George Walker: editor of The Industrial Pioneer

The independent and campaigning workers’ paper, which aims to hold “a constructive shop floor view of British industry”, is published from the West Midlands, and claims a loyal and influential readership in 20 countries.

Walker held the posts of editor and publisher for 20 years from 1963 – succeeding the paper’s founder and first editor, Joe Hancock – till his retirement in 1983.

Hancock, a militant Liverpool dockworker, had launched The Waterfront Pioneer, as it was first known, as an alternative to the confrontational excesses of the hard Left.

Walker changed its name to The Industrial Pioneer. It is now in its 45th year of publication.

Decidedly upmarket rather than “tabloid”, with long think-pieces, it is known for being the moderate voice of trade unionism. Shop stewards, trade unionists, Labour leaders and politicians from Britain and around the world often contribute to its columns.

The paper has never sought a political affiliation though its sympathies are decidedly with the Labour Party.

Denis MacShane, the Minister for Europe, writes in the current issue on why a European constitutional treaty is good for UK industry.

Depending on a volunteer staff and accepting no advertising, the paper’s funding has come from its subscription readership and donations from trade union members, as well as a trust fund set up by its supporters.

Under Walker’s editorship, the paper gave extensive and upbeat assessments of the annual Labour Party and TUC conferences, as well as covering the annual International Labour Organisation conferences in Geneva – an internationalist outlook continued by the paper’s current editor, Ian Maclachlan.

But Walker also saw the paper as a campaigning journal, engaging in a “battle for the soul of Britain”. One of his last editorials implored: “The conscience of the nation needs to be stirred as to what we are doing, or not doing, for the unemployed.” He called on the Labour Party to re-establish “its historic identification with social responsibility, social co-operation and social morality”.

In this respect Walker was in the Christian Socialist tradition of Keir Hardie rather than that of Karl Marx.

The paper’s emphases were always on conciliation rather than confrontation, on economic justice, including campaigning for Third World debt remission, and on the principle of “what is right, not who is right”.

Staff members played crucial behind-the-scenes roles in bridging differences between management and workers during the heyday of the “British disease” of industrial unrest – most notably during the steel workers’ strike of 1980 which threatened the closure of the then mighty but loss-making Llanwern steelworks in south Wales.

At the time, the British Steel Corporation was losing over £1m a day and urgently needed to implement a package of cost cutting and redundancies, including several thousand job losses at Llanwern. But a key factor in Llanwern’s survival – when other steel mills in Consett and Corby were being closed – was a little known series of meetings, arranged by Pioneer correspondents, between steel union officials and purchasing employers.

They included Gwilym Jenkins, a Llanwern branch secretary of the steel workers’ union, who had helped to organise a picket blockade of a local steel purchaser, Harold Williams. Williams was a representative of the employers’ organisation, the Confederation of British Industry, while Jenkins was a Llanwern computer operator who could see into the abyss on his screen: steel purchase orders were drying up and customers were deserting in droves.

Over a series of working dinners, Williams and other steel buyers were sufficiently impressed by the sincerity of Jenkins and his colleagues – and their determination to deliver top quality steel – that they promised to keep purchasing from Llanwern. The orders began to flow in again, and this became the basis for a remarkable turnaround at the steelworks, know in the industry as the “Llanwern miracle”.

Today, Llanwern remains as a rolling mill, serving the nearby Port Talbot steel works.

George Walker was born in Somerby, Lincolnshire, on 31 October 1909, the youngest of five children of an Anglican vicar. He responded to his father’s Christian faith, a commitment which was later strengthened by his association with Frank Buchman’s 1930s Christian movement, the Oxford Group.

Leaving King’s School, Grantham, in 1928, Walker became a management trainee at Andrew Toledo Steel Works in Sheffield, and by the age of 24 was a director at a tooling company in Wolverhampton.

Ill health kept him from active war service, so he volunteered for a government training scheme in tool making. This was followed by eight years at the Philips Electrical’s plant in Mitcham, Surrey, where he began writing for a local paper on trade union issues.

After the war he spent two years in Canada as the editor of a new industrial journal there. Returning to Britain, he became an engineering craftsman and convenor of shop stewards at the Lucas Group in west London. With his industrial, trade union and editorial background he was asked to take on the editorship of The Industrial Pioneer in 1963.

From then on, The Industrial Pioneer organised annual conferences in the West Midlands, and published pamphlets and paperbacks.

These included Industry at its Best by Bert Reynolds, the paper’s current publisher, and more recently my own paperback, Beyond the Bottom Line.

Walker married Gwyneth Wilson, a nurse, in 1950, and their homes, first in Acton and then Knebworth, Hertfordshire, became the focal point for the paper’s editing and production – their converted garage in Knebworth serving as a cut-and-paste art room in the days before desktop publishing by computer.

A passionate, ebullient figure, given to unexpected enthusiasms, Walker kept close links with Zimbabwe, where Gwyneth had relatives.

In his 80s he launched a trades school foundation to give technical training to young Zimbabweans under a local manager, making use of Walker’s own intermediate technology inventions.

Michael Smith

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