Throughout the 1980s the civil service, broadly speaking the UK state government’s employees, had seen a number of struggles against the Thatcher government’s attempts to reduce it in size, re-organise if on levels more amenable to their ideological worldview, and to enable it to more useful to them for their onslaughts on working people generally.
However, the Thatcher government was also desperate to reduce the huge, and exponentially increasing, benefits bill, which was eating a larger and larger share of the national budget (particularly in the late 70s-early 80s recession), to simplify the vast complexity of welfare regulations; but also to cut the dole queues by forcing people into a plethora of schemes, scams and training programmes, so as to make the figures look less disastrous.
Civil service ‘re-organisation’ began relatively early in the Thatcher years, when in 1981 a massive strike, the biggest civil service strike in history, erupted when the tories scrapped the pay agreement that had been in place since the 1950s.
This was a prelude to what Cabinet Office ministers called the “bonfire of regulations”, as numerous national pay structures and agreements were reneged on, and a systematic attack on pay, jobs and conditions began. This reflected the government’s wide front of attacks on trade union conditions and workers’ rights at that time.
In 1984, the government unilaterally banned trade union representation at GCHQ, (the intelligence listening centre where all forms of communications were, and are, monitored, to provide the government, through the secret services, with info on what other governments, organisations, individuals and all are saying to each other), claiming that joining a union was incompatible with ‘national security’. A number of mass national one-day strikes, and appeals to courts as far as Europe, failed to overturn this; meanwhile the government offered a sum of money to each employee who agreed to give up their union membership.
(NB: The ban was eventually lifted by the incoming Labour government in 1997, and in 2000, a group of 14 former GCHQ employees, who had been dismissed after refusing to give up their union membership, were offered re-employment, which three of them accepted).
GCHQ was a major defeat, and encouraged Thatcher and friends to press ahead with plans to cut and totally redesign the civil service.
Civil service employees in what could be jointly described as the welfare departments – ie Department of Employment and the Department of Social Security, faced some of the most far-reaching changes to conditions and staged some of the fiercest resistance.
One stronghold of stroppy civil service fightback was across Job Centres and DHSS offices in North London. A number of disputes climaxed, in late 1987-early 1988, in a wildcat strike, made official, by workers in a number of job centres and unemployment benefit offices across North London (and some other parts, of the capital, briefly), against forced transfers, in response to a swathing re-organisation of working conditions. It’s worth noting that shortly before this strike, in April-May 1987, a large-scale strike across London and the southeast, lasting several weeks, in unemployment and social security offices (as well as magistrates courts, air traffic controllers, and customs officers – over 70,000 on strike at one point) had paralysed the payment of benefits to the unemployed. In several North London boroughs, this had resulted in collective action by claimants to force local councils to pay out emergency payments to people who could not get their dole cheques – in Hackney, Haringey and Camden, Town Halls had been occupied, (in Camden, joined by some strikers, and in Hackney, they stayed for 2 days; in Haringey, Saint Bernie Grant, the black Labour Council leader, famous for backing rioters against the police, er, called the police, to evict the claimants), until the council paid out. Although these payments were later deducted from benefits in some cases, direct action got the goods – and some tentative links between strikers and claimants must have narked both govt and civil service management. The onslaught was to continue…
Below we reprint an account of the December 1987- March 88 North London civil service strike, by a participant.
NB: In the fine tradition of British state bureaucracy, names of almost all the benefits, departments and so on have been changed, merged or abolished since 1988. Other mentions in the text also merit some explanation. A glossary is therefore included at the end of the text.
“Inside Info on the North London Three Month Long Civil Servants Strike
By a woman civil servant who has worked for 10 years in one of the offices in dispute.
A strike has taken place by low-paid civil servants over the last 14 weeks across North London Department of Employment offices. It has also involved Job Centre and DHSS staff who came out in solidarity when they were asked to do UBO work. They were also suspended when they refused. It ended on March 31st, in defeat.
Apart from one short news slot on London TV News, it has been virtually blanked in the newspapers, national as well as local London papers. Indeed, it seems La Republica, the Italian daily, mentioned the dispute more than the English-based newspapers! This has led many of us strikers to conclude that perhaps there might have been an orchestrated conspiracy of silence, as it was rumoured that Alan Robertson, the new principal manager for the D.E.s, had Thatcher’s full backing.
Certainly management acted in an unusually hard, but predictably clever, fashion, and quickly dampened down and gave into disputes elsewhere in the civil service. Basically, management wanted some issue, to get rid of once and for all the militant disruption which has taken place over the last few years in the north London offices. A few days after the strike started, a mole at Head Office let us know that one of the top managers had walked out of a meeting saying, “This is the end of the CPSA [civil servants union]. It’s finished.” It seems the government wanted to inflict a defeat in the heart of North London’s militant offices in preparation for a long attack on civil servants’ work conditions. In order, perhaps, to prepare the stage for the horrendous April social security changes, merit wages, and flexibility, YTS employment, the privatisation of the Employment Service, the possible abolition of the dole and/or welfare paid through a cash card unit you can’t argue with! No civil servants. No problem. No claimants. No problem.
Since the amalgamation of the Job Centres and UBOs under the new title of Employment Service, staff at some North London UBOs would be compulsorily re-deployed to Job Centres without then filling the subsequent UBO vacancies. Previously transfers had been conducted on a voluntary basis with the union. Camden ‘A’ was selected as the pilot office. On December 21st (just before Xmas and fitting in with increasing managerial sadism) casuals at Job Centres were sacked and those – on a last-in first out basis – at Camden ‘A’ UBO were compulsorily transferred to the Job Centre. One girl casual in tears came to say goodbye to her friends in the UBO.
There was an immediate angry response and the strike started. On Jan 11th, after a ballot, Marylebone ‘A’ and ‘B’ and Westminster UBO walked out in support of their Camden colleagues. From then on the dispute accelerated to affect 30 to 35 UBOs, Job Centres and DHSS offices in North London.
Initially the strike was a spontaneous angry response to managerial diktat. Strikers visited other offices to win support. Very quickly, however, the strike was taken over by Militant and Socialist Workers Party Trotskyists who tried to use the striker as cannon fodder for their own party political ends. Some non-party strikers didn’t like the fact that SWP members were usually the ones to visit offices because they knew colleagues elsewhere would be suspicious of their motives.
As more offices joined in, mass meetings were held every Friday on Camden’s claimants union office , who were expecting any day to be evicted by the Labour party-controlled Camden Council. In no time, a self-elected strike committee, comprised mainly of SWP members, came into existence. After that the meetings were totally monopolised by the SWP, who used the occasion to have their own private (but much publicised) battle with Militant (who, in their turn, had a lot of influence on the official, [CPSA National Executive Committee]-appointed, disputes committee). Macreadie, deputy General Secretary of the CPSA, and Militant member, was present on the platform at all these mass meetings. Basically, Militant didn’t want the dispute escalated, while the SWP wanted an all-out London strike.
There was, in fact, a token one-day, all-out London strike on Feb 18th.
Brixton UBO wanted to come out in support but was denied strike pay by the NEC. Macreadie didn’t really want to see the strike extended to South London. In fact Brixton did come out for a while, and some staff there stayed out to the end.
After the mass meetings, Macreadie would report back to the NEC about the strikers’ decisions. Finally, after weeks of procrastination, a ballot was prepared for an all-out London strike but with the rider that Macreadie and the NEC decided – there should be no strike pay at all from the coffers of the CPSA, which is one of the richest unions in the UK. It was a calculated shoot-yourself-in-the-foot policy, which (as was probably intended) gave hard-nosed management a good laugh. As it was, after a low turnout, with only 60% of CPSA members voting, and with some offices not having ballots, the voting was reasonably close: 41% for, 59% against. Nobody really expected any other result. And like the miner before us, we’ve returned to work without any agreement, which has filled more than a few of us with the horrors.
The mass meetings became jargon-slanging matches with many determined and well-meaning strikers not realising what was going on. Generally, the same long-winded boring speakers would have their say every week. They weren’t talking to the meeting but trying to prove themselves to their party. A lot of strikers felt too intimidated by this speechifying party atmosphere to ask questions. Moreover, all speakers had to submit their questions to the chair and many questions were passed over with the excuse of insufficient time. One excellent proposal suggesting there should be a mass picket targeting on a particular office decided secretly the night before (a tactic which would have terrified many scabs and possibly would have gained much needed publicity) wasn’t even considered because it was a non-party proposal . Tactics, in fact, didn’t emanate directly from the mass meeting but had been decided in advance in closed party sessions. In fact, the different trotskyists didn’t want direct action and relaxed open communication, but behaved as pressure groups on lumbering union bureaucratic procedure. Because all real discussion was suppressed, the meetings finally degenerated into mad debates on any unrelated, fashionable issue. One of the last meetings spent half the time drooling on about whether members could smoke or not!
Non-Militant, non-SWP strikers got rapidly pissed off and didn’t turn up for future meetings. Then strikers started to get suspicious about what was being discussed between the strike committee and management. Management let it be known to the scabs that all the strike committee wanted to talk about was SBS (Staff-basing Scheme) figures, which they wanted to stay over the 10% level. It wasn’t what Camden ‘A’ had walked out over in the first instance. Issues were being sling in by the self-elected strike committee which strikers knew nothing about and weren’t informed about. This resulted in more scabbing, plus the fact that the strike seemed to be going nowhere.
Towards the end of the strike, a union rank ‘n’ file group called ‘Workhouse’ produced leaflets criticising the running of the strike (a little too late). They had valid points (e.g. condemning the party political games, emphasising the need to take control of the strike fund etc) but after so much manipulation of strikers one was left with the feeling – maybe they had an axe to grind! 
In the militant offices in North London, because management over the years has been pushed back a lot, there’s often quite a merry-prankster, bawdy, joking atmosphere which can make it a pleasure to be with your workmates. It’s been said of these UBOs that strikes there are an unholy alliance of the hard left and the hard drinkers. Some of this atmosphere got carried over into the strike. Although the dispute was a serous business, the way it was conducted meant the strike became farcical. Joking was one of the outcomes. In fact, in no time at all, the joker occupied the front rows at the meetings purely to wind up the platform and to bring in a bit of comic relief. When arguing over dates for an all-out London strike, (the 14th or 28th of March) one hard-drinking striker loudly said ‘April 1st would be more appropriate’. Another loudly mused ‘Is Macreadie anaemic?” Another proclaimed, after a meeting’s conclusion, that ‘I haven’t had so much fun since my leg fell off.’ This repartee got the Trotskyists furious. Other comments were more serious. One person asked if Macreadie and co. would contribute 50% of their wages towards the hardship fund. The platform remained silent.
A lot of UBO/DHSS staff earn a lot less than a sizable proportion of the claimants moonlighting in the black economy (and good luck to them!). Throughout the 1980s, because we’ve been constantly standing up against further incursions by the Tory government plus a growing recognition of just how badly paid we are, there’s been a growing sympathy from many claimants  In one of our local West London pubs, where UBO staff were having an Xmas drink, a claimant gave a bottle of champagne, with a nod and a wink, to a desk clerk. Delighted cheers all round!
It’s unfortunate, but during the strike it was the poor claimants who were the real ones to suffer. Outside one office, pickets on a stint were confronted, on a bitterly cold winter’s day, by a mam and dad with 2 kids who had no socks on their blue-with-cold tiny feet. These parents were enquiring about emergency payments. The pickets were devastated, and suggested a whip-round to help them. In other circumstances, this has happened before in the past.
Of all people, though, the fraud squad was running emergency offices for pay-outs. One such was Paddington Green church hall. In fact, there were heavy scenes and police were constantly called in. Obviously, the fraud squad were scabs and ready to fill in for striking staff but they also did this ‘service’ with an eye to their future career. Obviously they were trying to nail claimants who were claiming and working. Job Club and Restart didn’t strike (though in the one-day strike against YTS in late ’87 some Restart staff did strike).
Although receiving half take-home pay from the CPSA, strikers supplemented their hand-outs by finding jobs – ironically considering our function – in the black economy. When doing these jobs, they were afraid to say they were striking UBO/Job Centre staff because they were often working alongside people who were signing on. Strikers were worried in case some claimant recognised them and thought they were undercover fraud squad agents!
Once it became apparent we were being manipulated by the SWP and others, a lot of strikers forgot virtually about the strike – even though they’d never cross picket lines. They silently got their heads down waitressing, baking croutons in a bakery, pairing up shoes in a factory, handing out free rush-hour mags etc. Sadly, quite a few of the best people who could have made an imaginative contribution to the strike, left the civil service during the course of this dispute. The danger is that this could make the scabs cockier.
We returned to work on the 31st March, defeated, but with our heads held high, to be told ‘Welcome back’ by management. Maybe this was an individual response but it makes one suspicious. A lot of the scabs looked shame-faced and so they should – the amount of overtime they had been clocking up meant they had been doing very well by stabbing their striking colleagues in the back.
Management seems wary of crowing too much, because of the imminent restructuring of the civil service. It’s going to mean many fights in the offing.
April 1st 1988.
According to the Wise brothers on their Revolt Against Plenty site, the above was written by Jean Richards:
“Jean worked as a civil servant in a UBO (Unemployment Benefit Office) in Marylebone and Kilburn, northwest London. What an eye! She saw and just as often provoked the hilarious in any given situation driven by an Irish sense of the absurd in daily life. Hardly surprisingly during the 1980s the offices she worked in were packed with a radical ferment combined with many a ‘mad’ incident amidst the personal chaos of office affairs etc and “Allo Allo”(TV sitcom) type piss-takes on the same. Secrets and peccadilloes were also something to be played with as a means of pushing the daily grind into the background and anything, literally anything, could be transformed into a comic turn subverting the bureaucratic boredom… a strike broke out in a number of offices and Jean’s office joined in. Though instigated by local branches of the civil servants union, by now other more consciously aware forces were developing a focus, mirroring to some degree what was happening on building sites and perhaps elsewhere which we knew nothing about. In Jean’s office in Kilburn this involved a small caucus of autonomists calling themselves Workhouse and guided by a studious but dedicated Chinese guy and his girlfriend whom Jean amusingly referred to as “the stick insects” – simply because they were so thin. Visible enough they occasionally distributed leaflets but looking back historically they just didn’t really have enough time to make their presence felt before the big, general crackdown throughout society. The union caucus in her office though opposed to the union big wigs was Trotskyist (SWP) and really didn’t know what to make of this caucus, this ‘new force’ appearing within their midst. There was however no problem with this during the strike as the main problem concerned scabs. One night, Jean together with one of the writers of these reminiscences regaled with super glue and sand sealed up the back entrance locks to the buildings, which the scabs crawled through every morning. To support Jean financially we took her to work on building sites as a cleaner upperer (all on equal wages) and she instantly became the best cleaner upperer in history! We also gave Jean the task of typing up “Once Upon a Time there was a Place called Nothing Hill Gate” awarding her the best wage rates of any office or typing pool. Sadly though the strike went on for weeks the outcome was again defeat.”
This account was reproduced as a leaflet after then end of the strike by BM Combustion, and reprinted in a News From Everywhere Bulletin in 1988. BM Combustion also compiled the following notes on the text (so the views there were theirs, not necessarily those of the original writer of the above):
1 – Camden Claimants: During the strike some people at Camden Claimant Union (CU) wanted to produce a leaflet in support of the strike but claimed they couldn’t as the council had cut off their funds. This was a poor excuse – they could easily have got them printed at other claimants unions. The excuse was probably to hide more secret reasons: as a claimant from another C.U said of Camden C.U., “what gets put out doesn’t depend on what you say but who you are – Camden C.U is largely organised around cliques…”
2 – Mass picketing: The outright rejection of even a discussion of mass picketing could have been a starting point for a challenge both to the bureaucrats, and to the union form of the struggle: in order to discuss such basic actions a completely different form of struggle has to arise. It’s worth considering some of the struggles elsewhere, whose actions could be exemplary. Like, for instance, the French railway workers strike of 1986-87. There, over a month before the strike, a class-conscious train driver put out a petition calling for a pledge from other drivers to an indefinite strike, listing the various demands. It was asked that this petition/pledge be reproduced and passed round by those in agreement. It receive an overwhelming response, & so later a leaflet was produced by other train drivers, two and a half weeks before the strike, also to be reproduced and passed around: it clearly put the strikers’ demands, stating exactly when the strike would begin, asking for the unions involved to support the strike, threatening them if they didn’t. the strike began without a single command from the unions – and developed partly by means of daily assemblies of strikers held in each station, in which no particular striker held any greater power than any other. Where delegation seemed necessary, it was subject to immediate recall by the assemblies. Of course, many exemplary actions – such as sabotage – were carried out without discussion in the assemblies, and occasionally specifically against the desires of the majority. But, without wishing to make out that assemblies are some insurance for active commitment, they did provide an environment of direct communication which made manipulation largely impossible, and provided the strike with some continuity. And it’s a challenge to traditional left-wing notions that such a magnificent collective activity had been launched by a simple individual initiative. Of course, you can never mechanistically transplant workers’ struggles elsewhere and in other times to the here and now, but they’re still worth considering and applying to different circumstances.
3 – Workhouse: At a meeting on the Wednesday before the return to work strikers from ‘Workhouse’ put forward – as a bloc – the idea of returning to work on the Tuesday after the bank holiday, rather than the Thursday before Good Friday, an idea also hoped for by sections of management. After all, since every striker knew they were returning on the Thursday just to get their two day holiday money, it could only mean that Workhouse were, as one striker put it, “just wanting to be different.”
4 – Claimants: see the (mostly) excellent leaflet ‘The Strike and other struggles – some views from a claimant’s perspective’.
On which note; here is the text of that claimants’ leaflet:
The Strike… and Other Struggles
Some views from a claimants perspective.
It is unfortunate that this strike should end just when real links were being developed between strikers and claimants – discussion was underway for the joint organisation of a demo by claimants and strikers to publicise the dispute, joint leaflets for the national unwaged day of action on April 11th, joint action for emergency payments if necessary… Formal and informal links always exist but its hard to forget that our daily contact is across a counter and shatter-proof screen, as well as less physical barriers. But your struggle is not over, and we too have many battles ahead, through which to develop our common struggle. Maybe the horror of returning to work alongside the scabs could be lessened by pointing them out to claimants as those (partly) responsible for lack of improvement in our conditions.
The most important factor in the success of the strike, and the respect gained from claimants (and others) was the fact that it was organised, run and controlled by the strikers themselves. There have been continual attempts to disguise (and so sabotage) this strength, by the SWP’s constant complaining that the union bureaucrats weren’t leading it. Their bleating about leadership is really nothing more than whining about the fact that nobody’ll follow them, the self-proclaimed leaders of the working class! The party bickering merely sabotaged debate, while the part lines themselves served to stunt the development of more direct tactics, mass pickets etc. – those who know the difference between discussion and parroting the party line must learn to deal with those who don’t. But recognising this strength of the struggle must also mean taking responsibility for the failures, not blaming them on those we should’ve known years ago will at best do nothing and at worst sabotage [sorry there’s a bit missing here!- typissed]
The union leaders and bureaucrats are not being forcibly transferred to Job Centres, their jobs, ages and conditions are not threatened by cheap labour schemes, they don’t have to face screaming, homeless, broke, confused claimants day in day out, their jobs aren’t being moved across the country into clerical factories… which is just as well for them, as if they did have to go on strike, who’d notice? The only threat to their jobs comes from ‘their’ members, getting out of their control, organizing their own struggles, making and enforcing their own demands and making their own real contacts with other sectors of the working class. Today we have the unpleasant spectacle of union leaders queuing up to offer their services to the bosses, to make deals that will mean greater control of the workforce, by the bosses, through the unions. We’re offered for sale, at any price, so the leaders can get their cut, which sounds rather like pimping. In Italy, where railworkers, airport workers, teachers and others have been running their own strikes, through ‘committees of the base’ (Cobas), mass assemblies with revocable delegates to the national co-ordinating committee, the union leaders having gone to the government to demand the banning of strikes in the public sector. Is this leadership?
The restructuring they’re trying to impose in dole and SS offices is the same as in every other sector, the same re-imposition of profitability, the same screwing the last ounce of labour out of the workforce. They tried to force UBO staff into new jobs the same as they try forcing us claimants onto cheap labour schemes. But this unified attack means that our immediate interests are even more unified, along with our common experiences and struggles. And the enforced flexibilisation and the de-skilling technology are themselves destroying the separation of those who happen to do different work, leaving only our ability to labour ,and our ability to fight. It has never been more clear that each struggle is the struggle of us all. Together we can not only fight these attacks, but also destroy the domination of profit over our lives and our production.
On April 11th we’ll be outside Archway Tower 9-11 (and probably other local offices) and outside Alexander Fleming House at 1. Where will you be – inside carrying out the cuts? [Again, there may be a line missing after this. Typissed. Not sure who produced this leaflet, either…]
Now these are past tense’s, and ours alone, so snipes to us and no other.
CPSA – The CPSA has now become Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS).
Department of Employment – Possibly the lostest cowboy in the west… amidst a bewildering succession of name changes and mergers of branches of government since 1988, the functions of this Dept, and that of the DHSS (via some mind-fuckingly rapid amalgamations and subsequent rethinks), now come under the Dept of Work and Pensions.
DHSS – the Department for Health and Social Security, the central government branch running the Health Service and all areas of benefits and welfare at the time. In 1988 Health and Social Security were separated into two Departments; so the Department of Work and Pensions is the DHSS’s modern successor. Many claimants in the ‘80s just called them the SS, after everyone’s favourite nazi unit. There is NO truth to the rumour that the DHSS break up was prompted by govt ire at the anti-authoritarian funkability of the name’s being evidenced in the Wham! Rap (RIP George Michael, if only for that little number alone).
UBO – Unemployment Benefit Offices, where you used to go and sign on every two weeks, so you could get paid your girocheque. Yes, a cheque, which you’d mostly get posted two days later, and then cash at the post office, assuming your dog hadn’t ate it, or you’d dropped it in the canal while cycling there at 12.25 on a Saturday, or Mad Terry, your ‘mate’ had not nicked it and (allegedly) given the money to oxfam. Etc. (the sacredness of the cult of the Giro most excellently giving rise to the Men they Couldn’t Hang’s fine version of an Irish classic, “Whack-fol-me-daddy-oh, I’ll buy Whiskey with Me GIRO!!!”)
UBOs are now merged within the Job Centre. Or Job Centre Plus, but they make you work a lot harder for your money, filling in those slips lying about the jobs you’ve tried to get, and sending you on those weird courses where you learn to sell yourself.
Thatcher – (is it daft, surely there are no young people reading this!) – this refers to then Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher, figurehead for the restructuring of capital and labour in the UK over the last 40 years – objectively the needle is currently favouring capital. If ‘impact on society and class relations’ was an arcade game she’d be up there in the high scorers.
YTS – Youth Training Schemes. Cheap labour designed to imprison the teenage jobless in pointless crap so they didn’t go out and riot; benefits would be withdrawn if you didn’t turn up. So shit even the government eventually decided simply cutting under 18s access to benefits completely was better value for money. YTS did however keep a lot of liberal lefties and other assorted bullies in work/voluntary work, though, and its legacy may well be remembered in the whole industry of parasitical scum who make fortunes by processing, administering, ‘training’ and assessing benefit claimants, and school leavers in particular. Now a multi-billion-pound privatised industry, one of the major changes instigated under thatcher and cemented by New Labour (obviously the gobbldy-jargon and bollokspeak increased dramatically after 1997).
Militant – The Militant Tendency, ideological heirs of the mainstream Trotskyist Revolutionary Socialist League, these days known as the Socialist Party. For may years a large faction in the Labour Party, their expulsion by the Kinnock-led Party hierarchy through the 1980s was reflected also in power struggles within unions, the CPSA being a notable example. Broadly speaking a more working class membership than its main rival, the Socialist Workers Party, also more dogmatic, a tiny bit more able to concentrate and stick with stuff (contrast the SWuPpies inability to hang around longer than you can shout ‘something superficially more photoworthy is happening down the road’). Equally able to fuck up almost any struggle though, as their titanic effort to control, and then sabotage the uncompliant sections of, the anti-poll tax movement witnesses.
SWP – The Socialist Workers Party – yes, that one, still around. Unlike virtually every other left grouping they have kept the same name/identity since the late 1970s, which might be because they have, a) found it a mite tough to keep any kind of stable consistent set of politics, b) decided to basically appeal to a new set of students every 3 years so the brand tarnishment affect hasn’t kicked in so heavy, or c) literally every other possible left-look domain name on the internet has been bought up now. The Swurp brand has been dinted even more in the last few years since the party hierarchy rallied to defend a leading member who raped a young party activist, leading to large numbers of members leaving. But since memory is short, turnover in leftist circles rapid, and willingness to ignore or condone abusive behaviour when it threatens other worldviews extremely common, the SWP remain ‘a force’ on the British Left. In galactic terms…hmm…
John Macreadie – Sometime General Secretary of the CPSA – Having worked in the civil service since the 1960s, and led the successful CAA Air Traffic Control Assistants strike in 1977, Macreadie, a long-time member of the group that evolved into the Militant Tendency, had risen within the Broad Left caucus of the union, to the point where in 1986, he stood for the post of General Secretary of the CPSA. In the elections, Macreadie initially won the ballot, but this was overturned after the ‘moderate’ union faction called in the courts; re-run, Macreadie lost. He was elected as Deputy General Secretary of the union in 1987, only to be named as one of a ‘dirty half-dozen’ by Gen Sec John Ellis in an ‘expose of the Militant-led left in the union.’ He remained a national CPSA, then PCS officer, till 2005, and died in 2010.
Tis worth noting that at the same time Macreadie was ensuring the 1988 strike was paralysed and sabotaged, Tory govt and CPSA officials were colluding to undermine him and other leftwing leaders.
Just because they’re seeking to control you and sabotaging your self-run struggles doesn’t mean that our rulers don’t have a jaundiced view of their dangerousness to capital.
Workhouse – A Rank and File group which emerged among workers in South London Dept of Employment offices from Autumn 1986. Dave Wise’s Revolt Against Plenty post calls them autonomists. A PDF of their 1988 pamphlet/manifesto gives a reasonable context to the above account of the N London strike in terms of the CPSA, government plans etc…
No idea what happened to them post-88… Would be interested to know tho…
Moonlighting – working secretly while claiming some kind of unemployment benefit. At the time the above was written, a widespread practice, even routine for many of us, and no morals attached. Also widely practiced was having more than one claim in either the same of different names at different dole offices. Developments in data sharing have made both mostly a thing of the past, these days (unless you are an out of work former undercover cop, who happens to have a false identity in the name of a dead child handy). It’s fair to say that the shift of ground socially and politically to the right/conservative over the last 30 years has made the idea of moonlighting, or even working cash in hand (ie plebs paying no tax), less socially acceptable, where it was once common ground. Legal, technological and ‘moral’ evolution has worked to push it into the fringes; we can’t really go into it here but this is an interesting point for discussion (tho possibly only to old folk like us?)
Fraud squad – the investigators who check up on and bust claimants suspected of making fraudulent claims, working on the side, lying about disabilities etc. Generally loathed not only by claimants but other workers in job centres too.
Some of the Offices mentioned
Camden ‘A’ Unemployment Benefit Office, was on Camden Road, near to Camden Road overground station.
Camden Claimants Union office – was located, I think, in a building next to the Unemployment Benefit Office on Camden Road.
Archway Tower – then housed DHSS offices for much of North Islington.
The North London strike (and the 1980s struggles within the civil service that preceded it) was the immediate prelude to vast changes in how the civil service departments dealing with benefits and welfare were run, as well as huge alterations in the management of the unemployed, those on any form of disability benefits or benefits for raising children. It would be impossible to go into that now. Briefly it has become much harder to claim, restriction, surveillance and sanctions are drastically applied, and cuts are regular and increasing. A massive increase in those working minimum hours and also claiming in work benefits like Working Tax Credit has enabled wages to be kept low in many arenas. What did pass for a claimants’ movement that existed in the 1970s-80s mostly died off, to be periodically revived, but with great difficulty and mixed success. It’s fair to say that the culture has altered almost unrecognisably since 1988, not only in terms of the dole and people’s attitude to claiming, but also to collective resistance.
Similarly with the workers in the various dole offices: the 1990s saw vast swathes of civil service welfare work being either moved to call centres, compartmentalized in huge offices in farflung regions of the UK, or hived off to quangos or private firms. In many cases a combination of these. Organising in this modern situation is tough, though not impossible, see:
For a (slightly earlier) text on unwaged struggles in North London, see Unwaged Fightback: A history of Islington Action Group of the Unwaged.
Also available as a pamphlet re-published by past tense, which can be bought here.
A final note on the left, and unions – A major arena of activity for all leftwing parties being trade unions, because even the doltiest Dimitrov can see that’s where there’s a lot of recruits to be gathered, sorry, ‘where the working class is organised’. The practical result of this is a massive amount of effort spent on capturing and keeping hold of, various union structures, from branch to regional to national level. Only a daft hap’orth suggests unions serve no useful function – and some of these are even in their members’ interests! Decades of anti-trade union legislation in the last 40 years have only compounded (or masked?) the basic reality of a leading role unions’ have been playing for years – as administrators, auditors, and all too often, pacifiers and gate-keepers, of workplace struggles.
To say this is not to say there aren’t and haven’t always been thousands of union activists and members doing useful and brilliant work for themselves and others.
The interminable hours of left maneuvering as described briefly in the strike account above reflect the wider obsession with control of union branches and other structures that fixates some of the left. It’s a complex issue, since members are also workers and union members; but Party strategy can often revolve around worming into union positions, and maintaining them, at the expense of the needs and desires of the workers in question. 1988 or now, this is hardly a dead issue. The catastrophic decline in union membership since then (and has anyone done a corresponding study of left group membership?), to be fair, results from many more myriad causes, but the alienating leninny dick-waving Jean describes above has been – and remains – utterly off-putting to non-leftists, while bafflingly many union branches routinely ignore the immediate needs of workers/slightly different reality of now to 1917.
Another question remains though, and its not trite – if an urgent fight is going on, and the leftists/union leadership are fucking it up, what do you do? Apathy, cynicism, disillusion are all options – taken by the vast majority. Many choose to be active both inside unions, because lots of people are there and there’s useful links to be made there, often despite the structures of the unions – both national AND local. But also, some people find they can often do more effective things individually or collectively beyond these structures. In the end both have their uses, and their drawbacks.
The examples BNC give in the notes of workplace vitality in other countries are illustrative – but as they point out, you can’t simply import tactics, or transplant cultures. This is a huge discussion that we can hardly even begin here, but its urgency is blindingly and headachingly immediate…
An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.