Tag: Democracy

The Castlemilk Anti-Bedroom Tax Campaign

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© Castlemilk Anti-Bedroom Tax Campaign

In the March of 2013, I think it was Socialist Party Scotland, organised a public meeting in this very room [Main Hall, Castlemilk Community Centre] and I think there was over 100 people turned up to that. So a sense of injustice and fury was already building because the Bedroom Tax was imminent. This thing was coming in the next week to ten days and people didn’t feel they had enough information about how this was going to affect them. ‘The Bedroom Tax - what does it mean for me?’ There were figures bandied around. ‘It’s going to cost me 14% extra or 25% of my rent, what is actually going on here?’

This was unfair because no matter how many spare rooms you had, people’s rents were different depending on what area you lived in, even within Castlemilk. The rents down the valley in Drakemire were actually different from that in Ardencraig even though the house sizes were the same, so even though it was 14% or 25% the figures were going to work out differently for people living in the same type of accommodation. [...] What we need to remember is when they built the scheme they built all the houses the same size, they were all family units. The majority of houses are three apartment houses. There are a few four apartment houses and I don’t think there is many single apartment houses. So the whole idea that the government were going to shift people freely into smaller accommodation was just never going to happen. There was absolutely no way that this could happen in this area and in similar areas in the city, and that could be seen throughout the country. It wasn’t just here in Glasgow, it was the same throughout Scotland.

So the public meeting in the March of 2013 was basically the birth of the Castlemilk Anti-Bedroom Tax campaign. We started having meetings regularly. There are people in this room that belonged to that group and we continued to have these meetings but we also stood in the shopping centre on a Friday afternoon talking to folk. We got a petition organised and one of the things we focused on in the petition was evictions. There are a lot of similarities here with the Anti-Poll Tax Campaign […]. It is no accident that the banners are similar, because we learnt a lot from the Poll Tax campaign. That campaign was ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’, and you can see from this [Jean points to the Anti-Bedroom Tax banner] that its a ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Leave’ scenario because the main concern – and this is the difference between us and the Poll Tax – is that we were at risk of people losing their homes. It wasn’t just about losing independence and losing furniture, which was bad enough, but being evicted and ending up on the street. It was a really scary, scary thing for folk, so the decision was made – because there had been Anti-Bedroom Tax groups springing up across the country – to get them all together, much as the Anti-Poll Tax Unions did, so that we could share resources and come to a decision about what route we should take. It was decided at that point that it was a bit too risky to put out a ‘Don’t Pay’ scenario because it might put people at risk of them losing their homes and becoming homeless. That was a difficult decision but that is the decision people eventually came to.

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Some of the similarities [with the Anti-Poll Tax Campaign] are actually quite incredible and I think it is fair to say that the Bedroom Tax really used a lot of their techniques, like the phone tree scenario but by that point we did have Facebook and we did have text messaging. We fortunately didn’t ever have to do anything as drastic as the Anti- Poll Tax campaigners had to do [i.e. physically obstruct bailiffs]. There were about three different times where someone received text messaging or there was an alert on Facebook – ‘Oh we think there is an eviction’. There was one in Pollok. I think it was the first in Glasgow. People arrived on the scene and that was really quite quickly quelled by having a meeting with the local housing association and Govan Law Centre – we made use of the free legal advice out there to make sure people had legal representation and back up. It was quelled by people just turning up, having a meeting and realising that this really isn’t the best scenario - people being turned out on to the street. There was another one in Greenock, a girl in Greenock who was threatened with eviction. She had her say in court. We arrived at court, we stood outside the court, lobbied outside the court, marched round to the housing association, lobbied outside the housing association where eventually the manager spoke to the tenant and a representative from the Scottish Anti-Bedroom Tax Federation and that again was quelled so we never found ourselves in the drastic stage the people from the Anti-Poll Tax movement found themselves in.

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For me I really need to end by saying this is still happening, this is still very real for people. Particularly with folk in England and Wales who are still suffering greatly, they are still arguing for no evictions. We have had a wee bit of respite right now [in Scotland] but the thing still exists; it’s not been abolished. I don’t want to end on a bad note but that’s the reality for us in Scotland. The campaigning has worked in terms of mitigation, but I think to keep it real, we need to keep in mind that for us, for me certainly anyway, the campaigning has to continue considering the situation we are still in. Do your best to help to actually get the thing abolished and a lot of the other welfare reform agenda to be abolished as well.

Jean Devlin, Community Activist

The image directly above and Jean's words are from the Banner Tales of Glasgow workshop, Castlemilk Community Centre, 01/05/2015. The YouTube clip below shows Anti-Bedroom Tax Campaigners singing The Anti-Bedroom Tax Song by Citizen Smart at a demo in George Square. Presumably the words to the song are written on the back of the placard! The song is sung to to the tune of Adam McNaughton's Jeely Piece Song. 

The Caterpillar Occupation: The Big Pink Tractor

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Caterpillar Workers 1987 © Bob Burrows

In 1987 workers in Uddingston, south east of Glasgow, occupied a factory owned by the US multi-national Caterpillar in protest at plans to close the plant (Woolfson and Foster 1988). The 103-day occupation was a high profile political event in Scotland and the workers were described by Campbell Christie, then General Secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC), as having shown “an important lead for the Labour Movement in Britain”. John Brannan, one of the instigators of the occupation, recalled that it had “verified every belief that I had as a socialist and the ability of working class people, given the conditions, given the right tasks, they would amaze you” (Brannan 2015: 6).

Brannan’s amazement alludes to the ability of working class people – both the workers and their families and supporters – to organize themselves under significant emotional and financial stress. The image on the banner depicts a tractor made by the workers in defiance of both the owners and their management style, which the workers saw as inefficient and designed to debase the workforce. The tractor, which stood proudly in George Square in Glasgow city centre for a period during the occupation and acted as a money collection point in support of the occupying workers, symbolized their ability as an organized workforce “to carry on, without managers telling us every two minutes what to do and what not to do” (Brannan, 2014). Like the banners of the reform movement depicting the skill and capacities of the workers and publicising a particular period of struggle, approximately one hundred years later the Caterpillar workers' banner performed a similar role.

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Caterpillar workers Bob Burrows (standing), John Brannan (left) and John Gillan (right) at Banner Tales of Glasgow, Nitshill 15/03/2014. © Richard Leonard

Workplace occupations constitute a formidable challenge to the rights of capital. For example, a strike is predicated on the resumption of work after negotiations between the various sides conclude and throughout the period of negotiations the employer remains in control of the site (Gall 2010). An occupation presents a thornier predicament for the employers. An occupation effectively means workers have seized assets ‘lock, stock and barrel’. In a factory setting like the Caterpillar plant this would include stocks of goods already produced and ready for shipping; plant and machinery; and the land upon which the factory sits. Even in a relatively short space of time this can have significant financial implications for the employer. Machinery cannot be moved to be put into operation elsewhere and goods cannot be delivered to buyers. Gall (2010) argues that while workers control these assets they have significantly more political leverage than they would have in strike or picket conditions.

Occupations, while they can be effective, are difficult to organise and sustain. They are ‘24/7’ and as such require demanding levels of planning and organisation. Furthermore, the success of an occupation is in large part determined by the level of support the occupying workers have from relevant groups on the outside – e.g. the employer’s workers elsewhere, suppliers, the public, and unions. The role of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (AEU) in the Caterpillar occupation is insightful in this respect. The union’s full support at the early stages of the occupation was significant as the majority of workers at the Caterpillar plant were members. As the occupation continued levels of public support increased. Woolfson and Foster (1988) estimate that public collections yielded approximately £100,000 per month. In addition the readiness of other workers to undertake a blacking of Caterpillar products further strengthened the resolve of the occupying workforce. The occupations success put the workers and their union on a collision course with the law as both occupation and blacking campaigns were illegal actions. John Brannan’s position was clear on this point: “We were outwith the rules; we were fighting a battle where the rules don’t count” (Brannan 2015: 7). This willingness to challenge the law was a step too far for the AEU who, Woolfson and Foster (1988: 277) argue, felt that a legal challenge would highlight its own internal divisions and “its active acquiescence” in the UK government’s ongoing neoliberalization of British industry.

Johnnie Crossan, University of Glasgow

The Glasgow Shipwrights Society 1884 3rd Reform Act Banner

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© CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

This banner measures 1803mm x 2692mm. William Gladstone stands on the right of Justice, who holds the House of Lords and the Franchise Bill on scales, and to her left stands a small Punch like figure urging “Billy” to “pass the bill”. In the Victorian and Edwardian periods Punch and Judy shows could be seen in all major towns and cities. The storyline for these shows extended well beyond the nowadays more recognised story of infanticide, violence against women and murder to encompass, in a satirical manner, the topical political stories of the day. In this context Punch would have been a celebrity figure famous for mocking figures of establishment. Master Puppeteer and founder of ‘The Punch and Judy Fellowship’ Glyn Edwards describes punch as ‘the lord of misrule’.

Very much an object of public and political performance the Shipwrights’ banner, like many other craft and trade banners of the popular reform movement, appeals to our sense of socio-political drama. The wider material culture of the popular reform movement (i.e. posters, pamphlets etc) and its radical processions “served to visualise and thus realise the dignity, skill and respectability of labouring men, and, by extension, their fitness for the franchise” (Nixon et al 2012).

Scottish reformers throughout the reform politics of 19th Century Britain could often be seen at galas and political processions holding aloft banners and fasces with the motto “Unity is Strength” or slogans of similar sentiment (Pentland 2005). Unity here often referring to British national unity. Pentland (2005) argues that by presenting themselves as a British movement the reformers pitted their democratic ‘crusade’ against the plotting and intrigues of a narrow faction of parliamentary elites. Text along the bottom of the Glasgow Shipwrights’ Society banner reads “United together in freedoms great cause we are determined and must have equal rights and equal laws”. Pentland points out that while the 1707 Acts of Union had given Scotland “access to expanded commercial horizons … her political system had been untouched by English freedoms” (ibid: 1003). With this thought in mind notions of unity and equality expressed in the banner speak to an emerging class politics but also a wish to nullify the still potent residues of feudalism in Scotland by accessing English liberties.

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Richard Leonard (2015), Political Education Officer for the GMB tells us about the lineage of the Shipwrights Society. "The Shipwrights [...] represented [...] a constituent part of the GMB. But its lineage goes back to the early part of the 19th century. The Shipwrights’ Societies were established in most of the major shipbuilding areas. The Mersey, the Tyne and the Clyde were principally the areas where the Shipwrights organised. They were largely founded on artisanship and kinship.

There was then, as there can be now, a certain aristocracy of the working class and the Shipwrights saw themselves fairly near the apex of that aristocracy at that time. During the course of the 19th century the Shipwrights, who were principally carpenters and woodworkers and were therefore responsible for making ships of wood and masts and sails, saw those skills diminish with the advent of steam powered boats made of iron and steel. So there were a series of demarcation disputes in the shipyards, especially with the Boilermakers’ Society – which was in the ascendancy – in those jobs associated with the Shipwrights.

Partly in response to that and partly in response to changing trading conditions the Shipwrights tried to build an amalgamated union. But it wasn’t until 1882 that they finally moved from a series of local societies to having a national trade union structure. Even then it was quite loose compared to some of the other unions. This union of Shipwrights, which was known as the ‘Association of Shipwrights’ was founded in 1882. [T]his banner is from 1884, so the national union is just two years old when this banner is commissioned and displayed.

The national union was set up with eleven societies, eight of which were from Scotland, three were from the Tyne. Eventually they joined with the Boilermakers and in 1963 the Blacksmiths also joined and it became one trade union. In 1982 exactly 100 years after the birth of a national union for Shipwrights this union joined with the General and Municipal Workers Union (GMWU) to form the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trade Union (GMBATU)."