A foot soldier in the movement

Jon Rogers explains why he wrote his memoirs covering three decades of trade union activism

Forty years ago, when I was a history student, I was interested in oral history and the recollections of ordinary working class people about their lives. I found this to be a compelling primary source of information about the history of our class and our movement.

Four decades on, I find myself retired having spent a working lifetime as a union representative and confronting the fact that advanced prostate cancer is spreading in my body and shortening the time in which I can enjoy my local government pension.

Before my cancer spread, I had the best of intentions to return to academic study and try to draw some lessons from the years of experience at the front line of our movement which I had accumulated. However, I soon realised that I needed to record my own experiences, if only for myself, in order to get that out of the way before I could get onto more serious work.

Once I realised I didn’t have the time for that more serious work, and would have to leave it to other comrades, I found myself having written something that – 40 years before – the student me might have been interested in as a little piece of history.

I’ve not been a great leader, nor have I participated in any world-shattering struggles. Like most of us, who are involved in socialist politics and trade unionism, I have been a foot soldier of our movement and our struggle.

I have spent three decades as a trade union representative, a quarter of a century as a Branch Secretary, 20 years on the UNISON Greater London Regional Committee, 17 years as Secretary of the Joint Trade Unions for Lambeth Council and 14 years on the UNISON National Executive Council.

Throughout all these years and more I have been a socialist, holding on, more or less tenaciously, to my Labour Party membership. I am part of the cohort of activists radicalised in the 1980s who have lived our lives and participated in struggle in the shadow of the defeat of the miners’ strike and the destruction of the global alternative to capitalism. I am one among very many who could tell similar tales, having fought similar battles.

What then, made me think, that having written some memoirs they were worth publishing? Why did I think that anyone at all would want to share the memories which I have recorded?

Well, part of the reason is that I was the branch secretary of Lambeth UNISON, and Lambeth Council has always been quite an interesting place to work. We were promoting equality in the 1980s long before it was fashionable. We had financial crises unparalleled in local government in the 1990s. Lambeth workers have a sense of ourselves as being somehow special, in a way which is probably quite irritating to others.

Another part of the reason for my self-indulgence in publishing my memoirs is that, as a lay rank-and-file trade union activist, I spent quite a lot of time in conflict with the trade union bureaucracy. I was around the fight against witch-hunting of socialist activists from the inception of UNISON, and more than once was on the receiving end of such treatment myself, culminating in a successful response to the egregious misbehaviour of UNISON officialdom in a particular case.

Mostly though, I have published my memoirs because it has amused me to do so, just as I enjoyed the trade union activity which is related therein. There is no better work than rank-and-file trade union activism, representing workers against employers and defending activists against officials. It was a tremendous privilege to spend my working life as a trade union activist and I hope that, in sharing a few recollections from that time, I might encourage other comrades to follow this example so that we can leave a record of our time from which others may be able to draw lessons for the future.

I’m quite clear that, in spite of my very healthy self-regard, there is nothing particularly special about the story I have to tell about my life in the movement. I believe that the struggles of ordinary people are important and that we ought to try to leave a record of the struggles for future generations, just as those who came before us left their stories for us to learn from.

I don’t suppose that my memoirs, which are very much a niche interest within a niche interest, will appeal to more than a tiny minority. I hope however, that for some of that tiny minority at least they will find something in what I have written that is of value, whether that is for amusement, information or – who knows? – education. I may even annoy or upset some readers. I can but hope.

An Obscure Footnote in Trade Union History: Memoirs of a Trade Union Bully Boy, by Jonathan Rogers is available here.

Jon Rogers was active in UNISON for three decades and served 14 years on its National Executive Council. He blogs here

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