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#HeartNUJ: Challenging the Savile Row suits

12 February 2017

Brian Williams is the FoC of the Guardian and Observer chapel-branch and a life member of the NUJ

The table was the longest I had ever seen and there wasn't an empty chair to be had. On our side were union representatives embroiled in a major dispute with one of the country's largest regional newspaper groups – on theirs was a gaggle of senior managers. This was an all-male gathering and the testosterone-fuelled hostility was palpable.

In the NUJ, as with the printers before us, we tip our hat in the direction of our industry’s historic connections with the church by referring to individual workplace groups as "chapels". I was the "father" of one these chapels (aka the FoC) even though I had barely turned 20 and some of the people I represented were old enough to be my grandfather.

We, along with 200 colleagues from various parts of the country, had been locked out for working to rule (which, admittedly, included making up a few rules of our own) and many others were on the point of coming out on strike in support. Some of us hadn't been paid for weeks, while the company was starting to feel the pain of lost revenue. If this meeting couldn't come up with a negotiated settlement, there was no telling how the dispute would end.

I was towards the centre of the table, eyeball to eyeball with an executive from head office. I was there because my chapel had been one of the first to be locked out. But we weren't the first – that honour belonged to our sister paper which had beaten us to the picket line by 24 hours.

Directly to my right was their FoC, an awesome individual by the name of Ron Mitchell. Sitting directly opposite Ron was the company's head industrial relations honcho – a smoothie in a Savile Row suit with a snake's smile and cuff-links to match. He didn't look like a man who was used to climbing down.

The company was trying to keep up the pretence that the dispute was a series of local disagreements, even though the chapels shared the same grievances and were taking joint industrial action. It believed that if it could make an offer that was acceptable to the NUJ members on our sister paper, the rest of us would fall into line and settle as well.

That offer had been discussed at a packed union meeting the night before, and now the hushed ranks gathered in the company boardroom were desperate to know the outcome. Everything hinged on how the vote had gone.

Ron was softly spoken at the best of times, but now his gentle Scottish tone was barely audible and those at the far ends of the table – union and management alike – were having to crane forward to hear what he was saying. It wasn't until later that I realised Ron had done this quite deliberately. He explained, at some considerable length, that his chapel had engaged in a long and thoughtful debate about the issues involved before finally reaching a decision. 

"And would you care to share that decision with us, Mr Mitchell?" asked Savile Row.

Ron couldn’t match him for sartorial elegance – not with scuffed shoes, threadbare trousers and a corduroy jacket complete with leather elbow patches that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a geography teacher. But he didn’t appear intimidated in any way.

In fact, Ron was more than happy to share the decision with the assembled gathering. However, he explained, his chapel was adamant that rather than him giving a summarised version of the meeting's outcome, he was to read the motion in full so that no nuance would go unnoticed. Savile Row had no problem with that and Ron began the slow and painstaking search of each and every one of his pockets until he found the vital piece of paper on which so much hung.

No one around the table dared break the scalp-tingling silence. Only after he had carefully unfolded the document which, it turned out, had been in his inside jacket pocket all along, did Ron speak again – if anything even more sotto voce than before. "In response to your offer, my members want me to tell you this," he said as he adjusted his reading glasses and focused on the paper in front of him. Those at the ends of the table were leaning in so far to hear what was about to be said, they were actually off their chairs.

"Bollocks."

Ron, having delivered his chapel's carefully crafted motion in full, removed his glasses and stared Savile Row in the eye. Our side of the table collapsed in laughter; even some of their lot were smiling, but desperate not to be seen doing so.

"Is that bollocks to part of our offer, or all of it?" Savile Row enquired. As he feared, it was indeed bollocks to all of it, which put an unexpectedly abrupt end to the meeting – although not the dispute itself. (For those of you who are remotely curious about how things turned out back in 1976, I am happy to report we eventually won the war as well as the battle.)

Sadly, for all who knew Ron, he is now availing himself of everlasting beer and sandwiches in the great smoke-filled room in the sky. But before he went he taught me much about being a union negotiator – not least the need for a spot of theatre from time to time. I hope I’ve put those lessons to good use during the past 40 years.

There are many people who, like me, have reason to be grateful to you, Ron. On behalf of us all, I salute you.

Find out more about the TUC's #heartunions, #heartNUJ week of action and join the NUJ today.

Tags: , heartnuj, heartunions, heart unions, newspapers, recruitment