Monday, February 28, 2005

The MoD – Union clash: 1974

by Jonathan Jeffries

Recently released British Government files have shown the continued spying that took place on Gibraltarian trade unionists during 1974 by Special Branch department within the Royal Gibraltar Police.

The focus of the four files released was on the ‘parity with British workers campaign’ organised by the TGWU.

One of the most interesting items was a Special branch report that singled out five trade unionists involved in organising this parity campaign. They were all labelled as Communist and anarchists. They included Jose Netto who was said to have been a member of Spanish exiled Anarchist Party and to be ‘well versed in this philosophy (anarchism) into which he self educated himself by copious reading of Anarchist literature sent to him from abroad’. The report further states that the police had good information that his son Michael had join the Young Communist League whilst in Britain.

There is a further report on Jose Netto where a ‘reliable and delicate source’ had had a two hour long informal meeting. Ironically there is another transcript on an informal meeting between Jose Netto and the Deputy Governor. It was not clear whether Special Branch had used the Deputy Governor’s confidential transcript; re-written and applied a Secret status.

Joe Bossano is accused of having joined the Communist party of Great Britain. The police stated that they had checked with the security services (most probably MI5) in London to find out if this was true but they could not confirm this. It was also surprising to find a reference to a telephone conversation between Bossano and the Deputy Governor had been listened to on a ‘parallel line’. It is not clear whether parallel line meant a clear admittance of phone tapping activities either at the Covent or at the TGWU offices. The others mentioned in this report include Esteban Berllaque, Louis Martinez, and Antonio Rocca.

It was revealed that the Governor had considered the using troops during any possible industrial action. The Queens Regiments and the paratroopers were on standby. The Governor also contemplated, during 16 Dec 1974, to ‘proclaim a state of emergency’. What led the Governor to consider such an extreme response was the strength of feeling amongst Gibraltarian workers both in MoD and Gibraltar Government. It was clear from much correspondence that, from the outset, the Chief Minister, Sir Joshua Hassan did not want Gibraltar Government employees to have parity of wages and conditions of employment with UK counterparts. This was even when the Union argued that it would raise more taxes and standard of living and would further remove the threat of Spain.

The TGWU in Gibraltar sought the support of the TGWU in London and specifically Jack Jones, former General Secretary, and Harry Urwin, former assistant General Secretary, to negotiate with Roy Hattersley, former Foreign Commonwealth Secretary of State on this issue.

In fact as Hattersley was to meet with Jose he was warned that as minister he should not become a ‘court of appeal on labour matters.’ The F&CO initially argued against the campaign and argued that he [as secretary of state] did not have the ‘power to settle wage dispute’ in either the MoD or Government of Gibraltar.

The MoD argued that Gibraltar was the only dockyard overseas and it needed to be competitive or else it would close; and stated ‘if you lose your dockyard, because the Chancellor cannot afford it, are the dockyard workers prepared to work on the construction sites in Gibraltar or face unemployment’. They had also considered that parity to be extended only to MoD and not Government of Gibraltar. Nevermind the shirking of responsibilities the British Government did fear that not responding to the Union’s demands would have lead to another general strike. The F&CO were more concerned to continue negotiations and to defend Hassan. This is possibly after a special branch report stated that the ‘dispute is becoming more political in nature. The aims seems to be not so much parity but attempt to oust the Hassan administration’. The police report argued that Joe Bossano, as a founder of Integration with Britain Party, was the clear link that the threat of industrial action was politically motivated.

Another item of interest in relationship between the F&CO and Government of Gibraltar was over ‘false articles’ printed in the now defunct Evening Post newspaper. The articles stated a resounding ‘no’ to parity but ‘yes’ to new approach to resolve the issue. The F&CO knew that the Evening Post was owned by several ministers; M Featherstone, M Mascarenhas and A Montegriffo. The F&CO said the paper should have asked for legal advice before publishing. But also that if the paper’s rejection to parity claims was the line of the Gibraltar Government then it should not hide behind either the paper or British ‘HMG’ but to sort its own industrial relations problems.

The campaign was a triumph and parity survives as a key plank in the Collective bargaining across the public sector. The TGWU had a membership willing to support industrial action. Combined with good political manoeuvring by Jose Netto. Jose understood that with a labour party sympathetic to trade unions in Britain, he could use further pressure point on both the Gibraltar Government and the MoD in Gibraltar.

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