Hello I’m Harry Riley
Welcome to Harry’s five-minute rant
This is called:
‘All Power to the Union’
by Harry Riley
Become an apprentice and then get the strength of the unions behind you son!’
These were the words spoken to me as a raw youth leaving school at fifteen.
But it wasn’t until twenty-five years later as a commercial printing manager and director of the firm that I became a card-carrying member of a printing union listing me as a fully qualified lithographic printer. I was told by the union branch secretary that if I ever wished to come out of management I could get a job anywhere in the country with that card. The union was a closed shop.
As an indentured apprentice in a large printing company I leaned more towards the graphics side of printing so I went on to ‘Day-Release Art College’ which included three nights a week at the college night school. This was intensive training, covering all aspects of print and design and which was to give me a good overall grounding of the graphics trade.
At work we had a ‘Father of the Chapel’ and he was head-man for the union. All disputes regarding pay and conditions of the brothers had to go through him. The company bosses on their side employed a ‘Time and Motion’ expert and he would stand at the side of a tradesman and time every job to the second. Likewise we all had to comply with his ruling. We had outside toilets at work in the 1950’s and this Time and Motion man would stand in the cold outside with his stopwatch, checking that we took no longer than the allotted five minutes, even for a number-two. Then he would call out ‘come on Eric, you’ve been in there too long and bring that newspaper out with you!’ Most apprentices were in the union but our department was exempt for some reason and we were slightly set apart from the compositors and the machine minders. At that time compositors and ‘Linotype’ men were kings-of-the-heap.
It was exciting to be a small part of a big company and not long after I had started work a tradesman in our department left the company. Shortly after we had a new arrival. He was an ex-Bevin Boy and told me he was a communist and proud of it. He had been forced to work down the mines during the war as he had refused to fight. He was a superb craftsman but had some very fixed ideas. We used to clock-in each day and he didn’t like this, he told me that where there was a clocking-in machine it meant the bosses didn’t trust the workers and the workers didn’t trust the bosses! He was right of course. Things were very polarised in those days.
Pop music was getting a grip on us youngsters and at lunch times we apprentices would gather in the finishing room with the young girls and listen to the latest music. I didn’t have much money and so I used to buy records that mimicked the popular artist of the day. They sounded good to me, possibly because I was tone deaf but these cheap Woolworth’s ‘tribute’ records to Elvis Presley and other singers were not very acceptable to the girls and so some of us sought other lunchtime amusement. Within the same room in this old building there were some large overhead beams and whilst the records were playing several of us lads would hang down from the beams like monkeys to see who could hang there the longest and to try and impress the girls. For some reason they didn’t rise to the bait and I personally found I was getting quite irritated just hanging there…ten or fifteen minutes is a long time, still it was something to do and I did put on an extra six inches of height that year. The older apprentice who was currently the apple of the girl’s eyes was a lad who owned a ‘Lambretta Scooter’ and had learned to jive at ‘Butlins’ holiday camp. Whilst we were hanging from the beams he was strutting his stuff and dazzling them all. Determined to join in the fun I went to a local dancing academy and the proprietor’s wife taught me to execute a ‘Syncopated Chassis’ movement with her, however there just wasn’t the room at the overcrowded ‘Palais-de-Danse’ to demonstrate this elaborate performance without taking the legs off several other dancers and so it remained my only real and private success.
Moving on to the 1980’s when I had become production manager of a printing firm in another town, I was informed by the Managing Director that our company was under attack by the local branch of the ‘National Graphical Association’ and that we would be closed down. They had given us an ultimatum: ‘become an NGA house or be blacked and closed down. They had full control of that town and claimed they could stop us getting work. The Managing Director and owner of the company had already caved in to their demands. Invited to meet the branch secretary I gave him a tour of the works. He seemed a reasonable man and we got on quite well. We had just bought a new printing press and I had trained a woman to run it occasionally. I was told in no uncertain terms this practice had to stop immediately. The Branch Secretary had a Letterpress Printer available and we had to employ him and train him on the press so that in six month’s time he could be given a full litho card. I resisted this but again the M.D. caved in and so began my tussles with the union.
I became a card-carrying member of the union but was not allowed to speak at the union meetings as I was a manager. I still tried to get my female worker accepted into the union and the branch secretary eventually put it on the agenda. I could not believe the outrageous spleen that came out that night as one after the other; newspaper printers stood up and condemned female workers. ‘This is the filthy end of the stick! Let one woman in and we will all be out of a job. We have to protect ourselves and remain a closed shop or we are done for!’ I got some really vicious looks and wondered if I would get home that night without a bloody nose or worse. They knew I was behind the failed proposal. Not long afterwards our new printer breezed into my office full of confidence and said: “Listen Sunshine, you do anything to stop me working and you’ll live to regret it!” It was a clear threat of union intimidation and I had to concede he was right. Within the obligatory six months I sent off a favourable report to the union so that he got his full litho printer’s card. If my M.D. with all his money couldn’t fight the union what chance did I have?
Disillusioned, I left the company not long after that and my career took another turn as I accepted a job selling printing presses for a National Manufacturer.
Recently I got hold of an old copy of Andrew Neil’s book ‘Full Disclosure’ where he writes about life during Margaret Thatcher’s regime. This struck a cord with me because it revived memories of my own three years of tussles with the NGA. The brothers were fighting against new technology with every weapon in their armoury and this book reminded me of my own experiences in a little provincial market town. So why, knowing what I do, do I feel sorry that the NGA no longer exists? I never really felt a part of it even when I carried a union card.