For about fifteen years between the mid 1960s to the big blow out known as The Winter of Discontent in 1978-1979, a wildcat strike movement spear headed by trade union shop stewards predominated throughout the UK. Characterised as anti union even a potentially revolutionary force - c/f Solidarity and a certain tendency among Situationists at the time - it was indeed an exhilarating movement and one to be seriously reckoned with though ascribing revolutionary potential was exaggerated. Equally though the opposite perspective was wide of the mark. In the bleak night of the late 1980s and after, this movement was viewed as a more complicated phenomenon and, often as not, little more than an auxiliary force prompting official action later from the trade union bureaucracies which, was then able to dampen down - even crush - these healthy, more independent initiatives. In a more balanced retrospective it can be said, no general breakthrough/breakaway from the trade union form happened despite tantalising incidents, thus we are left with a plethora of half developed creative moments still reaching out towards us with unfulfilled possibilities.....
Today that movement has reappeared but has, as yet, little profile though now technically equipped with webs and often interesting ultra democratic, Internet 2 forums. What follows are some comments by "an indefatigable note taker" through the prism of a pretty desperate personal relationship set in N.E. Lincs in late 2008 / early 2009.
A b(g)rief relationship - and a wildcat strike
Lindsey oil refinery N.E. Lincs in early 2009
A Confessional and a coincidence
I keep a record of my run-ins with depression. There is nothing intentional about this; I am simply driven to do it and for a while I find it salutary. To think is to die and there has never been an age more crucial, and well nigh hopeless, than this one. I sometimes wonder which is the most intolerable, a persistent dull ache, from which there is no lasting reprieve, or the hell of depression triggered by (inevitable?) failed relationships from which there is. But it is to these failed relationships I now wish to refer.
Latterly I have become conscious of Mrs Thatcher's appalling legacy to women and which has done so much to besmirch the feminist movement to the point I cringe at the mere mention of it. Having had direct experience of a number of former women followers of Mrs Thatcher, I am in a position to make several unflattering observations. 30 years ago they would have unhesitatingly bracketed me alongside "the enemy within". Now they want to strike up a relationship, even becoming infatuated for a short time before they return true to type with a vengeance. So what's changed in the meantime? The palpable failure of the free market experiment? Well, yes and no. All I can say not one of them will ever hold Mrs Thatcher to proper account and ultimately to blame for the mess we – and particularly they - are in. She is the Mrs Beeton of bad housekeeping, the ultimate slut who poured gin down her throat whilst the kids went begging. She is the one directly responsible for the Big Bang in the City of London in1986 that followed hard on the heels of the defeat of the miners. She was the one indirectly responsible for the repeal of the Glass Steagall act in the USA that let finance capital rip the world apart, and espousing the small shop keeper values she came from first made certain she'd dress like a tart and marry a millionaire.
Apart from their unswerving devotion to Mrs Thatcher, what they have in common is more than the sum of what divides them, be they a vegan with a gay son or a pro-life Baptist fearful "sodomites" are poised to take over the world! They are all homeowners and on their own. Apart from shlock buster novels, they never read anything other than a local paper once a week. And they all watch the most unbearable, unendurable pap on TV. Finally they are overpoweringly obsessed with sex, wanting "it" 24/7 and easily angered, even enraged, at the limits human biology imposes especially when growing old. Sex for this lot has become the acceptable equivalent of a shot of heroin or crack – a daily, even four hourly fix – as an attempt to cure the pains of an impossible alienation inside the body that will seemingly never go away - and will take a profound social revolution for that to become reality. It is a sex that has nothing in common with real eros.
Is there a potential for neo fascism in this suburban, free market inspired Reichianism, this "triumph of the will" for threshold geriatrics and cancer patients with a partial mastectomy? For, just beneath the surface, there is an exceptional streak of cruelty in all of them that craves satisfaction. If they were to lose more than they have done already, they could easily turn very, very nasty and look for scapegoats. There is in them a capacity to kill without remorse for Mrs Thatcher has already told them "there is no other way". This motto will continue to absolve them of all guilt in the future just as it has done in the past. After all, they have for years been fully complicit in a counter revolution that may well have sealed the fate of humanity, a counter revolution that still was to them a crusade of the righteous against wildcat strikes, alternative ways of living, the refusal of work and welfare bums.
I have long been convinced the best relationships are, on the surface, the least viable, and the most likely to survive because the least engaged, though that does not rule out loyalty, even unbending loyalty, and doggedness out lasting all storms. It often means two people have not that much in common, this non-elective affinity a hidden challenge to an age in which relationships have become the new religion, a religion requiring counsellors to sustain its illusions just as priests were needed to prop up the old religions. For there is nothing more conducive to explosive conflict than a half assed critique that fancies it is open to the new when it is most in thrall to a past it knows next to nothing about. Give me a woman any day that prefers to unpretentiously sunbathe on a beach eating an ice cream than one who wets her knickers gazing at Gormley's cast iron figures on Formby Sands then has the impudence to accuse me of philistinism and sexism. And it was in that frame of mind I met Sheryl. Better by far a Daily Mail reader than a Guardianista – or so I thought....
Sheryl lived in Cleethorpes just down from Grimsby on the N.E. Lincs coast. Across the wide estuary in the city of Hull, I was mindful Andrew Marvell had written A Definition of Love around the time of the English Civil War in the 1640s which is also ours: "My love is of a birth as rare/ As tis for object strange and high/It twas begotten by despair/Upon impossibility". For me there is something supercharged in this remote, half forgotten, industrial strip running along the coast of N.E. Lincolnshire. I was there in late February 2009 when the Lindsey oil refinery workers erupted in elemental wildcat fury against the EU directive permitting the undercutting of local wage rates. I was also conscious that Cleethorpes, of all seaside destinations, was the one most favoured by South Yorkshire miners and that they had indelibly left their mark upon it, dying miners and their wives asking to be taken to Cleethorpes for one last time. I remember a story that Jenny Dennis, the miner's wife, told me as she was preparing Jenny Tells Her Tale (see elsewhere on the Revolt Against Plenty web) as she recounted how drunken Kiveton Park miners one New Years Eve just before the great strike of 1984-5 stoked up their local Thomas the Tank pit engine and set off down the rails, buckets, spades and bottles of home brewed beer in hand heading for Cleethorpes. They didn't get far.... And somehow the incident got momentarily forgotten by Jenny in the rush to get her text finished.
With the amazing discoveries in the Thames Estuary (England's 'rain forest' on a former Occidental site on Canvey Island) still fresh in mind, walking along the banked up shoreline of the Humber estuary between Grimsby and Cleethorpes, we had, for some years, persuaded ourselves this could be a second 'rain forest' for insects, the combination of sandy, undisturbed ground, railway lines, overgrown sidings, freshwater ponds and crumbling industrial infrastructure particularly suitable to a diverse insect population. The long arm of Spurn Point reaching out into the North Sea directly opposite has long been a favoured stopping off point for birds. However it also provided the first landfall for migrating butterflies and moths from the continent, and we wondered if this might also be true of this stretch of unexplored, woefully under recorded coastline. Here were the beginnings of an undertaking that combined nature, the past of miners' struggles, and our own past of Sunday school outings to an area now rapidly falling apart. Unable to reinvent itself, the coastal strip is, for that reason, mesmerising.
Flicking through the Butterflies and Larger Moths of Lincs and South Humberside by Duddington and Johnson I could only find two references to Cleethorpes and a couple more from Bargate, the 'posh' end of Grimsby. The docks just don't figure, nor do any other industrial sites like the entrancing, overgrown and extensive railway sidings on Grimsby's eastern boundary. Though published in 1983, the prejudice against industrial sites and urban landscapes has barely let up since then, especially here in the UK where the 'aristocratic' hostility to all forms of manufacturing runs very deep and money, primarily through the influence of the City of London, has been naturalised like it was something organic. And this despite a growing number of papers that attest to an emergent speciation induced by the urban terrain - everything from townie great tits hitting higher notes, to mockingbirds that remember people, to speckled wood butterflies in a virtually treeless Bradford 3.
I knew Sheryl was a Christian but paid scant attention to it. She had been born just within Grimsby docks and her Christianity, I reckoned, would be that of the seamen's mission, having relatives who had been seafarers, one even winding up shipwrecked. I knew too of the fear of drowning widespread in communities who lived close by the sea and formerly gained their living from it. On Sundays they would lustily sing of "those in peril on the sea".
When Sheryl said she was a Baptist I didn't bat an eye either, only later finding out that this was not the Baptist church I knew as a child, but its insidious modern version widespread in America and gaining more than a toe hold in this country. The weight of this brutal fundamentalism crushed the merest hint of independent thought out of a person and I, "a sinner", (despite telling her that I had struggled hard all my life to be one, though without much success) was required to believe in the literal truth of the bible. That meant accepting that Darwin was the devil's chaplain and god had created the world in seven days! I was fearful of even opening a book on geology in her presence in case such heretical topics as the age of the earth should come up.
And yet she was good at logic games and making quick calculations in her head, buying the Daily Mail and Daily Express every day, more for the Sudoku puzzles and crosswords than their overt, right wing, political content. Otherwise I never saw her pick up a newspaper with the intention of reading it, nor did she ever pointedly switch on the TV to watch the news, but only did so on the off chance. Apart from family, a few (very few) friends, the panel judging Strictly Come Dancing, and repeated viewings of her favourite Notting Hill DVD etc, biblical characters and events were more present to her than the people in the news. The only books she had in her bungalow were the bible, trifling commentaries on the bible – and cookery books! Rather cruelly, I once suggested she read Feurbach's Essence of Christianity and David Strauss's Life of Jesus, knowing these were not religious works at all. Every morning she would spend half an hour reading the bible - after first spending twice that time making sure not a hair was out of place. She once said she would have loved to have met John the Baptist – but not, I countered, before first taking him to Boots to buy a bar of scented soap. To flick through the Pro Una clothes rail in Debenhams in Freshney Place was her re-enactment of "the Passion". A visit to the vast shopping mall of Meadow Hall in Sheffield became a visit to the New Jerusalem. I once took her outside into the open air to show her the fig trees that had taken root by the River Don, the seeds having found their way from local pickle factories and helped to germinate by the warm waters flowing from the former blast furnaces just up-river. She couldn't have been less interested. However she needed no convincing the planet was in a dire state. Though the signs were everywhere, they came direct from god, global warming proof that the earth would be destroyed by "the fire next time". She of course would go directly to heaven, wafted upstairs by "the rapture". Massive psychological collapse is bound to typify the approaching end of humanity and those who swear by social peace and the immortality of capitalism might profitably modify and adapt Sheryl's unshakeable conviction that hell will be heaven.
Not only was Sheryl militantly anti-Darwin, she literally was indifferent to nature except when it rained or the sun shone. Her 'garden', front and back was paved over and when I said had she ever thought of getting a bird feeder, she replied "the birds can look after themselves" She never even thought on to put stale bread out for them. This was Genesis bellicosity at its most orthodox, humanity having "dominion over all creation". To keep out a fox she had employed a neighbour to fill up a hole in the fence with stones. I couldn't imagine anything more delightful than to look out of the window in the morning or of an evening and see a fox.
It was Tesco's that had provided the wrapping protecting her from nature. A punnet of brambles bought from the superstore became the "body of Christ", a blessed, sanctified, cleansed, beatified, purified, transubstantiated punnet of brambles. Those picked in the wild had "the devil's foot" on them and she steadfastly refused to eat them. I couldn't persuade her to taste the fruit of the sea buckthorn that rampaged along Cleethorpe's sea front, despite pointing out that for millennia, even perhaps before the Neolithic era, it had provided essential vitamins, especially during the winter months. If forced to eat them I believe she would have choked. Passing four dead pheasants in the space of one mile, I couldn't tempt her to pick up the road kill, despite the fact she loved eating game.
"The flowers of the field" only meant something to Sheryl if they came from a garden centre. Nature came not from god only garden centres did and horticulture was beatified nature's earthly representation. Besides these edenic centres were places where one could eat in a civilised fashion and a uniformed waitress, just like in Freshney Place or Meadow Hall, served tea. It was a far cry from my excursions into the field with a couple of buns and a bottle of water to last the day.
So by degrees I began to see that the modern Baptist church was an affirmation of free market ideology in all but name and the bible a Friedmanite text written by the almighty. It also became a consumer item, a "satnav for life" as a recent hording outside of a Baptist church in Dewsbury put it. Modern baptism represents the moment a threadbare ideology ceases to be ideology and becomes religion, has to become religion if is not to be destroyed by its obvious failure. Sheryl had actually visited Mrs Thatcher in Downing St and was struck by her piercing blue eyes. But being a northerner she secretly felt she was a traitor, a collabo. The miners' strike I reckon had been a defining moment in her religious conversion. I noticed she was reluctant to watch Brassed Off because it brought back memories of her apostasy. She expressed surprise at the number of miners who lost their jobs as if in some measure she was guilty, Never personally wielding the sword, she left that to Mrs Thatcher and her boot boys, the police. Unable to quench the guilt, she instead found god and the gift of healing. This ridiculous woman, without a trace of embarrassment, related to me how she cured a sick person by laying her hands upon her and praying. The moment Thatcherism failed was the moment Sheryl's free market triumphalism was raised to the transcendental. However at bottom not one iota of her core beliefs had changed. And the fact they were now based on revelation meant they could never be questioned.
By assuming an impenetrable religious disguise, free market principles were henceforth cast in stone. And Sheryl was obliged to conceal the truth of her conversion from herself no matter what the expenditure of effort in terms of self repression. So even a mildly critical article in a newspaper or slot on a TV program became a source of danger, as her life was emptied of meaningful content. On a Friday she would buy the Grimsby Telegraph and then only to look at the property pages! Having "nowt off" as we say in the north, and despite possessing a degree – which means fuk nothing in any case - she became colossally boring, only able to discuss the merits of the rising tennis star, Andy Murray, or comment disapprovingly on the quality of the food served up in a café. This latter response was symptomatic and compulsive and had me wondering, in no time at all, what lay behind it.
Things came to a head when I decided I just had to see for myself what a Northern Soul night was like. The venue was Cleethorpes railway station and what an experience it was to be sitting in a converted waiting room occasionally glancing across the Humber Estuary on a cold February night and listening to a fabulous selection of 50s ska as a couple of bald, fat DJs, now well into their 60s, were playing. With the strike at the Lindsey oil refinery still in full swing and I just happening to be wearing a Ringway/Jacobs jacket and looking as if I'd just left the picket line, the place began to fill up with young and old alike. And all were raring to go! What could be more filled with promise – except Sheryl, who had chosen to sit as far away from the partying as possible, chose to pull the plug and insisted on returning home at 9.30 in the evening where she promptly sat on a sofa to do the Sudoku puzzles. I can't say she just switched off because she was never switched on in the first place. But you can imagine how frustrated and flat I felt. However Sheryl had shown her deep-seated contempt for the workers of N.E. Lincs who also knew how to party, just like the miners once did when they crammed the bars and discos of Cleethorpes to bursting point.
And so to the strike
I stayed at Sheryl's for a short while during the last moments of the strike. It was a relief in some ways that it ended shortly following my arrival, because every morning I would have hankered to be on the picket line, if just to get the real story. But how explain that to Sheryl who identified with the strike's nationalist slogan "British jobs for British workers" but was incapable of seeing beyond that? Her son in law worked for Conoco and his grandson, an engineering graduate, was employed at Cleethorpes' "Pleasure Island" checking out the metal work for chills in the Ferris wheel and other fairground attractions. This was his first job and it required he work outside in all weathers and had even learnt the sign language used by crane operators and would go through their signing code with his father. Seaward from "Pleasure Island" is a nature reserve matted with sea-asters and it was here that I first saw the little egrets. I wondered too, if this carpet of estuarine flowers might act as a powerful attractant to butterflies and moths landing on Spurn Point directly opposite. That corner of Lincs possessed everything – if only Sheryl could be made to see it!
And so my attachment to N.E. Lincs grew all the stronger when this forgotten part of the country became the scenes of wildcat action. Toward the end of January 2009 construction workers at the Lindsey refinery, near Immingham, went out on wildcat strike against 'foreign' labour, though in reality against the EU posted workers directive, permitting the undercutting of local wage rates. The Viking / Laval rulings passed in the European Court of Justice effectively allowed companies to undermine existing collective agreements in countries where they undertake work. Any union action against companies that refused to apply the pay and conditions of the host country would be judged as acting illegally. Like the rest of Humberside, the Grimsby area was rapidly haemorrhaging jobs, the Grimsby Telegraph of January 27th 2009 reporting one thousand job losses in one week. The N.E. Lincs Trades Council had even organised a delegation to Westminster, to alert MPs to the dangers of this "low paid area" becoming a "backwater".
The wildcat strikes caught everyone by surprise, not least the huge Unite union who found themselves prevented by draconian labour laws (13 altogether since Thatcher came to power in 1979) from overtly supporting the strikes and intervening in them in order to bring them to a swift conclusion. For the first time in over two decades the country was shaken by the elemental power of the wildcat movement. Hamstrung by labour laws, the unions could not make the strike official without falling foul of the law and risking sequestration of funds. Illegal action was spreading far and wide as it was and a vengeful act like this would have merely inflamed the situation. And for the first time in well over two decades, the powerlessness rather than the power of trades unions became the day's permissible topic – but only just. Here at last were the beginnings of an outbreak of common sense, taking us back into the long lost, and very welcome, territory beyond the no-man's land of false opposition and crude stereotyping.
While Peter Mandelsohn, the business secretary, still hammered away at the oxymoronic need for flexisecurity, the building workers union, Ucatt's, campaign to secure better conditions for construction workers on the Olympics site in east London was paying handsome dividends. Had wildcat action erupted on the UK's foremost building site, upon which the eyes of the media were fixed for the first signs of trouble, Ucatt stewards would have been the first to crack down on it. Maximally intent on proving to the Olympics authority they can deliver on time, and manage the job better than the Olympic Delivery Authority, they were, and are, determined to keep the site free of the labour conflicts that had bedevilled the construction of the recently completed Wembley Stadium. As the Independent (2/2/2009) said Ucatt "sounded as anxious as management to avoid disruption that might jeopardise the Olympic park schedule", Alan Ritchie the Gen. Sec. stressing "It's one of the best regulated sites in Britain".
But the union bureaucrats did not have it all their own way. What was billed as jobs for East End construction workers and a pledge to create a skills legacy was exposed as largely a sham. The sudden downturn meant that contractors on the £9.3 billion project had to move labour from other sites to forestall compulsory redundancies. How much of a close run thing it was it is difficult to say and even the local "left leaning" labour MP Jon Cruddas insisted, "There are some robust agreements about employment on the Olympic site, so I am less concerned about the threat of protest there than on other sites in the UK". Down the Thames there had been wildcat action at the Coryton refinery, at Craig Milsom and at Tilbury where a number of maintenance and construction workers downed tools. (Southend Echo February 2/2009) The Olympiad site continues to remain a potential trouble spot. In late May 2009 an unofficial demonstration of construction workers – mainly steel erectors it appears - from all over the country (though Geordie accents were noticeably well to the fore) assembled outside the perimeter fence demanding jobs. Though briefly mentioned on local London TV, none of the major dailies, including the Communist party's Morning Star, reported it. From right to 'left', unofficial action was becoming too hot to handle and across the political spectrum there was a tacit agreement to immediately switch off the oxygen of publicity.
Confusing slogans with reality, the Trotskyists of the 4th international and the Socialist Workers Party were down on the Lincs wildcat strikes, describing them as xenophobic and reactionary. They neglected to mention that 100s of Polish workers had also spontaneously joined in the unofficial action during a sympathy stoppage at Langage power station in Plymouth. Smeared by Trotskyists as a "new labour clone", it was a testing time for the Unite Gen Sec, Alan Simpson. Revolutionary he is not but neither, it has to be stressed, are the Trotskyists - nor have they ever been. Simpson was also facing an election, a move that had been triggered by a Rolls Royce convenor Harry Hicks who is now a member of George Galloway's Respect party, having formerly belonged to the SWP. The SWP had placed the Lindsey workers among "the most reactionary elements of British society"!
The backdrop to all these attitudes had been developing for years as part and parcel of the UK's ferocious de-industrialisation. Manual workers from being the salt of the earth had become the scum of the earth especially if white even if it was a slur applied to other ethnics though mouthed with less venom. Inevitably, racism and sexism figured high along with bouts of grandmother eating and you knew it all too well in your bones.....To this must also be mentioned the obvious: any action today is augmented by a vast array of technological gadgetry where anybody can have an opportunity to say something or anything. The lid inevitably comes off which in itself – and especially for the future – is no bad thing. However, it can mean some kind of racist comment (or whatever) gets a good airing within a couple of seconds and can –and will – be used to denigrate via media conglomerates making sure all serious resistance has no liberatory profile, instantly stoned to death by calumny followed by an unrelenting silence. This is rapidly becoming the basis for the most successful totalitarianism in history. Back in 1984 we wouldn't have heard racism from some individual miner – even though it was there on the ground – simply because there wasn't as much media around to highlight it. Now that the media is here, there and everywhere delving into every dark nook and cranny what is left of the left simply panders to this cleverly worked out strategy.....
The Communist Party's Morning Star was more recondite about the Lindsey strikes, and during my stay in Cleethorpes, I would sneak off to pick up a copy of the paper from nearby Milnethorpe shops, to glean whatever bits of information I could. Unsurprisingly, there were more copies of the paper in one small shop in this suburb of Cleethorpes than in the whole of Notting Hill. Of the shameless coterie of journalists, Seamus Milne would write a better article in the Guardian, though, as per usual, strangled by his belief in a hoped for future of social democratic revival. None, however, even remotely stressed the extent of the casualism that existed in N. E. Lincs (or, for that matter, in rural Lincolnshire generally) nor, apart from the fish porters, that it has long been a fact of life amongst the trawler men of Grimsby.
Despite the existence of heavy industry, casual labour has been a major feature of the area for generations, covering not just seasonal labour in the coastal resorts of Cleethorpes, Mabelthorpe and Skegness but the vast agricultural hinterland that has, in recent years, drawn in quantities of migrant Polish labour. A growing number are now rough sleepers, living in makeshift squatter camps, penniless and dependent on charities, unable to afford their passage back home. Some are even to be found in Grimsby docks, breaking up pallets to make kindling and cooking fish over an open fire. They have the run of the abandoned docks and when approached give scarce a second glance. Tolerated by the port security, they add to the indescribable charm of the place and I did wonder if the police cordon thrown around the "floating hotel" (i.e. prison ship) that housed the Italian IREM workforce that initially caused the fuss, had also stopped the Poles from entering the docks. Worse still, had the police evicted them as potential troublemakers? For the moment at least, Grimsby is undergoing a belated revival as a fishing port, Icelandic trawlers docking here rather than in Reykjavik. Victims of Iceland's financial crises and rapidly devaluing kroner, they can expect to make easily double what they would in Iceland.
Though born in a terraced house bordering Grimsby docks, Sheryl had never set foot in the docks, neither in its heyday nor during the era of its mouldering, marvellous decline. To her, Grimsby, as formerly the world's premier fishing port, lived on as heritage, its redefinition as a heritage centre matching her petite bourgeoisification and selective identification with more respectable family members.
With this as the background we visited the fishing heritage centre housed just where the Freshney River empties into the dock. A now retired trawler crewman had showed us around the former trawler, the "Sea Tiger". His knowledge of trawling was at once obvious and I strove to follow him. He was particularly bitter that trawler crews had not created a pool of organised labour like the fish porters had or something equivalent to the dock labour scheme the Hull Dockers across the estuary had enjoyed. Sheryl had left the trawler by now but I pressed him to tell me more. Some skippers were "gentlemen" and retained their crews; others were hire and fire arseholes, a couple in particular notorious on both sides of the Humber for losing men at sea. It was very like the building game and everything worked against creating an 'organised' workforce, strike action, or, more likely, informal go slows, limited to individual ships.
Apprentices would be flogged for failing to show up on time and delaying a vessel from sailing. There was obviously much arcane law here and I was deeply respectful, wishing I had put to sea just once, for there is nothing quite like experience. Though sub contracting characterised the fishing and building industry, a skipper obviously was invested with far greater authority than a building sub contractor. Except on rare occasions, resistance to exploitation could not take on the classic form it assumed either on the dockside or in the mines. Largely going unnoticed – off the 'class struggle record' as it were - individual sabotage would count for far more. I had brought a nature diary with me to Cleethorpes on the off chance I would see something, like a rare autumn migrant. I now found myself opening it at the last entry and hastily writing down every scrap of detail whilst it was still fresh in mind. I even pumped Sheryl to tell me more about the seafaring side of her family, like the uncle who would always bring her a present on returning to port as part of his "bond". I asked her what that meant but she couldn't tell me.
When I boarded the "Sea Tiger", a flash of recognition surged through me, as if I had been called on to give some notion of how long general maintenance would take. Since working on barges and boats (though certainly not yachts!) I had developed a degree of familiarity with them, treating them as a friend, becoming more sharply attentive to boats in general and glad to feel the rocking motion beneath my feet once more. I had noticed a number of fishing smacks moored in Grimsby docks were being converted into floating homes and if I were younger it would be my residence of choice any day.
The sea was in the guide's blood and he had compulsively watched The Most Dangerous Catch, the TV series detailing the hazards of fishing in Alaskan waters, child's play, he reckoned, compared to fishing Icelandic waters in a tub like the "Sea Tiger". In his late sixties, he craved one last fishing trip to the Arctic seas and I wondered if he was topping up his measly pension with undeclared hard cash, for this was at the heart of the wider conflict that had erupted at the Lindsey refinery. Scanning the Grimsby Telegraph most days I couldn't help noticing the courts report and the numbers of claimants bust for working and signing on. Are we seriously to believe that none of the sons and daughters of the unionised strikers would stoop to such things and that it wasn't a way of life for many working class people on Humberside? The fact that they were not in unions did not imply an absence of class consciousness either: in fact one could well argue the opposite case and that in not approaching trades unions they had recognised a major limitation and one especially true of this country: that as casual workers they could expect to be given short shrift by the unions and even castigated as scabs.
The Lindsey strike had barely ended when this edifying lesson was rammed home. On February 12th, 2009, BMW sacked 850 mini car workers on the spot at the Cowley plant in Oxford. At the end of the nightshift, agency workers, many with several years 'service' tucked under their belt, were herded into a mass meeting and told not to return. It beggars belief that not one so-called 'left wing' paper emphasised that union officials as well as BMW management were pelted with eggs, oranges, apples and that sacked workers then went on to vandalise mini-coopers, scratching bonnets with keys, smashing dash boards and hiding ignition keys. As one assembly line worker said, "The union has been speaking to them for three weeks and we all get told an hour before we leave". To say the least, it made the general union Unite look doubly weak. Not only had it been swept aside by the striking Lindsey workers but it had now been caught with its pants down, blatantly colluding with management. The only choice left was to turn up the rhetoric by ever so little. As the Morning Star reported (17/2/09) BMW's disdain for agency contracts "was savaged by Tony Woodley of Unite who stormed, "Sacking an entire shift like this and targeting workers who have no right to redundancy is blatant opportunism on BMWs part and nothing short of scandalous".
This colossal act of betrayal by the unions will not go unnoticed and for this reason they just may push that extra bit harder to see that the European Agency Workers Directive is implemented. However prejudice against 'atypical' work practises goes very deep in this country. Surprisingly this does not generally drive 'atypical' workers in to the arms of reaction, even though it is a form of working favoured by New Labour on account of its inherent flexibility and by implication loss of workers hard fought for rights. Possibly because trade unionism has done nothing other than sound off against this tendency toward deregulation and massive casualisation, and, what's far worse, shamefully besmirch workers who work in this sector, when a blow up does come (and which could be much closer than one cares to think) the casualised sector will not be swayed by predictable TU instructions to stay away from trouble, and respect the political process and the state. As Rosa Luxembourg once pertinently argued, unorganised workers, come big trouble, tend to go much further than organised ones.
Had I fulfilled my wish and joined the picket line, likely as not I would have got nothing but mealy mouthed words from the shop stewards and rank hypocrisy from more senior union officials come the larger issues That is why I profoundly regret not being able to talk directly to workers on the picket line for they had nothing like the same ideological axe to grind. Mobiles were used to spread the unofficial action, the unofficial use of trade union facilities never even coming into the frame. One GMB steward was honest enough to admit, "There were no orders coming from the shop stewards - it was all coming from the feelings of the members". Sure, one can argue the groundwork was laid by 40 shop stewards who had met several times because of mounting concern companies in the sector were not hiring British labour. In fact trouble looked set to flare, not in a remote corner of Lincolnshire, but in Nottinghamshire where Alstom at the Staythorpe power station near Newark was employing subcontracted Spanish and Polish workers on lower wages than British workers. The latter had been refused work because national agreements obliged the employers to pay more.
The stewards had to distance themselves from the unions otherwise the unions risked prosecution for encouraging illegal actions. But when the grass roots action did come it took stewards and the Unite leadership by surprise. As a 60 years old scaffolder from Stanilow in Cheshire said "these actions are not coming from the stewards, they are coming from the lads" a Unite official having to ruefully admit "we are trying to get control of the situation".
The unofficial action shocked the Unite union into calling together dozens of shop stewards from construction sites from around the country for an emergency conference to discourage rather than encourage action. Though it may have seemed that engineering construction workers were at last getting their act together, this long-elapsed show of menacing shop steward strength was designed to persuade ministers to act. It was for appearances sake only. An ingénue Unite official accurately summed up the situation when he said: "This is spontaneous strike action. One minute there is a meeting, the next minute they're out on strike. We're calling together the shop stewards: these are not the people organising the strikes, they are the official elected representatives" (my italics: Independent, 2/2/2009).
The potential wider ramifications of the strike were manifest elsewhere and I was fortunate to be in Lincolnshire to see the connection. Though snow blanketed the rest of the country during the strike, the coastline of N.E. Lincs received only a dusting of snow. Elsewhere in the county it lay thick on the ground. The snow did not help the Lindsey workers but it brought the rest of the county to a halt. Not since the General Strike of 1925 had London come to a comparable standstill nor been so laid back and in such good humour, helped also by a barmy Health & Safety Exec on its knees to the prevailing litigation culture so beloved of the middle classes. There was an outpouring of snow constructions, rather than just snow men, the like of which had never been seen before in this country. The media were quick to see the link with installation art – and quick to gloss over the qualitative difference, namely, that their creators did not seek to profit from them by exhibiting them as works of art, nor were they interested in creating works of art for it was all just spontaneous fun. However by far the most subversive, and imaginative, expression took place in Lincolnshire. In several places including Grantham and Sleaford (a country town some 25 miles inland from the N.E. Lincs coast) children spontaneously began to block main thoroughfares, this wall of snow stopping all movement as if it was an actual picket. This was sympathy action of another order and, except locally, the national media typically ignored it.
Lightning strikes construction. A deluge to follow?
After a further brief outburst in May which were almost completely blanked by the media, on June 11th, 2009 the Lindsey oil refinery in N.E. Lincs was once more the scene of unofficial, wildcat action when 100s of engineering construction workers walked out. The protest flared after a major contractor Shaw Ltd at the behest of Total, the French oil giant, announced 50 compulsory redundancies among contract staff. A shop steward said that the vast majority of those who had lost their jobs were former shop stewards and members of the strike committee from the February dispute. There were also rumours that some scaffolders, who had joined the spontaneous walk out, had been sacked, heightening fears that action could spread to other sites in coming days. In a bid to get tough with the strikers, Total on the evening of June 18th in blatant breach of an agreement, then sacked all 900 hundred workers who had walked out in support of their laid off colleagues.
Not all the construction workers are up in arms (unfortunately) only those in the energy sector. However construction workers of all shades cheered when on May 27th, a court in Macclesfield, Derbyshire found Ian Kerr (shouldn't that be Cur?) guilty of running a blacklist of construction workers and others. More than 40 of Britain's biggest construction companies were on the books, Balfour Beatty, Sir Robert McAlpine, Laing O' Rourke and Costain paying an annual fee of £3,000 and extra cash for each individual search to Kerr's company, the Consulting Association.
The UK's energy sector is massively up for renewal and without a doubt major disputes are set to become a regular occurrence as a period of inventive flux on all levels, including the green transformation of production, is now in the offing. On May 21st unofficial trouble broke out over the use of Polish labour hired on a cheaper rate at South Hook, the Milford Haven oil terminal owned by Exxon Mobil and Total of France. Industrial action quickly spread to Aberthaw power station in the Vale of Glamorgan then Fiddlers Ferry power station in Widnes Cheshire and three other power stations. Action was also planned at Sellafield, the nuclear power station, and elsewhere. The dispute was settled with lightening speed in two days, which just goes to show how nervous the energy sector is, but which does not mean it will go to any length to avoid a showdown. With the help of the state, it may dream of doing to the construction workers employed in the energy sector what the government of Maggie Thatcher did to the miners, who also could be described as part of the energy sector. Except it cannot any longer close down and offshore the UK's energy plant which, since the defeat of the miners in 1985, has been the standard solution to trouble "up at mill". The discontent is so widespread that Unite and the GMB are currently balloting union members at power stations and petrochemical sites for official strike action over the endemic failure of the engineering construction industry association to abide by national agreements but which also conflicts with wage undercutting European labour law as enshrined in the Viking / Laval agreements.
But for sheer spontaneity we have seen nothing like this since the late 1960s / 1970s. And it is reminiscent especially of the latter decade when even shop stewards were unceremoniously pushed to one side whenever it was deemed necessary. And there are flying pickets in all but name but which must never be spoken of, the word having dropped out of use because the language of confrontation was declared dead two decades ago. Despite its utter financial bankruptcy, Britain still flatters itself it is on track and trailblazing the new service economy. It will take a social earthquake to even begin to bring the country to its senses and the present action taken by the UK's engineering construction workers may just be the first tremors.
On June 23rd there were widespread sympathy strikes at a number of key power stations and petro-chemical complexes, as thousands of construction workers and engineers downed tools. 900 came out at the Sellafield nuclear power station, over 1000 at the Ensus bio fuel site at Wilton on Teesside, 500 at the huge Drax power station in Yorkshire, whilst hundreds ignored management insistence that wildcat strike sympathy action was illegal and came out at Aberthaw power station and at the South Hook gas terminal in Wales and, according to Lindsey shop stewards, a total of 13,000 workers all told. The figure was released by Unite union rep Kenny Ward adding, uncharacteristically for a union rep whose members had taken illegal action: "Would Total do the same thing in France? Absolutely not, because there wouldn't be tanker on its four wheels. They'd be all turned over on the sides, blockading every road to this refinery, because the French wouldn't put up with it". Rank 'n' file tough talking indeed but aren't they talking the talk like this because they're trying to ride the tiger kicking below?
For the moment however, the strikes have regrettably remained sectional, though undoubtedly they have been by far the biggest thing to hit the construction industry since the national strike of the early seventies? However militant action is more or less exclusively concentrated in the energy sector and the big question is can it break out of these confines? Of course power workers will be overwhelmingly sympathetic to the strike as they were to the miners whenever they went out on strike. But there is a big difference between being sympathetic and taking direct action in support of the sacked construction workers at the Lindsey refinery. When one activist warned that power workers could walk out, threatening electricity supplies there was an element of wish fulfilment to his claim "the entire industry will shut down over this one". The same goes for Total (and other) tanker drivers who peeped their horns in support of the pickets but did not stage their own walk out in sympathy with the sacked Lindsey workers. The merest hint of strike action amongst tanker drives and power workers would have concentrated the mind of Total's management most wonderfully and within minutes, rather than hours, the company would have been forced to the negotiating table and been compelled to take back all the sacked workers. Total's strategy is a high risk strategy and if they are severely humbled – which it seems has happened - it will be a shot in the arm, not just to construction workers, but to all other workers, particularly industrial workers, whose livelihoods have become more precarious than ever.
The first wave of de-industrialisation has burnt itself deep into the collective memory of what is left of the industrial working class and the failure of the financial revolution that was meant to mitigate the impact has only succeeded in exacerbating it, opening a lot of old wounds, There is a feeling of thus far and no further. In 1984 the Cortonwood pit in Barnsley was re-named "The Alamo" and, in retrospect, it is now clear the miners' strike was a watershed moment with few, if any parallels, in post war history. The strike at Lindsey is also a watershed strike and the dimensions of it are only just becoming apparent and what happens here – and has happened already - will have a profound effect upon the future. It has been a kind of victory for the strikers so far – all were reinstated - and things will never be quite the same again. This presentiment of do or die was apparent in the dramatic texts immediately sent out by the sacked strikers. Calling on other workers to join in, they began "cometh the hour cometh the man". And on the demo held by striking Lindsey workers on June 23rd, a construction worker dressed up as the "auld reaper" took the lead: in his right hand he carried a plastic scythe, in the left a placard that said "say no to the death of the construction industry".
We can only wait on events though the June strikes didn't have the élan of those in February possibly because shop stewards were able to exercise a little more control. However perception of the strike has changed and though the media, especially TV, pick on placards that proclaim "British jobs for British workers" rather than placards that say "sack the bosses not workers", there has not been one mention of the BNP attempting in June to infiltrate picket lines. And (wonders will never cease) even the Trotskyists have had to go behind the strike, their crippling political correctness for the moment a thing of the past, though which still doesn't make them reliable allies. The SWP Socialist Worker of June 20th even proclaimed "the strike shows just how sharply the battle lines are drawn in the construction industry"- a far cry from its shameful stance of just four months ago when it truly was the vanguard of political correctness, far outstripping the Guardian, the Independent, and Channel 4 news. The CP's Morning Star has always supported the striking workers and their more consistent line has paid off with some Lindsey workers taking up the CP slogan "race to the bottom" which the party adopted in the wake of the European court Viking / Laval ruling. (It is a pity this slogan has not been amended to read something like "the only race is the race to the bottom", for it is the sort of catchy statement the news media would readily single out. It would, at the very least, challenge the standard knee jerk reaction typical of leftists of all hues from Trotskyists, to a minority of ultra leftists / ex situs, etc that the white working class is sexist and racist to the core, only fit for super exploitation and well deserving of its fate.) However the CP never glories in proclaiming wildcat action, only appearing to do so under pressure of events. It smacks too much of forthrightness and independent initiative and is therefore harmful to trade union authority. Typically, though the Morning Star mentioned that construction workers at the Longannet power station in Fife had come out in support, the paper failed to point out that the construction workers had defied both management, the unions and most likely shop stewards. If such leading facts are omitted, we miss out on the essential tenor of the struggle.
In the future if there is to be a national strike which unions will be balloted, one, or all, construction workers unions? The latter is the least likely option and it is somewhat ironic to recall that UCATT owes its origin to the first, and last, national building workers' strike in 1972 when specialist craft unions agreed to merge under the aegis of a much bigger body representing all the different building trades. In fact the issue of subcontracting smoulders as it has never done before and on a much vaster scale because this time around it stretches the length and breadth of Europe. A far as construction workers are concerned, the term industrial gipsy is more appropriate than ever and yet the Lindsey dispute has a local dimension that gives it a particular ardour and which this winding article has hopefully made explicit.
Crushed between the rise of the heritage industry ("The Deep"/ "National Fishing Heritage Centre") and the loss of traditional industry which heritage is a sublimate of, Humberside is becoming a Sargasso Sea of the casually employed, the region's vulnerability attracting some of the most voracious predators there have ever been, and which the government is seen as facilitating. Whereas Congress in the US is taking steps to outlaw vulture funds which buy up debt at knock down prices and then go to court to enforce full payment, here they are given the run of the place. At the height of the troubles at Lindsey earlier this year, it was announced on local Humberside TV that the Atlas caravan company situated in Hull and the UK's biggest caravan maker, was to close down. The workers were more perplexed than angry because, despite the recession, the firm still had orders coming in. It simply did not make "economic sense", especially since it had been apparent from the moment the credit crunch started to bite that there would be less holidaying abroad and that the traditional British seaside holiday was due for a revival. And that meant the demand for caravans was set to rise. However the vulture fund that had taken over Atlas Caravans was only interested on getting its hands on the money owed to the firm. And so the first thing the fund did on gaining control of the company was to close it down, putting hundreds of workers on the dole. Holidaying in a caravan park is far more conducive to real human contact than staying in a hotel or even in a B&B, and besides it is all a growing number of people can afford. So this act of callous vandalism must be seen as yet another malign instance of the City of London's unerringly anti social, anti industrial fervour. With this sort of incident as a background, is it any wonder the Lindsey strikers are so determined?
But and a big but: is all this, though very welcome, the beginning of the breakthrough we so desire, or merely something of a return of a movement that catastrophically failed over twenty years ago victim of its own sectionalism? Anton Pannekoek, (a.k.a. Tony Pancake) the prominent Dutch ultra leftist who left behind a fine body of theory between 1916 to the 1950s, in one of his later efforts Workers Councils praised the British workers piecemeal advancement as they slowly chipped away at the capitalist monolith in many disparate, separate actions. True, such a strategy was kind of successful in the era especially after the conclusion of the Second World War amidst capitalist revalorisation but once the paradigms of social democracy exploded into a vision of total social revolution on the one hand, and a consumer 'paradise' (in reality nightmare) of permanent alienation on the other, it proved catastrophically inadequate. On the contrary, an apocalyptic free market ironically achieved a parody of a united class consciousness we had so desired side- tracked into a landscape of greed by a union of the traditional rich and myriad new applicants with not that much money in their pockets. Together they tore this piece meal sectionalism apart brutally crushing isolated struggles and strikes one after another no matter how determinedly, though short sightedly they were fought. The best individuals numbering many, many thousands and disposed towards an anti consumer perspective were subsequently destroyed by depression, madness, suicide, drugs and alcohol.
Today we have a return of some kind of diffuse trouble and though still in its early stages, is marginalized and silenced by the media. Shades of the past though are everywhere including a national joint shop stewards committee initiated this time by the RMT and its Gen. Sec. Bob Crow in 2007. It is growing fast and hosts lectures on a past of struggle in these islands no doubt well under the influence of the Communist Party and Trotskyism – as of yore. Let's hope sectionalism doesn't destroy broader possibilities maybe emerging in the wake of all this because we have little time left to stop the total insanity unleashed by a rampant capitalism. Trouble is also starting from a now shrivelled industrial base and will a largely service sector economy fragmented into small, unstable units be able to take up the torch? And will a large public sector of low paid employees be able to break sufficiently from obsessive bureaucratic procedures militating against spontaneous action?
Stu' W (with a little help from bro') July 2009