Friday, February 23, 2007

You don't get me

I knew a Sun printer once. Well, I didn't actually know him. I 'phoned a cab for him twice. In 1983 I drank occasionally in a pub on Brixton Hill in London where the Landlord kept a cab firm's card behind the bar, with the address of the Sun's print works - pre-Wapping - pencilled on the back. He'd hand it to one of the drinkers when the time came, and give them a ten pence piece for the payphone. The Sun printer needed to get to work, but couldn't use the 'phone himself. He was too drunk. To call a cab. To get to work.

The Wapping link above refers delicately to

poor industrial relations – the so-called "Spanish practices" had put limits on the owners that they considered intolerable
The Landlord was less circumspect. The printer would be OK at work because he had a bed there and could sleep it off during his shift. A senior Union member (print unions were called "Chapels", for some reason), he had the privilege of sleeping during his shift, or perhaps I should say "their shifts"... according to the Landlord, he clocked in under two names and received two pay packets.

Years after the Wapping dispute, the print union leader, Brenda Dean, said something like "maybe we went a bit too far". I can't be more precise or link to it because, for some strange reason, I can't find a link to the quote.

Another thing I can't find any links for is the notorious light-fingeredness of the London Dockers. In the 1970s, this was so commonplace a fact that Johnny Speight - a lifelong Labour voter - could use it as a sight gag in the TV sitcom Till Death Us Do Part. Speight's father had been a docker and the writer knew the environment well. Alf Garnett, the main character, worked in the docks in the earlier episodes and as scenes unfolded, in passing and in the background he and his colleagues would open crates, steal drink and food for their lunches, stuff whisky bottles into bags.

If you search the internet, you'll find lots of pieces about noble workers, the plight of the day labourer, containerisation leading to the demise of the London docks, but nothing about the endemic theft that had led to desirable cargoes - like whisky - being routed elsewhere long before the closures. In the 1970s, it was commonly alleged that up to 25% of some shipments had been stolen. When the docks closed, an epidemic of armed robbery spread out from the Thames waterfronts, from Bermondsey to Woolwich.

But no reference to any of this has made it into the internet age.

The Unions have become romanticised as they have faded. At the height of their powers, in the 1960s and 1970s, films like I'm All Right Jack and songs like You don't get me, I'm part of the Union reflected popular anger and contempt for the self-interested and amoral unions, but today a generation of left wing academics have whitewashed their memory.

Today, the only part of the economy that is heavily unionised is the public sector and, having held to ransom a compliant Labour government, this now enjoys higher average pay than the private sector, and vastly better pensions, holidays and job security. The private sector, of course, pays for this - pays for benefits it cannot enjoy itself.

What would the Tolpuddle Martyrs - who worked in the private sector - have thought?


Anonymous said...

Fuck me John, you've become the Daily Mail.

Did anyone in any fucking Union actually ever work or was everyone always fucking skiving?

Peter Risdon said...

There's plenty on this blog to threaten the blood pressure of the average Daily Mail reader.

Of course most Union members worked, and worked. But neither that, nor anything you've said, suggests that anything in the above post is untrue.

Perhaps you just don't like being reminded of it.

leadpb said...

I've always had a wary eye for unions but am not anti-union. They had terrific beginnings and are (or were) an important socio-economic concept. Probably they will regain strength when times go tough again. But my favorite exemplar of the corruptness of unions is the story about the retaining of coal shovelers (!) on modern trains simply because it was something that could be negotiated in talks. Not sure this is still going on but it wasn't too far back.