Popular Politics Project
Interview transcript: Bob Murdoch
Date and place of birth: not given
Interviewer: David Hiscocks
Date of interview: 4 December 2012, Newcastle City Library
Location of interview recording: Tyne and Wear Archives
Key words – Parsons of Newcastle upon Tyne, Trade Union, Closed Shop and membership, overtime,
Notes on transcription
(?) – This indicates that the word proceeding is not said very clearly, or the spelling of the word is open to question. It may appear in conjunction with * and a guess at what the word may be.
*Incoherent* – This is only used when it is impossible to guess what may have been said.
*A few seconds of noise as I set-up the Dictaphone*
Bob Murdoch (BM) – I was born during the Second World War. My first political experience was, err, 1945 when the general election took place immediately after the war. I were only five-year old at that time, but I remember in the pit village where we lived, this very big flash car coming round with a loud speaker on the top, all the kids running after it and shouting and yelling and shouting abuse. And I asked somebody what was going on. I can remember this very distinctly. And they said, that’s the Tories, that’s the Tories! So, I think from that sort of early stage I realised that there were politics, and I realised that there were Tories and realised there was our side as well. So, err, we moved, the pits in the West of Scotland were running down at the time, we moved to Fife. And everything was quite different there. Again, there was quite a political dimension to the kind of place we had when we moved. It was a three bedroom house, three bedroom terraced house. And it was like going to another world compared to the house we had in the West of Scotland which was sort of a front-room, a back-room, a scullery and an inside toilet. And at that time it wasn’t bad having an inside toilet actually. So, erm, moving to Fife, I think the parents were quite, very supportive of, at the time, very keen that we were educated. My father particularly would have done anything to avoid, he had three sons and a daughter, I was the eldest, and he’d had done anything to stop the lads going down th’ (sic) pit. He wanted, you know, looking backing on it that was what his life was really all about in a sense. Trying to avoid us going down the pit. Anyway, I went to the senior secondary school. In Scotland there was very much a two-tier system at the time. I did reasonably well and went to university, did engineering there, and I think I was probably the first in the pit village in Fife, where we lived, a place called Ballingry (?). I think I was probably the first to actually go to university. And at that time there was an enormous increase in engineering particularly manufacturing engineering. And people were needed in quite big numbers to fulfil that role. Now I got no illusions about the role of the state. It wasn’t only to give, although there were people of goodwill who wanted to give working class kids an opportunity. But it wasn’t only that. They needed us for jobs that graduates from middle classes would normally have…..been shoe-horned into.
David Hiscocks (DH) – So what year did you go to university may I ask?
BM – ’58.
DH – ’58. Ok.
BM – So, at the time in Fife, I did graduate, and at that time in Fife there was already a bit of a run-down in pits, quite serious concerns about jobs and so on. And Scotland, more or less, I think they called it a development area. Anyway, I got a job in Bristol in the aircraft industry and moved there, erm, with the benefit of support from the local unemployment office. I was drawing unemployment benefit, but, because it was a development area, they gave me a single train fare to Bristol! So, anyway, in Bristol…..it was great to be there. It was, erm, a real opportunity career wise in a sense. And, my girlfriend, later my fiancée, came to Bristol to get married, and she came down. We had four kids. By that time, talking about late ’69, 1970 particularly. Things were already beginning to run down. And we wanted to be a bit nearer Scotland so the grand parents could see the kids grow-up and so on. So we moved up to Newcastle. And that was where I really started to face the harsh realities of industrial life. It’d been good in Bristol, but when I moved up to Newcastle to Parsons in response to a massive advert in the Observer, asking for all types of performance engineers, err, rotating machinery engineers, systems engineers. You know, involved in hydraulic fluid systems and so on. It was ideal. When I came up for the interview the main concern would be whether I’d be prepared to stay whether I’d be likely to go, so I had to explain that taking my family, wife and four kids up here changing things completely, so I’m not going to run back again any minute now, you know. So that was their main concern. Anyway, I got started, January, ’71. By the end of the year, there were bill boards up around Newcastle saying thousand redundancies at Parsons. So this was, to say the least, quite a shock. Having, you know, gone to all this bother of moving and, in terms of perceptions in Parsons when I came here, the assistant manager, he said, well, look, we make electricity, we produce turbine generators for power stations, we make electricity. It’s not like the aircraft industry, people will always need electricity. So that’s how much he understood about things as well. So we had a tremendous battle over redundancies. I became the rep in the, the Union rep, in the department I was in. turbine control design, was the name of the department. We had about twenty people. One or two non members of the older school. And the Union had had quite serious disputes prior to that over the trade union membership. Where they tried to promote people above what we called the line. The line at which you became a manager, you’re no longer effectively a worker. You’re a manager. So, and they’d artificially moved people up. And the Union had objected, and there was a big dispute and eventually there was a settlement and it was a condition of employment then.
DH – So it was a condition of your employment that you were part of the Union?
BM – Yes.
DH – Right.
BM – You didn’t have to be a member prior to that, but you had to join when you joined the company. So that was part of your contract. But there were, a few, not very many, but a significant number who were not. There was a very big membership at the time. Technical staff membership was about a thousand.
And it covered factories dotted around Newcastle, as well as the main one in Heaton, which you can, when it was there, you could always see it, it’s only two miles along the road there. So the, the, erm, the dispute started over redundancies, but it obviously became involved in the whole question of Union membership because it coincided at the time with Ted Heath bringing in the Industrial Relations Act which prohibited the closed shop. It was what we called a post entry closed shop. So, that I think, was probably, that dispute was probably quite a defining thing, you know. Although I’d always seen myself as being on the Left, you know, buying Liberal newspapers, even the Socialist paper for a bit, while I was in Bristol. Generally being seen to be on the Left. I wasn’t active or anything. It was very much just what I was. My friends tended to be similarly minded, you know. And we did, I did go to an odd meeting, an odd political meeting, a Labour party meeting, but when I came up here it was quite different.
BM – So were you a Union member before you joined the company, Parsons did you say?
BM – Parsons, yes. No. That was in relation to the kind of organisation it was. At Bristol it was the AEC as it was. There was no organisation in design areas at all. But it went to draughtsmen were Unionised and well organised. But there’d never been any attempt or any idea that you could actually unionise design people at that stage. Really, Parsons was a bit ahead of its time in that sense in looking to organise design staff as well as draughtsmen. The Union itself was called DATA when I joined it, eventually became TASS and changed its form and swallowed up by other unions, but at that time it was very much the Draughtsmen and Allied Technicians’ Association. It didn’t even call itself a union! A very strong, a very principled organisation and already been established in Parsons by that time. This wasn’t uncommon in the engineering industry, and it mainly emerged from the fact that in the drawing offices particularly, wages had fallen behind and there’d been a wave of militancy in the ‘60s that carried shop-floor wages and not conditions but wages to actually overtake the drawing office people. The Union was, although people were recruited to the drawing office from the shop-floor on the basis of conditions, better holidays, better hours, shorter hours and so on. Nevertheless, this became a real issue in the, I’d say about the mid ‘60s. Or early ‘60s, the need to actually bring draughtsmen’s wages up. The Union did have a minimum wage policy, did fight for better wages. There was a general air of militancy in the, in the Union as a whole. But as I say, at Parsons, they really developed this further. Probably more than anywhere else. And they’d had a massive dispute over the four week holiday issue, where employers had resisted it, the breakthrough had been at Parsons. A very significant time. So that was the background, moving from the kind of background at AEC to Parsons. It was like chalk and cheese, you know. As I say the organisation was quite exceptional, after I’d been there, I think eight or nine months, I became the office rep. There’d been one rep for the turbine design plus control design. Turbine design was the elites! *Laughs* But I think we were probably next. Because they’d grown quite big, they split off. And I became rep for the control design area. We went into dispute on the redundancies, particularly. We were working to rule, because you cannae effect production immediately in the drawing and design offices, it had to be a longer process. You had to wear the company down to some extent.
DH – If you go on a strike for a day it wouldn’t have too much effect.
BM – That’s absolutely it. So we had, three or four, three months probably, of serious dispute, where we were effectively working to rule and effectively trying to stop any output at all, drawings going down to the shop-floor to make things and so on. And eventually it broke. We knew something was going to happen, it was a Friday afternoon and there was, I don’t know how it came about, but there was this tremendous feeling that, you know of, of some imminent activity. That something was going to break. It did happen. The way I saw it, I was sitting at my desk, and one of my members came along, put an envelope on my desk and said, that’s my redundancy notice, Bob, you’re my rep, what you going to do about it? *Laughs* And, err, I thought, well, what do I do about this. So I thought, I’ll go and see Terry, the secretary, but the leading negotiator on our side. And he was standing at the top of the stairs. And Terry, you wouldn’t have met him, but he was a tremendously active and incredibly committed trade union, politicised trade unionist.
DH – So what was his full name again?
BM – Terry Rodgers.
DH – Terry Rodgers.
BM – Yep. And he was at the top of the stairs and he said, well, what have you done about it. And I said, nothing yet, I don’t know what to do. And he says, well take it back! And, when he was excited, his eyes opened very wide. Well take it back! So I thought well, take it back. By that time a number of other letters had been handed out, so, I said, we’re all going to go into the office, we’re all going to take them back, so let’s go. There were four by that time. We crossed the corridor and knocked the door, but we didn’t wait to be invited in, we opened the door and entered. And, I was sort of at the front, you know! Not a position I’d been particularly used to previously. But it was ok, I made a little speech telling him we rejected the redundancies, and that we’re bringing the letters back. There was no way we would accept redundancies. And he said, I’m glad you came Bob, as I’ve got one for you as well. So I got my redundancy notice there. And I says, well, you can have that one back as well. So I slapped it on to the table and we walked out. But that’d been happening all over the company, you know. So we get into a very sharp dispute
Mass meetings and so on. And it got tied up with the membership issues as well. *incoherent sentence* There was a bit of a rush to get the legislation through at the time as well. So we were caught very much at the sharp end of that. The dispute, it did run its course. Typical of the times it got very muddy, because we had I think the redundancy was something like 20% redundancies! It wasn’t because there was a lack of work exactly, but there was a cash flow problem in the company, so there was this massive redundancy, there was also the membership issue. There were people working to rule, effectively not working. Because of that, a number of people were sacked. Senior managers around various departments telling people they were off the payroll. We had an untidy position, but we were telling people not to leave the premises, to stay in at work, to come in every day. Pretend to do your job. Be there to do it. You know. So that was the tactic. Because the people who were paid monthly like myself, we didn’t leave immediately, the people who were on weekly staff who’d been made redundant they were supposed to leave as well. They were told to stay on the premises, come in every day, you know. We had that sort of very, very mixed situation within the plant. Some people like myself, redundant, but not made redundant yet, not finally off the premises. People redundant but still coming in. People who were sacked who were still coming in. And people who’d nothing had happened to at all.
DH – It sounds a bit untidy.
BM – it was untidy. But that was the way it worked out. And the, we were also organising stuff with people coming in to talk to groups of workers. We set up what we called classes. Education classes. People who were political coming in, someone from the Young Liberals coming, people from the SW, people from different backgrounds. We had a guy called C.P. Taylor. I don’t know if you’ve hard of him. He was a playwright at the time.
DH – It rings a bell.
BM – Well, he came in and did a talk. A guy called, I forget his first name. Burn. He was an academic from Gateshead. He come in and did a talk on social security.
DH – So what was the idea behind getting all these different intellectuals and thinkers?
BM – Because people were in the plant, we were telling people to come in, but not giving them anything to do, you know. Because, people who’d been made redundant, obviously they wouldn’t be doing jobs. Or people who were off the payroll. Those who were unaffected as yet, who were still ostensibly working and that, we were maintaining that position, there was very little for them to do either. This was to keep things moving, maintain a sense of the fact that people were coming in, things were happening, we were causing the company a lot of bother.
DH – It was giving a point to them coming in even though they weren’t being paid.
BM – Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So there was all of that happening, but at the same time we were trying to keep up this idea of equality of sacrifice, which meant that those who weren’t getting a wage. It worked out I think, that 20% of our members were off the payroll one way or another, and there would have been more when the monthly staff came in. But that never actually, I don’t think we ever got to that point. The point about this equality of sacrifice was that those who weren’t effected, who hadn’t lot any money, were asked to pay for those who were off the payroll. Because of it being 20%, they had to pay 20% to equalise the sacrifice. So nowadays that would be like a days wages, asking for people to, asking a days wages of people, that would be what, a hundred pounds? And we did collect the money, and we did organise the payment to those who were effected. I wouldn’t say there wasn’t any struggle over that. It was an unusual situation. People, in a lot of cases, in most cases people paid. It was a general meeting decision, we had a mass meeting, one of the cinemas in the East End of Newcastle which still existed then. Had a mass meeting and made a decision about that’s how we were going to do it.
DH – So what was your role in making that decision?
BM – Only at that stage as a member, and as a rep. As a rep. Supporting the decision at the reps’ committee. Which was about fifty strong. Every little department had a rep. And, err, supporting that decision at the reps committee and reporting back to members as well. You know, it was, a sort of organisation where you voted and decided things as a rep and then you come back and said what you’ve done and what the decision was. And, err, if people objected then they said so. There was a time when somebody, not particularly at the time of that dispute, I think there was quite a feeling of solidarity that they had to stick together and see this through, you know. But a bit later somebody objected, and I said, well, you know, if you don’t think I did the right thing then you can put a motion to this meeting that I’m no longer rep. But you’ll have to win the vote mind! *Laughs* I told him, I made that very clear, that there’d have to be a vote, it wasn’t simply a matter of him not liking what I’d done. So, err, you know, there was a few non-members in our department. A few older people who had never taken kindly to joining what they saw as a draughtsmen’s union. One or two joined what they called a professional engineers union, called UK (?). This is all written up in an article, a long article that Dave Neville’s produced. Do you know of Dave Neville?
DH – I don’t. No.
BM – He’s done stuff for the North-East Labour History.
DH – Oh right, ok.
BM – And he’s done a very good article on the dispute itself.
DH – I’ll try and find that.
BM – And that goes into all of the UK stuff. And so on. Moving forward, we got to the position where we had an offer that all the redundancies would be rescinded, but we’d have to accept the fact that it could no longer be a condition of employment for people coming in to join the Union. And that was really…..I can remember the general meeting where we had to decide this, and, you know people were talking about, we’d have to take serious action to go on. You know. We’d have to be picketing the works, stopping work going in, you know. We’d really have to up our game quite massively, and I think probably that, the way people were spelling it out, that I think was the reality of the situation. If the members weren’t prepared to face that, then they didn’t have the basis to taking on the government. Basically.
So we did accept the idea that they’d be no enforced redundancies, but that it would not be a condition of employment. But we did get a policy statement from the company saying that they still supported the, our Union, as the negotiating body, that they’d do everything to make sure that people joined the Union, that they’d encourage people to join the Union, they’d provide facilities for us to persuade people to join the Union. And in fact a whole load of people after the dispute ended, they did actually come back in. Although some of them left, some of them had never been in, but, most of them did actually come in. And the big question then was, they had to pay back subs if they were coming in. That’s how strong the feeling was at the time. And how we felt that they needed us more than we needed them. We had long arguments. At one stage, because of some them would have been paying quite a massive amount of money, and in the end, we limited, they had to pay their back subs up to a maximum of £30. At that time that would translate, that was really at a time when £30, I think we were on about £2500 a year. £50 a week. So it’d be about half a weeks wages.
DH – Quite steep then.
BM – Yeah! *Laughs* But people paid it. And quite happy not to have to pay the whole lot. *Laughs* So the organisation did, I don’t think it actually suffered. Because there was an accepted kind of position. People who had never been in, never would be in, we’d keep them in the spotlight, people we wanted to try and get into the Union. But we were got on with things. Me own position at that time, although I wasn’t a negotiator, on the negotiating committee during the dispute, I did start on the negotiating committee very shortly afterwards. And one of the interesting things about disputes like that, was that as soon as they’re over, companies realise they’ve gone too far, and they were talking about overtime in a whole number of departments, and what happened was, in one of the departments, they’d simply all come over and sat in the personnel department, and refused to budge until there was some sort of consideration of the fact that there’d been a redundancy dispute, and there was to be no overtime, simply as that And the upshot of that was that the company agreed to set up an overtime committee. They would actually vet overtime claims for managers. They would let go what was deemed to be necessary. The first thing that happened was that Terry and Harry Blair, who was Chair, they were on the overtime committee, when they got back, they reported to the wider negotiating committee, which was elected from the reps committee, they’d got a whole lot of stick because they’d agreed certain amounts of overtime. And I can remember Terry at one point, although he was usually very much in control. Look, forget this, Harry and I will no longer be involved, we’ll elect another overtime committee from the negotiating committee and they’ll deal with all overtime requests. And we’ll have nothing to do with it. Is that ok. So obviously we said yes, yes, we’ll deal with it. And I was elected onto the overtime committee. And, one of the things that you quickly learned was that you had to get a sense of priorities and you had to deal issues with an almost managerial kind of way.
DH – I assume there was no way you could point-blank refuse to do any overtime?
BM – That was the position we came to, yeah. But although there were people, on the overtime committee, particularly one guy, who simply said that, but, there was, I think, four of us, but we came to the point that there was the basis for conceding overtime, as an example, we had people who were responsible at power-stations for synchronising the Parsons turbines with the electrical grid. This was quite a, quite a technical kind of operation to because the grid’s running, it’s pumping electricity, it’s alternating current and you have to get the turbine generators that you’re working on to be doing that and to mesh in with the grid. So we had members who did that. But they were liable to be asked to do that, called out to do that in the middle of the night, that was the best time to do it. As an example. We had to look at things in a pragmatic way. But the criterion was always, can you take time off in lieu for this work? Can you take time, do the overtime and take time off. And the other criterion was, can you redeploy people into this job? The other criterion was, if there’s nobody in the company, can you recruit people in? Because we had that wider attitude kind of attitude towards the question of unemployment, in the face of redundancies, we had that attitude towards unemployment that it was a general thing. Outside the company, we were involved with other issues, like…..one of the members for instance was in South Shields Council where he was extremely active against the what we called the yacht (?) schemes at the time for youth unemployment. So….we had that broader, much wider really, perspective on jobs and on unemployment. And, err, that was how we worked on the overtime committee. Actually, you did get to know a lot about the company, a lot abut the membership. It was a real experience. The significant thing was that at the end of the day, we signed the overtime sheets, members filled them in, managers signed them, and before they were authorised, we signed them as the overtime committee, which gave us quite a bit of influence in the way things were done. But we did look at the whole company, as I say, we, it was tremendous experience as a trade unionist. You know, knowing what we could concede, knowing what we couldn’t concede and also building up a knowledge of our membership and the way the company ran. So that, erm, out of the redundancy dispute, we held onto our membership and we did actually maintain, quite a massive influence over the way things happened in the company, through the overtime committee. And in other ways as well. We didn’t lose members as a result of it, and as I said, we gained some of the people who dropped out or who never actually joined. We did gain out of it.
The only thing was, we never properly re-established, the hundred percent, we didn’t call it a closed shop, we called it a hundred percent membership. I think that was the right way to look at it. But, what it meant was that when, some time later the company did come to us, and we did actually negotiate on recruitment as well, before anybody was employed, and we did actually agree to recruitment, and it did mean we were able to approach people, and encourage people to join the Union. That was part of our agreement at the end of the day. I think we did recruit everybody who joined the company, did join the Union from memory. I know all of the people I approached, because I was in quite a central position, although Dave Neville was on the design side as well, I think Dave had, he left the company maybe not very long after the dispute,(left in 1974) but generally, if somebody joined the design area, I’d go and talk to them and ask them to join the Union, as a negotiating committee member. The actual problem wasn’t so much at the end of the day that we’d had a battle with the company, which we’d come out of very well, I’d got my job back, that was, for me, tremendous, although I’d applied for jobs in the meantime, there was nothing much happening. And, it was, incredibly….
DH – So how long did this dispute go on for then? It sounds like it went on for a couple of weeks at least.
BM – Oh no. I mean, more or less, after the announcement early in the year, there was, err, an atmosphere of dispute, if you like. Although formally we weren’t taking any action until the redundancies broke. But it did go on for, I think, three or four weeks. Very intense. Very intense. But the problem after the dispute was the fact that, erm, there seemed to be a kind of chaotic ordering programme, power-station ordering programme. And they’d overdone it as far as the UK was concerned, there was quite a dearth of orders after the dispute was over, so we did lose members. Absolutely no doubt about that. Simply by virtue of the fact that *incoherent*.
DH – So too many orders being made.
BM – That’s right, that’s right. There was a real lack of work after. I think probably, right up to the dispute, there were a whole number of jobs that we’d more or less nearly finished at that stage.
DH – It’s that whole cash flow problem you mentioned.
BM – The cash flow problem was because of the large number of orders they had and needed to finish. And that was why I was recruited as part of a massive recruitment drive. Particularly for engineers. Erm, but after that, erm, I think the redundancies must have sorted the cash flow problem, but there was a serious fall-off, particularly in orders from CEGB, which was the Central Electricity Generating Board. That what was it was.
DH – So after the dispute, you were involved in the overtime committee, erm, at what stage did you stop being involved, what happened next? Were there any more disputes you were involved in? or did your political involvement in the trade unions end?
BM – No, in fact the experience of the dispute, I think from, I always, looking back, I always tend to think the dispute was what really pushed me much more in a political direction, you know. I think at the time terry and Harry, were members of the SW, the IS at the time. And I joined IS as well. As I say, I’ve been interested in Left politics, but in a very kind of distant way, you know. Intellectual kind of way, rather than something that affected me. But, err, I think the dispute, and seeing how it worked, seeing how the trade union organisation worked as well, I think it was something I didn’t want to be not part of. The trade union political thing. But there were other things happening at the time as well. One of the things I remember was Chile. 1973. And I remember very clearly reading Socialist Worker at the time and thinking, it cannot be true. It isn’t going to end up as a disaster the way the paper suggested. And every week it seemed more and more like that was what was going to happen, you know. And there was an analysis, a political. Eventually what happened, was not what was predicted, I don’t know f that’s the right word, but the political analysis pointed to the way it eventually ended up. So there was that sort of thing. I got involved in the Chile solidarity campaign, that sort of thing you know.
DH – Right.
BM – So, certainly from the trade union side and the experience of that, I was looking much wider at political ideas, political solutions.
DH – So that dispute happened in 1972, is that right. So that dispute really made you think about what a union, got you more interested in being proactive in the whole socialist side of things.
BM – Yes.
DH – So what did you do next?
BM – Well, there was actually quite a lot to do, as a member of the negotiating committee, I was on, we had issues arise from time to time, for instance, the company wanted to bring in a grading scheme. So I got involved in that as a member of the grading committee and a member of the overtime committee. And again, it gave you a real insight into the membership, you know? With a thousand members, a wee-bitty different from shop-floor membership, where you can have a hundred people all on the, or even bigger, working on milling machines in the milling section. You know, all doing substantially the same thing. Or technical staff membership it was different. There were research people, development people, design people like myself, the drawing office, the technicians, the computer people, err.
DH – So lots of different interests and lots of different needs.
BM – Absolutely. And, err, the idea of having a single kind of grading scheme that would cater for the whole lot, it was quite a challenge. The company had already come up something. There was already a kind of informal structure in place, and we built on that. It was basically myself and Terry that developed this scheme as it eventually became. We more or less set the boundaries for it. It wasn’t just, if you do this job, you’ll get this salary, it was the idea of development through the grades. And we’d raised the demand for work being brought forward, and what happened was that it was a Labour government. It was Wilson then Callaghan. It was that government after Heath was voted out, I think in ’72 or ’73. And Wilson got back, but then very quickly Callaghan became Prime Minister, and the idea then was to rationalise industry because there was a lack of work to effectively shut Parsons down. Although there might be a bit of tweaking, that was the idea. Although I was on the negotiating committee, there was a joint works committee as well. I’m trying to remember what it was called. It was called the corporate committee I think. Which wasn’t really a very good name for it but that was what it was called. And that involved all the Union sectors. The clerical workers who were separate, ourselves, the works supervision who were separate, and what we called the manual workers at that time. So there was a committee of all of the Unions, which I wasn’t a part of. But the company had come along at one meeting and said, we don’t see any alternative but to go along with this. You know for a merger with GEC which was the other turbine manufacturer and accept the rationalisation of industry. But the union side, and Terry I think was the one who pushed the boat out, was, well, we’ll get involved in a campaign to keep this place open and to bring orders forward. There was the, a massive campaign, people going out and talking to other unions, and so on. Probably, err, talk to MPs, union hierarchies, secretaries and so on. There was all that sort of campaign going on. Trying to create a situation, because it was a Labour government, trying to create a situation whereby the whole thing would be moved in our direction. So it was a kind of campaigning thing. It did come to a head when we had a delegation, I’m trying to get the chronology right here. What happened was that Jimmy Carter was coming to Newcastle as US President. And this was actually the opportunity for us to show that, take the campaign much more public. So we stopped the factory for the day. The whole place was out, we had a demonstration in the centre of Newcastle, Callaghan was there on a big platform, introducing Jimmy Carter and what he said was, well, because we all booed him when he went up to speak, Callaghan. He did say he thought he’d get a better reception if he brought a power station order with him. So he knew what it was all about, obviously. And then Jimmy Carter said a few things. There were snipers around the top of the Civic Centre, it was a big, big scene. The idea was that we were to bring our families as well, you know. No, not that time. There was another time we had a demonstration and we brought all the families. And again we emptied the factory. So, it became very, very high profile stuff. And we lobbied, it was moving towards, erm…..it was just before we went to the Jimmy Carter demonstration, and Terry and Harry had stayed behind to organise their involvement in that. But we had a lobby of MPs as well down in London. From our side there was a guy called Ken Ternent. I think he was Vice-Chair at the time. And we went down to that. And it was quite, quite interesting, we went down to talk to the general secretaries. We saw Jack Jones, of the TMG for instance. And when you go and lobby people, what we found was that everybody lobbies you back, you know. They don’t just listen to what you’ve got to say, they tell you what they think as well. And Jack Jones’ attitude was, well, every general has to have a back-door. And what we were getting was, well, we might be able to hold onto the generators, turbine generators are big, big, big machines. What he was saying was, not explicitly, but it was that every general should have a back-door. This was the back-door, that we would keep some of the generator work at Parsons, and the rest would go to GEC down in London. And, err, that wasn’t very satisfactory to us at all. But, erm, when we were there we were talking to MPs, lobbying MPs. We were in the main hall of the Commons, the actual lobby, and we were meeting the MPs, talking to them about things and that, and err, at one stage there were a group of GEC workers there as well, delegation from GEC. And they approached us, but they approached myself and Ken Ternent first. And what they said was, their chief man at the time was a guy called Laingstock (?) but what they said was, if you people are ok with it, we could all go and talk to Laingstock. And, we were immediately said, that isn’t what we’re here for. We weren’t talking to Laingstock. We wanted the companies to remain separate, independent, we wanted the company to continue producing turbine generators and there’s no way we’re going to be talking to Laingstock about splitting up the industry. The works convener, a guy called….his name I forget at the moment but it will come back to me, he sort of, been standing to the side, and he was obviously more senior than us, if you looked at it from that way. He came over and he said, what’s this? So we said, well, we told them we’re not going to see Laingstock. He wasn’t very sure of that, but the way he sorted it in his own mind was, tell Laingstock that if he wants to talk to us he’ll have to come up to Newcastle! *Laughs*
I mean, we effectively killed it off by then anyway, you know.
DH – It’s not something you can really go back and say, actually, we want to speak to you now.
BM – *Laughs* So the fact that Ken and I were there, we scuppered it basically. Any move along that direction. But, we were treated to a massive meal, an incredibly expensive meal in the House of Commons. And I can always remember because Thatcher was sitting nearby. They were giving us the treatment really. And we were drinking the bar on the night time as well. And the local MP, was vaguely on the Left, and I’ll have to fill in the names of these people at some stage with you. He come over, a trade union MP. He’d been a trade union official. And we were all sitting around, supping a beer, this was I think, two days, three days, before the Jimmy Carter event. And he says, well, he says, look, I’ve got to say something to you guys. I know how you’re going to react, he say, but I still have to say it, he says. Big Jim wants you to call off the Jimmy Carter demonstration. *Laughs* So we said, naaah. There’s no way we’re going to do that. There’s no way! It’s all set-up.
DH – It’s too good an opportunity to miss.
BM – It was, aye. It was. So even people on the works side were wholeheartedly saying it was going ahead. There’s no doubt about that. So, but, it was the way he approached it, it was quite funny. I mean, it sort of established the fact that there was going to be no compromise over this. And we had further demonstrations and so on. And one of the things, I wasn’t there, but I think Ken Turner was a spokesperson for the overall committee by this time. And he was involved in talks with the NUM, and Joe Gormley because one of the demands was for a power station in North Yorkshire called Drax. We’d built part of it but one of the demands was the Drax extension, the second part of it. And the, erm the NUM had an interest in this because that would have allowed the Sellafield, their Selby coalfield to be developed further. So they had an interest in it as well.
DH – So cross-union –
BM – Yeah, yeah. So with that cross-union involvement with the NUM, that was tremendously important because with the Labour government being in power, you know, it gave you a sort of massive leverage through the NUM. And, I mean, the other thing was, because the GEC was quite a big company, and they had lots of bits to it as well, we did form a joint industry with sections of GEC as well. Where met discussed things, discussed tactics, discussed what our demands should be. And we developed the obvious thing, rather than us competing for work with each other, if we get one, they get the next one. And that was actually the policy of that committee. But the weakness of it was that the major plants at Rumfield and Stafford wouldn’t have anything to do with it. They stuck with, you know, single company idea, which was the bosses idea. Their bosses’ idea. Which was the government’s idea, you know.
DH – So Parsons was at a disadvantage because it was the General Electric Company that wanted to take the work, and they were bigger.
BM – Yes. Parson’s management were prepared to go along with it, but the Union side reckoned otherwise, and in the end we did get what we wanted, pretty well, you know. The orders were brought forward, and Drax was brought forward. Heysham was brought forward and a nuclear station in Scotland was brought forward for GEC. It worked out the way we wanted it to. And it actually kept us going. The choice was between Parson’s entering total decline, and maybe even total closure, in 1976. Or 1996 which was when it happened.
DH – Right. So it was delaying….
BM – It was delaying it. Yeah. It delayed it for twenty years. People like myself worked for twenty years. We were always after that, it was never, it was always a process of decline. And, we had quite remarkable results in between times, you know. We had good disputes. What we held we could always, when the opportunity arose we could get wage increases. Better than other, we were part of an NEI group after Drax, which was basically ourselves, Clark Chapman and Reyrolle all producing work for power stations. But then a bit later we were taken over by Rolls Royce. But during the NEI and the Rolls Royce periods, it was a process of decline, Terry retired. He was manipulated in a way, as it was either him or myself. And Terry was in his ‘60s then. I think he’d just turned sixty actually. And, err, I mean, I was prepared to go. I told him I would get work again, there was nothing to worry about. But he made up his mind and he took the action that determined he was going to go. You know. Which left me still there. I became secretary at that point in time. And things weren’t very good for a bit. We were really holding onto our organisation, we still had reps. We still had reps meetings, we still decided things. We still reported back in our individual sections, we still had annual elections for the negotiating committee, the reps committee, we did all of that, but, with the lack of work and the redundancies, we always stuck to the idea that we would, initially, when I became secretary, it was after quite a big serious redundancy that we lost, Terry went in that redundancy. We were reduced to taking up, and I don’t mean to demean health and safety, we got involved in a big health and safety campaign for instance. We got a miserable offer. And we sort of accepted it. We didn’t kick up too much the first time.
The second year we decided to have a go on wages. And it was very interesting because they thought we’d been crushed. But through holding onto the health and safety and stuff, though, err, holding onto our organisation we were able to come back. And when we got into, when we getting to the point where we were getting into dispute, and we’d called a general meeting, mass meeting in the bingo hall that’s still there on Chillingham Road. What happened was that, I don’t think they were taking us seriously, but there was a big increase for the works generally, and we were getting a miserable kind of offer, you know. We were saying, ah well, that isn’t good enough. We have to get something better than that. So, they ummed and ahhed. And it went on and on and we were getting nowhere, and even in the reps committee, people were saying, look we’ll have to start, and this lack of confidence actually affected the people negotiating including myself. It was when somebody said, look, we’ll have to get on with this, we’ve been talking about it long enough. It shifted things. Just one individual saying that in the reps committee. It gave us the confidence to move forwards and actually decide to take the company on. So we organised a mass meeting. I think this took the company a bit by surprise, and errr, they asked for a meeting the Friday afternoon before the Monday when we were going to have it. And the directors asked us, well, we think you should call off the meeting and we can get back into negotiations. I was answering for our side and I said, well, we cannae do that now. We’ve got the meeting all arranged, we’ve told all of our members, We’ve been in the touch with the press. We’ve told the television. You know. We cannae put it off now! *Laughs* You should have seen when I mentioned the television. This wasn’t what they had in mind, they were quite at that stage very, very sensitive to the idea of any kind of press involvement or anything like that. I think it was because they didn’t want Group to get involved and get to know there were problems. I’m sure it was that. And in the end, we put on an overtime ban, we had one or two stoppages and so on, and, and, eventually we got a decent offer. But coming back from a very bad position, a massive redundancy, Terry going, and a new team, myself as secretary, feeling a bit vulnerable and so on. You know, we were able to actually assert ourselves and start to look after ourselves in a much more positive a way. It had to be said that it was against this background of redundancies.
DH – Steady decline.
BM – We had another dispute over wages where, we got quite involved with what we called the Joint Union Committee over that period. The convenor was a guy called Barney McGill he was politically on the right of the Labour Party, in fairness to them. He was certainly different from us. And I think he’d been manipulated a bit by the company, he came along and said, we’ve got some redundancies on the shop-floor, but the company have told us that if we accept a zero wage freeze then we can avoid the redundancies, and they’re asking TASS, as we were called at that time, to accept this. And accept the wage freeze so we can avoid the redundancies. Well, we had a talk about that, and we decided it simply wasn’t on. So we went back to him, this was the works convenor, who was effectively representing the company really! And we told him we wouldn’t accept that, if he fought the redundancies on the shop-floor, we fight for the wage increase on the technical side. And, he went off in a huff. He got really shitty with us about that. But it was a very principled position we’d adopted. Recognising their problems, recognising we were going to fight. In the end he took a union reference through the confederation of the shipbuilding unions whereby you could complain about another union. You know. There was this procedure that he’d dug up and he complained to what was called the confed (Tyne Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions) about our behaviour. And we had a real argument when we met over that. But anyway, we had a long dispute over that, and they tried all sorts of tactics with us. But it was one of the times when we had some work, we dug our heels in, and we got a 3% increase at the end of the day. And Barney McGill went in the next day and asked for the same. And he got it, you know. And there were no redundancies. The next meeting of the confed, because they had meetings from the various unions, confed meetings, as delegated from our union, it didn’t matter very much. But one of our full-time officials, he was secretary of the confed, Tommy Brennan he was the Chair. And we went along to this meeting, and after the secretary, and he said, you’ve got something to report Bob. So I reported what had happened. And, err, how the works went in afterwards and got the same settlement. And Tommy Brennan got very shitty at this, and he said, well, it’s about the only time you’ve ever done that. Normally it’s us who wins the increase and you come in afterwards. So, err, that was certainly one of the high points that we were able to not only resist the company, but resist the union and the shop-floor as well, trying to impose the company’s position through them on us. It was very significant that. But again the, we had our successes. There were other times as well. In between ’86 when Terry left, and ’96 when the company did, not fold up completely, but was taken over by Siemans and was substantially reduced even after a long period of decline. So in the period when I was secretary, I say, it was against this background of redundancies. But we had our moments. But even in the redundancies, the first one after I became secretary, what we did was, once the, err, the redundancy, and we always tried, we always argued for redeployment, and err, short-time working – anything to avoid redundancies. Because that was what our members wanted. Job security was tremendously important to them. But when, as I say, the first time after Terry went, the first redundancy after that, we got, we kept the overtime ban on, inevitably in a redundancy situation we always put an overtime ban on. Complete overtime ban. By this time we’d lost a large amount of our control over overtime, it wasn’t controlled, but we did get we could see what was being worked and put representations if we thought it was too much. It shifted in the meantime But there wasn’t even then, a massive amount of overtime being worked on our side.
But we joined up with ASTMS on the shop-floor, the Unions were amalgamated at a national level. We joined up, and that’s maybe another story. But on this occasion it was still very much looking after our own side. We kept the overtime ban on, and the company as usual had over done it, and they wanted some work. Some extra work done. And we kept the overtime ban on, dug our heels in, and they were coming along every day and suggesting minor concessions about things, and we said, well, people have to get their jobs back. If you want overtime working in the drawing office, which was the main area affected you know, that’s where the forced redundancies were, they’ll have to get their jobs back. And we actually did that. And that was another high point when they did come back, we got them all back at the same time, there was about a dozen of them. And the drawing office was a very big office, drawing boards off the main aisle in little aisles, you know. And they came in, and people were applauding! Coming forward shaking their hands. It was such a tremendous feeling getting people back then. Every redundancy after that, we held off, I mean you can defend one trench after another, but the final one is forced redundancies, we never had any forced redundancies after that. We kept the overtime ban. The process actually repeated itself. But then later on, they said, we know you want people back, and we’ll bring them back on these conditions. And there was one, you cannot help the anecdotal stuff as well, ‘cos one of them, they said, we’ll bring everybody back. Ok. But one guy we won’t bring back because he’s hopeless. He’s the worst draughtsmen in the world. He’s so bad. He’s useless, we won’t bring him back. So we said, well, you’ve never complained about him to us, you’ve never said he’s needed retraining or he was paid beyond his grade. You’ve never discussed this with us. He comes back. And we had a long argument about it. And in the end they said, ahhhhh, he comes back, ok. All that stuff. He comes back, fine. And there was another little anecdote as well. One of the guys we got back, Albert his name was. Bristly guy, short, strongly built. Little moustache. Military background, and actually I think quite proud of it. And we got him back and he wasn’t a great member. He paid his subs and he paid his levies when we had levies on, and he accepted general decision meetings, but he wasn’t an enthusiastic member. But he came up, halfway through the first week, he says, Bob, I hope you don’t take this the wrong ways (sic) he says, but I’ve had a think about things. I live in Sunderland and I drive in every morning. And while I was off the payroll he says, actually, you know, I didn’t realise at the time, but I was actually quite glad, you know. He says, so, I want to quit now, thanks very much for what you’ve done. And I hope you won’t be upset at the idea that I don’t want to come back any more. *Laughs*. So I said, Albert, it’s your choice, obviously. And I said, we’ll go and tell the personnel people, get it sorted. And that was it, you know. It just shows it was that period of redundancy, even amongst the redundant people there was still from our part, there were instance before Terry left, when we had levies on to fend people, to support people that’d been made redundant, even at that stage. There wasn’t any sense in which we said, oh, we’ve got no responsibility any longer.
DH – Still trying to maintain some level of control over what was going on.
BM – Absolutely, absolutely. And, this was the case right up to the very end. We ran out of work completely, and really I think the company was being deliberately run down to a degree as well. Lack of orders. There was a global kind of situation, it was a global industry. Parsons made turbines for everybody in the world, massive overseas work. Massive reputation for its work as well. Globally, the whole thing came apart in the mid ‘90s. Siemans, Rolls Royce, we were part of Rolls Royce then. Rolls Royce decided to sell us, I think even then our position was, and this was the joint union position, we would accept the sale, but we wouldn’t cooperate with the closure of the company. And that came from us. And it was accepted in the works negotiating committee. I don’t know in practice how it would have worked. And in the end of the day, the sale went through to Siemans, the company was cut back a lot further even then, to about half the size it was. It was about 3500. It came down to 1500 I think. And I was in an area where, which they didn’t want to hold onto. And I was made redundant then. Although I was still going to take them to a tribunal even then. I set everything in motion, although the Union wasn’t very helpful, as it happened, I think for political reasons particularly. But, err, even so it was going to go ahead, but I did manage to get another job. And it made the question of compensation a bit academic. Because of the redundancy. So I was out nearly a year, and then I got another job, at the age of fifty-seven I think it was. Which was a bit of a surprise. I was very pleased about that. So there was life after Parsons, but it was something quite spectacular at the time, and it was an experience that I’d never want to disown, it was a massive experience. It was tremendous, the people I knew. The people I worked with in the Union, the things we did, the good times. The bad times. It was so brilliant. Very fundamentally part of my life.
DH – That sounds fascinating, thank you. I think that’s a perfect place to finish. You’ve wrapped it up very nicely. I’ll just turn this off.
*Interview recording ends at 01:28:45*