2019, 1889, back to the future

Why You Should Be a Trade Unionist – Len McCluskey (Verso)

2019, Manchester, Royal Mail Sorting Centre, Oldham Road: Sixteen Christmas temps stood against the glass walls of the reception area. It was 5.50am. The receptionist told those by the doors to move away from them. She had an intolerant, rough way with her. ‘Night shift’ll be comin aht ‘ere in a bit.’ She zeroed in on one man. He was possibly Spanish. ‘Weren’t you told not to come back today?’ she demanded. He looked blank. Nervous. ‘Yesterday. You were told not to come back here. Unless you got a text message.’ She was shouting now. The man struggled out a response, something about the letter he had telling him to be there. The woman shrugged and went back behind her reception desk. They all had letters welcoming them to the Royal Mail, and to Christmas temping, telling them they would be employed until around the 24th of December. Eventually, a manager came out of a door at the back. ‘Right’ he said, with a performed incredulity, ‘has no-one been in touch?’ Nobody replied. ‘You must have heard that the strike is off, it’s been ruled illegal, so none of you are needed’ he continued, with a Sergeant Major undertone. ‘But seeing as you are here’ he said ‘you can do a single shift of eight hours and then that is it.’ They all milled in silence. ‘Forget it’ one of them said, and walked out. As he was walking out, the manager said ‘any of you others want to leave, please do.’ As he walked across the car park he looked back, to see the others filing into the vast mail centre. He went home and phoned in a grievance with Royal Mail, as he had been allotted a payroll number. The man on the phone advised him that the manager in question must respond within 14 days. ‘What will happen if he doesn’t?’ he asked. ‘Nothing. Nothing happens, you’re on your own.’

1889, London docks 130 years ago: Dockers shuffle around a large shed waiting for the ‘call-on’, the point when men will be selected for work. They hope it will be a full day of work, but sometimes it is as little as two hours. When the bosses arrive, there will be a scrum to try to get picked. Outside, a row was brewing over ‘plus money’ paid for fast work when unloading the Lady Armstrong in the West India Dock. The East and West India Dock Company sometimes cut these rates to try to persuade ships to unload with them. Eventually, the dockers walked out. Gradually, others also walked out in protest. The situation turned by degrees into something like a general strike. The Evening News & Post reported on the 26th of August 1889, that if ‘it goes on a few days longer, all London will be on holiday.’ Seamen, firemen, lightermen, watermen, ropemakers, fish porters, bargemen, cement workers, carmen, ironworkers and factory girls all came out in support of the dockers. ‘The great machine by which five millions of people are fed and clothed will come to a dead stop, and what is to be the end of it all?’ the Evening News & Post asked. The dockers formed a strike committee, but it quickly used up its funds. Eventually, Brisbane Wharf Labourers’ Union in Australia raised £30,000 for the London, largely East End, dockers and families. This strengthened the determination of the strikers and allowed them to win. A government body was formed, known as The Mansion House Committee. It persuaded the companies to agree to nearly all of the dockers’ demands. The dockers then formed a new General Labourers’ Union. In London, nearly 20,000 joined it.

Manchester, 2019: The Royal Mail strike that the manager of the incoming 6am shift referred to was over job security, terms and conditions. It was almost unanimously backed. 97% voted in favour of action, on an almost 76% turnout. It was overruled by Mr Lord Justice Swift at High Court. Swift ruled that members voting at work equalled ‘improper interference’ with the ballot. A well-known QC was criticised, earlier this year, for claiming on Twitter that Mr Justice Swift had ‘a reputation for being very Government minded’. The subsequent appeal over his Royal Mail strike ruling was thrown out. Outside the Court of Appeal, CWU’s Tony Kearns said ‘we’ve got a 97 per cent yes vote on a 75 return. It is the clear democratic will of the employees of Royal Mail and members of the CWU to take strike action, as is their human right, and we’ve seen here today, in a matter of seconds, three appeal court judges override that democracy.’ He added ‘there is something inherently wrong with the legal system in this country’, it ‘is clearly now stacked against workers.’ Last year Royal Mail were blasted for handing new CEO Rico Back £6m to run the business from Switzerland.

October, 2019: The Labour Party warned that Boris Johnson’s revised Brexit deal undermined the future of workers’ rights. These concerns were then endorsed and expanded by many union leaders. The concept of the ‘level playing field’ in EU countries was removed as a legal requirement from the last EU withdrawal agreement Boris Johnson attempted to have passed, after his controversial suspension of Parliament, or the ‘prorogation’, which was eventually ruled illegal. Here we can see how much of our future outside the EU will be a case of ‘back to the future’. Back to the future of praying not to be allotted what Orwell called a ‘gouty old bully’ of a judge, and instead to be allotted a progressive one. ‘It’s Business As Usual’, Royal Mail’s website announces.

Manchester, 2020: After the disastrous general election of December 2020 Verso issues this book. It is excellent, clear, contemporary in its examples and historically informed. I made a point of reading it in my local leisure centre sauna. ‘Trade unions, they’re not a thing anymore, right?’ one guy asked. Another complained that the supermarket branch of Usdaw he was a member of was ‘in the pocket’ of management.

He has since left the supermarket and is now an Uber driver. He also complained of no-work-no-pay, putting in long hours and struggling to get by.

Review ends.

– Steve Hanson

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