When Mrs Thatcher banned trade union membership at GCHQ in 1984, Chinese linguist Mike Grindley was one of 14 employees who refused to rip up their union cards – and were eventually sacked. Their passionately-fought campaign against the ban gained support from around the world. Now 80, Mike describes the part he played in the second longest dispute in British trade union history.
When news of the ban came through, I was racked with incredulity, then anger, then anxiety.
There weren’t many jobs out there for Chinese linguists. I had my wife, children and widowed mother to consider. It took me a few days to decide whether I should leave GHCQ or stay put and defy the ban. Underneath, I think I always knew what I was going to do. My family supported me – it would have been impossible otherwise.
My job had fitted me like a glove.
All 14 of us had worked conscientiously year after year. John Cook, one of the other sacked trade unionists, worked 12 hours on, 12 hours off all through the Falklands War, and as a thank you he had tea at Buckingham Palace. Later he was sacked for being a union member. It was an utter disgrace. Jack Hart was the early force behind the campaign. Chris and June Dimmock, followed later by Brian and Pat Johnson, took our ‘Roadshow’ all over the country to publicise the fight.
I became the campaign leader almost by default.
I’d never addressed a public meeting in my life. I remember sitting on a train to Newcastle where I was going to address 200 people alongside the leader of the Durham Miners. I rewrote my speech three times on the way up. A pint beforehand soothed my nerves! Public speaking got easier – it helped that I was talking about something I could identify with 120%.
The TUC and the unions supported us financially.
That was vital. After my family, I always put the campaign first, travelling all over the country and to Ireland many times. I’m half Irish and one of my proudest moments was addressing the entire Irish Congress of Trade Unions Conference in Belfast and getting a standing ovation. But the applause wasn’t for me, it was for the campaign.
At a time when the trade union movement felt persecuted, people said we were a beacon of hope.
One unionist told us, “You’ve kept us all going.” We supported other people’s struggles and spoke on their platforms. We became friends with so many people we’d never have met otherwise: the miners, the Wapping print workers, the P&O Dover Seafarers, the Silent Night bed factory workers, the Tilbury and Merseyside Dockworkers, the Pergamon press journalists. There was a tremendous feeling of solidarity. I was at my union conference in Blackpool when Labour announced the ban had been lifted in 1997. We went out for a big Chinese meal and there was lots of shouting and cheering.
Why would I tell young people to join a union?
It’s protection from victimisation in your working life. In the best trade union bodies, there’s a family atmosphere and you feel part of something much larger than yourself. That’s why dictators ban trade unions: they know they are a massive force for good. And where would health and safety be without trade union pressure?
The campaign was a life changer.
I divide my life in half: before the ban and after the ban. My life was certainly the richer for it – though not financially! It’s with enormous pleasure that I think of those friends and comrades I made over the 14 years.