Friday, 31 January 2014

Union Blues

Yesterday’s Twitterings started off with the great left-right debate and brought forth many accounts of bitter memories of the strike-ridden shithole that Britain was during the sixties and seventies. The Shop Steward was king and wildcat strikes could be called at the merest hint of management daring to consider, for one moment, the possibility of increasing efficiency. The sight of a ‘Time & Motion’ man with his clipboard was enough for the whole of British Leyland (remember them?) to down tools, man the barricades and fire up the braziers.

After wave upon wave of strike action successive governments were terrified of upsetting the true fat cats of the day – the union barons. With the country heavily reliant on nationalised, manpower-intensive, heavy industry the likes of Jack Jones, Derek Robinson and Joe Gormley strutted around parading their power like Third World tin-pot dictators while nightly power cuts kept the general public, quite literally, in the dark. As the summer of 1978 faded into autumn, little did we then realise that the next Christmas would be in the midst of our Winter of Discontent.

This was the backdrop to a series of talks at a medium-sized engineering firm, now defunct, in the Midlands as management and workers’ representatives were locked in a bitter battle over the working week. The factory gates were closed and pickets stood guard. To a man the strike was solid and workers stood firm as talks continued. For weeks it dragged on and the days got colder and shorter. Concessions were proposed by management but the union stuck to its guns and the men stood firm and turned their offers down.

Eventually, one grey, drizzly mid-December day the doors to the conference room were thrown wide and the press allowed in. Flashbulbs popped as hands were shaken and papers waved for the cameras. Invited to comment, Jimmy Gobshite, the union convener declined, saying that until he had told his men the good news it wasn’t for wider ears. Jimmy strode out of the factory and across the yard to the heavily fortified main gate where his comrades were waiting, the press pack streaming behind him. At a gesture the heavy chains were removed and the factory gates opened. Jimmy mounted a hastily erected podium of pallets to address his members.

He waited a moment for silence and then: “Brothers” he declaimed “I bring you great news. The capitalist lackeys have bowed before the might of our argument and capitulated to all our demands” A great roar came from the crowd and Jimmy was hoisted aloft on donkey-jacketed shoulders for a victory lap of the factory yard before being returned to his podium. “From now on, Comrades, all wages are to be doubled and paid holidays will be extended to twelve weeks a year!”

Once more the crowd went wild and once more he was carried victoriously, this time for two laps of the yard, as flat caps were thrown into the air and workers hugged each other in joy and celebration. Flashbulbs crackled like automatic fire and from somewhere fireworks had been produced and fired off into the late afternoon skies. Eventually, after several wild minutes, Jimmy was once more delivered back to his podium.

Breathless now with exhilaration Jimmy fought to recover his composure as the crowd cheered on. People were breaking out in a sporadic rendition of The Red Flag as he delivered yet another message. “And from now on, brothers” he yelled above the cacophony, “From now on… We only have to work on Fridays!” He flung up his arms to encourage a cheer, but the crowd stopped, dead. Jimmy looked out over a sea of stunned faces. 

Jimmy knew he’d struck a good deal but he was surprised at the stupefaction on their faces. He could only imagine it must be gratitude. Seconds passed and the silence hung thick in the air. Even the birds had stopped their song. Then one lone, angry voice came from the back of the crowd. “What?” challenged the voice “Every bloody Friday?”


  1. Unions, they be a funny thing.

    In theory, the workers banding together as a form of protection against the whims of a mad management makes a whole lot of sense. So why did the reality of union life turn out so different?

    One of the reasons was that the management wasn't quite as mad as feared, because the madness of the market was even more pronounced. Trends and products and locations changed. It also gave somewhat mad people the chance to lord it over their workers.

    I was once co-opted into union and while they didn't like me because in a show of hands (the not-so-subtle way of voting on 'issues' where people watched which way their mates or the work bullies voted before raising their hand) I didn't always go along with the majority. But they did like the fact I paid my union dues out of my wages each week and even, if ordered, would miss a day's pay in order to "stand in solidarity" with some lunatic industrial action elsewhere in the country.

    The one I was in would take up 'issues' from selected causes, and preferably not from the rank and file members. Those just weren't political enough (I was told by one union man in a meeting in a pub to not make waves as the union didn't think it important enough) and I have to say pubs figured extensively in the union life. While union meetings could be held at work as a concession from management, most of the hard-liners preferred it in a smoky pub at night. Alcohol and thick fag-smoke made for a proper working class atmosphere, at least.

    One of the union 'leaders' where I worked would go to the pub at lunch time and roll in drunk for the afternoon shift. For some reason he couldn't be removed from the payroll as everyone was scared of him, though allowing him to snooze the afternoon away was probably preferable to him doing any work.

    All the "good' union people would always look for reasons not to do things before finding ways to do them. I suppose it was a game and providing the public kept on buying the product then who cared?

    But when the public stopped handing over money for something that was going downhill, then it becomes more important.

    It took some time. It wasn't unusual to find 'workers' in isolated groups who just wouldn't work even if the market was shifting. If they said they disagreed with something, it was hard to do it. Better to back down and let the people who ran things, the Union of Allied Mates, sort out what was going to happen and what wasn't. But they had little idea of any long term consequences. Experts they were not.

    I didn't, in my time paying my dues (and thus wholeheartedly supporting the Labour party of whom I would vote against in an election) have much to do with the real powerhouses of my union, though when I came to leave their caring shelter one union middle middleweight told that if my next career move didn't work out then "the members of the union might not let me back in" which was effectively saying, no job in that industry again.

    Happily it worked out for me. Meanwhile this union, faced with new technology that they struggled to limit before surrendering and allowing people who could handle it come into the business, faded to insignificance.

    I don't miss them much and I bet what's left of them don't miss me.

  2. Your story must be echoed by million of others. Sadly, there are still many who look back on those times as 'the good old days'.

  3. As my father used to say, "Anytime they hold a union election, and it goes something like 'Nominations from the floor? Fred Bloggs? No other names? I move Fred Bloggs be elected by acclamation-- without objection, so done...' you just KNOW something smells."

  4. Yes, the unions did some inexplicable things, and I didn't always adree with some of the decisions that they made.

    But they did stop a bullying management from riding roughshod over oppressed workers.