1 March 2013

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

439 people in total were suspended. The first days were busy, setting up the machinery for making strike payments (no computers!), setting up support networks and a cascade system for keeping people up to date with what was happening and making sure that people were not feeling isolated because if that happened there might be a trickle back to work. I am happy to say that not one person went back to work early.

The Board were served with the writ from me and the other plaintiffs and we were given an imminent court date,so there was little time for final preparations but I did manage to get my hair done! Suitcase was packed and then off to London.

The seven plaintiffs were well looked after, there was always someone available for a chat or to help. Some people I will never forget. Martin Beaver was the journalist in charge of union publications and was from Wolverhampton. I was forever taking the micky out of him and his pink leather ties, asking what the folks back home in Wolverhampton would think if they could see his ties. Men just didn't wear pink in those days! Martin was very good to me. He gave me a place to stay on a temporary basis when I moved to London a short while later and was a shoulder to cry on when needed. Tom Hedley and his smoking pipes, hand in his pocket to buy a drink and a friendly personality. Les Priestly, all six foot thirteen of him and his big booming Yorkshire voice, that I shall forever feel ringing in my ears when later in the year at the IR National Sports Day when he couldn't quite get over seeing me in a pair of athletic knickers. Ron Seddon, a Coventry lad and fan and his cheery smile and personality to match plus he could always be relied upon to pull a silly stunt. Benign father figure Clive Boote, President at that time and an Inspector too (way out of my league of life experience at the time). Finally Fraser Whitehead, solicitor to  the union and all round good egg! Poor Fraser, I don’t think he ever knew what quite to make of this gobby Midlander, who spoke her mind but was guileless  We always called him Fraser Pimple and I will never forget that one day he walked in a heard one of us calling him that nickname. A deathly silence ensued until Fraser burst into genuine laughter when he realised that we were in fact talking about him. Fraser was a terribly posh, dashing sort of fellow, who drove a fast car and had a rather lovely young woman draped over his arms at weekends but he was totally committed to the labour movement and was so kind. When the case was finally over he took us out for a meal at his own expense. It was the first time I tasted whitebait and all because I wanted to make jokes about white heads, white bait and pimples.

I really don’t remember what I expected when I arrived at the Royal Courts of Justice but I do know that I didn't expect to be confronted with the whole of the Board of Inland Revenue standing outside court number 14. I and the other plaintiffs were intimidated and bloody scared. We were allowed to sit at the back of the court and observe the proceedings and the way the court worked. This helped a little because the surroundings and the barristers became familiar to us, as did the judge, Justice Walton. Our barrister Eldred Tabachnik seemed terribly old but on reflection was probably incredibly young.

The only thing that never became any less frightening was the Board. They sat as near to the front as they were allowed. Anyone would think that they didn't have a department to run. Clearly they were taking this case extremely seriously and this became more apparent when our personnel files were spotted in the courtroom by one of the IRSF secretariat. Possibly, allowing someone to spot them was a deliberate ploy by the Board in order to intimidate us plaintiffs but it actually made me very angry. How dare they? I knew the strict rules regarding access to personnel files and the Board of IR certainly did not have any right of access under such circumstances. They were told in no uncertain terms that the files should be returned, unmarked to the Personnel Office in Solihull immediately. A union official then made sure that the request had been complied with in full and it had.

Eventually after watching the proceedings for a few days, it was time to give evidence. Our local branch secretary, Greg went first. He was the same age as me but much more  politically aware and active than myself and was firmly entrenched on the left of the union. Greg acquitted himself  well and then it was my turn.

I walked up to the witness stand with my throat completely dry and my legs shaking. I was more nervous than I had ever been in my life. I took the oath quietly and Justice Walton turned to me and in that gloriously patronising way that old men always had back then when talking to young women but that you just don’t see now except in the House of Commons when being told to calm down, said “ My dear, I do appreciate that it is more difficult for you, being a woman, but please speak up so that we can all hear you.” I started to smirk and everyone sitting at the back of the court that knew me started laughing. Justice Walton glared at everyone and we returned to soberness.

Eldred took me through my affidavits, clarifying certain points and raising one or two other questions for which I had been thoroughly prepared. Then the Board’s barrister stood up. He started gently enough, asking a few daft questions but then he began what was a hatchet job on my affidavit, basically calling me a liar in a posh legal way. I looked up at the whole of the Board sitting there up front. Their smug faces, their suits, their grey hair, their confidence, everything about them annoyed me and for some reason two lines of an old Hazel O’Connor song sprang to mind: “Give me an inch, and I'll take me a mile. Give me the distance from your supercilious smile”. I felt my confidence grow and I felt my anger grow. How dare this man, taking orders from these other obnoxious men before me, tell ME the person doing the job, that I was wrong about what I had said about how I did my job pre and post COP? How dare they call me a liar? I didn't lie and what’s more I was bloody good at my job and knew a damn sight more about it than any of them! All my fear and nerves disappeared through the roof of court number 14. I met the barrister’s eyes, locked in and gave him what for. I remember seeing Justice Walton suddenly sit up in his chair and start paying attention. I made sure that the court knew that I knew my job. I was polite, I didn't swear and I certainly made myself heard!

Following my evidence I do recall words such as self-confident, belligerent, enthusiastic, verbose, combative, wise, being banded about. I walked out of the courts and over the road to the Pen and Wig where I allowed a kind person to buy a bottle of wine that I downed very quickly.

Something inside me did click that day. I didn't lose all of my naivety all at once and I certainly didn't become cynical overnight but my eyes had been well and truly opened.

A few weeks later when the case was over and the verdict known I attended a press conference in Wolverhampton and was asked to do an interview for TV news. I did the interview and afterwards Clive Boote, who had been watching me and had spent a lot of time with all the plaintiffs over the previous few weeks, asked me if I would be attending conference that May. I said I would be. Clive turned to me and said, “Please don’t go, you’re unique the way you are and conference will ruin you.” I had no idea at the time what he meant. It is only as we mature that wisdom and hindsight intermingle to let you see what it was someone was trying to tell you. He was right.

The case concluded the following week. Justice Walton said he would deliver his verdict in about 10 days, so it was wait and see time. Back home it was down to the nitty gritty of keeping up the morale of everyone who had been suspended, writing out strike pay cheques, dealing with a million and one queries from my members and wondering if I would still have a job at the end of all this.

We lost of course. When Justice Walton started reading his judgement (and this during the week when Mrs Thatcher had announced the trade union ban at GCHQ) I thought for a few minutes that we had won. I was  devastated. It was about slavery you see. As civil servants we didn't have a contract of employment, apparently, not in the usual understanding of the term. We were in fact slaves of the crown and should work in any way the crown saw fit. If there had been a contract of employment we would still have lost because according to the judge, an employer is entitled to vary the terms of the contract as long as there is no huge fundamental change to working practices. I guess the introduction of a whole new way of working wasn't really a fundamental change! The case is now enshrined in case law and regularly comes up in studies. Cresswell and Others v Board of Inland Revenue, if you’re interested.

Talks went on for a while as to whether or not there should be an appeal but in the end there was never any.

So the union and the Board sat down again and started thrashing out a new technology agreement and we in the pilot districts continued suspended until the situation could be resolved.

I was invited to speak at branch Spring General Meetings. I couldn't believe that, I mean who the hell wanted to listen to what I had to say? Well it seems that the world was populated with foolish folks who thought I might have something worth listening to. After my virgin speech, I grew to love it and gradually I became very heavily involved with the Union at all levels.

We did get a NTA but there was no compulsory redundancy clause. However it did contain all the other safeguards that we wanted regarding working practices, ergonomic safety and so on. No longer would people have to sit for seven and half hours per day at a VDU without a break except for lunch, both during the setting up period and afterwards. Compulsory breaks of ten minutes per hour were introduced. I think that ended up being my personal bogey (it wasn't enough imho because it was only a break from the VDU screen and not work, you merely did something else) because due to promotions and transfers I ended up going through a district setting up period a further three times. Once was enough. Four times was purgatory.

The NTA was seen as a model for many others and was adapted and adopted by many businesses both in the public and private sectors. I suppose that on reflection it was a good agreement for all concerned although it didn't seem that way at the time.

The return to work was awful in that there was now almost 12 months post on hand, two lots of tax returns to examine and all the other jobs that hadn't been done for nigh on two years and yet we got stuck in and with a little help from those now familiar scourges, temporary appointments and casuals, inroads were made into the mountains.

The day after we returned to work I was on the telephone just after lunch when I noticed that everyone in the office was making a beeline for my desk. The telephone went down and I sat silent (made a change) wondering what the hell was going on. They all gathered around my desk, the boss too and I was presented with a bouquet of flowers and a box of chocolates accompanied by a card signed by everyone. They thanked me for looking after them during the dispute and for being their representative at the high court hearing. I am not ashamed to say that I wept with the wonderful emotions that swept over me. I couldn't believe that they thought I deserved anything. I was just doing what I wanted to do because I believed we were right and that I cared about the people I worked with.

A few weeks later I was weeping again at another presentation, when my long awaited promotion came through and I was transferred elsewhere.

And that is the end of the awakening. I was involved with the IRSF in one form or another until I took redundancy from the Revenue in 1996. I do miss it I suppose (the union stuff not the Revenue), the meetings, and the arguments, the debating; feeling alive and hoping that in some small way I made a difference to those whom I represented. I have many stories to tell, good and bad. I met some wonderful people along the way and when someone turned around and said thanks, well that was all I needed.

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