This month I retire from my job at UNISON Scotland. I have worked for UNISON and its predecessors for almost 38 years, and a lay official for 4 years before that. The memoirs might be a retirement project, but I thought I would share some reflections on what I believe has been a worthwhile career.
The right-wing press, and occasionally those in the movement, like to portray trade unions as dinosaurs, resistant to change, or the 1970’s carthorse. They usually mean resistant to cutting pay and conditions to profit bad employers, which we certainly are! However, it is probably true that, internally at least, trade unions change slowly – but change they have.
I joined NALGO on my induction into local government and as it was a new workplace, the organiser got us to elect a ‘workplace representative’ in NALGO parlance. As a Labour Party CLP Secretary, my colleagues viewed me as the obvious choice, although I am not sure the branch officer viewed matters in that light! The last branch secretary was also the Establishment Officer (HR Director) and I suspect many in the branch still agreed with the views of the first NALGO General Secretary, who in 1910 said, “Anything savouring of trade unionism is nausea to the local government officer and his Association”.
I went on to become Assistant Branch Secretary and an early case involved a woman in the Chief Executive’s Department who was passed over for promotion in favour of a junior and far less experience male colleague. He was a member of the council’s masonic lodge and days later the Staff Side Secretary popped into my office to enquire how I was getting on, ‘Not much in that case Dave?” he asked.
Lunchtime drinking was something I struggled with coming from a sports centre job and reflected a mostly male culture. NALGO’s membership newspaper when I joined, ‘Public Service’, had a regular feature (often on page 3) called ‘The prettiest young recruit’. I kid you not, even for the 1970’s.
So, the modern trade union movement might not be perfect, but it has changed, not least in its more diverse workforce and modern systems. As the teams I manage have poured over KPI’s, the balanced scorecard and Gant charts, it is literally a world apart.
The campaigns we run, the way we organise and bargain have also changed. Sometimes by necessity, but also from invention. We learn from every generation that has joined our ranks.
What makes this job really worthwhile is making a difference to people’s lives, in the same way as most UNISON members in public services do every day they go to work. I was once asked at a school presentation, what was your proudest achievement? My immediate thoughts turned to pay deals, avoiding redundancies, pension schemes, legislation and much besides.
While these are huge and helped thousands of members, it is always the individuals that you remember. I represented a young clerical worker early in my career, who had been sacked. Years later she saw an article I had written in a local government journal and rang up to ask if I was the same Dave Watson who saved her job. I asked her what she was doing now and she was the Assistant Chief Executive of another council. Apparently, at every induction course, she told the story of how her career would have ended at 18 years of age had it not been for a union official finding grounds to give her a second chance. And as she told every new member of staff, ‘That’s why you should join the union’.
I once told that story to a headhunter who was offering me a job as a management consultant. The job involved selling and then implementing their latest management fad, before starting the whole process all over again. It paid almost double my union salary and he couldn’t understand why making a difference mattered that much. He thought I was just negotiating a bigger package. He finished by saying he hadn’t met many people like me. My response was that he should spend more time in our movement, where every day thousands of staff and activists go that extra mile because they know they make a difference to workers lives.
I sometimes joke that I should have been a history professor. But the truth is, while an interesting hobby makes anyone a more rounded person, I doubt I if I could look back with the same sense of achievement.
I have most certainly not always got it right. It is also a job with often long and unsocial hours that has placed a strain on my personal relationships. None the less, our movement is full of great people, doing amazing things and I hope I have played a small part in that story.
My advice to those students starting out in life, is to choose a career where you can make a difference. I have had that privilege – so can you.