The death of Tim O'Leary, long- time docks secretary of the TGWU, last month, set me thinking about the terrible injustice Britain's full-time trade union officials have suffered in the Thatcher years, and about the way they are now misrepresented by Thatcherite journalists and historians. As a cynical Stalinist professor once said: "What is History but current politics read backwards"? .
One of the "tales agreed upon" during Thatcher's decade is the Tale of the Militant Trade Union Bosses and How They Were Cut Down to Size by Herself.
An irresponsible brotherhood of bigger and smaller Arthur Scargills, they were, the pre-Thatcher trade union bureaucracy, according to the tale the Tories and their press have agreed upon.
In fact, this is a thoroughly Stalinist rewriting of history. It is nothing but current politics read backwards. Thatcherite politics.
During the entire great prolonged 20-25 year cycle of working class militancy, for most of the time official strikes were very much the exception to the rule. The trade union leaders were the bitter enemies of strikes and militancy.
They fed press witch-hunts against strikers, they made scabbing deals behind the backs of their members. They were much hated. Indeed, the banked-up hatred felt by many trade unionists against their own officials probably helped the Tories push through anti-union legislation in the early 1980s.
During the years of the great working class militancy and trade union struggles, tbe trade union officials helped the employers control the rank and file – sometimes by strikebreaking.
They did the same thing in the mid-'70s when they were the power behind Harold Wilson's Labour government. They helped demobilise and destroy working class militancy.
When the Tories came to power in 1979 the labour movement was still very strong. If the trade union leaders had organised resistance to the Tory offensive Thatcher immediately launched. Thatcher could bave been driven from office like Tory Prime Minister, Edward Heath had been. They crawled on their bellies instead: and the working class has paid dearly for it.
But the British bourgeoisie is an ungrateful class!
All the trade union leaders' work for "moderation" and "compromise" had not been enough. Thatcher was out to break, cripple and shackle the The trade unions. So trade union officials found themselves playing in Tory propaganda the role of militants and firebrands they had rarely, if ever, played in real life.
Respectable and tame time-serving men and women were targeted and denounced—blamed for the deeds of tbe rank and file they and others like them bad spent much of their lives fighting to stop. Piled up with shame and blame, they were, like the scapegoat in the bible, driven away into the wilderness, out of their cherished 'corridors of power'. There they languish to this day, the target of abuse and contempt from those they served so long and so well.
When TUC general secretary Norman Willis dropped on bis knees before Princess Diana, it was probably from sheer frustration at going so long without someone to crawl to! He was desperate for a fix.
The life of Tim O'Leary, who died on 15 February, at the age of 81, could be cited to prove the absurdity of the "story" about recent working class history the Tories and the media now peddle.
A full-time union official in 1935, at the age of 25, O'Leary was Docks Secretary of the TGWU from 1956 to 1975. The dockers were the most militant workers in Britain through almost all that period.
With one exception (in 1970) all the hundreds of dock strikes were unofficial strikes. O'Leary's job was to stop strikes—and break them when be couldn't stop them.
He was hated, and with great bitterness, by "his own" rank and file. His chance of being elected to the job would bave been nil. But though he was, "in for life"—or until his retirement, in the mid-'70s.
The TGWU docks officials were a notorious bunch. Conditions would vary from ship to ship and from cargo to cargo, and rates for jobs would continually have to be negotiated. One of the two T&G officials in Manchester in 's the 1960s was nicknamed "the gas man". He would come from negotiating to the gangway and shout down to tbe dockers—covered in, for a terrible example, asbestos, when flimsy sacks bad broken open, thickening the air with dust ~ "The best I can do, lads — it's a shilling extra." A measly shilling. A 'Bob', was what you'd put in the gas meter. Thus, "the Gas Man"!
His mate, even more spineless, and pretty dim too, was known as "Houdini" after the famous American escapologist Harry Houdini. He'd come to the gangway with a similar sort of offer, and in response to protests shrug and cry: "Nothing I can do, lads. Me hands are tied! Me hands are tied!" Thus Houdini.
The "Gas Man" was secretary and ran the office. His route to the job included getting up at a mass meeting and defending the practice of working during rain: "I can't see anything wrong with working in the rain—provided you have a good coat."
Thus could an aspirant T&G official hope to win his spurs in the eyes of those who could give him the job.
Dockers would say of someone obviously "on the make" that he wanted eilber to be foremen or a union official. Similar trades.
O'Leary was king of sucb creatures—and they were more typical than untypical of the full-time union official across industry.
They helped prepare the working class defeats inflicted by the Tories. The ruling class should be grateful to them. But Thatcher wanted their scalps. And now the ruling class hatred of militant trade unionism is focused on the officials who spent so much of their working lives fighting the trade union militants.
The ghost of Tim O'Leary has reason to be angry with those who now misrepresent him and his like as firebrands and militants. So have we.
Socialist Organiser 478