Socialist Worker

The old traditions are coming back

Issue No. 1862

UNOFFICIAL strikes are illegal, hated by the press and are not supposed to happen anymore. But they're back. The workers who walked out at Heathrow revived traditions of union militancy from the 1970s. Ian Morris was a leading militant among Heathrow's engineering workers back then. He spoke to Socialist Worker.

'THE CHECK-IN staff's action was ideal. They showed the British Airways management they couldn't be trampled on. And it came as quite a surprise because it has been harder to do that recently than it used to be. In 1977 we had a massive engineering strike at Heathrow. Back then, all the unions were represented on a panel. The management used the voting system to soften up the more militant unions and play one union off against another.

'My union, the AEEU, was the most democratic and had had enough. We just walked out of the panel. They said you can't do that, it breaks the rules, but we just left.

'We immediately decided to organise for better shift pattern pay. General pay had gone up, but shift pay hadn't risen for 15 years. We wanted a big rise immediately and a rise in line with wage rises after. A date was set for management to pay up. They didn't, so on that day we just stopped working shifts and all came in together. It was great because everyone was together with not enough work to do. We were just chatting and joking around all day.

'The management just didn't know what to do - the place was in chaos because we weren't doing the shift work. Then the union officials told us we had to come out on strike. We were really having fun but we said the shop stewards are recommending a strike, so out we came.

'You didn't need postal votes in those days. You just decided and walked. We shut down the whole airport and the other workers loved it because they were getting paid but had no work to do.

'After just two weeks, we got what we wanted. It was just the most important of several strikes that happened at Heathrow in the 1970s. When a certain Margaret Thatcher got in in 1979, her lot wanted to set about dealing with the unions.

'They wanted to have the bureaucracy representing those below them in the union, instead of those below deciding their own future. They banned solidarity strikes and brought in these postal ballots. It is far more democratic for those who are thinking about striking to get together in a big meeting to discuss it. They can then hear all the arguments, for and against, listen to people's opinions and concerns and then vote, a bit like a workers' parliament.

'If you have a postal vote, you vote alone at home. The only arguments you hear are those on the TV and in the papers telling you if you strike you will ruin everything and the sky will fall in.

'It is only those at the heart of things who know what is really going on - the rank and file union members. The union officials are miles away from the lives of the majority of workers. Things have to be decided at the base of the union, not by people chatting to each other in posh meeting rooms.

'To make a real impact, you must have ground floor democracy and control. My advice to those in the airport today, if you aren't in a union, join one now. If you are in a union, you need regular meetings. Our shop stewards used to meet every week, in works time, for an hour and a half. Then you get everyone's point of view and it breaks down the isolation of different groups from each other.

'Also workplace bulletins are a great idea. They give everyone a chance to express their views and help keep people together. We had regular bulletins during our strike - they made a real difference. The unions went down hill for years under the Tories. Now I see signs that the old militancy is coming back.

'It was so great to see Derek Simpson beat Ken Jackson in my union. I am the branch secretary of the west London retired members' branch and I circulated my 500 members with a sheet saying vote Simpson. He won by 400, so I like to think I did my bit.

'I would love to see the old traditions coming back today. And they need to come back with Blair getting more like Thatcher every day. He is even beginning to look like her.

'I worked until I was 70, and that was a few years ago. But if that fighting spirit comes back, I'd start work again tomorrow.'

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Article information

Sat 26 Jul 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1862
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