Trade Unions / SHORT STORY
I’d never met a Stalinist before. Plenty of Trotskyists – well, I was one for a kick-off. But a genuine, red-in-tooth-and-claw Commie?
That’s what Jack was. And Jack ruled the union – at the large engineering plant where we both worked in Birmingham – with an iron hand. Uncle Joe Stalin would have been proud of him. I was less impressed.
Jack and I argued a lot. We never stopped. In fact, we hated each other more than we hated the capitalist bosses. His idea of how a union should be run was from the top-down – with him at the top. My thoughts on the matter veered a little more towards the egalitarian – from the bottom up.
The matter came to a head one day in 1979, a doom-laden month after Margaret Thatcher had thundered her way to an election victory. Jack had called a lunch-time meeting in the big welding shop. Inside the huge, echoing space the workforce (almost 300 men and women, though mostly men) was gathered.
Jack, a small weedy man, stood on an upended crate and called the meeting to order. A Hammer and Sickle badge glinted menacingly from the lapel of his overalls.
‘Brothers,’ he shouted, ‘I’ve called...’
‘And sisters!’ interrupted a woman from the back of the throng.
‘...and sisters,’ Jack added without faltering. It would take more than a little ideological slip-up to throw Jack off track. ‘I’ve called this meeting with the approval of the Shop Stewards’ Committee...’ He half-turned and swept an arm across a small group of grim-faced men standing behind him. ‘We have a proposal to put to you.’
What was Jack up to? I mean, I was a Revolutionary. I made it my business to know anything and everything to do with the union. I smelt a rat – and its name was Jack.
‘We would like to propose,’ Jack went on, ‘that the Shop Stewards’ Committee be given power to make decisions independent of the work force. This would mean the Shop Stewards’ Committee negotiating pay awards, safety procedures and the like without having to constantly refer back to the membership – which is, after all, cumbersome, time-consuming and costly to management.’
Cumbersome? Time-consuming? Costly to management? Give power to the... what?
A satisfied murmuring grew in the crowd. People nodded.
‘Sounds good to me,’ said one bloke standing next to me.
‘Great idea,’ said another.
I couldn’t believe my ears. It seemed everyone was in favour. Jack scanned the faces before him and grinned. The Shop Stewards behind him smiled.
‘All those in favour?’ Jack asked.
A sea of arms reached for the roof, and it was over. The buzzing, happy crowd dispersed. I made a beeline for Jack, who saw me coming and headed the other way.
‘Jack!’ I shouted, catching him up. ‘What the hell was that?’
Before he could reply, a man spun round and answered: ‘Just what we needed!’
‘Don’t you realize what you’ve done?’ I rasped. ‘You’ve given somebody else the right to make decisions for you. The union is the only chance we get to have a real say in the way our lives are run. It’s democratic. We discuss, we debate. We propose things. We vote. And we take control. It’s our union. Not his!’ I pointed to Jack, who shrugged his shoulders and smirked.
‘I know what I voted for,’ the man said. He proudly puffed out his chest. ‘I don’t want the responsibility.’
‘Leave it,’ Jack said to the man, who nodded and shuffled away obediently.
‘Is that the kind of world you want, Jack?’ I asked despairingly. ‘A world of sheep?’
‘It’s for their own good, comrade,’ Jack said.
‘It’s wrong, Jack. You’re wrong...’
‘And you, my friend, are living in a dream world. You have to see it’s all for the best. You heard him. They don’t want to think for themselves...’
‘So you’ll do their thinking for them?’
‘Well, something like that,’ Jack said, turning away. ‘Something like that.’
Alan Hughes is a designer and member of the
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