Tuesday, 8 November 2011

You have to remind people what you're worth

'You have to remind people what you're worth'


For many UNISON members, the thought of industrial action is scary – not least because many of them have never been on strike before.

And with that comes the fear that any action we take is pointless – that the odds are just too great.

So it's always good to remind ourselves exactly what industrial action can achieve – and here are four brief examples.

In 1888, the workforce at the Bryant & May match factory in London faced 14-hour days, poor pay and fines for various 'offences' – plus serious health problems caused by working with white phosphorus.

But management was a bit put out when an article appeared describing the conditions as akin to "white slavery", and tried to get the workforce to sign a paper contradicting the claims.

When they refused, this became the pretext for sacking one of the workers – and 1,400 women and girls walked out immediately.

Many helped raise money for a strike fund, and a deputation visited Parliament. The management instantly offered to reinstate the sacked worker, but her colleagues decided to demand other concessions, including ending the system of fines that they faced.

Eventually, management agreed to scrap the fines and other deductions – and allow meals to be taken in a different room, avoiding contamination of the food with the white phosphorous.

The women had won – and their action had started a campaign that, a few years later, would see the outlawing of white phosphorous.

When the gas workers of Beckton, East London, took action a year later, in 1889, they wanted something that seems absurdly normal to us now.

They wanted an eight-hour working day.

For some time, skilled workers' unions had been asking for this, but no progress had been made.

Gas workers in Beckton were working a 12-hour day, seven days a week.

But then the so-called unskilled workers started to organise, including the gas workers, and led by Will Thorne, they set about winning that aim by industrial action.

Mr Thorne told a meeting of gas workers: "The way you have been treated in your work for many years is scandalous, brutal and inhuman.

"I pledge my word that, if you will stand firm and don't waver, within six months we will claim and win the eight-hour day, a six-day week and the abolition of the present slave-driving methods in vogue not only at the Beckton Gas Works, but all over the country."

After the speech, 800 workers joined the union. Within a month, another 3,000 had joined.

Mr Thorne was right and the members stood firm. In response to a 'petition', the Gas Light & Coke Company cut the working day without a strike being called. It was the first time in the history of industrial workers that such an agreement had been struck.

At the Ford factory in Dagenham in 1968, the women machinists, who sewed the covers for the car seats, found themselves on the end of a regrading exercise.

It left them classed as 'less skilled production workers', thus meaning that they were going to be paid 15% less than their male colleagues, who were classed as doing 'more skilled production jobs'.

They were joined in their walkout by machinists at Halewood and, as the stock of seat covers ran out, it halted car production.

After intervention from the then secretary of state for employment and productivity, Barbara Castle, the women ended their strike after three weeks.

They had won an immediate increase in their pay to 8% below that of their male colleagues, with the promise of a further increase the following year.

Although the machinists only won a regrading into the higher job category in 1984, after a further six-week strike, their action paved the way for the 1970 Equal Pay Act – the first time that there had been any legal attempt to prohibit inequality between men and women in terms of pay and conditions.

In 2009-10, refuse workers in Leeds went on strike for 11 weeks over attempts to slash their pay.

The Tory-Lib Dem council was trying to use the implementation of equal pay as an excuse for cutting pay by up to a third. It was an attempt to divide and rule that didn't work.

UNISON members stood shoulder to shoulder with their GMB colleagues – and they never wavered.

And the women, whose right to equal pay was being used as an excuse to cut the men's pay, helped their male colleagues, handing out leaflets and campaigning to raise sympathy and understanding among the public.

As Dave Prentis said when the strikers won: "Leeds members have shown what can be achieved by old-fashioned solidarity and discipline. I am proud of them."

It's something that workers down the years have learned – and it's as true today as it was when the matchgirls finally refused to accept their appalling working conditions.

(InFocus, November 2011)

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