ASK UNISON, THEY WILL HAVE DIFFERENT MEMORIES.
THIS IS THE MAN WHO GAVE DOCTOR DOG OF MISADVENTURE PALACE ALL HIS IDEAS AND TIPS ON HOW TO PICK UP BLONDE WOMEN
GRAHAM, YOU MAKE BE A SCOUSER, BUT YOUR MEMORY IS SELECTIVE TO SAY THE LEAST.
SEE DAILY POST ARTICLE BELOW
May 1 2007
David Higgerson meets one of the union leaders whose fight against redundancies brought political change to Liverpool
by David Higgerson, Liverpool Daily Post
AS REFERENCES from an employer go, being named in an autobiography as one of two people who effectively triggered the end of a political administration hardly seems a helpful one when pursuing a career in local government.
But it doesn’t appear to have done Graham Burgess much harm. Those who know the affable 54-year-old Liverpudlian as the chief executive of a Lancashire Council raise an eyebrow when they hear what Derek Hatton, deputy leader of the militants in the 1980s, had to say about him in his auto-biography.
“He basically names me, and another man, Peter Cresswell, as a couple of the main reasons why things ended how they did for the militants in Liverpool,” says Graham, a father-of-two who grew up in Norris Green and still lives in the city, now in Allerton.
Graham’s role in the 1980s political circus which consumed Liverpool also surprises those who only know him as the man who helped transform the old mill town of Blackburn with regeneration projects now being copied in America: he was a leading trade unionist.
A case of poacher turned gamekeeper at some point? “No, I don’t think so,” says Graham, who attended Ellergreen High School after passing the 11-plus.
“Ever since I left school I have wanted to do a job which helps give people chances to improve their lives. I trained to be a teacher, actually worked as a social worker, then became heavily involved in the union before returning to social work, and moving to regeneration when I came to Blackburn with Darwen. All the jobs I have had, I hope, have helped people.
“I didn’t go straight into teaching after finishing my training because I wanted to get a bit of life experience away from the classroom.”
And that’s certainly what he got. The union Graham mentions was Nalgo, now part of Unison. And it was as one of the key leaders in Nalgo that he gained his place in Hatton’s memoirs.
In 1984, a broad coalition – including support from the unions – had demanded extra cash from government to help fund the city council. The minister responsible, Patrick Jenkin, agreed after meeting a delegation in London. The Conservative government had hoped the deal would be underplayed by the delegation, led by, among others, Hatton.
“Instead, it was heralded very publicly as a victory for Liverpool,” remembers Graham.
“Patrick Jenkin, when he talked about the triumphant announcements from people like Derek Hatton, talks about them dancing on his political grave. That pretty much meant that, when we asked for more the next year, the government wasn’t going to budge.”
And when that duly happened, the Militants’ solution to creating a legal budget – issuing 90-day redundancy notices to all 30,000 staff – immediately put the political leadership on collision course with unions.
Graham says: “They would say to us, ‘It’s just a piece of paper, of course we’ll re-employ everybody’ but from a union point of view, we couldn’t accept that because there was no guarantee.
“Liverpool at this time was, in many ways, in a desperate state. Hundreds of jobs were being lost at the big employers every week. The council was the employer of last resort, so we couldn’t let that happen.”
SUPPORTERS of the Milit-ants claimed the 90-day redundancy notices were meant to serve as breathing space during which time they would mount a fresh campaign to get the money from government, but they withdrew the redundancy notices idea when an all-out strike among council staff looked likely.
Which is where Graham’s place in Hatton’s version of events was secured: “The Militants wanted an all-out strike to put pressure on the Government to act, but not all the unions were supporting the action, because there was no guarantee of success.
“We were one of the largest unions and when we put it to the vote among our members, they said no, we won’t support the strike action. That meant it couldn’t go ahead in the way they wanted.”
Even the Militant supporters argue in retrospect that the redundancy notices idea was a bad one because it meant they lost the workers – up until that point, their biggest supporters.
And when the strike idea fell by the wayside, the redundancy notices re-appeared.
Graham says: “Our offices for the union were in what is now the Sir Thomas Hotel. I remem-ber being in there one day and people started coming in, looking very upset and waving papers at me. The redundancy notices had been sent out. We had to do something, and we told people to get on the phones and round up as many people as possible, we were going to protest.
“Later that day, about 3,000 people gathered and we marched to the Town Hall, on to Exchange Flags to oppose the redundancies. I remember standing on the statue in the middle of the Flags to address people, to tell them that we wouldn’t let this happen. Quite how it was going to end, we didn’t know, but hindsight means that I know the Government was very close to taking over the council itself to sort things out.”
The national outcry at a Labour council threatening to make 30,000 redundant served to further distance the national Labour leadership from the militants. A resolution was opened up when Maurice Stonefrost was sent in by Labour to find a way through.
“He proved that it was possible to produce a legal budget without laying off the entire workforce, and that led to a resolution, but up until that point, we had no idea how it was going to end,” Graham recalls.
“In many ways, it was a terrifying time. I was threatened on more than one occasion, as were my family, and my friends. But there was nothing else we could do. It wasn’t a situation I ever envisaged being involved when I first become a union rep.”
Graham’s career with the union went on to take him to the very top of the Nalgo tree at a national level, before he returned to social work in Liverpool, again working with young people.
He rose steadily through the social services department at Liverpool to become assistant director, before moving to Blackburn with Darwen as executive director for regeneration, and then being promoted to chief executive of the council last autumn.
Yet he still has incredibly fond memories of being on the frontline of social services, in what most would agree were – and still are for his successors – very hard circumstances.
‘THERE is a real sense of achievement when you work with a young person, who needs social services help, and they come on in leaps and bounds, thanks, in part, to your help,” he says. “It is that sense of achievement that I originally thought I’d get from teaching, but instead came from being a social worker.”
The threats, the harassment and the bitter acrimony of 1985 aren’t what Graham thinks of when asked to mention his lowest moment working in Liverpool. He instead goes back to the typists’ strike, which, for many, has simply been forgotten.
He says: “We’d been through a social services strike in the late 1970s when departments across the UK went out for nearly six months, and in the end we got many concessions which improved the working lives of social workers.
“We were promised similar support for a group of typists who wanted a better deal. They were poorly paid, and we hoped to do something for them. That support from elsewhere never came, and in the end, after several months, they had to go back. They didn’t get much more, certainly not enough to cover what they’d lost. That was a bitter disappointment for me because they didn’t get what they deserved.”
At Blackburn, he is at the helm of an authority which has scooped all the top accolades and badges which can be awarded to authorities by the Government – and Graham is quick to add, a constructive relationship with the unions, including Unison.
That point is illustrated by the fact he was invited to speak at Unison’s last conference, and he adds: “I’m still a member.”
A heart full of Merseypride >>>
A heart full of Merseypride
GRAHAM, left, is very proud of what has been achieved in Blackburn, an area which, like Liverpool, has suffered at the hands of a manufacturing exodus in recent years, but which is regenerating itself.
“There is a lot to be proud of here, but we know we have our work to do in the future, too,” he says. “But I’m also very proud of being from Liverpool and of what it is achieving.
“Simply winning Capital of Culture shows how far the city has come, and I hope that I do my bit to sell the city to people who perhaps still think of stereotypes when thinking about Liverpool.
“I was showing a man from a Merseyside authority around some of our regeneration projects a few years ago and the first thing he said when he got in my car was: ‘Don’t worry, I’m not from Liverpool’. I felt like chucking him out there and then.
“People sometimes ask why I don’t move from Liverpool to the Blackburn area, and there are lovely areas to live in. I just tell them that I lived through Liverpool at a time when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, and at a time when events like the Toxteth riots were greeted with headlines like ‘Liverpool is burning’.
“I lived in the city then, and I want to enjoy living in the city now, in a city where my children know they can stay and find work because it really has turned itself around.”