Asian workers' associations in Britain, 1956-1980s

Indian Workers' Association, Southall.

Ron Ramdin on the history and development of autonomous Asian working-class organisation in postwar Britain, their activities and their relationship with both the broader black liberation and working-class movements.

Pre-1969 developments

Immigrants from the Indian sub-continent living in Britain formed various associations which fell within two broad categories. First, there were those who sought to provide the cultural activities of the regional society in India, and secondly, those associations which were organised to deal directly with problems arising out of the new relationship with British society. Moreover, the first was concerned with the immigrants who operated as part of the internal structure of the immigrant community. In effect, it existed to make cultural activities possible. On the other hand, the second type of association was primarily political in that it sought to represent the immigrant community as a whole in its relations to the host society. Both types of associations provided opportunities for leadership and the exercise of authority — 'activities which are denied to, and refused by, Indian immigrants in the social organisation of the host society'.

In October 1959 the Bharatiya Mandala (the Indian Association) was founded in Bradford by a student immigrant, formerly a high-school teacher in Gujarat. He and his friends began by organising a meeting to celebrate Divali (the most important festival in the Gujarat Calendar). A cultural programme was arranged and all Gujaratis in the area were invited to attend. The aim was to form a permanent cultural association which would, among other things, provide a library with Gujarati books, periodicals and newspapers, a recreational club where local Gujarati families could meet and an educational centre for children to learn to read and write Gujarati and for adults to learn the English language. Significantly, the Association had no 'political' aims.

In contrast to this organisation, there was the Indian Society of Great Britain, established in Birmingham. This organisation was a failure. Its primary object of uniting the Indian community in the area was frustrated by prolonged wrangles arising from factional loyalty." In short, the difference between the Bradford and Birmingham Associations was the basic unity in the former and its absence in the latter. However, it must be remembered that unity, to some degree, existed in Bradford before the Association, and indeed, independently of it.

Film societies

In towns in the Midlands and elsewhere in the United Kingdom where the Indo-Pakistanis resided in sufficient numbers (before videos became popular) local cinemas showed Indian and Pakistani films at weekends and on holidays. These shows, usually run by film societies, were also run by private enterprises and sometimes by cultural associations. The film societies were regarded as friendly societies. In fact, many film societies (in spite of legal impediments) were private business concerns. A privately-owned film society could not obtain tax exemption and other benefits if it did not register as a friendly society. Hence all film societies appeared to be democratically organised and managed friendly societies.

The Eastern Film Society was founded in January 1956 in the West Midlands where approximately 10,000 Indo-Pakistani immigrants lived. The founders and members of the first Executive were Punjabi-speaking Sikhs from the Jullundur district in India, most of whom knew each other. The Society hired films from the Indian Film Society in London which, apart from showing films in London also rented its films to provincial film societies.

In promoting one of its aims of fostering education in English, the Society made donations to the Commonwealth Centre and to the West Bromwich Education Department 'for equipment for Indian and Pakistani children classes' and bought linguaphone records in English and Hindustani. Understandably, the ability to speak and write English fluently, was a major preoccupation among members of the Asian community.

By 1961, business had grown. There were four film societies in the Birmingham area. Competition for more or less the same audience led to conflict. To sum up, film societies brought together, in an essentially cultural context, Indians and Pakistanis from the various immigrant communities. The formal structure of the film societies reflected in their executive body, linguistic and regional isolation. On the other hand, the political association differed from others in that one expressed purpose was to regulate relationships between Indian immigrants and the host society.

The Indian Workers' Association: leaders and their supporters

For the vast majority of immigrants from India and Pakistan, their inability to speak or write the English language posed a difficult problem in their daily life in dealing with the British bureaucratic machine. For those who could, they felt duty-bound to help their fellow villagers in the tasks of letter writing and form-filling, endemic in British life.

In the early 1950s there were not many immigrants capable of helping themselves, never mind assisting their compatriots in such time-consuming assistance.

Manmohan Singh Basra, who had come to Britain in 1953 felt the full impact of this need among his fellow-immigrants to the extent that 'he hardly had a moment to relax'. The size of the problem required the assistance of a formal organisation working systematically. Basra and a few 'socially active' Indians decided to establish such an organisation. Thus, in 1956, they founded the Indian Workers' Association in South Staffordshire. Soon after they were able to claim 150 members. This name was derived from an earlier organisation.

In 1938 three Indian workers, Udham Singh (a trade union activist in the Electrical Trade union, and a delegate to the local Trades Council), Uijager Singh, and Akbar Ali Khan formed the Indian Workers' Association in Coventry. This name was carefully chosen in order to avoid confusion with the middle-class India League (formed in 1929 and primarily concerned with Indian Independence) and the Birmingham Indian Association, with a student and doctor membership. The IWA's members were Punjabi pedlars from the Midlands and factory workers in Coventry. A similar group was organised in London. Middle-class Indians, such as Gujarati doctors, who were scattered all over the country, joined local India Leagues which included many English sympathisers with the cause of Independence. Both organisations worked for the cause and co-operated with Indian students and intellectuals in London. Quite often these intellectuals provided leadership for both the Leagues and the IWA. However, the IWA was essentially trade union-oriented while the India League concentrated on politics. After playing a significant role, following Indian Independence in 1947, these Associations declined.

In effect, the IWAs were essentially voluntary associations concerned both with Indians in Britain and with the continuing ties which immigrants have with India. However, the IWAs were primarily welfare and social organisations. Membership was open to any Indian in Britain. Although they did not, in practice, represent all Indians in Britain they had the support of most Punjabis. Until about 1967, the exceptions were a few pedlars.

There were signs between 1966 and 1967 that the IWAs were weakening. New organisations had been formed. Moreover, some Punjabis won posts in prominent British organisations, and the IWAs in many areas were split. Furthermore, some IWAs found new roles while others declined in prominence.

Nevertheless by 1965 the IWAs were the most important organisations in the Punjabi communities. Interest had been intense at election time. Every two years each Punjabi community held local IWA elections. The campaigns of these Indian 'politicians' were elaborate.

Ilaqa groupings

Among the Indians in Britain during the 1950s and 1960s, village and kinship ties were all-important. Usually, IWAs consisted of immigrants from a group of adjacent villages called a 'village-kin group' because they were linked by a combination of village and kin ties. Some IWAs, however, were coalitions of two or more village-kin groups.

Ilaqa (or area) ties were therefore of importance for two reasons: firstly, the pattern of friendship among the immigrants and secondly, the rules of behaviour towards those to whom one was indebted, and with whom one lived. Within each Ilaqa group a few men were influential. Family influence back in the Punjab was important. However, most leaders won popularity within their Ilaqa group through their activities in Britain. Many immigrants saved a great deal of money, some of which they sent home to support their families. Others invested in shops and/or houses in Britain. A man who owned many houses was able to win control over the votes of a large number of migrants who were his tenants. Thus a politically-oriented landlord was assured of support during the IWA elections.

Another kind of influence was derived through friendly relations with English foremen in factories. Those who spoke English fluently were among those who got jobs for their friends and had, in some cases, influence in the allocation of overtime. In addition, some men found a shorter road to positions of influence. They began as political activists. Such men spent much time forming friendships in public houses and engaged in speaking at public meetings and generally made themselves known by collecting IWA memberships and organising social functions, or classes to teach English to immigrants. These 'activists' however, were under enormous pressure to compromise with the influential men from their Ilaqas and from others.

Within the IWAs there were groups and quasi-groups. While social activities brought Indian migrants from the various Ilaqas together there were other more important forces at work to break down the unity of these groups. One such force was the rise of men who did 'large numbers of favours' for immigrants. These 'social workers' were at a premium since few migrants had the time to do social work.

Doing social work was a recognised means of winning influence within one's Ilaqa group. In time, these social workers had a growing influence on migrants to the extent that they began doing favours for men outside their Ilaqa group. Thus a few men with no Ilaqa support were able to build a following based on their social work, Two such types whose jobs allowed them to spend a great deal of time doing social work were insurance agents and shopkeepers. Moreover, those who organised Indian film shows often became outstanding social workers.

Gradually, Ilaqa groups began to lose their political unity as the activities of social workers forged new ties which cut across Ilaqa lines. Simultaneously, many Ilaqa groups were losing their social cohesiveness. Hitherto, there were few women in Punjabi settlements. Consequently, the men lived in lodging houses. The arrival of wives and other women in the early 1960s shifted the social life in the Punjabi communities from lodging houses and pubs to private homes. Thus, the shift from lodging houses to family homes not only increased but coincided with the decline of social groups composed largely of men from nearby villages.

Nevertheless, some Ilaqas maintained their social unity since in each Punjabi settlement' there were a few Ilaqas which were represented by a few closely related families. The kinship ties cemented relations between these families. However, in their new environment, the pattern began to change and the larger groups of village-mates could only maintain their social unity when they were able to find a social focus. In many cases, where men from adjacent villages lived in the same Punjabi settlement, they were referred to as a 'quasi-group' The simple distinction between the 'group' and the 'quasi-group' was made because it was becoming increasingly clear that the village-mates were no longer acting together in IWA politics. Indeed, their support was not influenced by any consideration of loyalty to the group. Nonetheless, the leader's role remained crucial. He would often mobilise his villagemates' support on the basis of personal loyalties to him for without his guidance, the villagers tended to back different candidates.

Another element in the IWA political scene was the 'action-set' used for specific occasions. The action-set was the complex of ties, individual or family, clique or work-group, and quasi-group, which surrounded an IWA politician. Moreover, action-sets were not confined to politicians. Other men were able to set themselves up as opinion leaders. However, the changing pattern of association had become clear-cut -- the village-mates were no longer a social or political group. Some were likely to become quasi-groups. 60 Although some questioned village loyalties as not being 'progressive', on balance the great majority of migrants remained loyal to their Ilaqa politicians.

Overall, in the relationship between the leaders and their followers, essentially, the ordinary Indian immigrants joined the IWAs and voted in elections because the leaders asked them to do so. Group solidarity in terms of kinship and obligation was very much in evidence.

Leaders and elections in IWA politics

Within the Punjabi communities, it was clear that many leaders had independent power bases. And although loyalties based on personal obligation were rooted in kinship ties and past favours, it is equally clear that a leader could change his position (forging alliances and breaking them) 'without losing very many of his followers'. Until 1965, at least, it was particularly noticeable that almost all these 'independent' leaders in the Punjabi communities participated in the same local IWA.

Two main reasons had been advanced for the involvement of all influential Punjabis in IWA politics. Firstly, there was a strong feeling among the migrants that the Punjabi community should be united. Unity came naturally to the proud Sikhs who placed a high value on it. Secondly, their common appearance and uniform ensured easy recognition. One can easily spot a true Sikh in a crowd. Lastly a common uniform fosters brotherhood and a sense of unity in the community Historically, the rituals of the were prescribed not only to preserve the corporate life community. but also to remind the Sikh to play his part as a unit of the Panth (Community of Sikhs).

Religious devotion was fused with loyalty to the community Proud of their community, the bond of brotherhood unites them.

The second reason for the involvement of the Punjabis in IWA politics was the homogeneity of the Punjabi immigrant community. According to one estimate, an overwhelming majority, some 90 per cent were of the same caste. In addition, they came from a small area having done similar work which they left for similar reasons. In Britain, they found similar jobs, and earned more or less the same wages. In effect, they faced common problems. It followed that this homogeneity of experience could best be understood and a campaign mobilised to tackle their problems in Britain, through one organisation. Hence their united front within the culturally-based IWA.

The high value of unity demanded organisation and, it seemed, the one reinforced the other. Thus it was usual to find in Punjabi communities an organised group of members working towards unify. This group was composed of Indian members of the Communist Party in Great Britain. For Indians so inclined, this was a real opportunity not to be missed, given the fact that few of those immigrants had been Party members in India where joining the Communist Party was very difficult. According to the migrants, it involved a great deal of party work and a probationary period of about two years before admission. By comparison, as one immigrant put it, 'You can join the Party in this country just by filling in a blank in the Morning Star', whereas in the Punjab it was 'easier to get into the IAS (India's elite Civil Service Corps) than into the Communist Party.’

Once in the CPGB though, there were other problems. For example, they could not speak English to the extent of participating in the party meetings. Therefore with the blessings of the CPGB they were allowed to meet separately. Thus, until 1966, in the large Punjabi communities there were two separate branches of the CPGB. In the main, these Indian CPGB branches ignored British politics. Indeed, until recently, they had few ideas about what should be done on race relations in Britain. On the other hand, the CPGB seemed too preoccupied to offer much guidance. Inevitably, the Indian Communists were more involved in the politics of India.

Apart from these pursuits, these Communists worked towards unity, organising Indian migrant associations on the basis of class interests. In time, they established a strong foothold in the IWAs. As social workers, they were particularly active. The Communist branches included both men of influence within large Ilaqa groups and quasi-groups which cut across Ilaqa lines. The Communists willingness to work with influential non-Communists meant a A large IWA membership whenever the Communists and other allies were in power. In effect then, whether in or out of power the Communists were assured of wide-based support which contributed towards uniting the Punjabi community.

As mentioned earlier many influential migrants in the Punjabi communities became politicians while others, equally drawn into leadership positions, were either powers behind the scenes or opinion leaders. Thus. the competition for influence and prestige became structured in terms of IWA policies.

The IWA group structure

During membership drives and the first weeks of an election campaign, two alliances or 'groups' tended to emerge. The Indian branch of the local Communist Party formed the core of one group. The other alliance was known by the name of the Presidential candidate. This candidate was rarely a man of great influence within the alliance since the men wielding real power did not want any challenge from that office.

Internal dissensions within both alliances led to divisions into rival cliques. Nevertheless both groups struggled to achieve cohesiveness. In the Communist group there were ideological and personal conflicts. The basic flaw in the non-Communist groups was their ad hoc nature. Not surprisingly, between elections they lacked unity, essentially because they were composed of several 'cliques of politicians' who were not interested in an alliance with the Communist Party.

In a few communities the core of the non-Communist alliance was the office-holders of the local gurdwaras which were administered by a Granthi (priest).

The position that officers of a gurdwara held within a non-Communist alliance was not unlike the position of the Communists' branch within the Communist alliance. The bond that held gurdwara officers was not formal discipline but friendship resulting from working together within the gurdwara.

Gurdwaras were an integral part of IWA politics. Indeed it was rare for them to stay aloof or withdraw. Where the gurdwara was large and economically viable (indeed few achieved this) their internal politics tended to be an extension of IWA politics. Gurdwara elections were open to all Sikhs (by birth at least) who lived in the local community. Not surprisingly, in many instances the same politicians fought both gurdwara and IWA elections.

The most important features of IWA politics — the Ilaqa groupings, the 'social workers' and the continuous struggles for prestige — had parallels in the experience of other migrant groups. But among the Punjabis each of these institutions had a character which was quite unique.

Between 1965 and 1967 however, IWA politics including these essential features, had begun to change significantly reflecting, tn part, political trends in India. They also reflected the impact of life in Britain on immigrants. There were four aspects of this influence which were very important for IWA politics: (i), the immigrant settlements were becoming permanent communities composed
largely of families; (ii), individual migrants were learning how to get along in daily life without their comrades' help; (iii), the Punjabi communities were becoming differentiated along caste, religious, class and educational lines; and (iv), the migrants were increasingly aware of their low status in British society.

Punjabi immigrant politics

The political situations in Southall, Coventry and Birmingham were dissimilar. At one time, the Coventry Punjabis were the only community without a splinter IWA. This unity, however, was shattered and by the summer of 1967, there were two IWAs in Coventry and there seemed little hope of reconciliation. Both organisations continued with such activities as social work, campaigning during Indian elections and holding celebrations.

In Birmingham, there were indications that the Punjabi communities would develop organisations which were essentially concerned with combating racial discrimination in Britain. In Birmingham also there was a split which put one of the IWAs out of action for several months. The other IWA, the IWA—GB—Birmingham remained active. This group had 'sophisticated leaders' who took a militant stand on race relations. The branch condemned the Labour government's policy on immigration as 'racialist' and refused to participate in the National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants. These leaders wanted a concerted effort to build support for their position among the Punjabis in the Midlands. In doing so, they organised protest meetings and marches. This last method was radical — a clear shift from traditional methods.

The situation in Southall was, however, different. The alliances there had, by 1968, split into at least eight small cliques, all competing for control of the same IWA. In addition, the minority castes and religious groups formed their own associations. Their officials, however, competed in IWA elections as new 'groups' Furthermore, in Southall there were other formal organisations including a literary society and a number of gurdwaras, and caste associations. Apart from one very large gurdwara, almost all of the activists in Southall were involved in IWA politics in one way or another. It was not difficult to see why. The Southall Punjabi community was one of the largest in the country, and it was more concentrated in terms of area than the other large Punjabi communities. For many years the IWA Southall was alone in running Indian film shows in Southall, shows which were profitable. Indeed, at that time, the Southall IWA was the only IWA which owned an office as well as a cinema. In effect, the IWA-Southall towered over the rival associations, reducing them to playing a supporting role in terms of power and influence.

Generally, in towns where the IWA had no control over a cinema or church, the local associations were likely to go the way of the Coventry IWA. A few were also likely to follow in the militant footsteps of the Birmingham IWA-GB. Looking ahead, the number that were likely to follow the Birmingham pattern was dependent on the extent of racial discrimination and the course this was likely to follow.

Relations with British organisations

During the sixties, the IWA leaders faced many difficulties when they became involved in trade unions, constituency Labour Parties, or inter-racial committees such as the Voluntary Liaison Committees supported by the NCCI.

As a result of the British government's concern with black immigrants (and immigration) by giving financial support to the Voluntary Liaison Committees (VLCs), Punjabi leaders had more opportunities to serve on such bodies. The willingness of these immigrant leaders to participate, reflected the growing pressure and concern over racial discrimination in the immigrant community. Their participation, however, was effectively contained by these British-dominated organisations. This was the dilemma facing the IWA leaders who were involved in three kinds of associations, namely the trade unions, constituency Labour Parties and interracial committees.

The IWAs and trade unions

The trade unions had, above all British institutions, the closest contacts with the largest number of adult Punjabis. As workers, the Punjabis came face to face with British working class values and patterns of behaviour. In the uneasy relationship between the unions and the immigrants the occasional Indian shop steward was pivotal; a double-liaison. He not only had to be a workmate and leader within his work group, but he also had to come to terms with white trade union officials and foremen and with his role as shop steward. Inevitably, there were conflicts, and the IWA had a role to play in relating to its members as workers and shop stewards, and with white trade unionists.

Punjabi workers were engaged in two kinds of work situation: working with Whites as bus drivers, conductors and factory workers and working in shops which included only migrants. Some of these shops employed only Punjabis. Most of these all-immigrant shops fell into one of two further classes. The workers were either members of the TGWU or were left at the mercy of a padrone system. Under this system the foreman exacted bribes with the co-operation of the informal leaders of the workers.

A commonly held view at the time, was that IWAs had organised trade unions in shops where there were none, thus resisting the padrone system. But, according to De Witt, 'These claims must be taken with a grain of salt.' Clearly, an attempt at union organisation could only be successful if the workers were united and willing to take strike action. This unity of action could not be achieved without the support of the workers’ informal leaders.

IWA politicians were particularly hampered in trying to organise unions, since a move in this direction was likely to be viewed as a leader trying to gain prestige within the community. Naturally, a rival would block such an attempt. Ultimately, a pro-union organiser was laid open to the charge that he was not interested in the union itself but in making a personal challenge to the padrones.

Race relations and IWA politics

In the summer of 1967, a debate within the Punjabi communities led, on the one hand, by the officers of the IWA-GB Birmingham and, on the other, by the officers of the IWA-Southall, resulted in disagreement on two related questions: who were the enemies of the migrants? and what role should the IWAs play in the process of acceptance?
The leaders of the two IWAs agreed that the migrants were threatened by 'racialists' who were to be found not only in extremist movements but also in the Labour and Conservative Parties. They also agreed that many 'respectable politicians' had not done enough to oppose the racialists and cited the Commonwealth Immigration Acts and the Labour government's White Paper on immigration as examples. They regarded both as racialist documents. While both groups of leaders recognised that they were also white sympathisers, in the trade union movement and in the VLCs and felt that the Punjabis should co-operate with them, they disagreed over the fundamental attitude of the Labour government, and over the stand taken towards the Government, the NCCI and the Labour Party.

The IWA-Southall, though critical of the Labour government, had given loyal support to Labour candidates in elections. In 1966, for example, its officers advised Punjabis in Southall to vote for the Labour Party candidate but cautioned: 'We ask you (to vote for Labour) despite the deeply critical feelings most migrants hold, and which we share, of some of the Labour government's legislation. This is particularly so in regards to the White Paper which is racially biased, and which we will fight to get withdrawn.’

Moreover, the Southall leaders supported the NCCI and CARD (Campaign Against Racial Discrimination). In the summer of 1967, members of the Southall Executive Committee had begun to serve on Committees of both these organisations, and the IWA-Southall was finally affiliated to CARD. Earlier in the summer of 1966, the IWA-Southall and CARD were co-sponsors of a project which brought several university students to the Southall Punjabi community for several weeks. (More of this kind of movement towards the grass-roots was sadly lacking in the CARD organisation.)

By contrast, the leaders of the IWA-GB Birmingham Branch, condemned both the Labour government’s anti-immigration policy and racialist foreign policy, stating:

In July 1962, the Government enacted legislation known as the Commonwealth Immigrants Act as a measure supposedly designed to control immigration, but which in fact laid the blame for the government’s failed housing and employment policies at the door of coloured immigrants.

Since the racialist Commonwealth Immigrant's Act had been enforced race relations in Britain have deteriorated. Racial discrimination has been intensified and racialist organisations have been encouraged. Racialism has been used to attract the voters in local and the last two General Elections and coloured immigrants have been made the scapegoats. . . .

The attempts made to improve race relations in Britain were in fact aimed at whitewashing the Government's anti-colour policy Under pressure the Race Relations Act was watered down and the freedom to discriminate still remained.

The setting up of the NCCI was an attempt to misdirect the activities of many well meaning people. It has attempted to pacify the national minorities 'and their allies' resistance to racialism.

From a leaflet announcing a protest march and rally against the Commonwealth Immigrants Act in Birmingham on 2 July 1967, the sponsors of the rally were listed as: 'IWA-GB (Birmingham, Coventry and Leamington branches), Akali Party JK; CCARD; CND West Midlands Region; Association of Indian Communists GB; Pakistani Workers Association; Pakistani Welfare Association; West Indian WA.'

The meeting was chaired by the Secretary of the IWA-GB, Birmingham branch and most of the audience was Punjabi.

Pursuing this militant line, the General Secretary of the Birmingham branch refused an invitation to serve on a panel (subcommittee) of the NCCI. Further, the Branch refused to endorse two Labour candidates in the 1966 General Elections and moreover the IWA publicly stated that in the last general election they supported the Labour Party in the belief that, if elected, they would remove the racial basis of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962. But all such hopes had been dashed. However, they had met two local Labour MPs and questioned them on their present positions vis-a-vis the assurances they gave before the last election. They were particularly concerned that Roy Hattersley was honest about completely 'changing his mind' and that Brian Walden was honest in admitting the desertion of principles by his Party, but was not prepared to vote against his government.

The main area of disagreement then between the IWA-Southall and the IWA-GB, Birmingham was on how best to influence the British to accept the migrants and to eliminate racial discrimination. At least until the end of 1967, the Southall leaders trusted the NCCI and CARD to bring pressure to bear on the government to anti-discrimination legislation. But the Birmingham leaders had foreseen the difficulty in this, since by introducing such legislation the Labour Party would run the electoral risk of seeming to favour the migrants. Black migrants and immigration control were the key issues in British politics at the time. In this political climate all parties were likely to shift the blame (as indeed some were actively doing) for Britain's economic difficulties to black migrants. Thus, sympathetic British organisations and individuals paled into insignificance as the migrants intensified their own efforts to deal with racial discrimination. In so doing, there were internal problems to overcome.

The Southall leaders criticised this approach of the IWA-GB Birmingham for two reasons: that it ignored the real possibility of influencing the Labour government through the NCCI and CARD and that by insisting on militancy it alienated many prominent Punjabis and thus split the Punjabi communities.

In reply, the Birmingham leaders interpreted the Southall leaders' arguments as the excuses of opportunists concerned with securing prestigious posts for themselves on inter-racial committees. By doing this, they were ignoring the real interests of the migrants and thereby dividing the Punjabis.

Since both groups were concerned with Punjabi unity, perhaps the best way to reflect their differences was to categorise them as 'militants' and 'moderates'. Not surprisingly, this neat division was contested by some of the Southall leaders who argued that there was no difference between their militancy and that of the Birmingham leaders, but that theirs was not directed towards friendly Whites. While clear-cut militant and moderate positions had developed, there was as yet no national polarisation along these lines.

By the end of 1967, it was obvious that the IWA-GB, Birmingham was the only IWA in Britain to have taken all these militant positions. One reason advanced for this militancy was the possibility that race relations was worse in the Birmingham area than anywhere else in Britain.

Given the stage of development reached between 1967 and 1968, it was not clear whether the Birmingham leaders would be able to build a national militant movement. While most Punjabis recognised that racial discrimination existed (indeed they were the victims) they had managed to ignore it. The cumulative effect of unexpressed resentment was building into a highly combustible element in British industrial relations, as racial disadvantage at work became increasingly unbearable. Thus, much of the attention of Asian workers shifted to their common problems (as a group), from the gurdwaras and the IWAs as the major organisations of Punjabi workers until 1967, to the struggles of the Asian workers experience which brought about a greater degree of militancy among Asian workers, as the 1960s ended and the 1970s began generally, the IWAs retained their insular role of 'social work’ and personal influences were being superseded as young militant workers became the vanguard of the struggle; a struggle focused on the workplace where Indian, Pakistani and African Asian workers took an unprecedented and militant stand.

The Asian workers' struggle and the IWAs, 1968-1981

New perspectives on the Asian struggle: the 1970s

It is an established fact that the migrants from India and Pakistan who came to Britain in the late 1950s and early 1960s laboured where the work was tedious, dangerous, low paid and quite hopeless for any person with initiative or talent. For example, at the Courtaulds Red Scar Mills in Preston, a rayon spinning mill, Asians first sought and got jobs in 1956. By 1964, a third of all the workers at the mill were Asians. In fact, two departments were manned entirely by immigrants organised in ethnic work teams under white supervisors.

In Southall, West London, the 350 Asians in 1951 had increased by the mid-1960s to 12 per cent of the area's population. This Asian workforce was in the main employed in four factories. By 1965, 90 per cent of all unskilled labour at Woolfs' factory was Punjabi Sikh. The introduction of Asian workers in these factories had far-reaching consequences for British industrial relations. At Courtaulds in Preston, and at Woolfs in Southall, the confrontations between workers and employers became significant in the history of immigrant labour in Britain. The battles fought in these factories were repeated elsewhere. In time, the pattern of industrial struggle of the Asian workforce was clear. The arrival of Asian immigrants from Africa, during the second phase of immigration in the early 1970s inevitably intensified the industrial conflict at these flashpoints. At the Mansfield Hosiery Mills in Loughborough in 1972, at Imperial Typewriters in Leicester in 1974, and at Grunwick in 1976, Asian workers, largely from African backgrounds (Kenya and Uganda) came out in open rebellion. In effect, they organised against their oppressive employers.

Predictably, profits depended upon long working hours, over— time, low wages, and on constant strategies to step-up production. While profits have always been made from surplus labour value, in the Asian workers' case, this surplus of profits was extracted with a ruthlessness which the white labour force would not tolerate. In fact, the Asians went where there was a shortage of white labour willing to accept unduly long hours of work.

This separation of black workers into the lower paid and more demanding jobs was an integral part of the 'colonial relationship' which British industry had established with its new workforce.

Because of this strategy, in many factories Asian workers had to contend with a lack of promotion. In the 1960s, very few Asians found promotion to supervisory posts. In many factories they worked in gangs under the control of one white charge-hand who allocated work, dispensed overtime, recommended the hire and fire of migrant workers and, in many cases, he was prone to take bribes. It is therefore not difficult to imagine the real power he had in playing off one migrant worker against another. This 'ghettoisation' of labour also led to lumping all Asian workers together regardless of their qualifications or background.

It was after the first wave of industrial unrest that the distinctions were created. A separation was made between the 'militants' and the 'moderates', (Note the separation of the militants in the Birmingham/Midlands area, and the moderates in Southall, and between the political activists and their followers.) This was being clearly reflected in the IWAs' politics of the late 1960s. Indeed, it was in the industrial struggle that management realised that Pakistanis and Indians had political allegiances which may keep one section working while the other was on strike.

The IWAs in the 1970s and 1980s

During the 1960s, the IWAs played an instrumental part especially in the early years of the struggle. In many instances, it supported shopfloor revolts, and pronounced and demonstrated on issues affecting the immigrant Asian population. However, its intervention as a positive force in the newly emerging independent movement of black workers was severely restricted in that its mass base was confined to Punjabi workers. Moreover, the inherent splits in its political allegiances, along lines of fracture in the Indian political scene, made it an unacceptable vehicle for the struggles of Asians from the African continent who had entered the British industrial scene in the 1970s. Furthermore, it was unacceptable to the young Asians who were born or were growing up in Britain.

The IWA had been unable to accommodate the demands of Asian youth in Britain. As a political and industrial force, the IWAS peaked in the mid- and late 1960s. In the 1970s, it inevitably began to degenerate into the position of mediator and into 'downright conservative leadership — seeking reaction'. Because of the essential nature of its activities, there was hardly any need to apply foresight to establishing an independent Asian struggle in Britain. Instead, the main associations tended to hark back to India, ignoring the immediate problems of Asian workers in Britain.

As the number of strikes in the Birmingham area increased, the IWA (Marxist-Leninists) led by Jagmohan Joshi were called upon to provide leadership in the industrial struggle. In doing so, these radicals 'out of courage, vision and necessity' were able to incorporate the emerging Black Power ideology that was generating militant revolutionary organisation among young West Indians and Africans. For some of the IWA activists, Black Power was somewhat difficult to accept. This was surprising since their leadership seemed to champion it. There were, however, connections between the IWA and the Black Panther Movement, the Black Unity and Freedom Party and other black groups.

In 1971 when the Black Panther Movement called a National conference on the Rights of Black People at Alexandra Palace in London, the IWA sent a 'grudging delegation' which arrived in a coach from Birmingham.

The disappointed delegation returned to Birmingham. As an essentially Asian organisation, they were willing to co-operate with West Indians under the political label 'black', but since there was no analysis of imperialism and no ideological denunciation of the Soviet Union, they could not participate. Indeed, they had the confidence of having organised a conference of militants from the factories in the Midlands who had been on strike during the previous two years. After this, they did not make common cause with the West Indian organisations for some time except when delegations from both communities met to demonstrate against the anti-immigration legislations in London in 1968 and in 1970. By the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, however, Afro-Asian solidarity was much in evidence. On these occasions the solidarity was impressive: coaches came from Birmingham and contingents set out from Brixton and Notting Hill to denounce the Wilson government as racist. The most massive of these demonstrations was against the Kenyan Asian Bill which was passed by the Labour government in record time.

Elsewhere, in Leicester 4000 marched against Callaghan's Bill. Indeed, the IWA (predominantly the CP Marxist wing) was the motive force mobilising the Asian community and bringing together the student and organised left-wing sections of white society. The Whites marched under the banners of the Communist Party, the International Socialists and as trade union officials, obviously not reflecting rank and file feeling. The West Indians, in a minority, followed the Black Power groups. Finally, in the demonstrations, the Asians forming the largest community groupings from Birmingham, Southall, Leamington Spa, Derby, Coventry and Leicester, followed the banners of the IWA.

Historically, the IWA (in spite of supportive action) was never the prime moving militant force in any industrial struggle. For example, in the 1960s only after workers had initiated action to confront management by joining their trade unions (and demanding representation) did the IWA offer assistance. By the 1970s, with the settlement of the African Asians, on whose behalf the IWA had demonstrated and agitated, a new force confronted and challenged them. In fact, the IWA gave this new workforce minimal support, and in a few cases, 'blundered into opposing the impatience and independence of this new battalion on the Asian industrial front'.

The struggle of African Asians

Most African Asians who arrived in Britain became labourers in British factories and in a few years of militant action changed the course of the Asian workers' struggle. Although new to the discipline of factory shift work, through their heightened awareness of exploitation and racial injustice, they carried through the industrial struggles of Mansfield Hosiery Mills in Loughborough in 1973, the Imperial Typewriters strike in Leicester in 1974 and the Grunwick strike in Willesden during 1976-1977.

A significant feature of these struggles was that large numbers of women who had not previously done a day's paid labour outside the home were forced by economic necessity to seek employment in factories. They filled the labour-vacuum created in jobs abandoned by white workers. In these struggles, the Asian workers initiated the action and then approached their unions for official help. Their causes posed many challenges to British working class solidarity.

Originally from Ron Ramdin's excellent book, 'The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain'.

Posted By

Ed
Jan 24 2019 22:36

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