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Book Review Key moment in Coventry's labour movement history

Our History: Pamphlet 17
by Graham Stevenson
(Communist Party History Group, £1.50)

IN THIS two-part issue of a new series of pamphlets on working-class history, Coventry-born Graham Stevenson explores the city's munitions strike of 1917 and the associated rise of the shop stewards movement there.

Coventry’s radical traditions go back to its siding with the Parliamentarians during the English revolution of 1642, but here Stevenson examines the radicalism of the early 20th century.

As a result of the increased demands made on the country during the first world war, Coventry became a centre of munitions and vehicle manufacturing employing many thousands.

In 1901, the population of the city was 70,000 but, by 1914, it had already risen to 125,000 and it boasted Britain’s largest concentration of vehicle and munitions manufacturing.

With many young men called up and sent to the front, an acute shortage of labour developed. As a result, those remaining in the factories gained leverage to push through demands for better conditions and higher wages and it also resulted in increasing numbers of women joining the workforce.

The complete supplanting of old handicrafts by factory-based mass production during the early part of the century had radicalised the workforce. Burgeoning socialist groups were formed in the city and found eager adherents. They helped focus and support demands for workers’ rights and initiated the election of shop stewards to represent workers at the grassroots level — the official unions were then still very much craft-based, elitist and largely out of touch.

This shop stewards’ movement became the chief factor in opposing government and employer plans to massively increase production while ignoring workers’ rights and using the war as an excuse to impose draconian employment practices.

In June 1915, the Munitions Act was introduced, making strikes illegal and action restricting output a criminal offence. This, however, failed to prevent stewards from pushing for better conditions.  A year later a wave of strikes swept the country, including Coventry, and it shook the government out of its complacency.

As news of the Russian revolution reverberated around the globe in 1917, sympathy and solidarity swept working-class communities in Britain too. That same year saw 688 disputes involving 860,000 workers taking strike action. These strikes demonstrated the new power wielded by shop stewards and their organising ability, forcing employers to negotiate directly with them.

By November of that year, there were around 1,000 shop stewards active in Coventry’s main factories. Industrial strikes were soon accompanied by rent strikes, demanding lower council-house rents and better housing.

Stevenson has undertaken meticulous research into this period and provides interesting detail about the emergence of the shop stewards’ movement and on several colourful individuals who led it. This is the sort of history rarely covered by the mainstream and it provides a valuable insight into a key moment of working-class history.

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