One out, all out: The return of industrial action

1 Sep 2022 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 1 Sep 2022

Memories of time past: the Durham Miners' Gala Pic: Pixabay

Good journalists go where the action is. There are still a few working who are old enough to remember the days when the most sought-after job in the business was that of industrial correspondent.

Those were the days of donkey jackets and braziers, elaborately embroidered banners and flying pickets. Unions had real power and there was class war in the air. 

Within a few years it seemed all over. By the time the last miners marched back to work in defeat, accompanied by their pits’ silver bands, the spine of the trade union movement was broken. The papers’ industrial correspondents faded away, to be replaced by slick talking smoothies in shiny suits. The showbiz correspondents had taken over and the cult of celebrity was the new religion.

In Northern Ireland it was rather different. The conflict took over the news pages and the politics of the last atrocity meant there was no room for anything else. Celebrities were thin on the ground and those who wrote about them in those days of strife were mocked.

There was no place for industrial correspondents either in a place with no industry and a devastated economy. And there were no pits.

Meanwhile the very structures that used to bind working people together were undermined. In many workplaces staff were encouraged to negotiate their own, individual pay packages, encouraging a culture of secrecy, and one person for him/her self. Employers introduced zero-hour contracts and paid as little as they could get away with.

The once-mighty unions could only look on, emasculated by legislation and considered irrelevant by people who used to be proud to be a member. Their messages seemed out of touch, belonging to a bygone age. Even the names were out of date. In the post industrial days there weren’t any boilermakers any longer so there was no use for a union of them. Miners appeared in old newsreels they did not exist in real life.

Suddenly all that has changed. It has not just been the fact that the gap between the wealthy and poor has widened so much, nor is it the running down of public services and the refusal to reward people who work in them for their efforts, nor is it the obscene sums that chief executives can command without evidence of merit, nor is it the manifest failure of privatisation of public utilities, nor the devastating impact of the cost of living crisis. It is all of these things combined and compounded by a political class that doesn’t seem to be listening and has drifted out of touch with the wants and needs of the population both in Northern Ireland and Britain.

In Britain the two rivals for the leadership have spent the summer buttering up the most unrepresentative group imaginable – Conservative party members. They are overwhelmingly old, wealthy, and judging from the leadership debate completely out of touch with the vast majority.

Meanwhile the present Prime Minister has spent most of the summer on holiday and his Cabinet is doing nothing, and saying nothing. The car may be hurtling towards the precipice but there’s no one at the wheel. Opposition parties are too meek and cautious to offer serious opposition, a void has opened up.

The situation is even worse in Northern Ireland we’ve had no government since the election in May. This is all because the DUP has decided to prioritise removing the protocol over everything else and not to serve in government until it is done. There is no question this is important to them, but whether it trumps all the other issues we face and the urgent solutions we need is very much open to question.

The media too seems not to understand the scale of the issues, at least from how it attempted to treat RMT leader Mick Lynch regarding the rail strikes. Piers Morgan, a former showbiz correspondent, chose to waste a majority of his time asking Lynch about his resemblance to a Thunderbirds puppet. Kay Burley tried to summon the spirit of Orgreave when asking him how pickets would respond to people choosing to walk past them which seemed almost comically inappropriate given the size and joviality of the picket itself.

It is against this backdrop of ineffective government and looming crisis that trades unions have re-emerged as if from hibernation.

Suddenly they seem relevant again more so than both governments and opposition who seem equally out of touch.

Where once trades unions spouted dogma lifted from the language of the past it is now political parties who seem to be using yesterdays language to solve the problems of today. And the journalists of today know more about the Kardashians and Strictly Come Dancing than they do about real life.

They are no longer recruited from boys and girls for whom journalism was a vocation, an alternative to politics. And they are detached from ordinary society. They are graduates these days and a disproportionate number of them went to public schools.

The Enough is Enough campaign which was organized by unions and community groups and launched with a remarkably slick video is already gathering momentum. More than half a million have signed up to it. Rallies are taking off. One in Manchester Cathedral this week saw tens of thousands spilling onto the streets outside the venue.

The campaign has five simple objectives:

“A real pay rise” creating a path to £15 an hour for national minimum wage. Lifts in benefit and pensions with zero hour contracts banned;

A return to the pre-April energy price cap and bringing energy firms back into public ownership;

Enshrine the Right to Food in law and put this into practice by introducing universal free school meals, community kitchens, and reinstating the £20-a-week Universal Credit uplift;

Cap housing rents, build 100,000 plus public sector homes a year, insulate homes and introduce a charter for renters’ rights;

Limit the number of holiday homes in any area, limit AirBnBs and ensure they are taxed properly;

Make the rich pay their fair share by raising taxes on the wealthiest and the profits of big businesses. Crack down on tax avoidance and evasion.

A few years ago this manifesto would have been dismissed as unrealistic and unreasonable. Not today. All the demands speak to interlinked crises that need to be resolved.

Lynch has established himself as a credible, effective and articulate leader whose slogan: “We refuse to be meek. We refuse to be humble. And we refuse to be poor any longer We're not having it any more,"  is resonating.

And the protests are spreading so far we have had rail strikes, Tube strikes, bus strikes, dock strikes, postal workers and BT and Openreach strikes, barristers are also out.

More are to come.

On top of that a series of motions have tabled by the country’s biggest unions ahead of the TUC congress next month demand that they work closely together to maximise their impact and win the fight for inflation-related pay rises.

To date there has been precious little sign of public backlash to the groundswell of unrest. Quite the contrary. Support is growing.

It is increasingly looking like we are heading in to another Winter of Discontent. The era of the industrial correspondent has returned.


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