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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 180 Contents

Clare Fermont

Hidden depths


From Socialist Review, No. 180, November 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Did the signal workers’ strike mark the beginning of a new wave of disputes? Clare Fermont looks at what is going on beneath the surface in the working class movement

There’s a struggle going on in British industry – a hidden struggle. You don’t read about it in the newspapers or see it on TV. But it’s recorded alright, in unheralded surveys and unpublished quotations, and in Socialist Worker.

The conciliation service ACAS recently reported signs of ‘increasing tensions in the workplace’. It warned ‘if not channelled to creative ends, these tensions could increase the level of conflict’. Its 1993 annual report showed a record level of calls on its conciliation service, despite the very low level of officially recorded industrial stoppages. That record breaking level has continued throughout 1994.

A recent survey by Dibb Lupton Broomhead, a firm of solicitors specialising in employment law, showed that one in five of Britain’s largest unionised companies have experienced industrial unrest in the past year. A further 16.7 percent were expecting unrest in the next 12 months. The firm concluded that the small number of working days actually lost through action belied ‘considerably more industrial tension bubbling beneath the surface’.

There are many other signs of this bubbling tension. In the past 12 months hundreds of thousands of workers have voted for action in ballots over pay, conditions or jobs. The TGWU is conducting four times more strike ballots than it did a year ago. The Electoral Reform Society told Socialist Review that the rate of ballots it was currently receiving ‘was definitely increasing’. It conducted around 1,000 ballots between January and August this year, compared with around 100 to 150 in the last quarter of 1993.

Of course, most of the votes for action don’t end in action. Many workers still lack the confidence to defy union officials by walking out. But the sharp increase in strike votes is a measure of the new spirit of anger and resistance.

In recent months there has been a growing trend for strikes being averted only as a result of increased pay offers. For example, in October Britannia Airways agreed a much improved pay deal for cabin staff (at least 3 percent) after 1,400 workers voted overwhelmingly for strike action. The same month 800 workers at NSK engineering won an improved pay offer of 3.5 percent after voting to strike. In August Clyde ferry workers won a pay rise of 13 percent after voting to strike.

The 900 workers at Westland Helicopters in Yeovil, members of the MSF, recently won a 3.25 percent increase on basic pay plus a one off lump sum after a series of one and two day strikes during the summer. Not one national newspaper gave this victory as much as a mention. The 300 mainly women workers at the Sun Vic plant in Uddingston, Lanarkshire, won an improved pay offer in August worth 3.5 percent after a series of two day strikes. So too did engineers at the British Aerospace plant in Cheshire – after walking out for the first of a planned series of weekly one day strikes, the company raised their pay offer to 3.5 percent this year, 4 percent next year and 5 percent the year after.

Other workers have defeated attacks on their working conditions by taking action. For example, in September 80 workers at the Jaguar car plant in the West Midlands stopped a management attempt to contract their work to Group 4 Security by striking for a day and a half.

There has also been an increasing number of unofficial actions. One that did (just) make the national press was the walkout by UNISON members in Sefton, Liverpool, which forced the council to drop plans to privatise some services. It became national news only because of a national campaign to defend two rank and file UNISON officials who faced charges related to the action.

In several council offices in London, workers have taken unofficial action over issues such as council policy and victimisation. For instance, two neighbourhood offices in Islington, north London, walked out in September to demand that management withdraw a threat of victimisation against a union member. The same month postal workers at Finsbury Park Sorting and Delivery Office walked out unofficially and defeated management’s attempt to cut and discipline staff.

There has clearly been a shift in attitude by large groups of workers over pay. In recent weeks, several workforces have rejected pay offers that they would have snapped up six months ago. For example, workers at British Gypsum rejected an above inflation offer (3.1 percent) and are conducting a strike ballot.

So how to explain this shift in mood? In the past three to four years the income of people in work has more or less kept pace with inflation. The increase of taxes, national insurance contributions and mortgage repayments means that suddenly they are feeling poorer. In the same period, many have been forced to work harder for the same money. Now with a sense that there is some sort of recovery – and therefore less danger of sackings – they believe they should be better rewarded for their work.

There is every prospect that the ‘hidden struggle’ will increase. Post office workers are up in arms around the country. Teachers in Scotland are fighting over pay, banking workers in several companies appear to be on the verge of taking action.

So why is the struggle hidden? Why don’t we hear about it more? The media in class society always strains every sentence to avoid mentioning class. Their message has always been that everyone should pull together.

In the postwar years, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, trade unions in Britain felt their strength and used it. Labour correspondents played an important role in newspapers and television. For two decades, the Daily Mirror had at least two full time industrial correspondents. At the other end of the scale the Financial Times set aside a specific space which grew to a full page for detailed reporting of disputes and union matters.

In the Thatcher years, especially after the defeat of the miners, the general view of industrial correspondents was that strikes settled nothing and the way forward was paved by the EETPU and no strike deals.

As the 1980s went on, the FT abandoned its high standards of industrial coverage and the labour page vanished. The Daily Mirror now treats industry like any other ‘general news’ – so disputes rarely get mentioned. In the media in general, industrial reporting became a simple matter of copying out the employers’ handouts. During the Railtrack dispute, newspapers and television faithfully trotted out management’s line that growing numbers of signal workers were crossing picket lines thus allowing more and more trains to run on strike days. In fact only 70 RMT members scabbed, and 400 joined the union.

If socialists don’t know what’s going on in the class struggle, they can’t understand anything about what’s happening in society. If workers are unaware of battles and victories of others, their struggles are weakened and there is less chance they will throw off their fears about fighting back. This means it is especially important that people are properly informed through the socialist press – through Socialist Worker.

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