NOTE: If you are not into a lengthy (3300 words) discourse and reminiscence about industrial relations, past and present – go no further. You have been warned …
I switched on Newsnight last night, a reflex action, forgetting that there was a strike in progress, and was faced with Have I Got News For You.
This morning I read that the Beeb have been drafting in all sorts of unlikely people to cover news broadcasts, and was shocked to see that Stephen Duffy, of The Jazz House on radio, was one of them. I am a fan of Stephen Duffy and The Jazz House, and I do not doubt this fine broadcaster’s competence to at least read a news bulletin. What shook me was that somehow I have always associated jazz aficionados with liberal values, perhaps even left of centre values, and my instant reaction was that he was blacklegging.
A moment’s reflection brought me to a more considered view. I was showing my age, and harking back to a lost time when jazz was somehow a protest music, anti-establishment, the music of Ban the Bomb, the voice against racism and inequality. In my teenage, I felt it was impossible to like jazz and be racist, since the great geniuses of the music were almost all American blacks – Buddy Bolden, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Earl Hines, Johnny Dodds, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie.
Of course there were mild to overt racist exceptions – Nick La Rocca’s insistence that The Original Dixieland Jazzband – all white – had invented jazz, and an uncharacteristic lapse by my old musical colleague and friend, Alex Harvey, on a YouTube video interview, asserting that “Darkies never invented jazz …” Alex didn’t have a racist bone in his body, and in fact acknowledged readily that jazz and rock and roll both sprang from the black community in America, but he exhibited the Glasgow tendency to take contrary positions in argument just for the hell of it, and was always happy to shock and challenge established views.
And the reality has always been that jazz appreciation embraces all political viewpoints, except perhaps the redneck racists of America’s deep South, whose natural home was country and blue grass. (I love country music and don’t damn its many adherents who don’t fit that bill.) But Hitler didn’t like jazz – Stalin didn’t like jazz, and both went out of their way to denounce the music. I rest my case …
Back to the BBC strike and Stephen Duffy. My initial reaction was quickly dismissed as almost certainly unjustified and unfair. I have been on both sides of the argument over the years, and have myself been a strikebreaker of sorts, as well as a striker: unless you have done both, your understanding of the arcane principles and practices of industrial relations is not yet complete.
If you haven’t been on a picket line or walked through a picket line, then you haven’t made your bones, mate!
In the middle 1960s, the Goodyear Tyre plant at Garscadden (Donald Dewar’s old constituency) was a thriving but troubled employer of around 800 people on the western limits of Glasgow, near Drumchapel. An archetypal American company, and the largest rubber company in the world back then, it was unionised on the shop floor – rubber workers in the T&GWU and craftsmen in the various craft unions of the time, but non-unionised on the staff and managerial side.
American companies were basically anti-union in their instincts, but had long since accepted the reality of the powerful shop floor unions back home in the States, and had sophisticated procedures to deal with them, based on the US model of business unionism, i.e. simple economic self-interest. The company was wedded to the piecework system – payment by results – and felt that it was a complete answer to motivation of workers. Not for them the sophisticated theories of man-management and human relations – the model was naked employer self-interest balanced by naked employee self-interest.
But staff unions were anathema to them, especially if they involved the lower levels of management – the supervisor and foreman structure. The idea of a manager above that level being in a union was inconceivable to them. Their chosen modes of keeping such horrors at bay were the staff association – a tame, management-controlled representative body – and support for junior management clubs, e.g. the foremans’ club.
Them and Us was the principle they fostered zealously – once you moved up from the shop floor into management - as many able workers did - you underwent a sea change, passed through an invisible, but formidable wall.
There were staff dances, but no workers’ dances supported by management. The workers were paid by hourly rate and piecework earnings, and weekly in cash, the staff paid monthly. There were pension differences, benefit differences – harmonisation of terms and conditions an unknown and alien concept, far in the future. There was quite simply, a class divide, although the American managers were horrified if you made that observation.
In the eight or nine year life of the plant up to that point, this industrial philosophy had produced many unforeseen consequences – unforeseen by the Americans, that is. Some local managers understood only too well where the problem lay – the British Trades Union movement was just that – a movement, with ideals, social objectives, even an international perspective. It was not business unionism. (Remember, back then, the Labour Party was truly the People’s Party, not the awful thing it has since become.)
The unions, faced with a rejection of their wider role by the company, adopted the naked capitalist ethic with a vengeance. If it was going to be class war, so be it – they could play hardball as well as the company. The result, over the nine year life of the plant up to that point, had been a series of what Goodyear called wildcat strikes – short strikes of one or two day duration, not officially sanctioned by the union, in pursuit of short-term objectives and dispute outcomes - strikes over piecework prices, over disciplinary issues, over safety issues, over terms and conditions.
In virtually every case, management backed down and conceded, and the lesson was learned by the union – strikes worked. Management had forced them into accepting the payment by results system, and now they seemed to accept a concession by force principle as well. But not only the shop floor workers learned a lesson – the non-unionised staff had begun to learn another salutary lesson – unionism worked, non-unionism didn’t. And the craft unions – skilled men who expected to be top of the earnings league of hourly-paid workers – realised that moderate unionism didn’t work either.
Because of the piecework system – in its basic operation a brutal and dehumanising process – the earning of hourly-paid workers skyrocketed, overtaking the craftsmen and lower-level staff, and approaching, and eventually exceeding some middle management salaries. Staff members could be dismissed with impunity by the company, with effectively no redress except a feeble grievance appeal process which always vindicated the management decision. Staff conditions could be changed unilaterally by management with no appeal process. The hourly-paid unions bargained collectively – the staff had no bargaining rights.
(It must be remembered that employment law at this time had nothing like the breadth and scope of present legislation and employee protection law – it rested solely on the contract of employment and significantly on ancient common law principles. There was no such concept as unfair dismissal, no reinstatement rights – the only question asked by the law was - had the contract been ended with or without due notice?)
My career – if it can be called that – was just starting. I had left school at fifteen with no qualifications, bounced around a series of dead-end jobs until National Service kept me more or less out-of-mischief (that’s another story!) for two years, then a spell as a wages clerk, then a production control clerk in the building industry. This ended with me going off with the original Alex Harvey band, The Kansas City Counts for a few months, then a spell in variety theatre with the Johnny Kildare Quartet, and a year with the Union Cold Storage.
Joining Goodyear in 1958, a year after the plant had opened began some sort of career movement. By 1964, I was in charge of the Production Control Department and in early 1966 joined the Industrial Engineering (time and motion) department, which was part of the Personnel function.
From the early 1960s, I had become involved in the attempts of supervisory and junior management staff to gain recognition for our union, ASTMS, which we pursued through the feeble staff association consultative mechanism. It had become increasingly evident that the company had no intention of granting recognition, and were simply blocking us, and I had got to the point, on behalf of ASTMS, of threatening industrial action.
The company took this seriously enough to decide to promote me, by moving me from production control into the Personnel/Industrial Engineering Department. Since all unions, including ASTMS, accepted that members of the personnel department were exempted from union membership (they thought we would spy on them for management!), I reluctantly terminated my membership of ASTMS and my role on its committee, just at the point they were about to go on strike for recognition – spectacularly bad timing for me.
Shortly thereafter my union colleagues went on strike, with assurances from ASTMS that it was about to be made official. I arrived on the first morning of the strike, no longer a union member, talked to the picket, who were good-natured and understanding about my new situation, went into the plant, sat down at my desk near to tears, then went out and joined the picket line. I was now in the worst possible situation – a non-union member, whom the union accepted shouldn’t be a member, on a strike that was not yet official. I had a young family to support, and no income except for occasional musical work at the nearby Cameron House in Hardgate.
We constructed and painted our placards and banners, went off to picket the Motor Show at Kelvin Hall where Goodyear was exhibiting, and mounted a picket outside the plant. We got no support from the hourly-paid workers, since the T&GWU didn’t favour ASTMS as a union, but their own clerical arm, ASSET. We were greeted each morning by the workers going through the picket line offering good-natured banter, with gems such as “You bunch of f****** w******!” and “Stay out till hell freezes over – we can run the plant without you …”
ASTMS officials then met privately with Goodyear senior management in Wolverhampton, and sold us down the river, telling us that our strike was not official and we should resumes work. We returned with our tails between our legs, humiliated. (The membership of ASTMS collapsed soon after.) I thought, with good reason that my nascent career was in ruins. Two things saved me – one, my boss, a hard-headed, but very human Scottish Personnel Manager, Donald MacDonald who seemed to understand and respect what had motivated my apparent career lunacy, and secondly, a kind of respect from some shop floor union members and shop stewards for what I had foolishly done. One in particular, Ian Moore, then of the T&GWU, went on to a stellar career in management, winding up as a European Vice-President of what was then SmithKline Beecham.
That was my moment as union activist and striker. By 1970, I rejoiced in the odd - and lengthy – title of Manager of Industrial Engineering and Salary Administration, which was really an industrial relations and personnel post: I was in effect deputy to the Personnel Manager, Clarence Adkins Junior, a lovable American who had been President of his Union local in Akron, Ohio and had been promoted directly in the Scottish Plant personnel role. The plant manager was Don Wolfe, the previous personnel manager.
The staff union demanding recognition was now the T&GWU staff branch, ASSET, representing clerical staff but not managers, and they were poised to strike for recognition, having arrived at precisely the point I was at four years earlier. I found myself on the other side of the table from colleagues arguing for what I believed in but could not support because of company policy, and because ASSET would not accept me or any of my Personnel staff as members of their union. Such were the multiple ironies and paradoxes of 1979s industrial relations …
The ASSET staff representatives were confident on two fronts – one, that as a sister union of the T&GWU, the rubber workers would support them in their industrial action, and two, that the plant could not run effectively without them. Out of a total staff complement of about 150 or so, 130 were going on strike, leaving about 20 managers.
They were proved wrong on both assumptions.
The rubber workers happily crossed the picket line, and the 20 managers ran the plant with no loss of output, and a considerable gain in productivity, with an unprecedented level of goodwill and cooperation from the rubber workers and engineers, who were anxious not to lose money.
Such was the legendary solidarity of the working classes.
I made a point of entering the plant on foot, in spite of offers of lifts from other managers: I have never subsequently driven through a picket line (and there have been many in my career) but have always walked though, and engaged in dialogue with the picket if they wanted it. This got me in trouble with my superiors on many occasions, but I just couldn’t do it, and it any case it made good employee relations sense.
So there ended my first experience as a strikebreaker, but not a blackleg. Technically, a blackleg (or scab, to use the more emotive term) is someone who is part of the same workgroup as the strikers, often a union member but at least eligible for union membership, but who, for whatever reason doesn’t support the strike decision.
All blacklegs are strikebreakers, but not all strikebreakers are blacklegs – anyone who carries out the work of the strikers, but is not a normal member of their workgroup or union is a strikebreaker. So the BBC staff who cover the news outlets during the new strike may or may not be blacklegs, but they are undoubtedly strikebreakers. Before either applauding them or condemning them, consider the pressures that may be placed on them.
The primary considerations are contractual: they may in fact have no choice under the terms of their contract, which may demand flexibility for emergency cover. This leaves a stark choice – resign (or be fired) or do as you are asked. This is a much harder choice than the one facing the strikers, who in normal circumstances are only placing their contract in temporary suspension, except in the very rare cases where the employer fires the strikers.
The secondary considerations involve practical self-interest in many cases, e.g. if the strike which you were not a part of - and perhaps don’t agree with - threatens your livelihood.
And perhaps the most complex factors involve moral and professional judgements on the impact of the strike on others. As we have seen most recently firemen, like most essential service providers, find it difficult and sometimes impossible to ignore or suspend their duty to the recipients of the service, even at the cost of union loyalty and self-interest.
The shameful fact is that this high principle is often shamelessly exploited by their employers.
My last act of career lunacy occurred in the late 1970s with Scottish & Newcastle, as they then were styled, in the Newcastle Breweries, home of the legendary Broon – Newcastle Brown Ale. I was the Distribution Personnel Manager, a role that was predominantly an industrial relations one, and the local union branch (8/223 branch of the T&GWU) representing the draymen, was notoriously litigious. The district office of the T&G had little control over this branch, even though the Regional Secretary, Joe Mills, had been a former draymen and branch secretary of 8/223.
(Joe, a wonderfully influential and pragmatic man, and a superb negotiator, was effectively the man who brought one Tony Blair, an ambitious young lawyer, to the attention of the Labour Party in Sedgefield as a prospective Parliamentary candidate. Joe died a few years back, but I like to think that he would have repudiated with disgust and horror most of what his protégé subsequently did.)
At this time, the industrial relations in the Newcastle Breweries were the worst – and most bizarre – in the Scottish & Newcastle Group, and they were complicated by criminal activity among a minority that resulted in some draymen being detained in Durham Jail at Her Majesty’s pleasure. At one point, in negotiations over the buyout by management of an ill-fated productivity deal, which was yielding megabucks to the draymen but actually inhibiting productivity and the move to containerisation of long-haul deliveries, a serious suggestion was tabled by 8/223 branch that the company either purchase on their behalf Red Rum, the racehorse, or alternatively, buy them their own tanker vehicle.
This was compounded by the company’s plan to break up the old city centre complex into decentralised depots throughout the North East. Managers trying to stay afloat in this maelstrom were being threatened by 8/223 branch with legal action for libel, notably the Distribution Manager, Fred Barber, a formidable East Londoner, and myself. The early stages of litigation seemed imminent (the branch had a very capable legal firm representing them) and Fred and I went to top management, to be told that effectively we were on our own in the face of such litigation, and would receive no company support or funding to fight it.
We were both senior managers, but promptly joined yet another nascent management union, this time ASSET, which was part of the T&GWU, with the same district secretary, Joe Mills. It was a short-lived membership – senior Board members were first incredulous, then furious. My functional boss, John Benson, said I had gone off my head: the draymen, meanwhile were convulsed with laughter, and Joe Mills rolled his eyes heavenwards when told who his new members were. It all was quietly forgotten as Maggie came to power and the reorganisation, with consequential redundancies, broke the power of 8/223 branch.
So, if you ever think that industrial relations is a simple matter of common sense and justice and equality, think again … The Byzantine Empire could not have rivalled the contradictions, moral dilemmas, realpolitik and expediency of the real thing.
Good luck, strikers of the BBC. I’m on your side. And good luck to the Stephen Duffys and others who are covering the news – I’m not quite on your side, but I do understand, and above all, I don’t judge you – I’ve been there, mate!