Hundreds of workers queued in the rain and biting wind outside the Caterpillar factory in the Durham town of Peterlee on Thursday morning of last week. They waited patiently, then one by one stepped forward to formally sign a declaration of 'no confidence' in the managing director.
The 550 engineering workers were on the latest in a series of one-day strikes, and are set to go all-out next week. 'There comes a point where you've got to make a stand. People have just had enough,' said shop steward Rennie Simpson.
It was the just the first of many times we would hear that phrase as we travelled around the north east of England speaking to workers involved in strikes or preparing to fight. The day gave a glimpse of a wider feeling across Britain, and of how workers are stirring.
In that one area last week there were strikes by the Caterpillar workers, Arriva rail workers, building workers on a prestigious new development, and civil servants.
Workers on the Tyneside Metro system have been voting in a pay fight that could see strikes, and thousands of NHS workers across the region are voting in a pay battle that could see major strikes.
As the day ended postal workers in the area heard the news that their national strike ballot had delivered a resounding vote for action. From all, as if adopted by some unknown process as the slogan of a new movement, came the refrain, 'We've had enough-you have to make a stand.'
'Relentless drive for profit'
THE CATERPILLAR strikers are fighting an assault on their pay and conditions from one of the world's top manufacturing multinationals. The firm features in the US 'Fortune 50' list of top corporations. It ratcheted up over $20 billion in sales last year and pocketed $805 million profit. But this was less than it had hoped for. So workers in Peterlee face a squeeze to drive the profit figures even higher.
There has never been a strike at the Peterlee plant in its 29-year history. Now workers have voted almost unanimously to strike and to go all out from next Monday if the company doesn't shift. 'The company wants a two-year pay freeze,' explained shop steward Rennie Simpson. 'They want to change shift patterns when they feel like it and rip up all the agreements we've negotiated over the last 20 years.'
Bill Dawson has worked at Caterpillar for 13 years: 'This used to be a happy place to work. But now people can't take any more. Little things build up. The way people are treated gets worse and worse. It chips away at you, brews up and then they throw this at you. You have to draw a line.' Gary Cooney has also worked at Caterpillar for almost 13 years, since he was 19: 'The company go on about their budget and business plan but what about ours? We have lives, plans and budgets too. They want to freeze our pay, change shifts when they want. Where will it stop? We have mortgages, car payments, childcare to arrange and pay for. The company doesn't care about how we will manage.'
'Change linked to politics'
In Newcastle we spoke to Kevin Flynn, a former shipyard worker and longstanding union activist in the city. He works in the city's trade union centre and is secretary of the Tyne and Wear Association of Trades Councils: 'There's definitely a change going on. People are more prepared to take action. I think it's linked to politics. This is a very strong traditional Labour area. People were prepared to be patient in the government's first term. But now it's the second term. People believed that some things would be delivered for us. Instead it's worse-more redundancies and privatisation. People are up in arms over Blair and Byers' talk of 'wreckers'. There is a growing sense that the government is not going to deliver, so we have to look to taking action ourselves. Is this going back to the 'bad old days' of the 1970s? Well they weren't bad as far as I'm concerned. People fought and won things. We're not there yet, but we're heading in the right direction.'
An example of the return of the 1970s spirit had come a few days earlier in the prestigious Music Centre building project across the River Tyne in Gateshead. Workers had been sent home for a day because of high winds. When management sought not to pay them for that day workers did the 'old fashioned' thing. They instantly downed tools, met and walked out.
The widespread sense of deep disappointment with Labour that Kevin Flynn told of could he heard when we spoke to Brendan O'Donnell. He is one of the 50 or so civil servants in the region on all-out strike as part of the national dispute in benefits offices and job centres. Recently thousands of civil servants had struck across the north east as part of the national one-day strike in that dispute.
'I am from a lifelong Labour family,' said Brendan. 'We have been on all-out strike for 16 weeks now. We never had to have a fight like this under almost 20 years of the Tories. We're having to fight like this under a Labour government. I'm disappointed about that-choked, to be honest.'
We moved on to speak to John Woodhouse, secretary of the local postal workers' CWU union branch, as he waited to hear the result of the national strike vote. 'The immediate issue in the vote is pay. It's the worst pay deal I've seen in 22 years in the industry. But the feeling is not just about pay. It's about everything-privatisation, jobs, being told constantly that you're not working hard enough. It's like you've got your back against the wall. So you have only one choice-to come out fighting.'
'The mood is catching'
YUNUS BAKHSH is a member of the Unison union's national executive and the union's branch secretary for health workers in Newcastle. He works as a nurse in the city's general hospital.
'We are balloting medical secretaries in hospitals across the region in a campaign to win better pay. They do the record keeping, appointments and work the NHS couldn't function without. They get rubbish pay. All of them are on less than £15,000 a year. I'm going round doing section meetings, and they are up for a fight. In Sunderland, for instance, you could really feel the mood. The local paper had a big splash about how the trust chief had just grabbed a fat pay rise, taking him to £110,000. He was getting £16,000 a year paid into his pension plan-that's more than the medical secretaries get to live on in a year! That article was on the wall in every office I went into. The medical secretaries are already talking of rallies and strikes, and they know about the example of Glasgow, where medical secretaries won better pay last year by striking. The same feelings are there in other groups who are fighting. Here in Tyneside the Metro workers are voting on a pay offer. They were offered 3 percent, threw it out and voted to strike. Now they've been offered 3.8 percent. But the very day the ballot started on that, it came out that the Metro boss had grabbed a 10 percent rise to £88,000. You've spoken to civil servants, postal workers, Caterpillar workers. What you find is that people have been shat on for years. That has built up bitterness which is now beginning to break through. When people start to fight it spreads a mood which could be catching.'
Unity on picket line at Arriva
'The strength of feeling has taken everybody aback. It's like a revolt.' That is how Craig Johnson describes the atmosphere among Arriva rail workers across the north of England who struck for 48 hours last week. Craig is the chair of the RMT union reps at Arriva Northern.
He says, 'It's just a plain lie in the press that this dispute over pay is being driven by a few activists. There was a 94 percent vote for strikes. Support for the action has increased since our first strike last month. Anyone who doubts that should have been on the picket lines. There were about 60 people in Leeds. There was serious picketing. Women union members were the ones at the forefront of approaching post workers and others not to cross. We also argued with passengers and got a good response. There were huge cheers when Bob Crow arrived from RMT head office. People support him because the media and certain circles campaigned against him becoming union general secretary. At Skipton in north Yorkshire there were 45 strikers outside the station. It's one of the few Tory parliamentary seats left.'
Skipton did not look like a Tory enclave last week. The picket line dominated the small station. It reflected the composition of the 680 guards and conductors on strike across Arriva. There were men and women, Asian and white. One Skipton RMT member told Socialist Worker, 'People have had enough, and now we've proved we can do something about it.
'The support we got from the public was great. We had people tooting their horns all day. Drivers, who are in the Aslef union, also supported us even though they weren't on strike. They came to talk to us, and brought us breakfast and cups of tea. Everyone brought stuff from home for all the other lads and lasses on the picket line. So we had coffee, curry and other stuff-it was a right good mix. Everyone's even more determined now. A few people weren't sure where we were going with this two weeks ago, so I organised a meeting the Sunday before the strike. Loads of people came. They had their say, listened to the arguments and were completely solid behind the action. We were 100 percent out at Skipton.'
'That Skipton meeting passed a resolution calling on the union reps not to negotiate any worsening conditions in return for a pay rise,' said Craig Johnson. 'It's democracy in action.'
'Of course I'm with the union,' a woman guard from the north east of England told Socialist Worker. 'But I'm not really a part of the union organisation. I think I told you a couple of weeks ago that management could have stopped this dispute if they had only said please and thank you instead of being rude to us. Well, it will take a lot more than that now. I'm in this to win and so are the people I work with. We are going to go the whole hog.'
'I've not seen anything like this,' said Mark Russell from the Arriva RMT company council. The strike's brilliant. It's the solidarity of the members that is inspiring. It's better than in any other strike I've been involved in. Attitudes are certainly hardening. Everyone feels this strike is a result of privatisation. The feeling is there across the industry. Our strike shows that with a bit of organisation and a bit of guts you can do something about it.'
Bill Rawcliffe, the RMT branch secretary in York, says, 'Arriva management are offering office workers money to do a crash course as a guard to try to undermine the next strike. Behind Arriva stand the rest of the train operating companies and the Strategic Rail Authority. Behind them stand the government. We've got to raise awareness of this. There's a debate among Arriva workers about how to go forward, with some talking about all-out action. This is about far more than Arriva, and New Labour know it.'
'The solidarity from other workers has already had a big effect,' says Craig Johnson. 'We had GMB members come down to the Leeds picket line and support from the Socialist Alliance. A lot of RMT members are asking why we are giving money to the Labour Party when Labour ministers are attacking us. We need financial support and we need solidarity from every working man and woman who feels the way we do.'
Support the fightback
- Arriva strikers: c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Charlton Street, London NW1 1JB.
- Caterpillar: c/o AEEU convenor Kelvin Wood, 46 Hatfield Place, Peterlee, Durham SR8 5TD.
- Civil servants: PCS Strike Committee c/o Unison, Ellison Street, Gateshead.