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Ian Bone – Carbon Black

January 2, 2012 1 comment

Taken from Solidarity: For Workers’ Power, Vol. 6, No. 10

This article is a follow-up to the one on the ‘Politics of Community Action’, published in our last issue, in which we sought to demystify people concerning the activities of well-meaning but misguided radicals, busying themselves in the ‘community action’ field. The present text counterposes to such activity a form of direct action, initiated and kept under the control of the people themselves. It also shows how ordinary people are beginning to struggle against pollution.

Worker at carbon black plant, Sunray, Texas (Library of Congress)

The United carbon Black factory, situated in the Port Tennant area of Swansea, produces carbon blacks for use in car tyres. It is American controlled, Although large in size it only has a small, non-union labour force.

Besides carbon blacks the factory also produces clouds of black smut and dirt which constantly rain down on the houses nearby. This makes it impossible for washing to be hung outside. Within an hour it is filthy, so all washing has to be dried indoors. But the dirt also comes indoors, covering food, furniture, children and babies. A local manager of the factory once remarked that the people of the area were living in slums anyway, we why were they complaining about dirt?

Port Tennant is a working class area composed of rows of terraced houses. It has returned Labour councillors since time immemorial. Twenty years of protests to the Labour Council have not however changed the situation as regards the pollution.

In January 1970 local housewives dumped their dirty washing at the Guildhall and temporarily blocked the road leading to the factory. In response to this the management installed a new burner in March 1970, claiming this would end the “muck-spreading”.

By January 1970 the situation was as bad as ever. Having tired of useless protests to the Council, to M.P.s and to the local Health Department to people of Port Tennant decided to act on the own behalf. At a meeting on January 26, it was decided to block the road leading to the factory indefinitely, until the filth it spewed out ended.

To maintain surprise a Committee consisting of one representative from each street in the area was elected to decide the time of the action. When the time came each Committee members would inform all the households in his or her street.

On February 1 it was announced at a Council meeting that the Carbon Black factory was planning to increase production by 25%. At 9.30 a.m. on February 3, fifty housewives moved onto the road leading to the factory and stayed there, The aim was not a symbolic temporary blocking of an entrance. It was to be permanent obstruction until production was brought totally to a halt or the pollution ended. The housewives were also determined to remain until the plans for expansion had been scrapped.

Cars and lorries bringing in supplies were turned away, but police escorted empoyees and others through the crowd on foot. The blockage continued throughout the night, much to the annoyance ad surprise of the management who had confidently told lorry drivers to park ‘round the corner’ and deliver during the night. If the management had any further doubts that the road blockers were there to stay these were son dispelled. A large tent was pitched on that road and a fire built up. Chairs, stores and radios were brought in. Meals were cooked on the spot. Local trades-men brought in wood, coal and other supplies. A fish ad chip shop sent a huge tray of free pies and another small shop stayed open till 4.00 a.m. to supply the night shift with tea and sandwiches.

As the days went by, the organisation improved. To combat the cold weather – there were strong gales with driving sleet and rain throughout the first weekend of the protest – ropes were slung across he road at head hight, and large tarpaulins draped over them. To one of these tarpaulins was attached a notice reading “We’re not budging, even if we catch pneumonia”.

Shifts of fifty a time were organised on an informal basis – “We just dash round each others’ houses to see who can or can’t go on blockade duty”. The whole pattern of everyday life was changed. The women were getting up early to cook breakfast for husbands and children, then going immediately to guard the factory entrance against lorries trying to enter. Then, sometime during the day, they would take a two-hour break to do essential housework. At night the men took over – often coming straight from work.

Even the local newspaper was moved to write “It is in the evenings that the comradeship is most evident. Fighting spirit becomes akin to party spirit as people bring portable record players and share their food.”

Many of the men took their winter holidays to take part, though one remarked “We don’t normally spend our holidays on the Port Tennant Riviera”. The humour of those taking part was apparent throughout.

On Shrove Tuesday a fancy dress and hot pants pancake race was run round the factory and the residents turned out en masse to join in the fun. By staging such events the road blockers were able to keep their morale high at a tie when lack of sleep and terrible weather could easily have dampened enthusiasm.

During all this time no vehicles of ay kind were allowed to enter or leave the factory, though employees were able to come and go. It was not long before this had an effect on production, although a full week elapsed before the management admitted that production had been cut back.
At the end of three weeks several departments had bee closed down and the employees were being put on maintenance work. Since no lorries could leave the factory all finished products were being stockpiled.

At this stage the management proposed a “truce”. This was immediately rejected. The management then stated that they were meeting their legal requirements (and they were). They appealed to the Secretary of State for Wales to back them up. Swansea Council had also referred the matter to the Welsh Office, being only too pleased to pass the buck. The fact that the management were not taking some initiatives revealed that they were not seriously concerned at the protesters threat to stay till Christmas (“the one after next”, as the local people were at pains to point out).

Peter Thomas, Secretary of State for Wales, (and also Chairman of the Conservative Party) stated on February 12 that the report of a Welsh Office Alkali Inspector showed that the factory was indeed meeting its legal requirements. Some interesting facts then emerged about Thomas’ position. The Carbon Black parent company is Anchor Chemicals Ltd. The Deputy Chairman of Anchor Chemicals is Sir Clyce Hewlett, an active member of the Conservative Party and friend of Peter Thomas, whom he met at the young Conservatives’ Conference at Eastbourne, during the blockade Thomas’ decision came as no surprise.

There followed another report, this time by Britain’s Deputy Chief Alkali Inspector. This ended with the same result. Edgar Cutler summed up the thoughts of the road blockers when he said “We’ve not been hanging around here 24 hours of the day for 17 days for nothing. We will continue our stand”. It was noted that as the Inspector arrived, the works momentarily went out of production; no smoke come out of the stack that day. As soon as the Inspector left; production started up again.

Production was now being increasingly affected. On February 26 a meeting was held in Cardiff, between the road blockers, the management and Swansea Council. The management made some concessions. The promised to control the smut and grime more effectively, stating that they were to spend £200,000 on pollution-control. The factory was to be thoroughly spring-cleaned. Lorries would be re-routed. More importantly it was agreed to half production when strong easterly winds were prevalent (surely a unique agreement in British industry). A Liaison Committee was to be formed consisting of the management, the Port Tennant residents and the council. This Committee was to keep a continual watch on the pollution situation, enabling the residents to exert some control over the situation. It was hinted that the expansion plats were to be dropped.

Were these proposals a victory for the residents or not? Obviously this would depend on how they were interpreted. What constitutes “a strong easterly wind”? Would the decisions of the Liaison Committee have any weight? Would the new expenditure by the management really take place? And it so, would it be any more effective than previous expenditure in stopping pollution? Only time would tell.

Given these terms, the residents reluctantly agreed to life the blockade. Howard Bevan spoke for many when he said “A lot of us are not satisfied. We’ve heard all these promises before. Although we have taken down our shelter we have stored it near the entrance. If Carbon Black don’t keep their promises we won’t take long to erect it again. All we can do now is wait and see what the outcome will be If we blockade again it will be on a much larger scale than during the last three weeks.” Three days later it was announced that the plans for the extension of the factory had been shelved.

The blockade had lasted 24 days, in the middle of winter. After years of asking the Council to do something for them the people of Port Tennant had acted unitedly, on their own behalf. At the end of it many who had taken part were despondent about what they had achieved. But they were not despondent about the type of action they had undertaken. All were contemptuous of the Council and confident that in the future it would only be by their own action that they could change the situation. If they had not got all they wanted it was because their action had not been strong or direct enough, not because it what been the wrong type of action.

The people of Port Tennant had however established some important principles, and shattered some myths in the process. The management of a large factory has been forced to allow those who lived near it to have some measure of control over its production (i.e. no production when there was an easterly wind, and shelving of the plans for expansion).

Direct action has gone beyond the range of the symbolic protest:
You don’t show that you could close the factory if you wanted to – you try and do it!

The concern of politicians and businessmen over “pollution” has been expressed for the sham it is. The Carbon Black factory was operating quite legally as its filthy much ruined the peoples’ homes and health. Peter Thomas, one of the Tories whose concern for the environment is never off his lips, was quite happy to see the pollution continues. The pollution could be stopped entirely if the management was willing to spend the money. The people of Port Tennant knew this. The management had been refusing as this would have meant cutting into profits.

Mrs Barbara Davies summed it up simply: “I remember picking water lilies, wild irises, bulrushes, and blackberries from the banks of the canal. As children we swam there. There were swans and we held fishing competitions. Now we have to wash our windows every day, spend at least 15/- a week on a family wash at the launderette and dare not put a baby in its pram in the garden. All this when everyone’s talking about pollution ad conservation.”

Finally, and most important, the people of Port Tennant have discovered in themselves a new sense of comradeship and self-conficen in their own ability to take action and change their surroundings. This will not quickly be lost.

A few weeks ago the Chief Public health Inspector of Swansea referred to the smashing of pollution-deposit gauges on an old cinema in Port Tennant. He said “it seems that out attempts to look after the interest of the community are not appreciated”. He can say that again! As one of the women said: “I don’t need an Alkali Inspector to tell me if my babies’ nappies are dirty”. Now she can add that she doesn’t need a Councillor to tell her how to put an end to it, either.

Ian Bone.