Global Outpost

Cover for Global Outpost - discussion document

Going through my files and boxes of papers from the early 80s, I came across a document called “Global Outpost; The Working Class Experience of Big Business in the NE of England 1964-1978”. I wrote it with Terry Austrin in 1980 and it was based on interviews and discussions with workers and shop stewards in various branch plants of multi-national corporations operating on the old Durham coalfield. It was part of a broader research project looking at the transformations in working class life that had accompanied the closures of the coal mines in the 1960s. We had produced it as a Discussion Document, which was deliberately descriptive, using several accounts of changes in work and labour relations as an introduction to conversations about possible future strategy and tactics. We involved the regional office of the General and Municipal Workers Union, and they took 100 copies, devoted the front page of their newspaper to it and helped us set up further meetings with other shop stewards and union officials The shop stewards committee at Vickers Elswick plant took another 50 copies and there were scores of requests from other committees, local libraries and individuals, mainly in the North East but also nationally. I have written about this in “Engaging Labour” and how the paper took on a Samizdat quality being passed around and talked about.

So, what happened to it? Well through the other meetings and interviews we collected more information on how different corporations operated, each raising questions about the prospects and limitations of trade union organisation across a region with an economy dominated by branch plants – a global outpost. This would have allowed us to extend the document and the series editor at Fontana was very keen for it to be commissioned as a book and for it to be brought out quickly. Fontana had published “Strike at Pilkington’s” and Richard Hyman ‘s book “Strike” along with other well-known collections on work and labour, so, we were pleased. However for reasons I can’t recall, the company  took a distinct change of direction, moving away from any interest in the book and the deal fell through, leaving us disappointed.

At that time, I was in close contact with Henry Friedman, the ex-convenor at Ford’s River Plant at Dagenham who had been centrally involved in the sewing machinist strike there. Wheelchair bound, Henry was, and saw himself as, a labour strategist, and when I visited him in Bures in Suffolk, we talked about prospects for developing trade union combine committees. I had sent him a copy of “Global Outpost” and while he felt that in letting activists tell their own story we had produced an extremely valuable document, he wrote that there was a danger that “an unremitting recital of misfortune” could engender a “mood of gloom and defeatism”. In his view what was needed at that time was “a fighting spirit and recognition that at some point it is necessary to take a stand regardless – “their Waterloo or ours’”.

At that time, it seemed that only the miners could make such a stand and in 1981 they were on strike. From then on, they became the centre of our attention pushing “Global Outpost” into the background. Now, as an historical document, it may be worth a read. Terry and I went on to publish “Masters and Servants”, based on another discussion document and the first of two books we had planned on the miners of Durham. We were working on the second until five years ago when, tragically Terry’s died.

So there is the story of Global Outpost as I remember it. I do hope you enjoy reading the scan: