RADICAL ARISTOCRATS: London Busworkers from the 1880s to the 1980s

RADICAL ARISTOCRATS: London Busworkers from the 1880s to the 1980s

Ken Fuller

Lawrence and Wishart 1985


This is a detailed account of how the combination of mass car-ownership and right-wing leadership within the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU), which purged radicals, left London bus workers, once the aristocrats of the working class, unable to effectively combat an employer-led and government backed offensive on their wages and conditions. 

It was written in 1985 by Ken Fuller, a former bus driver who by then was a full-time official in the TGWU bus section. Fuller’s initial study began as a lay rep on the TGWU District Learning Course. This book therefore stands as an important testimony to the importance of trade union education in general and to Fuller himself who sought in the book to rouse busworkers to fight plans by the then Tory Government of Margaret Thatcher to deregulate the buses. Sadly, it was a struggle the Tories were to go on and win and following which the decline in London bus workers wages and conditions has continued ever since. 


It was in 1888-1889 (see The Great Dock Strike of 1889: http://www.unitetheunion.org/growing-our-union/education/bookofthemonth/july-2015/ ) that unskilled and semi-skilled workers began organising within trade unions to fight for better terms and conditions. 

In 1889, barrister Thomas Sutherst successfully organised over two thousand London tram men and some from the omnibuses into their first trade union. The men were amongst the highest-paid sections of the working class but only because they worked a 15-16 hour day, seven days a week. The union organised a strike that briefly reduced the number of hours worked but, largely as a result of an individualist attitude outlook amongst its members, it failed to last long. 

The replacement of the horse-drawn omnibus by motor buses in the early years of the twentieth century required a more skilled workforce that brought with it a greater measure of self-esteem and professional pride. 

New unions had continued to be formed in the new century. Many were influenced and led by socialists such as Tom Mann. https://markwritecouk.files.wordpress.com/2018/07/the-great-dock-strike-of-1889-web-booklet11-23272.pdf London dockers struck in 1911 and a million miners were out the following year. In 1913 the newly formed London and Provincial Union of Licensed Vehicle Workers (LPU) had recruited three-quarters of the 12,000 busworkers in its area. By adopting an anti-capitalist position that included opposing both WWI and the attempts of their employer to attack their terms and conditions it went on to become a militant, highly politicised trade union over the next five years

By 1919 London busworkers were paid more and worked less hours than most other semi-skilled workers. As an organised group they had achieved, writes Fuller ‘an aristocratic status and a strong political identity virtually simultaneously.’ 

This situation was to come under pressure when — in the understandable drive for a national organisation for all passenger transport workers — the LPU amalgamated with the more moderate Tramway and Vehicle Workers. This led to the formation in 1920 of the United Vehicle Workers, (UVW). This started life with 109,245 members with bus workers outnumbered by tram and lorry men. 

The new union was to be short lived when in 1921 its members, particularly the tramworkers, voted to become part of Ernest Bevin’s one large transport union, the TGWU, which brought together 18 unions with a grand total of 362,000 members. 

Not everyone within the UVW was convinced of Bevin’s leadership skills. The UVW organiser George Sanders was a lifelong socialist with a strong London busworkers following. Sanders later played a major role in the British Bureau of the Red International of Labour Unions, which was formed to co-ordinate Communist activities within the trade unions.

Sanders criticised Bevin for attending a secret dinner with business leaders. The knees-up was designed to create a better understanding between capital and labour in order to help advance British world trade. Dissatisfaction with Bevin was to quickly increase when — unlike in the tram section of the new union — when the TGWU leader refused, during a time when their employer had the money to pay up, to lead struggles to secure improvements in busworkers pay and conditions. 

The outcome was the development of an effective unofficial Rank and File Movement. (R&FM) According to Fuller this arose ‘largely out of Communist initiatives and was led by Communists.’ 

Busworkers meanwhile demonstrated a willingness to fight for their class when called upon. They  responded magnificently to calls to participate in the 1926 General Strike and when it was called off by the TUC General Council many were unhappy at the miners’ being left to, ultimately unsuccessfully, battle on alone. 

The R&FM subsequently grew on the buses. This resulted in a struggle to up pay — largely successful after previously imposed wage cuts were restored by the newly formed London Passenger Transport Board in January 1934 – and over speed ups that had cut travel time between stops. Some drivers had even found themselves being fined for exceeding the speed limit as they battled to keep to the schedule. There was also frustration at the unwillingness of the TGWU to lead a struggle to win a seven-hour day. 

Meanwhile an attempt to forge unity with unofficial movements amongst tram and trolley bus workers was unsuccessful. It was this that ultimately paved the way for Bevin to defeat the radicals on London’s buses. 

Busworkers began strike action in support of their claim for a seven-hour day on 1 May 1937. With the Underground, trams and trolleys all working normally there was little disruption. This continued to be the case until busworkers were instructed on 28 May by their union to return to work. A dispirited R&FM conference was unable to organise any resistance.  Some minor concessions were made by their employer. In the aftermath, Bevin moved quickly to expel and disbar from TGWU membership many of the R&FM leadership. 

An unprecedented struggle for rank and file control, which had been made possible because of centralised control of the buses across London, of the TGWU’s affairs was now at an end. It was only to be partially reversed when Frank Cousins became elected to the post of General Secretary in May 1956. 

By then London busworkers, who also lost badly again when they took strike action over pay in 1958, had lost their claim to aristocratic status as their industry lost out to a post war capitalist society based on mass-consumption in which one of the most important components was car-ownership. The Tory government that held office between 1951 and 1964 encouraged road-building for private cars at the expense of public transport. This included the railways which were cut massively by Dr Beeching in 1963. Passenger demand on bus and trains plummeted. 

London Transport (LT) took full advantage to restrict advances in pay even though this led to serious difficulties in finding staff that, in turn, led to attempts, often with little success, to recruit overseas workers. 

In the late 1960s when bus workers took strike action they found that LT, with the tactic support of a Labour government, which as part of its prices and incomes policy was seeking to restrict pay increases, was only prepared to slightly increase pay and even then only in return for increased productivity levels. One Man Operated buses were introduced but did little to solve the staff shortage. 

Bus passenger numbers continued to fall until the Tories were defeated in May 1981 in the elections to the Greater London Council (GLC), which had taken over control of LT on 1 January 1970. 

The new Labour administration was prepared to allocate more funds for buses. Staff recruitment, was increased, planned service cuts were scrapped and fares were reduced by 32 percent on 4 October 1981. Passenger-demand rose by 10 per cent, it was the first time in two decades that the steady decline was halted and reversed. 

This was all too much for the Tories and Tory-led Bromley Council was able to persuade the Law Lords that the GLC’s increased subsidy to LT was unlawful. On 10 March 1982, buses and tubes struck together for the first time ever. There were numerous public meetings across the capital at which community groups and LT workers organised a political campaign in defence of the GLC’s actions. The Tories responded by removing LT from GLC control and later established London Regional Transport whose board was packed with business people lacking any experience in running public transport systems. It was, as Fuller, stated ‘quite clear that LRT will be guided not by the needs of Londoners but by the requirements of the balance-sheet.’ 

The writer concluded this well-written and highly informative book by arguing that the TGWU London Bus Section needed to ‘link industrial militancy with a socialist political consciousness’ and that to safeguard their future ‘London Busworkers needed to engage in a political campaign to secure a say in they way their industry is planned and run, something which could feature as a component of an alternative economic strategy pursued by a socialist-orientated Labour government. ‘

To summarise, there are some important lessons in this book that current bus — and other — workers can learn from in order to play a role in advancing the whole working class movement. 


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