The New Strikers: The Defeats of the Eighties Mean Nothing to Today's Young Activists, Who Are Not Afraid to Try Strike Action If It Works, Says Jeremy Dear, Trade Union Leader
Dear, Jeremy, New Statesman (1996)
In 1989, 14 of us working for the Essex Chronicle walked out on strike. Striking was not in fashion. After the defeats of miners, dockers and printers, the popular refrain at union meetings was: "If the miners can't win, what chance have we?"
But then our management, backed by anti-trade-union legislation and growing in confidence as a result of Margaret Thatcher's assault on workplace rights, sat across the negotiating table from us and literally tore up our agreement. We were left with no choice. For months we picketed, lobbied and toured the country on our way to a glorious defeat. It was the period of glorious defeats--and the National Union of Journalists notched up its fair share.
For a generation, media employers had the whip hand, and the number of strikes plummeted. In many years, the NUJ recorded not one day of strike action; across the trade union movement as a whole, strike statistics fell year on year. We were derecognised, demoralised and managing decline.
Today, strike action is again on the agenda, and not just in the NUJ, but across the movement. There isn't a TUC General Council meeting that does not include reports from the front line of battles in transport, public services or the private sector. Demoralisation is a thing of the past. Years of painstaking organising, winning back recognition and rediscovering confidence in collective action are translating into a willingness to take the ultimate step--to walk out.
But it is not the same old story, or even the same old voices. Some of those who went through the battles of the Thatcher years remain wedded to the increasingly hard-to-justify policy of social partnership. However, many recently elected general secretaries (and some who have learned through bitter experience) know that neither government nor employers have any intention of maintaining quality pensions or protecting jobs in the face of globalisation.
Trade unions have become more professional, more dependent on carrying out high-quality research into tax avoidance, vulnerable workers, the impact of migration and much more. But the real battles are being waged by the workforce. Prison officers, civil servants, Tube and train staff, scientists, teachers and, yes, journalists and media workers are striking back.
More often than not, at the forefront of today's militancy is a new generation. More of our union reps over the past three years have been under 35 and more than half are women, unburdened by the baggage of years of defeat and decline.
A favourite refrain of managers is that strikes are caused by individual troublemakers or agitators. It is not so. Our reps are articulating a new mood among members. They have helped media companies deliver large profits over the past decade and expect a share of the spoils. On the political front they were told things could only get better under a Labour government. They feel let down by both. Over the past two years they have been asked to pay for economic uncertainty with pay restraint and job losses while shareholders and owners continue to reap the benefits. The new generation is not prepared to sit back and accept this situation without a fight. In that time the NUJ has had thousands of its members striking: at local newspapers in Coventry, Doncaster and Milton Keynes, at the BBC, at the Herald and Evening Times in Glasgow and in the first 24-hour strike action in national newspapers in the UK for more than 15 years at the Express papers and Daily Star. At dozens of workplaces, in both old and new media, members have voted to strike, thus securing last-minute deals on pay, on working conditions, on redundancy, staffing and professional issues.
Strikes and strike ballots--carefully planned, well organised and with clear goals--do deliver, even in the face of intransigent and powerful managements. …