Partial transcript: Freedom & Working People

Below is a talk by Jerry Hicks from the Freedom and Working People session.

Jerry Hicks: There are parallel conventions today in cities up and down the country including Bristol where I live, where in the former church in Trinity Road, there are going to be some fantastic discussions taking place there as well today. This church is in the shadow of Trinity Road Police Station – a police station that has been recently built and it’s like a fortress. We have gone from being the oldest democracy to being the most watched and monitored of people. My journey here was that I booked a ticket on the internet, walked down to the station with a few CCTV cameras watching me – there was definitely one at the bus station. When I got off in Victoria: there was a camera there and so I took my Oyster card – actually my mate’s Oyster card, so that might confuse somebody – and here I am. The point is I have been monitored every stretch of my journey here. 

I’m very interested in words, and Employment Law is an interesting phrase.  Almost anyone in a trade union would class that as anti-union legislation. We have been criminalised. Now you can’t meet in a meeting like this and have a discussion and then take a decision. There are hoops and hurdles. Addresses must all be correct, and then everyone has to be able to take part in the ballot and then you have to straddle weeks, as well as giving the employer seven days notice, and by that time all the work has gone or the matter is over and done with. Even when you have jumped through all those hoops and gone through all those legalities, if you occasionally take matters into your own hands, you are limited to six pickets. It is no longer legal to take solidarity action: if that hospital closes, if that school closes, if that post office closes – all of which you might want to use in some stage in your lives – you can’t go along to the demonstration and take a photograph of a policeman as I now know.  And of course, they can sack you at one hour’s notice as they did with a whole shift of Cowley’s agency workers, hundreds of them not needed any more. And yet it takes us weeks and weeks and weeks, if we are to comply with all of the laws, to do anything about it.  

This EU Posted Workers’ Directive that was cobbled together to give even more power to business said there would be freedom of movement of workers. You might think that is fantastic: I’ll have a bit of that freedom to move about. It was watered down by our government to weaken pay and conditions, and the terms of employment. That ‘freedom of movement’ means that an employer can just uproot the whole workforce from its own country, or another country, and it can supplant them not on the wages and conditions of the country that they are in, but the worse conditions and pay of the country they come from. So it is worse exploitation. And sometimes this happens not even voluntarily. The new workforce are segregated and accommodated in such a way that they are not allowed to meet, to greet, to speak. So I think these directives are designed not for the working people involved, but for business and that they are there to weaken the trade unions. 

This Posted Workers Directive was in the news a couple of weeks ago in connection with the Lindsey Oil Refinery in Humberside. You would think that it had come out of the blue: “Blimey. Where did that come from?”  But this volcano has been rumbling for years since the EU Posted Workers Directive was first put together.  That volcano erupted two weeks ago and gave us a fantastic glimpse of what is possible. Awful things happened – the awful slogan “British jobs for British workers!” came out of the mouth of a Labour Prime Minister, a year, by the way, after it came out of the mouth of my General Secretary, who I’m standing against in the next election. He might lose and I might win – wouldn’t that be a fantastic world? But the point that I am making is that this was five days that shook the world, not even ten. The miners’ strike lasted for twelve months and people are politicised during struggle. It doesn’t always start off pure. I was relieved, you know, that the slogan wasn’t “ British jobs for British workers and piss off Itis or Poles!” But the only reason the people shouting that were at the fore was that the union banners weren’t being waved: red Unite and Amicus banners. Why not? Because the union was afraid that their money would be sequestrated. So this was an unofficial strike. These members had taken part in a democracy. They had put their hands up and said “Enough is enough: all these people are being exploited!” “Jobs for all available to all” – even translated into Italian to make those links. They had said, “Let’s contact these Italian workers” – who had been shipped in by the way. But it was unofficial and the union only tacitly, not visibly supported it. And politics abhors a vacuum. It gets filled up.  

But by the end of the week there was an agreement and there were jobs available!  I think that there was an agreement from the highest level. Because I know that the next wave of strikes would have been in the oil field. That is where this dispute was going: workers deciding that something is wrong and something has got to be done. There were twenty solidarity walk-outs for the people in this Lindsey Oil Refinery dispute, all across the country – because construction workers are nomadic – including Polish workers in Plymouth taking solidarity action, which blew the myth that it was a racist dispute. 

I was assaulted at one of these demonstrations, on January 19th, – remember, not an official strike so we couldn’t have the pickets and couldn’t talk to people and all those things – and had my fibia broken. I was always going to get around to making a complaint, just so that it was logged. But two weeks after the assault on me I was rung up by Nottinghamshire CID – I had to apologise for not getting it right and calling him PC – who said that there was “a rumour going around that you are alleging that you’ve been assaulted”. Well, of course it was more than an allegation. I’ve got X-rays and a doctor’s report. So I said, “What do you mean ‘rumour’?” “Well we have seen it on a few websites.” Well, you know what I think. Why would the police worry themselves about my fractured leg? No, the message they were sending is: “We know who you are and where you are and we’ve got your mobile phone number.”  I hadn’t given my number to the Nottinghamshire police.  

In a way, it doesn’t bother me. I will do what I do. But years ago they used to be a little more subtle than that. There was the famous occasion of a CND village fete, raising money for nuclear disarmament, where they had a couple of blokes in plain clothes just wandering up and down and taking down car numbers. It was really weird. So this woman came out  – probably Neighbourhood Watch – and said, “Excuse me, excuse me, what are you doing?” “Well, we’re just taking numbers down. You know, there’s a CND fundraiser in there.” It was just making a point more than anything else. I remember talking to a chaplain for the National Union of Mineworkers who said that he was being followed for the whole year of the miners’ strike in 1984. Bizarre stuff. It gets more bizarre. His car wouldn’t start one day, so he went down his drive and said, “Listen, I know you are going to go to the same place as me because you are following me, so could you give me a lift? And he did! So perhaps that was a ‘good cop’ – I don’t know. But when he got there I suppose he smashed him over the head with a truncheon. 

What is the difference between a well-organised trade unionised work place and a non-unionise workplace. Well. I’m not going to bombard you with facts and figures: but better pay, better terms and conditions, fairer systems. In a non-unionised workplace you very much know that you are on your own, and defenceless. But even in a well-organised workplace there is a constant battle of ideas and control: a relentless toing and froing of monitoring and tracking by the employer. Clocking in and clocking out was one thing. We would argue, “Why? Don’t you trust us? Surely, if the work is done, what’s your point…” And we won the argument eventually and they dispensed with that. Then they brought in swipe cards and you go through these arguments all over again. But the swipe cards then get extended to doors which used to work on a punch key where you got entrusted with a code. But they couldn’t track you on that I guess, so the swipe cards and turnstyles would proliferate. Who gets the contracts on doors by the way in workplaces? – because they must make a small fortune.  

But in a well-organised workplace you have those arguments. Sometimes you win and beat them back, and sometimes you don’t. A good outcome might be an agreement that no matter what the swipe cards say, this won’t be used against you as evidence in disciplinary matters, for example. But these tracking and watching devices are precisely for that, to restrict your movements, to make you feel oppressed, intimidated and isolated. And I guess in their system, it is to increase the profits. But it is all one way, you know. Just imagine our CCTV in the board room, especially in the bank boardrooms over the last couple of years while they have been taking on these toxic debts and 125% mortgages and then taking your houses off you! Then, we would have known. But we don’t get that. It is all one way. So you might ask, why is it that we can’t just believe them when they say that all this is for our own good and for our national security? 

The reason is that we have got experience. That’s why we don’t believe them. I am not paranoid – not that that stops them talking about me! But we have got experience. Take the ‘war on terror’. This was supposed to usher in all these restrictions that would ultimately protect us. My view is that a decent foreign policy would make us all an awful lot safer. But the biggest danger working people would say, anybody would say, kids in school would say, is global warming. None of our making. Or recession. None of our making. If we had had CCTV cameras in the boardrooms of the banks we may have been able to avert that. But it is the ‘war on terror’ that is the going thing: the ID cards and the billions of pounds. I tried to work out on the coach coming up how they could put fifty pieces of information about me on that ID card. I could only think of twelve things anyone might want to know about me. I must be one of the most uninteresting people in the world – actually I lied, I ran out after ten. But this is serious. If we are going to spend money, let’s spend it on schools, hospitals. Let’s decide where they should be and that they are publicly owned. I don’t mean to trivialise this. The catastrophic mistakes they make with all the information that they have! The worst case so far, in terms of lives lost, must be the weapons of mass destruction. “We know”, they said, “they’re there. Believe us – by the way – because we’ve seen the evidence. You can’t. But we have.” They didn’t even show the evidence to many of the MPs, I think, but they were all too easily persuaded in my view. But there weren’t any. They weren’t there.  

There are two conclusions we might draw from this. Either we say, they were lying through their teeth to get the oil and do what they do in the name of imperialism. That’s one theory and it might be right. But if that one is wrong, then for all the information-gathering, that was a pretty poor outcome wasn’t it? Then there’s nuclear energy. We are just about to build an awful lot more nuclear power stations. My union says that is being done in my name. I would argue against that if I became General Secretary. But the point about it is that we were told this would be cheap, clean and safe. One of the slogans was, “You wouldn’t ever want to turn the lights off, it would be so cheap by comparison. You would want to turn your heating up and run around in flip-flops.” Cheap? My goodness no. Clean and safe? No. A thousand years of toxic waste.  

There is an almost relentless one-way process of legislation, both in the workplace and in society at large. Any attack on the trade union movement weakens our chance of beating back the attacks on our civil liberties. And I think this is very much a class-based conflict. Who controls, who has access, and who is ever held accountable for all this information that is gathered about us?  Jean Charles de Menezes was an electrician and might very well have been a member of our union. He was going about his every day business and the wrong information led to a tragic consequence: an innocent man was shot, killed, murdered. What followed that? With all the information? You would think to yourself, well at least the truth will out!  But there was no CCTV – surprise, surprise. There was a pack of lies – a puffer jacket when they want one, and leaping over one of the turnstyles when it didn’t happen. A pack of lies and a cover up. It is one way, all this legislation and all this control of information. Even the Isaeli troops had their mobile phones confiscated in the last invasion and slaughter in Gaza.  

When have we ever heard the slogan, “What do we want? More surveillance! When do we want it? Now!” We never have, have we? But our strength is their weakness. And the counterbalance is there. It is available. All this information needs to be gathered and processed. And that means people, lots of people. And when we say “No” in whatever way it takes, it stops dead for them. We have to open our minds: all things are possible. What a strong trade union means even though there are less of us, but there are millions, is that individuals like ourselves have come together, participated collectively in debates and come to a decision which enables us to win rights through struggle. None of the rights I believe were ever given us by philanthropists who said, “ Hmm. You have got a pretty rum deal, you lot. Here have some rights!” They were all fought for by the trade union movement and ultimately won: the freedom to associate in the first place – the Tolpuddle Martyrs made that sacrifice and were deported for it, the right to vote, the right not to be racially or sexually abused, the right to equal pay, the woman’s right to choose. The trade union organisation is the backbone – not the whole skeleton and not the flesh – but the backbone of the struggle to cling onto in order to add that whole skeleton and the flesh, and bring about the change to a society based on our civil rights.  

Attacks on civil liberties in my view may require civil disobedience. Over thirty-two years as a trade unionist, I have taken part in solidarity action official and unofficial and I will do it again with pride. I have called for unofficial action and got denounced by my union leaders for it: but when the law’s an ass, civil or employment law, you break it. I might be faced with a lawsuit fro some of the things I have said in my election address, but I’ll say them. That’s my position. I know that there are millions of people who want say them, and hundreds of thousands who do say them. And when we get together anything’s possible. I’ve seen some fabulous things: the Berlin wall come down, the end of apartheid, Thatcher leaving Downing Street with a tear in her eye, the poll tax smashed by civil disobedience when the Labour Party was telling us, “Pay the poll tax. We’ll sort it out when we get in!”   

I’m a great advocate of talking nice. I can do that, not without some difficulty. But I know when the chips are down you have got to do what you have got to do. When determined people get together anything is possible. It isn’t easy. But is it impossible? Absolutely not. As an activist I was one of the people who were organised in coaches to take part in a fantastic demonstration in the streets of London with millions of people protesting against war in Iraq. The biggest demonstration in history. That was only a few years ago. And I believe this is an even bigger challenge to us now, because it strikes at the heart of our civic liberties. Freedom is a right we have to fight for over and over again. Our union’s founding statement is organise – agitate – and educate. Thank you very much.

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