it is always easy to see things as we want to see them and it is particularly tempting in this apathetic era to see a strike of apprentices as youth hardening itself in the cauldron of industrial strife. Tempting to think of them as the new generation challenging the old and prepared to question the false priorities of Capitalism. But these boys chose to sherikfootnote＊, admittedly good naturedly, the CND loudspeaker van announcing Scotland’s Aldermaston. Was this, for them, merely another facet of the Adult World, the Adult World which for six years has been fruitlessly negotiating their wage claim?
Looking at these young workers in their Strike Headquarters, anyone over 25 feels and looks elderly. They are organised, competent and quietly independent. They are taking no favours from anyone and treat all adult enquiries with cautious suspicion. It must not be forgotten that since the age of 15 these boys have been living in an adult world. Not for them the protracted adolescence of the undergraduate. Some are married; all have grown up in the hard school of working-class life where responsibility comes too early to our children. Middle class boys of a similar age are still in school blazers.
For six years the adult Unions have been negotiating wage increases. In one week the boys had gone further and faster than their trained negotiators. The country suddenly discovered there were apprentice problems in industry. What brought them to this point? We can only wonder. An accumulation of pinpricks? The increasing loss of status in apprenticeship in face of the high wages of unskilled work? Apprentice wages are traditionally low but are now so low relatively that pride of craft no longer compensates. Dead end jobs of yesterday pay good wages today and often appear, in our superficially expanding society, to have as good a future. Girls looking for husbands no longer see, as their mothers did, “having a trade” as being a badge of a secure future. To many, hypnotised by Macmillan’s mirage of “You’ve never had it so good”, an apprenticeship may even seem unenterprising.
Is it the position of a third year apprentice earning about £4 15s. in a society where the average teenager is estimated to spend £2 10s. weekly on personal expenditure? Or is it the real Scottish fear of unemployment that has precipitated this expression of solidarity? The one concept which has emerged as part of these boys’ political heritage is the necessity for solidarity. A small thing possibly in face of what many would like to interpret from the struggle, but surely the first important lesson workers must always learn.
Every left wing political group in Glasgow would like to have a finger in the pie, and indeed some of them have. To deny this would be naive. What is important, however, is the way internal organisation has been handled and responsibility accepted. The group which has learnt most is not the small “vanguard” in the committee but the less theoretically politically minded who have accepted this kind of responsibility for the first time.
What influence have the political groups actually been able to use? It’s difficult, on the Clyde, to assess this. Few of the “black squad” will not have had some close contact with Socialist politics at some time in their lives. Fewer still will not have been on strike a number of times; and even the boys have inherited a militancy which has in the past shown that apprentices can go on strike. The shop steward has led many local strikes and been active in many national ones.
When the boys finally walked out, they left the shops with the advice of the older rank and file man at the next machine. Most of this experience cannot be verbalised—it’s absorbed. Few could explain why the “black squad” never scabs. It’s accepted behaviour, and to these boys, normal. It’s not a far cry from the acceptance of local solidarity to the idea of national solidarity, and the precedent has been well established. The Boilermakers of the Clyde expect help from those on the Tyne, and so with the apprentices.