THE NIGHTMARE THATCHER DECADE 1980-90
Mass Unemployment and De-industrialisation.
For these years we have Trades Council minutes to work from. Their availability stems from a certain ‘modernisation’ at that time. Sam Clarke (T&GWU), the long-serving secretary retired and was honoured with Life Membership. Subsequent secretaries, beginning with Stan Meredith (ASTMS), were from white collar unions and had access to reprographic facilities. From this time the minutes were produced at least in numbers sufficient to circulate to all EC members and copies were filed in the modern way instead of the time honoured method of being pasted in books.
From the election of Thatcher in May 1979 it was clear that the main thrust of Trades Council work was to be in opposition to unemployment and closures. These problems, however, had arisen from the beginning of the Depression in 1974; Thatcher greatly accelerated the process.
Two previous matters had particularly affected Wolverhampton. The first was British-Leyland. From the 1950s Austin & Morris had been contributing to their own demise by distributing their ample profits in dividends instead of re-investing them to compete with growing foreign competition. Between 1964 and 1970 Labour governments aided a merger of Leyland and Austin-Morris to form the British Motor Corporation with a boost of £35m government aid. Still profit distribution continued and between 1968 and 1974 out of profits of £74m, £70m were distributed. The last chance for an independent, mass car production firm came with the Ryder Report in 1975. This recommended an ambitious investment programme with worker participation in management. In that year the National Enterprise Board took BL into public ownership with a 95 per cent stake in it. With the appointment of Michael Edwards as the chief executive (by a Labour administration, be it noted), a policy of contraction and redundancies was followed instead of the expansionist plans of TASS and the BL shop stewards. With Thatcher, Edwards came into his own and prospects of further shop floor protest were muted by the sacking of the convenor of shop stewards, Derek Robinson, in November 1979.
The other case, which even more directly affected employment in Wolverhampton, was the closure of Bilston Steel Works. Again, there was a long history of neglect. An attempt to close the works had been made in 1975 but was thwarted by mass protest. But in 1978 despite its products being sold profitably (but not profitably enough, claimed British Steel), closure was decreed. An Action Committee was formed with Councillor Dennis Turner, who in 1987 became Bilston’s MP, in the leadership. Deputations to the EEC and Bob Edwards’ intervention with Eric Varley, the Labour Industry Secretary were unavailing. A go-slow of 450 workers immediately scheduled for the sack in July 1980 failed to move the steel board and the last 450 men left in July 1981. Just to make it all irrevocable, the great furnace Elizabeth was blown up in October 1980. In all, 2,300 jobs had gone.
From the very beginning of Thatcher’s rule, Wolverhampton Trades Council addressed these key issues of closures and swiftly mounting unemployment. The event of the first half of 1980 was the TUC Day of Action against Unemployment and Cuts. From AUEW Lanesfield came a motion to support the day and widen it with a one day strike. This was agreed unanimously. There was condemnation of the leadership of the EEPTU, Union of Post Office Workers and AUEW (Engineering) for issuing statements discouraging members participating in the Day of Action. On 14th of May, the day in question, a march through the town and a rally (which police estimates put at 2,000) was highly successful.
Also in May a NATFHE resolution congratulating Labour councillors on their success in the local election and reminding them that they had been returned on a policy of ‘no cuts’ was unanimously passed.
The most important local industrial dispute of 1980 was that of the NGA with the Express & Star; support for the pickets at Castle Street was pledged.
A different sort of dispute was the attempt of the EEPTU and the AUEW to take over from the GMWU trade union organising rights at the Isle of Grain power station. A motion supporting these unions and condemning the TUC for ‘giving in to pressure from the GMWU’ from the local EEPTU branch was ‘not put’ at a subsequent Trades Council meeting.
Other domestic matters dealt with in 1980 included a request that school meal prices be frozen at 35p, opposition to the underpass at the Royal Hospital (which nurses have to use at night) and support for a bridge instead, unanimous condemnation of the fluoridation of water, and total opposition to the ending of the Earnings Related Benefits Scheme by 1982. 1980 was also the year that the Trades Council first became involved with training schemes for the unemployed with the Youth Opportunities Programme.
Political matters dealt with in 1980 included a £5 donation to Soviet Weekly, sponsored by the Women’s Committee, and £25 to the Morning Star’s 50th Anniversary Fund. The EEPTU led opposition to a TUC sponsored visit of trade unionists as guests of the Polish government and support for free Polish trade unions was passed by 17 votes to 8. The question of twinning Wolverhampton with a Soviet town and resurrection of the link with the Moscovretksy district of Moscow was approved. Cruise missiles were condemned.
In May, Harry Bagley, Trades Council President for 19 years and honorary life member, died. It was noted in appreciation that he had been instrumental, through the construction of Aldersley Stadium, in putting Wolverhampton in the forefront of British sport.
1981 was the year of the first People’s March for Jobs. In February, Peter Carter, the Midlands organiser of the march, outlined plans to the Trades Council. In April there would be a march and rally in support of the march. £1,500 would be necessary to fund the march through Wolverhampton on May 14th. Beds and meals would be provided at Compton Park, courtesy of the local authority and the Poly Students’ Union. Much effort was expended in making the march a success.
When the March was over it was reported to the Trades Council that the stay in Wolverhampton had been highly successful. At the main rally in St. Peter’s Square ‘telling speeches’ had been made by Tony Benn, Derek Robinson, and Alan Millington, the spokesman for the Wolverhampton marchers. There had been moving scenes at the site of the former Bilston Steelworks where a detour had been made to commemorate Wolverhampton’s most horrific closure. Hundreds of workers from Rockwell-Thompson, Edwards, etc. joined the protest, and a large contingent from the Cannon plant at Coseley had closed the factory and marched to the meeting. Alan Millington gave a moving description to the Trades Council of the tremendous support the march had at Oxford, Stevenage, Hemel Hempstead etc. and the ‘tumultuous applause’ there had been at the conferences of AEU/TASS and the Royal College of Nursing. In Southall the Indian community had taken care of all eating and sleeping arrangements and the final reception in London at County Hall as guests of the GLC had been ‘fantastic’.
Other Trades Council activities during 1981 included motions from the Women’s Committee protesting at high MEB service charges, opposition to Tory proposals to arm the police with CS gas, plastic bullets and water cannon, and a demand for increased maternity benefits; a T&GWU motion was also passed deploring sexual violence and harassment. NUPE motions were passed for mandatory grants to students for all non-higher education courses recognised as qualifying for employment such as the NNEB (Nursery Nurses Examination Board.)
Geoff Brotherton retired and a presentation was agreed in association with the Education Committee of the local authority on which Brotherton had served for 20 years as the Trades Council representative.
1982 was the year the Trades Council became fully involved in training for the unemployed with its Employment and Training Project with Dawn Bennett as co-ordinator.
Opposition to cuts in the Health Service featured strongly in 1982. There was a successful Day of Action in July and protests at the failure of the DHSS to reappoint Sir David Perris (secretary of the W.Midlands TUC) as chairman of the W.Midlands Regional Health Authority. Coseley 2 AUEW branch ‘viewed with concern’ the unprecedented attacks on the Health Service and saw them as an attempt to promote private health care. It urged any union with private health schemes to terminate them.
The Falklands War occurred in 1982 and there was much peace activity during the year. The Trades Council supported the Vigil and Petition against the war on 22nd May which was the main Labour and Peace movement activity in opposing the war. Later, the following resolution on the war was debated at length:
We view with horror the loss of life which will soon equal the 1,800 inhabitants of the Falkland Islands. We call for an immediate cease fire and a negotiated settlement of the sovereignty question in the long-term interest of the Islanders.
This motion was passed by 30 votes to 9. Another peace issue was a speaker from CND at a Trades Council meeting which resulted in a decision to affiliate to CND and a request to the local council that Wolverhampton be declared a Nuclear Free Zone.
Peace in Northern Ireland was also raised in 1982. £10 was voted and a later report ‘approved’ of the town conference on Northern Ireland which brought speakers from both sides of the divide to Wolverhampton to discuss the British responsibility for the settlement of the dispute. This conference had taken eighteen months to organise due to the fear and suspicion that the conference would attract the IRA or be the scene of violence. For these reasons the Polytechnic governors refused use of their premises and the event had to be held in the smaller, but most appropriate premises of the Wolverhampton Council for Community Relations. Support for a Labour Party delegation to Ireland later in the year was also approved.
In 1983 there was another People’s March for Jobs. The year began with a request to the TUC to reconsider its decision not to organise a National March for Jobs from Scotland to London in 1983. The march went ahead under the auspices of the TUC via the National Co-ordinating Committee. The Trades Council donated £50 to the march and Alan Millington was appointed regional marshall. The march, which came to Wolverhampton on 18th May, had a lesser, but still important impact on the fight for jobs. In his report after the march Alan Millington said that he would always treasure the memories of people from all walks of life, some not usually associated with the labour movement, not forgetting the churches that showed themselves full of humanity and indeed Socialist policies. Millington was congratulated on his stewardship and handling of the media. The press and media which had almost totally ignored the march, were criticised.
Other matters dealt with in 1983 included the purchase of £100 of shares in the Morning Star; protests at the non-payment of £6m to the Citizen’s Advice Bureau because Joan Ruddock (chairperson of CND) was an employee; solidarity with ‘the brave women of Greenham Common and CND in their attempts to stop the installation of the deadly Cruise and Pershing missiles on British soil’; condemnation of Frank Chapple’s support for SDP candidates at the local elections; a motion urging the continued addition of minerals and vitamins in white flour; support for democracy in Chile; and a demand for financial support for the British Aerospace industry.
During the year Geoff Brotherton died. An appreciation stated that he had been an AEU member since 1933, held the AUEW Award of Merit, had been a Trades Council delegate since 1933 and an EC member from 1937.
1984 was the year of the Miners’ Strike. Most of the Cannock Chase miners stayed at work. All the more necessary was it, therefore that the minority should be sustained; Wolverhampton was scheduled by the NUM to assist the two main collieries, Littleton and Lea Hall together with the Area Workshops. Wolverhampton Miners’ Support Group was one of the first to be set up with the full support of the Trades Council, the town council and the Students’ Union. The nerve centre was an operations room in the Polytechnic staffed by miners and presided over by Maureen Green. A committee, under the chairmanship of the president of the Trades Council, met every week to plan strategy and discuss finance. Two main collection points for food and money were established in Wolverhampton and Bilston with others at Wednesfield, Willenhall and elsewhere when forces were available. Weekly food and money collections from the main factories in the town were a key factor. Often there were public house collections and collections outside Wolves’ football ground on match days. Special mention must be made of the Indian community which through its organisations and shopkeepers, led by the Indian Workers Association and their representative Kamaljit Rana Singh, donated most generously. In July, a miners’ Shop was set up in Exchange street under the control of Ted and Dot Massey, a devoted retired couple who kept the shop open all day every day. Collections reached £1000 a week by August and this level of support was maintained throughout the strike.
The Support Group organised socials and fund raising events, spearheaded the continual protests at police brutality to pickets and organised meetings and demonstrations. It co-operated with the fabulous Miners’ Wives Support Group which did so much to maintain the strike.
It early became apparent that Thatcher would stop at nothing to defeat the strike. Blackleg lorry drivers were being paid £100 per day to collect coal from Cannock and deliver it at power stations, etc. Foreign coal was being imported at exorbitant cost, civil liberties were being destroyed and all the nation’s financial resources directed to breaking the strike.
Despite the wide network of Support Groups, the miners endured extraordinary privations in this struggle to maintain jobs and mining communities. When the end came in March 1985, many members of the Support Group marched with the miners back to work with banners flying. From that time, collections continued to relieve Miners’ distress and support the victimised miners. The Wolverhampton Miners’ Support Group ceased to exist on April 16th 1985.
Although dominated by the Miners’ strike, 1984 also saw a change of Trades Council secretary under circumstances that highlighted the problems of Labour movement participation in training schemes for unemployed workers. A Trades Council scheme for canal improvement went into a financial deficit of £16,000. This eventually led to the sacking of the manager of the scheme, Phil Richards, who then appealed against his dismissal. At the Trades Council AGM in January there were two nominations for trades council secretary, one was the incumbent Stan Meredith who had resigned as secretary of the trades council employment scheme the previous August. The other was Phil Richards who was in dispute with the Trades Council. On the night of the AGM Meredith withdrew his nomination and Richards, the only other nomination, was declared elected. This created dissatisfaction and at the February meeting of the Trades Council a resolution from ASTMS Wednesfield was passed demanding that Phil Richards resign. Richards, however, refused to resign and at the March EC, with Richards present, a long discussion took place on this refusal, which was carried into the full Trades Council meeting of March. Phil Richards later accepted the inevitable and did resign. There was then a special Trades Council meeting on 29th March which heard a full report on the Canal Scheme from Bruce Young (acting secretary of the scheme) on its problems. These mainly originated in the rapid development of the scheme and the employment of large numbers on it, whilst retaining the informal methods of control which had been appropriate at earlier stages, he said. At the April EC, Arthur White (who had been acting secretary of the Trades Council while Stan Meredith was on holiday in the Soviet Union) was appointed secretary pro.tem. pending an election in June. At that meeting, Jackie Coote, the only nominee, was elected the first woman secretary of the Trades Council.
In 1985 the following were the main issues. In March, a report from the NGA outlined the difficulties concerning the installation of new technology at the Express & Star. Many NGA jobs would be lost, although members would be offered alternative jobs under a ‘harmonisation scheme’. This required either that NGA members took jobs at a lower wage or continued with their present wage frozen until others on the lower grade had ‘caught up’. This was not acceptable to the union. The Trades Council passed a resolution fully supporting the NGA workers and calling on affiliated bodies and members to refrain from buying or advertising in the paper until the dispute ended.
In July the Trades Council withdrew from its Employment & Training Project and ‘disengaged in such a way that jobs were protected.’
Two Tory cuts were particularly opposed. The first was Fowler’s review of the DHSS which stopped single payments for such capital items as bedding and furniture, replaced the Family Income Supplement with Family Credits paid through wages, abolished the Earnings Related Benefit scheme and did away with Wages Councils. In July, a special Trades Council meeting heard Tess Gill speak in support of a Day of Action against the 1984 Trades Union Act which made strike ballots compulsory, granted unlimited damages against trade unions, made a ballot for a political fund necessary every ten years, and in the name of public order curtailed civil liberties by demanding 7 days notice for demonstrations and meetings and made the highly dubious offences of ‘riot’ and ‘affray’ statutory offences.
In October, the case of Marie O’Shea, held in solitary confinement under the Prevention of Terrorism act was taken up. The Trades Council condemned IRA terrorism, but called for the release of Marie O’Shea and the replacement of the Prevention of Terrorism Act as ‘an instrument for depriving people of their democratic rights (nearly 45,000 were detained last year) and the juridicial and other guarantees of a fair trial and protection against inhuman and degrading treatment whilst in detention.’ A similar civil liberties case was later brought to the Council by Penny Welch of the Women’s Committee of the cases of Ella O’Dwyer and Martina Anderson who were continually strip searched while held on remand in Brixton on charges of attempting to cause explosions.
During the year the death of Terry Duffy, the Wolverhampton born president of the AUEW and Fred Griffiths, a noted district AUEW secretary, were both ‘noted with sympathy.’
In the first half of 1986 de-industrialisation was at its peak. Dave Finch gave an economic report to the Council. He said that unemployment in the West Midlands had risen from 6 per cent in 1979 to 15 per cent in 1985, the highest increase for any region. One third of all manufacturing jobs had been lost. There had been a collapse of training facilities deliberately engineered by the Tories and 30 major company training centres had closed. Between 1978 and 1985 engineering apprenticeship fell by almost 70 per cent. The enormous growth of unemployment had led the government to replace proper training with the entirely inadequate YTS (Youth Training Scheme).
1986 was also the year of Wapping to which many Wolverhampton people found their way before the dispute ended. Local involvement began in March when Trades Council ‘regretted the necessity for the TUC directive to the EEPTU on their unacceptable conduct in the News International dispute’. (The EEPTU had been granted by Rupert Murdoch trade union rights of organisation at Wapping usurped from SOGAT and the NGA whose members were locked out while Murdoch installed his new technology). The resolution went on to ask all members and affiliates to stop buying The Sun, the News of the World, The Times and the Sunday Times. The march and rally in London on 8 April was to be supported and four nights picketing undertaken at the Cannock depot of TNT who were distributing by road the Murdoch newspapers. In May the provocations of Murdoch, the support of the Thatcher government for him, and the actions of the police brought violence on the picket lines and elsewhere. In May the Trades council was ‘condemning the wanton destruction, by groups not associated with the official SOGAT and NGA peaceful picketing, of EEPTU officials’ vehicles at Scarborough on 10 May.’ Regular reports of the progress of the action were given and regular visits to Wapping by trade unionists were made. In August the Unemployed Theatre Groups’ production of ‘Wapping Lies’ was supported and recommended.
The dispute continued into 1987 and in January another visit to the picket line was arranged. As the dispute subsided, the boycott of the Murdoch papers continued and at the March meeting where this was discussed, delegates were also reminded that the dispute with the Express & Star, which had been first to take the sort of action that Murdoch followed, still continued after two years.
Other important issues dealt with in 1986 included protest at the proposal to remove all engineering courses from the local Polytechnic; condemnation of the British government’s decision to allow British territory to be used for USA attacks on Libya; support for NALGO’s one day strike on 24 March; support for the campaign to stop the deportation of Som Raj; and support for NALGO ‘in its efforts to reach a negotiated settlement’ in a controversial restructuring of the town’s social services. The Trades Council was also indirectly involved in the matter which never should have been controversial, but was blown up to the proportions of a national scandal. This was the brave appointment by Bilston Community College of Diane Dietman who had been the supervisor of the social worker of a child who was subsequently killed by her father. The matter was resolved by Ms Dietman not taking up the appointment.
1987 was the year of disastrous elections returning Thatcher to power for a third term; also the unwelcome election of a second Tory MP in the town by a handful of votes, and the loss of control of Wolverhampton Council by the election of SDP/Alliance councilors who handed control to the Tories. To cap Labour’s misery, just before the election some shop stewards in the town had attacked the 15 per cent rate rise in the town. The result was a Trades Council and Labour group meeting with the shop stewards and a resolution at the March meeting. This regretted that the proposed rates increase seemed to be associated in some trade unionists’ minds with job losses. The 15 per cent rates rise was forced on the Council by the policies of the Tory government and particularly the fall in the rate support grant which had declined from 59.6 per cent in 1979/80 to 43.3 per cent in 1986/87 leaving an extra £56m to be found from the rates. The resolution went on to promise a campaign to expose the lie that rate rises led to job losses, to highlight the benefits to the local economy of properly funded local services, to expose the government’s national and local policies, and to support the local authority in seeking to maintain and improve the welfare and prosperity of the community.
1987 was the year of the death of Clinton McCurbin at the hands of the police officers arresting him. The Trades Council supported the demand for an independent enquiry into his death, and the decision of the local authority to make funds available for his defence was approved. These actions had again raised racist feelings in the town and were a contributory factor, together with the Dietman case, to the election disasters of the year.
In June 1987, in a measure designed to expand the influence of the Trades Council, which had inevitably declined with the heavy losses of trade union membership as factories had been closed, the name was changed to Wolverhampton, Bilston & District Trades Union Council. This makes clearer the fact that the Trades Council is part of the TUC structure and is, indeed, the local TUC.
Renewed Strength 1988-90
The years since 1988 have been dominated by the Poll Tax, and the campaign to defend the NHS. They have seen a growth of support for an alternative Labour government and there has been a small fall in unemployment.
The Trades Council established an NHS Defence Campaign at the request of the NUPE Health Branch. This was established with a successful launch meeting at which Hector McKenzie (General Secretary of COHSE) spoke. Andrew Goodall was later that year elected Secretary and the Defence Campaign launched several high profile and successful events. These included a major Christmas Card Protest. This consisted of members of the public purchasing a post card for the price of a stamp and sending it to Roy Carver indicating to him that the town’s health service was heading for disaster. The NHS Defence Campaign also participated in national events which included lobbying MPs in an attempt to get their support for the NHS.
Unemployment peaked in 1983-4 at more than 20 per cent of all those living and working in Wolverhampton. In addition there were large numbers on short-time for which there are no statistics. If one could average the number of days they did not work against a standard five-day week, there is little doubt that unemployment at its peak totalled 1 in 4 of the working population in Wolverhampton. In inner city areas, where most of the black population lives, unemployment has always been double the general Wolverhampton rate. The unemployment rate fell to 14.7 per cent in 1988 (average for the year) and 11.8 per cent in 1989. But this is after massive massaging of the figures and those counted are not the unemployed, but those unemployed and in receipt of unemployment benefit; this excludes large numbers of older men, young people on government training schemes and, of course, large numbers of women. However, whatever the real total of unemployed in the town, the decrease has brought renewed strength and ability of trade unionists to raise wages and living standards and the activity of the Trades Council reflects this advance.