28 February 2013

Part 2 of An Awakening: the road from Walsall to London

Back to the early 1980’s in Walsall and the impending introduction of what was called and now seems a rather quaint expression, New Technology.

The IR Board decided that before the COP programme was rolled out nationwide there would be a pilot run in the West Midlands area. Offices from Walsall, Wolverhampton, Cannock, Stafford, Oswestry and Dudley were chosen. A peculiar choice but the Board were cute. The offices chosen were not known for any radical bias or even huge union activity plus these were towns were jobs were going down the sewers faster than storm water and so the Board thought they might get an easy ride. They were mistaken!

 There was a massive worry for the civil servants in the IR that the introduction of new technology would cause massive job losses and compulsory redundancies. This was a frightening thought for those who had been around for the while and really believed that they had a job for life, unless they were completely useless of course. So the main thrust of the IRSF was to secure a New Technology Agreement (NTA) with a no compulsory redundancy clause. As time went by it became clear to the union that the NTA was going to be very difficult to obtain and meetings between the higher echelons of the union and the ordinary office secretaries in the 14 pilot districts became frequent. They rolled out all the big names in their attempts to ensure that the office secretaries and chairpersons, plus the local branch committees were onside. Looking back on my youth I suppose I was impressed. Tony Christopher was the General Secretary and he visited every office to chat with the members. Clive Brook was a Deputy GS and usually chaired most of the meetings with us. Liz Symons didn't play such a large roll because she dealt with what were mainly issues in the Collection section of the IR but I met her often enough. There was also the Executive Committee, some of whom became personal friends.

Time began to run short. COP was due to go live on 1st January 1984. Shades of Big Brother ran deep. The date was deeply significant at the time. How easily we forget. Prior to the system going live though there had to be the process whereby all the clerical records were transferred to the online system. This was known as setting up and boy was that period instrumental in persuading people that the union had the right idea about a NTA.

The potential NTA wasn't just about a no redundancy clause but all the other niggling little things that seemed so frightening at the time. There was a big fuss about VDU’s emitting low level radiation and the defects that this could potentially cause to the unborn foetus. So allowing pregnant women to not work on VDU’s was an important element. So were eye tests and financial help for people who only required spectacles for VDU work. Then there were the ergonomics, the furniture, the postures and RSI. All were seen as real potential problems for which agreement needed to be reached with regard to protecting individuals and their health.

At the time that setting up began, the majority of the 14 pilot districts were in deep trouble with regard to work on hand. As I said in my earlier blog, there were massive amounts of repayments to process, plus there had been staff cuts, which had gone by natural wastage. The workload had increased but the staff numbers had decreased. Result? The office that I worked in had always been very proud of constantly reporting no work on hand that was older than 14 days from receipt, found itself in a situation where there were thousands of pieces of post older than 2 months old and no matter how hard you worked, the figures never got any smaller. Although I have never agreed with overtime, it is interesting to note that Mrs Thatcher had instigated a complete overtime ban throughout the civil service and no overtime was allowed.

We were now faced with a setting up period that was to last between 10 and 12 weeks, when virtually no other work would be done in the office. The post would come in and would be piled up to be dealt with in about 6 months time or so we hoped. All the ‘annual cycle’ jobs that had to be done in addition to normal day-to-day work were being left and because of this normal day to day work increased due to the knock on effect of not dealing with the annual stuff. It was a vicious circle!

The setting up began in earnest in September 1983. We started with that year's Tax Returns still unexamined, several months worth of post on hand and the telephones ringing off the hook due to the backlog of work.

Each taxpayer (they're called customers now!) had back then, a real life file and what was known as a concard, short for control card. The concard detailed individuals personal details such as name, address, date of birth, national insurance number, their recent employment history, if tax returns had been issued and if they had been returned, name of spouse and where they were dealt with, details of any other current jobs and on the reverse was a breakdown of around seven years worth of code numbers, pay and tax details and whether or not a person was underpaid, overpaid etc. All of this information on the concard had to be transferred to create an online record. In theory some of the information was already supposed to be there such as name, address, NI number etc, in practice there was nothing for about 80%.

We sat there for the working day of seven and half hours and inputted information staring at a green VDU screen. Now remember that back then few people had keyboard skills in the way they have now. This inputting was a plodding, slow process using just two fingers to type for the great majority. In addition we had training (ha ha) for using the new system, which you will appreciate was vastly different to a manual system and the bloody telephones never stopped ringing and the general public never stopped coming in to see us, wondering why we never answered the telephone or letters, or dealt with repayment claims and so on.

People started developing stress related illnesses. They also started developing dry eyes, headaches, backaches, achy fingers and wrists. Morale already low, now hit rock bottom. The Board of Inland Revenue educated the members of the IRSF in a way the union could never have done with regard to the absolute necessity of an NTA.

The Union leadership had decided that the way to entice the Board to the table with regard to the NTA was to take them to court. I believe the thinking ran along the lines of  the Board had broken our contract of employment by introducing a new way of working without our agreement and that the new way of working was so intrinsically different to the old way that we were entitled to some input as to how changes were to be implemented. That's how I remember it.

With much intensive prompting I was persuaded to become a plaintiff along with seven other sacrificial lambs, against the Board of Inland Revenue. I got some idea of what this might involve from the constant travelling to and from London to meet with solicitors etc to prepare affidavits and then swear them and all the other stuff that becomes part of the deal of taking your employer to court....whoa, taking the Board of Inland Revenue to the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand? That's big stuff! These men (they were all men back then) in dark suits who every now and then put in an appearance in a local office just to see how the other half lived, were my employers and could make life very difficult for me and any future career I thought I might have had. I was young, still pretty much like a dustbin in that I took everything in and believed people when they spoke to me. I didn't lie, so I never thought other people would lie either. I can't believe that I was so naive in that respect and yet so bloody street wise in other ways. I suppose back then I still intrinsically trusted people and certainly I lacked the cynicism that comes with experience.

The papers were prepared, ready to serve but first we had a vote on industrial action to see through and then to ensure that the action actually took place.

A vote was held amongst the members in the 14 pilot districts along the lines of that as there was no NTA, we would refuse to work and operate the new system from its go live date of 1st January 1984. We would continue to work on a clerical basis but refuse to switch those VDU's on. The vote was won by a massive majority despite the fact that individuals had been made aware of precisely what would happen to them if they refused to work the online system. We all approached 1984 with much trepidation but believing that our cause was both reasonable and fair.

Meetings were frantic and convened at a moments notice. I remember Frank Winrow, the local liaison officer, calling me on Boxing Day 1983 to ask me to get into London the next morning and being unable to get any sense out of me because I was drunk. Well I was having a party at home that day! I got there.

I got into work nice and early on 'go live day'. I wasn't alone and on orders from above, the District Inspectors in each of the pilot districts had also had an early wake up call in order that they could switch all the VDU’s in their office on, so that a new year message from the Board of IR would greet every person. I don’t remember exactly what was on the screen that morning but it was something along the lines of ‘be good girls and boys because we’ll get nasty and big brother is watching you’. I turned my VDU off. Everyone else in my office apart from the non-members did the same, as did the vast majority of the PAYE staff in the other pilot districts.

We carried on working clerically and for a while nothing happened. To be honest many found it a pleasure to return to what they knew and had been trained for rather than something that they had received very little training for but were expected to get to grips with immediately. There were furtive telephone calls to see what was happening elsewhere but nothing was happening. Until lunchtime that is. Then I got a call informing me that in one of the Dudley districts the first six staff had been TRD’d and the rest were to follow. TRD means Temporarily Relieved from Duty.

I immediately ran around the office informing everyone of what was happening over on the other side of the Black Country. Some who had friends in that office started making phone calls, others started singing “we shall not be moved”. This surprised me no end. My office was pretty non-combative under normal circumstances. It was also an ‘old’ office in terms of its profile. Some of the women had worked for the Revenue for over 30 years and had never been involved in industrial action before apart from the odd one day strike. Some were within 1 to 3 years of retirement and therefore would suffer financially by embarking on industrial action so close to their retirement. Yet here was something that had motivated them to consider their younger colleagues and their futures. Here they were singing we shall not be moved. I admit that I popped down to the ladies loo and shed a tear.

I popped in to see my boss for an informal chat. I was one of the lucky union reps in that my boss was a decent man who supported the action although of course, at the time he never admitted it and he had his job to do as dictated by the Board. He told me that he would be starting to interview us all in order to TRD us within the hour. He was just awaiting his final orders. He said that although he had been informed that he wasn't supposed to allow it, he wanted me to sit in on all the interviews and he would then suspend me last of all. The orders for the DI’s were to suspend the Office Secretaries and Whitley committee members first, so that they would not be available to offer moral support to their members.

I was glad he did this because it gave me chance to get around everyone and get their last salary slip, so that IRSF HQ would know how much strike pay to make. Looking back I can see how hard this was for some of the maturer people I worked with. Not only were they doing something they had never done before but also they were putting their pensions in danger and having to give their salary slips to some chit of a girl!

The actual TRD interviews went smoothly and that was down to the boss. He had a set script, which he had to stick to but he was human. Each person was asked if they would turn on their VDU and return to working ‘normally’. Each person said no they would not but that they were happy to work clerically until the Board signed an NTA with the union. Each person was then told that because they were refusing to work ‘normally’ they were being temporarily relieved of duties, so would they collect their personal possessions and leave the building. They were warned that this was a formal disciplinary process and further action may be taken against them and could result in them being dismissed from service. In some offices people were escorted from the premises. Finally it was my turn. Following the formal bit the boss asked me to pop in on a regular basis for a cup of coffee. I promised him I would.

It would be nine weeks before I returned to that office to work and in that time I would grow up in so many ways. I would also appear as a plaintiff at the Royal Courts of Justice, be interviewed on TV and make my first political speeches.

27 February 2013

An awakening: the road from Walsall to London

Following my blog yesterday, my thoughts turned to a series of blogs I originally published over five years ago which told the story of how I became a trade union activist and got involved in politics. That blog has long since been obliterated from the general internet but I was able to dig out the pieces and thought I would share with you a story of an ordinary Aldridge girl and her journey from Walsall to the Royal Courts of Justice in London and being enshrined in case law. These events all happened over 30 years ago, so I suppose it really is history now!

The Inland Revenue Staff Federation, IRSF (now subsumed into the monolithic PCS) was a small almost family like union for employees of the Inland Revenue. I was sweet 16 when I started work and oh so very innocent when it came to politics. I shouldn't have been. Dad was the secretary of the local labour club despite being a life long Tory voter, Mom was a member of the local liberals and I was forever being used to distribute leaflets at election time. All my family were, for some reason, vehemently anti trade union. Politics were always being discussed at home but I suppose most of it passed right over my little head. So when I joined the IR and was approached by the equivalent of a shop steward, quaintly called the Office Secretary, I didn't really want to join. Simon however, a lovely man, had other ideas and said I should join just in case I had any problems over my probationary period. Me thinks he looked at me and saw trouble writ large! So I joined and for a few years nothing really happened.

I took an interest in the local activities. The trade union 'side' comprised of a 'Whitley' committee, in the office who met regularly with management to discuss local issues in what were known as Whitley meetings. To be honest the discussions seemed to revolve around car parking issues, seating issues and parties. However as time went by the plans by the IR to introduce what eventually became the largest online computer system in Europe started to take shape. This was the early 80's and people were losing jobs left right and centre and so we cushioned little souls in the IR were scared. Scared of losing our jobs and our security.

All around us we saw what was happening in our own localities. For example, there used to be a thing in the old days called unemployment repayments. Before benefits became taxable, if you were unemployed you could send your P45 into the local tax office every four weeks and have a repayment processed based upon the free pay that you were not using. Gradually many of the factories in the area we covered started making redundancies and then closing down altogether. When I first started in the IR, as a local case worker I would deal with maybe four or five unemployment repayments per week. They were always given priority and dealt with on the day of receipt. Multiply this by about 40 odd other officers doing the same type of work on the PAYE section and you see the numbers involved. They used to take about 10 minutes to process. By 1982, there were 8 officers working full time on unemployment repayments and nothing else plus a higher grade officer working full time authorising the repayments.

People had husbands, brothers, sisters, wives etc who had been made redundant and were quite aware of what the chances were of finding other employment in the miserable Midlands of Thatcher's Britain, so when 'suits' as we used to call them started arriving from union HQ in London to have little chats with us because the West Midlands had been chosen as the pilot area for COP (Computerisation Of PAYE) people were reasonably easily convinced that their jobs were at risk.

By this time Simon had resigned as office secretary and as there was nobody else interested in taking on the role, I volunteered and had my hand snapped off. I had never heard of 'facilities time', which was what the time you spent on union duties was called and I was gobsmacked when I realised that I had to account for every minute that I did spend on union activities and that there was no corresponding reduction in my allocation of work! Oh baptism of fire, you hadn't even arrived yet! And I should mention that because there had been a freeze on recruitment I was the youngest in the office over 100 people. Not that I ever let that intimidate me!

Much time was spent travelling to union HQ in London and then visiting the actual computer HQ in Telford otherwise known as the National Development Centre. It's funny looking back because that place was filled with all those massive storage unit type computers with discs running on the front....just like the old films. We were not actually going to get computers as such on our desks but VDU's, visual display units, remember them?! Enormous great big things that apparently emitted low level radiation.

However before COP became a reality, there was the education that was 1981 and the long , protracted and probably the most bitter dispute in civil service history, the 1981 Civil Service Pay Dispute, which did actually make the Guinness Book of World records as the UK's longest industrial dispute, for a short time.

Dear Mrs Thatcher in her wisdom had abolished the Pay Research Unit which the Civil Service Unions (CCSU) had stood by for many years. The only hiccup on the horizon up to then had been the short lived 1979 pay dispute which basically added to the burden of the old Labour government and placed a few nails in their coffin. The CCSU made a claim for 15% with a minimum payment of £10 per week (those were the days....double figure pay increases) which was obviously turned down flat and arbitration was refused despite the fact that in theory there was supposed to be unilateral access to arbitration. The members voted and the dispute was born.

I attended my first mass meetings and boy did they grip me. The drama, the passion, the speeches, the cause, like church but so much better and so much more real life! Furthermore here were votes etc I was allowed to participate in because I still wasn't old enough to vote in a general election. It was then that my father baptised me with my new nickname; 'Arthur' after Mr Scargill!

Mass meetings and fervour! £10 a week bottom line sounded good to me. I was on £32 a week which I supplemented by working at the Molineux selling programmes for my beloved Wolves. Now that was a good job. 3 hours on a Saturday afternoon, commission basis, good pitch in the season ticket holders stand, which was brand spanking new, I'm told a pretty face and £40 in my pocket! I used to pray for a good cup run with home draws. I had started selling programmes when I was 14, I lied about my age to get the job. One of the perks was a free ticket into the game. I used to miss about 20 minutes of the first half whilst cashing up but the other perks made up for this.

There were always lots of speakers at the meetings but I do recall Tony Christopher who was then the General Secretary of the IRSF with his 'wilko' type moustache and very posh accent. He was hated by the left but loved by the majority because he felt like a safe pair of hands and sounded so damn reasonable.

The first part of the dispute was a day of action when virtually everyone came out for a one day strike. This I recall was successful and in my own office only six non-members went into work that day. We had a decent picket line outside the office, no laws then limiting numbers and everyone was so polite and nobody was called a scab.

The CCSU wisely decided to bring staff out on a permanent basis from a variety of locations, which were supposed to have maximum impact. I don't recall what other departments were brought out but for the Inland Revenue it was the two Accounts Offices in Shipley and Cumbernauld. These two offices banked all the money going to the exchequer and the strike there did hurt the government as Alan Clarke's diaries testify. They ended up having to get a loan from the IMF to tide them over because during the 20 weeks or so that those two offices were out very little money was banked. Only a few core staff defied the strike and as I discovered on a personal level a few years later, things got very nasty in those two offices.

The rest of us went to work as usual but every week I would have to go around the office and ask for a strike fund contribution. I think it was 50p a week for the lowest paid, £1 for the middle ranks and £2 for the Inspectors etc. The people that were on all out strike were being paid a certain percentage of their salaries each week by the union and so we needed to fund it. Some members refused point blank to make a contribution and I had my fair share of refuseniks.

During the pay campaign I started to attend Branch meetings and eventually I was elected to the Branch Committee. I have to admit that part of the attraction was one or two rather tasty young men but I was still going to meetings long after they had thrown in the towel. This in turn led to me becoming involved in Amnesty, CND and later on other groups, some more savoury than others. My eyes were opened to what was happening around me. The job losses, the factory closures, the way that things were changing forever and how people had to fight to retain any rights they had. Back then it was about group rights, now it is about individual liberties and rights but how much easier it is to erode the liberty of the individual when the rights of groups, unions etc have already gone.

It would be wrong to say that I was radicalised overnight because it was a slow process and a slow awakening and I wasn't truly radicalised until after attending my first union conference in 1984. Now that is a story!

The 1981 pay dispute was later settled, after a full vote by the members of all Civil Service unions, for a measly half a percent more than we had originally been offered. We were one of the first to discover that Thatcher really wasn't for turning. It hurt but not half as much as it hurt the steel workers and the miners for example, who followed us in due course.

One thing I learned very early on was that in order to gain the respect of your local members it was important when running a meeting to keep your own individual opinions to yourself and to merely present the facts and the whys and wherefores. I let others argue. This stood me in good stead with my own local office. At branch level I could never be neutral and I was therefore a revelation to some from my own office when they saw me in action at branch general meetings.

Slowly we got away from the car parking spaces scenario at local Whitley meetings and began to chat with management about more serious issues such as work and the organisation of work. I think my old District Inspector was a little perturbed by all of this especially as this was the same young woman who only 12 months previously was constantly being sent to his office for various misdemeanours. A few years later he confided in me, when I had returned for a retirement party, that he had enjoyed watching me mature in a such a short space of time. Good job he never saw what I got up to outside of work and that nobody ever told him!
That's the end of part 1...I'll be back with a second instalment soon and the full story of how I ended up in the Royal Courts of Justice.

26 February 2013

Conspicuous in absence?

My recent journey has been a little cold and frosty at times!
Perhaps not! You may have noticed that the Mad Old Baggage hasn't been rambling so much of late. I have, just not here. Instead a lot of time and effort has been going into this. The flames that were re-lit last March appear to have grown into a full scale bonfire of local political interest.

I've always taken an interest in politics, particularly local but it's been more years than I care to remember since I was active in any way whatsoever, be it politically, on local issues or as a trade unionist. Aiden's accident rekindled the flame of not taking injustice lying down, so in a way West Midlands Police are to blame for what happened to me one Friday night back in November when the Save Walsall's Green Spaces and Countryside Services was born. I had blogged about my fears for Walsall's Green Spaces before that night but the passion that I felt for this exceptional service run by Walsall Council hit me like a sledgehammer that night (or perhaps it was one glass too many of red wine?) and I knew I couldn't let the council make the budget cuts they were talking about without at least trying to persuade them that there was a path to insanity.

The Campaign became my whole life for a while. I had a steep learning curve to negotiate reading every set of minutes of appropriate committees, examining the new Green Spaces Strategy adopted by Walsall Council, discovering that more could be learned by what hadn't made it into the final Strategy compared with the very successful earlier strategy and reading all manner of reports on parks, green spaces and local nature reserves. Lots of lovely people got in touch with me and helped so much with ideas, information and general advice. I'm not going to name them but you know who you are. Thank you.

The Facebook Group became a lively affair and I discovered that although we all shared a common bond, that didn't necessarily mean that there was agreement about how we should pursue the campaign! Administration work, keeping the blog and Group fully updated ate into my time and then thankfully because I organised a protest outside the Town Hall, the media became interested and in particular BBC WM. Adrian Goldberg must have got fed up with all my umms and errs as week by week I got invited to comment on his engaging morning phone in programme.

On the whole I have enjoyed the experience although at times it has been incredibly stressful. Being invited to give a presentation at a Council Cabinet Meeting was approached with nervous dread and days of preparations but in the end it was actually far less intimidating than meeting senior council officers. The reception was polite and courteous and I felt that the majority of Cabinet members had listened to me and therefore all the voices I was honoured to be representing, albeit there was never any vote for me!

The campaign has had it's dark side too. It is unfortunate that when you stick your head above the parapet some people, with all the backbone of a jellyfish, feel it is their right to email you anonymously and insult and threaten intimidation, name calling along the way. Fortunately it proved to be isolated and although I was shocked at first, I didn't think about it for very long. I've been called worse though usually I did know who was slinging the stones!

The situation with Walsall's Green Spaces has yet to be put to bed, it probably never will be in all honesty but that's OK because I'm not going anywhere. I've enjoyed this experience and feel that I have learned a lot and grown as a person even more. What's more, every time there is a full council meeting I get a night of free entertainment courtesy of our councillors, one or two of whom could do with learning some manners, by attending. I intend to continue and see where this path I've fallen onto takes me and enjoy the walk along the way.

If you're a user or a friend or a worker in any of Walsall's Green Spaces including allotments, nature reserves, parks, village greens or even that bit of scrub down the bottom of the road, you may wish to pop along and 'like' this.