Direct Action (SolFed) #34 2005

Anarcho-syndicalist magazine published by the Solidarity Federation. This issue's theme: organising.

Submitted by Fozzie on September 16, 2022


  • Union bosses ... in today's 'snakeholder' society. You don't see many pictures of 'trade union
    leaders' in the paper or on telly like you used to - are we better off without them?
  • Wageslaves@home: Home workers are an example of the exploitative nature of capitalism running riot and, surprise surprise, the Government is unwilling to intervene to protect these vulnerable and exploited workers.
  • God: Here we go again
  • Stealing from pensioners
  • Tsunami Reaction
  • No Justice for Gordon Gentle
  • On the edge. Fundamental Flames; Winning Online; Terrorist Threats; FFF - Free Sex Now' Globalised Exposure; Forced Labour; Children of the Revolution
  • international news
  • Features: Textile Troubles; IWA-AIT International Congress
  • Struggles in the Spanish Shipyards: 2004 was a busy year for shipyard workers in Spain, with pitched battles Elgainst the state right across the country.
  • Luddites & Lackeys: During the early purt of the 19th Century, working class people started organizing and trying out methods of resistance. Important lessons were alreudy being learned which would later contribute to the advent of early anarcho-syndicalism.
  • Starting out - Organising at work: Interview with people organising today in the voluntary and community sectors around Bristol
  • Justicepage: Blunkett's gone! Shed no tears and if you are tempted, you won't be after you have read thisl
  • notes+letters
  • Review Feature: Christie pickings
    Granny Made me an Anarchist: General Franco, the Angry Brigade and me - Stuart Christie
    Edward Heath Made Me Angry: the Christie File - part 3, 1967-1975
  • books and pamphlet reviews
    A Summer in the Park - Tony Alien
    The Favourite Child - Freda Lightfoot
    Lifelines - David Gribble
    Anarchism - Sean M. Sheehan
    Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice - Rudolf Rocker
  • music and Film reviews
    Band Aid 20 'Do they know it's Christmas?' & Spanner 'Gate Crashers'
    Vera Drake - Director Mike Leigh
  • Get off our land! The history of rural Britain is a story of brutal class oppression that in many ways surpasses the horrors inflicted on the urban population by capitalism.
  • DA resources: Info., upcoming events, campaigns, friends & neighbours



Organising in the voluntary sector - interview with Bristol Solfed

An interview with Solidarity Bristol (Solfed) about one of their members helping organise a voluntary/community sector workplace.

From Direct Action #34, 2005.

Submitted by Fozzie on September 16, 2022

With large sections of the working class now surplus to the needs of capitalism, the British state is withdrawing from many areas of welfare provision and handing responsibility over to charities, religious groups and the voluntary sector. This brave new world follows the US model, where those in well-paid jobs have private schooling ana health provision, while the low-paid and unemployed are left to 'compete' for under¬ funded public sector provision and whatever handouts the voluntary sector provides.

Over the past few years, as councils have hived off their duties to the private sector, there has been a substantial growth in the voluntary, charity and community sectors.

These groups can cover a whole range of jobs from housing to care, urban re-generation to environmental concerns.

It is not only those who need services who suffer from this; there are also major implications for those who work in the public services. As the Government and local authorities retreat from welfare provision, many people who worked for local government have moved into the voluntary sector as their previous posts have disappeared. Many who would have found employment as council workers now find themselves employed by a charity run by a board of trustees.

Local government was formerly one of the most widely unionised areas of work. Even if you worked in a small office or depot you were linked to hundreds or other workers in the same town and across the country. Now, by and large, workers find themselves isolated m non- unionised workplaces numbering only a handful. This process of casualisation has resulted in a dramatic decline in pay and conditions, with many workers being employed on part-time and temporary contracts.

This seems like a depressing situation, which indeed it is. Voluntary sector workers in Bristol however saw their circumstances as an opportunity to start afresh and take the fight to their complacent bosses in their own style. Direct Action spoke to Solidarity Federation (SF) Local Solidarity Bristol about their response to this situation.

Solidarity Bristol (SB): One of our lads started working in the voluntary sector in Bristol five or so years ago. He used to work in local government where the unions are still fairly strong. He told us that m his previous job in a metropolitan housing department the management was kept in check by Glaswegian shop stewards who harassed and harangued them all day long.

When he started work in Bristol he found only shit conditions and sod all union organisation. There weren't any burly Scots around so, after finding a dusty copy of a recognition agreement in a drawer one day, he got himself volunteered as the first ever shop steward in the organisation. Management thought it was funny, they certainly didn't view it as a threat. I suppose this in itself says a lot about unions in the voluntary sector.

Was there no union presence at all at this place?

A handful of members, but mainly amongst management. There certainly wasn't any organisation. This was reflected in the working conditions. Workers were grafting for ten hours without proper breaks. Health & safety was virtually non-existent. Management certainly weren’t accountable to anyone, except the board, which was populated by the friends and business associates of management. Salary grading reviews used to take place in the pub for Christ sakes. Management was taking the piss.

Our lad started nagging his workmates to join the union and organised meetings in the pub over the road after work. He just made it up as he went along. He got people to talk about what was bothering them at work and took on small individual concerns as well as low-level collective gripes.

Irregular informal dialogue with management began and a lot of these matters were sorted pretty quickly.

How did the management read to this development?

They were a little curious, but didn't appear overly concerned. Some of the issues that were sorted were long standing and once resolved life became a little easier for everyone. A big change occurred however when there was a cluster of grievances and disciplinaries. One of the workers was up on a ludicrous charge of gross misconduct but, with the help of the steward, the worker himself saw a swift end to that. Then a couple of workers were fired on tenuous grounds for upsetting the wrong people. The atmosphere thickened further when a manager got off a bullying charge without even a verbal warning. This sent out a clear message to the workers and they responded by piling in behind the workplace union who had defended the workers involved.

What effect did this growth in union membership have?

It certainly gave the union more power. The workplace union began to meet more frequently and a second shop steward was nominated. The two stewards negotiated time for the union to meet during work, something that made it easier and more enticing for workers to attend. Following the disciplinaries, the dynamics in the organisation changed. The workers began to see the union as the vehicle for channelling resistance to management, and as a consequence management began to see the union as a threat. The stewards were organising the workplace and contact with management over routine and specific problems became almost daily.

The problem with this was that the stewards were getting tired. On the one hand they were being cornered by management on a regular basis and on the other they were being pressured by the workers for information and results. The branch official only provided limited assistance and so the steward role became a heavy burden. It was at this point that the workers made a collective decision to dismantle the shop steward system and replace it with a system of rotational posts. The posts were essentially elements of the steward’s role: grievances & disciplinaries, secretary; health & safety and ‘management liaison’.

Suddenly, management no longer knew who to isolate and attack. The ‘management liaison’ delegate acted as a conduit for information between management and the workers; an answer phone rather than a negotiator. This annoyed the shit out of management. At the same time, the workers constructively excluded management from union meetings by demanding privacy and making it uncomfortable for managers pushing to attend. It sounds obvious but you can’t have an effective fighting union at work if you invite management to union meetings.

What sort of activity was the union involved in at this time?

The usual reaction to individual and collective problems at work, but also a health and safety campaign. One of the workers got trained up as a safety rep and passed lots of information to the others. The safety rep forced the creation of a workplace safety committee with the aim of giving the union a specific and reasonably secure means of attacking management. Mandates were issued by union meetings and, via the safety rep, the safety committee agenda was flooded with what amounted to union demands. On top of this the safety rep began interviewing workers in private, carrying out workplace inspections and serving notices on management. They didn’t know what was going on. Many demands were backed up with threats of direct action and this sent management into a spin. A quick succession of victories followed and the workers gained confidence. Management agreed to a committee to discuss other issues. Again, delegates were instructed by union meetings and some right royal rows followed. The knobheads on the board, mainly middle and upper class types used to having it all their own way, were furious.

How did they respond?

They tried different tactics, usually spreading confusion and time wasting. They also tried befriending the workers they considered to be weak links. The union system counteracted these moves by bringing workers back together and presenting a united front to management. Management even tried this befriending tactic during committee meetings, but union delegates stuck to their mandates, so attempts to divide the union were usually frustrated. The union was sometimes cautious about who it sent in to meet with management. Participation of all workers and rotation of duties was always promoted but, on occasions, the union had to rely on the workers who had the most experience and who could spot any tricks.

What role did the union branch play in all this?

Very little. At the beginning the stewards used to ask for advice and support but all they generally got back was a lecture about not doing this, that or the other in case it jeopardised union funds. The workplace union did receive advice and support from elsewhere though, mainly from the Solidarity Federation and union organisers around Bristol - bus drivers, warehouse workers, porters, council workers, uni lecturers, nurses, all sorts of people helped out. The workplace union certainly wasn’t impressed by the local branch that seemed to be under the control of the Socialist Workers’ Party, One of the workers attended a health 8c safety seminar organised by regional officials of the union in the hope of learning something new, only to be told (by a fucking manager hired by the union) that the best way of combating stress at work was to eat fresh fruit. It really does beggar belief.

Anyway, the workplace union got wind of a maimed council worker who was getting fucked over by her branch and this was the final straw. A proposal to collectively leave the union was drawn up by a couple of the workers. This was discussed and carried unanimously at a workplace union meeting. This is the stage they’re at now.

So what next?

They’re going it alone, setting up an independent union. They’re working on a constitution along syndicalist lines. Subs are to be held in common by the workers.

They’re very aware of isolating themselves. The level of horizontal organisation in the sector was virtually non-existent before, so they’re hoping to improve on this. Other voluntary sector organisations in Bristol have got wind of this and some workers are talking about trying to organise their own workplaces. There’s certainly the will to federate across the sector. It’s going to take a lot of grafting but there’s potential.

Would you say this is 21st Century anarcho-syndicalism?

No, although the structures and the way decisions are made are heavily influenced by anarcho-syndicalism certainly. Union meetings, where virtually all major decisions are made, issue mandates to recallable delegates. Union posts are rotated to spread knowledge and skills and to prevent elites developing. Direct action such as walkouts and boycotts is used and the workers take little notice of officials telling them what and what not to do. In this respect it’s a directly democratic, fighting workplace union, but it lacks the political dimension of an anarcho-syndicalist union. Maybe this will come in time, but for many people it’s a hell of a bloody leap from scrapping it out with your boss to revolutionary politics.

Workers are understandably sceptical of ‘left-wing politics’, largely because of the authoritarian left. What the Solidarity Federation (SF) argues for has little to do with all that nonsense. Developing trust and solidarity across the working class is what matters, and so you can say that the events in Bristol form part of the struggle. We’re certainly not claiming the credit for this. The spark and some of the support may have come from the SF but the organising and battling has been done by workers, many barely into their twenties, with little or no previous union experience. Not only have they made their working lives a hell of a lot less miserable but they’ve also smashed into pieces the argument that workers’ organisation and militancy is dead. We’ll drink to that.


Shed No Tears For Blunkett - Mark Barnsley

David Blunkett

Critical appraisal of New Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett including his time as leader of Sheffield Council in the 1970s and 1980s.

Originally published in Direct Action in 2005.

Submitted by Fozzie on September 16, 2022

When David Blunkett boasted, characteristically, that he would make his predecessor as home secretary, Jack Straw, “look like a woolly liberal”, I doubt there were too many people who believed this was possible. Straw may have been at least as Draconian as Michael Howard before him, but he didn't have 9-11, an event, which if one were needed, gave Blunkett’s innate authoritarianism and xenophobia full-reign.

In the wake of Blunkett’s overdue resignation1 ] a picture is being painted, with himself as the primary artist, of "an honourable man brought low by love”. The career of this vain, arrogant, conceited individual was not brought to an end because of his private life, something he has done his utmost to deny the rest of us, but because he is a liar and corrupt, neither of which are new.

I first met Blunkett in 1974, and later suffered under him when he was leader of Sheffield City Council. Neither his dishonesty, nor his corruption, nor his right-wing views are recently acquired. He's simply been better in the past at hiding them. First and foremost, he has been a ruthless careerist, no wonder, like Margaret Thatcher before him, he's blubbing now.

Thatcher was a great political ally to Blunkett in his Sheffield Council days; he could cover up the corruption and incompetence of his administration by blaming everything on central government: Northern Grit squaring up to Whitehall. Thatcher was despised in Sheffield, leaving the local Labour administration as secure as a one-party state, and they ran it accordingly. As Blunkett well knew, during this period, you could have put a red ribbon on a dog, and people would have voted for it.

In the 1980's, Sheffield City Council had a publicity machine worthy of Stalin’s Russia, and any talk of 'socialism' was never more than empty rhetoric for Blunkett and his pals.

Under Blunkett, more than half of the council's 32,000 employees earned basic pay below TUC guidelines, and 10,000 were paid less than the Council of Europe ‘decency threshold’. Women workers got a particularly bad deal, earning far less than their male colleagues, and getting fewer promotions. Only 1% of council employees were black, a quarter of what should have been, and there were rumours of a ‘colour bar’ in the Town Hall’s heavily subsidised restaurant, where no black person had ever been employed.

Meanwhile, there were plenty of jobs and high salaries for the Labour Party faithful. Irrespective of their true politics, careerists from all over the country flocked in. Sheffield didn’t need freemasonry, we had the Labour Party. Usually the jobs doled out were in social or youth work; Sheffield had more social workers per head of population than any other place on the planet. In special cases, a job would be invented, such as the creation of a highly-paid ‘Peace Officer' role for one Blunkett crony.

Blunkett presided over a huge homeless problem, while massive numbers of council- owned properties lay empty for years, and sometimes for decades. Early in 1983 ‘Peace City' was somewhat embarrassed to find that a group of young peaceniks had squatted one long-empty council-owned building and turned it into a 'peace centre’. In response, Blunkett’s pal Roger Barton, then Chairman of the ‘Nuclear Free Zones Committee’, cut off the electricity to the building. Blunkett promised the young pacifists that they would not be evicted, a promise he quickly broke. Another embarrassment for the Blunkettgrad ‘Nuclear Free Zone’ was when a British Rail guard blew the whistle on the transportation of nuclear waste through the area, a fact the council had tried to keep quiet.

As homeless figures in the city continued to soar, other long-unused council-owned properties were occupied. The council's response was always swift and ruthless. One group of squatters wrote to Blunkett personally to ask for a stay of eviction while they found somewhere else to live. With typical arrogance Blunkett replied: “It would seem to me that anarchy can hardly expect reasoned and structured responses within the system which is being attacked”. After the eviction the building stayed empty for several more years.

Blunkett's administration also waged a long and bitter war against travellers, even evicting them in the middle of a TB epidemic. The treatment of Sheffield travellers led to a perinatal mortality rate of nearly 50%.

Blunkett and his cohorts constantly railed in public about the corruption of Tory politicians in Whitehall, while Sheffield City Council junkets were legendary and almost every night the Town Hall hosted a lavish function or banquet for some group of councillors or another.

Some friends of mine once went to visit Blunkett in his Town Hall office in 1983. Walking in unexpectedly, they witnessed a huge feast laid out; this was Blunkett's elevenses.

A big part of maintaining the illusion necessary to running Blunkettgrad was the notion of ‘squaring up to Thatcher'. Things were made easier by the fact that to a very large extent the Council ‘owned’ the unions, the tenants associations, the peace groups, and just about every political front, tendency, and organisation operating in the city. One Blunkett stand was over ‘rate-capping’, when Sheffield and several other Labour council's refused to set ‘a Tory rate’. The inside word at the time was that Blunkett had been instructed to back down personally by Neil Kinnock, who was then waging a war against Militant Tendency, particularly in Liverpool, where they controlled the anti-rate-capping council. Blunkett’s promised reward was the advancement of his cherished political career. He was subsequently elected as MP for Brightside, one of the most solid Labour seats in the country.

Another ‘stand’ was against bus-fare increases. The city's famously low fares had actually begun to increase, but in 1986 Thatcher’s deregulation of public transport threatened to send them spiralling. After more hot-air, Blunkett again capitulated, and as always he crushed dissent ruthlessly. As a member of a group opposed to the fare increases I was sent to prison for putting up a poster advising passengers not to pay. I wasn’t prosecuted by the police, I hadn’t committed a criminal offence, but by the Labour council, for not having planning permission.

As home secretary Blunkett’s abuses of human rights and civil liberties have been staggering. He has introduced internment without trial for suspected foreign terrorists, and barely a day went by without him dreaming up another crackpot neo-fascist scheme to attack civil liberties and put more and more people behind bars. Under Blunkett the British prison population rose to over 75,000, with growing numbers driven to suicide. Callously, Blunkett refused to meet the mothers of young women driven to these acts of desperation, while his only comment on prison suicides has been to quip that he was inclined to open a bottle of champagne after Harold Shipman killed himself.

He sought to hide his corruption by playing the same ‘my private life is my own’ card that he has been trying to deny to the rest of us.

The man who has assured us in relation to ID cards, that ‘if we have nothing to hide, we have nothing to worry about’ has come unstuck.

His assistance with passport and visa applications on behalf of his rich former mistress sits in stark hypocrisy with the hard-line stance he has taken towards those fleeing war and torture abroad. Just like Thatcher before him, the only person David Blunkett is able to shed tears for is himself.

  • 1Libcom note: Blunkett resigned as Home Secretary on 15 December 2004 amidst allegations that he helped fast-track the renewal of a work permit for his ex-lover's nanny.