‘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.’
Yasmin Gunaratnam reflects on John Berger’s gut solidarity with the stranger
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
As man-made global warming gets closer to the tipping point, Andrew Simms finds reasons to be positive about averting catastrophic climate change
In this extract from his new book The Candidate, Alex Nunns tells the inside story of how Jeremy Corbyn scraped onto the Labour leadership ballot in 2015
Graham Jones proposes a framework for a diverse movement to flourish
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion
Musician Eliane Correa reflects on the fading revolution
Trump's victory is another sign of the failure of the centre-left's narrative on climate change. A new message is needed, and new politicians to deliver it, writes Alex Randall
Siobhán McGuirk says the question we are too afraid to ask is simple - what kind of society leads to Donald Trump as President?
The battle lines are clear. Democracy is in peril and the left must take itself seriously electorally and politically. Ruth Potts speaks to Gary Younge, who was based in Muncie, Indiana, for the US election, about the implications of Donald Trump’s victory
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History
Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.
A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas
Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn
From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'
The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.
Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.
Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism
What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry
Airport expansion is a racist policy
Climate change is a colonial crisis, writes Jo Ram
Momentum Kids: the parental is political
Momentum Kids is not about indoctrinating children, but rather the more radical idea that children have an important role to play in shaping the future, writes Kristen Hope