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From a Bulldozer to a Builder

Trade unionist Bert Allen: fight for "not who is right, but what’s right".

There are two different roads to change society. 1. You wipe out the existing one and start again. Unfortunately destroying is the easy bit; some societies never recover. 2. You fight like hell to put right everything that is wrong, including the motives of people. 

Bert Allen of Birmingham has tried both ways during a colourful 50 years on the factory floor. Bert is a big, bluff, Birmingham-Cockney, blessed with a warm heart, courage, common sense and an endless fund of very funny stories. He was born in Birmingham but moved at the age of 8 to the Kilburn area of London. The family almost starved during the Hungry Twenties - partly because his father 'liked his beer'. When he left school Bert had a succession of jobs - one was 60 hours work for six shillings per week. He revolted against the injustices in so many firms.

When he married Gwen in 1936 it was ‘marriage on the Means Test'. When the inspector called and insisted they sell their few possessions Bert grabbed him by the collar and threw him down the stairs. Ten minutes later Bert left home too - in the 'Black Maria's Gwen's ring was regularly pawned with everything else. She got it out and wore it at weekends .

Six years as a London cabbie helped Bert's finances and sharpened his wit. When war came he drove a Heavy Rescue lorry on bomb sites. After that in was a quiet life when he was called up to the RAF. By 1944 Britain urgently needed planes. So Bert was sent back to Reynolds Tubes in Birmingham where he worked for the Aircraft industry. Gwen and the two girls joined him there.

After the war was over conditions were bad. Bert was the only union man in the firm. ''It was a dump'' recalls Bert. ''If you dared to voice an opinion, you were out. “They didn't want no union's.” He trained a few stewards and became convener. His plan was to create a go-slow or walk-out every week or two, “just to show management who was running the place.” Outside the factory his great interest was 'the dogs'. One pay-day he gambled all his wages on the way home - all except five shillings. He bought a bunch of flowers. Gwen was not impressed. Bert's bitter resentmen against society had affected the family. Gwen and the girls were suffering and break-up seemed likely. 

At this point a new road opened.  In 1948 Bert saw the internationally acclaimed MRA play 'The Forgotten Factor'. Bert, an unlikely playgoer, went with a coach from Reynolds Tubes, planning 'to nip out and have a few drinks’. But he was fascinated and two hours later was still talking to the cast. 

Bert said, It's a good idea, 'but it wouldn't work’. But he couldn't forget that at one point in the play the labour leader in his home had said, ''My God, if ever a place ought to be picketed, this ought. This home, unfair to women and children.'' Word went round that things were happening in the Allen home. 36 years on, Bert and Gwen have a truly united and devoted family - a great-grandson has just arrived. 

The other idea from the play was, in any dispute, 'it’s not who is right, but what’s right'.  This became Bert's slogan to reconstruct the industrial chaos around him; and he always found when he stopped to consider, then an 'inner voice' would tell him what was right.

‘lf you want management to change its ways," he told stewards, "you've got to be prepared to change your own. Don’t fly off the handle. Listen to what the other side have to say."  When problems arose he said to the men, ''You go on working, I'll do the talking.'' In one tricky crisis the stewards asked for a 'time for reflection’. Out of it came the idea of a 12-month mutual agreement years before the TUC tried it. 

Over many months trust was built. As a result, between 1948 and 1976 when Bert retired, a period when many well known Midlands firms sank without trace and others were buoyed up with millions of Government money, Reynolds Tubes lost a total of one day's production. Several times he was offered 'staff' jobs with perks and pensions. But Bert decided that the leadership of the union was more important. He stayed on the factory floor. 

In a wider union field, Bert was for 13 years President of the District Committee of the Engineering Union (now AUEW) and chaired some tempestuous meetings with hundreds of shop stewards. He often took a hammering but was respected. It was not just his impressive height or his powerful voice. These men knew that behind Brother Allen stood 1200 engineering workers for whom he had won high pay, secure employment and 100% union membership. 

After six years on the Unions national final Appeal Court he became its Chairman, the highest lay position in the union. He had the Award of Merit medal for 40 years of continuous office. Some observers think that Bert's long years as District President helped to give the region the stability that enabled men like Terry Duffy to rise to national leadership. 

When he retired, Bert and Gwen were invited to take part in the play 'Keir Hardie - The Man They Could Not Buy'. Bert played a customer in a London pub. Gwen helped with the costumes. They toured the industrial areas of Britain and ended up in the AUEW Hall in Birmingham. Everywhere they used their experiences.  
Whatever the future holds for Bert and Gwen's great-grandson, one thing is certain. If we are going to create jobs and security for his generation, it will be achieved by the reflective builders rather than by the maddened bulldozers.

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