Online Archive  
Issue 4 - April 1972
Six Months Parity Strike
This article is an outline of a strike that lasted nearly six months, was never declared official by the union and which was never given adequate attention in the local press. The lessons of this strike have implications for all workers, especially for those in the General and Municipal Workers Union - the largest union in the north-east.

The claim and history of the strike

The claim

The 600 Thermal Insulation Workers (Laggers) from the Tyne and the Tees were on strike for parity with rates in Scotland where the hourly rate is 73p - that is the basic 56.5p an hour plus a guaranteed 16.5p. In the NE, the Laggers only get 56.5p an hour basic rate; NE employers pay the full rate elsewhere but not in the north-east.

The strike

1971: six months of negotiation between the Branch Committee of Laggers on Tyneside and the Thermal Insulation Contractors Association (TICA) during which the Laggers were pushed between the Northern TICA and the National TICA - and obstructed by 'their own' Union officers from the GMWU, Regional Secretary Alderman Andrew Cunningham.

1 November 1971: Strike notice issued by the Branch Committee, the GMWU officials tried to force a ballot (which needs two thirds majority) but this would not have made the strike official because no national agreement was broken (cunningly employers do not write down all their agreements). 15 November: 300 Laggers on Tyneside came out on strike for parity with Scotland. Although Laggers in Hartlepool and Teesside work for the same employers and are 'represented' by the same union official - the 300 Laggers there kept on working for the same rates - and GMWU officials kept pressure on them to do so! Mid-December Tyneside Laggers asked Cunningham to declare the strike official, not to obtain strike pay (which only reduces the SS anyway) but to help with blacking materials and assistance from other unions. Cunningham approached Lord Cooper who didn't even acknowledge the request - in March 1972 the National Exec of the GMWU decided that the strike would not be made official! January 1972: after many appeals by the Tyneside Laggers (and much obstructing by G&M officials) the Hartlepool and Teesside Laggers (300) came out on strike. February 1972: militant picketing of the G&M Regional HQ to try to 'concentrate' Cunningham's mind on the problems of the Laggers. 19th February 1972: 600 Laggers all given the sack - Cunningham's reaction is to speak of this as "tantamount to an official lock-out". Also in February the National Conference of all Branch Committees of Laggers at meetings in Liverpool and London decide on national unofficial support for the strike (and plans for democracy in their 'own' union). This National Committee (not an official committee of the G&M) decide on a national unofficial strike from Monday 13th March in support of the Tyneside and Teesside claim. March 1972: at the last minute the national strike is called off and Cunningham and his lackeys make small squeaks about thinking about making the strike official (after it's been going for 18 weeks). What this amounted to was a meeting of the disputes panel (union and TICA) and the National Joint Industry Council (union and TICA). Now (mid-March '72): TICA has made an 'offer' of 10p an hour for time and materials - this is no offer at all - it has always been paid. The men at a mass meeting (22/3/72) rejected 100% any return to work without the claim being met in full.

Work conditions of the lagger

Lagging work is listed by the DHSS as one of the most dangerous occupations - carrying the normal dangers of any structural work, plus airborne and skin-carried killing diseases arising from the materials handled: asbestos (asbestosis - 24 laggers died in Glasgow last year from this form of cancer); calcium silicate (silicosis); fibreglass and volatile plastics (epidermis) and glues and resins (epoxy resin for example gives off cyanide fumes when mixed). They are also industrial nomads, sent anywhere, often at a day's notice, to work up gantries and down in the base of boilers, or inside a ship which is being hammered and riveted on the outside. You may be told (often by GM officials) that asbestos has been banned for lagging for two years or more. Try telling that to laggers! For a start it will take 25 years to eradicate it from their work because old insulation has to be stripped, but anyway it is still being used. Recently asbestos spray material was delivered to one site in Newcastle in sacks labelled 'pig manure' - this disguise connected with the fact that the dockers refused to handle asbestos. Laggers are also like lepers - because employers are starting to be careful not to employ men with asbestosis above a certain level because they do not want to be liable. So all this talk about medical inspection is simply a 20th century method of fixing lepers bells round the necks of Laggers. The GMWU's answer to this problem is to agree to special asbestos squads, that is, kill off Laggers faster and in batches of ten! All the talk about safety arrangements is just that - talk; go to any site and you don't notice the oxygen bottles, the gloves, the masks, the special showers. Why? - because it cuts down the profits of the TICA bosses. The 'public' wept its heart out for miners, with full justice, don't forget that all the working class is a special case. There are thousands of filthy, vile, killing jobs and the laggers is one of the worst because they are split into small groups all over the place.

The Union

The General and Municipal Workers Union is run by one man: Alderman Andrew Cunningham. A typical G&M official - appointed Regional Secretary and then he appoints (and sacks!) the lackeys under him. This union is as much responsible for low wage rates here as the bosses; just see how they have obstructed this strike. But then look at Cunningham, chairman of the Durham Police Authority, Tyneside Passenger Transport Authority, Director of Tyneside Airport, Alderman of Durham County Council and (in dear old Freda's name of course) a string of petrol stations and retail outlets. Look at Lord Cooper (General Secretary of GMWU) - director of Yorkshire Television, on the board of the Industrial Society (have you seen their guide to the Industrial Relations Act?). The action of the officials in the area has been outright obstructive at each stage; not just delaying action but going round and telling GM workers in other areas that they should not send support and money to the Tyneside Laggers because it wasn't official. The activity of the Leeds official has been the most obstructive in this way, but6 those in the NE haven't been much better.

But the Laggers (and other trade sections in the GMWU) have learned the hard way how to fight their own union as much as the bosses - during the last year they have worked on establishing a National Trades Section with their own delegate conferences and their own branch cards - so that they can take over their own destiny, their own negotiations, and not hang on for Alderman Cunningham and Lord Cooper to do something - because they won't, ever.

Strike breaking attempts

Apart from fighting the Union, the strikers had to fight strike breaking from the beginning. There was one blackleg firm (Ace Insulation) operating, although originally it was out on strike. A few incidents: at Christmas one employer approached a striker in the Lagger's house, threw down £100 on the table and offered him his job back; twelve of the apprentice Laggers had visits from Army Recruitment officers (who gave their home addresses away?); employers in the NE have advertised for 'suitable labour to apply insulation materials', but they didn't get far with that dodge; one employer went up to Glasgow (where there are 200 Laggers on the dole) to try to get the Glasgow men to scab; they did not succeed; lastly, Laggers in other parts of the country received a note on the 28th Feb 1972 (Industrial Relations Act Day 1) telling them they did not have to belong to a union any longer! As well as all of this there's been the running battle with the SS; there was more success towards the end because of valuable help from Claimants Union comrades, but the lesson had to be learned that the State isn't there for anyone but the bosses. There has also been police protection - for the bosses and their profits.

Strike militancy and solidarity

The Laggers were 100% solid behind the strike; in fact the militancy and solidarity increased over the strike, especially when everyone was sacked on the same day. The obvious obstruction of the GMWU has also made the Laggers feel more united; for example they have seen 'their' National (Laggers) Organiser for the first time for nine years - the last time Brother Lewis was here was to argue for the dilution of the trade! Some of them recognised the red tomato shouting at GMWU HQ as 'their' revered leader, Andy Pandy Cunningham; they'll recognise him next time! The strike has driven home valuable lessons for organisers and all the Laggers: the need for good internal communication, how to fight the SS, not to rely on the official union but to make links with other rank and file Laggers - all over the country Laggers are seeing there's more that unites them than divides them.

Also the need to make contact with the rank and file in the other unions in the area; frequently the officials there are just as obstructive (perhaps Andy has been on the telephone?) but if the rank and file can be spoken to, the response has been magnificent. Don't forget this strike has been fought on money from other Laggers and other trade unionists, socialists and students. Each strike shows that the real strength of workers is at the basic level, not in union leaders or politicians but in their own power to organise together in militant solidarity.

Tyneside Talk

Stop Press:

On March 30th the Laggers triumphed over their union and most of their employers when all but 70 won a 15p an hour bonus and agreed to return to work. The other 70 will remain on strike until their employers offer them the 15p.

The 70 are still finding that their union - the GMWU - is still refusing to make their strike official - even though Cunningham seems to think the union played an important part in the success of the strike. Cunningham intervened, and as a result a settlement was reached. But would he have taken this five month overdue initiative if it hadn't been for the unabating militancy of the Laggers? Obviously if the Laggers had followed his advice they would be working for 15p an hour less than they are getting now. The Laggers have shown that they don't need a union like the GMWU or people like Cunningham to fight for them. The fact that the Laggers who have returned to work have agreed to support the 70 remaining on strike until their demands are met goes without saying.

Muther Grumble