battles as well as the struggle for better wages and conditions.
The Firestone Tyre factory, built in the 1920s and demolished in 1980, was the most handsome of the buildings on the Great West Road. The art deco frontage, set well back behind lush green lawns, gave an image of a modern enlightened factory unlike the traditional British dark satanic mills. But what was it like to work there? What drove nearly all the 650 men and 200 women to come out on strike in 1933? A risky thing to do at a time of high national unemployment.
The company claimed wages ranged from £4 15s for men in the Production Department to £2 1s 4d for women in the Factory Service Department, which was good in those days, but in reality the take home pay was much less. Workers were not paid if a machine broke down or if they were waiting for stock. One tyre builder claimed his waiting time was nearly four hours and his pay that week was £1 10s. On 16 July 1933 the Daily Worker reporter was shown pay slips by a dozen of the women. The highest he saw was for £1 14s. That’s at least 7 shillings lower than the company was claiming it paid.
Much was made about how modern the factory was, and how it had a canteen for its workers, but The Daily Worker reported that men were working an eight-hour day with only a 15-minute break and did not have time to use the canteen. Sometimes they had to work a second eight-hour shift. Men of thirty were on youth rates and were afraid to ask for men’s rates in case they were dismissed.
Everyone was on piece rates. Even lavatory cleaners were on a task-work system and were given 12 minutes to fill 12 boxes with toilet paper. A man in the Building Department said: ‘Firestone have been cutting rates over the last four years until we are now doing double the work for the same money’. Another man told of how one shift was congratulated for turning out 1,000 tyres. The next day they reduced the piece rate. He said ‘You can walk around … and see wreckages of men who know the work is killing them’.
The strike begins
The strike started spontaneously on a Friday in the Tyre Curing Department where 75 employees downed tools when they claimed a new speed-up piece work system was going to reduce take home pay by up to 24s a week. The next day the whole factory was out, and all production of tyres ceased. There were two mass meetings and a Strike Committee was elected with representatives from each department.
At the second meeting Fred Bramley of the Communist Party London District Committee was ‘applauded to the echo.’ He was an interesting character who stood for Parliament as a Communist candidate in Hammersmith North, and he was very proud of the fact that as leader of the London Communist Party he was on the list of 2,000 people to be eliminated by Nazi Germany if they invaded Britain. His early presence at Firestone’s indicates how quickly the Communist Party took over the leadership of the strike.
The Strike Committee’s demands were: union recognition, the abandonment of the new piece work system in the Curing Department, payment for waiting time, a basic daily rate for tyre builders and better safety precautions in the plant.
There were claims that the strike was 100 per cent but the Engineering Department, where the Amalgamated Engineering Union had a strong presence, did not come out despite sending a deputation to their London District Committee proposing they should call out the engineers.
Mass picketing started almost immed-iately and was not entirely peaceful. Early on the windscreen of a car used to carry strike breakers was smashed. On 27 July The Daily Worker reported that ‘a few of the blacklegs went into work with slightly changed facial appearances …’ Later on a few court appearances on charges of assault and obstruction were either dismissed or bound over or resulted in modest fines, although one man was sentenced to 2 months’ hard labour for a serious assault.
The real trouble and strife came when the British Union of Fascists appeared on 13 July and after some fighting were driven off. Later they returned and distributed a pamphlet which read: ‘Fascist Union of British Workers – Firestone workers! We Fascists have offered you our services in combating the disgraceful cond-itions of work forced upon you by foreign financiers. Fascism stands for increased wages, and a higher standard of life for the British worker’. The Daily Worker went through the pamphlet line by line ‘exposing its lies’ which they said was noticeably similar to Nazi propaganda aimed at workers in Germany.
Another intervention was made by the Green Shirt Movement who tried to persuade the strikers to adopt their monetary reform policies as a means of promoting good industrial relations. One of their publicity methods involved throwing green bricks through windows and they did this at 11 Downing Street.
Support for the strike
The strikers received support and donations from several trade union branches and work places, but the strike was not official so no strike pay came from the Transport and General Workers Union or the Amalgamated Engineering Union, who were attacked by the Communist Party for not being sufficiently militant. Both unions gave some financial support, but would not have been happy that the Communists were in control at Firestone’s. A soup kitchen was set up, and donations of food came from some local traders.
The women on strike played an increasing role collecting money in the high streets and attending the picket lines, and one woman told the Daily Worker reporter
Let everyone know the truth about Firestone’s ‘model’ factory. It’s good to look at – from the outside. A new building in modern style, surrounded by green lawns. But inside! It’s rush and tear and sweat. Three shifts working day and night – the machines never stop.
Another said ‘Look at my friend’s arm!’ The reporter asked how she got such an ugly-looking gash. ‘Well,’ she said,
I’ve worked here for years and our rates have been gradually cut until we turn out more work and get less for it. There’s a lot of waiting time. Sometimes for stock and sometimes because the machines break down. But we don’t get paid for waiting time, and we’ve got to pretend we’re busy all the time. One day I was waiting and was given work ripping old beads with a rip knife. Girls are not supposed to use this kind of knife at all. It being the first time, I ripped my arm instead of the tyre. It was a mess. I went to hospital and had gas and six stitches.
The progress of the strike
There were a number of demonstrations during the strike, including a march from Brentford to Hammersmith led by the West Ham Unemployed Band, and on another occasion a big meeting was held in Hammersmith Town Hall.
The behaviour of the police came in for some criticism. They tried to use the licensing laws to stop the Castle Hotel in Brentford High Street being used as the strike HQ but that failed, and on occasions they were tough in clearing the Great West Road of pickets. One afternoon, a mounted policeman is reported to have gone into a cafe to order strikers who were having tea to move away. Presumably he got off his horse before he went in.
On 16 July 30 members of the Strike Committee met the management for five hours and the Company came up with a list of concessions that included overtime at time and a half after 10 hours, double shifts no longer being compulsory, a guaranteed basic wage, and waiting time to be paid for.
But they refused trade union recognition, and would not back down on the original cause of the strike – the new piece-work system in the Curing Department. The Strike Committee wouldn’t budge on either of these issues.
The Company, sensing that the strikers could not stay out for ever, sent a letter to all strikers on 23 July setting out the concessions, and demanding that all workers who wished to remain with the company apply for their jobs by the following Monday. The Strike Committee’s reaction was to recommend continuing the strike and this was endorsed in a ballot by 436 votes to 19.
Then the Company started recruiting new hands from the unemployed, which together with the small number of strike breakers gave the impression that production might be starting up again. In fact this was not so, and a striker who got into the factory reported that only seven tyres had been produced the previous day.
The Company then dismissed all strikers and returned their insurance cards through the post, and said that each of them could apply for their jobs. Which of course many did, and the first chinks in the solidarity appeared.
The end of the strike
On 4 August The Brentford and Chiswick Times reported a company statement that 50 per cent of old employees had returned, and 100 to 150 new employees had been taken on. The Company would interview ex-employees and take their previous record into account.
The Strike Committee recognised on 9 August that the game was up. They were not going to get union recognition, which of course was the prime objective of the Communist leaders of the strike. Most strikers were reinstated – but the Company took the opportunity to get rid of nearly 100 whom they saw as trouble makers.
So who won? There were a number of battles going on. One was the fight between the Fascists and the Communists for the support of the working class. The Fascists lost that one but the Communists never really attracted the support of the working class, which went to the Labour Party.
Then there was the battle for control of the trade unions between the Communists and those whom they called ‘the reformists’. Probably the reluctance of the Transport and General Workers Union and the Amalgamated Engineering Union to give other than tentative support to the strike reflected their opposition to the Communist Party. They did not want to back a Communist led cause.
There was also the battle for trade union recognition which was lost in the 1933 strike, but as a result of the strike the Transport and General Workers Union recruited, and retained, over 650 members. A Works Committee was established and by the post war years trade union recognition was achieved. A number of concessions were gained on overtime and waiting time payments, minimum wages and working conditions.
The big achievement was the end of total domination of the work force by the management. Firestones had seen how easily a strike could stop production, and from then on would think twice about the consequences before introducing new production measures that would disadvantage their workers.
The History of the Great West Road, James Marshall, 1995; The Brentford & Chiswick Times, The Daily Worker; Marx Memorial Library
John Grigg was a local Labour councillor for 17 years between 1958 and 1990. He was Leader of Hounslow Council in 1986. This article results from his research into the history of the Labour Movement.