I lived up Sneinton way. The Union office was up in Sherwood Rise and to avoid the city centre traffic I would go across Carlton road, up through St Anns, drop onto the St. Anns Well Road, take a left and then a short right and a dog leg up Curzon Street, that would bring me out on Huntington Street, near to the Mansfield Road, clear of the city and only minutes from the office.
Curzon Street, at that time was just an open space of derelict buildings, the last remains of the St. Anns slum clearance programme which had demolished the crowded acres of back to back terraces with their smelly outhouses, and replaced them with spacious, well-lit social housing with indoor toilets and bathrooms
It was November and bitterly cold when I noticed, as I took the dog leg, a number of lads clearing the derelict sites, collecting bricks and timber into piles and doing a general tidy-up. They looked miserable as hell and I stopped the car and asked them what they were up to.
Turned out they were trainees from a Youth Opportunities Programme.
Asked if they had a site hut? No. Where was their safety gear? Got none. What did they do for shelter or for toilets? They pointed to a few old doors leaning against a wall. They would shelter under there for a fag. Toilets were another couple of doors further down the site although they only went there for a slash – anything else they would go over to the bus station in the Victoria Centre.
“You need a union” I said, “get this fucking sorted”
I had union membership applications in the car and signed them all up, there and then. The proper union for such work was probably the Union of Construction and Allied Trades, or perhaps the General & Municipal or the Transport & General. My union looked after manual and ancillary workers in local authorities, the health service and other public bodies. But, what the hell, this looked pretty serious and they werein a miserable condition and keen to join and get things sorted.
I forget now the name of the particular Youth Opportunities Scheme that they belonged to but I allocated them to membership of the Nottingham Social Services Branch of the Union and got one of the Branch’s senior shop stewards to come with me to the YOP agency offices to try and this sorted.
It frustrates me that I can’t remember the name of that senior shop steward. He went off to Wales a year or so later and has never been heard of again. He was a member of the International Marxist Group which had quite a strong presence in the city. I felt it prudent to counsel him to let me do the talking and not to get too militant or stroppy.
The Agency had offices in Emmanuel House at the bottom of Hockley. It may have been an old department store once, probably a Woolworths or something similar. It was now, downstairs, a centre for the homeless where they could pick up donated clothing and such like. The YOP agency had taken the first floor as their offices. It was an odd shaped office, as Emmanuel House did a kind sharpish U turn at the bottom of Hockley. The manager’s office thus had windows overlooking both Hockley and Lower Parliament Street. It was in the U bend on the first floor of the building.
The manager/sponsor of the scheme was an ex-army major and he looked like an ex-army major. And spoke like an ex-army major, in short clipped sentences. We were given tea and biscuits, served by a young girl who was obviously another YOP trainee.
I wanted to make clear to the major that I was a bit more than an ordinary trade union official and stressed to him that I sat, for the TUC, on the Manpower Services Commission Board which was responsible for approving and funding YOP schemes and that he really needed to pay attention to what we were going to ask him to do.
It was pretty simple really. We wanted him to close the site with immediate effect until they put in place a proper site hut, a portaloo, and gave the boys proper safety equipment, hard hats, safety boots and gloves, donkey jackets.
He said he would get those things pretty soon. Would be helpful, he suggested if the funding was a bit better, but he couldn’t close the site as he only had a limited period, from the contractors, to clear it.
I knew, and reminded him, that the funding provided by the MSC ncluded provision for safety gear and equipment and he really needed to close the site down and get this sorted.
But he wouldn’t have it.
So I put the pressure on a bit. “Those boys have all joined my union” I says, “this is not an academic request and if you can’t close the site then I’ll close it for you”
“They can’t join a union! They’re trainees not workers, Manpower Services won’t allow that, I will sort out the safety issues, but it’s going to take a bit of time., you’ll have to wait.”
“I don’t care what Manpower Services think, they all joined and we want you to recognise the union and if you can’t close down the site then I am going to do it for you.”
He sat back in his chair and looked at us with a degree of military contempt. “Look, I’ll be honest with you, I don’t like Trade Unions, they cause more problems than they solve. And in particular, your union, NUPE is it? I’ve heard of you lot and I’m terribly sorry but you will not getting any formal recognition from me.
I glanced across at the International Marxist, he was looking at the major with steely grey Trotskyist eyes.
We had a cup of tea in our hands, sipping the tea and holding the saucer. I looked at the major. I banged the tea cup down on his desk and stood up, fuming with anger and outrage. The chair fell backwards.
“Right, major, we tried to do this the nice way now were going do it the hard way! Those boys are on strike and they’re not going back until you get this bloody sorted! I strode to the door, and grabbed the handle, I turned back to him, “We will be back major, and you will sort this out and you will recognise my union” I opened the door and walked straight into a cupboard.
It was the Marxist who let me out of the cupboard and showed me out of the proper exit, and we stamped down the stairs onto Lower Parliament Street I was still fuming but my Marxist shop steward was dancing a little jig and laughing his head off.
We walked across to Curzon Street and told the lads they were on strike and they were quite delighted. We took them over to the Peacock public house on Mansfield Road and they had bowls of hot soup in the back room. I would bught them all a pints but there you are, they were old enough to strike but not old enough to drink.
One of the pleasures of the union was to see disputes resolve in your favour. Often, it has to be said, quite a rare pleasure. We arranged to meet the boys at the site the next morning, to decide whether to picket or not. When we got there, about 7 am, there was a truck delivering a half size porta cabin, it had a little kitchen and a generator so they could brew up; and there was a portaloo positioned in a more discrete part of the site. The boys were asked to go down to Emmanuel House and they emerged shortly afterwards all with yellow hard hats, brown safety boots and wearing donkey jackets that were slightly too large for them. and industrial gloves. And a grin on their faces like they’d just won the lottery.
Me and the major, we became bosom friends. But I still can’t remember his name.
There were consequences, of course. We tried to recruit YOP trainees on a much wider scale for there were dozens of these schemes popping up all over the place and the trainees were very vulnerable to exploitation. But it proved a difficult if impossible task. There was a rapid turnover of trainees in every scheme; they were paid an allowance rather than a wage and it was a bit unfair to take a full union subscription from their allowance, besides it became very difficult to collect the subscriptions. . Even where we were able to agree “check off” arrangements (deduction of subscription before they got the allowance) the arrangements quickly fell apart for these schemes did not have human resources departments or experienced personal officers and the administration of such arrangements constantly collapsed. And above all, our first priority was our core membership in the local authorities and hospitals. This was the age of Thatcher and she was cutting us to ribbons and most of our time was rightly allocated to the fight against Thatcher;s cuts.
We did manage to tighten up the union approval of such schemes. The public sector unions developed an almost Stalinist like central committee that examined all YOP proposals and was such a good filter that by the time the proposals reached the Board of the Manpowere Services Commision then all the basic problems had been sorted out.
We still halted some schemes or refused to fund others. One that stands out in my memory was a scheme proposed by the Nottingham Evening Post. In truth it was quite a well-designed scheme, one of the better proposals that came before the Board. But the Evening Post was under boycott by the Unions. There had been a bitter year long dispute at the Post. They were the first newspaper to introduce the new printing technology, long before Murdoch at Wapping or Eddie Shah at Warrington. They systematically destroyed the print unions and at the end of the dispute they refused to re-instate any of the print workers or journalists who had taken part in the dispute, including my old friend, I am pleased to remember him, George Miller the blind journalist who, if it’s not unfair to say so, had a real eye for union stories. There was simply no way the union reps would approve of an Evening Post YOP scheme, no matter how good it was. Uproar followed with the Employer representatives of the board being outraged and the civil servants incandescent. The post ran front page stories condemning us as irresponsible. But they never got their scheme. I still don’t buy the Post.
Walking into that cupboard had quite an effect upon my reputation amongst the Nottingham left. The tale spread rapidly around theTrotskyist grapevine, often grossly exaggerated but mostly in my favour. What can I say, it probably opened afew doors for me.