A foot soldier – but hardly a footnote

Mike Phipps reviews An Obscure Footnote in Trade Union History, by Jon Rogers

The title of Jon Rogers’ memoirs is typically self-deprecating and there are more references in his Preface to his “rambling meanderings” appealing only to a small minority. So with my expectations suitable lowered, I ploughed on into Jon’s history of 33 years of working in local government, 25 of them as a trade union Branch Secretary, twenty on UNISON’s Greater London Regional Committee,  fourteen serving on the UNISON National Executive Council and at one stage a candidate for General Secretary of the union.

Jon was already an experienced Labour and peace activist when he turned down the opportunity to do a PhD in Industrial Relations in order to work in local government and became a trade union activist as well.

Highlights from this period include the 1989 pay dispute with Lambeth Council, “the most successful national action of my working life.” The tactic of selective action, undertaken by small groups of strategically located union members who were paid strike pay at full take home pay rate – because they were taking action for the greater good – proved especially effective and influenced the thinking of activists for many years.

As Branch Chair – and later as full time Assistant Branch Secretary and then Branch Secretary – of the local government officers union NALGO, Jon was centrally involved in strike action and occupations against local authority cuts in Lambeth. One occupation of Consumer Advice Centres lasted round the clock for ten weeks and resulted in a more than partial victory that Jon helped negotiate. “Although I had been, and would subsequently be, involved in many much larger and more significant industrial disputes,” writes Jon, “I don’t think I ever experienced the true meaning of solidarity in the same way as I had during that occupation.”

In 1992, Jon’s union called an unofficial strike, against the wishes of the national leadership, in support of a demonstration against pit closures by the National Union of Mineworkers and sent six coachloads of members from Brixton Town Hall. This seems to call up another era in the history of trade unionism – but we should remember it was already seven years after the miners’ defeat and thirteen years into a Tory government, so it underlines, rather, what solid organisation could still achieve.

But as we move into the 21st century, it’s clear that many of the problems Jon faced in his union activity came from New Labour and his own union leadership. From the outset, Jon campaigned for greater democracy and accountability within the new UNISON structures and found himself  repeatedly at loggerheads with its leadership – despite being described by General Secretary Dave Prentis as “one of our best activists”. In 2003, he was elected to the union’s NEC at the first attempt.

 Over the next few years, other critics of the leadership would be less successful, targeted with suspension and expulsions. Jon notes, “For UNISON’s Regional officials it was more important to smash their political opponents than to recruit and retain members of the trade union which employed them.”

In one case, Jon discovered that regional union officials were not prepared to assist in organising in a particular private sector company because of the political affiliation of the union’s shop steward. Later he would discover “that senior Regional Officials had repeatedly – and unsuccessfully – offered to help Lambeth Council ‘get rid of me’.”

Jon was involved in the launch of the Labour Representation Committee at Congress House in 2004, which several hundred people attended, at the height of New Labour, one year after Tony Blair’s criminal invasion of Iraq. As Jon puts it: “If we were to mobilise the sizeable body of socialist opinion within the Party in order to represent the political interests of our class, we needed not only to rebuild the organisation of Party members in the constituencies which had reached its high water mark around Benn’s Deputy Leadership challenge in 1981 but also to establish a relationship between the left in the constituencies, the left in Parliament and the trade unions.” This was the inspiration: achieving this goal, especially in relation to the unions, would prove more difficult.

With the Tories back in government from 2010, Jon was at the centre of huge anti-cuts protests and a strike to defend public service pensions – “the most popular among our members in Lambeth – and the workforce generally – of any in my time.” Jon also found himself at the centre of a witch hunt over “some choice remarks addressed to those who had not supported the strike” that he had made in a late night email – but he held on calmly and survived.

He was in further trouble 18 months later for taking the Lambeth UNISON branch banner to a spontaneous street party in the borough that had broken out to celebrate the death of Margaret Thatcher – and again over raising detailed concerns about misconduct in the 2015 UNISON general secretary election.

Despite his memoir being arranged in page-long easy-to-digest sections, it would be fair to say you would have to a bit of a trade union obsessive to be riveted to everything recorded here. One chapter is actually entitled “Subsections (g),(h) and (i)”.

However, the patient reader who perseveres will find some quite absurd, hilarious anecdotes and sharp observations embedded in this book, narrated with a cheerful and self-effacing detachment, vital to avoiding burn-out when waging the good fight on so many fronts, as Jon clearly does.

He has some wise words in conclusion: “Having spent a working lifetime as a union activist in the shadow of the defeat of the Great Miners Strike domestically and the loss of a global alternative to capitalism internationally I am more familiar with defeat than victory – and the victories I have celebrated have generally been partial and temporary. Of course it’s a mistake to exaggerate our victories – but it is at least as great a mistake to deny them, as that denies our agency as socialist activists and elevates our opponents to an unrealistic omnipotence.”

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.

Mike Phipps’ book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018. His new book Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow: The Labour Party after Jeremy Corbyn (OR Books, 2022) can be ordered here.

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