Charlie looks back at his youthful experiences as a militant hippy factory worker and shop steward in 1970s & 80s northern England. Part 2 deals with his involvement in the long-running Silentnight bedding factory strike; the dispute began in late July 1985 - a few months after the ending of the 1984-85 Miners Strike - and by the time it finally ended in April 1987 it had become the UK's "longest-running continuous strike in trade union history". The Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher, visited Silentnight owner Tom Clarke to show support and dubbed him "Mr Wonderful".
The author; "My name is Charlie Gee, I am 55 years old and I live in the Yorkshire Dales. I suppose if I had to describe myself I would say I am an unreformed ageing hippy..."
Charlie Gee's site: MSing Around - http://lotties.brainiac.com/ceegee/aboutme.htm
By 1971 I had moved to Colne, a town on the Lancashire Yorkshire border. At the time lots of people were moving away from Colne and going to the city for some reason, thus leaving lots of affordable housing behind. In Manchester, I had been paying 9 pounds a week for a room and since moving was now paying 6 pounds a week for a furnished house and the countryside was just two minutes' walk from my front door. Not only that I doubled the wage I was getting in Manchester. Such a nice bunch of neighbours as well, I reckoned that I had made a pretty astute move.
Before making the move I had been coming to stay with friends in the area at weekends quite often. When I compared the life in Colne to the one I had in Manchester it seemed like a really nice space to be.
A friend and I, Danny, moved up together and got jobs at Silentnight a bedding manufacturer based at Barnoldswick which was 6 mi. down the road. My level of fitness wasn't particularly great as when I lived in Manchester I hadn't done any exercise. In fact I had been living quite a slob like life style! Danny on the other hand was a lot fitter and bigger than I was. He was about six foot 4 in. tall with the legs up to his armpits! I can remember vividly trying to keep up with him as we walked along together and usually I would have to break into a trot.
The job was two shifts, 6-2, earlies and 2-10, lates. Danny was given a job on 'the belt' a conveyor belt which had bed after bed travelling along it. You had to pick each beds up on your own and put them into piles of the same pattern, colour and size. This could go on for eight hours with no let up, and was absolutely soul-destroying. Danny lasted a day! I myself was given a relatively cushy number, Mail Order Loading. It still crippled me. I started on late shift and recall having to get drunk, in the Railway Inn, so I'd have the courage to go into work on the second day because I was in such pain from the exertions of the first. Slowly but surely my body began to adjust and I found as far as jobs went I actually quite enjoyed it.
It was like an alternative life to me because the people with whom I worked were so unlike anybody I would come across in my usual life. They were a rougher and more violent crew than I was used to and they sometimes came into work on the Monday morning with the scars from fighting over the weekend but they seemed to like me even with my long hair, because they respected I could do the job and on top of that I made them laugh.
They were fascinated when they found that I was a vegetarian, a rarity in those days. "What do you eat?" It was a good question because trying to find vegetarian food was difficult. Today with wall-to-wall vegetarian sections in the supermarket things are relatively easy.
I only worked during the winter. I would work lots of overtime and save what I could so I had a bit of money for the following summer. Silentnight employed students during the summer months and having me working the winter slotted in quite nicely.
This arrangement continued with no problems until 1974. Up till then I had gone away every summer and Silentnight had always taken me on again for the winter. In 1974 I was going on the big one once again, to India with Kathmandu as my eventual destination. It was the third time I had been on the big one, if nothing else I was a trier. Evidently I didn't try hard enough because I never got there but I was always told it's the travelling not the getting there!
Little did I know my carefree sort of life was coming to an end. Earlier that year I had met Monica and she had three wonderful children. I had always told her that I was going away to India later in the year whatever happened. She said that I must go because if I didn't go I would always hold it against her and wonder how things might have been. The day I eventually did leave it was very traumatic with the younger two crying. I didn't feel so good either.
My travelling companion was Jake. He was the perfect companion for me because he was very practical which I wasn't and I enjoyed his sense of humour. We had travelled together quite often and it was now the norm for us to go away together and so one morning we left England hitchhiking. We would always travel the cheapest way so we headed for Dover. We made the obligatory visit to Amsterdam of course. The Amsterdam of that time was pretty good! By 1974 after about six trips to Amsterdam I knew pretty well where to go. We slept in Vondel Park. You weren't allowed to put up tents, not that I would have done. I was very much into travelling light. An extra jumper, a pair of socks, and spare pair of jeans all wrapped up in a sleeping bag. When it did rain everybody would drift towards a bridge on the Park, under which they sheltered.
The morning would begin at about eight o'clock when we would make our way to the Heineken Beer Factory. There were two tours of the factory, one at nine o'clock and another at 10 o'clock. At the end of each tour we were sat at a table seating eight and then allowed 30 minutes to drink as much as we could. We figured out the best thing to do was talk to people as we went around on the tour finding out who were the teetotallers and sit down at the table with them. That way when the drinks were brought to our table we could drink the beer they didn't want. We knew the guides pretty well and as we were on the tour they would slip in lines like, "Of course our regulars will know this already."
When it came to leaving the city it was very difficult getting out. By 1974 Amsterdam was proving to be a popular place and the number of hitchhikers heading south out of the city was ridiculous. We would go to the road and there were always lots of others trying to get lifts. Invariably a large number of them were female. I know if I was a driver who I'd stop for! As it approached 10 o'clock we would start to think, "If we go directly to the Heineken beer factory we could just about catch the later tour." It was like Groundhog Day! Eventually we decided that if we didn't do something drastic we would spend the rest of the summer trying to get out of Amsterdam. We thought it would be best to do the unusual and set off in a northerly direction because nobody else wanted to go that way!
We travelled along the dyke that goes across the North Sea heading for Leeuarden. Pretty amazing really driving on a road across the sea! It was great just to be on a road without lots of other hitchhikers. It didn't matter that we were travelling in completely the wrong direction, at least we were travelling. As soon as we got to a place where we could change directions we did so and after that made good progress.
We got as far as Switzerland where Jake had a girlfriend and spent a couple of weeks in Lucerne. Jake being ever resourceful managed to find some LSD. Maybe taking acid at such a time wasn't to be recommended but I did. I started to pine for the life I had with Monica and the kids. It got me thinking geometrically. At the moment I was at point B and I was going to travel to point C, India. When I had arrived I would spend some time there before going back to point A, England. The only trouble was Monica's life would have moved on in the intervening months. Our lives would be out of synch. If I was going to do anything I would have to do it now.
I told Jake I was going back home. He told me that he thought I was going to say that because of the way I had been behaving for the last few days. So we split up I came back to England and Jake went on to India. At the time I thought I had made the right decision and I did feel better having made it but when I got back things didn't go well. For a start Silentnight wouldn't take me on again apparently they weren't keen on me using them as somewhere to get money together and then buzzing off when the summer arrived again. I told the personnel officer that I had now settled down but she didn't believe me. Can't say I blame her I wouldn't have believed me!
I had to find somewhere else to work instead and four of us hippies started at Asda on the same day. It wasn't good money and all the time I worked there I was looking for somewhere else. I worked as a shelf filler and my speciality was trying to find products that others couldn't. If nobody knew where to find the Lee and Perrin's I would disappear down an alleyway and could always find it. I was the trouble-shooter!
One of the perks of working in the warehouse was you could take home any products that were a day out of date. You could also have whatever you could eat but I soon got fed up with eating Mars bars! This went on for six weeks although it seemed a lot longer then one of our number, Alan, heard about a job across the road at the cardboard factory and we all left en masse.
During the interview for the cardboard factory the personnel man said it was a boring repetitious job with antisocial hours but we pay good money. I will be happy if I can get 12 months out of you, such an honest personnel officer. It turned out lucky for me again because I got a cushy number once more. The other three were given jobs on the corrugator, a state-of-the-art machine the company had recently bought from Sweden for £1 million which at the time seemed a hell of a lot to me. It was really fast and people had to run about to keep up with it.
I myself was put on a machine called the scorer. It was built in 1939 and you had to fire the cardboard through the machine manually. It was archaic but there were certain jobs that couldn't be done using any other machine in the factory, thank goodness. The only problem was I had to work with the nephew of one of the bosses, Stephen. He was a bit simple but all he had to do was gather bundles of cardboard at the back of the machine and put them into piles.
When I had finished a job I would then alter the settings on the machine for the next job. One evening I was changing the settings between jobs when Stephen went around the front of the machine pretending to be the front man. I remember thinking this quite funny that he aspired to being a front man instead of a back man. How wonderful to have such modest aspirations! I had loosened the blades ready to move them for the next job when suddenly the machine started to turn and the blade I had just loosened went flying past my head. Stephen had turned on the machine!
I prided myself on being a vegetarian pacifist but the thought of what might have happened went through my head and it horrified me. The first thing I remember was some of the other workers dragging me off him. I told the foreman that I wasn't going to work with him again and I never did.
Because it was such a boring job with antisocial hours the company prided themselves on their Social Club and they did make great efforts to make the job palatable to its workers. They had a very nice Christmas party with more than token presents for the children. They also had a cricket team, football team and even a table tennis team. You could play table tennis in the Canteen when they weren't eating.
The big Spectacular during the summer was Sports Day. I remember at the time I was trying to impress the children and desperately wanted to win something. I tried the egg and spoon race and the three-legged race but came nowhere. The last race of the day was the hundred meters which was measured out in a straight-line across the field. It seemed a hell of a long way to me a lot longer than 100 m anyway! We lined up and looking around there were quite a few no hopers but there was one person in particular who seemed really fit. It was all very organized and they even had a gun to start us off. The gun went off and I just flew. I'm sure it was a false start but of course we weren't brought back again. I just kept on running as if my life depended on it. The finish seemed a long way away and as I began to close in on it I could hear somebody breathing down my neck. I glanced behind and noticed it was the one I thought would probably win, then continued sprinting didn't look back again. His breathing started to get closer and closer. I thought my heart would burst but I crashed through the tape and suddenly the race was over. I had won. I had won. I had won! It was the blue ribbon event. The children were overjoyed and I felt pretty good as well.
One incident that sticks out to my mind from the cardboard factory days was this. I used to play darts for The Hole in th' Wall pub and one Christmas they organized a darts match between the ladies and the gentlemen. It was organized on the same day as my last day at work before the Christmas holiday and I was on nights. It was eight plays against eight but unfortunately there were only six lady darts players so two of us with long hair agreed to play for the ladies team. We dressed in ladies clothes. I remember not being able to find any ladies shoes big enough so I wore pumps. The fact that we both had beards didn't seem to matter.
Because I was playing for the ladies team I thought instead of pints I would drink ladies drinks so for the first and only time in my life I started on pernod, a big mistake! I have never been able to drink slowly and within an hour I was well and truly sloshed. I did play my match and I presume I got beat but I don't remember. I have vague recollections of Alan arriving in the pub after being on the back shift and bundling me into a car dressed as a woman and driving me to work. When we arrived I was left in the foreman's office. I remember lots of heads peering at me through a big window which overlooked the factory floor and laughing. What they usually did on the last day before Christmas was make you walk the line to see if you were drunk. They didn't even ask me they must have had a suspicion I was a little inebriated. At least Alan did drive me back home again!
Jacqueline, my daughter, arrived on the scene about this time. Monica went into hospital in March 1976. In those days there was no such thing as paternity leave. The one concession they made was when the partner went into hospital you could stop working shifts for a little while and they put you on dayshift. We had decided that she wouldn't be induced no matter what; we wanted everything as natural as possible. At the time if your child was born towards the end of the tax year you got all the money back for the past year. The tax year finished at the end of March. Time went by and we began to worry that the baby wouldn't arrive in time for us to get our tax rebate. Jacqueline was induced on March 30!
Looking back it was about this time that my relationship with Monica started to go wrong. I would go to work and the moment I got home would be busy making dinner for the kids. Doing all the washing up, then snatch an hour in front of the television before getting them ready for bed. I had tried so hard to get everything perfect for when she got home but she didn't see it. She came back from the hospital and started to give me grief as soon as she arrived because the house could do with vacuuming and another thing it was much too cold. I could have cried, I think I did!
With the arrival of Jacqueline I thought I would try for a job in the loading day at Silentnight again because it was only two shifts. As luck would have it the weekend before I went for an interview some of the loading bay workers had gone for drink. There were six of them in a car and it crashed. The only person who wasn't injured was somebody who was asleep in the back. One was very seriously injured, a broken neck. He never worked again. The loading bay staff had been decimated the management were glad to have me back because finding somebody who could do the job was pretty difficult.
With the added pressure at home I began to look on work as an alternative life for me. I started to have meaningless overtime contests with the people. One week I did five double shifts but the other person who I was having a contest with did five double shifts and Saturday morning. I used to hand all my money over to Monica when I got my wages. I don't know why this happened. Maybe it was because my father used to keep his wages and give my mother a pittance to get the shopping in. He would spend most nights in the pub buying drinks for people and basically being popular! I didn't want to be like him. At the time in the late 1970s it was a Labour government and tax was at a ridiculous rate. I know that sometimes I would earn more than 300 pounds a week but come out with less than 200 pounds. I never saved any money and don't really know where it all went.
EARLY RUMBLES AT SILENTNIGHT
I thought to myself I need more money but because I was working in a big company if I was going to get more money everybody else would have to get more. Slowly but surely even though I had long hair and was a hippie I was looked on as a spokesman for the workers because at least I could form sentences with words of more than one syllable and I was trusted. It was also about this time that the company started to get cute. They got a team of time and motion people in and they changed the bonus scheme from being easy to understand (the more you did the more money you got) to a more insidious scheme where it became counterproductive to do lots of work because that meant in future what ever you did would be gauged differently. We didn't have a union but we had in the loading bay a camaraderie which was second to none and this helped when the management tried to play fast ones on us.
As I mentioned earlier without seeking it I was beginning to become a spokesman for the workers. The first time I thought it was getting serious was when the management decided unilaterally to change our bonus scheme. We were not amused! We went on an overtime ban. We didn't say were on an overtime ban, we just didn't do any overtime. There were several excuses; "The wife wants me to go to Asda," "I have to do the decorating," that sort of thing.
I was considered one of the ringleaders and was summoned into work from home to speak with one of the directors, Mr. Short. I remember walking up the stairs that led to his office and giving a little knock on the door. I was asked to come in. He was sat at his desk and across from him were two seats. One was a really comfy seat almost throne like and the other was very basic and simple. I had a decision to make and chose the simple one. Whether I chose right, I don't know but having sat down Short asked me why I had chosen that particular seat and I told him, lying, I hadn't noticed there was any difference.
We talked for quite a long time and he tried to get me to say there was an overtime ban, which I wouldn't do. I even offered to do a little seeing as though I was in work already! I went down to meet the lads and let them know what was happening. I hadn't been down long when Short came to give everybody a pep talk. He was good, very good. He littered his talk liberally with swear words and judging by the talk I had with the workers afterwards he had managed to strike a chord with them. "He's just like one of the lads with his swearing." He came down to talk to the late shift also and he must have forgotten that I had been there in the morning because all his swear words were in exactly the same places! I wasted no time in telling everybody about this so they could see how false he was.
By the next week things were getting serious for management and I was summoned to the office again. I asked Short if I could have a word with the lads altogether and he agreed. We met on the car park which could be seen quite clearly from Short's office. I thought I would have a bit of fun. I began my talk to everybody by saying, "I'm not going to say anything about work or bonuses! We will talk for a little while on what was on the television last night or on football, nothing to do with beds." When we had been speaking a little while I said, "I'll now count to three and on three I want everybody to lift their arms up with no hesitation." I counted to three and all the hands went up. I explained how impressive it would look from Short's office. We then talked about football again for a little while and then I counted three and all the hands went up again. I did this about six times with the same result and then I went back to management. They must have been looking at this show of togetherness because I sensed they were a little worried. I told them I have never seen the lads so angry and so united. The company withdrew the new bonus scheme. It was little victories like this that made me feel good. Not so long afterwards I was offered a foreman's job but refused. I told them that it didn't pay much more than what I was getting already. I was then offered the carrot, "You have to get one stripe before you can get two," but they weren't going to get rid of me that easy! I didn't want to be guided along that cul-de-sac. At the time I really felt like it was us and them. I didn't want to cross the line and become one of them. They didn't seem to have as much fun as our crew.
I became the 'LOADING BAY REPRESENTATIVE'. That's what it said on my badge anyway. Things were all right while the Callaghan Government was in power but once Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister things began to change. Legislation concerning Employment Laws all changed and it was like trying to fight with your hands tied behind your back. The employer started to bring in schemes designed to make you work more for less pay. It wasn't much fun being a Workers Representative in the early 1980s. The rules of the game were changing.
One of the first things Margaret Thatcher did on becoming Head of the country was to visit Tom Clark who was the founder of Silent night. He was that a self-made man and had started up in business fixing mattresses with his demob money in the 1940s. During the visit she called him 'Mr. Wonderful' because of all the jobs he had brought to the area and the tabloids took it up. If I remember correctly, I think it was The Sun who ran the Mr. Wonderful headline. I know at the time I and most of my friends at work were a little annoyed with her gushing praise.
I honestly believe that Clark thought of himself as a benevolent man who treated his workers fairly and to be fair up until the 1970s he probably had done. It was in the 1970s that a new breed of management took over and instead of everybody doing well together they were more interested in how much profit they could milk out of the business. I think he was genuinely surprised when things started to go wrong.
Tom Clark had always said that he would never allow 'the union' into the factory so it was a relative surprise when the HGV drivers managed to sneak into the Transport and General Workers Union in the early 1980s. Not long afterwards management tried to be the first in the country to bring in the Tachograph. The drivers weren't very keen on the idea and went on strike. The management then brought in Owner Drivers to try to break the strike. In the loading bay we had a discussion and decided not to load the Owner Drivers. When this happened management told the people in the loading bay you might as well be on strike as well then and we joined the drivers on the picket line without any union backing. It was a bit of the foolhardy thing to do but we had learned to stick together if we were going to stand any sort of chance against management.
After two weeks the factory had stopped working because the beds were being made and just piling up in the loading bay. On Friday night it looked as though we had to win when miraculously a trade union official arrived with the intention of negotiating a settlement. I was on the picket line at that moment and went into the negotiations as the representative of the loading bay staff.
The union official told everybody on strike that they had done really well in bringing the management to its knees then proceeded to negotiate our position away! There were about five people on the strikers side of the Table and I appeared to be the only one arguing that we should do nothing apart from staying on strike and see what happens. The union organizer thought we should make a deal while the management were in trouble.
During the negotiations the head shop steward with the drivers, Tony Bailey came blundering into the room very drunk, obviously straight from the pub asking what we were doing and saying we were stupid talking to the management. He was quite emotional and blundered off again not long afterwards. The union official negotiated an end to the dispute which meant basically the Tachograph wouldn't be brought in immediately but would be put on hold for a few months. For our foolhardiness the loading bay staff would receive union recognition at sometime in the future and we all went back to work again on Monday.
After what had happened I never really trusted union officials again. How had he suddenly materialized when the management were in real trouble? He must have been talking to them at sometime during the Friday to suddenly arrive. I was told that we could join a union but it had to be FTAT, the furniture, timber and allied trades because that was the union for the bedding trade. At the time I was a little put out but in retrospect I don't think it would've made any difference if we had joined the T&G.
The factory and the loading bay all joined FTAT. The district organizer for the Union was called David Marshall. He was big, fat and self-assured. You might guess from this description that I didn't like him that much and you would be right! Now we had joined the union we had to pick shop stewards. I was one of four from the loading bay. I think that there where about 20 shop stewards in the factory one of which was Joe Subanski. He was quite a militant sort of chap whose favourite phrase was, "Management don't take you seriously unless you get to the end of the street," meaning unless you go on strike. Joe was the person David Marshall wanted as convenor.
We were a Democratic bunch and had a vote to decide who was going to be the convenor. They voted and they picked me! Why had they done this? In the years preceding us joining the union the people in the loading bay had had several skirmishes with management and had usually come out on top. This was well-known and in the factory and the loading bay workforce had taken on a mythical status. It got to the stage where when we came to the canteen at dinnertime they would actually give us a cheer! They also liked and trusted me. David Marshall wasn't best pleased that his man hadn't become convenor but Joe was made deputy convenor. So he was in control on the other shift.
In 1984 the Miners Strike happened and things after that would never be the same. I can remember when ever I went to the city giving money and food to people collecting because by this time I was fully committed. I always had a soft spot for the underdog and with employment law changing so rapidly in favour of the bosses we were definitely the underdogs.
The Miners Strike ended in March 1985. The miners had lost because Margaret Thatcher had made sure that they couldn't win! It was a sad day when they went back to work defeated. I was a little confused at the time because I wanted them to win but couldn't understand why anybody wanted to work in a dusty dark hole in the ground. Most of the mines would now close in the next few years.
As the miners went back things at Silentnight were beginning to hot up. We received our annual wage increase. I can't remember how much the wage rise was but I think it was something like 5%. We were mostly shift workers on various bonus schemes so most of us were on more than the minimum wage for the industry. The way they worked it was all those on more than the minimum wage didn't get a rise. We had a half hour break in the middle of an eight-hour shift so most of us only received the wage rise for two and a half hours per week! It was the first wage increase since we had joined the Union. It was as if management was saying, "All right you've joined the Union but now you aren't getting a rise, what are you going to do about it?"
What we did was all go on one of our unofficial overtime bans. It was very effective in the loading bay and soon sure enough I was summoned into the directors' office. Of course, I denied that there was any overtime ban going on. We just didn't fancy doing any overtime. When they pressed me I told them the reason they don't want to do overtime is because they don't think it is worth it with the wages being as they are. If the wage rise was paid for every hour they spend at work I think they would probably work over.
The people on the factory were also on a go slow, and they were going very slow! I was on early shift and at two o'clock I went home with the factory in chaos thinking that it wouldn't be long before management gave us what we wanted, a fair wage rise.
About four o'clock that afternoon I got a phone call from Peter Clegg, a shop steward on the other shift who I was friendly with. He told me that all the work force were at the end of the street so I made my way to the factory then I was told what had happened. Apparently certain machines in the factory were going so slow that they may as well have been stopped. Management had told the workers to speed up or go and Joe Subanski had finally got his wish and everybody trooped out.
I was in an impossible situation. I couldn't troop all the workers back into work again. When David Marshall came I got the impression he was pleased now the battle lines had been drawn. I wasn't pleased because I thought that as long as we were in the factory we were in control. Now we were out on the street!
Most of the workforce came out on strike but a few didn't. The loading bay were 100% behind the action. We had learned over the years to stick together. It was a bit of a shock when we received our first strike pay, 20 pounds a week. I know I was one of the people who were handing strike pay out. One of the loading bay staff came to see me and said that he couldn't possibly survive on 20 pounds a week. "I have a mortgage to pay and I am already behind in paying it." I thought it was very important that the loading bay remained 100%. Some of the strikers had found other jobs so I was left with a few extra 20 pounds. I asked him how much money he needed. "Would a couple hundred pounds be enough?" He said yes so I gave it to him. It was a mistake because a couple of days later he went into work anyway. Not only that he told management that I had given him 200 pounds to keep on strike. One of management was in the local newspaper telling about this but of course I denied it ever happened. "Do you honestly believe we could afford that sort of money?"
When we had been on strike for six weeks we were given an ultimatum. "You can either come back to work or you will be sacked." We had a meeting with everybody the night before the deadline. David Marshall gave a wonderfully stirring speech about how this was the last throw of the dice from management, they are really desperate. The next day a few more went back. I don't recall seeing Joe Subanski again after that night so I presume he must have got a job elsewhere!
I have never driven so I would hitch to the picket line every morning. Because I was a hitchhiker of long-standing when I saw two long-haired people with sleeping bags on their backs by the side of the road, I asked the driver to stop. I talked with the hitchhikers enthusiastically until I discovered they were on their way to Silentnight to get a job! Apparently Silentnight had put advertisements in lots of newspapers to try to recruit staff to fill the factory. I explained the situation to them and I don't think they went inside for a job but there were plenty who did though.
Picketing was a joke we couldn't get anybody to stop going in. Sometimes we delayed the wagon because most wagon drivers didn't want to cross the picket line but after they had phoned their company and been threatened with the sack themselves, if they didn't go in they went through. I wasn't a very threatening picket. I couldn't keep my face straight when shouting as they came into work. I would dream up funny things to shout at them. "Exterminate. Exterminate" sounding like a Darlek or I would drone, "It won't be long now, it won't be long now." In the months that followed I became really good at a card game called, Damn it, a game which we played incessantly.
There were two Silentnight factories, one at Barnoldswick and one at Sutton near Keighley. We had two big rallies at Barnoldswick. At both Dennis Skinner was the star attraction and he was great. We also had a rally in Keighley and the star attraction was Derek Hatton. I didn't particularly like him. He arrived at the March in 1000 pound coat and when he spoke at the end of the march he hardly mentioned the strike but was more interested in talking about Liverpool Council!
We became friendly with striking miners and they taught us the best ways to survive. We learned ways of making money to help subsidize our strike pay which was so little it might as well not be there. We managed to get to the Labour Party conference and the TUC conference that year. I remember Robert Maxwell was at the Labour Party conference that year lauding it in the Norfolk Gardens Hotel. It must have been about this time he was siphoning off all the money from the Pensions Fund.
We sold lots of merchandise on a stall. Silentnight strike T-shirts were a big seller. We were as bad as the Manchester United merchandising people because we had them in several colours. "Have you got a blue one yet sir, it only came out last week?" We also sold badges and key rings.
After we had been on strike for about three months we went to a meeting with A.C.A.S. at Leeds. The management of Silentnight were there but we didn't see each other. The people from A.C.A.S. just kept on shuffling between one room and another trying to find some common ground but there was no chance of that. I got the impression that management were determined to carry on no matter what the cost.
I felt there was a chance of getting at least some compensation because of some previous case law. About three years before there was a strike and lots of people were sacked. What had happened was that this particular management had taken on some people who had been stacked and because of this all the other people on strike had to be taken back or given compensation. Unfortunately this piece of legislation had been repealed by the Thatcher Government. After this meeting I knew deep down that we had little or no chance of winning but decided to keep going as long as possible just to be awkward and annoying.
Then something truly remarkable happened. One of the guys from the Divan Department, Trevor King, went down to a conference in Bournemouth. He was a confident sort and managed to get to speak on the podium. He came back with 1900 pounds! It was then we realized that if we could get to speak at a conference we could put a naught at the end of any money we were going to get.
This created a bit of a problem for me because I didn't think I could speak in front of lots of people but I was convenor so I was expected to. Over the first winter I started by talking in front of small groups at Union meetings and slowly but surely became more competent at speaking. I had a set speech which lasted roughly two minutes. If I remember right I would start it by saying,
"I am from the Silentnight bedding factory. Last summer the management gave us a pay rise of 5% unfortunately instead of paying it over 40 hours they only paid it on our half-hour meal break each day. We were a little peeved about this, (pause so that people can laugh) so we went on strike. When we had been on strike for six weeks we were all sacked, that was in June. Etc…."
When the conference season started the next year I thought I was ready but could I speak in front of hundreds if not thousands of people? I was about to find out. The first conference I had a chance of speaking in front of was the BIFU (Bankers) conference in Harrogate. I asked if I could speak and they said, "Yes." There were two other strikers there who would stand with buckets at the back of the hall and they knew that I was going to speak so it was impossible to chicken out quietly! When it was my turn I stood up and was terrified! I could feel my knees knocking together but I could also feel everybody in the hall willing me to get through it. I managed to give my two minutes speech and at the end everybody clapped and cheered because they realized how difficult it had been for me. When I got to the back of the podium one of the guys who had been sat behind me as I spoke said, "You got a bit of a judder on then, didn’t you?" referring to my knees shaking. We got a good amount of money to take back to everyone which was nice. It got a little easier after that but I never felt comfortable speaking in front of lots of people. I was always terrified that I would clam up. I know if I am in a crowd and somebody is speaking who is obviously nervous I always try to will them through it.
The most exotic place I went to during the strike was the International Workers Conference in Rotterdam. There were about six British people in our delegation. It was quite a left wing affair. Of the others who went I became friendly with one person in particular. His name was Roy Jones and he was a Shropshire Miner. He was the only Shropshire Miner who stayed on strike to the end. He was very proud of the fact that when the strike was over he marched back into work on his own! We went to see Feyenord play football together which was fun.
It was a strange Conference because there were people there who made me feel quite humble. I was on strike but I didn't feel so badly off or under threat. There were workers from Chile and Pakistan which at the time wasn't a particularly civilized place, who risked death. I don't think I would be so brave if I was in their position. I am a physical coward; well at least I thought I was until I developed MS. It's amazing what you can put up with when you have no choice in the matter.
We thought of another moneymaking scheme in 1986, it was called Sponsor a Striker and I was sponsored by that hotbed of militancy, The News at 10 Branch of the Journalists Union! Later the same year the printers went on strike and we passed on all the information we had acquired for survival on to them. I was now beginning to quite enjoy being on strike. I was going down to meetings organised for us in London at least once a month. There must be certain hotels used by Union people because I remember being in the same hotel as Mick MacGahey, he was usually in the bar, drunk. I was now having a great time in fact it was one of the most exciting times of my life!
We were the old hands now and when we went to conferences we knew most of the people and would say hello to all the various ones who were in dispute. There were only one group of workers who had been in dispute longer than us, the people from GCHQ.
In April 1986 I went to a conference in Blackpool. Thinking back it must have been The Labour Party Spring Conference. There were four of us in the team, Tommy from Liverpool was our driver. For the first and only time I was approached by what I can only describe as a 'political groupie'. She was from London and was ever so fascinated by the fact I had been on strike for the best part of a year. She said nice things to me and generally made me feel like 'A Working Class Hero'. She was attractive and let it be known that she would be interested in spending the night with me. I was sorely tempted because my relationship with Monica hadn't been good for a long time and now I was no longer working I thought she had been treating me very badly. I had never been unfaithful to her or anybody else for that matter but then I thought what am I trying to preserve? I would be away from home for a few days at least once a month and at no time did I think, "I must get back to Monica."
So it was that afternoon I pondered what I should do. I phoned Monica to tell her how things were going and to tell her not to expect me back that evening. There was good reason to stay the night because there were more meetings the next day. I decided not to do anything that would bring about a consummation of my relationship with the girl but on the other hand not do anything to prevent things from happening! We went to a few fringe meetings that afternoon and in the evening watched the final of the Snooker World Championships in a bar. It was between Steve Davis and Joe Johnson. I didn't like Steve Davis so was pleased when Johnson unexpectedly won.
I was still deciding what to do about the female when things were taken out of my hands because Tommy said he had to get home. On the way back I mentioned to Tommy about the female who had been interested in me and that in bringing me home he had prevented me from falling into temptation. As I got out of the car he said joking, "You'll probably find her in bed with a bloke," and we laughed.
I arrived home after midnight and crept up the stairs quietly because I wanted to surprise Monica. I felt rather guilty about the thoughts that had been going through my head that day and was thankful that I hadn't succumbed. The bedroom was dark and when I got into bed on my side I put my hands across I felt a beard! I was absolutely thrown by these events so I got out of bed and went downstairs to try to get my bearings. I had been there for about five minutes when suddenly I thought he is still in bed with her so I stormed upstairs and shouted, Get out! Get out! And then as loud as I could, "Get Out!!!"
I knew who it was. I had often thought that something had been going on between them in the past but when I had asked Monica about it she had made me feel like I was behaving unreasonably even thinking it. Being caught red handed was the only way she would ever admit to it being so. We had a talk the next day and she told me it would never happen again and because I couldn't figure out what else to do I decided to stay. The same thing happened again 18 months later and I finally got my temper up and left but that's another story. It was twenty years ago and when I think about the incident now it's just like remembering a film. I felt bad at the time but realise that it had to happen to give me the incentive to move on.
Towards the end of the summer 1986 I was talking with a musician friend of mine, Janet Cook. We came up with the idea of making a Christmas record for the Silentnight strikers using the Silent night Carol with a few pertinent words about the strike. At the time there were some musicians including Billy Bragg, the Communards and Paul Weller involved with Red Wedge, which was a political grouping that helped to counteract the excesses of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. We talked with all these people and eventually Paul Weller said that he would be willing to provide studio facilities to make a record.
I went down to London with Janet and her brother who was a guitarist. They gave us a session man and a producer to help put it together. We started to make the record on the Friday afternoon hoping to finish it by that evening but we didn't and we finished it off the next morning.
On the Friday evening I went out to get some food for the musicians and when I returned Paul Weller was there with what I presumed was a black female singer. I remember thinking how young he looked. The finished product I think was pretty good. Listen to it and see. It's a shame we didn't think of it for Christmas 1985 it just may have made a difference!
In the autumn of 1986 FTAT decided to ditch us but we didn't care. All they were giving us was 20 pounds a week which was only a fraction of our income so we carried on!
The strike ended very suddenly after nearly two years. I had a bad back so I didn't go to the picket line for about a week and when I did go in it was all over. Apparently they had had a meeting and decided to finish. I suppose it was the only thing to do really. It would have been a bit sad growing old on strike.
I suppose we could have always handed over our places on strike to our children!
Source; MSing Around - http://lotties.brainiac.com/ceegee/aboutme.htm