Grovelling under Foot
The next time you see that champion of the oppressed and friend to liberty Mr Michael Foot, you might do well to bear in mind a Particularly nasty little story which in recent weeks has been circulating round the newspaper offices of London. For reasons Which will become apparent, no newspaper has so far been able to print the story. But unfortunately for the reputation of Mr Foot, some of the forms of censorship which apply to the press do not as yet apply to television. And it is to the great credit of Bill Wigmore and Bill Grundy, presenters of Thames TV's early evening London magazine programme Today, that over the past fortnight they have been able to bring this extraordinary tale to light.
The story, first unveiled by Today on 17 November, concerns recent events at a large advertising agency, Collett, Dickens.nn, Pearce (CDP), which has its offices In the shadow of the Post Office Tower. One la>1 in October CDP was alarmed to be informed that, without warning, some of its coroy for the TV Times had been 'blacked' at a Liverpool printing works, Bemrose. Inquiries revealed that responsibility for CDP's considerable financial loss lay with members of one of the smallest print unions, the Society of Lithographic Artists, Designers, Engravers and Process Workers (SLADE). It appeared that orders for the stoppage had come from the union's headquarters in Clapham, so the managing director of CDP, Mr Frank Lowe, rang them up to ask what was wrong. He was told that SLADE would only lift the 'blacking' When all the staff of the agency had signed forms agreeing to join the union.
It seemed incredible. Mr Lowe had never even heard of SLADE before. And the more lie discovered about it, the more improbable it seemed that a tiny 'block-makers' union could conceivably represent all the multitude of people and occupations in his agency, ranging from copy writers and account executives to television producers, van drivers and secretaries. Not a single member of the CDP staff fitted the SLADE Prescription. Nevertheless, out of concern for his agency's future, he agreed to meet SLADE representatives, and the blacking Was temporarily lifted.
The first meeting between CDP and SLADE was a mere formality, to set up a second discussion with the union's senior officials. But before this took place, a second blacking occurred, this time at the Sun Printers, Watford. Mr Lowe was now more than alarmed. His firm has lost 0,000 worth of business, for no apparent reason whatever. He therefore hoped that at the meeting in his office on 12 November with a Mr Alf Parrish, SLA DE's Assistant General Secretary, and a Mr Brosman, he would find out what on earth SLADE was up to.
Mr Lowe made sure, to prevent any subsequent misunderstanding, that every word of what took place on 12 November was taken down by a shorthand typist, and also that the proceedings were taperecorded. After some initial fencing, Mr Parrish came to the point : `Basically what we want to do is, by 2 December, have made some positive progress in what we've put to you, or, following that date, what we will in fact be doing is entering into a dispute with Collett, Dickenson and Pearce.'
Mr Lowe asked them to be absolutely specific. Did they want all CDP's 'creative people' to become members of SLADE? Mr Parrish replied : 'It's imperative, in actual fact,' and went on to say that 'as a second bite of the cherry, quite frankly' he would then expect everyone else in the agency tojoin SLADE also.
Mr Lowe asked about the possibility of allowing his staff to vote on whether they wished to join SLADE or not. Would the union accept such a vote, or would SLADE 'attempt to force them with industrial action ?' Mr Parrish replied 'That could be a quantitative judgment. But basically it could come down to the fact that, yes, we would try to force them.'
Well, despite Mr Parrish's answer, Mr Lowe did organise a secret ballot of his staff last Thursday. The result was that only one member of the CDP staff voted in favour of joining SLADE, 176 voted against and six 'didn't know.' In other words, this Thursday the 180 staff of CDP courageously faced the ultimate consequences of SLADE's blackmail : that their firm would go out of business, and that they would lose their jobs.
Since Wigmore and Grundy began probing into this remarkable story, a number of further interesting facts have come to light. One is that, although several Fleet Street newspapers including the Evening Standard
have known about what is going on, they have not dared to cover the story for fear of reprisals from SLADE members in their own print shops. A second is that SLADE was up to these sorts of tricks long before they began their blackmail of CDP. As one of the smallest unions in the print world, with only some 16,000 members, they began their vigorous and seemingly indiscriminate recruitment campaign some eighteen months ago—in the hope of carrying more weight in the great forthcoming struggle over the introduction of 'the new technology' to Fleet Street.
In June 1975, SLADE moved in (using the same 'strong-arm tactics') on the largest of the London 'art houses,' Gilchrist Studios. The Gilchrist workers held a ballot, voted overwhelmingly to reject SLADE's approach, more copy was 'blacked,' the firm was threatened with bankruptcy, and after a few weeks capitulated. Over the next few months, the remaining London 'art houses' were each attacked in turn, and under intense pressure (one firm was told 'you join by ten o'clock tomorrow or you're out of business'), they all eventually caved in. Phrases used by some of the victims included 'It was like the Mafia,' It was like Chicago in the 'thirties,' I doubt if anyone will speak to you, they're all afraid.'
How on earth can SLADE get away with this incrediable behaviour ? Why cannot these unfortunate businesses simply sue SLADE for the untold damage it has caused? And what indeed has all this blackmail and thuggery got to do with that great and good parliamentary democrat Mr Michael Foot ? The answer of course is, a great deal.
In 1974, it will be recalled, as part of the Wilson government's grovelling to the unions, the Chief Groveller Mr Michael Foot introduced his Trade Union and Labour Relations Bill. Eventually, in March this year, after a great deal of trouble (and what Mr Alf Parrish would call 'a second bite of the cherry,' after the House of Lords threw out part of the first Bill in 1974), Mr Foot's Bill passed into law in virtually its original form.
Throughout that highly controversial time, much to the shame of the British press, almost all public attention was focused on just one aspect of the TULR Bill—that which would permit the National Union of Journalists to impose a closed shop on newspapers, and thus give it the legal opportunity ultimately to control the freedom of the press.
Now, of course, this was in itself extremely important—and Miss Nora Beloff has written a useful little book (Freedom Under Foot, Temple-Smith £1.95 paperback) which incidentally corrects a number of widespread misconceptions about that particular battle. For instance, it was widely thought that Mr Foot's most weighty opponent, Lord Goodman, was simply acting as a kind of 'hired gun' for a tightlyknit group of newspaper proprietors and editors. In fact, as Miss Beloff makes clear, it is surprising the extent to which Lord Goodman was acting passionately in his own case. While far from being 'tightlyknit,' most of the editors could scarcely have been more wet and divided, notably the renegade Alastair Ditherington of the Grauniad.
Nevertheless the greatest misconception about the Groveller's Act is that it was primarily about the freedom of the press at all. In raising trade unions to a unique position above the law, it was about all sorts of other fundamental issues, some of which were scarcely mentioned while the Bills were passing through Parliament. Not of course that it did much good when these issues were raised. For whenever anyone dared to suggest that the granting of unique powers and privileges to the unions might imperil all sorts of liberties, Mr Foot's invariable answer was simply that when the time came those powers and privileges would not be used.
Well the time has now come. Of course the powers are being used. And one of those powers, quite explicitly granted by Mr Foot, is that which has enabled SLADE to set up as the bully-boy of the advertising world. Until the TULRA came along, under Rookes v Barnard (1964), the famous 'intimidation' case, CDP would have been able to sue SLADE for damages (as would all the other firms which have been blackmailed through financial loss). But now, thanks to clause 13, Section (1) of the TULRA, unions like SLADE can use any tactics short of actual physical violence to force involuntary membership, and to pressure their victims into paying union dues with complete protection of the law.
When SLADE's curious record was pointed out recently to the TUC, they simply replied that it was 'up to individual unions how they went about their recruitment campaigns.' In other words, SLADE is acting with the complete blessing of Mr Len Murray, the Labour Party and above all Mr Michael Foot— the only people who matter.
What a contemptible spectacle has been Mr Foot's career in the past three years! The supposed champion of Swift and the freedom of the press has done more to imperil it than any man since his hero Cromwell. The champion of the underdog and the oppressed has completely thrown in his lot with the mindless thuggery of the big battalions. The champion of parliamentary democracy comes out in sycophantic defence of Mrs Gandhi. The supposed believer in reasoned debate has emerged in his true colours as nothing more than a bullying, finger-wagging ranter, who, as Nora Beloff shows, is not prepared to listen to a single word uttered by those who disagree with him.
There is only one serious mis-interpretation in Miss Beloff's book, where she refers to The Titnes's accusation (after the victimisation of the six Ferrybridge power workers in 1975) that Michael Foot's view of democracy seemed increasingly akin to Fascism. What William Rees-Mogg was referring to was not the popular view of Fascism, but something rather more technical—the 'corporatism' that was a key ingredient in Fascist Italy's political philosophy, whereby a man only has rights, power or importance insofar as he belongs to some officially recognised 'group' in society. But in the light of what has been going on recently in the London agency world, it would seem that Mr Foot's new credo would allow for quite a trace of the more popular interpretation of Fascism as well.