I’ve been a union member all my life: first as a member of the National Union of Teachers when I qualified, subsequently a member of the National Association of Headteachers and now in retirement, a life member of the N.A.H.T. I believe in the right of workers to join together for their own good and for their protection.
As a young man I was a activist, attending every meeting, taking on posts of minor responsibility, attending conferences and even making an occasional poor speech.
However, unions, and industrial action, can be a thorn in the flesh. My parents were both youngsters in a mining community in the 1920s, a time of intense industrial action, a time of strikes, both a long miners’ strike and the General Strike. It appears that my maternal grandfather was not a striker. My aunt, born during the miners’ strike, tells the tale of a brick being thrown through the front room window of their terraced house the week she was born. She got that tale from my mother who was already a teenager. Apparently grandfather continued to go to work. He was the safety overman down Emma colliery where the family lived. Had he not gone down the mine to check that necessary supports were in place, there would have been no seam to work when the strike was over.
Mother used to relate another tale of that time. Because the buses were on strike, she had to walk from Ryton, Tyne and Wear to Blaydon, a door to door distance of four miles there and four miles back after school. On one occasion a limousine stopped and offered a lift which she was glad to accept. Making polite conversation, the driver asked what she was learning at school, what her father did. Receiving the answer, ‘He’s a miner’, the next question was, ‘and is he working or is he on strike?’ Being told that grandfather was a safety overman and still working, the driver said, ‘Good. Give this to your mother.’ It was half a crown, not an inconsiderable sum of money in those days. The driver was the mine owner. Grandfather was not enamoured with mother’s story. She was ordered to throw the money into the nearby River Tyne. Mother, being mother, didn’t exactly disobey. The coin was dropped into a still river pool, where her younger brother Tom was able to retrieve it later.
Father’s tale of the time is even less positive. In dad’s early twenties, oldest of four brothers, his father was a local butcher. Three butchers shops in three mining villages, a field to rear livestock for slaughter and a small private abattoir. During the hard times, valued customers were given credit which they were unable to pay back. The business went bankrupt. Father remained a skilled butcher. He was the most adept grocer I’ve known, frighteningly fast and skilled boning a side of bacon. And we once kept a pig which father slaughtered and cured when the time came.
My own association with industrial action is unfortunate. As headteacher of a large school, I was glad most of my staff were union members. However, membership was divided between three associations. During times of unrest, and there were quite a few in my time, my school became a vulnerable target for shut down. Many of our pupils travelled from distant hamlets and farms. Transport arrangements were a nightmare, especially when one union or another decided to close the school down, which they did in relays, never together. I’m sure action was not directed at me personally but I took it personally, as our neighboring school, with less vulnerability was never affected. It caused much damage to parental perception that took ages to overcome.
I hope university tutors and lecturers, currently taking action, get satisfaction. Equally, I hope there is no collateral damage to students.