‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less travelled by.’ (Robert Frost)
It was in a dark, cigarette smoke-filled pub one night. The trade union reps sat behind a long wooden table, cluttered with half-full beer glasses. We about-to-graduate apprentices sat opposite, waiting to be called forward. (It was in the days of closed shop when qualified trades people could only be employed if they held union membership). At the time, I supported the value of trade unions in principle, yet felt dismayed and disillusioned by the corruption that this source of power had created. I noticed my colleagues often lived in fear of the union rather than represented by it. If you said or did something that challenged or upset union leaders, you risked losing your union card and therefore your job.
One by one, my fellow apprentices stepped up to the table. ‘Raise your right hand. Do you swear to abide by the rules of the trade union?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘OK, go and sit down.' My turn came. ‘Do you swear…?’ ‘No’, I replied. ‘I have no idea what the rules of the trade union are.’ The panel looked bemused. ‘You really want to read the whole rule book before you agree?’ ‘Yes’, I replied. The shop steward thrust a copy into my hands then ejected me forcefully from the meeting. ‘Wait outside until we call you back in.’ I skimmed through the book then, on return, insisted I was exempted from default political party contributions, as was my right according to the rules. They looked intensely frustrated but had to consent.
I don’t think such encounters changed the trade union, but they did change me. Some months later, I was sent on a 2-week residential apprentices' programme that aimed to stimulate personal leadership qualities. I challenged the senior managers there with whom, providentially, I had opportunity to speak. ‘Why invest in this programme when the prevailing management behaviour in the workplace is so autocratic? We need to change culture, not just individuals’. They looked deeply uncomfortable yet I held my ground. (They had, after all, encouraged personal leadership). At the formal dinner of the final evening, they invited me to sit at the top table alongside the most senior leader for that region.
I was learning to navigate my way through power structures and systems and to exercise personal and political agency.
[See also: Pivotal points]
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