Friday, 24 March 2023 16:48

Poetry, labour, and the dream of a General Strike

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Poetry, labour, and the dream of a General Strike

The last – the only – general strike to take place in Britain was in May 1926. The strike was called by the TUC in support of miners, who were mired in a bitter dispute with mine owners, demanding longer hours for less pay. While initial support was strong (over 1.5 million workers joined in solidarity with the miners) after a gruelling nine days the TUC ended the strike; the miners fought on alone, and ultimately returned to work in November. A painful and palpable defeat. In 1927 the Trades Dispute Act (repealed in 1946) banned “sympathy strikes”.

But the idea of the general strike continued – and continues – to haunt British political imagination: fearfully, on the part of elites; for the rest of us, as an expression of hope. We have come close so many times. For example, in 1972, following the arrest of the Pentonville Five who refused to recognise the legitimacy of a court injunction to stop picketing. Their arrests prompted a wave of solidarity strikes, and mass walkouts by dockers, virtually creating an unofficial national strike. The TUC invoked the spectre of an official one day general strike unless the men were freed, and this idea proved so potent and so threatening to power that the five were released within a week of their arrest.

Pentonville Five

More fatefully, there is “the Winter of Discontent”, the period between October 1978 and February 1979 when Ford workers, lorry drivers, council workers, and NHS staff all walked out, causing major disruption to public services. In all, around 4.6 million people were involved in strike action. This action has left an indelible mark on public consciousness, but one that has been tailored and shaped to serve the aims of government. Politicians and their media mouth-pieces are still peddling the legend of a country run by greedy and corrupt unions, permanently on strike, with electricity rationed and garbage piling up in the streets.

Yet, most of the groups involved in the action were far below average in terms of how often they went on strike. The relatively weak collective strength, for example, of public sector unions, was largely responsible for their living standards being so badly hurt by rising inflation in the first place. The strikes were disruptive precisely because those involved were not previously strike-prone. And what is left out of the narrative is just how desperate the economic situation was for these marginalised and poorly-paid workers. NHS support staff, working in roles such as catering, cleaning and portering services, began the 1970s with average pay lower than the average unskilled worker. Callaghan's government held pay down, ensuring that real wages for NHS and local council employees dropped a staggering 19 per cent, pushing workers further into poverty. Many of these jobs were being performed by black and brown women who were not only economically but socially vulnerable. This a far cry from the popular image of hardline union militants, holding the country to ransom. Yet the image has power, and the image persists. It has been cynically deployed to roll back workers rights and inoculate against empathy for those who strike.

Nurses St Andrews Newham 1979

In 1979, Margaret Thatcher came to power, with a ruthless determination to crush organised labour. Amongst numerous mechanisms for achieving this end, the 1982 Employment Act substituted the meaning of trade dispute as occurring “between employers and workers” to “between workers and their [emphasis added] employer.” Thus, the act further curtailed secondary actions or sympathy strikes, rendering them unlawful. Previously, union members could take industrial action against their own employer in support of union members engaged in industrial action against a different employer. Further, this legislation narrowed the parameters of what counted as a trade dispute, excluding the possibility of a strike for “political” reasons. Which, when you thing about it, is the acme of absurdity: strike action is, definitionally, political.

The UK is in an unusual (and unenviable) position with regards to our right to strike, in that no single right to strike exists. Workers are instead afforded various scant protections, assuming their industrial action is deemed lawful. If found to be unlawful, an injunction could be sought against the union. If the union then flouts or refuses to recognise the injunction, it could be found in contempt of court, and its funds sequestered. Or else,  it could be sued for damages. In July, the Tory government increased the upper limit for damages, from £250,000 to a whopping £1m. To put it bluntly, there exists no legal mechanism by which unions can declare a general strike.

Yet, the idea of such mass action is alive and well. I Googled newspaper articles from December last year to the present day, and I counted, without even really trying, six comparisons between our current situation and “the Winter of Discontent”, from publications such as: The Telegraph, New Statesman, The Spectator, The Observer, The Financial Times, The New York Times. All of these conjure an image of strike conditions in their most negative and disruptive aspect. Some of them sympathetically acknowledge the grim economic and ideological causes of the strikes, but none of them really address just how difficult it is to meaningfully commit to and coordinate industrial action under current legal conditions. For all the anxious whispers about a return to the bad ol' days of 1979, or potential escalation towards a general strike, as of December last year around 822,000 working days had been lost to industrial action, compared with 12m days in 1979, and 162m in 1926. If anything it seems as if scaremongering around industrial action has increased in inverse proportion to the rights and powers unions actually have.

I was thinking about this, and about the potential for coordinated action between the TUC's 48 member unions, when the news broke of the government “climb down” over NHS pay, with the promise of a one-off payment for the current year worth up to 8.2 per cent for the lowest-paid workers, and a potential above-inflation pay rise of 5 per cent for 2023-24. There was a rush to herald this news as some kind of a victory, with the Guardian stating that although this still leaves NHS staff below where they were in 2021-2022, it is 'considerably more than the government wanted to give.' Strike action continues across other public services, including eduction, and, at time of writing, “intensive talks” are underway between government and teaching unions. That's a testament to those on the picket lines, but it's not an uncomplicated cause for celebration. NEU are recommending their members reject the teacher pay offer, and there's a real danger that as workers are worn down they become more willing to accept whatever scraps government cares to throw them. If this happens those left will be further isolated and hedged in any legal attempt to meaningfully strike. So far, the  small gains strikers have secured are concentrated in isolated economic pockets, and any concessions to individual unions takes place against a backdrop of curbed rights for striking workers more broadly.

For instance, the Minimum Service Levels Bill, currently wending its weary way through the House of Lords, aims to make effective strike action across a number of sectors illegal by requiring unions to negotiate 'minimum service levels' with their employer before every strike. The Bill affects railway workers, hospital workers, teachers, firefighters, ambulance workers and border staff. Under the terms of the Bill an employer has the right to name individual workers who have then to break their own strike. This has the potential to be weaponised against shop stewards and branch officials, victimising union activists. Further, the minimum service level could be set anywhere: at 50 per cent, 80, 100. If the union does not agree with the employer's demands, government can intervene to set the level. The implications for chronically underfunded services – for example paramedics – are dire: they cannot provide a service to “prevent risk to life” under present non-strike conditions, so how could they ever legally strike to draw attention to those conditions?

The Bill has now come under serious scrutiny from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, as impinging upon the right to freedom of assembly and association (Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights) so perhaps there is some possibility of curbing its worst excesses. Yet the tactical nature of the Bill is telling – and troubling. It is a link in a long chain of Tory legislation attacking the practical and legal mechanisms by which class solidarity is fostered and finds organised active expression. By doling out limited and circumscribed gains to individual sectors against a broader backdrop of reduced rights the government hopes to break the bonds between cohorts of striking workers; a carrot and stick approach that uses small concessions alongside fear of legal and economic sanctions to engineer compliance. What we needed – need – from the outset is strong, mass coordinated action, but this looks less likely by the day. That said, some comfort can be taken in the fact that the government must resort to laws to forbid the expression of solidarity; it shows precisely the strength of our tendency to stand in sympathy with one another. This thought should galvanise us.

So what about poetry?

But what does any of this have to do with poetry? And what can poetry usefully contribute? Here, I am wary of bold claims. Art is not a substitute for legal protection or economic justice, neither can it be said to effectively deliver those things. However, as the poetry I want to introduce today amply demonstrates, it does have an absolutely vital role to play in building the foundations for collective class struggle, and I think it does so in three distinct ways. Firstly, as a space of counter-narrative testimony: poetry erects an alternative history against the reductive and damaging narratives the government and mainstream media have tried so desperately to cement in cultural memory. As cultural memory scholar Astrid Erll has noted 'there is no collective memory without individual actualization' (Memory in Culture, 2016). Poetry attends to the individual memories of striking workers, particularising collective struggle in vividly embodied ways that complicate the vision of unions as a homogenous organisation with identical aims and experiences, and feeding these more nuanced representations of ourselves back into wider culture. Poetry can be a site of infiltration into public history for those of us who are denied access to that history by other, more direct routes. It is, then, both a means of preservation – of archiving and transmitting our own stories –  and a form of resistance to – or subversion of – the narratives others make around us.

Secondly, poetry offers an alternative scene of imaginative solidarity, one that is untouched by the legal, temporal, and geographical restrictions hedging our free association in the physical world. Again, because of poetry's intimacy and its focus on close, sustained attention, it allows us to perceive and to foster the connections governments have tried so hard to practically prohibit. Further, because of poetry's special atemporal quality we can apprehend the threads of connection between our own, present experience of class struggle and those of our forecomrades and cross-cultural counterparts. Finally, poetry provides an opportunity to imagine an otherwise, beyond the necessary restrictions of practical organisation. In its potentially infinite spaces we can dream what must be dreamed before it can be enacted. These poets dream of a global rising that brings about liberation for all. It is my pleasure to share these poems with you.

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A call for solidarity with the exploited 

In Fred Voss 'Can Revolutions Start in Washrooms?' from the recently released Someday There Will Be Machine Shops Full of Roses  (Smokestack, 2023), the speaker places us alongside him, in front of the 'washroom mirror', confronting the scars – bodily and emotional – of dirty and difficult manual work: 'all my life' he tells us, 'I've seen the working man beaten down/ unions broken/ wages falling/ as CEO salaries skyrocket and stockbrokers get rich'. The linking alliterative whoosh of that long line, especially of 'skyrocket' and 'stockbroker' through their internal rhymes creates an image of acceleration and ease of movement, of a wealthy elite bound not even by gravity. In contrast, the earth-bound lives of the workers feel laboured and heavily embodied. Voss shows how work – and the inequality that structures the experience of that work  – takes its toll in material and daily ways: the heartbreaking image of 'Earl on the turret lathe', retying 'shoelaces that keep breaking' and blinking through '30-year-old glasses', or 72 year old Ariel, 'with swollen arthritic fingers and joking/ about working until he drops', or Teddy, who operates the gantry mill, washing 'stinking black machine grease' from his hands. I think what gives this poem its unusual power is its particular and striking portrayal of vulnerable working-class masculinity. Without resorting to sentimental appeal, the poem shows us how intimately inequality operates on the lives and bodies of these men, but also the dignified stoicism and quiet solidarity expressed by those who labour under such conditions.

Voss's poem  articulates a wish for revolutionary praxis, transforming Teddy's comment that the management owner of a new Jaguar parked outside is 'making too much money!' into 'the musket shot/ that set off the storming/ of the Bastille.' In that instant, the survival strategy of deadpan humour is transformed from a coping mechanism to an inciting and radical one. Throughout the poem, Voss interrogates both personal responsibility and social conditions; when the speaker despairs that he has 'never heard one word/ of revolt' despite all that the men have endured, we understand that the 'silence' of these workers exists within a context of mental and bodily exhaustion. These are men who have 'twisted chuck handles' until their 'wrists screamed', leaned their 'bodies against screaming drill motors meeting/ cruel deadlines until we thought/ our hearts would burst.' These conditions might provoke revolutionary anger, but they also wear out bodies and minds for the fight. That repeated use of 'scream' to describe both men and machines is telling: so much of the men's lives and identities is swallowed by their job. Teddy's words, then, the 'musket shot' is not meant first and foremost for the workers on the job. They are meant for us, a call to stand in solidarity and strength with the overburdened and exploited.

Machine Language cover resized

The constant bleakness of work

'Work' by Martin Hayes is taken from the forthcoming pamphlet, Machine/ Language (Culture Matters, 2023). Similar to 'Can Revolutions Start in Washrooms?', the poem is concerned with our enmeshment in labour; its toll on the body and mental landscape of the worker. But 'Work' shows us this intimate (and insidious) entanglement by other means: personifying work as an uncanny stalking presence, or a predatory threat, figuring it both as a hand-holding whisperer, who 'speaks to you in your ear/ about the things you should’ve done/ the things/ you shouldn’t have done', and a 'pack of  hungry dogs', snapping their jaws. For Hayes' speaker work is not merely a job with a clearly delineated beginning and end, for which the worker receives economic compensation. It is, rather, 'constant', 'behind you/ in front of you/ circling around you'. It's where you're from and where you're headed; it has infiltrated your memories, colonised your imagination, stunted and sucked the colour from your engagement with the world. What makes this poem so chilling, and so important is the image of work 'still there/ staring at you/ wanting to know/ this or that' even after the speaker has come home, taken off their boots, switched on the television and opened an can of beer. Work's presence is inescapable, and it alters even our relationship to few simple pleasures we are able to afford.

So with deft understatement, Hayes shows us that the burden of work extends far beyond the nine-to-five of the job we do. The poem is purposefully vague in its definition of work, and its use of direct address places each and every reader in the position of beleaguered worker. This is not, as with Voss' poem, an affecting portrait of particular work and workers, but a stark look at the mechanism by which the capitalist labour market operates. 'there is no respite from it' writes Hayes, isolating that one line within the blank space of the page, allowing the full gravity of that statement, and its frightening implications to sink in and settle. It is a statement that applies to all of us. It is utterly bleak, but in its universality there is the possibility of understanding and connection between all of us who labour, however different our struggles may outwardly appear.

The history of class oppression

'Once Upon a Time (Grandad tells a story)' by Kevin Patrick McCann distils the age-old cycle of criminalisation, poverty, and despair, that has haunted working-class people since time immemorial. The poem's power comes from its pairing of the standard fairytale formula ('Once Upon a Time) with the grinding injustice of grim economic reality: its very simplicity is the source of its horror. The reason injustice persists is not complicated, and the poem follows its workings – its stepping stones of cause and effect –  through the course a single human life. The unnamed subject begins as a 'Union man', is sacked by his boss for his activities, and becomes a 'jobless man' who cannot pay rent to his landlord and is evicted from his home, then a 'homeless man' who cannot secure other work because he is 'blacklisted'. By the fourth stanza, when McCann's subject is forced to beg on the street, he is no longer awarded the epithet 'man' at all, but is now recognised only as a 'a beggar', a 'work-shy scrounger' and ultimately an 'ex-con' by the magistrate who administers him. There is such a freight of past and present pain at the back of this poem: the gradual dehumanisation of workers who lose not only their jobs, but their identities, their dignity, their families, and their homes.

This loss of livelihood, community, and self is relayed over the course of five stanzas implying a long, slow historical – as well as individual – diminishment. The sixth stanza, however, sums up the relatively static destiny of the rich: 'There was this Boss/ Who was also a Landlord/ As well as Local Magistrate/ And now, Upon a Time, still is.' While the downward potential of the working-class is bottomless, the upper-class stay still, consolidate their power. Your boss might not literally be the same person as your landlord or local magistrate, but they belong to the same class cohort, and they act against you accordingly. They always have. The poem is as bleak as it is historically attentive, but it carries with it the promise of oral transmission between and across generations. The 'Grandad' who is telling this story is surely passing on the history of class oppression to future generations, who, better armed with understanding can locate themselves in a continuity of struggle, and arm themselves for the ongoing fight.

Can Revolutions Start in Washrooms?

By Fred Voss

I’m standing
in front of the washroom mirror washing up
after another day’s work
all my life
I’ve seen the working man beaten down
unions broken
wages falling
as CEO salaries skyrocket and stockbrokers get rich
and politicians talk of ‘trickle down’
and ‘the land of opportunity’
and ‘the American way’
and Earl on the turret lathe
keeps tying and retying his shoelaces that keep breaking
and blinks through 30-year-old glasses and finally
gives up his car
to ride the bus to work
and Ariel on the Cincinnati milling machines turns 72
heaving 80-pound vices onto steel tables
with swollen arthritic fingers and joking
about working until he drops
all my life I’ve wondered
why we men who’ve twisted chuck handles
until our wrists screamed
shoved thousands of tons of steel into white-hot blast furnaces
under midnight moons
leaned our bodies against screaming drill motors meeting
cruel deadlines until we thought
our hearts would burst
are silent
as the owners build their McMansions on hills and smoke big
cigars driving a different
$100,000 leased car to work each month
why after bailing out the banks
losing our houses
seeing our wages slashed
and our workloads rise
I’ve never heard one word
of revolt
and Teddy the bear of a gantry mill operator
walks into the washroom to wash
all the razor-sharp steel chips
and stinking black machine grease off
his arms and hands
he’s been driving the same cheap motorcycle
for 20 years and says,
‘Hey which front office person is driving
that brand new Jaguar I see parked out there now?’
and none of us can answer
as we raise our heads from the sinks
‘Well, whoever it is,’ Teddy says,
‘They’re making too much money!’

After 40 years of silence
I can’t help wishing his words could be like the musket shot
that set off the storming
of the Bastille.

 

Work

By Martin Hayes

it is constant
it walks beside you
when you should’ve left it behind

it sits next to you on the tube
holds your hand
speaks to you in your ear
about the things you should’ve done
the things
you shouldn’t have done

along the Edgware Rd up to home

like a pack of hungry dogs
you
trying to keep your arse away
from its snapping jaws

inside you take your boots off
wash
switch on the tele
open a can of beer

it is still there
staring at you
wanting to know
this or that

there is no respite from it

it is the only thing that pays for the rent
the food the electricity the toothpaste
the plasters Bonjela codeine and wine

without it
you are homeless
with it
you are a slave
and constantly
it reminds you of this

 

Once Upon a Time (Grandad tells a story)

By Kevin Patrick McCann

There was this Union man
But the Boss found out and sacked him.

Once Upon a Time
There was this jobless man
Couldn’t pay the rent so him and his family
Were swiftly evicted.

Once upon a Time
There was this homeless man left his wife
And kids in the workhouse while he went
On the tramp but couldn’t find work
Because he was blacklisted.

Once upon a Time
There was this beggar collapsed in the street
And was soon up before the Beak
Who told him he was a work-shy scrounger
And gave him hard labour
For twenty-four weeks.

Once Upon a Time
There was this ex-con, newly released,
Finds out his wife and son both died
In the workhouse so was dragged off
To the Asylum where he dies as well.

Once Upon a Time
There was this Boss
Who was also a Landlord
As well as Local Magistrate
And now, Upon a Time, still is.

Fred Voss has written several collections of poetry, including The Earth and the Stars in the Palm of Our Hand (Culture Matters, 2016), Robots Have No Bones (Culture Matters, 2019), and the recently released Someday There Will Be Machine Shops Full of Roses (Smokestack, 2023).

Martin Hayes has worked in the courier industry for 30 years. He is the author of numerous poetry collections, including Ox, (Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2021), Underneath (Smokestack, 2021) and the digital pamphlet Machine/ Language (Culture Matters, 2023).

Kevin Patrick McCann has published eight collections of poetry for adults, and one for children, as well as the recent digital pamphlet, The Haunting: Deleted Scenes (Culture Matters, 2022). Kevin is the author of It’s Gone Dark (The Otherside Books, 2020) a collection of ghost stories, and Ov (Beul Aithris Publications, 2020), a fantasy novel for children.

Read 928 times Last modified on Saturday, 01 April 2023 10:02
Fran Lock

Fran Lock Ph.D. is a writer, activist, and the author of seven poetry collections and numerous chapbooks. She is an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.