Labour in government, and rights on the Rock
EVERY timed I walk into the headquarters of my trade union, the TGWU-Unite, I pass the bust of a former British Foreign Secretary. No, it is not the late Robin Cook, whom the union once sponsored, and who will be remembered for his talk of a "moral dimension" to foreign policy and for resigning Tony Liar Blair's cabinet rather than support the Iraq war.
It is former TGWU general secretary Ernest Bevin, who became Churchill's wartime Labour Minister, then Attlee's Foreign Minister, supporting NATO and Cold War, and expecting the US to back British Empire in return for bases against the Soviet Union.
Bevin still has his devotees. Besides the bust you pass in the TGWU's foyer, another was ordered by Robin Cook when he moved into the Foreign Office. A couple of years ago TGWU officials wanted a Workers Memorial Day march, heading for the statue of the unknown building worker at Tower Hill, to pay homage en route to Bevin's statue in Tooley Street, Southwark. (This may have been a matter of prestige, because the building worker's statue is regarded as a UCATT property, rather than anything to do with Bevin's contribution to workplace safety. Union officials are like that). There's even an Ernest Bevin Society, though I'm not sure what relationship its curious politics have to the man himself, let alone the union .
That aside, one episode in Bevin's career, the former union leader's treatment 60 years ago of a fellow-trade unionist, has been brought to light in recently-released government files in Britain and Gibraltar. The Shameful Deportation of a Trade Union Leader, the story of Albert Fava", is the title of a pamphlet on this subject by Jonathan Jeffries and Dr. Tom Sibley, and I'm glad to note that my union, the T&G Unite, is sponsoring it.
Writing in the Morning Star on November 27, Tom Sibley says: "IT WAS a shameful attack on trade union and human rights. It was carried out by a British Labour government whose foreign secretary was the legendary ex-trade union leader Ernest Bevin. The victim was Gibraltarian Albert Fava".
In the immediate post-war years, Gibraltar became an important centre of trade union and anti-colonial struggle, but it was also of course of key strategic importance to Britain and the United States.
Like many Gibraltarians, Albert Fava had been evacuated to Britain during the second world war, when the colony was full of forces personnel. Working in this country he became active in the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU), and joined the Communist Party.
In July 1948 he returned to Gibralter to take up the post of general secretary of the Gibraltar Confederation of Labour (GCL). Within three months, he had reorganised and revitalised the organisation.
The British authorities were watching closely.
A colonial minister wrote to the then TUC general secretary: "As a result of Fava's personality, energy and knowledge of trade unions, the membership has increased and members began to pay their subs more regularly ... great activity was set on foot and Fava attempted to introduce many trade union practices employed in the UK."
This might have seemed all in his favour. Gibraltar workers may have thought so. But the British government - a Labour government - feared that the growing confidence of Gibraltar labour, combined with aspirations to democratic rights and self-determination, would endanger the security of fortress Gibraltar.
Following consultation with British ministers, the governor decided to use his powers to eject Fava as "an undesirable." The authorities moved quickly, so as not to give the workers movement in Britain or Gibraltar time to build up a campaign against deportation. "On October 9 1948, within a week of the order being issued, Fava was sent packing with his wife and three children on the first available ship to Britain".
The British authorities were anxious to stress that Fava had been exiled, not because of his trade union role but because of his activities as a Communist. The governor wrote to British colonial secretary Creech Jones.
"There is adequate evidence that he is maintaining a political correspondence with communistic elements abroad and I am satisfied that, under cover of genuine trade union activity and in accordance with the usual communist infiltration into local labour organisations, is endeavouring to sow the seeds of discord and to make mischief in local industrial circles."
The governor never published his "evidence," even when challenged by the GCL leadership to do so, and he refused to allow any independent scrutiny of the sources for his allegation.
Secret service files reveal a letter from the Communist Party's London offices at King Street wishing Fava well in his new job and a letter to the Fire Brigades Union, then under Communist Party leadership, asking for technical trade union advice. This is the only evidence of correspondence with "communistic elements abroad."
"It is hard to see how Fava could have been accused of infiltrating the GCL after being appointed general secretary. Meanwhile, sowing discord and making mischief is what trade union leaders in the colonies were always accused of simply for doing their job by raising demands on behalf of members.
"But Jones, a minister with long experience in the labour movement and a record of supporting colonial workers' rights when in opposition, apparently accepted this nonsense, presumably because he wanted to keep Bevin sweet in a period of anti-communist hysteria.
It seems the British TUC leadership went along with Labour ministers in the attack on trade union rights in the colonies. There is probably more to come out on how the security services were involved, and on the way some unions have provided a conduit for them in the guise of international work.
Gibraltar politics has followed a difficult course, on the one hand striving for democratic rights and better treatment from Britain; on the other hand anxious not to be handed back to Spain, especially during the long years of the Franco dictatorship - which British and US authorities were too ready to appease and proclaim part of the "Free World". Now Gibraltar is still classified by the UN as a colony, and yet it has gained EU membership.
On December 2003, to mark the 55th anniversary of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Self-Determination for Gibraltar Group announced it was launching the annual Gibraltar Awards, for "people who have contributed significantly to the emancipation or political development of the Gibraltarians or to the democratisation of Gibraltar".
The first awards went posthumously to "the Gibraltarian who returned from the UK to Gibraltar to take up the post of General Secretary of the Gibraltar Confederation of Labour in 1948 at the request of the GCL. Mr. Fava was exiled from Gibraltar for the rest of his life on October the 9 th 1948, being given 48 hours to leave Gibraltar. No charge was ever brought against him to justify the Expulsion Order served upon him by the Governor supported by the UK Colonial Office, the predecessor of our Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the F&CO". The Gibraltar Award to Albert Fava bore the date October the 9 th 2003, to commemorate the date of his expulsion.
During the 1960s, the Gibraltar Confederation of Labour amalgamated with the TGWU. To commemorate the 60th anniversary of Fava's deportation, the TGWU section of Unite, Gibraltar, has launched a campaign to demand that all the government papers concerning this shameful act be released so that the full story can be told. British ministers have been asked to make public all the relevant evidence.
The booklet The Shameful Deportation Of A Trade Union Leader: The Story Of Albert Fava is available for £3 (post free) from Tom Sibley, 156 St Stephens Road, Hounslow, TW3 2BW or from T&GWU Unite, Town Range, Gibraltar. Make cheques payable to Unite TGWU section, Gibraltar.