A history of struggle on the buses

One of our inspirations is the Busman’s Punch. In many ways it provides a model for rank and file papers today. Here is an introduction, and some suggestions for further reading. 

In 1932 the T&G transport union, headed by future government minister Ernest Bevin, failed to organise a fight after the Genral Omnibus Company London threatened to scrap its existing wage agreement and sack 300 workers. 

Militants around the Communist Party (CP) at the Chelverton Road bus garage in Putney called a meeting of union delegates from 21 London bus garages.

The meeting, which was to form the basis of a new rank and file movement, forced the union to call a fleet-wide delegates meeting. Those delegates went on to reject Bevin’s strategy and voted for a strategy of strike action instead.

By now the T&G’s central bus committee, made up of elected representatives from each garage in the capital, had little option but to organise a strike ballot.

The show of hands produced a four to one vote for action. Bevin hurried back to management and secured a deal in which the wage cuts and redundancies were withdrawn.

With a big victory under its belt, the new rank and file body continued to meet and started to produce a new magazine called Busman’s Punch. The magazine was edited by a CP full timer, Emile Burns, and was soon selling 30,000 copies.

Every union, then and now, had their own periodical to spread the views of the union’s leadership to its membership. Editorial control rests firmly in the hands of the union bureaucracy and is generally unresponsive to the mood of the membership.

Certainly it is not the aim of these publications to develop the involvement, independence and initiative of the union’s grassroots.

But Busman’s Punch was not the typical union magazine. It was born out of the frustration of rank and file activists with the failure of their union’s bureaucracy to seriously confront management and aimed to encourage independent initiative.

The new magazine acted as a bridge between activists who wanted to network with each other in order to go beyond what the union officials are willing to do.

....In Busman’s Punch, the CP’s belief in the potential strength of the rank and file is reiterated time and again. In 1933, after Bevin’s recommendation to accept a pay cut was defeated in a ballot, Busman’s Punch wrote:

“As far as our organisation is concerned the [T&G] Executive Council and officers have received a lesson to which there is no parallel in bus history. It was a solid demonstration by the men that they are the union, that they pay the piper and will call the tune.”

When industrial action did break out, the paper and its network of supporters was able to spread the action independently of the union officials. Despite its opposition to the weak leadership of the T&G, Busman’s Punch was keen to stress the importance of strengthening the union through recruitment and it worked to establish 100 percent membership in every workplace.

It also recognised the need to work with trade union officials whenever possible and to push for the election of left wing and rank and file candidates to union positions. Indeed, rank and file candidates were able to win a number of key positions inside the union. One example is Bert Papworth, a leading figure associated with Busman’s Punch, who was ultimately elected to the TUC general council.

In January 1933 – after the rank and file movement won control of the union’s central bus committee – CP general secretary Harry Pollitt wrote in the magazine, Labour Monthly, about the success of the rank and file strategy:

“The experience of the London Busmen’s rank and file movement should be carefully studied by militant workers in every industry.

“The determination of the mass of London’s busmen was expressed through the setting up of a rank and file committee consisting of branch representatives who reported back to the branches and secured confirmation of the committee’s decisions.

“Funds to carry out a propaganda campaign were raised through the branches – leaflets, pamphlets, and the Busman’s Punch were sold through the branches.

“Speakers from the rank and file committees addressed the branches. And all this work was carried out by a committee drawing its authority from the garages and branches, who looked to it to lead the fight against the company independently of the trade union officials, but with the full force of the trade union branches and garages behind it.”

In 1935 an unofficial strike broke out at Nunhead garage in south London. It spread rapidly and soon 5,000 bus workers were out on strike. The Daily Worker reported:

“At every bus stop stood young men. They gave out pamphlets entitled ‘Bus Strike’. They shouted, ‘Facts about the bus strike!’

“These were the Communists. At each place I went, I saw these workers mobilising at the bus stops giving out leaflets. It was the same all over London. The CP mobilised quickly – they played their part well as the vanguard of the army of the working class and they drew in many Londoners into that army that night.”

....Busman’s Punch had played a significant role in rebuilding trade union organisation in the difficult times of the 1930s.

Shop stewards on the buses showed that even in conditions of mass unemployment, pockets of trade union strength could be established through rank and file organisation and action.
 Busman’s Punch inspired bus drivers all over the country and copycat tactics were adopted in strikes elsewhere in Britain.

...The last few years have witnessed the uneven recovery of trade unionism in this country, and there are possibilities for rebuilding workplace organisation – particularly by involving union members in campaigns like the Stop the War movement.

The conditions of the 1930s offer some interesting parallels for activists today, in part because of the dramatic restructuring of industry and the memory of defeated mass strikes.
There are also parallels in the way the treachery and vacillation of sections of the union leadership is creating a well of bitterness among thousands of union members.
To tap that mood of discontent, we will do well to remember the methods of Busman’s Punch and the rank and file strategy that went with it.

To find out more: 
This extract was taken from an article in Socialist Worker: 

There is a more in-depth history at: 

A history of trade union militancy on the buses over a longer time period with some nice images: http://ourhistory-hayes.blogspot.com
A history of rank-and-file movements in several industries, including the buses: http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/pearce 
And if you’re very keen, there is a detailed account in an out-of-print book, “Labour Relations in London Transport” by H.A Clegg.
You can buy it here: http://www.abebooks.co.uk

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