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The Iron Duke and the battle for a union for bar staff

For an ambitious politician in 1930s Liverpool, wealthy brewers were a tempting target, and underpaid bar staff a potential source of power.

When we’re trying to understand what life was like in pubs and breweries in the past local working class histories can be an excellent source.

For example, there’s My Liverpool by Frank Shaw, published in 1971. It contains a hundred or so individual entries, each under their own headings, reflecting the author’s memories and impressions of life in the city during the 20th century.

On a recent dip into this book, which has no index and no real structure, we came across a passage about a local Labour politician and later Lord Mayor of Liverpool, Luke Hogan.

If we measure it by 21st century standards, Hogan is something of a forgotten figure: his Wikipedia page is barely more than a stub. That makes Shaw’s rambling, personal, first-hand observations all the more interesting.

First, he tells us, Hogan was known as ‘The Iron Duke’ not because of his aristocratic bearing, though he was apparently lordly, despite his upbringing in the slums, but simply because it rhymes with ‘Luke’.

He then goes onto say:

When I first met him in the Thirties he was working on the marvellous but hopeless task of organising barmen and barmaids in a union.

Shaw then rambles away from this intriguing point for a while, giving us a broader portrait of Hogan as a sharp political operator with street smarts – like a character from The Wire or, dare we say it, Peaky Blinders.

He then loops back to explain Hogan’s particular interest in pubs:

The licensee [of The Maid of Erin] was the brother of Luke who was a powerful man on the local Watch Committee, well liked by all policemen… Yes, Luke’s defunct school of politicians never missed anything. We could drink after hours because Luke was a magistrate and on the licensing committee. Police, pubs and schools he saw from the outset to be the sources of power and personal repute.

The battle for a barmen’s union

For more detail on Hogan’s campaign to establish a union for bar staff we have to dig around in the newspaper archives. A piece in the Belfast Telegraph from 8 October 1935 has Hogan speaking at a joint meeting of the National Union of Distribute and Allied Workers (NUDAW) and the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union (Barmen’s Branch):

Alderman Luke Hogan… described the distributive trade as the biggest sweated industry in the British Isles. Since the year 1922, the workers in this class of industry had increased by over 50 per cent, and of the total number more than 50 per cent were under the age of 21. The industries were expanding, and every big firm, combine and trust was making profits of a phenomenal character. But despite those features, the tenure of employment was shorter, for it was a “blind” occupation into which thousands were brought in at 14 and discarded when they became 18… In a reference to the men and women engaged in public houses, Alderman Hogan, said that if they had barmen as strong as the liquor they sold was weak it would not be long before they took a great step forward in bettering their conditions.

In 1944, Shaw mentions in passing, Hogan angered members of the local Brewers’ Society by surveying NUDAW members employed in their pubs. There’s more on this incident in the newspapers, too: they took Hogan to court.

The questionnaire asked pub managers for details of wages, living conditions, weekly sales, and the number of staff. As far as the brewers were concerned, this was commercially sensitive information, and confidential.

At a hearing in April 1945 Hogan’s defence counsel said:

It is simply an attempt… to uphold and maintain the policy of the brewers to oppose the formation of a trade union. It has been an effective step, and has resulted in the temporary obstruction of the union, and they may feel some justification in that. But I submit this action has no legal foundation. This is the kind of action against which the unions are protected by the Trade Disputes Act.

Hogan’s own testimony (Liverpool Daily Post, 27 April 1945) helpfully fills in some gaps in the story:

[He] said at various times he had attempted to build up an organisation among the workers in the brewing industry. Other unions had made similar efforts, but all got tired of wasting money… Dealing with the effort to establish a Joint Industrial Council, witness said the suggestion was that machinery should be set up to deal exclusively with the on-licensed trade, covering all employees in the trade. The invitation to join in the effort was sent to the plaintiff companies, with the exception of Bent’s, who had always been hostile to organisation in the trade, and it was thought it would be a waste of time to trouble with them. Nothing developed in the way of forming an Industrial Council. In November 1940, there was a largely attended meeting of public-house managers and barmen and others to interest them in the formation of a trade union.

In May 1945, the court declared that Hogan was wrong to ask for information about turnover and staff costs, and shouldn’t do it again. If he did, the brewers could come back to court for an injunction. But he was free to continue to ask individuals about their pay and conditions. (Liverpool Echo, 16 May 1945.)

Bobbing about (we’ve put this in clearer order than it appears in the book) Shaw tells us that after World War II, and after his stint as Lord Mayor, Hogan continued his association with pubs and booze:

I was in Luke’s company in the Forties with other heavy drinkers in the home of a prominent Liverpool businessman. The businessman was temporarily out of the room. His wife, much younger than he, clearly resented his generosity to us, though she must have known, as we did, that he wouldn’t give anything to anyone for nothing. She said: ‘I think you gentlemen should pay for your drinks.’… Luke, elegant as ever, carefully put his drink down and looked down at her, murmuring softly: ‘Madam, you forget. I am a magistrate. If you charge one penny for a drink in this unlicensed room I shall have to summon the police.’

In 1971, Shaw had this to say about the long-term effects of Hogan’s campaign on behalf of bar staff:

[They], especially the barmaids, in Liverpool, remain among the poorest paid workers.

Half a century later again, there are unions bar staff can join, and an active campaign to encourage them to do so. But it remains an ongoing battle.

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