Part 3: On the 1970 Situationist Reorientation Debate, the Never Work(ing) worker. Mayakovsky / Tatlin & the Red Brigades …….plus Jean’s strike
(The following was part of a much longer text written for the use of Loren Goldner who wanted information on the cornucopia of wildcat strikes in the UK – which didn’t end that long ago – and was read out, simultaneously translated to an assembly of South Korean radical workers in 2006. So why include here? Well, simply because there is a hidden connection in that process, that transcendence of real creativity in a hoped for future of unstoppable, imaginative mass uprisings. It is also a leaflet with a difference because it is informed and amusing at the same time as it grabs attention. Such an approach is still part of what is essentially needed even if nowadays it would most likely appear in blog format. Moreover, in one of those amazing coincidences Jean used to sign on Michel Prigent at Lissom Grove UBO in west London and Michel used to regularly talk to her saying he liked her demeanour and openness little knowing she was what was once called the girlfriend! Jean’s lively account of the strike was presumed lost only to turn up recently among the muck and mildew. (Dave W)
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”(TV sitcom) 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.
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” (TV sitcom) 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.
INSIDE INFO ON THE NORTH LONDON THREE MONTH LONG CIVIL SERVANTS’ STRIKE
(I’m a woman civil servant who has worked for 10 years in one of the offices in dispute).
A strike has taken place by low-paid civil servants over the last 14 weeks across North London D.E. offices. It has also involved Job Centre and DHSS staff who came out in solidarity when they were asked to do UBO (Unemployment Benefit Office) work. They were suspended when they refused. It ended on March 31st in defeat.
Apart from one short news slot on London TV news, it has been virtually blanked in the newspapers, national as well as local London papers. Indeed, it seems La Republicca, the Italian daily, mentioned the dispute more than the English-based newspapers! This has led many of us strikers to conclude that perhaps there might have been an orchestrated conspiracy of silence as it was rumoured that Alan Robertson, the new principal manager for the D.E.s, had Thatcher’s full backing.
Certainly management acted in an unusually hard, but predictably clever, fashion and quickly dampened down and gave into disputes elsewhere in the civil service. Basically, management wanted some issue, to get rid of once and for all the militant disruption which has taken place over the last few years in the North London offices. A few days after the strike started, a mole at Head Office, let us know that one of the top managers had walked out of a meeting saying,“This is the end of the CPSA [civil servants union]. It’s finished.” It seems the Government wanted to inflict a defeat in the heart of North London’s militant offices in preparation for a long attack on civil servants’ work conditions. In order, perhaps, to prepare the stage for the horrendous April social security changes, merit wages and flexibility, YTS employment, the privatisation of the Employment Service, the possible abolition of the dole and/or welfare paid through a cash card unit you can’t argue with! No civil servants. No problem. No claimants. No problem.
Since the amalgamation of Job Centres and UBOs under the new title of Employment Service, staff at some North London UBOs would be compulsorily re-deployed to Job Centres without then filling the subsequent UBO vacancies. Previously, transfers had been conducted on a voluntary basis with the union. Camden ‘A’ was selected as the pilot office. On Dec. 21st (just before Xmas and fitting in well with increasing managerial sadism) casuals at Job Centres were sacked and those – on a last-in first-out basis - at Camden ‘A’ UBO were compulsorily transferred to the Job Centre. One girl casual in tears came to say goodbye to her friends in the UBO.
There was an immediate angry response and the strike started. On Jan. 11th, after a ballot, Marylebone ‘A’ and ‘B’ and Westminster UBO walked out in support of their Camden colleagues. From then on the dispute accelerated to affect 30 to 35 UBOs, Job Centres and DHSS offices in North London.
Initially the strike was a spontaneous angry response to managerial diktat. Strikers visited other offices to win support. Very quickly, however, the strike got taken over by Militant and SWP Trotskyists who tried to use the strikers as cannon-fodder for their own party political ends. Some non-party strikers didn’t like the fact that SWP members were usually the ones to visit offices because they knew colleagues elsewhere would be suspicious of their motives.
As more offices joined in, mass meetings were held every Friday in Camden’s claimants union* office, who were expecting any day to be evicted by the Labour Party-controlled Camden Council. In no time a self-elected strike committee, comprised mainly of SWP members, came into existence. After that the meetings were totally monopolised by the SWP, who used the occasion to have their own private (but much publicised) battle with Militant (who, in their turn, had a lot of influence on the official, NEC-appointed, disputes committee). Macreadie, deputy Gen.Sec. of the CPSA (Civil & Public Servants Association) and Militant member, was present on the platform at all these mass meetings. Basically, Militant didn’t want the dispute escalated, while the SWP wanted an all-out London strike.
There was, in fact, a token one-day, all-out London strike on Feb. 18th. Brixton UBO wanted to come out in support but was denied strike pay by the NEC. Macreadie didn’t really want to see the strike extended to South London. In fact, Brixton did come out for a while and some staff there stayed out to the end.
After the mass meetings, Macreadie would report back to the NEC about the strikers’ decisions. Finally, after weeks of procrastination, a ballot was prepared for an all-out London strike but the rider that Macreadie and the NEC had decided there should be no strike pay from the coffers of the CPSA, which is one of the richest unions in the UK. It was a calculated shoot-yourself-in-the-foot policy, which (as was probably intended) gave hard-nosed management a good laugh. As it was, after a low turnout, with only 60% of CPSA members voting, and with some offices not having ballots, the voting was reasonably close: 41% for, 59% against. Nobody really expected any other result. And, like the miners before us, we’ve returned to work without any agreement, which has filled more than a few of us with the horrors.
The mass meetings became jargon-slanging matches with many determined and well-meaning strikers not realising what was going on. Generally, the same long-winded boring speakers would have their say every week. They weren’t talking to the meeting but trying to prove themselves to their party. A lot of strikers felt too intimidated by this speechifying party atmosphere to ask questions. Moreover, all speakers had to submit their questions to the chair and many questions were passed over with the excuse of insufficient time. One excellent proposal suggesting that there should be a mass picket targetting on a particular office decided secretly the night before (a tactic which would have terrified many scabs and possibly would have gained much needed publicity) wasn’t even considered because it was a non-party proposal **. Tactics in fact, didn’t emanate directly from the mass meeting but had been decided on in advance in closed party sessions: In fact, the different Trotskyists didn’t want direct action and relaxed open communication, but behaved as pressure groups on lumbering union bureaucratic procedure. Because all real discussion was suppressed, the meetings finally degenerated into mad debates on any unrelated, fashionable issue. One of the last meetings spent half the time drooling on about whether members could smoke or not!
Non-Militant, non-SWP strikers got rapidly pissed-off and didn’t turn up for further meetings. Then strikers started to get suspicious about what was being discussed between the strike committee and management. Management let it be known to the scabs that all the strike committee wanted to talk about was SBS (Staff Basing Scheme) figures, which they wanted to stay over the 10% level. It wasn’t what Camden ‘A’ had walked-out over in the first instance. Issues were being slung-in by the self-elected strike committee which strikers knew nothing about and weren’t informed about. This resulted in more scabbing, plus the fact that the strike seemed to be going nowhere.
Towards the end of the strike, a union rank ‘n’ file group called “Workhouse” produced leaflets criticizing the running of the strike (a little too late). They had valid points (e.g. condemning the party political games, emphasising the need to take control of the strike fund, etc.) but after so much manipulation of strikers one was left with the feeling - maybe they had an axe to grind! ***
In the militant offices in North London, because management over the years has been pushed back a lot, there’s often quite a merry-prankster, bawdy, joking atmosphere which can make it a pleasure to be with your work-mates. It’s been said of one of these UBOs that strikes there are an unholy alliance of the hard left and the hard drinkers. Some of this atmosphere got carried over into the strike. Although the dispute was a serious business, the way it was conducted meant the strike became farcical. Joking was one the outcomes. In fact, in no time at all, the jokers occupied the front rows at the meetings purely to wind-up the platform and to bring in a bit of comic relief. When arguing over dates for an all-out London strike (the 14th or 28th of March) one hard-drinking striker loudly said, “April the 1st would be more appropriate”. Another loudly mused, “Is Macreadie anaemic?” Another proclaimed, after a meeting’s conclusion, that “1 haven’t had so much fun since my leg fell off." This repartee got the Trotskyists furious. Other comments were more serious. One person asked, if Macreadie and co. would contribute 50% of their wages towards the hardship fund. The platform remained silent.
A lot of UBO/ DHSS staff earn a lot less than a sizable proportion of the claimants moonlighting in-the black economy (& good luck to them). Throughout the 1980s, because we’ve been constantly standing up against further incursions by the Tory government plus a growing recognition of just how badly paid we1re, there's been a growing sympathy from many claimants ****.
In one of our local West London pubs, where UBO staff were having an Xmas drink, a claimant gave a bottle of champagne, with a nod and a wink, to a desk clerk. Delighted cheers all round!
It’s unfortunate, but during the strike it was the poor claimants who were the real ones to suffer. Outside one office, pickets on a stint were confronted, on a bitterly cold winters’ day, by a Mam and Dad with 2 kids who had no socks on their blue-with-cold tiny feet. These parents were enquiring about emergency payments. The pickets were devastated, and suggested a whip-round to help them. In other circumstances, this has happened before in the past.
Of all people, though, the fraud squad was running emergency offices for pay-outs. One such was Paddington Green church hall. In fact, there were heavy scenes and police were constantly called in. Obviously, the fraud squad were scabs and ready to fill-in for striking staff but also they did this “service” with an eye to their future career. Obviously too they were trying to nail claimants who were claiming and working. Job Club and Restart didn’t strike (though in the one-day strike against YTS in late 1987 some Restart staff did strike).
Although receiving half take-home pay from the CPSA, strikers supplemented their hand-outs by finding jobs - ironically, considering our function - in the black economy. When doing these jobs, they were afraid to say they were striking UBO / Job Centre staff because they were often working alongside people who were signing on. Strikers were worried in case some claimant recognised them and thought they were undercover fraud squad agents!
Once it became apparent we were being manipulated by the SWP and others, a lot of strikers virtually forgot about the strike - even though they’d never cross picket lines. They silently got their heads down waitressing, baking croutons in a bakery, pairing up shoes in a shoe factory, handing out rush-hour free mags, etc. Sadly, quite a few of the best people who could have made an imaginative contribution to the strike left the civil service during the course of the dispute. The danger is that this could make the scabs cockier.
We returned to work on the 31st of March, defeated, but with our heads held high, to be told “welcome back” by management. Maybe this was an individual response but it makes one suspicious. A lot of the scabs looked shame-faced and so they should - the amount of overtime they had been clocking up meant they had been doing very well by stabbing their striking colleagues in the back.
Management seems to be wary of crowing too much because of the imminent restructuring of the civil service. It's going to mean many fights in the offing.
APRIL 1st 1988.
This was reproduced, without the solicitation of the author, by B.M. C. The following footnotes are entirely B.M. C.'s.
* During the strike some people at Camden Claimants.Union. wanted to produce a leaflet in support of the strike but claimed they couldn't as the council had cut off their funds. This was a poor excuse - they could easily have got them printed at other C.U.s. The excuse was probably to hide more secret reasons: as a claimant from another C.U. said of Camden C.U., "What gets put out doesn't depend on what you say but who you are... Camden C.U. is largely organised around cliques ..."
** The outright rejection of even a discussion of mass picketting could have been a starting-point for a challenge both to the bureaucrats, and to the union form of the struggle: in order to discuss such basic actions a completely different form of struggle has to arise. It's worth considering some of the struggles elsewhere, whose actions could be exemplary. Like, for instance, the French railway workers' strike of 1986-87. There, over a month before the strike, a class-conscious train driver put out a petition calling for a pledge from other drivers to an indefinite strike, listing the various demands. It was asked that this petition/pledge be reproduced and passed round by those in agreement. It received an overwhelming response, & so later a leaflet was produced by other train drivers, two and a half weeks before the strike. also to be reproduced and passed around: it clearly put the strikers' demands, stating exactly when the strike would begin, asking for the unions involved to support the strike, threatening them if they didn't. The strike began without a single command from the unions - and developed partly by means of daily assemblies of strikers held in each station, in which no particular striker held any greater power than any other. Where delegation seemed necessary, it was subject to immediate recall by the assemblies. Of course, many exemplary actions - such as sabotage - were carried out without discussion in the assemblies, and occasionally specifically against the desires of the majority. But, without wishing to make out that assemblies are some insurance for active comrnittment, they did provide an environment of direct communication which made manipulation largely impossible, and provided the strike with some continuity. And it's a challenge to traditional left-wing notions that such a magnificent collective activity had been launched by a simple individual initiative. Of course, you can never mechanistically transplant workers' struggles elsewhere & in other times to the here & now, but they're still well worth considering, & applying to different circumstances.
***At a meeting on the Wednesday before the return to work strikers from Workhouse put forward - as a bloc - the idea of returning to work on the Tuesday after bank holiday, rather than the Thursday before Good Friday, an idea also hoped for by sections of management. After all, since every striker knew they were returning on the Thursday just to get their two day holiday money, it could only mean that Workhouse was, as one striker put it, "just wanting to be different."
**** See, for instance, the (mostly) excellent leaflet, "The strike and other struggles - some views from a claimant's perspective".
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