Review – Leeds United! – an inspiring account of struggle of Leeds clothing workers 50 years on

“Out, Out, Out” ring the chants of workers throughout this film capturing the magnificent struggle of mainly women clothing workers in Leeds in the 1970s. After their union, the National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers (NUTGW) negotiated a wage agreement that continued to retain the unequal pay structure between male and female workers, as well as introducing the first nationally negotiated productivity agreement in the industry.

In an already low paid industry, workers at one factory in Leeds, John Colliers, marched out demanding ‘a bob an hour’ increase (one shilling), employing what were in effective flying pickets, with coaches going to operations of Leeds based tailoring firms in other parts of the country, whilst the bulk of the workers marched from factory to factory bringing them out. The strike would go on for four weeks, involving 20,000 workers.

Leeds United! Retells this struggle, broadcast just four years later as part of the BBC’s ‘Play for Today’ series, at the time the most expensive drama production on TV. It’s writer was the son-in-law of one of the strikers and spent hours researching the play, interviewing those who took part in the strike. As a result, the major events in the film follow very closely to the course of the events of the actual dispute.

Many of the strikers appeared in Leeds United! as extras, appearing in scenes showing mass meetings, rallies and demonstrations. One scene of a mass meeting in Leeds Town Hall had the main actors in the film, 50 paid extras and the rest were Leeds clothing workers. But this also extended to scenes set in the factories, the noise and hustle of real working factories recorded by the filmmakers.

Scenes showing the debates the workers engaged in, are amongst the most spell-binding to watch, both the big set piece debates of mass meetings, but also as the workers picket out other factories, including one scene where workers in a small back-street factory and persuaded to join the strike after being initially hesitant, on the basis that the strike is fighting to an increase across the trade, not just in the factory of the workers who initially joined the strike.

The debates of the employers are shown, at times, cross-cut with those of the workers for contrast, including splits developing between those smaller factory directors based solely in Leeds and others more able to wait out the effects of the strike in Leeds who owned factories elsewhere.

There is also interesting elements of story-telling about Leeds United! as well, with the contract of a clothing worker read out at the beginning of the film, including the lack of provision of pensions or sick pay for the workers. Again near the beginning, a brief series of interviews in the factory with workers on their conditions, contrasting with a union full time office interviewed in his office boasting about how good the agreement they have just signed is.

Thus from the off, the film makes clear that the workers weren’t just taking on their own brutal employers, but also the trade union bureaucracy, who were almost as opposed to the strike as the bosses. Early in the film the union bureaucracy. are described in a canteen meeting as “incompetent, inept, and at time, downright bloody cowardly.”

At every stage the union officials are trying to get the strikers back to work, frightened of a movement beyond their control. Firstly, convening a mass meeting in Leeds Town Hall for this purpose, which votes to continue the action, then later convening a shop stewards meeting, including those shop stewards not on strike, which narrowly votes to call off the strike action. A mass meeting on Woodhouse Moor the following day votes to continue to strike, but after getting shop stewards opposed to the strike to convene meetings to bring their factories back in, the elected strike committee votes for the return to work.

The weakness of the film, however, is shown in its second half in its somewhat limited explanation of how the strike ended. It somewhat crudely relies on the actions of a Communist Party (CP) shop steward, who spurs on the initial strike, but then sides with the union bureaucracy from the Town Hall mass meeting onwards in urging them to return on the basis that the strike has already improved their position in future negotiations.

The CP’s role in the dispute seems more complex than this, CP members were on the original strike committee and led Leeds Trades Council at the time, where the strike committee were able to meet given the refusal of the union to allow an unofficial body to use their offices. However, the CP’s paper, the Morning Star, emphasised the gains made by the settlement, which still fell short of the original bob an hour demand.

Undoubtedly, this portrayal of the CP is linked to the sympathies of some of the film-makers with the Socialist Labour League – but in the film they fail to give any real indication of what the alternative is to this, apart from the line spoken in voice-over at the end that ‘next time we have a fight, we’ll trust ourselves to those who won’t let us down’.

But in real strike there were other trends of the left which participated, but no sign is given of them in the film. The film-makers had already had to rename the companies, names of individuals and even the union involved in the strike under the influence of BBC bosses, and perhaps this had an influence. But a married couple who were shop steward and on the strike committee, portrayed as champions of the strike, both fail to speak and challenge the proposal to end the strike and reflect on this to each other. The conclusion is obvious to any revolutionary, they need an organisation within which they could have discuss their tactics in the meeting with others of like mind, but instead the male simply comments that “Politics is the art of the possible” and receives a slap from one of the other militants, showing the frustration that undoubtedly existed, but in a somewhat cynical manner.

Despite these criticism, Leeds United! is an overwise fantastic film, whose greatest success is how vividly it portrays the mass struggle of the clothing workers and is well worth watching.

Leeds United! is available to watch on BBC iPlayer until 3rd December

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