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Jane Barker: One of us

Jim Keoghan remembers a socialist feminist union researcher and activist

August 4, 2011
5 min read

‘Jane was a wonderful woman and an invaluable aid in our campaign. Dedicated and knowledgeable, she gave us the means and the hope to continue the fight.’

Like many who encountered Jane Barker, Paul Hinch, shop steward for the Billingsgate fish market porters, is full of admiration for Unite’s tenacious researcher. Jane brought with her to the union a rich history as an activist in the women’s movement and campaigns for international solidarity.

During the last years of her life she worked with the Billingsgate porters’ campaign against the City of London Corporation and the London Fish Merchants Association. The conflict was over the corporation’s decision to revoke an 1876 by-law under which it had to issue licences to the market’s porters, which acted as de facto permits to work.

‘Portering is not something anyone can just turn up and do,’ says Paul. ‘We’re personally responsible for making up complex orders, often worth thousands of pounds. In the course of a day, we will select and move hundreds of different orders, carrying in our heads details of all the locations of each type of fish by species, weight and age of stock. In effect, the licences were like a cabbie’s licence; they indicated that the holder had the “knowledge”.’

The porters contended that the City of London Corporation and the merchants wanted to casualise the work and allow in cheaper, unskilled labour. Jane worked with them to put together a comprehensive rebuttal of the corporation’s case that the system was holding the market back.

‘She put together this fantastically detailed response that completely challenged what they had been saying,’ says Paul. ‘It outlined the knowledge and training in the current system, the fact that the market makes a healthy profit and how the current system was already very flexible. She also made much of the heritage in the existing system.’

Jane had long felt that detail was one of modern trade unionism’s greatest assets. In an age when traditional campaigning methods had become less effective and companies more complex, she saw in-depth knowledge as a vital weapon, just as she had used in‑depth medical knowledge in her previous work at the Essex Road Women’s Centre, in Islington, to fight for improvements in women’s health.

‘It was her view that the workers needed to know everything about the company or organisation they were up against, so she saw it as her task to turn these bodies inside out,’ says Unite national secretary Jennie Formby, who worked closely with Jane. ‘She was obsessive and pedantic, but in a good way, and possessed a wonderful understanding of how different organisations and companies worked and what they valued.’

This was seen in Jane’s attempt to illustrate the porters’ value to the Billingsgate ‘brand’. She suggested that tourists and customers frequented the market not only to buy top quality fish but to see the ‘real London’, the kind of intangible asset that companies spend millions trying to incorporate into their brands.

‘That was one of the many reasons why we were so impressed,’ says Paul Hinch. ‘She knew how to think like management.’

Prior to Billingsgate, Jane had spent several years researching how business had altered. ‘She was one of the first people to grasp globalisation. She realised that we had to change the way we campaigned, including alliances with trade unions in other countries and attempting to influence shareholders more directly,’ says Jennie Formby.

She helped pioneer an innovative approach to industrial disputes. Rooted in detail, corporate campaigning involves researching a company or organisation thoroughly (including aspects not always related to the dispute) and using the information for the benefit of the campaign.

‘Jane understood how companies worked and thought. She was great at getting under their skin,’ says Barrie Roberts, chair of the Cadbury/Kraft national committee. ‘During the recent Cadbury dispute, Jane helped us unpick Kraft’s balance sheet to discover that the company was carrying debt backed by RBS, effectively the British taxpayer.’

Despite Kraft’s ultimate success, the widespread support for the creation of a ‘Cadbury Law’ to protect viable concerns from predatory takeovers is attributable in part to the work that Jane undertook during that dispute. In the case of the Billingsgate porters, despite all her best efforts the campaign ended with the repeal of the licence system.

‘Although I don’t think we ever really stood a decent chance, it was because of Jane that we made a fight out of this,’ says Paul Hinch. ‘Like many others who benefited from her tenacity, knowledge and dedication, we’re glad that she came to help us.

‘As a group it takes a lot for us to take to outsiders. But her passion for the cause, combined with her generous and warm nature, meant that we took to her very easily. I think it’s fair to say that although she didn’t work in the market, in every other respect she was and always will be one of us.’

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