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Friday 14 June 2024

The Foyle's Bookshop Strike 1965

 Edited extract from a 2012 Blog post:

I was 17. After A levels in summer 1964 I travelled to Sweden to spend the summer working in a hotel and then went back to school for the Autumn Term to do Oxbridge Entrance (I already had a place but was after a Scholarship). After that, I  needed to work to raise funds to buy all the things on my Oxford college's required list - gown, mortar board, dark suit, white bow tie, laundry bag, that sort of thing.

Christina Foyle interviewed me, as she interviewed everyone (including the shop lifters). Here is my Contract of Employment which shows that I started work on 4 January 1965.

I was set to work in charge of Foyle's Postal Library, supplying romantic fiction to dowagers in rural areas and banned books to readers in the Republic of Ireland.

Foyle's sought to recruit people like me who were not going to stay and acquire employment rights. Many staff were recruited outside the UK. In those days, you needed work permits and Foyle's had a production line for obtaining them. Probably ninety percent of the staff were students or young people "in transit". Nowadays, that's true of most restaurants and bars in London but in 1965 it was not so common. At the time, I thought Foyle's was Dickensian. Now they look more like pioneers of the casualisation of labour.

It happened that in a given week too many new workers might arrive or too many old ones fail to leave. And some people might be about to pass the six month period after which they acquired additional statutory employee rights

This is where Mr Ronald Batty entered the scene. He was the store manager and Christina Foyle's husband. He walked the shop floors sacking people. He inspired genuine fear and on Fridays there were always people in tears, many of them pretty girls.

I had never really seen pretty girls before and I became serially infatuated. I had absolutely no idea how to approach them or relate to them and I was terribly burdened by my own circumstances - on Boxing Day 1964, just a week before my start at Foyle's, my mother with whom I lived had been taken in an ambulance to a mental hospital. I made the 999 call from a call-box. It was snowing.

Technically, people held work permits that restricted them to employment with Foyle's. But even then I guess it was possible to work illegally. Nonetheless, I was affected by the girls in tears and I did not like the ruthless atmosphere.

Nor did other people. Some of them, inspired by a charismatic Australian, Marius Webb, had started a clandestine branch of the Union of Shop Distributive and Alled Workers (USDAW). It had to be secret because Foyle's did not recognise Unions and Mr Batty would simply have sacked you. I became responsible for collecting Union dues in the building which housed the postal library and wholesale order departments. There must have been meetings too but I don't really recall them; there were discussions in the toilets.

After a few months, I found myself another job in local government and nearer home and hospital. It was a stupid move which I have always regretted: at Foyle's, I was meeting the kind of people I should have been meeting at my age and with my aspirations. If I had stuck it out, I might even have got myself a girl friend.

Soon after I left, USDAW called an official strike at Foyle's for Union recognition, better pay and other things. It was wildly popular - all kinds of people came forward to say that they had once worked for Christina Foyle and could they please give a large donation to Strike funds. Private Eye did a lovely and very funny piece.

On Saturdays I used to go and join the picket line. And when it was all over in July The Daily Worker put two pretty girls on the front page - a tradition which nowadays only The Daily Telegraph keeps up.

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