During my time at Smiths Industries where I was employed in the Machine Shop as a setter-operator on a number of machines, from capstan lathes, drill section, grinders and finally put out to pasture on the grinders’ deburr and polishing bench, I managed to become healthily and positively politicised from around about the 1977 strike.
Management at Smiths, as the title implies, managed to engineer an 8 week strike over pay in the summer of 1977. They were an amorphous bunch of suits who rarely made any appearance to us plebs, rather dealing with our elected negotiators, the JSSC. Perhaps order books were down, or they had all booked a two month cruise that year, we don’t know, but for whatever reason they took on the might of the united trades unions on site, eventually knuckling under and coming up with an acceptable pay offer after a long 8 weeks … but, I reckon, probably achieving their aim, whatever it was.
The trades unions on site were quite solid for most of the strike under the leadership of the JSSC. If you have read any other pieces by me you will know my annoyance at abbreviations, so it was under the leadership of the Joint Shop Stewards Committee … and at the helm of that local soviet were the holy trinity as far as militant activity at Smiths was concerned. Rocky Hazzlenut (chairman), Bob Gaylord (convenor) and Dave Wishbone (deputy convenor) were my idols, even though almost every action they proposed was just a reaction to a guileful management playing with the lives of its workforce … with no other goal than profit.
Just an aside, but why is it that after all these years our trades unions, our shop steward representatives in the workplace, already hampered in their negotiating by only seemingly responding to management dictates and gameplay, can only come up with ‘work to rule’ or ’withdrawing ones labour by striking’? I’m not sure this still gets results, especially now with a smaller overall union membership split by devisive union leaders not supporting each other while trying to get a Labour government elected and a knighthood … short-sighted? Someone once mentioned to me when French railway workers had a grievance with their employers all workers continued to provide a service but refused to charge commuters … so taking their employers on and keeping the public on their side …
Anyway around about week 4 of the Smiths strike as strikers struggled to get by without their wage, you know, pay their way: some scrounging, others working cash-in-hand, but lots just going into debt … it became obvious something grand had to be pulled by the Joint Shop Stewards Committee to keep the strike solid.
In the snug at the King’s Head a demoralised group of shop stewards were dragging out their one pint allotment for their regular ‘battle’ meeting. The group were joined by a late arriving, but beaming Rocky, questioning looks replaced the despondency and all eyes were on this short, portly, balding, experienced negotiator who usually always kept a poker face … he looked so strange grinning, like he had lost it, his smile fit to burst the room. Bob, who was chairing the meeting, looked bewildered but nodded and Rocky exploded …
‘I have just got off the phone … and we have managed to set up a benefit gig to raise funds for the strikers’, he managed to blurt out. Astonishment, quickly followed by different questions from all assembled, all at the same time … and quickly ruled out of order by Bob, who was a stickler for following rules.
‘Order order, one at a time and through the chair’ Bob tried to gain control of the meeting with his booming voice, his London accent being most pronounced when he felt threatened, like now.
‘So exactly what have you arranged on the sly, without going through this committee?’ asked Dave, still seated, with an unlit pipe clenched in a twitching jaw … probably the only shop steward present who wasn’t in awe of Rocky.
‘I’ve only gone and booked John Lennon, he is happy to play for nothing to support the strike … we just have to find a venue, geezus, only John Lennon!’ sparked Rocky, in his mind he was being carried around the room shoulder high by his comrades … and they all looked like they would like to do that but the low ceiling of the snug would have killed Rocky, so it was fortunate that unless they were given the nod they were not that good at following through on any spontaneous thought.
It took a while for Bob to get control of the meeting, but when he did the smiling faces … the smiling faces … it had been a good few weeks since he had seen the Joint Shop Stewards Committee in such good humour. Probably the last time was a couple of months ago when one of the managers had attended one of their meetings in the canteen and had involuntarily, and embarrassingly, farted as he had stood up to address them … took the wind out of his sails, Bob remembered and chuckled at the thought.
Days after the meeting and a venue was proving hard to find. Any hall or pub in the vicinity seemed to be rather reticent to take on the show. Suspicions as to Smiths management involvement in spiking this much needed benefit were confirmed, this made the Committee even more determined not to be thwarted by the very intransigent bastards who caused the strike to be called, and the consequent hardship, in the first place.
At the next Joint Shop Stewards Committee meeting it was reported that the only venue to be had was Bishops Cleeve Dhobi which could hold about 50 with John set up on the washers. Posters were plastered all over Bishops Cleeve and tickets for inside and out in the road were sold.
And so it was that John played the Dhobi. In a conciliatory mood he played only Paul McCartney compositions with a left-handed guitar for around 3 hours, and it was great.
Just a first draft, written on the hoof, dedicated to Rawlings, Styles and Eyre of Smiths JSSC … a lutta continua!