Long lost Wildcat Strikes in the UK
The following came about c/o an urgent email request from Loren Goldner in late April 2007. Resident for a while in South Korea and teaching English as a foreign language, he wanted us to write down a list of what we regarded as the best wildcat strikes in the UK over the last 50 years or so, a situation which Loren described, especially in the early 1970s, as " an embarrassment of riches". Loren had also asked www.endangeredphoenix.com and www.libcom.org for similar comment as he is writing or more precisely, editing, a three-volume book – to be published in Korean (and English?) – on wildcat strikes throughout the world since 1945. Simultaneously the guy is also writing a history of the South Korean working class. It seemed these two projects evolved through face-to-face contact with a group of radical South Korean workers and, no doubt, other individuals.
It seemed a good idea to comply, as we were more than interested as to what South Korean workers would think about UK wildcat strikes. Although the following text has been cleaned-up here and there, together with two or so small additions, what follows is somewhat rushed for the simple reason Loren wanted the material for a talk he was giving to a group of people in the city of Ulan in late May. For sure, some things should have been better explained but let's leave it at that.
Though Loren has a workable grasp of the Korean language, an interpreter translated the relevant bits, even though the actual talk was limited to mainly European wildcats up to 1973. According to Loren, nuances and the wittier asides were lost in the rush of on-the-spot translation, so it's difficult to know how all this went down although Loren pointed out that the age of defeat, product of globalisation, has also massively hit the former belligerence of the South Korean working class. It's a great pity. On reflection though it couldn't be otherwise....What is amazing is Koreans at the sharp end are actually interested in all the ins and outs of what happened here and, it seems, don't really bear much of an 'underdevelopment' grudge a disposition which is so despairingly present amongst rival, though unequal, bourgeoisies.
What we have written down here are the bare outlines of a different history and one we were intimately and organically connected. It's not detached comment in an academic sense but something which was profoundly lived as many close friends were part of this prolonged uprising and in a way that was the most important aspect. Now all that's been vanquished - though inevitably you always hope not for too long - there's a ghastly void at the heart of what remains of society.
What the text does chart is the rise and fall of a semi-autonomous movement. The 1970s were crucial. Recently Glenn Matlock, an ex Sex Pistol, said on TV that the 1970s were packed with violence and something had to give. Such fuzziness simply wont do. In comparison to the present day, violence was relatively small though what we did have was an ever clearer emergence of two contending forces, one with the perspective of a vague social revolution, the other with a re-vamped old world but giving much greater emphasis on the centrality of crude money making extending down over via a kind of finance capitalism for the skilled working class oriented around the inflated asset of home ownership. The real violent clash between these two diametrically opposed perspectives broke out throughout the early 1980s. We know who won and it paved the way for the society of permanent, psychotic, random violence in everyday life performing in tandem with an insane militarised aggression practised without let-up on the world stage.
Loren's views can be accessed on his website Break Their Haughty power at http://home.earthlink.net/~lrgoldner. Undoubtedly Loren's analysis of present day fictitious capital is one of the best to be found anywhere and at the end of this intro we've placed his recent radio broadcast on this subject put out by the Guns & Butter slot on a Berkeley, California radio station. (We duly made some CDs for distribution to friends). Great stuff and we all still await with bated breath the great economic crash one which we still must hope will come about through capitalisms' internal contradictions rather than one brought about through calamitous runaway ecological catastrophe which means the human subject by then will have lost the capacity to grab hold of and change the intolerable conditions we are subjected to. The prospects are not good...... http://kpfa.org/archives/index.php?arch=19534
What Wildcat Strikes in the UK may have meant to those at the Sharp End over the last few decades. (Memories and analysis plus a list of other strikes that really personally and profoundly impacted )
'He'll be back. He'll miss Halifax or wherever he lives. He'll miss kippers or custard, wildcat strikes''
( Fletcher's comment on Oates's escape from Slade prison and head for Acapulco in the popular 1970s TV serial 'Porridge')
We guess a list of wildcats in the UK over the last 40 years or so can be little other than fairly arbitrary as until about 15 years ago there were so many that choices, apart from the big, obvious ones, becomes fairly random. We presume too the concept wildcat strike means a strike at the point of production where by en large some union formation is present though perhaps, fairly inactive, just plain scared or sclerotic or maybe a mix of all three characteristics or most likely where a union branch is pretty combative and regularly ignores or puts two fingers up to central union bureaucratic command though usually never saying so openly. In the UK we are now however dealing with the most draconian anti-union legislation in the highly developed world brought about piece meal, throughout the decades and initially aimed at the middle and high command of the union structure. During this period the state attempted to shackle the union bureaucracy threatening, among other things, sequestration of funds if workers for instance engaged in secondary action or didn't go through 'correct' secret ballot procedure (correct of course is always open to interpretation but in this litigation climate legal interpretation means in practise that almost every strike is illegal in one obscure detail or another). Altogether there are now 13 Parliamentary acts against various forms of union activity which finally has been opposed by a united Trade Union Freedom Bill which the TU's hope some future left wing politician will adopt and push through Parliament.
Only in its latter stages, from the early 1990s onwards and surprisingly apres Thatcher did the state really feel confident enough to finally hit with repressive legislation those individuals and groups of workers on the ground who took independent action and initiatives. It meant they could now fine individual workers e.g. strike initiators or 'leaders' for the amount a company or organisation lost during a dispute. In reality it meant for those at the sharp end the prospect of pauperisation for life, the selling of your home, bailiffs seizing assets etc and hefty deductions from any future salary earned for the rest of your born days. Few literally have had the stomach so far to risk the possibility this might happen to them. So remember this is the ferocious backdrop to what is written here and the bottom line when we come to dealing with the present absence of wildcat activity. It's not so much the workers have been integrated or satisfied or are utterly colonised by capitalist perspectives as happy, welcoming consumers a la Postone whereby capital becomes the subject of capital, but that the best part of the working class has been diabolically shackled and/or where a large proportion of its finer groups or individuals have been quite brutally crushed or sent mad with drugs/drink and general rubbishings resulting in isolation and suicidal despair forecasting the break up of a general human community which has now become the norm almost everywhere. We have ourselves lost a number of friends this way and that loss inevitably dogs your life when suddenly (and mistakenly) catching glimpses of them in a crowd, sitting on a bench or whatever as memories of these great men and women flood over you once again only to sadly realise it was a chimera you saw walk on by.
We've often said that wildcat activity in the UK never really breaks away from rank 'n' file unionism although there has been an easing on this level in the last two decades though by then independent self-activity was massively on the retreat. However, in the days of intense wildcat activity in the early1970s it was very difficult to join an unofficial picket line without having to show a union card. It was really irksome and you felt like some provocateur if you hadn't got one. Open pickets and open assemblies, unlike in Spain at the same moment were not the order of the day. There were exceptions though like the Fisher Bendix factory occupation in the mid 1970s on Merseyside. Sometime later it was with relief that we were handed a leaflet in Bradford around the proposed closure of Thornton View hospital which actually called for an open picket around the occupied building. For this to be stated on a flyer was welcome innovation indeed. The miners' strike of 1984-5 surprisingly - yet not surprisingly at the same time seeing it rapidly became a fight for everybody who opposed the rule of sheer mammon - put an end on a massive scale to that tiresome union card tradition and anybody and everybody generally became free to muck in.
Having said all that less than twenty years ago we started on a pamphlet c/o BM Blob on what we'd termed 'the unofficial unofficial movement'. Though never completed, it was meant to be something of a list of various actions that sometimes took place underneath the general but vague rubric of wildcat activity together with some descriptions of those actions that really did transcend the givens. Thus in Brighton on a building site in the late 1970s operatives collectively and imaginatively commenced building things all the wrong way round ' windows upside down, electrical sockets on the ceiling together with ceiling roses on the floor and brickies sallied forth constructing walls across road thoroughfares etc. How the finishing foremen didn't cotton on is a story in itself although maybe they were in on the act. In 1982 we ourselves were involved in a dispute on a Greater London Council building site where, after a mass meeting over non-payment of wages, almost the whole site erupted in riot as half the place was wrecked. (For the sake of accuracy, and perhaps showing what boring dullards we can be at times our gang did not initiate the action. We in fact reluctantly stood aside as the site concerned housing for the poor and only a few days previously some future tenants had despairingly asked us when their refurbished homes would be finished. We told them to ask the management, none the less we simply couldn't break their hearts'..Such is life even for incendiary revolutionaries!)
A little later and we considered adding another incident to this list hailing from the area around Tyneside where a welcoming, surface placidity is tempered with occasional bursts of endgame extremism. It concerns the actions of Albert Dryden, an ex-Consett steel worker who after the blast furnaces were closed forever in the mid 1980s tunnelled a maze of underground rooms and passages underneath his lone cottage in nearby Derwentside he'd probably bought out of his redundancy pay-off. This hidden construction seemed a quite remarkable piece of invention worthy of the best fantasy schemes drummed-up by 'ordinary' people from Simon Rodia's towers in Watts, Los Angeles to Facteur Cheval's fairy palace in Hauterive, France. (Well, it seems like this though it's unlikely any photos survive). Modern times being the horror story they are and Albert fell foul of the dumb fuck planning regulations all geared to the developers' hideous urban projects and after a tussle with these monsters and their agencies, an official planning officer duly arrived at the lone cottage demanding its immediate demolition saying the structure was unsafe etc. (Incidently exactly the same arguments the Los Angeles authorities applied to Simon Rodia's towers though a fair number of years later). Albert shot the guy dead and was subsequently banged up for a very long time. Appearing as a news slot on TV in our local radical/alternative pub a number of people cheered obviously getting off on this drastic critique of the planners' obnoxious role - a role that subsequently has got even more brutally powerful. At the same time you reflected if Albert had deployed a critique of art in attempts to communicate with the world perhaps pointing out how Surrealism, International Lettrisme or indeed ' and more pointedly - recent anti cultural movements in Newcastle, the outcome could have been different. Increasingly the bourgeoisie and their hangers-on supported by specialisms such as town planning and technocratic name architecture suffusing the whole of society with aestheticism cannot handle accusations of philistinism in relation to the suppressed history of the most important aspects of the chaotic revolt of modern art. By playing mind games inside their woodenheads Albert Dryden might just have saved his underground creation and spared himself a lengthy spell in chokey. Nonetheless his extreme response really resonated among those who were beginning to grasp the scope of our enemies' new terrain. Sadly at the time nobody came to Albert's defence with anything like the above arguments.
No 1. So first let's begin at the end and, considering these appalling times, with a little optimism noting some of the independent activity that is again resurfacing. Perhaps too the term wildcat should be applied more generally to include a wider organisational sphere to include bodies rather like trade unions that have an aura of combativity through past activities or having acquired activist status. Thus the anti road protestors of the early 1990s which so influenced the Seattle riots and the subsequent anti-globalisation movement partially came into existence in response to the growing bureaucratisation and plain 'selling out' plus capitalisation of organisations like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, plus various supposed nature conservation bodies. If this tendency was getting bad back in the early 1990s by now 'alternative' capitalisation has grown to enormous proportions as every time a conscience is pricked after some TV programme or 'concerned' newsbyte skirts over some ecological catastrophe or other, a cheque is passively signed from hundreds of thousands armchairs which merely further buttresses this process of intensifying eco-accumulation cum bureaucratic inertia. In reality today all that big eco organisations can do is passively contemplate their growing wealth occasionally indulging in some tepid sounding off here and there.
After a lull of ten years or so, rank 'n' file bodies (to use good old fashioned terminology) are again springing up everywhere in the UK surviving on shoe string budgets opposing some developmental horror story or other getting underway in their own communities. The trees are being occupied again as the list grows daily of small foci of people opposing airport extensions, new roads, wholesale destruction of natural habitat in unofficial nature reserves, proposed carcinogenic waste dumps etc. In the early 1990s, the bedrock of such protests was the dying days of dole culture and a rise in unemployment. Subsequently, languishing on the dole has since been brutally cut out so the individuals involved now survive on pittances or poorly paid odd jobs together with others like gap year students so, its no wonder, these foci are smaller in terms of permanent numbers of people involved.
In a way they also tend to reflect another optimistic tendency: a large and growing consumer revolt ' a revolt not so much at the point of production but at the point of distribution ' instigated mainly by the white collar proletariat against outrageous bank charges, direct debit rip offs, and the inflated prices of basic utilities like gas, electricity and water etc directed at relatively recent privatised companies deploying an accountancy made on the hoof ' often referred to as 'daylight robbery' - more related to the heists common to the popular TV drama of modern day mafias like The Sopranos than a formerly more discreet, traditional mode of capitalist exploitation.
There is also a growing 'Can't Pay Won't Pay' revolt especially by railway passengers travelling with specially issued tickets headed 'cattle class' on 'the hell and back route'. It was spawned on South West Trains in the Bristol area but it's spreading and the rail companies are very nervous so far about clamping down too hard. But clamping down they are as the revolt seems to be getting out of hand, though typically of the UK it's in a low profile way without any further accompanying explanation in say flyer format put together by some passengers. Thus passengers (or rather consumers in neoliberal jargon) are boarding rush hour trains en masse everywhere without buying tickets and seeing the trains are packed like sardines as employees increasingly abandon car transport for rail journeys, conductors are physically unable to issue tickets and/or sensing a hostile atmosphere prudently don't sally forth down the carriages. Most of this revolt is concentrated in conurbations from say Leeds to Manchester or Huddersfield to Manchester etc, though not excluding London. Very recently we witnessed an appalling yet hilarious scene where it seemed most of Huddersfield's station staff had been ordered to crowd the ticket barrier access to platforms and try preventing at source this mass refusal to pay. The First Trains Company recently stated they'd lost about '50 million in revenue over the last few months due to this form of passenger protest. Will First Trains counter insurgency succeed? We'll just have to see though remember today in the UK beneath all the overwhelming surface glitz you basically have a scared, intimidated, not to say terrorised population really afraid to say anything much out loud about what's going down. But you can only push a certain obdurate spirit in these islands so far and you wonder if these limits are now being tested? More than ever the future of struggle is also the future of fear.
No 2. The general wildcat strike of 1972 when an inter-union dispute between two different sectors of dockers resulted in the arrest of some of the most prominent members followed by jail in London's Pentonville. A huge spontaneous wildcat then erupted calling for their immediate release with a big permanent demo centered outside the prison. The authorities didn't know what to do and legal procedure would simply be too long as the power of this movement had to be derailed at all cost. The authorities got round proceedings by wheeling out an ancient, long defunct figurehead from medieval times called the Tipstaff allowing the prisoners to be instantly freed. It was the late summer of 1972 and an action crowning a glorious year of strikes. Later, much later the SWP wrote a book on that year named 'Glorious Summer' (by Ralph Darlington & Dave Lyddon and published by Bookmarks press) and you can put the missing connecting lines together from Shakespeare's Richard the 111: 'Now is the Winter of our Discontent made Glorious Summer by the noble son of York'. Stuart at the time was working as a low paid civil servant in an Unemployment Benefit Office and befriended a Hells Angel gang who'd been struck off the dole and forced to go work in his office so with strikes erupting all over they mosied on down to their favourite Joe's Eats caf'. Striking print workers were downing cups of tea then outside the caf's door a lorry crawled by. Instantly and to a man the caf' emptied as a sizable force tried to push over what was a scab van'.The Angels just loved it''.
No 3 has to be The Winter of Discontent and truly a strike of Shakespearian dimensions in what happened on the ground but also regarding its aftermath i.e. also blamed for bringing Mrs Thatcher to power. At the time this was happening we wrote on this event - the strike was on its last legs - and is out there on The Revolt Against Plenty web together with Henri Simon's analysis and Nick Brandt's. The latter was put together as a combination of the two rather different approaches. There's little point here reproducing the salient points of these texts other than to say The Winter of Discontent was broadly a generalised wildcat strike over what was then, a huge state capitalist sector although nationalised industries like the mines and docks weren't involved. The joyful memory is though of picket lines everywhere plus huge demonstrations which when you joined them you were always hoping they'd break out into violence somehow or other with battles against the police, attacks on Whitehall buildings or whatever. What we did get ' and perhaps this type of incident was everywhere at the time - was a friend of ours called George Cochrane, a much older guy who as a council gardener was on strike who finally snapped and personally went berserk as all the pent-up frustration of years exploded within him. Always amiable and very insightful, one night after a demo all of us had been on, we retired to a local pub with George who bedecked with strike badges got well oiled. Suddenly the guy completely exploded and shouting at the top of his voice single-handedly started smashing up everything in the pub'..Obviously it was a substitute for his long sought after desire to smash up'. well just about everything.
These then were the two big and obvious amazing wildcat strikes and are important in discussing any independent strike activity in the UK over the past 50 years. Now for others of a largely more personal matter put together very roughly in some type of chronological order where possible.
No 4. The Tyneside strikes of the late 1960s/early 1970s. After London Newcastle, far to the north was, if you like, the city where the modern (or rather anti-modern) social insurrection ' and theorised as such ' had the most visible profile of any provincial city. Inevitably the ambience was one of a kind of situationist cum Solidarity type opposition not only to the Labour party but Bolshevism too. The theoretical/practical melting pot that was Newcastle found its own underground messages and ways of communication in and among local workers picking up other currents enroute. The first wildcat revolts among the miners in 1969 occurred in the coalfields particularly the pits to the west of Newcastle where young, rebellious miners had also cocked an ear to some of these 'new' tremors receiving a kind of anarchist ideological expression in the writings of Dave Douglass, an insurgent young miner at the time who later on was to align himself somewhat with anarcho-syndicalism and a little later, Class War anarchism etc though his personal experience with 'situationists' resulted in him loathing the latter. Unfortunately all DD was to see of the latter were their often class pedigrees and snooty behaviour lumping their ideas along with regrettable social mannerisms. On the other hand, Dave also did become very demagogic quite virulently defending the NUM hierarchy, unceasingly grabbing media attention even genuflecting towards it whenever he could just after the miners' strike. All that now seems long gone as DD seems to have settled for being a curator of the mining museum at Caphouse colliery right next to where we lived as children set in a kind of picturesque, somewhat Appalachian setting where you always feel Johnny Cash will walk round the corner guitar slung over his shoulders. (We only hope DD will allow us access to film footage on the miners' strike to use as backdrop to the voiceover DVD for 'Jenny Tells Her Tale').
At the same time the 'new tremors running through the atmosphere' (Lautreamont) in Newcastle had spread down among engineering apprentices in particular concentrated on the Tyneside waterfront and shipyards. Some of the latter in early 1967 had participated in a repeat of the Dadaist's Tristan Tzara's 'Roar' - it simply meant roaring your head off ' in the centre of Newcastle. Yet a little later that kind of thing was also to translate into something far more effective as taking matters into their own hands, stroppy apprentices openly extolling practical leisure activities in work situations distributed leaflets in strikes demanding beds to be placed next to work benches so you could take a nap whenever you felt like it while on the tools, as well as supplying hammers to knock out particularly obnoxious foremen etc. It was all highly amusing yet at the same time strongly visionary and local trade union bureaucrats hated it denouncing 'slituationlists' (sic) on northeast TV.
No 5. The building workers strike at the Barbican in London in 1967. The Barbican was one of the last vast, architectural ugly monstro-cities built in the modernist era (before something even worse ' post-modernism - kicked in) as street after street of Victorian and Georgian London was swept aside by the bulldozer. It was an iconic strike because it brought into relief the brooding tussle between office-oriented union bureaucrats and union reps working, often as skilled trades' people on the building site. In the Barbican youngish Communist party guys had taken hold of the shop stewards apparatus and together with eager, confident, young operatives began to create mayhem over wages, cut and run sub-contractors on the Lump where non-payment of wages was beginning to loom large. The mood rapidly became much polarised and throughout the following months violence sporadically flared between pickets and police. The latter was a 'new' ingredient after some years of slumber for at the same time 240 miles north a wildcat strike had broken out in an engineering firm called Roberts Arundel in Stockport near Manchester. On one occasion after strikers for the umpteenth time had interminably walked around the locked-out factory and with frustration building to boiling point every window in the old mill-like, six-storey building was smashed. Like the Barbican this grabbed headline attention and both disputes were to have immense consequences not only on future wildcats but on a cumbersome and painfully slow TUC structure. A few years' later most engineering plants were occupied on something like a staggered though largely union controlled schedule for a longish period in the Manchester area and in 1972 London became the centre of the biggest building strike in British history officially sanctioned by the then disparate building unions.
Out of the Barbican came the Building Workers' Charter group and our somewhat fraught relationship with a shop steward name of Sonny MacGowan. What was interesting was that Sonny literally was all over the shop (steward)! He'd been a civil servant but preferred manual worker camaraderie. On the level of 'monkey does what monkey sees' and like so many other 'skilled' workers at the time, Sonny picked up the trade of steel fixer on the job. This was at odds with top down union ideology, which was beginning to insist on 'proper' job educational training, a union ideology which, today is completely dominant. Mac (as he was called) tended to be sceptical rather than downright suspicious of all ideologies including that of the Communist party and moreover, didn't like the empty demagoguery of leftist politicians yet insisted if we were any good we should get into Parliament and defend workers' interests! He'd also mention in passing Laurie Flynn of the Trotskyists, though hardly praising him and maybe to show just how clued-in he was. Legalistically inclined he'd none the less regularly have a good belly laugh at all the nicking antics on building sites. He'd demand nationalisation of the building trade ' a kind of daily Barbican rhetoric - yet puzzle with you what exactly did this mean in practise? Mac couldn't stand the ideology or more precisely the reality of the nuclear family and felt it was the main societal institution preventing full-blown social revolt simply because you had to put the welfare of the kids first meaning submit and obey. And so on. But the relationship was fraught and one of us couldn't help put up one night in the mid 1970s ' after some kind of drunken semi row with Mac - in big spray can letters and just outside the pub that 'Shop stewards are counter revolutionary'. Well OK as a bald statement though without falling into a too subjectivised leftism there were and still are bad and good shop stewards and there are more of the latter sacked by management never to get 'proper' work again than those stewards who cunningly use their rank 'n' file position as the first step in climbing the slime ball union/Labour party hierarchy though to be fair this avenue today is pretty well closed off where there is little experience in what was once called the public service of having worked at the coalface. However this slogan painted on a wall must be put in context. After the defeat of PM's Ted Heath's Tory government and the return of a social democratic administration for a brief moment between the mid and late 1970s shop stewards were feted everywhere as new heroes of labour to be ferried into acting schools, TV shows and educational centres everywhere. Mac to his credit refused this overture and instead went to work on the oil rigs off the Scottish coast. What this brief cameo shows is just how searchingly contradictory the emerging wildcat revolt was in relation to individuals and it's always important to keep this in mind when trying to bring out the full dialectics of the general momentum.
Seeing we got involved in the building workers scene around the same time we inevitably came into contact with other guys involved in the Barbican dispute and one, Mick O'Donnell became a close friend. Mick's analysis of the Barbican revolt was fascinating and rather different from both the official union line and that of the more radical CP and Trotskyist version. Like so many thousands upon thousands of others involved in the then burgeoning wildfire/wildcat movement Mick unfortunately never put his insights down in writing. He did however put great emphasis on the fact he worked the Lump (while fighting it) allowing him ' and others like him - to stay on unofficial strike a long time with an often dedicated daily attendance on the picket lines and, like most builders, also gave him enough bunce for a good drink in the pub afterwards where real picket line comradeship was once, before pubs tended to disappear everywhere, more than firmly cemented. Most likely the dispute meant Mick became a CP member for a few years but the prevailing ambience meant Mick's joire de vivre got more satisfaction in an anarcho-militant alternative though in the case of Mick, more in lifestyle than theoretical exposition. A few years later and Mick took advantage of growing mass unemployment. He once signed on as unemployed at the local UBO (Unemployment Benefit Office) whilst carrying his window cleaning ladders, bucket and mops. It really was exhilarating audacious cheek! A couple of months ago bumping into a few Irish mates whom hadn't seen for years and across in London for St Paddy's night it was sad to hear some depressing news. Alas self-expression had tipped over into self-destruction ' an unfortunately familiar scenario - and Mick is now a hopeless drunk, when not smashed out of his brains on skunk hanging out in watering holes in and around the English Market in Cork city'
No 6. London Bridge City 1987. Inseparable from the Barbican and the political affiliations forged within it, Mick's personal experiences and drifts also encapsulate something that unfolded on a more general level especially at the theoretical core of subsequent building workers' strikes. Inseparable too from the 1967 Barbican strike is the London Bridge City wildcat of 1987 fomented by Brian Higgins and the building workers rank 'n' file group. In this twenty year period political sentiment had travelled from Communist party to Trotskyist to something more ultra leftist, even inclining to the autonomous. During the great wildcat period of the early 1970s, the Trotskyist Socialist Workers' Party headed by Tony Cliff (A Trotskyist state capitalist interpretation of the pre 1990 Russian state rather than the previous degenerated workers' state Trotskyist description put out by the Socialist Labour League under Gerry Healey) inaugurated rank 'n' file union foci in major industries and white collar occupations like teachers and civil servants which published their own individual papers. (It was a move satirised in Private Eye at the time with its regular section on 'The Red Muck-Spreaders' Weekly').
Then Thatcher came to power in late 1979. Almost immediately, Tony Cliff along with the SWP central committee unilaterally (and unbelievably) closed down their rank 'n' file foci declaring the time was no longer ripe for such organisations and this after the Winter of Discontent, which the SWP hardly liked, though forced in a lukewarm way to support, though their over-riding identification, when all is said and done, was for PM Callaghan and the then Labour government. Commendably the building workers refused to submit to this diktat. They were the only rank 'n' file foci who had the courage to do this and Higgins especially had the guts and tenacity to oppose the intellectual charisma of Cliff along with his fellow university lecturer top bods. The building workers immediately left the SWP. The Building Worker news sheet continued getting ever more interesting as doors were gradually opened up to other more relevant forms of opposition particularly anarchism though an anarchism expressed more in its traditional syndicalist version than anything else. In fact anarcho-syndicalist building workers played a very real solidarity part in the colossal miners' strike of 1984-5 resulting in jail for some. Higgins and co were undoubtedly impressed. Finally Higgins, a brickie by trade, put together a building gang of brickies and labourers of like politico/theoretical persuasion and went on to create audacious mayhem on small sites in north London rapidly spreading out over finally centering on the giant reconstruction site of London Bridge City which was brought to a halt. Stepping off the bus it was a delight for us to see the multinational character of the picket lines immediately noting how prominent Sikh carpenters were. This was hardly surprising as we'd long dug the fact how easy it was to come out with sheer class aggression and open-minded banter with Sikh building workers.
It was a splendid achievement and anarchist Class War newspaper gave the brickie gang pride of place although the accompanying analysis left much to be desired. Sadly though this strike brought to end significant wildcats on the buildings as neoliberalism and increasing state repression against worker insurgency walked hand in hand as horrendous reaction slowly triumphed over the next 20 years everywhere. A branch of the CNT-U ' the more democratic, less fixated on the past branch of the Spanish CNT ' set up in Britain and which we were in frequent contact with sending them our pamphlets etc to Mick Parkin in the old pit village of Esh Winning in Co Durham. (Incidentally Mick changed his name to Mick Larkin. I wonder why???!!!) Mick and co had however got close enough to Higgins but quickly became critical of what they regarded as his authoritarian behaviour as, according to them, he tended to make decisions behind locked doors where he felt easy with his trusted stalwarts and then address others with the dictum: 'This is what we've decided' etc without much outside consultation. Maybe so, on the other hand it could also be a problem of a work gang where like thinks easily come about amidst lots of tension and not easily or quickly adaptable to assembly decisions. Also one must never forget that Higgins was an exemplary branch rep of UCATT (the builders' union) in the town of Northampton and union officials no matter how low down the hierarchy always possess to some degree an off-putting way with them. The role, the role, always the role!
Esh Winning of course is something of an iconic name place in the annals of industrial insurgency in Britain as some of the bitterest mining conflicts of the earlier years of the 20th century took place around here involving dynamite, battles with the army and machine gun placements on pit head winding gear. Prince Kropotkin in the late 19th century and one of the fathers of classical anarchism spoke openly to miners in this area and if not consequential like Bakunin through his emissary was in Spain around the same time, certainly the place acquired something of a vague anarchist disposition which has never really gone away. Something of this ambience was a few years later channelled into the Independent Labour party ' one of the best of the old worker groupings who published Pannekoek etc ' which had quite a presence in this area. One of our first sentient experiences as tiny tots were Christmas get togethers in our house where ILP (Independent Labour party) railway workers and others discussed everything from bumpy, twisted sections of rail track to the Spanish revolution of 1936. Crawling around playing with simple toys none the less much went in as we listened quite fascinated to the grown ups!
As an interesting aside to all of this, UCATT's building workers' branch in the Bishop Auckland/Crook area of Durham was influenced heavily by the CNT-U during the early 1980s. Something similar to Higgins and friends' revolt and opposition to the SWP also happened here during a wildcat strike at a wallpaper producing firm just after the great urban torching insurrection of youth in UK cities during 1981. In response to the virtually apocalyptic action of the rioters, some of the strikers armed themselves, declaimed against the SWP - some had been members - and shot a cop dead. Bishop Auckland UCATT/CNT-U came to their defence and sometime later produced a pamphlet on what became known as the strike of 'The Wallpaper Warriors'. It is unfortunately a rather dull pamphlet with far too much emphasis on the technical aspect involved in making wallpaper. OK that's fine as long as it enhances general analysis, which the pamphlet didn't.
As for now on the buildings and to prove ' if proof is needed ' that reaction has gone from strength to strength, the era of the gang put together by gang members themselves has been firmly knocked on the head as management generally now decides who works with whom which often pans out with Polish labourer seconded to English speaking plumber, brickie or plasterer etc. Thus, for the moment the craic ' Irish for that unfettered language and story telling endemic in the building trade - has been suspended because of a language divide and rule. It means an era extending back deep into history even before the canal builders and railway navvies has come to an end or, hopefully only suspended until the time of a dramatic social revival. Independent gangs after all - and as we know organically from our own experiences ' are formidable entities as their influence on a building site rapidly spreads in the form of enlightened, almost viral-like contagion.
No 7. The strike of chemists' shop assistants in Bradford and elsewhere in West Yorkshire in the early 1980s. Why you may well ask put this in any significant UK wildcat strike list? Well simply because though insignificant it is a memorable event, one among countless others throughout the country at the time which had a certain transcendental aspect to it, one that called into practical question the basic laws of commerce, the on-going existence of shops, retailing outlets and the buying and selling of commodities. Rather than opt for all out strike, the skilled chemists' assistants handed out prescription pharmaceuticals for free thus subverting the commodity form of these health necessities. News quickly got round and the chemists shops rapidly packed with customers. All this had happened while on a simple parental visit home and was instantly front-page headlines in the local Telegraph and Argus newspaper. Many of the assistants were Asian and had found the audacity somewhere within themselves to take this bold action. Individually all could have been prosecuted under criminal liability laws yet it never came to that and the companies involved quickly settled the wage hike demanded. Their action though sent you right up with delight yet it was never mentioned in any of the national newspapers or on TV. You were left pondering just how many similar life enhancing, subversive incidents were taking place elsewhere only to be left behind without much of a trace? It would be interesting say if some student perhaps could trawl many local newspapers from these times and simply put together a list filled in perhaps with apt comment on these myriad, tiny, localised wildcats that so often had real edge to them. It could turn out to be an invaluable creative document.
No 8. The Woodhead Pass Dispute 1980-2. The Woodhead Pass route was a railway line running from Sheffield through the beautiful Derbyshire High Peaks to Manchester. It was regarded as one of the great 'mad' achievements of the stock market led railway boom of the late 19th century and as kids sometimes travelling on this seemingly perilous route as the steam train sped through the gorges, lakes (actually reservoirs for Sheffield and Manchester) and mountains, it seemed like some exotic American Rockies venture reminiscent of a cowboy film we were ever eager to watch again and again. By 1979 the incoming draconian Tory government of Mrs Thatcher had other ideas and was determined to close the line as A/ an unprofitable business and B/ as a warning to all railway workers that their strike happy days were numbered. Like everywhere else strikes were common on the line and inevitably as the closure was mooted there was instant wildcat strike action by train drivers and other rail staff. There's a good chance such action would have helped save the line as not only had the line been recently updated and the great engineering achievement of Woodhead tunnel layered inside with concrete but the economics of closure made no sense as there was an enormous amount of freight traffic on these rails between the Lancashire and Yorkshire industrial regions as it was one of the few passes through this formidable high ground. It was seen clearly at the time that the Woodhead line had been singled out as a practical demagogic example of Mrs T pushing home her obsession with car and giant truck transport a la American freeways. Essentially though closure finally came about as the direct result of victory in the south Atlantic Falklands war which Thatch deliberately deployed as the means to destroy the enemy within (in her favourite phrase) by destroying the enemy without. Basically this strategy was precipitated as a consequence of the magnificent ten days of incendiary urban youth riots that had laid waste to towns and cities the length and breadth of Britain in 1981. As we said at the time the state's substitute 'hooligan patriotism' was the tactic deployed derailing genuine hooliganism and an insurgency beginning to acquire the feel of outright social civil war. The UK's state victory at Woodhead provided some of the assurance Thatcher's cohorts needed to finally take on the miners breaking them forever. Twenty years later and the only road through the mountains in this neck of the woods is now so clogged with traffic that the tunnel has again been given a new interior facelift as the dept of transport is pondering on whether to relay the railway track on this 'mad' but beautiful railway!
No 9. The 'second front' strikes related to the miners' strike of 1984-5. The miners' strike started as a wildcat almost simultaneously in Scotland and northern England in response to the closure of Cortonwood colliery near Barnsley in South Yorkshire, though the strike was rapidly made official by the National Union of Mineworkers executive under Arthur Scargill. However, having said that almost everything else related to this awesome strike was often very free flowing both in a kind of welcoming response as the miners opened their doors to the world (You can get a good idea of this in 'Jenny Dennis Tells her Tale' on the Revolt Against Plenty web).
However there were also many wildcats in response to the miners' strike though other workers who joined in would often pick on any issue totally unrelated to this semi-insurrection to express solidarity. These strikes were never proclaimed openly (secondary picketing laws had kicked-in somewhat by then) but everybody involved knew exactly what they were about. There had been a long tradition of this sort of thing anyway and many a car plant or whatever in the past would spontaneously decide on a strike simply because it was a lovely sunny day and a lot of people fancied time out fishing etc. Significant strikes in 1984 were those at Lucas Aerospace, Bristol (now BAE defence systems) where there was an occupation and barricades went up around the plant and, of course, there were two dock strikes. The failure of the latter to continue in their resolve also basically sealed the destruction of the miners and could be said, changed the face of history in Britain bringing on full blast the horrendous neoliberal experiment, massive de-industrialisation and the virtual end of manufacturing apart from pharmaceuticals and armaments with the dawn of an era of a fictive capital gone plumb crazy. Even crazier, UK plc has recently gained the dubious honour of becoming the largest offshore hedge fund in the entire world!
At the same time there were also the strikes with little or no profile often deliberately kept out of the news because they were devastating. The most impressive were the prolonged wildcats in the giant major power stations in the Aire/Calder/Wharfe/Ouse valley in South and West Yorkshire at Drax, Eggborough, Ferrybridge and Thorpe Arch at Doncaster. These power stations were effectively closed down throughout the yearlong miners' strike as the power stations in the scab areas of Nottinghamshire along the Trent Valley at Gainsborough, Long Eaton and Radcliffe etc went into overdrive pushed to breaking point. It became a touch and go situation and we sadly know who finally won. At the time the only news deemed acceptable on this level was the conflict at Didcot power station centered in the lush Oxfordshire countryside in southern England where pro and anti striking miners among power workers fought it out between themselves only for the antis to get the upper hand.
In the same breath we must also acknowledge the major contribution of railway workers, particularly freight train drivers in Yorkshire, Scotland, Wales and elsewhere who adamantly refused to move any coal trucks bringing the biggest marshalling yards in Europe effectively to standstill. The silences emanating from giant complexes like Wath-on-Dearne was tremendous but even more impressive were the railway workers at Shirebrook marshalling yards in Nottinghamshire right in the heart of scab country who refused to move one ounce of coal throughout the yearlong strike and at considerable personal risk to themselves.
As a final comment to all of this something further should be added. Aided and abetted by intense media manipulation, we now quickly forget the great conflicts of even the immediate past especially when they were defeated and the next generation coming along often don't have a clue they ever existed seeing the elimination of relevant history is so absolute. Today Drax power station is seen only as the worst CO2 emitter in Britain. Fixed capital hasn't basically been updated since the miners' strike and clean coal via perhaps carbon capture is still a long way off though the relatively recent privatised Drax Energy Company occasionally tacks on such future plans as an afterthought. In the meantime an eco camp has been established here with direct action against the power station proposed. These well-meaning young ecos camped here are however largely unawares of the dynamics of its still recent, though savagely suppressed history. In handing out flyers to electricity workers and other inhabitants of the area it really wouldn't be a bad idea if they acquainted themselves with some knowledge of the installation's subversive history and simply how it could all have been very different from what has happened in the meantime because by no means were the miners and others in these areas opposed to ecology or untrammelled nature. On the contrary they positively embraced such perspectives as we personally well know from the past mining history of our own family. The example of determined direct action to protect wild nature deployed by Bunting's Beavers made up to some degree of industrial workers at Thorne pit on the fringes of Thorne Waste only a few miles away - the greatest raised wetlands in Western Europe - surely could also be mentioned here. (Incidentally we hope to bring out something giving an insight into the story of Bunting's Beavers during the 1970s and early 80s as we learnt of this through a chance meeting with an ex-member on Thorne wetlands when looking for the Large Heath butterfly. Like the drift in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner we were so enthralled by this guy's passionate description we were rooted to the spot, forgetting all time, jaws dropping open as one incident collided with another. It was a tale of derring-do, of explosives, of jail and persecution, of working class insurgency combined with environmental direct action).
At least these people from the past took action for themselves from the base up as it were. Now we have the obscene situation where all the political big wigs and captains of industry, who brutally destroyed the workers' movement are today doing the same with the environment, though having the damned cheek to say it is only through them and their conversion to green capitalism that the planet can possibly be saved. Why only on a cold evening last January one of us attended a meeting in a marvellous complex of tree dens and ground floor shacks called Camp Bling at Southend-on-Sea, a camp put together to oppose a new airport road to be built over an old Saxon burial ground. Much of the meeting was devoted to showing eco films such as one on the CHP (Combined Heat and Power units) that have recently been built to power such towns like Woking in Surrey and, surprise, surprise, Al Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth, demonstrating how a public/private partnership of sensitised capitalism is, even at this desperate hour, what we all need. Neither of these films was remotely anti capitalist yet it was all these earnest and determined young greens had at their disposal to help in getting their message across. Silently you felt that the profound thrust in South Yorkshire from so many years previously did indeed have something of that at its core and if it had been successful would have ended up with a much more profound green dimension than the one spouted for superficial consumption we have in abundance today. The real eco films have yet to be made ' those that combine the rebellion of the sharp end morphed into a green perspective that sharply distinguishes itself from greenlite and greencon and all the other paraphernalia of the changing face of the capitalist mode of production.
No 10. Friends, dear friends and wildcats. Related to the latter strike and included here are four wildcats simply because they involved four close friends. In a way this demonstrates how inspirationally ubiquitous the wildcat strike was and our memories here are in fact essentially no different to countless hundreds of thousands other people in Britain who experienced similar things. The difference is as per usual all these memories will be lost to those in the future who may get some oomph out of them. You always wish and wish again that gals and guys at the sharp end would put pen to paper no matter how trivial they may think these experiences were. Yet it never happens!
Geoff Suddick. A great guy who came from the nineteen sixties melting pot. Wild, unpredictable and very funny indeed he hailed from the West Midlands or, as it was then called, the Black Country because of the constant pall of smoke relentlessly hanging over the many blast furnaces. (They have all since disappeared). Geoff possessed a savage yet ironic class sense and had a penchant for women from the Indian sub-continent whom he'd fall madly in love with only for the relationship never to work out'.. Working on building sites with him in the early 1970s he would explode in unpredictable ways especially where management was concerned and on one occasion he physically manhandled a boss virtually bending him double as he forcibly explained to him what a miner's life was like. He had though a yen for the oceans and suddenly departed for a seafarer's life, which he'd dabbled in a little while previously. This time Geoff's intent was serious and we never heard directly from him again. Then news came through on the grapevine: Geoff had stopped a big cargo freighter in mid-ocean because he found it was secretly carrying nuclear waste. He always had an inquisitive mind coupled with eccentric audacity and in your mind's eye you imagined him with that odd, physically scurrying but direct and tactile way that was his hallmark how he would have communicated his knowledge to the rest of the crew and, if our experience was anything to go by, in a very pressurised yet compelling way. United the crew immediately forced the ship's captain to head for the nearest port where negotiations could take place and perhaps, the offending nuclear waste unloaded or perhaps, somewhat neutralised in lead containers if that was at all possible. The ship was held up in port for ages and we have no idea what the final outcome of this dispute was. Then 25 years later travelling on the top deck of a Bradford bus Geoff was glimpsed. By the time the bus halted at the next stop Geoff had disappeared into the crowd perhaps on his never ending quest to find that real life Indian girlfriend that constantly escaped him but alas he himself had also escaped still the eternal will-o-the-wisp with only our memories remaining.
Steve B. Steve from the mid 1980s to the late 1990s was the driving force behind the Leeds radical magazine Here & Now who enthusiastically learnt all the technical ins and outs of printing as well as holding forthright, ultra-left opinion, at the same time as being a simple, decent, lovely guy. Steve was also a male nurse and shop steward at the huge complex of St James's Hospital in Leeds. He participated in numerous health workers' strikes but the most memorable (which, we mentioned in a pamphlet c/o News from Nowhere called 'Occupational Therapy' on a strike/occupation we participated in at University College Hospital in London in 1993) was one in the early 1980s when Steve crammed into his jeep Leeds nurses and headed for the nearby West Yorks coalfield. Two nurses were posted outside collieries such as Kippax, Rothwell, Swillington, Wheldale etc at shift change times and asked the miners' to support their wages strike. Everywhere the pits stopped work. In Occupational Therapy some of Steve's other memories around this strike were put down so we might as well quote a passage here: 'In 1982 in Yorkshire nurses were able to bring out thousands of miners and car workers by bypassing the union structure, by simply standing outside the workplace and appealing directly to the workers for solidarity. This should have been tried by UCH nurses and porters, but the prevailing faith in the unions (encouraged by SWP ideology) prevented it. In Leeds in 1982 support came from engineers and public sector workers. The best example was some construction workers who were building miners' baths at Woolley Colliery. The shop steward there had a brother in a hospital in Leeds (long stay) and got in touch with the nurses at the hospital to picket himself and other workers out. When striking workers arrived they had no difficulty in stopping the construction site, although there was a visible chilliness from local NUM officials. One of the construction workers drove straight through the nurses' picket line. This led to an extension of the construction workers' strike for three days. It all ended when the builders caught the scab, took the wheels off his car and emptied his wallet into the health workers' collection bucket. In 1982, there was still too much reliance on union structures ' mainly on a shop steward rather than full time official level. This was because of inexperience and workers being over-awed by the myth of the shop steward. Defeat was ensured by reliance on the union structure and ideology, with unions turning militancy on and off like a tap, leading to disillusion. But 11 years on at UCH, so many defeats later and in a Central London workplace ' there was much less chance of repeating such a success.' As the general hospital regime got harsher and harsher in the years after this strike Steve was more and more pushed into a corner. His increasing technical skill in patient care meant he was forced more and more upstairs in the equivalent position of the long gone matron role, yet this new role was more and more loaded and as part of his clinical 'duty' he told us he would have to 'grass-up' nurses who held opinions contrary to all the new, gobbledegook managerial directives he bitterly described as 'pathological'. Steve simply could not do this and moreover blowing up one day with a consultant who's orders he'd countermanded as the guy was instituting new free market oriented quick patient input/output which at times resulted in patients' death, he was severely disciplined and moved to a hospital miles away. Things definitely weren't what they used to be and Steve moved sideways 'disappearing' to become an organic, small holding, market gardener'..
Jean Richards. Jean worked as a civil servant in a UBO (Unemployment Benefit Office) in Marylebone and Kilburn, northwest London. What an eye! She saw and just as often provoked the hilarious in any given situation driven by an Irish sense of the absurd in daily life. Hardly surprisingly during the 1980s the offices she worked in were packed with a radical ferment combined with many a 'mad' incident amidst the personal chaos of office affairs etc and 'Allo Allo' type piss-takes on the same. Secrets and peccadilloes were also something to be played with as a means of pushing the daily grind into the background and anything, literally anything, could be transformed into a comic turn subverting the bureaucratic boredom.
Sometime after the defeat of the miners around 1986-7 a strike broke out in a number of offices and Jean's office joined in. Though instigated by local branches of the civil servants union, by now other more consciously aware forces were developing a focus, mirroring to some degree what was happening on building sites and perhaps elsewhere which we knew nothing about. In Jean's office in Kilburn this involved a small caucus of autonomists calling themselves Workhouse and guided by a studious but dedicated Chinese guy and his girlfriend whom Jean amusingly referred to as 'the stick insects' ' simply because they were so thin. Visible enough they occasionally distributed leaflets but looking back historically they just didn't really have enough time to make their presence felt before the big, general crackdown throughout society. The union caucus in her office though opposed to the union big wigs was Trotskyist (SWP) and really didn't know what to make of this caucus, this 'new force' appearing within their midst. There was however no problem with this during the strike as the main problem concerned scabs. One night, Jean together with one of the writers of these reminiscences regaled with super glue and sand sealed up the back entrance locks to the buildings, which the scabs crawled through every morning. To support Jean financially we took her to work on building sites as a cleaner upperer (all on equal wages) and she instantly became the best cleaner upperer in history! We also gave Jean the task of typing up 'Once upon a time there was a place called Nothing Hill Gate' awarding her the best wage rates of any office or typing pool. Sadly though the strike went on for weeks the outcome was again defeat. After the strike Jean wrote a leaflet that Nick B before the age of computers, typeset and distributed.
Fly-Me Gary. Gary was part of flight attendant cabin staff on long haul BA flights usually from London's Heathrow airport to major cities in the USA. He dealt with catering and the usual flight attendance duties and for a while held a shop stewards position. He had a nice, ironic way of upsetting the usual spieling attendants' patter they are forced to parade and tended to boast of his mile-high club status which we'd always take the piss out of him for. None the less with Gary's brilliant imitation of a Texan drawl he was great at winding up oil magnates who frequented his flights out of Dallas airport. Whenever strikes erupted Gary was instantly on the picket line but what he did with joire de vivre in the late 1970s gradually gave way to grim determination as management got ever heavier under the auspices of Lord King, one of Thatcher's favourite henchmen. The last strike he was involved with fairly recently - and just before the spontaneous Gate Gourmet catering workers' dispute initiated largely by Indian women workers, which brought Heathrow to a standstill - was the worst experience of all and Gary graphically described how sick he felt dragging himself out of bed to get on the picket only for that sickness never to go away and with management goons and stooges everywhere he felt even sicker to find his face had appeared prominently on TV on BBC's London's Evening News. Times had certainly changed, as sheer victimisation became the order of the day and Gary's visible fear certainly brought it home to us just how bad things are out there. And sure as hell most of those who initiated the Gate Gourmet dispute both white and Asian have been dismissed. Fortunately Gary was spared this treatment as reaching the age of 55 he was forced to retire.
No 11. The North Sea oil workers' wildcat 1987. Over the last couple of decades or so much has been made of the stupendous knock-on effects an international or even half-international oil strike would have on international capitalism. Alas it has never happened and such a prospect seems as far away as ever ' if not further. What we forget is that there was a big wildcat oil workers' strike in 1987 on the North Sea derricks extending from northern Scotland down through northern England almost to Hull at the wide mouth of the river Humber. Its main organisational impetus came via an independent oil workers' body called OILK who by themselves bypassed the union apparatus. We can never forget the example of the oil workers' shoras (a form of workers' council) that ushered in the Iranian revolution of 1979 before the uprising was hijacked by fundamentalist Islam. Oil workers' shoras also played their part in the aborted Iraqi revolt against Saddam after the first Gulf war in 1991. Though not having the same impact, the huge oil workers' wildcat in the North Sea was also the biggest oil workers' strike in history and ironically was influenced by the previous UK miners' struggle especially the contribution made by oilmen's wives and girlfriends in occupations of rigs and off-shore facilities etc. Coming so quickly after the miners' strike we felt at the time the torch though somewhat extinguished had been carried to other essential utility workers, so maybe the miners' defeat hadn't been so definitive after all. We were wrong on that score! Nonetheless, the oil workers' strike weapon or more is formidable as has been demonstrated on a few occasions. There has been little enduring publicity on this and memory has been quickly suppressed.
Oil's solidarity is spread thinly unlike that of coal. The bonds of solidarity between an oil extraction worker, a refinery worker and one in a petrochemical factory are tenuous. Trouble in one sector does not tend to spark off another. But in the mining industry as it was prior to 1985 in the UK there was close contact with other sectors of workers in the steel mills, the electricity generating industry, and on the railways. The former had earlier been part of the triple alliance in the early 1920s but to which was now added a new, unpredictable and lethal wild card ' the power workers among which must be included oilmen. Remember too, earlier on in this piece, we suggested through the example of Sonny MacGowan how there was a very concrete overlap between construction and drilling rigs.
No 12. The Liverpool dockers' strike of 1993. What was important about this inspirational wildcat was that it took place after the working class had clearly in these islands been broken, greatly assisted by draconian legislation as has been pointed out previously, yet that remarkable Scoucer spirit had in a way refused to recognise this state of affairs. You could say it was an expression of rank 'n' file unionism as the Tory government by then had just about been totally successful in abolishing trades' unionism on the waterfront. (It has since returned though in a very weakened and pliant form). Casualism was always the big hate figure in the docks and it had returned with a vengeance. Liverpool was the last citadel to fall and as casual labour was bussed in the dockers went out on strike. Ten years previously there would have been an instant all out wildcat throughout British ports now there was silence as in the meantime the dockers had become broken reeds, thoroughly cowed by a local management gone crazed with power in every port. At Hull, South Yorkshire around the same time, company goon squads at the behest of management even attempted to arrest local militants' leftovers from the 1972 dock strike. Since barred from the waterfront, though now largely retired, they'd turned up at the new heavily fortified dock gates for a forthcoming TV photo-shoot! Paranoia is too minimal a word to describe this situation.
Instead of getting thoroughly demoralised as most anyone else would, the Liverpool dockers took a giant, unprecedented leap (into the future?). Sensibly recognising that for the moment at least the UK was a picketing no go arena they took the world as their striking oyster with dockers on their own initiative and usually in threes and fours travelling the globe to drum-up support. Thus on a cold day two guys from Liverpool hesitantly stood at the gates of the New York Port Authority premises and asked American longshoremen to help them. (Remember too the Liverpool guys had not gone through all the ins and outs of time wasting union bureaucratic procedure) Immediately the New York longshoremen went on strike. The same tactic was more or less repeated throughout the eastern seaboard followed by the western seaboard and the dawning of that glorious day when the port of Los Angeles came to a standstill. The same method was deployed in Rotterdam and other European ports and amazingly extended even to the Far East in Indian and Australian ports. None the less after months on strike supported by the usual plastic bucket collections - the growing zenith of anti-worker reaction was reaching its long climax where it still remains to this day - the action of the Liverpool dockers failed and reaction notched up another crucial victory.
Football is a real big thing in Liverpool and, if you like, the Kop in the Anfield stadium is the voice of Scouce humour. It's always been a joy to hear the changing nuances of these often smart and subversive lyrics. At the time the footballer Robbie Fowler was the darling of the Kop, the voice of back street Liverpool. Seeing he was a striker he identified with other strikers and in one game in 1993 after scoring a goal he tore off his official shirt revealing another underneath supporting the dockers via a Calvin Klein-like logo 'doCKers' on his T shirt. The crowd went wild. Thus another leftist celebrity myth was created yet 15 years later Robbie Fowler is one of the fourth richest footballers in the UK having like many other contemporary leftists acquired in the meantime a financial empire c/o a Buy to Let housing scheme. The Kop responding accordingly now singing to the tune of The Beatles 'Yellow Submarine' 'We all live in a Robbie Fowler house'.
Just a word here about the 'final' dock strike throughout the UK which had taken place a few years previously in 1989 aimed at keeping the dock labour scheme intact and a form of employee protection that is still alive and kicking in most European ports, we had developed some kind of informal contact with the Spanish dockers' coordinadora after we'd published a pamphlet 'Workers of the World Tonight' on international dockers' struggle. Miguel Torres who played quite a part in writing the texts that made up the book 'Wildcat Spain Encounters Democracy' kind of assured us that the coordinadora was an autonomous organisation and thus a step in the right direction beyond the rank 'n' filism typical of Britain. A full year before the strike broke out we alerted the coordinadora that a big strike was about to erupt in UK ports and they duly published our articles and urgent requests for international solidarity. Alas it all came to nothing. The strike quickly crumbled. Moreover the coordinadora was increasingly criticised for falling into some form of 'parallel unionism' as it negotiated ' or so it was mooted ' big job cuts at Spanish ports. Whether the latter was true or not we simply don't know so proceed with caution!
Incomplete: Dave Wise. May 2007