A wry look at the 1978 winter of discontent, seen through the eyes of a trainee personnel officer in a militant Liverpool car factory. An insight into the vanished world of a polarised society of petrol queues, three million unemployed, public service strikes and a socialist government unexpectedly trounced by Margaret Thatcher in May 1979.
I had been in my new job three hours, when I was told there was going to be an indefinite strike. ‘For God’s sake,’ I said to myself, as I was ushered into the Personnel Manager’s office at the sprawling car factory in Liverpool. Twenty personnel staff were crammed into a tar yellow, dingy office, listening intently to someone from Head Office in London on a tabletop speaker phone.
Eric Moore, the Personnel Manager shouted into the phone, ‘We’ve just been joined by our new labour relations trainee Frank Thomas, it’s his first day in the factory.’
‘Welcome Frank,’ laughed a cockney voice over the speaker, and I waved weakly as everyone turned to look at me.
‘Unbloody believable, starting work the day of an indefinite pay strike, that’s gotta be a first even for Liverpool. That’s cheered me up that has. Eric, call me when the stewards have reported back to their members,’ and still laughing, he rang off.
Eric stood and beckoned me to the front of the room.
‘Frank, that guy leads the company pay negotiations with the blue-collar unions in London. Now, Jim’s your mentor and he’ll introduce you to everyone later, but as time is of the essence, can you write in the dark?’
‘Write in the dark?’ I said.
‘Just get yourself a clipboard and go with Jim to the press shop canteen.’ I noticed a wry grin on his face. The shop stewards’ committee’s meeting in the canteen to decide on recommending or rejecting today’s pay offer. You and Jim are going to hide in the kitchen and take notes about what they say.’
‘What, like spying on them?’ I said.
‘No, eavesdropping. Now, Jim will show you the ropes and by the way, welcome to industrial relations.’
The others sniggered as we left. Jim, the colleague assigned to lead my induction and I walked towards the factory floor. We passed the factory personnel offices, known apparently as the ‘piggeries’. I was only just into the job and was beginning to wonder about my career choice, but then thought of a college friend who had also accepted a traineeship, only to be offered redundancy a month before she’d even started.
I had a new suit from a cheap high street chain store and felt out of sorts in a shirt and tie after three years at college but was determined to stick at a professional job. I needed the money and good jobs in the depressed British economy were like gold dust. I followed Jim deep into the car factory, assaulted on all sides by mechanical noise, insanely bright fluorescent strip lights, continuous spot-welding flashes and the sickly smell of cutting oil. Cars rolled slowly down the lines, swarmed over by an army of workers in boiler suits.
‘Stay close,’ said Jim in his strong scouse accent, as he unlocked the door to the canteen. He led me across to a second door next to a shuttered serving hatch, unlocked it and went in, pulling it shut on the latch. We were alone in a windowless kitchen, with barely enough light to see by.
‘When the stewards come in, get your ear as close to the hatch as possible and write down everything they say, exactly mind.’
‘Won’t they check in here?’ I whispered. ‘They’ll rattle the door, see it’s locked and carry on. If they find us, they’ll go apeshit.’
‘Are we listening to see how many stewards vote to recommend the pay strike then?’ I said.
‘Nah. A strike is an absolute cert. Senior management just want to know if the stewards blame the company or the government’s pay ceiling.’