Friday, 31 January 2014
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?”