When I told my sister that I wanted to join a union, she laughed and said: “You can’t go on strike – what will you do, go to work?” She had a point.
I suffer from a severe mental illness, and so am unable to work. My husband works part time in a shop and we have two young children, so we don’t have much spare money. I am a member of the Labour party, and strongly feel that the only way to counter the imbalance of power is to work collectively. If we are to stand up for our rights, we need a bigger voice. Unions are a good way of getting that voice.
As soon as I heard that some unions accept unemployed members with a cheap subscription I decided to join. I might not be able to work, but I can do what I can by being counted. Hopefully I can help with campaigns and volunteering. Maybe my voice will make a difference, and I can prove that I’m worth listening to even if I don’t have paid employment. I have become a bit of an informal benefits adviser to friends and family – having had dealings with benefit forms I’ve started following changes with interest, and so I know how important it is to be able to get advice from others.
There are other aspects to being a member of a union that are particularly important to me as a mother, such as legal advice and cheap deals on insurance. Young children make you want a secure life – we need to know that if things go wrong, someone will help.
Until recently I felt secure that legal aid and the welfare state would be there if things went wrong – we are already very vulnerable, and so I will grab with both hands anything that might put a cushion between us and disaster. It isn’t our children’s fault that they have a mentally ill mother – the illness makes day-to-day life hard enough without extra worry.
I probably will never use a good proportion of a unions services, but plenty of people will, and by paying this very small amount we’re helping to spread the cost. Keeping unions viable makes employers act that bit more honestly. They have to do whatever makes the most profit, but if unions are still strong, that becomes a factor they have to consider when making their calculations, and hopefully that is a good thing overall for everyone. Even if I can’t strike.
It’s a rare occasion that I leave the house other than to go to work, Greggs, or the pub. I went to see a photography exhibition this week.
Entitled No Redemption and showing at Northumbria University, it is a documentary by Keith Pattison of the miners strike in 1984/85. Pattison was commissioned by Sunderland Artists Agency to document the strike as it affected one small community in County Durham; Easington Colliery. He lived among the community and recorded the strike from beginning to end.
Pattison was accepted by the community as they wanted him to show their perspective, and this proximity to the miners and their families helped him create many striking images. He was present on the picket line, in the streets of the town, in the miners welfare and in their homes. The shots taken on the picket line were particularly effective, as he witnessed miners being arrested and police escorting working miners home. Some shots were slightly blurred and out of focus which gave the impression of a photographer hard at work, battling with his camera to capture an expression on a face and the feeling of a moment.The shots showed how life had changed for local people in the village; police guarding street corners as old women shopped and a school girl returning from school with police marching past. This kind of photo puts extraordinary events into the context of the ordinary.
One of the first things that struck me, upon seeing small children innocently caught up in a very adult world, was that I could have been one of those children. I was 4 at the time. It’s strange to think that this was going on as I was growing up, not just in a village down the road but all over Britain.
I find fault with the exhibition at this point, as the images were all in black and white. If the shots were in colour, I think it would have brought the events to life. It was in my lifetime, it was the 80s. Displaying the events in black and white ages them, and perhaps keeps them in the past. At the time a lot of photographers were shooting in colour as part of the “social realism” style of the day. This project would have worked well in colour.
Still, the exhibition got me thinking again about the strike. I was too young at the time to appreciate what was happening but as I’ve taken more interest in society, politics, history, the media, class issues and all that kind of crap, the strike fascinates me.
The strike initially began as a response to Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government, announcing that many pits across the country had become unprofitable and would be closed. Many communities, especially in North East England, relied almost entirely on the pits. Without the pits there would be mass unemployment. Angry and fearful, many miners in the affected areas went on strike. Supported by their union, the National Union of Mineworkers led by Arthur Scargill, the strike was declared a national strike.
As it progressed the strike became increasingly bitter. Stung by a previous strike which effectively brought down the previous Conservative government, Margaret Thatcher brought down the full weight of the state upon the miners, their union and its representatives. She was determined to bring national industries into a free market and to crush the trade unions that prevented it.
Police were drafted in from around the country to oppress protests and used brutal and violent tactics, resulting in the injury and arrest of thousands of miners. MI5 was used to spy on union officials. The courts were used to freeze the assets of the union. Welfare benefits to strikers families were stopped. The right wing media condemned the strike on a daily basis, often editing events to make the strikers look bad.
Thatcher declared war on the striking miners and the union, calling them “the enemy within”. Scargill declared this to be class warfare, and for many miners struggling to feed their families and heat their homes whilst the middle classes thrived, it was. Millions of pounds of public money was spent on policing the strike – money that could have been spent on supporting the mining industry.
Support for the strike was much stronger in working class areas. Scargill was a hero to many, refusing to back down in the face of severe personal provocation from a government hellbent on destroying working class communities. To the ruling classes, he was a dangerous revolutionary intent on overthrowing their way of life with the intention of housing the Queen in a council house and creating a Marxist superstate.
Of course, there is only so long that a family can do without money, and the miners had to return to work. And of course many mines were closed, many jobs were lost, communities were torn apart and broken and lives ruined. The coal industry was privatised along with many other industries and unions damaged forever. Thatcher got her wish. The government was free to run the country at the expense of the poor for the benefit of the rich.
As in 1984, Britain in 2012 is divided along class lines. The Conservative led coalition government is continuing what Thatcher started, with a constant stream of policies protecting the privileges of their own class whilst simultaneously attacking the vulnerable working classes. The police continue to oppress demonstrations with brutal force and the right wing media continues to demonise those who go on strike to protect their livelihoods and their futures.
So when David Cameron talks about “Broken Britain”, he would do well to remember it was none other than his idol that broke it. But then, that’s exactly what they want, because when Britain breaks, it’s the poor people that suffer. And they ain’t poor.
Pattison’s exhibition is showing until 27th January. Here’s a link to the images if you can’t make it…
OK, so it isn’t exactly Polly Toynbee, but that is my four year old daughter’s take on politics. She knows a little bit about political parties (or the red, blue and yellow teams, as she calls them), and a little bit about unions and strikes. She plays at being a suffragette and she loved going to the Durham Big Meeting earlier this year. She is, most probably, more politically aware than many adults.
Yet it is unavoidable that she is getting a biased view – both me and my husband are left wing, the newspaper in the house is the Guardian and she has been taken on marches against cuts and met the local Labour MP and councillors. While she is pottering about the house doing four year old things, she will have overheard left wing conversations, and recently she asked to decorate her biscuits with hammers and sickles, because she liked her Daddy’s t shirt. Even her school has a banner that they bring out for local events to march with the old mining union banners.
Occasionally, this troubles me. Am I being a bad parent by encouraging this at such a very young age? Am I simply storing up trouble for the future, when she will rebel and become some kind of massive Tory?
With a politically aware family, though, I’m not even sure how we could avoid explaining things, at least on a very basic level. We have always said that we will try our best to answer questions from our children, and that we will encourage curiosity, and she is constantly learning, like all small children. Short of hiding the newspapers and books, turning off the radio and TV and sending her to a babysitter for every march and event, she is going to notice politics, and it is going to be a biased view. Even the least political families will have to explain things like the teachers being on strike and the concept of voting, we have just gone a little further.
Just as religious families bring their children up in their value system, so we do the same. Of course, we tell her that there are other ways of thinking, and that people have reasons for thinking like that and they might not just be bad, but she puts her own spin on things. We have the luxury at the moment of not being totally immersed in immediate political issues, unlike the people who lived in our town during the miner’s strike, but I do think it is vitally important that children grow up to understand how politics affects our lives.
Plus, David Cameron IS a poo head.
Autumn Statement Day today, George Osbourne go away,
Slashing, cutting, burning, hurting, borrowing yet more,
Growth too weak, The Poor Must Pay, It has always been this way,
Cut their wages, Freeze Tax credits, Leave the bankers be.
Council houses, right to buy, they don’t need no alibi,
Maggie Thatcher, back again, in the guise of richer men
Pouring money into schools, not the sort the poor would use,
Bastards, wankers, Tory Bankers, Condem Government.
The Poor didn’t start the fire
It was always burning
While the world was turning
We didn’t start the fire
No we didn’t light it
But we can still fight it.
Sure Start Centres, EMA, Rights for workers in decay, Health Service Cuts are Deep. Big Society.
DLA, Student Fees, They don’t care who gets the squeeze, Deficit is all they say, It’s Absolute Shit.
Lib Dem, Nick Clegg, “Brake on Tories”, backing them. Opposition just won’t fight, as the slashing starts to bite.
The Elite, Millionaires, Stupid if you think they care; Time to strike and make a stand – Agitate and make demands.
So I say on STRIKING day – I support you, DON’T GIVE WAY!
We didn’t start the fire
Repeat to end.
Yeah, I’m aware of the scansion is a bit off, but I’m ANGRY Goddammit.
Living in France I know all about strikes. We get them regularly. Now I work in Luxembourg the only effect of strikes I notice is when the cross border commuters can’t get the train so they make the traffic jams even worse.
During my many years in Paris and its surrounding area my life was very regularly disrupted by strikes. Paris isn’t Paris without some protest going on somewhere. Strikes are a nuisance and yes, they are expensive to the local economy.
But we are very lucky to be in a position to complain about strikes. We are very lucky that trade unions are there to protect workers. Can you imagine if there was no way of workers getting their voice heard? If they had no representatives? You don’t have to dig very far back into British history to see what life was like before workers had reps and rights.
Reading the Daily Mail and listening to people rant on the radio you would think that most Brits believe that workers shouldn’t have the right to strike. Which is a very frightening mindset, and if the Tories get wind of that mindset you can expect more attacks on workers’ rights. Remember how Thatcher is best remembered for, other than being a milk snatcher, breaking the unions? Was that a good thing? Read articles like this one by Simon Heffer, and note how in point five he wants to do is abolish the minimum wage for young people. Look at point eight.
Now we are lucky enough that Simon Heffer is not a policy maker in the UK, but there are people in government who think like him. They think that those of us who do the underling work are worthless, and shouldn’t have rights. We have got above our station. Especially those who, God forbid, educate our children and care for our sick..
I am not sure if I agree with the civil service striking over pensions yesterday. I haven’t read enough about it. But before you complain about how your life is being affected by those strikes, please stop and think about what life would be like if we didn’t have the right to strike, and if we didn’t have trade unions. Working hours, maternity leave, the right to paid leave, various equality laws…
Yes strikes are a nuisance. But life without them would be unthinkable.