Tag Archives: Winter of Discontent

The Winter of Discontent: a media event

The abiding image of 1979 but was this scene was not universal

Last night I was watching Dominic Sandbrook’s one-sided look at the 1970s and was reminded how much the right are fond of bringing up the phrase “The Winter of Discontent” at every opportunity. Whenever 1979 is mentioned, archive footage of piles of uncollected rubbish accompanies the stentorian narration as if to say “Look, this is what happens when unions are too strong”.

The reality of life in the 70’s with its ethnic tensions, inflation, casual and overt racism and ideological polarization is barely touched upon nor is the fact that there were forces in this country that wanted to stage a coup against an elected government (to be fair, Sandbrook touched on it). The  ideologically driven Heath government is painted, on the one hand,  as being hamstrung by bolshie unions and on the other hand, as a victim of world events that spiralled out of control. There is no mention of its terminal incompetence save for Heath’s 1974 election slogan “Who governs Britain”?

Sandbrook had been building up to the ‘Thatcher’ moment  since the start of the series. His ideologically-charged narrative pointed the accusatory finger at the unions and the Labour Party. He repeated the by now familiar canard that the nationalized industries were a failure and that they were costing the taxpayer (a word of power for the Tories) far too much money. But this was a time when Britain actually made things. It had a shipbuilding industry, forged its own steel, built cars and dug its own coal. It made things that it could sell.  Now it’s all gone. The demise of these industries was blamed on the unions. The miners, who had been heroes during World War II, were cast as enemies of the state by Sandbrook (and the Tories), not as men who were fighting for better pay and conditions. Then there were the shipyard workers who were fighting to modernize an industry that was largely stuck in the 1920s, who were also cast in a similar role. Heath had proposed to close the Upper Clyde shipyards, not because they weren’t profitable or efficient but because he didn’t like the colour of the worker’s politics. The workers responded by holding a “work-in” rather than walk out. Their strategy worked and the shipyards remained.

Nowhere in Sandbrook’s narrative were Britain’s lazy and incompetent managers and directors to be found. Indeed the Right never mentions them. It is as if they were innocent of any blame for the state of the economy or the country’s poor performance abroad.

I can remember early in my working life watching directors roll up in their Jaguars or Daimlers at 4pm looking well-fed and watered. These ruddy-faced, gin-soaked men knew that no one could shift them from their positions – even if they performed badly. They were there for life if they wanted it and many of them were. They were more than content to deflect the blame for their failures and place it on the shoulders of those who helped to pay their inflated salaries.

This passage from an article from The Week puts the Winter of 1978/79 into perspective.

The so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’ of 1979 – which ushered in Thatcherism – is also shrouded in myth. James Callaghan never said ‘Crisis, what crisis’ – that was an invention of The Sun. The strikes themselves only lasted for a comparatively short period and were largely over by February 1979.

As this passage shows us, much of what we see on our television screens about the 1970s has been constructed by the right-wing press – particularly the Murdoch press, who were responsible for constructing the majority of the myths that have been perpetuated by the Tories and their allies to this day. This image of ‘militant’ trade unions has been fed directly into the right’s architecture of mythology into which extreme right-wing groups like the Trade Union Reform Campaign have inserted themselves.

 The Winter of Discontent myth has talismanic properties. Its invocation was designed to stop critics of the neoliberal project and defenders of trade union rights in their tracks. And for the better part of 30 years, it has worked well for the Right. Even Kinnock’s Labour Party ran scared of the horror show put on by the Tories.

Britain in the 1970’s may have been a politically polarized country but workers had a greater sense of class solidarity. There was also a greater sense of community.  Many communities had formed around pitheads and steel mills. Once Thatcher sold off the steel industry and shut the mines, the communities around them died. By the 1980s, the managers and directors who had wreaked so much havoc through a combination of gross incompetence and crass self-interest had crawled off into the darkness. It was if they never existed and the Tories were happy for them never to be mentioned again.

But such things have a nasty habit of coming back to haunt governments. We now have a situation where Britain’s economy is over-reliant on financial services. Yet, the current government, for all their warm words, have little will or inclination to change things. The current situation where rentier capitalists and other parasites dominate the nation’s economy suits them just fine. They will continue to lie and create myths to fool people into thinking that their way is the only way.

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Filed under Ideologies, Media, Television, Tory press

This week’s strikes and the media backlash

One of the topics for discussion on this morning’s Sunday Morning Live is about striking workers. The host, Susannah Reid asks “Are strikes justified or are they the tactics of bullyboy unions”? Cue footage of Thatcher, the ‘Winter of Discontent’ and the Miner’s Strike. The overall tone of the pre-discussion film is anti-union. Some woman called Angela Epstein, whom I have never seen before declares that all strikes should be made illegal. But it’s  2 against 1 as Jonathan Bartley and Hardeep Singh Kohli lay into her ill-thought out opinions.  But that isn’t the end of it. Cue the talking heads from around the country linked by webcam to the studio. It’s all about the “cost to British business”. Never mind working conditions. They just shouldn’t do it. Angela asks “do really want to return to the militancy of the 1970’s”? To be honest she doesn’t look old enough to remember the 1970’s. If she was old enough to remember she may recall how utterly rubbish British management was though I suspect that she’d have been on the side of the Tories. Their view was that Britain’s gin-soaked managers were doing a bang up job.

Earlier on The Andrew Marr Show, Julia Hobsbawm and Clive Anderson were reviewing the papers. Anderson lighted on an article by Andrew Gilligan that is titled “The Return of the Strike”.  I don’t know where Kennite has been living for the last 20 years but the strike never went away. Britain’s unions have become weaker thanks to the restrictive legislation passed by Thatcher and all the governments since. But strikes still happen.

Over the last few months, there has been much union and media talk of a “new winter of discontent” to be allegedly provoked by the savage public spending cuts ahead. And indeed, last week, as the clocks went back, the workers went out – not just at the Beeb, over pensions, but on the London Underground, where Wednesday saw the third 24-hour strike about ticket office closures, and in the London Fire Brigade, over shift patterns, with the second of two eight-hour strikes on Tuesday and a 47-hour walkout due to begin on Friday.

I don’t recall any union leader talking about a “New Winter of Discontent”. Yet here Kennite claims that some union leader, somewhere, has said it.   In fact, his own paper warned in August that Scotland was facing a winter of discontent.  Indeed much of this talk has come directly from the Tory press and Tory commentators. So maybe he’s half right. But Kennite is a little late with his analysis. The BBC’s Nick Robinson produced this article in September. He says,

The unions are weaker, the laws limiting their actions much stronger and the desire for that style of confrontation is simply not there.

There is no mention of this rather important fact in Kennite’s article. Instead he concentrates his attention on how the unions present themselves in the media,

And there are also doubts about the union movement’s ability to fight in the media age. Sophisticated trade unionists, like the TUC’s Brendan Barber, know that Seventies-style chest-beating will not work. It is notable that in his first speech as Labour leader, Mr Miliband went out of his way to condemn “irresponsible strikes.”

He continues,

People like Barber know that a new unionism, modelled on the most effective NGOs, such as Greenpeace, is needed: addressing the public, rather than just the employer; based on campaigning, and on uncovering information that changes minds, rather than just the diminishing asset of workforce muscle.

It never occurs to Gilligan how the Tory-dominated press operates with regards to workers, unions and strikes. His paper and others like it print smear story after smear story about unions and striking workers. These days mainstream politicians will do any thing to please the media barons. You may recall how Tony Blair schmoozed The Old Bastard before Labour’s election victory in 1997.  The Murdoch media empire was more than happy to  swing behind Blair and his new Tories. It was as if the real constituents; the ordinary voters didn’t matter. What mattered was appeasing the Tory press. Miniband is merely trying to keep onside with the hostile media because he knows that if he doesn’t the press will make mincemeat of him and his party.

What programmes like Sunday Morning Live succeed in doing is regurgitating old myths and canards. They attract armchair activists whose understanding of the world comes to them from the Tory press.

Why do we fight? Because we have to!

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Filed under Comprehensive Spending Review, Government & politics, London

Britain’s anti-union culture: the labour landscape since 1979

I have noted elsewhere how Britain has become more like Chile in recent years. I admit that there are few stories of trade unionists being set upon by the state’s thugs in today’s papers, but the Battle of Orgreave Colliery showed us what levels the state was prepared to stoop in order to impose its will. Thatcher used the police as  her own personal gendarmerie, yet if one watched the BBC news reports for that day, one would come away with the impression that the miners were the aggressors. But thanks to the very good work of Glasgow University Media Group we learned the truth: it was the police who charged the miners and not the other way around.

Since 1979 the trade unions have been painted variously as ‘irresponsible’ and ‘greedy’. The tabloid press – largely controlled by Conservative sympathizing proprietors – prints smear after smear about the unions. The same papers will also tell us how any strike is likely to affect you. On strike days we are treated to vox pops of angry commuters who have had to battle in  to work because of a tube strike. A typical vox pop might run like this,  “I’m absolutely livid. Why do they have to strike? They’ve got jobs. They should be grateful”. The same channel may even wheel out an economic ‘expert’ (usually someone like Ruth Lea or Digby Jones) who will inform us that “strike days costs the British economy x amount”. How do they work out such precise figures?

The press-created Winter of Discontent of 1978 has been used as a stick to beat the unions with since the election of Thatcher in 1979. Unions were described as “too powerful” and held responsible for the nation’s ills. In the unions, the Tory press found an easy scapegoat. Curiously enough, no one asked searching questions about Britain’s managers who,  prior to 1979, were more than happy to take long lunches and run companies like their own personal piggy banks.

Let’s remind ourselves what anti-union laws have been passed since 1979. I found this on the Rail Maritime and Transport (RMT) union’s website,

1980 Employment Act

  • Definition of lawful picketing restricted to own place of work
  • 80% ballot needed to legalise a closed shop
  • Funds offered for union ballots
  • Restricted right to take secondary action
  • Code of practice (six pickets)
  • Repeal of statutory recognition procedure
  • Restricts unfair dismissal and maternity rights
  • Unfair dismissal rights from 1 year to 6 months in companies under 20

1982 Employment Act

  • Further restrictions on industrial action – eg. definition of trade dispute
  • Further restricted action to ‘own’ employer
  • Employers could obtain injunctions against unions and sue unions for damages
  • 80% rule extended to ALL closed shops every 5 years
  • Compensation for dismissal because of closed shop
  • Removed union only labour clauses in commercial contracts

1984 Trade Union Act

  • EC elections every 5 years by secret ballot
  • Political fund ballots every 10 years
  • Secret ballots before industrial action

1986 Public Order Act

  • Introduced new criminal offences in relation to picketing

1988 Employment Act

  • Unions to compensate members disciplined for non-compliance with majority decisions
  • Members can seek injunction if no pre-strike ballot
  • Union finances to be open to inspection
  • Unions prevented from paying members’ or officials’ fines
  • Action to preserve post entry closed shop made unlawful
  • New restrictions on industrial action and election ballots
  • Ballots for separate workplaces
  • Ballots for non-voting EC members
  • Election addresses controlled
  • Independent scrutiny
  • Establishment of CROTUM (Commissioner for the Rights Of Trade Union Members)

1989 Employment Act

  • Tribunal pre-hearing review and proposed deposit of £150
  • Exemption of small employer from providing details of disciplinary procedures
  • Restricts time off with pay for union duties
  • Written reasons for dismissal now require 2 years’ service
  • Redundancy rebates abolished
  • Abolition of training commission

1990 Employment Act

  • Attack on pre-entry closed shop – unlawful to refuse to employ non-union member
  • All secondary action now unlawful
  • Unions liable for action induced by ANY official unless written repudiation using statutory form of words sent to all members
  • Selective dismissal of strikers taking unofficial action
  • Extended power of CROTUM

1992 Trade Union & Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act

  • Brings together all collective employment rights including trade union finances and elections; union members’ rights including dismissal, time off; redundancy consultation; ACAS, CAC and CROTUM; industrial action legislation
  • Does not cover individual rights like unfair dismissal, redundancy pay, maternity etc (these are covered by 1978 EPCA)

1993 Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act

  • Individuals can seek injunction against unlawful action
  • Creation of Commissioner for Protection Against Unlawful Industrial Action
  • 7 days notice of ballots and of industrial action
  • Members to be involved in ballot to be identified
  • Attack on Bridlington procedures
  • Written consent for check-off every three years
  • Financial records, including salaries, to be available
  • Checks on election ballots
  • Independent scrutiny of strike ballots
  • All industrial action ballots to be postal
  • Postal ballots on union mergers
  • New powers for Certification Officer to check union finances
  • Higher penalties against unions failing to keep proper accounts
  • ‘Wilson/Palmer’ Amendment (sweeteners to those moving to individual contracts)
  • Unlawful to dismiss heath & safety rep in course of duties and those walking off unsafe site
  • Right of individual to challenge collective agreement in contravention of equal treatment terms
  • Changes to Transfer of Undertakings Regulations
  • Changes to redundancy terms (consultation)
  • Abolition of Wages Councils
  • Changes to Tribunals and EAT procedures

1999 Employment Relations Act

  • Amendments to Trade Union Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992
  • Recognition and negotiation procedures for employers with at least 21 workers, establishment of bargaining unit
  • Derecognition from loss of trade union independence or majority support of bargaining unit
  • Complaint process for use of political funds and breach of union disciplinary, electoral or other internal rules
  • Dismissal for participation in official industrial action deemed unfair
  • Ballot and notice provisions for strike or industrial action
  • Abolishes offices of Commissioner for Rights of Trade Union Members and Commissioner for Protection Against Unlawful Industrial Action
  • Funds to be provided to assist in developing employment partnerships
  • Amends Employment Rights Act and TULRA to prevent complaint over unfair dismissal if action for purposes of national security

As we can see, when Labour introduced the 1999 Employment Relations Act, it left the anti-union laws intact. It was a piecemeal bit of legislation designed to placate those who feared a return to the 1970’s and to pay lip service to the worker’s rights. CROTUM (Commissioner for the Rights Of Trade Union Members) was created to advise members on taking action against their union. It also happens to be one of the most amusing acronyms that I have ever seen and offers itself readily to abuse (just put an “S” in front of the “C”).

In today’s climate, management would rather negotiate with individuals – if at all. Negotiating with individuals leads to a divide and conquer situation where worker is pitted against worker. In cases like this, there can only be one winner: the boss.

Today membership of trade unions is lower than it has been in the entire history of the movement. Anti-union legislation is mainly responsible but the number of people working on short-term contracts has also increased and few private sector companies have any active trade unions. If Labour are lucky enough to be re-elected it is unlikely that they will repeal any of the anti-union laws. I would recommend any union that is currently affiliated with Labour to disaffiliate at once. We need a party that will look after the interest of workers and not be beholden to capitalists or their apologists. But that party also needs to have a good chance of gaining seats in the Commons. Under the present system and the one proposed (AV) this is unlikely to happen. Therefore the need to reform the voting system is vital. The anti-democratic tendencies of the main parties have to be curbed because it was these anti-democratic tendencies that led to the abolition of the metropolitan councils, Section 28 and the Poll Tax.

People need unions now more than ever.

UPDATE:

I discovered this interesting blog about the Lawful Industrial Action Bill. It fell in the Commons last week due to a lack of enough MPs to support it. This is very depressing.

Out of 255 Labour MPs (or thereabouts) only 82 could bring themselves to support the Bill. Green MP Caroline Lucas supported it together with one SNP, one Plaid Cymru, and even 2 Tories. Four Labour MPs were out of the country, one in hospital, one ill, and one at a funeral. Hilary Benn, Maria Eagle and Gareth Thomas, excelled themselves by being present in the Commons but refusing to vote for it. The rest appear to have nipped off to their constituencies (or their second homes). The right of workers to strike was not sufficiently important for them to stay in London on a Friday.

You can read a list of who did and who didn’t vote here.

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