Something should be done (or How to revolt) [book review]

Something should be done: an anarchist’s adventures in trade unionism by Peter Good tells how he and his workmates tried to improve things (for the workers and patients) at a large mental hospital back in the 1970s. And things could do with improving: as well as being short-staffed, ‘The pressure was on to achieve results with tasks rather than achieve something with the patients. Inevitably the nursing assistant ended up doing the job while the patient held his coat.’

There’s not a lot of jargon here, and no grandstanding: our author admits he couldn’t finesse his legal arguments when he had to walk off a ‘grade nine hangover’. Elected as chair of his union branch, Good took on (politely and creatively) the management who were messing about both staff and patients. There’s a telling note that ‘NHS managers who prove themselves incompetent are rarely sacked. Instead they are promoted out of the way, or, if really bad, get moved sideways.’

Fighting for better staffing levels meant tactics other than striking were needed, the more imaginative the better. One (when things got serious) was stopping the managers’ biscuits! The biggest was ‘highjacking’ a couple of the wards. ‘The whole block had been allocated three staff to run from Friday to Monday lunchtime. We intended to man the place with what we say as adequate staffing levels until District agreed to remove their decision to cut back staff.’ So, a ‘good work’ strike. But it wasn’t easy: ‘You need staying power and mule-like determination. Remember we were living, eating and sleeping [on the wards] 24 hours a day and caring for 46 patients. We were losing pay by the hour and pressure from partners and future career prospects played a part in some high-jackers calling it a day by Sunday. As it happened, five of us never left the block for the full 13 days of the occupation.’

All sorts of people helped out: ‘For years at Calderstones we had an elderly lady who came to help patients to read. She would also play the church organ on Sundays. She said our actions were so sincere in the eyes of Christ that she had to share the burden with us – and promptly moved in. Full of everyday courage she set her room in the linen room cupboard.’ I know what you’re thinking – an organist! Surely our revolution is ukuleles or nothing? But creative strike action takes all sorts.

Good sings the praises of imaginative tactics, rightly, but in this case they didn’t defeat the grim bureaucrats. The essence of the imaginative tactics was to put pressure on the bosses without making the patients or staff suffer. They weren’t just about appearing in the newspapers (though it can’t have hurt that ‘The media prefer spokespeople to give short snappily heavily biaised comments off the cuff. Such a spokesperson was I.’)

The union hierarchy were not much help, such that Good now thinks the workers should’ve had a go at making their own union. Union management and Hospital management were both glad to see the back of our author, it seems!

Something should be done is a story of hope defeated, and better ways of doing things left undone. But it isn’t downbeat. After the ‘high-jacking’ Good has to go back to shovelling gravel. ‘Once I had tasted total control over my work – which was what the hijack was – the drab routines of everyday work seemed unpalatable.’ Freedom is its own reward, and is exhilarating. And even when you lose, you know that freedom is possible. That’s why you should read this little book.

Something should be done: an anarchist’s adventures in trade unionism by Peter Good
Active Distribution 2019 ISBN 9781909798700 (A6 booklet, 56 pages, three pounds).
https://www.activedistributionshop.org/shop/pamphlets-booklets/4840-something-should-be-done.html