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18 June 2014
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Legacies - Bristol

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Culture wars? Bristol's colour bar dispute of 1963

The Company's traffic manager, stated to a BBC reporter that: "…we shall go on engaging white labour before coloured labour. This is the policy of the management of the company in the light of the experience in other cities and towns where they have engaged coloured labour and their labour situation has deteriorated because it is then no longer regarded as a white man's job and the white people start leaving and they find themselves more short of labour than they were before".

1960s bus
Bristol bus
We have every respect for the coloured people but we have the economics of the thing to look at and we feel that our situation would deteriorate because of the fact that we would be employing coloured people and chasing away the white people we already had." (BBC archive)

But Hodge and other local officials of the Transport and General Workers' Union were quick to blame the company's colour bar on the management alone. They were reluctant to impute racist views to any but a tiny and unrepresentative minority of their members. 'Busmen' (sic), their argument went, were badly exploited by a management they distrusted.

Dependent on overtime, busmen would naturally resent any group, regardless of colour, who might threaten their earnings. It was class fear not race hatred which, so the union officials said, explained any reluctance to accommodate black workers.

Placards held by protestors
Student protests in Bristol
Certainly it is true that the national leadership of the Transport and General Workers' Union then stood firmly against race discrimination. But leaders like Jack Jones did not speak for all of their local branches. In 1955, TGWU members at two Bristol bus depots had voted against having black drivers and conductors, and their resolutions were never challenged at local or regional level.

Were then the local union officials I interviewed in the 1980s simply covering their own backs by refusing to admit that they or their workers were racist and for insisting that job insecurity was the main reason for suspecting black workers?

Words: Madge Dresser

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