United we stand

After 42 years with one company John Rhodes deserves more than a gold clock. Two long service milestones have been passed but the Chairman of the Works Committee never planned to retire early. A Crewe man to the core, his working life with Rolls-Royce and, more recently, Bentley Motors has seen him negotiating on behalf of thousands of colleagues…

a John Rhodes 6x6, September 09 s“As kids we hardly ever left our street. There was the school, corner shops, pubs, a couple of chippies and our house. They knocked it all down in the early 1970s, and a few years later they built an ASDA store. I was born in the front room of number 63 Beech Street, roughly where the small car park is now. My father was a mainline steam train driver, and other family members were signalmen or fitters in ‘The Works’. So the natural choice was to follow them. Instead, I picked Royce’s because my brother-in-law, Roy, worked there. It was considered to be the best place in town, so I put family links aside and in September 1967 I started a craft apprentice.”

b crewe street s

During those early years the preferred mode of transport amongst workers was the bike. This spurned an associated phenomenon unique to towns with large factories. “I’ve always cycled to work. There’s been no excuse to drive, as I’ve never lived more than two miles away. It was an amazing sight in the morning as we peddled along West Street towards the factory. Men rode five abreast, chatting as they cycled. It was bedlam. There weren’t many cars in those days, but when shifts knocked off the motorists knew that it was easier to keep out of the way!”

c young ladOnce inside the factory, life soon changed for the new starters. “I did well in the training school and chose machine tool fitting, which was maintenance of the factory machines. Moving to the shop floor, the real factory if you like, was an eye opener. My foreman was Reg Hough and the shop steward was Ken Twiss, both tough and experienced men. The first thing Ken asked me was if I was in a union. Before I could reply he handed me a form and told me to fill it in. You had a choice, but everyone knew that you had to join. So I chose the Amalgamated Engineering Union, that looked after craftsmen.”

Although new to Rolls-Royce, the young fitter already had an understanding of unions. “The biggest fear for any family man is losing his job, so I always appreciated what unions did for the workers. My father was in the National Union of Railwaymen and he always talked about men standing together. The union was how you found out about things, like working conditions, pay deals etc. These days they have human resources. Years ago the unions transmitted the information that was passed around the workforce. So things were very different and the role of the unions wasn’t the same as it is today.”

The importance of membership became apparent to John in the early 1970s. “The first drama occurred when I finished my apprenticeship. Within a few months of being made permanent, having served my time, I was laid off. The company was struggling and looking to cut costs. Sadly, for our section, the maintenance teams were easy pickings. It was a real wake-up call for me. Work wasn’t guaranteed! Luckily, we were guided through it every step of the way and supported by the union. That’s probably when I knew that I wanted to be part of the fight.”

The natural progression for John was formal union involvement. “As I became more confident I started to speak out more and have an opinion at meetings. I became a safety rep in the mid-70s and that was a responsible position, feeding back to the shop steward. But you couldn’t just walk into a full steward’s job, as there was always a pecking order amongst union men. You had to wait for them to step down or retire. Most of the senior men were strong characters, bullies even. This was reflective of the company’s management. I bided my time until the right opportunity arose, and it was my colleagues who convinced me to step forward. They told me that I was the best man, and I think that I gained enough respect before I took the job.”

The early 1980s were dominated by Margaret Thatcher’s determination to break Britain’s unions. These changes soon filtered down to the Crewe factory. “Communication with the unions changed as the Conservative government tried to break the power of the unions. As laws changed the company seemed to take advantage. They seemed to target certain people for redundancy and tried to move them out. Very often they were union men, so as these senior figures disappeared the existing stewards took more members under their wings. When I started there were probably over 100 stewards across the shop floor. I’d look after about 25 men in the machine tool area. By the late 80s I was looking after about 100 men!”

Perhaps the biggest flashpoint at Royce’s came just before the much-publicised miners strike of 1984. The industrial action brought the Pym’s Lane factory to a standstill. “These days you can’t take employees off site and just walk out. Legislation is in place to stop that. It was different in the 80s. In October 1983 we walked out for five weeks over pay. The stewards took a decision. There was no ballot. There was a lot of bad feeling bubbling away and it didn’t take much to bring it to a head, a catalyst that united the factory floor. Most thought that the action would be over quickly, that we didn’t have the resolve to tough it out. Crewe people were considered to be steady Eddie workers, a passive workforce. But I’ve always said that when Crewe people get riled they do something about it. So we picketed the gates each morning. During the strike we had a show of hands each day to see if the workers wanted to continue. They did, although none of us were getting paid. It was a struggle but we all knew that we had to stick together.”

Bentley, final 2 line, March 08

The dispute also had side effects. “The whole of the shop floor joined the action, about 3000 people in all. We had eight people on the official picket line, asking office staff to join and support us. Very few of them stood by us and that’s never been forgotten. When you look at Bentley Motors today you’ll hear associates talking about the two factories. Much of that goes back to that strike in 1983. We call it the Rolls-Royce snobbery. When you spoke to the ordinary workers they’d tell you that they hated the ‘them and us’ feeling, the separate canteens and different lunch hours. The strike was resolved when the management agreed to more pay, and better terms and conditions. We all lost money though, but we showed them that we meant business and that we couldn’t be pushed about. The divide, however, was never bridged.”

These days John has a much different approach to recruiting new members, certainly far removed from the strong arm tactics employed by his early leaders. “Generations today believe that they are well educated and articulate and that they don’t need unions – until they have a problem, of course! I’m okay with that, if they don’t want to join that’s fine. I certainly wouldn’t force anyone. But I say it how it is. So I’d tell the people who don’t think that unions are needed to sort themselves out when they have a problem. You can’t have it both ways.”

***

John’s story first appeared in printed format back in 2009. Sign up HERE for monthly newsletters about forthcoming Crewe and Cheshire book projects, especially Crewe And Its People (volume II) scheduled for late 2016.

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