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.

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