My dad was a miner and his philosophy in life was that you contributed to the household as soon as you were able. That meant leaving school, getting a job and paying your way.
I remember it was a Thursday when I left school; but by the Monday I had a job at the local lingerie factory. I was just 14 years and 11 months old. Despite my young age, I was quite ‘mouthy’ at work and maybe it was a sign of a budding trade union career to come, because when I voiced my objections once too often about how a manager spoke to me, I was given the sack.
Unlike today, there was more industry in the country and I found work on the motorways, then at a chemical plant, before becoming an apprentice bricklayer under the Youth Opportunities Programme. The big promise was that we’d be sent to college to get qualifications and become skilled workers.
However, my employer just wanted cheap, temporary labour and so the promise of education didn’t materialise. After a job in an ironworks, I had a spell of being unemployed before I started work as a porter in the NHS. I still didn’t have any qualifications.
I was a part of my union and there was one occasion when we were dealing with a particularly difficult issue. At the union meeting it was obvious we needed to elect a UNISON Steward to represent us. Someone suggested I should be the rep because I always had something to say at the meetings!
I promised myself that if I was taking on this role, I would do it properly. I knew the only way to do that was to go on trade union courses and get qualifications – that way I’d be sure I knew what I was talking about when I met with management.
Since I took that decision to become a rep, I haven’t looked back. I’ve done courses with UNISON and the TUC, getting computer skills and completing a diploma in employment law.
I really hadn’t dreamed opportunities like this would be open to me. With the help of UNISON, I finally got qualifications when I was in my fifties.