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Bryn Roberts – Father of the Organising Agenda

The UNISON Fighting Fund has got the concept of paid organisers right at the top of the union’s agenda. Far from being something new, the idea of employing organisers has been around for a long time. Here we take a look at the approach to recruitment taken in one of our parent unions NUPE.

In December 1933 NUPE placed an advert in the national press:

“The National Union of Public Employees invites applications for the post of General Secretary from members of the Union, also suitable from other organisations of workers, age not to exceed 45 years.”

The man they recruited was a former miner’s leader from south Wales who applied on the advice of his wife, Bryn Roberts. He would go on to lead NUPE from 1934 until 1962, a staggering 28 years.

The NUPE Bryn inherited was a far cry from the UNISON we know today. There were only 13,000 members and 9 members of staff. More worryingly the annual income was £10,000 but the union was running a deficit of £450. There was the potential for the union to go bankrupt and many thought the only option would be a takeover by the Transport and General Workers Union or the National Association of General and Municipal Workers (GMB.)

Bryn Roberts suggested a bold alternative. To ensure the survival of the union the only option was a huge expansion in membership. NUPE had taken a loan of £1000 to keep afloat and Bryn opted to take a gamble, using the money to employ organisers. He gave the first two simple instructions “recruit, recruit, recruit” and was clear “I want you to realise that you must not fail.”

They did not fail. In a year membership in London had doubled. The money received in membership fees paid for more organisers, this time across the country.

On of their main tasks was to recruit the poorly paid and poorly treated road men, traditionally ignored by the other unions. Bryn would not leave it all to the organisers. During the 1930’s many workers would find that the young man with the Welsh accent who came to recruit them was in fact the General Secretary. Bryn’s example was followed across the country with members giving up their free time and annual leave to recruit colleagues. In the dispersed county councils this meant some members cycling for miles just to speak to one or two road workers.

By the time of Roberts’ death in 1964 NUPE membership was 220,000. A staggering increase from such humble beginnings.

Such was NUPE’s success that in 1933 other unions pushed through the Bridlington agreement in an attempt to prevent recruitment in workplaces where they had the majority membership.

If you want to find out more about Bryn Roberts, the main biography of him, the snappily titled “Bryn Roberts and the National Union of Public Employees” is out of print, but can be picked up fairly cheaply on the internet.

The introduction is written by his friend Nye Bevan. In it he relates one of Bryn’s rare political defeats. The two were contemporaries as miners’ agents in South Wales. In 1929 they were both put forward, along with sitting MP Evan Davies, for the seat of Ebbw Vale.

Bevan of course won and the rest, as they say is history. Bevan acknowledges though: “Our roles could quite easily have been reversed. That I won was due to nothing more flattering to me than that Tredegar has a larger population than Rhymney where Bryn was the Miners Agent.”

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