Lambeth Council 1988: Eggs, chips and strikes

I moved to Brixton in early 1987, and started working for Lambeth Council in the libraries. The pay wasn't great but as I was squatting on Tulse Hill Estate I wasn't paying any rent so money wasn't a problem.

It was a time of crisis in the local state, with the Conservative central government setting strict limits of what Councils could spend. One group of Lambeth Labour Councillors (led by Ted Knight) had already been disqualified from office for attempting to defy this. Their successors, led by Linda Bellos [1], were in the contradictory position of publicly decrying the cuts while implementing them. Like many other left wing Labour Councillors of this period they simultaneously employed a rhetoric of anti-racism and equal opportunities while threatening the jobs of local workers, many of them black and/or women.

The atmosphere at work was marked by almost total disengagement from the employers, something I was made aware of in my first week. The historic strike at News International (publishers of the Sun and the Times) was in full swing, with the management relocating production from Fleet Street to Wapping in order to break the power of printworkers. There were regular mass pickets of the Wapping plant, sometimes featuring violent clashes and police charges. In the library, workers refused to handle the News International papers - normally all the papers would be put out for people to read - until the threat of legal action.

There was also a work to rule, with people refusing to cover for vacant posts. So if a library assistant was asked to work a shift without the usual number of colleagues on duty, they would refuse to work and the library would have to close.  'Absenteeism' was rife, so it was common for the usual number of staff not to be on duty - as a result, closures were frequent.

Matters reached a head late in 1987 when the national Government announced the following year's funding for local authorities. For Lambeth, a spending limit of £152m was set for 1988/89, compared with £210m in the previous year. The Council responded by planning cuts and putting forward controversial plans for a Redeployment Scheme. This was to involve cutting jobs by freezing recruitment when posts became vacant and then moving people from other jobs to cover them. Basically people could be forced to change jobs within the Council and sacked if they refused.

On January 18th 1988 the Council's Policy and Resources Committee met to vote through a package of cuts. To coincide with this NALGO (the main union for 'white collar' workers) called a one day strike. Council Leader Linda Bellos wrote to workers telling us the strike was a waste of time since the Council had no choice but to make cuts; the deputy Tory group leader (Cllr. John Bercow [2]) called for us to be sacked: "In the current financial crisis these people should be deemed to have dismissed themselves if they strike" ('Sack the strikers', South London Press 15.1.88) 

Nevertheless,  "Nearly all 5,500 NALGO members stayed away from work" (SLP 19.1.88); many Council services were closed. A few of us from the libraries drove to one of the outlying branches that was still open (Herne Hill), walked in and persuaded enough people to walk out to close it down. Later there was a rally in the Brixton Academy, my first time in there and much less inspiring than some of my subsequent visits to see the likes of Sonic Youth, the Pixies and Fatboy Slim.

In the evening there was a picket of the Council meeting in the Town Hall. We blocked the entrance and delayed some of the Councillors getting into the meeting (despite being ordered not to by union officers), then we moved into the public gallery where we did our best to disrupt the meeting. The Evening Standard reported our efforts with the memorable headline "Egg and Chips fly in £40m cuts Scramble" (19.1.1988): "Town hall chief officers feared that the demonstration could get so noisy and chaotic that they took the unprecedented step of issuing placards to members to enable them to carry on the debate in sign language. The placards carried such phrases as 'I move the amendment' and 'I second it'... there were angry scenes after the policy and resources committee meeting at the town hall in Brixton when protestors scuffled with Labour members who had voted in favour of the cuts... Sheaves of agenda papers, eggs and a bag of chips were thrown from the first floor public gallery which overlooks the chamber. Then the town hall fire alarm was let off and the building had to be abandoned".

By the end of the week, one group of workers - the 70 Lambeth motor mechanics - were on all out strike in a cuts related dispute. Mechanics at the Shakespeare Road depot refused to cover for a vacant cleaner post and were sent home without pay. An indefinite strike was called there and at the Kennington Lane depot.

The strikers picketed the Town Hall and Housing Office on the 21st January, and many 'white collar' workers refused to cross the picket lines. Union officers persuaded the strikers to call off these pickets in return for a promise of support which never really came. Pickets of the depots continued though, and when I went down I saw them successfully turn away Post Office vans, BP tankers and other vehicles. There was a still a widespread sense amongst workers that you didn't cross a picket line. Lambeth Labour bosses responded by using private garages to repair dustcarts and other vehicles during the strike.

The strike continued for several weeks until most of its demands had been at least partially met - including filling the cleaners post and paying the mechanics extra 'flexibility payments' for doing any work outside of their job descriptions. Pressure on the Council had been increased when 30 people with disabilities staged an occupation of the social services HQ. Their transport had been affected by the strike but rather than attack the strikers they demanded that the Council should settle with the dispute.

Short term occupations of Council buildings were a feature of this period. On January 29th 1988, Brixton squatters occupied the office of the Council leader, Linda Bellos. The police arrived to chuck people out, though unfortunately for Bellos she was standing behind the door and took the full force when police pushed it open. A couple of weeks later, it was the turn of 200 Council gardeners to occupy the office following the announcement of 80 planned redundancies.

There were further disputes through 1988 involving different groups of Council workers. 100 housing workers had their pay stopped when they refused to operate the new Housing Computer System because of concerns about its implications for staffing and pay. Then in the summer, Environmental Health workers went on strike for several weeks after they had turned up at work to find that management had reorganised their office without talking to them first. In September an all out indefinite strike was called against compulsory redundancies, although it only lasted for a few days and only a minority of workers took part. I was part of the strike committee set up to build support for it.

Another one day strike by 2,000 NALGO members in October was in opposition to the government's plans to transfer the management of Council estates to Housing Action Trusts. Two Brixton housing estates, Loughborough and Angell Town, were scheduled to be in the first wave of this initiative and there was anger and opposition from tenants who saw only higher rents behind the government's rhetoric of freedom from local authority control. When civil servants turned up to promote the plans on the Loughborough Estate they were heckled and booed by 200 tenants (SLP 30.9.88). There were also big meetings on other estates, including on Tulse Hill Estate.

While all this was going on, there were other significant strikes in South London and across the country - making a mockery of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's triumphalist claim in January that the nation was cured of 'the British Disease' of striking

In the health service the concern was low pay and the threat of cuts.  1988 started with people occupying a disused ward at St James Hospital in Wandsworth, protesting against cuts and threats to close London's largest general hospital (SLP 3.1.88). On February 3rd there was a national day of action by health workers. A march called by London hospital strike committees was blocked by police in Whitehall with four arrests. Later we blocked the traffic on Westminster Bridge. Two weeks later there was a further day of action in London in which 12,000 hospital workers took part. The day ended up with several hundred marching to the town hall in Brixton for a rally. Another day of action on 14th March saw London bus crews, dockers, miners and others taking unofficial action in support of NHS workers. Some of us from Lambeth marched to join the pickets outside the Maudsley Hospital and Kings. Nurses at the Maudsley went on indefinite strike in September. 

Brixton DHSS staff were also among the most militant in London. In August 1988 they walked out on strike with other London offices against a threat to move jobs out of London. Ultimately the Brixton office was to close, making way for the famous Cool Tan squat on Coldharbour Lane in 1990s. South London postal workers were also active in the national post strike in September, with workers at the Streatham sorting office staging their won strike later in the month after two workers were suspended (SLP 30.9.88).

A few of us put out several editions of a bulletin 'Lambeth Worker' with news about what was going on across the Council. Publication of the bulletin was eased by the fact that one of us worked in Union Place, a Council-funded print shop run by a workers co-operative. All kinds of radical literature came out of there, some of it printed semi-commercially, some of it on the side by the staff (Union Place was next to the Union Tavern just off Camberwell New Road - the building has been replaced by housing). The biggest stir we caused was with our third and final issue, which featured a police/Council anti-knife poster modified to become an anti-plastic bullets poster.

In 'Lambeth Worker' we argued for unifying these different struggles: 'Some people say that there's no point in fighting because the Council hasn't got any money, but they're wrong. Nurses are in a similar situation, employed by almost bankrupt health authorities, yet they realize that by taking national action they can force the government to cough up more money. If we link up our struggle with other people facing cuts such as Council workers in other boroughs and hospital workers, we can all benefit from forcing the state into retreat'.

The reality within Lambeth was that groups of workers tended to be picked off one by one. The unions divided the workforce, with office workers mainly in NALGO (now part of Unison), and manual workers split between NUPE, AEU, GMB and UCATT. But even within NALGO workers in different sections found themselves isolated. Union officers were embroiled in the internecine warfare within the Labour Party, with the NALGO focusing much of its efforts on deals with the various factions cooked up in The Social Club, a cheap bar in the Town Hall, and other smoky rooms. The endless calls for one day strikes became increasingly routinised, with little serious effort to mobilize for action. Many workers ignored them and waited for the promised final catastrophe that never arrived. Instead of the big bang of mass redeployment or redundancies, the outcome was the slow lingering death of Council services from a thousand cuts, continuing in Lambeth and many other places for years to come.

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Notes:where are they now?

[1] - Linda Bellos' trajectory in many ways reflects the institutionalisation of parts of the Left from the 1970s to the 90s... but has taken this to new heights. A hardline 1970s feminist, with a fearsome reputation at the time in the women's movement, she was the first black woman to join the collective of leading UK feminist mag Spare Rib in 1981, became a Labour councillor in Lambeth in 1985, then leader of the Council 86-88 (after Ted Knight and several other councillors were barred from office over the ratecapping resistance)... Bellos carried on the same old policies towards council workers though, and also targetted squatting like every other administrator of Lambeth, presiding over the evictions of hundreds of people while in charge; (hence the occupation mentioned above). And now she runs Diversity Solutions Ltd, "providing solutions to improve equality and diversity outcomes within the commercial, public and voluntary sectors." On the PC Gravy train indeed! Diversity Solutions advises such friends of equality as the Metropolitan Police, the British Army, the Crown Prosection Service and the Association of Chief Police Officers... In fact they won a Met police award "in recognition of outstanding contribution in supporting the local community." And Bellos got an OBE in 2006...

[2] - ... while John Bercow is now of course an MP and Speaker of the House of Commons!