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The shoulders of giants: the railwaymen and seafarers who fought in Spain

JIM JUMP welcomes the new booklet published by the RMT and International Brigade Memorial Trust about the seafarers and rail workers who fought Franco’s fascism in Spain

THEY SAY the past never goes away and is still with us. That couldn’t be more true of the rise of fascism in the last century.
 
Everyone hoped this evil creed had been stamped out for good with the defeat of the Nazi war machine in 1945. But the fascist beast and its toxic ideology of race hate, militarism and hostility to organised labour have not gone away.
 
Sadly, this makes a new booklet jointly published by RMT and the International Brigade Memorial Trust, They Shall Not Pass, all the more relevant and important today.
 
It tells the story of the railway workers and seafarers who in the 1930s resisted fascism at home and, in the case of the Spanish civil war, took up arms to stop Hitler, Mussolini and General Franco from crushing the elected government of Spain.
 
What stands out is that these workers recognised the true threat of fascism well before their political masters did.
 
It was ordinary people who stopped the British Union of Fascists (BUF) from marching through our towns and cities.
 
And it was ordinary people, including scores of members of the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) and the National Union of Seafarers, who joined the International Brigades to fight the fascists in Spain. There’s a plaque dedicated to them proudly on display at RMT’s head office.
 
Within the British Establishment, there was considerable sympathy for the way Europe’s fascist dictators banned trade unions and violently suppressed political parties of the left.
 
BUF leader Sir Oswald Mosley was an aristocratic former Cabinet minister with rich and powerful friends.
 
As They Shall Not Pass reveals, Britain’s would-be fuhrer came unstuck when he sued NUR general secretary John Marchbank for slander. The BUF leader won a technical victory but was awarded a laughable farthing (a quarter of a penny) in damages.
 
Mosley’s High Court humiliation came in 1936. Things got worse in October of that year at the Battle of Cable Street. This was when the Jewish population of Whitechapel joined forces with local dockers, trade unionists, communists and socialists to prevent the BUF’s anti-semitic Blackshirts from parading through London’s East End.
 
The cry of the anti-fascists was “They shall not pass,” the same one used by the defenders of Madrid — “No pasaran!” Many of the protesters at Cable Street were among more than 2,000 volunteers from Britain who joined the International Brigades to fight in Spain.
 
This was no gap-year jaunt. More than 500 of them made the ultimate sacrifice. NUR member Ginger McElroy from Wishaw was killed at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937 after being hit by a dum-dum bullet. The bloody battle saw the British Battalion lose more than 150 men. But they held the line to stop Franco from taking Madrid.
 
Fellow railwayman Alwyn Skinner from Neath lost his life in the Battle of the Ebro in the summer of 1938, when Hitler’s bombers pummelled the British Battalion on the rocky slopes around Gandesa. The battalion suffered 90 fatalities.
 
Readers of the booklet will be moved and inspired by the exploits of many individuals described in it.
 
Jimmy Prendergast, one of the leaders of the Irish contingent in the International Brigades, fought bravely at Cordoba, Jarama and Brunete. In the 1960s he was the NUR’s Marylebone branch secretary and led the campaign that broke British Rail’s colour bar that excluded black workers from senior posts.
 
Jack Coward, one of several Liverpool seamen to fight in Spain, was captured at Calaceite in 1938 but escaped and fought behind the lines with Spanish guerillas. When he was recaptured, he pretended to be deaf and dumb and eventually made his way home from enemy Spain on a British ship.
 
Spike Robson, a ship’s fireman from South Shields, led the NUS crew of the Linaria on strike in Boston, Massachusetts, to stop explosive materials being shipped to Franco’s Spain. Arrested on their return home, the men ended up in court, charged under the Merchant Shipping Act and facing prison sentences. Robson was blacklisted from the shipping industry as a result.
 
It’s often said that union members “stand on the shoulders of giants” — in other words, our predecessors, who fought for the rights we enjoy today and the principles that still guide us. Delve into this booklet and meet some of those giants from the union’s past.
 
Jim Jump is the chair of the International Brigade Memorial Trust and a former editor of the NUS journal, the Seaman.

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