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 Bevin hurried back to management and secured a deal in which the wage cuts and redundancies were withdrawn.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.
The CP was to play a critical role in the development of the rank and file movement on the buses. At the beginning of 1932 it had just 12 members working on London buses.
Its participation in the rank and file movement meant that by the end of the year, that had risen to 40 and by 1935 it stood at 98.
In addition to Chelverton, there was a party cell at Cricklewood garage and a number of key individuals at Holloway, Edgware, Enfield and Willesden – where Bernard Sharkey, an ex-policemen sacked during the infamous 1919 police strike, worked.
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 spearheaded a campaign to secure a seven hour working day and better conditions – issues that were taken up at a special delegate conference of London bus workers in December 1936.
Union leaders, including Bevin, understood that pressure was building from the grassroots for a showdown with London buses bosses but they were determined that it would be them, not the rank and file, that would control the coming fight.
But management refused to negotiate with the union leaders and an official bus strike began in May 1937.
Bevin won acceptance from the leadership of the rank and file that the strike would not involve trams or the London Underground. But with those working, the bus strike was crippled from the start.
Bevin bided his time and then moved to stop the strike. He began by dismissing the bus workers’ reps who were running the strike. He then ordered a return to work.
The resulting defeat saw a section of the rank and file movement move to form a breakaway union. The CP won a majority of rank and file activists away from this strategy, and because they had such influence, Bevin could not afford to purge them from the union completely.
In a trade off with T&G leaders, CP members maintained some of their union positions – though leading members were barred from union office for a time. But the price the CP paid for being allowed to stay in the union was the folding up of the rank and file movement and the closure of Busman’s Punch.
Nevertheless, 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 magazine also went a long way to establishing the industrial credentials of the CP, which came to be seen by many working class activists as the best fighters in the workplace.
In many ways Busman’s Punch provides a model for rank and file papers today.
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.
An important dimension of Busman’s Punch was that it attempted to relate to all the political mass movements of the day.
The 1930s were the years of the hunger marches and the rank and file organisation helped to provide funds and shelter for the marches.
The paper was strongly anti-fascist. The issues of war, fascism and the bosses’ offensive all came from a common source.
The Busman’s Punch consistently argued that the drive towards war was linked to the capitalist system.
One issue carried an obituary to Bill Brisky, a London bus driver, who lost his life fighting against fascism in Spain.
Conducting the struggle
The Busman’s Punch has a startlingly contemporary feel.
Anyone who has been told to multitask at work will instantly identify with the cartoon of the “100 percent conductor” (above) who has to have tea and food breaks on the move, ring the bell, provide timetable information, issue tickets and clean the bus.
For this he needs three pairs of arms and three pairs of legs. At the same time, he is gagged and has to keep his mouth shut.
The magazine fought for 100 percent union membership in the garages and fought for the rank and file to challenge the union bureaucrats and management.
Matt Perry is the author of several books including, The Jarrow Crusade: Protest And Legend and Work Or Maintenance: Unemployed Lives, Unemployed Struggles 1918-39. Both are available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848