Avtar Singh Jouhl is the national president of the Indian Workers’ Association (IWA GB) and was a leading workplace militant and anti-racist activist in the Smethwick area and in the foundries of the West Midlands from the late 1950s through the 1960s and into the 1990s. He helped to found the Birmingham branch of the IWA shortly after coming to Britain in 1958, and has played a key role in the national leadership of the organisation since 1961.1 He is part of a generation of black and Asian militants whose struggles against racism and for workers’ rights have transformed the working class and the trade union movement in Britain.
He spoke to Sheila McGregor and Esme Choonara about his life, politics and what he has learned from the struggle.
SM & EC: Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to Britain?
ASJ: I have lived in Solihull, near Birmingham, for the past 30 years. From 1958 to 1989 I lived in the West Midlands town of Smethwick,2 in the heart of the struggle. Before that I went to school and college in the village of Jandiala in the Jalandhar district of Punjab, India. My family was actively involved in the Indian pre-independence movement. My cousin was imprisoned in 1941 for five years by the British authorities. While he was on the run before 1941, the police kept raiding my family house and taking my parents and other relatives to the police station, questioning them and beating them. That was my early childhood as I remember it.
In 1947, at the Declaration of Independence, there were lots of activities that my family participated in. In my village the Communist Party was very strong. There was a flagpole about 100 feet high with a red flag flying—it is still there to this day. In school, my first experience of struggle was against fee increases. Although there was no students’ union in the high school, we had connections with each other and an active group. A couple of times we went on strike and got concessions.
In 1953 I went to college at Lyallpur Khalsa College in Jalandhar and I became a member of the Student Federation of India, which the media called a “communist front” organisation. It was very powerful and very active, taking on students’ issues such as fees, facilities, hostels and students’ elections and, on the political side, making links with peasants’ and workers’ struggles. Once I was arrested in 1955 on the allegation of getting signatures to a petition on a blank piece of paper and misleading two peasants. The petition was against a corrupt land consolidation officer in my village.3 Dozens of signatories stated that the wording of the petition was already on the paper before they signed so I was acquitted. I attended study circles in 1955 and 1956 on basic Marxist education. I was a sympathiser of the Communist Party because the procedures were that you had to serve for a long time as a sympathiser before becoming a member.
In 1956 my uncle returned from Britain and his idea was that I go for higher study so he sent me to England—my brother was already living in Smethwick and that’s how I came to the West Midlands. I came in early 1958 and although I was married, my wife didn’t join me until 1960. She didn’t want me to come to England. My brother and my father-in-law were here already and they said: “You are starting your classes in October, in the meantime you can work.” My situation was unique—most of my contemporaries didn’t come for education, they almost all came to work. Back home, the partition of India caused pressure on land and there was a lack of jobs. People from the Commonwealth had no restrictions on their entry into this country until July 1962. As long as they had an Indian passport they could come and settle here.
I became a member of the Communist Party (CPGB) soon after coming to England. When CP sympathisers from India came here, the CP in India sent their contact details to the British organisation and I remember Maurice Ludmer and Jagmohan Joshi came to my house to talk to me about joining the CP.4
How did you find Smethwick when you arrived?
The situation in 1958 was really horrific. There was widespread discrimination and racism. For example, in the public houses there was a colour bar against “coloured people”—the term that was used in those days. My first experience after coming to live in Smethwick was when my brother and other fellows living in the area took me for a drink in a pub. I went to the toilet while they went into a room and I didn’t know which room they went into. I came out of the toilet and went into the assembly room. As soon as I opened the door, there was a whole crowd of white men staring at me and the landlord came and shouted at me, saying: “Your people are in the other room.” I went into the other room rather than arguing with them and asked my brother and others: “What is this, why can’t we go in that room?” They said: “We aren’t allowed in that room.” I asked them why and they said: “White people don’t like us sitting in the same place.” My next experience was when I went for a haircut in Brasshouse Lane in Smethwick. As soon as I opened the shop door, the barber came to the door and said: “No. We don’t cut your people’s hair, only white people.” So I was really disgusted. Back in India I had never experienced this sort of abuse. I was really angry and sad.
There was also a colour bar in the selling of houses—estate agents were not selling houses to “coloured people”. For example, in West Smethwick, where I used to live, in Hugh Road, it was “No Coloureds”. You may have seen the footage of Marshall Street when Malcolm X visited Smethwick in February 1965 with the estate agents’ posters saying “Whites Only” or “No Coloureds”.5 We were living in overcrowded conditions because no one lived in white people’s houses and coloured people had very few houses. For example in my brother’s house, it was two up and two down and one small room at the back. At one time there were 12 of us living there. Council housing wasn’t an option. The Tory council wrongly ruled that you could only go on the council housing register if you had been living in Smethwick for 10 years—of course, no black or Asian people had been living in Smethwick for 10 years.
How did you challenge the segregation and racism you found?
To test the colour bar in the pubs, we organised pub crawls involving members of the IWA and student organisations from Birmingham and Aston universities—so a mixture of white students and Asian workers. The students used to go in the pub first and get the drinks and four or five Asians would go in later and be refused after being given some excuse like the room being reserved. The students would then come to the counter to challenge that. Using that evidence, we opposed the publican’s license when it came up for renewal, because under the licensing law the licensee cannot refuse to serve people in such a blanket way. A couple of landlords’ licenses were refused and that got huge publicity in 1963 because up until then racial discrimination was not unlawful so everyone and anyone was free to discriminate.
We also campaigned for the Labour Party and the trade union movement to support a law against racial discrimination. We faced resistance from the unions who argued that it would be interference in collective bargaining if it became law. The Labour Party won the general election in 1964 but lost the seat in the Smethwick constituency due to the racist Tory election campaign by its candidate Peter Griffiths using the slogan: “If you want a nigger for your neighbour, vote Labour.” The Labour candidate Patrick Gordon Walker did not challenge the Tory candidate on his racism and he lost. That was a really big blow in 1964, but we continued campaigning on the issue.
The Labour Party under the leadership of Hugh Gaitskell6 had promised two things—to repeal the Commonwealth Immigrants Act that came into force in 1962 and to bring in a law against the colour bar. In office in 1964, Labour didn’t repeal the 1962 Act, in fact they strengthened it year by year. They introduced a very weak law to declare racial discrimination in public places unlawful. Public places meant pubs but not social clubs where there was membership. There were no exemplary fines or any sentences. The approach was for conciliation between the two parties. Nevertheless it did help in exposing the colour bar. Over the pubs, one time, myself and another friend refused to leave the pub premises or to drink in the designated room and the police were called. We were arrested and we were charged with refusing to leave the premises when asked to by the licensee. We were fined three pounds each but later the Race Relations Board took up the complaint and they asked us to appeal against the conviction so we did. We won and the landlord agreed that in the future he wouldn’t refuse to serve us in any room. So that was progress.
You talked about organising the IWA, how did you do that?
The first Indian Workers’ Associations were set up in London in the 1930s and Coventry in 1938. After the arrival of Punjabi migrants during the 1950s, IWA branches sprang up in new areas including Southall in West London, and Wolverhampton. Smethwick was part of the Wolverhampton branch.
A man used to deliver groceries to our home and one day there happened to be membership cards for the IWA in the groceries. I asked my brother and other people living in the house if they were members and they said yes. I asked how much it cost—50p for two years—and they said they had been to meetings once or twice in Wolverhampton. So the next time the man delivered the groceries, I asked him to bring some more membership forms and I started recruiting members. In the meantime, with Joshi and others, through the CP, we organised the IWA Birmingham. The first Birmingham IWA general meeting was held in 1958, and then in 1959 all the local IWAs were centralised in London and became the IWA GB. The IWA took up welfare and political issues affecting Indians living in Britain, including fighting all forms of discrimination. They also took positions on some social issues—for example in the 1960s and 1970s the IWA held a campaign against the marriage dowry. One of the main aims of the IWA was to organise the workers into trade unions and in the labour movement. So for example during the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike, IWA members did collections, put up picketing miners all over the country and opened up our offices to the NUM after their funds were sequestered.7
To what extent did the upsurge in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States have an impact on organising here?
It had a big impact, including the visit by Malcolm X that we have already spoken about. Individuals such as Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis also had a big impact, as did the South African anti-apartheid struggle. People felt part of an international movement.
Can you tell us about your activities at work?
I started foundry work in Shotton Brothers as a moulder’s mate. I was doing most of the hard work like other labourers who were Asian or African-Caribbean. The moulders were all white and their wages were double labourers’ wages while they were doing much lighter work. One day I happened to read the payslip of the moulder—his salary was about £17 and my wages were about £7.50.
With a couple of other Indian youngsters who were my friends in college back home, we contacted the CP office in Birmingham and told them that we wanted to organise the union. They put us in touch with the engineering section of the foundry workers’ union.8 When we took in the union forms, the union officials asked us if we had a proposer and seconder with two years’ membership in the union. But there was no union in our workplace so of course we said: “No.” They didn’t give us union membership, arguing that if you don’t have a proposer and seconder you can’t become a member. That was the start of our struggle against trade union rules and bureaucracy. But the CP helped us overcome that specific problem because they had their cells at a national level in the engineering union. Eventually we organised the union.
The union became quite strong. One person got injured, he lost his eye. With the union, we made a claim for him and he received good compensation, about £2,000. That was very powerful propaganda for recruitment. We tried to organise everyone and the African-Caribbean workers joined, but none of the white workers joined the union. There was a sort of prejudice there. We approached them to join but they didn’t. The white workers were mainly semi-skilled or skilled workers, whereas the African-Caribbean and Indian and Pakistani workers had labourers’ jobs.
I wanted to leave work in October 1958 to start my university studies but some foundry workers, about 10 to 15, came to my house and lobbied my brother and my father-in-law for me to stay, saying it looked as if I was doing a runner. After they left, my brother and father-in-law said I should decide what I wanted to do. I don’t know what it is like in England, but in India getting a tag that you are a “runner” is a label for your whole life, to be held against you, so I didn’t leave work. So that’s how my journey started—instead of my university education I got my foundry qualifications.
My time in the foundries ended in a similar way many years later—with a decision by my fellow union members. When I got a job as a trade union lecturer9 in South Birmingham College in 1987, no one in my workplace came forward to take over as union convenor and the union members said they didn’t want me to go. In the end, I organised a lunch time meeting of the members—about 200 came—and Paul Mackney, a senior lecturer, addressed the meeting.10 Paul argued that they needed me to help strengthen the wider trade union movement and that my experience would help to train new shop stewards in health and safety rules. There was a vote taken—three people abstained and the others agreed I could leave.
The anti-union attitude of the employer was very strong in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1961 I took a day off to go on a lobby of parliament organised by the IWA against the Commonwealth Immigration Act. Our photographs were published in the Evening Mail showing us leaving Birmingham in the morning on the coach for the lobby. Management got hold of the photographs and when I went to work the next day, they asked me why I wasn’t there the day before. I told them the truth and I was told that it was an unauthorised absence. They dismissed me there and then. The other workers stopped work for a couple of days but the union didn’t give them official backing, so they had to go back to work.
After that I got a job as a moulder at Gotham Foundry in Smethwick where I worked for two months before joining the night shift at Midland Motor Cylinder Company, Birmid North Works.11 I worked there until 1967 when I left to go to London to work for the IWA newspaper. I started back in Birmid in 1968 at Birmingham Aluminium Castings because the trade union organisation was already strong. Then in 1970 I went to India for a few months. In August that year I joined Dartmouth Auto Castings—another part of Birmid. I joined the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) in 1968 as it was the union organising at Birmid at that time.
Did the battles you were having outside of the workplace, such as the campaigns against the colour bar, have an impact on the confidence of workers to organise in work as well, to strengthen the organisation?
Yes. The first battle at Birmid was trade union recognition. That was achieved by having a couple of marches around Smethwick, then the employers agreed. It was quite mixed, involving Asian and white workers. But when the union recognition agreement arrived, the union official, knowingly or unknowingly, said that someone could only become a shop steward with a “sufficient” command of English. Most of the workers working in Birmid industries didn’t have a “sufficient” command of English, but this also raised a question about what does “sufficient” mean? So we campaigned for that clause to go. There was resistance both from the union and the employers’ side. So we marched into Smethwick. The whole of Birmid industries went on strike over that clause, although not all the white workers joined the strike. They did at Dartmouth Auto Castings where I was at the time, but at Midland Motor Cylinder it was mainly the Asian and African-Caribbean workers. After that, the clause was deleted and that had a big impact among workers of Asian and African-Caribbean origin.
In the late 1960s, the Labour government instituted an inquiry into Birmid industries, through the Commission on Industrial Relations, because there were so many strikes in Birmid industries. There were allegations in the newspapers that the IWA was holding the motor industry to ransom. There was a hue and cry. Harry Baker, secretary of Birmingham Trades Council, called the IWA a Communist Party front. Of course we fought back against these allegations and the commission investigation interviewed a lot of people, asking about the role of the Indian Workers’ Association. The workers said that they were members of the union and—because we had briefed them—yes, they were members of the IWA, but the IWA had no official role inside the workplace. So our viewpoint was vindicated by the Commission.
What were all these strikes at Birmid about?
First, union recognition, after that it was wages. Then we took up the issue that most of the “coloured” workers were labourers or semi-skilled but not employed on the skilled jobs. We struck to have procedures agreed with the employer over employment. I’ll give you an example. They were recruiting people from outside Birmid directly into semi-skilled jobs and skilled jobs but “coloured” workers were being allocated to the labouring jobs. It was the same across the industry. In Birmid it was finally agreed that any person coming from outside for semi-skilled jobs—moulders, casters or grinders—would start out by joining the pool of labourers. Then, when a vacancy appeared for a semi-skilled job, the most senior person in the labouring pool would progress to that job. It took about a year’s battle to win that. I can’t tell you exactly how many strikes, but it was several, sometimes it was a day’s strike, sometimes only a key section on strike that crippled the whole production process. There was no equivalent agreement about skilled workers because electricians needed to qualify over many years, but later on there were black and Asian engineers and electricians working in the maintenance department. That was also one of the issues of the strikes.
Did you get unity between the black, Asian and white workers over that procedure?
In Dartmouth Auto Castings, yes. But in Midland Motor Cylinders it took four to five years. There was resistance from the white workers because the majority of their shop stewards’ committee were white.
Another issue we took up was separate toilets for Asian and European workers. The excuse given for separate toilets was that Asian workers squat on the pan. We went on strike against the segregation of the toilets. The employers didn’t agree so then we used direct action by starting to use the European toilets and some of the Europeans, who were members of the union, started using the Asian toilets.
There was also a separate communal shower block for Asians. The management said that there were allegations that Asians were oiling their bodies after their shower and that this made the shower slippery. That was the excuse. If you look at the newspapers of the 1950s and 1960s, there were a lot of stories about this. We used the same tactic of direct action rather than negotiating and we broke the taboo. It was the management that said we couldn’t use the European facilities, not the white workers. Eventually the discrimination was dismantled and the notices went off the doors.
The tradition of organising in the workplace, where did that come from?
We learned hands-on here in the foundries. In India I didn’t have that sort of organising experience. Planning took place in the Indian Workers’ Association. We learned to take up the issues that related to the workers, rather than just talking to them from a Marxist viewpoint. If you organise in that manner, the workers will trust you and respect you. One of the issues that earns greatest respect is for a worker not to be a sell-out. Also none of the Indian shop stewards became a full-time union convenor. For example, when I was a convenor, I used to go to my job at work and start on that. At the time I was a molten metal caster. When a meeting was called, I was replaced by another worker who took my place to allow me to go to the meeting. After the meeting I was back on the job. But where shop stewards became full-time shop stewards or convenors, going in with suits and ties, sitting in the union office, they became very bureaucratic and it distanced them from the ordinary workers.
The second way to create trust is to hold a meeting before taking any decision or making any claim, even though the recommendation at the meeting comes from the shop stewards. Consent about a wages claim, or about working conditions, health and safety issues is achieved not just by one meeting, but sometimes two or three general workers’ meetings. And once a negotiated agreement is arrived at, you have to take it back to the membership to reject or accept it. It is not a question of imposing it. That way of working increases the trust of the ordinary members in the leadership.
You would have had different languages spoken in the workplace, so how did you deal with that?
We conducted meetings in English, Punjabi and Urdu. When it was in English, it was translated into Punjabi and when in Punjabi it was translated into English. And we published leaflets in Indian languages and English.
Did you make a particular effort to overcome the racism of the white workers? Did you have a strategic attitude to overcoming racism?
We did this through struggles. We become involved in the anti-racist struggle and took that into the union, for example by moving resolutions through the union branch supporting marches against racism and other anti-racist activity. The IWA worked fully with the Anti Nazi League (ANL) organising demonstrations, meetings against racism and the National Front as well as against the racist immigration laws of Tory and Labour governments. Later in the early 1980s, I served on the ANL national committee as the IWA GB general secretary.
One factor for winning over white workers was our inclusive way of organising. The other factor was standing for the workers’ cause inside the workplace. So we proved to white workers that they were benefitting from our activities in the union. Over several years, attitudes began to change. Initially, in the early 1960s, we suffered racist insults at work, but later on not in the workplace. It became part of the agreed union procedure that racism would not be tolerated. The trade union procedure is important because it is about the process of winning the argument. It was quite hard work.
We did a lot of work on health and safety issues, including training shop stewards. We organised over pensions and that retirement at 65 was a must. Then we reached an agreement about pre-retirement, so that rather than suddenly stopping work at 65, thus creating difficulties, that the person reaching 63 should have one day off with average earnings and, at 64, two days off with average earnings, so the person can adjust to retirement. We won that in the 1970s and that agreement is still in existence.
We got agreement that the company would supply a clean towel for every worker every week. And rehydration tablets in the summer as well as a supply of orange squash for the workers. There were no facilities for ear protection during the 1960s. We won that. At Birmid we made a claim when people went deaf. And the compensation, through the trade union fighting these cases, went from £1,000 to £5,000. We won in industrial tribunals over industrial disease pensions from the Department of Social Security. There was a lot of work done on that.
Did they ever try to sack you at Birmid, because you must have been a lot of trouble for them?
They tried to sack me when I worked at Dartmouth Auto Castings. I was working on the shop floor and the senior foreman came and said the personnel manager wanted to see me in the office. I realised why I was being asked to go and talk to the personnel manager who wasn’t based on site. I said OK and asked the foreman to get my replacement on the job and that I wanted a second shop steward to take with me. That was part of the training we gave to the workers—never go to the management on your own, always take a shop steward with you. So we went to the office. When the personnel manager saw both of us, he didn’t ask us to sit down. He said: “Avtar, I thought I was a bastard, but you are a bigger bastard. Go back to your job.” I said: “I thought you wanted to talk to me.” He said: “No, go back to your job.” Otherwise, they could have sacked me there and then and not allowed me to go back to the job. But they knew that if they sacked me, work would stop in two or three of Birmid industries.
I want to tell you one more thing about the whole issue of organisation relating to picketing. Whenever we went on strike we didn’t really need to put on pickets. One strike in the late 1970s, when we were working short time, 2-3 days a week, I think, we put in a wage claim. The company didn’t meet our wage claim, so the workers decided to go on strike. The company sent a notice to the strikers saying that those who didn’t come to work on such and such a date would have their employment terminated. And the day came, and they informed the police. We always said a couple of shop stewards would go to the picket line, no more. When me and another steward Sardagar went there at 7am, there were a lot of police. An inspector came to me and said: “Do you work here? What’s your name?” I told him my name. “When are the pickets coming?” he asked. I said: “What pickets?” The inspector replied: “The employer told us you would be stopping workers going in. The workers have been informed that they will be dismissed if they don’t report for work.” We said: “We’re not organising any pickets. Wait here and see if any workers turn up and let them go in.”
Nobody turned up for work. About 9am, we went to the union office in West Bromwich and the police went away. After meeting the union district officer, me and Sardagar went home and about lunch time one of the foremen came to my house and said: “We want to call a meeting of all the shop stewards.” So I asked what for, and he said: “We don’t know what for—all the shop stewards are being contacted.” So we contacted each other and agreed to go to the meeting. They settled our claim there and then. That was organisation.
How did you find the trade union officials?
Later on, in the 1970s, there was a fraternal attitude but it came after a lot of struggle. As I said earlier, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) opposed the Race Relations Act on the pretext that it would be interfering in collective bargaining. The trade unions came on board after a long, long fight.
I told you about the rule about how you had to have a proposer and seconder to become a union member. So we had to use this bureaucratic rulebook, starting by moving through the branch regulations. This was the same as in the TGWU at Imperial Typewriters in Leicester—you couldn’t become a shop steward unless you had been a member for two years. The IWA organised to change these rules, going through the union procedures, going to the branch meeting, moving a motion to the district and then going from the district to the annual conference.
Where did you learn this way of working in what we would call the rank and file tradition as well as working in the official union structures, because that is quite distinctive?
None of our activists in the IWA would become a full-time official in the union. They became lay officers, shop stewards, convenors, district committee members, regional committee members but not full-time officials. That position was held by the IWA because of the experience of the IWA, it also came from India because the members of the Communist Party who went into official jobs turned out no good.
On many occasions I was offered the possibility of becoming a full-time official and I declined and other members did as well. I want to mention also that after discussion in the IWA, those of us who were members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) then took the issues to the CP because the CP had industrial units and members in the trade union bureaucracy, so that helped as well.
Were there connections with other workplaces, because there were a lot of strikes?
First of all, Birmid industries had several plants—in Smethwick, Derby, Tipton and Wolverhampton, so we were all closely linked with each other. There was also a Broad Left in the TGWU. Through the IWA and the CP we had contact with the Broad Left and involvement in the campaigns to get Broad Left officers elected, for example supporting Bill Morris, a black TGWU member.
I remember a meeting of the Broad Left in the Mechanics Institute in Manchester in the early 1990s when Morris was proposed for the general secretary of the TGWU.12 Some opposed this, arguing that because Bill was black he wouldn’t win. The meeting went on for two or three hours. Myself and a couple of Indian comrades from the IWA supported Bill, saying that if this Broad Left meeting didn’t endorse Bill, Bill would still be running. In the end, the chair didn’t put it to the vote and Bill was declared the Broad Left candidate.
In the same period, when I was on the NATFHE national executive, we successfully campaigned for reserved places for black and women members on our national executive and on the TUC general council. Other unions then followed suit. I was elected to the reserved place for black members on the national executive of NATFHE in 1992 through to 1994. This was an important contribution that I made to the trade union movement.
What role did Asian women play in the disputes of the 1960s and 1970s?
During the 1960s many Indian women were not working outside the home due to tradition and because of having young children. But in the 1970s, women started going to work in much larger numbers. One factor was the migration of Asians from East Africa in the late 1960s and early 1970s—and among them were women who had already been working, in contrast to many Punjabi women. At Imperial Typewriters in Leicester for example, where there was an important strike in 1974,13 most of the women were from East Africa and came originally from Gujarat in west India.
Another factor about women going to work was that their children were growing up. Then women started finding work in workplaces. Women who were members of the IWA were guided to join the trade union wherever they worked. In the foundries there weren’t any women, not even white women, except in the offices—there were only men back in the 1960s and 1970s.
The textile industry mushroomed in the West Midlands in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the foundries closed down and the redundant workers started these small textile workshops. Some became quite considerable textile factories where women, mostly Asian women, worked as sewing machinists. A major strike in this sector took place at Raindi Textiles in Smethwick in 1982. There were about 300 Asian women machinists who walked out on strike for union recognition and against low pay. The dispute became very popular and Michael Foot, the leader of the Labour Party, came to the picket line. The strike went on for 10 weeks and won union recognition. There were strikes in other textile factories in this area.
A lot of strikes also took place in Leicester and Mansfield in the textile industry. There had already been important strikes involving many Asian women at Imperial Typewriters and Grunwick in London in 1976.14 In relation to women’s awareness, the Grunwick strike played a leading role in giving confidence to the women. In 1992 there was another important strike led by Asian women at Burnsall, also in Smethwick.
One role the IWA played among women was in the anti-racist work—bringing women to the demonstrations, including the 10,000-strong demonstration against the Nationality Act in 1981 and several demonstrations organised jointly by the Campaign Against Racist Laws and the Anti Nazi League. Women also campaigned against the “virginity tests” with a demonstration in London.15 That was quite important work.
Can you tell us a little more about your involvement at Imperial Typewriters?
The strike took place regarding wages and conditions but one of the key issues was that the TGWU at this factory had a rule that unless you were a member for two years you couldn’t become a shop steward—which excluded most of the Asian workers.
Because the strike was prolonged, the union instituted a committee of inquiry. I was nominated onto the committee from the region along with Brian Mathers, the regional secretary. When we went there, the district officer and the convenor of Imperial Typewriters said they wouldn’t sit with the inquiry committee. They didn’t say it in front of me, but they said it was because I was on the committee—they said I was associated with Imperial Typewriters through the IWA’s activities in support of the strikers. Brian spoke to me about it and I said: “You asked me to come so I am here. If you agree to their demand [to have me removed from the committee], racism will perpetuate further. You make the decision.” He then called Moss Evans in London.16 They decided among themselves that I should remain on the committee and if the district officer and the convenor didn’t cooperate, the union would take disciplinary action against both of them. Then the inquiry took place and the rule about two years went.
Did workers who came in the 1950s and the early 1960s accept worse conditions than subsequent generations were prepared to put up with?
In historical terms, people who came from the Punjab mostly came from the countryside. They had no experience of industrial struggle. They came from peasant communities and from villages where there was almost no industrial activity. They didn’t have any information about their rights. There was a lack of organisation. Workplaces were dirty, it was a situation of hire and fire and the conditions in many places were so bad that the managers were taking bribes to recruit people, or even give overtime. Once people got organised, they started reporting what was going on. One foreman was sent to prison for accepting bribes at Birmid industries. It was not that people were docile about the problems they were having, but they had no means to address those problems.
Did religion play any role in your activities?
Religion was not a factor at that time. For religion, Sikhs mainly went to the gurdwara. The gurdwara did give support with speeches about not crossing the picket line and similar things but their committees were not at the head of the struggle. We had the position that none of the IWA members should become members of the gurdwara committees. The reason for that was that once you go into that committee, you get sucked into it like in the trade union. But we asked the gurdwaras for support for our campaigns. The gurdwaras’ role was mainly to get people onto the coaches to demonstrations and secondly, provide food. For the 1981 demonstration against the Nationality Act, the gurdwaras paid for 51 coaches from Birmingham and all the food.
What about the question of caste?
Because most of the Indian workers in my area were from a Punjabi background, the overwhelming majority were Sikh peasant Jat. But there were also Brahmin working in the foundries and Joshi, the general secretary of the IWA until his sudden death in 1979, was Brahmin. In Birmid there were people from the “backward” castes known very cruelly as “untouchables” in India. But here there was no distinction.
At Birmid it was taboo for people to clean toilets, to be ablution workers, because in India it was considered to be the “untouchables”’ job. We very carefully agreed with the management that no one could be forced to be an ablution worker without their consent. During my days there, among the Indian workers, one guy who happened to be Sikh was in charge of cleaning the shower rooms. In the toilets there was a Hindu toilet cleaner who started work there by consent. We said to him that he didn’t have to do it if he didn’t want to, because that was the agreement with the company. Occasionally some white workers were ablution workers. Some people like easy work rather than working on casting, ten hours sweating!
Many workplace struggles relied heavily on the community for support. The positives of that support are clear but were there any negatives such as conservative views among community leaders that you needed to overcome?
In terms of community support for industrial struggle, the IWA and the Asian Youth Movements17 organised people from the community for support. It’s not spontaneous, people coming to the picket line. One part is physical support—to go and express solidarity with the strikers. The second part is making collections in the community. Currently there is no solidarity action from secondary workplaces, but the community gives support.
You ask whether there were conservative influences in the community. I talked about the strike at Raindi textiles. Because the employers were of Asian origin, they tried to muster support amongst like-minded people. They approached the Indian High Commission in Birmingham about intervening. And when the High Commissioner in turn approached the IWA, we told him off. We told him: “That’s not your function. This is not a question of the community, it is industrial action.” But there were conservative people who spread rumours that we comrades who organised at work got the workplaces closed down, that our militancy was responsible for closures. In the 1980s when the Raindi strike was going on these people were saying that we got Birmid closed down and now we would get the textile industry closed down. But we rejected their arguments vehemently.
Nowadays, the nature of industrial struggle has changed. For example, there are very few disputes in the metal-bashing industry and in the large factories because of the changes in trade union law and also now the trade union bureaucracy emphasises the official as opposed to the unofficial strikes.
When Birmingham bin workers went on strike in 2017, the IWA organised collections from the community and supported the picket lines, distributing leaflets at the waste collection depots. So that work is still going on.
Looking back on your life as an activist, what are you most proud of?
I am content that I have served the working class by advancing socialist policies, building trade union organisation, anti-racist and anti-imperialist campaigns as well as leading struggles for equal rights and participating in welfare work.
Avtar Singh Jouhl is the national president of the Indian Workers’ Association (IWA GB) and was a leading workplace militant and anti-racist activist in the West Midlands from the late 1950s through the 1960s and into the 1990s.
Esme Choonara is a health worker and a member of the International Socialism editorial board.
Sheila McGregor is a long-standing member of the SWP and a regular contributor to International Socialism.
1 Avtar was general secretary of the IWA in the years 1961-1964 and 1979-2015 and IWA national organiser from 1964 to 1979. All officers’ posts in the IWA were unpaid honorary positions.
2 Smethwick is four miles from Birmingham.
3 The post of “consolidation officer” came with the The East Punjab Holdings (Consolidation and Prevention of Fragmentation) Act, 1948. The stated aim of the Act was to provide for the compulsory consolidation and prevention of fragmentation of agricultural holdings as well as deciding what land should be used by the state. The Act gave wide powers to the consolidation officer including decisions about what happened to land and what compensation was offered for compulsory acquisition of land by the state.
4 Joshi was the general secretary of the Indian Workers’ Association (IWA) 1964-79. Ludmer launched the anti-fascist publication Searchlight in 1975 and was a member of the National Steering Committee of the Anti Nazi League 1977-8.
5 Malcolm X visited Smethwick on 12 February 1965, nine days before he was assassinated. Avtar had invited him there in order to highlight the racist discrimination that existed in housing and other areas of everyday life. There is now a blue plaque in Marshall St, Smethwick, to commemorate Malcolm X’s visit. For more information see the reports from Socialist Worker, Olende, 2015, or the Birmingham Mail, Connor, 2015.
6 Harold Wilson won the Labour leadership after Hugh Gaitskell died suddenly in January 1963.
7 The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) had its funds taken over under existing anti-union laws. For a full account see Callinicos and Simons, 1985.
8 The Amalgamated Union of Foundry Workers. In 1967 it became a section of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, now part of Unite.
9 There were 60 candidates for the post, two of whom withdrew when they saw Avtar was a candidate.
10 Mackney later became the general secretary of the NATFHE lecturers’ union (from 1997 to 2006). NATFHE later merged with the Association of University Teachers (AUT) in 2006 to form the University and College Union (UCU).
11 Birmid industries was at this time one of the largest groups of foundries in Europe, supplying parts for the motor industry. In Smethwick it comprised Dartmouth Auto Castings, Midland Motor Casting and Birmingham Aluminum Castings.
12 Avtar kept his membership of the TGWU after leaving the foundries to work at South Birmingham College—where he was also an active member of the lecturers’ union NATFHE and on the national executive 1992-7.
13 The dispute at Imperial Typewriters was sparked by an unofficial walkout over conditions in a section where there were only Asian workers. It became a bitter dispute with mass pickets of up to 200 people, taking on a vicious multinational employer, a racist local union, the fascists in the National Front (NF) and the police. The strike was never made official and eventually lost, but the battle was crucial in building opposition to the NF and challenging racism in the trade unions. For more about this and other key disputes involving Asian workers, see Prasad, 2016.
14 See Prasad, 2016.
15 Under immigration rules introduced by the Labour government, women who were coming to Britain to get married didn’t need a visa. This led to at least 80 Asian women being subjected to vaginal “virginity tests’’ by immigration staff when they came to Britain in the late 1970s. After protests in Britain and by the Indian government, this racist practice was stopped in 1979.
16 Evans was a national organiser for the TGWU at the time and general secretary 1978-85.
17 The Asian Youth Movements were groups that sprung up in the 1970s and 1980s often in response to racist attacks or police violence. Many of the founding members had been around the radical left and they were influenced by international struggles such as the Black Power movement and Vietnam. See Mahamdallie, 2007 and Ramamurthy, 2007.