Roger Thomas, President, Bristol Trades Union Council and Socialist Party member
This year marks 60 years since a group of committed activists from Bristol’s 3,000-strong Black community launched a striking, and ultimately successful, campaign to break the colour bar on the city’s buses.
On a spring afternoon in 1963, Guy Bailey arrived for his job interview. He was qualified for the job and a colleague had rung ahead to check that vacancies still existed. The receptionist told the manager that the 2pm appointment was here, and he’s Black. The manager responded, without leaving his office, “Tell him the vacancies are full”. The manager continued: “There’s no point having an interview”. Guy still refused to leave the office and was told, “We don’t employ Black people”.
Discrimination was rife at the time, signs in some windows proclaiming: “No blacks or Irish here”. Young Black men on a night out would face racism and harassment.
And on the buses, there was a colour bar. Prospective Black employees were refused jobs as bus crew but could be employed in the company’s garages and staff canteens. Bristol Omnibus Company was part of the nationalised Transport Holding Company and was partly owned by the local council. There was a reported labour shortage and an annual turnover of over a third of the 1,500 bus crew. Pay was low and workers relied heavily on overtime to get a wage they could live on. The bosses relied on divide-and-rule tactics to institutionalise the culture of low pay and hostility to what they perceived as outsiders.
Ian Patey, the Company General Manager, a former army colonel, disgracefully said explicitly of the ban: “In London coloured men have become arrogant and rude after they have been employed for several months “. Elsewhere he stated that he had “factual evidence that the introduction of mixed crews in other cities downgraded the job and caused existing white staff to go elsewhere”. A position that the council endorsed at a meeting of the Joint Transport Committee which oversaw the operation of the buses.
The company also hid behind the fact that in 1955 the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) bus branch had passed a motion to exclude Black workers from the buses.
In the early months of 1963, four young men, Roy Hackett, Owen Henry, Audley Evans and Prince Brown, came together to form an action group. Their spokesperson was Paul Stephenson. The initial problem was to prove that the colour bar existed, and that was where Guy Bailey came in, a Black Boys Brigade officer.
Inspired by the politics of Martin Luther King and the American civil rights movement, particularly Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, it came to Stephenson that a bus boycott would be a good campaign.
The boycott was launched at a press conference on 29 April. By the next day they claimed that none of the city’s West Indian population was using the buses and that many white people were supporting them. On 1 May, students from Bristol University held a protest march against the colour bar which went to the bus station and then on to the office of the union. The local Labour MP Tony Benn expressed his support for the boycott: “I shall stay off the buses even if I have to find a bike”. Benn contacted Labour leader Harold Wilson and he spoke out against the colour bar at an anti-Apartheid rally in London.
On 2 May, local Labour Alderman Henry Hennessy spoke of the collusion between the company, the council and the local leadership of the union. The next day he was threatened with expulsion from the ruling Labour group. At the May Day rally on 6 May, organised by Bristol Trades Council, the TGWU was criticised by other unions for resisting apartheid but its collusion locally in a colour bar. This forced the union into a negotiating stance with the company, something it had previously avoided doing. On the same day over 100 Black residents of St Paul’s marched to St Mary Radcliffe Church, to voice their anger.
The cricket match between Gloucestershire and the West Indies was leafleted by the campaign against racial discrimination, and Learie Constantine, the high commissioner for Trinidad and Tobago, wrote to the bus company, and while the West Indies team refused to comment on the boycott, pressure was clearly rising in the city.
The TGWU called for quiet negotiations, the regional secretary calling Stephenson “dishonest and irresponsible.” But over the summer the pressure began to pay off. Leaders from the local churches and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament joined the campaign, and left wingers in the union and the Labour Party agitated for change. A petition was raised from the huge working-class estate of Hartcliffe by a local youth worker.
Negotiations finally started between the union and the company, brokered by Constantine, which culminated in a mass meeting of 500 bus workers on 27 August voting to end the colour bar. On 28 August, Ian Patey announced there would be no further discrimination in employing bus crews. On 17 September, Raghbir Singh became Bristol’s first non-white bus conductor; a few days later, two Jamaican and two Pakistani men joined the company.
There was some suspicion that the company maintained a quota as two years after there were only 39 non-white conductors and four drivers in a crew of around 2,000. However, the boycott campaign had been a huge victory, bringing together a determined community campaign and intense negotiating within the labour movement. Labour leader Harold Wilson, soon to be prime minister, called it the last example of the colour bar in Britain.
Wilson’s incoming government, in its 1965 Race Relations Act, legislated to end the colour bar, and in 1968 it was extended to outlaw discrimination in housing and employment in general. In 2013 Unite, the successor of the TGWU, issued an apology through regional secretary Laurence Faircloth, describing the union’s stance at the time as unacceptable: “I can well accept the sense of injustice and pain that has been because of what happened in Bristol all those years ago”.
Bristol Trades Union Council continues to fight in the city today for united workers’ struggle against racist discrimination.