GCHQ & Trade Union Rights Campaigner Mike Grindley – A Humble Hero.

Mike Grindley: Lead the fight for union rights at GCHQ

By Hugh Lanning

Many seek prominence, others have it thrust upon them. Mike Grindley, who died aged 85 in hospital on New Year’s Day following a stroke, was definitely one of the latter. 

Humble and kind, Mike had been beavering away as a Chinese Linguist in the still very secret GCHQ since 1961 when, in January 1984, a rampant Margaret Thatcher sought to ban trade unions saying it was “a conflict of loyalties” to be a member of a trade union and work for GCHQ.

On 25th January 1984 all staff were given an ultimatum of leaving the union or face the sack. The public and political response to the announcement was massive with the TUC calling a day of action and even the right-wing led electricians union – EETPU, threatening to go on strike if there were sackings.

Despite the unions giving commitments to protect national security and a High Court ruling in the unions’ favour, Thatcher was not for turning and the ban was implemented on 1st March – with the House of Lords overturning the High Court decision on grounds of ‘national security’.

In the ensuing campaign, Mike became Chair of GCHQ Trade Unions representing union members from a small office in Cheltenham. Following its election victory in 1987, the Tory government were confident enough to proceed with its long-threatened sackings of the remaining trade unionists. These began on 14th November 1988 and 14 trade unionists, including Mike, were sacked in the end. 

For Mike it was a moral issue – at a rally in London’s Central Hall held in protest at the sackings Mike let loose his feelings: “We resent utterly and completely the accusations that the trade unions we are proud to belong to are any threat to national security …. The traitors come from the old-boy network or elsewhere. No government has the right to say its employees that your democratic rights have been removed.” *

Over the next decade Mike became the symbol of the campaign speaking at trade union conferences, Tolpuddle and the annual January rallies in Cheltenham. He became famous – not least for the ever-faithful GCHQ Trade Unions carrier bag he had with him on all occasions and, to cheers, held up when he finished speaking. Not only did he promote the GCHQ cause, but he also took solidarity to other workers in dispute – to Wapping, Silent Night, P&O and many others. Proud of his Irish heritage established and kept strong links with many Irish trade unions.

The GCHQ dispute is still highly relevant today. It was clear the Tory Government was intent on banning unions not only in GCHQ but in other areas of government and limiting rights to strike in ‘essential services’. The response and the difficulty in implementing the ban in GCHQ effectively blocked the avalanche of union attacks envisaged the Tories. This was done through the enduring commitment of the sacked workers supported by the civil service unions and the collective and united response of the wider trade union movement here and abroad. 

Wherever Thatcher went across the international stage she was hounded about GCHQ and her hypocrisy in criticising other Governments on ‘human rights’. The campaign is a valuable lesson and example for trade unionists of today facing similar threats in the wake of the growing number of industrial disputes.

His proudest moment came in August 1997 when Robin Cook honoured an oft-repeated Labour pledge to restore trade unions in GCHQ. Marching, fist clenched with his GCHQ Trade Union plastic bag in hand – he led the sacked unionists back through the gates into GCHQ. This success came about in no small part due to Mike’s willingness to make a life changing commitment to campaigning for what he believed in – the right to belong to a union.

Mike remained the custodian of the campaign and was planning how the 40th Anniversary of the ban should be marked in 2024 – keen that an important trade union victory should be properly remembered. He is survived by the three children of the marriage to his beloved Isabel – Helen, Tim and Neil and his sister “Biff”.

Mike Grindley 5th August 1937 – 1st January.

*[A Conflict of Loyalties – GCHQ 1984-1991. Hugh Lanning and Richard Norton-Taylor. New Clarion Press.]

This obituary first appeared in the Morning Star and was sent to me by Hugh Lanning. 

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