On 4th March this year the Trade Union Act came into force but you could be forgiven for missing that event. I’m not going to try to describe all its features – all you have to know is that it’s the latest move in the Conservative Party’s long campaign to screw workers into their place. We’ve had decades of media barons (some of whom are real ones) telling us that union barons (who aren’t till they retire and didn’t cause too much trouble) have ‘too much power’. What that means is any power at all to protect workers from the greed of their employers.
It took a long time to build up this structure and it was always in the face of legal and illegal resistance, from the Combination Acts, which got the famous Tolpuddle Martyrs sentenced to transportation to Australia, to the secret blacklists of union activists and other ‘troublemakers’, which reappear each time after another one is exposed. At the beginning of the 20th century the forerunner of the CBI, the bosses’ trade union, was formed under the slogan of one of its founders, “If we all club together, we can beat the workers down.” Usually though the clubbing was left to the police. In the UK then unions began as mutual aid societies, through which members’ subscriptions would pay workers and their families some subsistence in case of sickness, death and lay-offs, long before it became legal to go on strike. As these were generally organised amongst those in the same line of work, in this country they became trade unions while, in countries like France and Spain, they’re formed along political lines, from right-wing to hard left. Thus these tend to be much bigger and therefore potentially more powerful than ours.
Striking has always been a tough decision, whatever the right-wing media may say. There are very few workers secure enough in their jobs and their finances that they can lose wages without a really good cause. Likewise unions have very limited resources compared to bosses or governments and so, if strike pay runs out, strikers can face real hardship and, in the past, starvation. This is why strike-breakers, scabs, are hated so much. A ‘blackleg’ was a miner who was sneaked in to work during a strike and was recognised by the coal dust on his legs under his coat on his way home in the days before pithead baths. Seeing his children go hungry a striking worker could very easily be moved to a violent response. Because our whole industry and society once depended wholly on coal for their power supply, mineworkers became the most powerful trade unionists in the UK. Because coal miners tended to live in small communities, where nearly everyone depended on the work provided by the nearby pit, communal ties and solidarity were the strongest and crossing a picket line, any picket line, was a sin few would commit at any price.
It was that fear and hatred of strike-breakers that led to the doctrine of the ‘closed shop’ – you can’t work here unless you’re in the right union and you can’t get in the union unless you have the job – and ‘demarcation’ – you didn’t presume to do another man’s (or woman’s) work. These made sense in terms of preventing bosses using cheaper labour to undermine the workers’ negotiating position and was often a question of safety, if those replacements were untrained or less skilled. However it later became a source of irritation and outright stupidity, including inter-union disputes, which saw trade unions losing credibility among the general public, particularly from the 1960s onwards. Too many working-class people read the Sun and too many of the lower middle classes read the Mail as they pumped out their endless streams of lies and misinformation about unions, socialism, immigrants, the Common Market/EU and all the other targets of their masters – banks and big corporations, mostly based in the US. The slogan that unions had ‘too much power’ became widely accepted, even among sections of the Labour Party. But they did nothing much to stop apprenticeships disappearing or to call out the lazy, cheapskate bosses who preferred to poach workers already trained by other firms. The ‘Winter of Discontent’ of 1978-79 saw unions go head to head with a Labour government over the latter’s attempts to hold down wages despite rapidly increasing inflation. The Right milked this for all it was worth and the Labour leadership turned on the Left in a desperate attempt to win back middle-class voters. When Thatcher’s government took power in 1979, thanks to the tactics of the Labour Party’s right wing, they immediately began to unpick the ‘One Nation’ consensus that had evolved during and after WW2. The unions were their main target and especially the miners. They were determined to break the NUM once and for all and had been planning this before they won that election.
Mineworkers had not just been the most militant of workers, starting the General Strike in 1926 and holding out longest, but they would also come out in support of those, like nurses, who couldn’t strike. Then they’d brought down Edward Heath’s government in 1974. The divided miners’ strike of 1984-85 was engineered by the Tory government. No expense was spared to break it. The police were let off the leash and the resultant clashes, like Orgreave, became inevitable. Not many people know this, not even cops, that the police had had their own strikes in 1917 and 1919. They had been bought off with better pay and conditions and a no-strike-allowed association, the Police Federation. Thatcher made sure of their loyalty by another pay rise almost as soon she came to power.
The TUC and the Labour Party sat back and watched the striking miners be ground down and defeated by Ian MacGregor, the man who did the same thing in the States. If you want to know what that was like, go watch a film called ‘Harlan County USA’ and see a picket murdered by the mine’s security chief. Of course, no prosecution. So did none of those so-called ‘democratic socialist’ leaders foresee what was coming? Not only the complete destruction of the British coal mining industry within a matter of years, their communities left to rot, but the continued disempowerment of trade unions with one new regulation after another. Membership dropped through the floor as industries were outsourced to cheaper, non-unionised workforces abroad, thanks to the lifting of exchange controls so that capital could move freely around the world even if workers couldn’t. Those who still had a job realised that the union’s ability to protect them was vanishing and preferred to spend the ‘subs’ on other things. They also agreed to changes in their contracts that saw colleagues being made redundant while new technologies got them working longer hours for a bit more money. Jobs were thus sold off cheaply and the investors got richer. Labour, both the old and the ‘New’, did nothing but collude in this.
So, if you’re lucky enough to be working and not in the union, just hope that management likes you and you don’t get bullied or sick. That’s when having someone to back you up is crucial. If you are in the union but it doesn’t seem to do much to help you, get involved – a union is what it says, a group of people and is only as strong as its membership. Don’t agonise, organise.
The women, as usual …
Right now we’re coming up to International Women’s Day. It’s a good time to remember that it was established in commemoration of a strike in 1908 by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union in the USA; the strike of the ‘match girls’ of Bryant & May’s factory in 1888 was the spark that led to the growth of the new mass trade unions in this country that we see today; then in 1917 women in Petrograd’s factories went on strike for ‘bread and peace’ and started the real Russian Revolution in February of that year (old calendar) that brought down the Tsar and ended the Romanov dynasty. As the Western Times reported of the ‘bread riots’ in Exeter in 1854, ‘The women, as usual, were the beginners of the disturbance.’ As we face the nightmare of a world dominated by bigots, xenophobes, religious fascists and megalomaniacs like Trump and RaasPutin, be sure that women will be at the front of the resistance.