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The Imperial Typewriters Strike at 50

Taj Ali

Fifty years ago this week, South Asians at Leicester's Imperial Typewriters factory went on strike to demand respect and dignity at work — confronting the racism of their bosses and the unions that failed to support them.

A march in support of the Imperial Typewriter strikers. (Getty Images)

It was once the second-richest city in Europe, known for its hosiery, knitwear, shoe, and light engineering industries. ‘Leicester clothes the world,’ some said. By the 1970s, however, the Midlands metropolis saw its major manufacturing giants collapse as recession kicked in and unemployment rose. 

It was to this Leicester, suffering serious economic downturn, that 11,000 Ugandan Asian refugees migrated in 1972. Expelled by Idi Amin, they arrived frightened, cold, and penniless. They were British passport holders with no home to go to and no jobs to rely on. And they received far from a warm welcome. 

Frontpage headlines referred to a ‘flood’ and ‘invasion of Asians’. Leicester’s Labour Council took out a full-page advert in the Uganda Argus paper, urging them not to come to the city. Coupled with growing economic anxieties, this moral panic from politicians and the press empowered the National Front, which sought to make inroads in Leicester. 

Exploitative bosses, meanwhile, had no qualms about employing these new arrivals. They were seen as a cheap supply of labour, and many employers held stereotypical assumptions which led them to believe docile Asian women would be preferable employees to their British counterparts. 

Imperial Typewriters, a company taken over by the US multinational Litton Industries in 1966, was one of the largest employers in Leicester at the time. It had already recruited workers from the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean and took on many of the new arrivals, too. By 1974, some 1,100 of the 1,600 workers at the factory were South Asian. 

The factory, with its dated machinery used to produce electric typewriters, resembled a Victorian workhouse, as the mills, factories, and foundries that employed Asian workers often did. Instead of capital investment to improve productivity, employers sought to maximise their profit margins by increasing the intensity of work for immigrant labour. That work was gruelling, and the factory floor was often filthy and unpleasant. Hours were long, and pay was low. 

Mala Sen of the Race Today collective had attended the grievance meetings of workers at the time. One female worker told her: ‘I assemble motors in the store department. When I first started work here, I had to make 14 motors per hour. But then they raised the target to 16 and then to 18 and so on. Now it’s 22.’ 

Such impossible targets prevented workers from taking breaks. There was a racial division of labour on the factory floor itself, too, with Asian workers working the worst jobs for the poorest pay. And despite making up a majority of the workforce, there was just one Asian shop steward. 

Workers expressed their grievances to the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) factory convenor Reg Weaver but received no union backing. They later discovered they had been significantly shortchanged on their bonus payments. They were paid a bonus when reaching a target of 200 assembled motors, but, according to a 1972 agreement, they were entitled to a bonus once they reached 168 – meaning they were losing out on an additional £52 a week in today’s money. 

It was this discovery that triggered a walkout. On 1 May 1974, 39 Asian workers went on strike.

Taking a Stand

Four different firms in the city were hit by walkouts that Mayday. While others soon returned to work, the workers at Imperial Typewriters persisted. Guided by unofficial leaders Hasmukh Kehtani and N.C. Patel, they successfully picketed and leafleted the factory, bringing an additional 500 workers onto the picket lines. Within a few weeks, production had fallen by 50 percent. 

Workers held grievance meetings where they aired their frustrations about paltry pay and poor working conditions. These testimonies were taped by the strike committee and formed the basis for a list of demands. Many highlighted the racial discrimination they faced: white women pushing past them in the queue to work and getting to choose the jobs they did; Asian workers being denied promotions; racist foremen making their lives hell on the factory floor. More than anything else, this was a strike for respect and dignity in the workplace. 

The TGWU continued to refuse to support the strike, with George Bromley, a union negotiator and well-known local Labour Party member, accusing them of failing to follow the proper disputes procedure. His statement, laced with racist undertones, ended with the following remark: ‘In a civilised society, the majority view will prevail. Some people must learn how things are done.’ He later made a series of wild claims, at one point suggesting that the Chinese Communist Party was funding the strikers. 

In the union’s stead, activists like Bennie Bunsee, a South African political exile, took on the role of advisor to the strikers. Bunsee had previously supported South Asian women at the nearby Mansfield Hosiery Mills factory when they struck in 1972 in similar circumstances. 

‘Bennie Bunsee lived in my house,’ recalls the veteran journalist Amrit Wilson, ‘so I was in constant touch with him about the strike.’ As with all South Asian workers’ strikes during this period, the key support base, she says, were the activists and the community. ‘Instead of seeing this community mobilisation as a useful way of organising, unions felt threatened by them.’ 

Community support was vital, particularly in the absence of strike pay. Four factories with a large Asian workforce donated to the strike fund for the Imperial Typewriters workers and pledged a 24-hour stoppage in solidarity if required. Donations came in from across the country too, with contributions from the Birmingham Sikh Temple, the Southall Indian Workers Association, and the Edinburgh Women’s Conference. On 19 May, 2,000 people marched and attended a mass meeting in the inner-city area of Highfield, demonstrating the support the workers had mustered.  

Heather Rawling, a student at the University of Leicester at the time, recalls the support of the mainly white workforce at the neighbouring Corah hosiery factory. ‘The way they organised themselves was democratic. They elected their own leaders and held mass meetings. They did get their message out to other workers. The hosiery industry was massive at the time, and they were undergoing their own problems with their management, so there was sympathy.’ 

The pickets themselves were large and lively. Writing in Race Today in July 1974, Mala Sena described the picket line as one with a vivacity and style that made it unique: 

‘Whenever a scab or management representative appears, a fearful yowling and hollering is set up, led invariably by the women who have been stalwarts on the line since the day the strike started. The noise is tremendous as it echoes across the street and between the high buildings… A new element has emerged amongst the strikers… they are fearless and energetic. They have no qualms about attacking the National Front, cheeking the police… and they are powerfully hostile to blacklegs.’ 

‘The factory was in a narrow area, so the noise was loud because it was quite enclosed,’ recalls Rawling. ‘There was a lot of support from other workers. I was invited to their strike committees.’ The National Front, which had polled 9,000 votes in previous elections, constantly targeted the picketers but, Wilson recalls, ‘the scale of the support that the picket had meant they carried on regardless.’ 

In the end, the strike lasted three months. Although the union had never officially supported the strikers, workers sought the support of the TGWU rank and file, writing to branches across the country. The Indian Workers Association mobilised hundreds to lobby the TGWU’s head office in London, which later promised an inquiry into the union’s handling of the dispute. On 18 July, workers decided to return to work after the company agreed to review bonuses. 

Despite ultimately winning few concessions, many workers became more assertive in demanding fair treatment at work. One of the workers, Shardha Behn, told the Race Today journal the following that September: 

‘The first day I got back to work, my foreman asked me what I had gained in the last twelve weeks. He was making fun of me, I know. I told him that I had lost a lot of money but had gained a lot of things. I told him I had learnt how to fight against him for a start. I told him he couldn’t push me around anymore like a football from one job to another. I told him I now knew many things I didn’t know before. In the past, when I used to get less money in my wage packet, I used to start crying at once. I didn’t know what else to do. I told the foreman, ‘Next time I won’t cry, I’ll make you cry.’ 

Following the dispute, the strike committee issued a statement: 

‘Our struggle has taught us also that black workers must never for a moment entertain the thought of separate black unions. They must join the existing unions and fight through them. Where the unions fail in their duties to black workers, they must be challenged to stand up for their rights. The union is an organisation of all workers, regardless of race, colour or sex. Right now, the trade union movement in Britain is functioning as a white man’s union, and this must be challenged. In challenging this, we believe in the unity of the working class. This unity must be solidly established in deed and not in words. It is the main task of the trade union movement to create this unity.’ 

The Struggle Continues

Today, the dilapidated Imperial Typewriter building houses garment sweatshops where South Asian women continue to work long hours for low pay. Numerous investigations have revealed that clothes for popular British brands have been made for less than the minimum wage. Those exploiting these workers today very often share their skin colour. Some made a fortune in the fast fashion industry; others have suffered immensely in sustaining it. 

In the city where a struggle for dignity was waged 50 years ago, exploitation remains rife. Workers have reported dangerous disregard for health and safety, abuse, humiliation and paltry pay. 

One garment worker, and mother of three, told Tribune recently: 

‘Around five years ago, people from India moved and worked for £3 to £4 a day — and people are still working like that. We are living in really bad conditions. We can’t eat, we can’t feed ourselves. We are having to claim benefits, but we can’t manage [to pay] for the gas and electricity bills. We are drained. It’s a very difficult time.’ 

Many trade unions have committed themselves to writing historic wrongs and rooting out racism within the labour movement, but racial disparities persist in the labour market. Today, Black and Asian women workers are three times more likely to be on exploitative zero-hour contracts than their white male counterparts. Far too many continue to suffer in precarious, low-paid jobs on bogus self-employment contracts. Many are denied statutory sick pay and protection against unfair dismissal. 

As our politicians throw the most exploited workers under the bus, the trade union movement must assert loudly and unapologetically in both the industrial and political arenas that they will champion the interests of all workers.