Which Side Are You On?

Ken Loach, Which Side Are You On? (1984)

Stunning documentary on the 1984 UK Miners Strike where international capital used Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government to mount a vicious campaign of violence and hatred on the British working class. The film features the miners and their families experiences told through songs, poems and other art.

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How to remember Margaret Thatcher? Shall we recall the friend of Augusto Pinochet, the woman who protested bitterly about the arrest of Chile’s murderous dictator, a man to whom, she said, Britain owed so much? What about the staunch ally of apartheid, the prime minister who labelled the ANC ‘terrorists’ and did everything possible to undermine international action against the racist regime? The anti-union zealot who described striking miners defending their livelihood as an ‘enemy within’, hostile to liberty? The militarist who prosecuted the Falklands war, as vicious as it was pointless? The Cold Warrior, who stood by Reagan’s side, while the US conducted its genocidal counterinsurgencies in Latin America? The British chauvinist who allowed Bobby Sands to slowly starve to death?

Jeff Sparrow, “On Margaret Thatcher,” Overland, April 9, 2013

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When Thatcher was elected in 1979, tens of thousands rallied against her: 50,000 protested against her racist immigration laws; 50,000 protested in favour for women’s right to choose abortion; and thousands fought cuts to the public sector.

Many people on the left are aware of the defeat of the miners’ union in 1985, but few know of the major industrial and political battles that precipitated the defeat.

In 1980, the steel strike was the first national strike against the Tories. The steelworkers went for a 17% pay increase (the inflation rate was 20%) and fought to protect jobs. British Steel offered 2%, and proposed plant closures and 52,000 redundancies.

The steelworkers fought hard. Huge pickets were mounted at some sites, like Hadfield’s in Sheffield, and flying pickets were organised against private sector steel users.

After a 13-week battle, the workers won a 19% wage increase (including 5% for productivity trade-offs), but thousands of jobs were lost. It was a victory for the government. The main reason for the partial defeat was the isolation of the steelworkers.

Following this, the Tories moved to beef up anti-union laws by outlawing solidarity strikes and picketing. The TUC’s response has to call a national day of action, in which 250,000 people marched in 130 cities. But there was no follow-up action and the anti-union legislation was passed.

By October 1981, the Tories were on the nose. The Social Democratic Party-Liberal Alliance was scoring 59% in opinion polls. The Tories announced new anti-worker legislation, which included outlawing unions from engaging in political action, allowing employers to sack and selectively redeploy workers, and sequestrating unions’ assets if they broke industrial laws.

The union tops failed to call for strike action. Instead, they adopted a position of “non-cooperation” with the act. If a union was attacked, the TUC promised to support it.

In the meantime, an earth-shaking event occurred — Britain went to war with Argentina. This was the perfect diversion for the unpopular government. A short, sharp war — oozing with nationalism — which Britain could not lose.

In the first major test of the Tory’s legislation, railway workers launched an all-out strike to stop trade-offs in working conditions. The strike was solid and picket lines were respected.

The TUC called a general council meeting, ordered the workers back to work and warned that if the strikers did not obey, the rail union would be suspended from the TUC. The union was forced to accept defeat and go back to work.

TUC betrayal

The TUC “non-cooperation” with the act turned into a cynical betrayal. The rationale was that the strike must end to get Labour re-elected.

Thatcher was re-elected in a landslide in 1983 and worse was to come for the union movement. The next major industrial stoush was in the printing industry, between the National Graphical Association and Eddie Shah, the owner of the Stockport Messenger.

Shah won an injunction to have the union remove a picket line but the union refused. The union was fined £150,000 for contempt of court. The picket line at Warrington was attacked by 3000 riot police. The cops broke the line, chased people into neighbouring fields and beat them up.

A further fine of £375,000 was imposed and the union’s assets were sequestrated. The union called a 24-hour strike and went to the TUC for support, citing its pledge to defend any union under attack.

The TUC decided not to support the printers — a move warmly welcomed by Thatcher. Thornett’s describes the TUC’s decision as a “total collapse in front of the anti-union laws without a shot being fired — a defining moment in the history of the British trade union movement.”

Thatcher now knew that she could pick off each union one by one. The coalminers were next in line, followed by Murdoch’s attack on the newspaper printers.

James Vassilopoulous, “How Thatcher smashed the unions,” Green Left Weekly, September 23, 1998

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Arkady Kots, “S kem ty zaodno?” (Which Side Are You On?). Video by STAB Critical Animation Workshop (Joshik Murzakhmetov & Samat Mambetshayev). The song can also be played and downloaded here.

Thanks to various Facebook and listserv comrades for all the heads-up.

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Filed under film and video, international affairs, leftist movements, political repression, protests, trade unions

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