GMB@Work – the story behind the union
John Callow (2012), Evans Mitche Books
GMB@work – the story behind the union is without doubt the greatest popular history of any union to be written in quite a while. The scale of the effort and resources put into producing this history of the GMB union since its inception is immediately obvious. It is a very weighty tome – literally – and takes almost an A4 format on a side on style. At over 400 pages, it looks like the kind of coffee table book that you’d never think existed – a glossy one crammed with photographs and colour that isn’t about modern architecture or botanical art.
What’s more, it’s available to GMB members at the cost of £10 (or £25 to non-members) showing how much the union has invested in it in order to make it accessible in style and price to those that value the GMB most. Indeed, the postage of the book would probably cost £5 alone.
Written by John Callow of the Marx Memorial Library (who wrote a similarly engaging history of the short-live Amicus union), the GMB story starts in 1889 as the National Union of Gasworkers and General Labourers in the era of ‘new unionism’.
This prefix ‘new’ really did mean new as this was the first great surge of unionism for semi- and unskilled workers. In doing so, the sense of the labour movement being a movement for the whole of the working class (rather than the craft-based minority known as the ‘aristocracy of labour’) had begun.
Gasworkers in London established the union at the Beckton gas works on March 31 1889 by Will Thorne. Thorne signed up 800 men on that first day, promising that, if they stood firm without wavering, they would win within six months the eight-hour day and a six-day week.
In ensuing months, the union spread, with the Battle on the Bridge taking place in Leeds the next year after troops and police tried to prevent union members from making their displeasure clear to scabs doing their jobs while they were on strike. The strikers were driven off the streets by cavalry but took up rooftop positions to pelt their enemies with bricks and stones.
The forces of ruling class ‘law and order’ were maintained but not without the scabs deciding that this strikebreaking wasn’t worth this amount of bother. They left and the nascent union declared victory.
Such an event in Leeds gives a flavour of the hardships that unskilled, poverty-stricken, often illiterate workers were prepared to suffer to establish their union. The TUC was initially unhelpful to the new unions and the gasworkers’ union was helped by the Social-Democratic Federation, especially by Karl Marx’s daughter, Eleanor, who taught Thorne to read and write.
Although the GMB did not subsequently become known as a bare knuckle union, there have been points when it has stepped up to the plate over battles over union recognition like Grunwick in the 1970s.
The story is then told through a series of chapters that bring to life many of the key characteristics of the union as it developed. For example, the Grunwick strike is illustrated by making Jayaben Desai, the Asian woman who led the action.
Although commissioned by the current leadership, it was not known at that time that Paul Kenny would shortly thereafter declare that he would not seek a further term of office as general secretary. The book then serves as something of a tribute to his leadership in being able to bring the GMB union back from the precipice of being a federation of regional unions that was about to walk off its own fiscal cliff. In doing so, the book is remarkably frank and open about the problems and how they were dealt with. For an officially commissioned history, this sets a good precedent.
Copies can be bought by sending a cheque payable to ‘GMB’ to Helen Heath, GMB, 22-24 Worple Road, London SW19 4DD.
Arguing for Independence: Evidence, Risks and the Wicked Issues,
Stephen Maxwell (2012), Luath Press, ISBN 978-1908373335, £9.99
Just before we embark on another year of slapstick-level debate on constitutional issues, Stephen Maxwell’s book, written just before his sadly premature death, is a timely reminder of what civilised political discussion should be. While Stephen was a very committed independence supporter, he never dodged serious engagement with opposing arguments and never resorted to easy caricatures of opposing positions. He liked to take on what he saw as the strongest points the other side could produce. So in Arguing for Independence you can be guaranteed a well-informed, carefully considered assessment of the evidence but always guided by principle.
The book is divided into the democratic, the economic, the social, the international, the cultural and the environmental case for independence. Given the central role of the economic arguments in the current debate, the economic section is the longest and many will find it the most useful, although Stephen was not an economist. It has the advantage of a personal forty year perspective on economic developments in Scotland and for many of us, the current arguments from the No side are very familiar from the 1970s.
Stephen develops a valuable analysis of the issues which arose in relation to the banking crisis:
“Scotland’s recent over-reliance on banking can reasonably be attributed to an historic UK policy bias in favour of the City of London, reinforced by Mrs Thatcher’s Big Bang reforms of 1986 and compounded by the failure of the UK’s regulatory system. It’s a perverse logic which presents the Scottish consequences of these compounded UK errors as reasons for Scots to hang on to the Union rather than to discard it.” (p89)
“Despite the scale and European profile of Scotland’s financial sector before the credit crunch, Scotland had little expertise, either within Government or outside it, to draw on in anticipating the crisis or in developing its response. Scotland has had no formal voice in UK financial regulation – no representation on the Board of the Bank of England, the Monetary Policy Committee or the Financial Services Authority – and no dedicated supervisory agency of its own… Scotland might have benefited … from the experience of prudential banking regulation accumulated by the core Nordic countries.” (p63)
The comparative perspective of Nordic experience runs through much of the book’s analysis but never unrealistically or uncritically. Stephen discusses the different historical experiences that resulted in the independence of the Nordic countries, the institutional and economic policies that transformed them and the variations in their responses to more recent economic changes. Despite the problems they have faced, he poses the challenge:
“Would Norway have been a more prosperous country today if it had remained under the rule of Sweden? Would Finland have done better to remain a Grand Duchy under Russian rule? Would Denmark have prospered more if it had joined Bismarck’s Germany in 1864? Even taking their current economic problems into account, would Ireland have done better overall in the 20th century if it had reconciled itself to British rule or Iceland if it had integrated with Denmark? The only answer that sits comfortably with the historical evidence is: Very unlikely.” (p75)
But the social case for independence is one he sees as more challenging: ”Currently there is a wide gulf between Scotland’s default social democracy and the policies needed to make serious inroads on Scotland’s social problems. The missing policy package would need to include a further substantial redistribution of income from the top two or three income deciles to the bottom two or three through the tax and benefit system: higher taxes on capital wealth; increased support to improve the health and education of the most disadvantaged communities and households; new ways of ensuring that children from the poorest homes access the full range of further and higher education; a large increase in early years’ prevention work and the introduction of a Living Wage to combat ‘in work’ poverty.” (p107)
To achieve these changes he looks to “the potential for constructing a wider progressive alliance led by civil society as a counterweight to the influence of the business community and some sections of the middle class” (p109). He sees this as possible but not certain but many of the individuals and groups who might create this alliance are there, have existing networks and would have new opportunities with the wider economic powers of independence.
Having been involved in the SNP oil campaign of the 1970s, Stephen has much to say about oil, both the huge wasted opportunity that Scotland could have grasped thirty years ago and the continued potential for contemporary Scotland. The wasted opportunity that “left Mrs Thatcher to enjoy the benefits of £160 billion of oil revenues undisturbed by any concerted challenge from Scotland’s majority Labour MPs, many representing constituencies being devastated by her Government’s policies” (p60) and the risk “that the remaining 40 per cent of Scotland’s oil wealth will follow the 60 per cent that has already been creamed off” (p179), leaving Scotland open to a real reduction in income with a revised Barnet formula if there is a No vote.
This book is a good way to start the new political year.