A fighter for his class

By Ronnie Williams

Over thirty years since his death, Leo McGree is still remembered as a fighter for his class on Merseyside.

He was born in 1900 to an Irish father and a Scottish mother. His childhood and youth were spent against the backdrop of the great Transport strike on Merseyside in 1911, the senseless slaughter of the war and a decade of industrial unrest. He left school at 14 and tried his hand at numerous jobs before settling as an apprentice joiner. He found work in Sheffield where he met his wife Hetty. It was in Sheffield that he joined the Communist Party. He returned to Liverpool and set up home in edge Hill. At 21, he was a branch secretary in the Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers. This was at a time when blacklisting of trade union activists was commonplace.

During the 20s numerous rank and file publications appeared written by and for building workers, ship builders, and dockers. Leo McGree was arrested for selling one such paper and frogmarched through town to Warren Street Bridewell. He was subsequently released without charge but the papers were confiscated. He was instrumental in ensuring that the Daily Worker survived, and arranged for the London train to be met each morning at 04.20. As the Lancashire wholesalers refused to distribute the paper, it was left to Leo and his comrades to cycle around Merseyside and leave copies at newsagents and through letterboxes.

Open air public meetings were a feature of the political scene before the advent of television, and speakers would be arranged at various venues throughout the town. On one occasion, a speaker could not make it and Leo was asked to speak to a crowd outside the docks. With a chair for a rostrum, Leo spoke on the Industrial Revolution and the Enclosures Act. An old anarchist encouraged him to continue public speaking which he did until his death. He was a man who loved his class but was not blind to their shortcomings. In one such address, he berated the listeners with "You fools, you fight each other every 12th of July and 17th of March, but forget about your empty bellies for the rest of the year !"

His sharp wit was legendary. After giving a talk about the expropriation of land from the wealthy he was asked by Lord Derby what McGree would give him for his land. "A receipt" was the riposte. Another time, the Communist Party invited him to speak in Moscow on the plight of Britain's fishing crews. He had prepared six pages and was asked to reduce this to two. He promptly glued the first three sheets together, then the second three, and gave his talk.

In 1932, the unemployed of Birkenhead protested and, when attacked by the police, fought back. Leo was in Burnley raising funds for striking cotton workers, but the police were determined to arrest him for his part in the 'riots' in Birkenhead. After evading arrest for several weeks he was caught and beaten up by police after addressing a crowd off Scotland Road. While being cuffed to a plain clothes policeman on the train to Walton Gaol. Other passengers noticed the handcuffs. Leo said in a loud voice, "I had great difficulty with this chap, but eventually I caught him." He was sentenced to twenty months imprisonment, which was spent in Strangeways. He asked for a razor and was asked by the prison doctor if he had any suicidal tendencies. "No, only murderous ones" came the reply.

As well as being a trade union activist and leader of the unemployed, he was active in the anti-fascist struggle on Merseyside and helped organise a counter demonstration when Oswald Mosley arranged to speak off Queens Drive in Walton.

In 1950 Leo McGree was District President of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions. This was at the height of the anti-communist witch hunts in the USA and Britain. Leo was pilloried in the Daily Express for calling for pay rises for ship builders and a strict ban on overtime. At this time, Leo was also removed from most of the positions he held within the union.

It would be easy to pass judgement on Leo McGree with hindsight, but with almost forty years membership of the Communist Party behind him, it was perhaps not surprising that he went along with the decision of the Soviet Union to invade Hungary in 1956. He saw the uprising as a counter-revolution which was how the Soviet Union portrayed it and he was by no means alone in reaching that conclusion. This should in no way detract from his commitment to the struggle for a better world for his class.

He carried on the fight for social justice right up until his untimely death in 1967. The funeral proceedings had to be relayed to the huge crowd that gathered outside the chapel at Anfield cemetery. If Leo McGree had his differences with the TUC leadership, he will be remembered as being at one with the rank and file from whatever socialist viewpoint they may have come from.