The water workers' strikes of the 80s, the trade unions and some reminiscences

The water workers’ strikes of the 1980s, the trade unions and some reminiscences

If I may, considering that this will be a partisan position on the trade unions, take something of a detour first looking at British Airways. And also, in the latter part, I will include some personal reminiscences that I feel 50 odd years of collar entitles me to.

In 2005, one thousand baggage handlers at Heathrow struck illegally in support of 800 contracted catering workers sacked for refusing to accept their management’s pay cuts. The Transport and General Workers Union representing the catering workers told them that illegal action could not be supported. Similarly for the baggage handlers and consequently several of their shop stewards were sacked by BA over the wildcat and others had their travel perks withdrawn. Subsequently three of the sacked stewards received substantial payments, a la Gordon Taylor, from the union.
Sir Roderick Eddington, BA’s CEO at the time, condemned the wildcat as “outrageous” and complained that such militant activity was “plaguing” BA. Eddington gave way to Willie Walsh and there followed five years of joint BA/trade union sabotage on workers’ pay, working conditions and action. In fact the antics of the trade unions at BA over the last 5/6 years are clear, unequivocal examples of the anti-working class nature of the trade unions.
The link with the earlier water workers’ strike here, apart from the sabotaging of the unions, was that Eddington, as a representative of the exploiting class, sounded a general warning about the danger of wildcat action that he said could spread anywhere, power workers, water workers, gas workers, etc., ie those with heavy industrial clout (it’s no accident that these are the most heavily unionised industries). And just to repeat a small anecdote showing the potential power of water which is essential for the running of industry on a daily basis: Early in the 84 miners’ strike, possibly before it, the steel union in Britain (the ISTC) came to an agreement with the Thatcher clique, that in return for guarantees on the continued existence of Ravenscraig and Llanwern steel works, the union would make sure that their members did not join the strike and would continue working. This would not be easy given the close affinity of steel and coal workers and the ties between them. At Llanwern at least, workers were told by the union that if they walked out in support of miners or refused to cross their picket lines they would be sacked without union support (power workers at a meeting in Lancashire were told similar by their union, as a local BBC reporter told me when he came out of the meeting). The miners put up a picket line outside Llanwern and their caravan was right over the cover of a water main supplying the plant. All they had to do was lift the cover, shut the valve with a decent pair of grips and Llanwern steelworks would have gone into automatic shutdown within a matter of minutes. But that didn’t happen.

Elsewhere I stated that the water workers’ strike came after the miners’ along with a major, very militant strike at BT. Looking back it doesn’t seem that there was one water strike but a series of them going from the end of the 70s to around 1983. After the defeat of these strikes, and alongside them, proposals were being put in place for the privatisation of the industry. These proposals were very unpopular generally and the idea was dropped in the run up to the 87 election only to be implemented after it. Prior to privatisation the water industry in the UK was already carved up into ten regional authorities and the beginnings of massive job cuts in the industry (like the coal and steel industries) began under the Labour government of the seventies. Between 1974 and 1989 workers in the industry went down from 80,000 to 50,000 (much less now as year on year cuts take effect). There’s an idea knocking around that privatisation means a reduction in the role of the state. Any serious examination of the privatisation of the water industry will show this to be completely untrue: instead of the lackadaisical soviet-style incompetence of the pre-privatised nationalised water industry there is now a powerfully centralised and ruthlessly efficient state body that controls it, that plays off one company against the other, as far as reductions in workers’ pay, numbers and conditions are concerned, that holds a grip over the companies with assessments that go into the finest detail and, in the final analysis, is assisted in this role by the ultimate boss of the industry, the Ministry of Defence. So any idea that privatisation means reducing the role of the state is completely misplaced.

Prior to privatisation there were ten regional water authorities in the UK that were largely independent of each other, that strikes were often divided up because of, but the industry had a national set of terms and conditions set out in a “Green Book”. Elsewhere I said that the national strike took place after the miners but this wasn’t the case and the majority of strikes took place from 1979 to 1983. And there doesn’t seem to be one national strike but a series of events largely taking place within the confines of the regional bodies and the union representation within them. And within these regional divisions there were various sub-divisions of labour reflected in different unions and different local negotiating structures. I joined one of these companies towards the end of the 1980s when there was a number of workers taken on in the clean water divisions due to the necessity to permanently man sites in the wake of the biggest peace-time poisoning of the twentieth century in the UK, the Camelford disaster in mid-1988 where an estimated 20,000 local people and 10,000 holidaymakers drank seriously poisoned water. I happen to know that this poisoning “incident” came as a direct result of part of management’s attempts to break the strike in this region some years earlier.

My recollections of the strike, or this particular expression of the strikes in the industry, was the testimony of all the workers that I talked to once getting the job. The bitterness caused by the strike, or rather by it being broken, was still palpable and the workers were beaten and demoralised. Initially the strike was solid. Three main unions were involved, a couple of smaller ones, and a small number of non-union workers (the industry was heavily unionised). Workers were in different functions, distribution, sewage, clean water, fitters/electricians, etc and generally unionised along these lines. At the beginning of the strike distribution and treatment workers maintained supplies to the majority of people, through dispensations for hospitals, care homes, old people’s homes, sheltered accommodation, schools and so on. This had the result of supplying most working class areas. Distribution workers on strike continued to work unpaid to provide these essential supplies. Industry is relatively easy to cut off and isolate and the bigger the industry the easier it is. Then the unions on the management/union dispensation committee started to fall out with the argument that if distribution workers were working they should be paid and if they were working and being paid, their members should be working on dispensations and get paid for it. As a result of this dispensations for water supplies to various industries and to effect their provision the unions demanded payment. The dodgy dispensations (dispensations were a divisive issue in the miners’ strike of 84) and the role of the unions thus began the slippery slide to defeat. It was worker against worker and I talked to one shop steward who said he made sure he got to the job before the picket line so he could stay behind it in work getting paid overtime – which, of course, the management was quite happy to pay. The strike dragged on to its inevitable conclusion with the unions arguing their special interests, the drift back to work began in the face of all the animosity aroused by the union scabbing and in a matter of weeks even the most militant elements had had enough.

The unions weren’t crushed though; they were ensconced in the negotiating, productivity and safety committees, still with all their privileges intact, strengthened even, and ready to implement the open-ended “flexibility” agreements that had been the result of the defeat. One such of these was the “continental” shift system that was imposed on us. None of us wanted it and we fought hard over a period getting the management to up a one-off payment to accept it and with the unions pushing for it we had no alternative but to cede. I think it’s called the “continental” shift system to make it sound sophisticated, to give it a certain je ne sais quoi. But the system, blocks of days working – sometimes seven, a day or two off in between and then change for the next shift: one week finishing at six in the morning, the next week starting at 5.30 a.m. After four and a half weeks rolling through this there was a block of days off which included annual leave. One’s body didn’t know if it was arsehole or breakfast time and the mind was equally fucked. The shift pattern was a killer – literally. In Australia, around the 80s I think, there was a sudden spike in the number of 18-year old lads having heart attacks, some of them fatal which was finally put down to them working the “continental” shift system which their young hearts couldn’t take. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with working nights and changing shifts, I quite enjoyed working nights, but one needs a lot of time off afterwards to get over them and that’s something that capitalism will not provide.

That the workers suffered a crushing defeat was undeniable and so was the role of the unions in facilitating it. But there were still pockets of resistance and I also saw, with the development of time, that demoralisation gave way to anger and indignation which produced not just resentment but provoked “flare-ups” here and there. The management, in their “reign of terror” would frequently make an example of one or several workers, disciplining them through the joint management/union procedures with sometimes the loss of a job and a lifetime’s pension.
In my late teens and early 20s, ie, the 60s and 70s, there was a lot of work about but the effects of capitalism’s crisis were already manifesting themselves with concrete effects on the conditions of the working class. I worked all over the country as a contracted fitter (I bluffed my way through) in shipbuilding, oil installations, food production, breweries, the railways, etc. I loved it and it was an education sometimes living with, always socialising with workers and their families and, apart from a minority of eccentricities, found solidarity, warmth and humour throughout. For the last main part of my working life, I was based at a major water treatment site with outlying stations that meant I met workers from all over the country (and abroad) on a regular basis: specialist, building, chemical and electrical contractors, artic and fixed based lorry drivers, computer specialists and, on one occasion, Cornish tin miners who bored a 1700 mil 500 metre tunnel through thick slate that had the finish of polished marble to the touch. In the mean time the wounds healed among the “native” workers involved in the strike. For my part, outside the union, I quite happily worked with some of the shop stewards (from different unions) and other workers in defending our interests and on more than one occasion we gained some small victories resulting in substantial back pay or an attenuation of some of the worsening conditions imposed by management.

What fundamentally defeated the water strikes was the failure of the workers to provide themselves with the organisation needed to take the struggle forward and to collectively overcome the obstacles placed in their path. But that shouldn’t prevent us from being clear on the nature of these obstacles. And the main obstacles were the trade unions.

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Jul 29 2011 13:40


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