There is (still) power in a union - #heartunions
14 February 2016
Phil Turner, NUJ FoC at the Rotherham Advertiser
Joining striking junior doctors angrily demanding 'Save Our NHS' on the picket line in Rotherham this week showed why solidarity can win if our unions use their power to unite and fight.
My first picket line was in 1972 as a young NUJ FoC and junior reporter walking out for the first time during an NUJ national pay strike. The NUJ was forged as a union in the heat of battle on the picket line in the 1970s during a number of disputes in a decade which saw the then Tory anti-union laws defeated with five London dockers freed from jail after a general strike-wave led by printers on Fleet Street. And the miners brought down prime minister Ted Heath who came on telly by candlelight to tell workers they had no power!
When you went to NUJ meetings in those days the talk was of solidarity with the dockers, the Shrewsbury pickets, the miners, sex equality battles or mobilising against the National Front...supporting whoever was fighting back. I thought to myself, "Yes, the NUJ is what trade unions are all about."
Things have changed in the last 40 years but the same potential is there - if we get organised and rebuild confidence. I won my job back because of the fantastic solidarity shown to myself and my chapel last year. Thousands of jobs have been lost in the media, but the willingness to fight has been exemplified by NUJ members at Newsquest and the victory at Trinity Mirror over social media demands shows what's possible.
The low level of industrial struggle in Britain today is frustratingly at odds with the political radicalisation represented by the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. I believe we need a strategy to rebuild NUJ members' confidence, using our strengths to overcome our weaknesses.
Bitterness against years of Tory austerity and the failure of the Labour Party to lead any effective opposition laid the ground for the election of Corbyn. This political earthquake has opened up exciting possibilities.
For me, who with my local NUJ branch and chapel has spent the last few years campaigning in Rotherham through Unite Against Fascism against racists and fascists trying to divide our town, it was a huge boost to see Corbyn join a mass protest in defence of refugees within minutes of being elected. And anti-racists everywhere cheered his first visit abroad as leader to refugee camps in Calais and Dunkirk.
Far from the Tories’ victory last May casting the movement into despair we’ve seen mass protests against austerity, climate change and in defence of refugees, and tens of thousands of junior doctors have joined demonstrations and taken strike action.
But the level of industrial struggle remains historically low. Strikes at Care UK, Lambeth College, Glasgow Homelessness Caseworkers, the brilliant victory by the PCS at the National Gallery, the Ritzy, SOAS and elsewhere have inspired waves of solidarity. But they have not been enough to buck the trend. And there is a huge gap between what the TUC said about defeating the Tory anti-union bill than what’s being organised to defend the right to strike on the ground.
Thirty years on from the miners’ strike, when NUJ activists like myself in South Yorkshire and nationally built solidarity with mining communities, the effects of that defeat are still felt. The Tories’ defeat of key groups of workers including, as we know only too well, the printers at Wapping, had a strong disciplining effect.
'Waiting for Labour' became the main political strategy - even when workers have proved their willingness to fight on a very large scale when given a lead, such as in the big public sector strikes of 2011 and 2014. The defeats of the late 1970s and early 1980s undermined rank and file organisation and confidence among reps and activists inside the NUJ and other unions which were crucial to beating the Tory anti-union legislation in the 70s and the miners’ victories in 1972-74.
Using petitions, winning delegations to attend Stop the War or anti-racist protests and raising solidarity for disputes like the strikes at the National Gallery, are an important way of involving workers in activity. But we also have to develop strategies that link the fight against austerity and the wider anti-racist and anti-war struggles with the 'bread and butter' issues. For example, everybody knows the junior doctors dispute is about the future of the NHS.
The NUJ's 'Local News Matters' campaign has been very successful in drawing in activists over issues such as democracy and the media. And community and campaigning organisations outside of workplaces have helped increase the confidence of those inside to organise and resist. Just look at the moves to unionise in the fast food, catering and hotel industries. The fight for better wages and conditions is being fought alongside the wider issues of social justice and opposition to racism and sexism in the workplace and wider society.
Rank and file strength and organisation and a more militant trade union movement can and will develop if we bring together the political opposition to austerity with the potential power of workplace organisation. That's how we can stand up for journalism and the NUJ!
The NUJ is supporting the TUC week of action #heartunions to celebrate the work of the trade union movement and to campaign against the government's divisive trade union bill.