Sunday, September 16, 2007

Wellies and Witch-hunts

I can resist anything except temptation, as Oscar Wilde says, and having read a story in this month's T&G Record headed "Dirty practices get the boot at Tulip", I can't resist telling you what it brought to mind.


"Imagine arriving for your daily shift at a meat factory and having to swap your own shoes for somebody else's Wellington boots, sweaty and smelly because they have just finished their day? Totally unpleasant and unhygienic, but that was the situation facing workers at Tulip's Coalville site"
(T&G Record, September 2007)

Unpleasant indeed, and I hope this picture of clean, modern industry has not put you off your sausages and bacon, or indeed school meals, which Tulip also provides. Anyway, having heard that workers at Tulip's unionised site at Tipton each had their own pair of boots, and what's more a locker to put them in, the workers at the Leicestershire factory have successfully demanded their own wellies, and are just waiting for management to install new racks so they can leave them when they go off shift.

"The union has made a big difference", according to activist Gary Griffiths, "Everyone's a lot more confident and management have had to treat us with more respect".

"Typical!", I can hear some middle-class Mail reader grousing, "those bloody union militants are always making these outrageous demands! I bet half of them are friggin' foreigners as well!" Indeed, several of the Coalville workers are migrants, but then so is Tulip, originally a Danish firm. But I digress.

It so happens I am an authority on provision of welly-boots.

Back in the mid-'Sixties I was working for Associated Electrical Industries(AEI) at their factory in Willesden. We were out in all weathers unloading lorries. I remember going up the other end of the factory to help the crane driver unload some big ceramic insulators, using rope slings, and guiding the tall columns into place on a snow-covered bank. The snow gave them a soft landing but was not so good for my shoes. It occurred to me that a big company like AEI, whose company paper boasted each month of massive power station contracts overseas, ought to be able to provide its labourers with waterproof boots.

"If we give you a pair they'll all want them," said George the foreman, with unbeatable logic.
"We should all have them," I replied. It was only two or three of us who went in the yard.
"There's a pair in the warehouse you could wear," said Eddie, his sidekick, who was actually the clerk, being helpful. There was an old pair of wellies under some coats and stuff. They were well-worn, and grimy, left by some predecessor, and probably housed enough athlete's foot to floor an Olympic village. But not wishing to be thought squeamish (i was young and wanted people to think I was 'hard' in those days), I contented myself with pointing out that they were size eights, and I took size eleven.

"Well, it's not our fault if you have got big feet!" came the reply from Eddie.

Dougie the inspector told me that foremen were paid bonuses to keep costs down in their department, and George was probably afraid the price of wellies would come off his pay.

When acid was delivered to the factory in big carboys contained in straw lined metal baskets, we were told to put on heavy rubber aprons which the firm provided to protect our clothes. It struck me that by the same token we should be provided with rubber boots. (What good they would be against spilled acids I'm glad to say I never had occasion to find out).

I went and spoke with the shop stewards committee. They introduced me to the firm's safety officer, a big distinguished-looking ex-firefighter, who listened to my case briefly and said "Of course you're entitled to gumboots".

Back at Goods In, George came out and berated me. "You're a shit-stirrer", he said. "You never said anything to me about wanting gumboots!" "George," I said, "I have been on about it for the past two months!"

Eddie came out of the office. "You know", he said in his soft Irish brogue, "We had a 'phone call about you last month, they said you were a communist, and wanted to know if you were causing any trouble here. We told them you were a good lad and did your job alright. I'm sorry we told them that now!"

"Oh yeah? Where was the phone call from?", I asked him. Much as I fancied being such a notorious 'Red', I suspected he was making it up.

"It was from Woolwich. You must have caused some trouble there". The main AEI factory was at Woolwich, over the other side of London.

"Eddie, I've never worked at Woolwich. I don't know anybody at Woolwich..." I smiled.

"Well they seem to know you!" He must have seen disbelief on my face. "I'm not making it up, honest".

The inspectors told me that AEI security was based at Woolwich. But I still thought maybe the call had originated with someone that did know me, someone local whom I'd offended. The two lads I'd put off a Young Socialists coach outing a few weeks back? I doubted this pair of herberts could manage a convincing 'phone call between them, chucking a bottle then running was more their style. Some right-winger in the local Labour Party? They had gone to some trouble to get me expelled, but having succeeded why would they bother carrying on pursuit? There was the ETU branch secretary I had crossed swords with at Kilburn, and I remembered hearing him say he was working at Woolwich, but as I was to become sure when I got to know him (we become political allies), he was not that type. Part of the purpose of witch-hunts and whispering campaigns is to make you paranoid and sow suspicion among comrades and friends.

Anyway, before I had time to worry about all this, George came back, all contrite, and asked me to come up the stores with him for my boots. He wasn't a bad chap really, and besides, as the boots were being issued as safety wear they would come off the central budget and his bonus would be safe.

As for the call "from Woolwich", I heard no more, but then if it had been made it probably should not have reached Eddie, and I would not have heard about it, except for that mistake.

Martin's experience was different. The young lad from Cricklewood was working in the AEI machine shop as a trainee. About this time a movement had sprung up among engineering apprentices, claiming better pay and union rights, and it was centred on the huge AEI factory in Manchester's Trafford Park, which employed thousands of them. (AEI Willesden also employed lost of trainees and apprentices, one suspects because they were cheap, but many left to go after better pay as soon as they had served their time). In London, Young Socialists held two meetings to raise support, and Martin was elected to a committee that was formed.

At one of the open meetings he had noticed an older man at the back taking some notes. Martin asked him where he was from, and the man said "Woolfs", which was a factory in Southall where there had been a big strike the year before. Young Socialists had joined the Indian Workers Association on a march in support of the Woolfs strikers. At the end of the meeting Martin went over to a couple of lads from Southall and said it was good they had got a trade unionist from Woolfs along. They looked puzzled, so he turned to point out the man at the back, but the man "from Woolfs" had gone.

The following Monday after he had been elected to the committee, Martin turned up for work to find his foreman waiting by the machine. "I'll have to take you off this job," the foreman said, " you're not getting up enough speed". Martin said he did not understand, as he had been earning the same piece bonus as the other lads, but the foreman just repeated "I've got to take you off". Martin noticed he kept looking down at the floor as he was speaking. He asked Martin to come up to the personnel office with him.

In the office the personnel manager said Martin would have to go. Martin asked if he could not try another job in the factory, but the personnel manager said there were no vacancies anywhere. (I knew this wasn't true, they were asking for workers to transfer to assembly work). Anyway, they had Martin's P45 and insurance card ready on the desk, and two security men were waiting to escort him to the gate. He was out on the pavement in Neasden Lane when he realised "I've been victimised!"

Perhaps the"man from Woolfs" was really a man from Woolwich, perhaps unlike my case where a new inexperienced personnel officer put a call through by mistake, this time they knew how to do it. We tried taking Martin's case up in the union, the branch were sympathetic, but to no avail. And then there was Bernard, who had just left school with a string of GCEs, and came tied and suited for a job in the accounts office. He was surprised to say the least when the interviewer asked him about his political views and his membership of schools CND, which he had not mentioned on his CV. He never got the job, and I don't know what happened to him.

Last time I saw Martin he had finished a stint as a printer in Runcorn and was going off to the 'States with an American women he married (hope their McCarthyism is not as stringent as our slier British variety). Last time I saw AEI Willesden it was a row of derelict buildings behind locked gates, and I hear some are being converted to flats. Other factories which once stood nearby have disappeared, Elliot Automation which made coin telephones has become lock-up garages and workshops, Mulliners which did work for Concorde has been replaced by a branch of Homebase.

The face of industry has changed. We live in a different society, so we are told. But they are still having to fight for the right to a pair of wellies in Coalville, and I bet somewhere - though not in Woolwich which has long gone - there's at least one computer generating lists of commies, Trots and troublesome works trainees (though not many have apprenticeships) about whom 'phone calls will have to be made.

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