The Union Ballot – a poem
Prior to the election of Margaret Thatcher Unions were generally free to conduct strike ballots according to their own internal rules and practice. A show of hands, a branch meeting, a national ballot, sometimes secret, sometimes not. It was open to a lot of abuse and meant that a shop stewards or a branch secretary could exercise a huge influence over the direction a union might take.
The left generally controlled branch structures and could, with minimum organisation, deliver a solid strike ballot whenever called upon. This poem reflects upon how, in some instances, my own union the National Union of Public Employees, organised the national strike ballot for the winter of discontent industrial action of 1979.
Union Branch meeting at a Nottinghamshire School.
The chairs were small,
And the trade unionists
To hear of caretakers deals
Of rubber boots
And distant minutes
Of endless consultations,
The officer rose to speak,
He wore a tie
And did not earn an hourly rate
And spoke of struggle
Low pay, Visions, aims
And percentage claims
Urged to vote he brought them to a common voice
A thousand votes were cast
And six awkward men
And four home helps and
A dinner lady,
Left the room
The caretaker stacked the children’s chairs
Swept away the dust
And went home.
With such ill attended meetings casting their many thousands of votes in favour of a national strike you would have thought that when it came to walking out of the workplace that the response of the “majority” who were not at the branch meetings would be luke warm or even hostile. But that was never the case. Workers responded enthusiastically and the strike just took off with widespread walk outs across the country.
The story of Nottingham Shire Hall courts (which can be read here,) is fairly typical. Almost no one from the Shire Hall workforce had attended the branch meetings that called the strike. Yet they were magnificent and when called upon to strike, responded accordingly.
Despite all the shortcomings of the strike ballot the workers across the public sector struck and stayed out for as long as they were asked to.
Of course when Thatcher came to power she recognised that the ballot process was vulnerable and open to government manipulation on a scale that would neuter or blunt the effect of union rule – balloting. It was a lesson that the unions were sadly slow to recognise and which finally led to disaster when the magnificent NUM refused to ballot in the 1984 strike.