Inoculation against bosses’ lies

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Ian Allinson discusses how his workplace gained confidence through exposing their bosses’ lies

In 2003 I went on strike for the first time. We wanted improved sick pay, increased pay and equal pay. There had been no strikes at my workplace for maybe 20 years. Some of us had supported other people’s strikes. None of the union activists had first-hand strike experience. Union organisation wasn’t strong. Most people weren’t members.

As we prepared for the ballot, we heard a rumour that the workplace would close. Many believed the rumour had been spread by management, who certainly did nothing to dispel it.

Workers feared that if the strike went ahead their jobs and work would be relocated elsewhere. This dented people’s confidence. In fact, the company did intend to close the workplace. But the plan was not to move the work abroad or elsewhere in the UK. It was merely to open a new site nearby and relocate us.

The rumours didn’t paint a fair picture. They were scaremongering pure and simple.

Despite the facts, the rumours still rattled people. Instead of campaigning around the issues in dispute, activists had to spend weeks reassuring people. Our campaign was knocked off course.

We won the ballot, took one and half days’ strike, and won some of our demands. But we might have won more if we hadn’t been derailed by the closure threat.

A few years later, after moving to the new site, the company attacked several agreements, including union recognition. We were heading for another dispute and determined to be better prepared this time.

Officially our union wasn’t supportive, but we knew a union organiser who was. She agreed to train our activists at a weekend. This had to be in secret – from the union, not just the employer. One point she taught us about was “inoculation”. The term comes from the prevention of disease – someone is deliberately exposed to a disease, strengthening their immunity. In union organising terms, this meant we should expose workers to lies the company might use against us, but we should do it first, on our terms and our timescale.

We did an exercise where we listed things we hoped the company wouldn’t say or do. We used this to prepare a leaflet which included and ridiculed them. The leaflet included an “anti-union boss competition”, with workers nominating managers. Managers won points for each anti-union argument and there were jokey responses for each one.

We distributed the leaflet across the site. People thought it was funny. One (not very supportive) manager asked whether HR were funding the prize.

As it happened, we got no entries. Hostile managers avoided using the lies in the leaflet, as people might laugh at them.

We had one incident where a manager was being anti-union. One of the reps went and had a chat with him. She joked that if he carried on that way, someone might enter him for the competition. He backed off.

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