Yesterday forever - using history as a tool

CHANCE TOOK ME to Leeds' Metropole Hotel. I was late booking a room and it's close to the railway station. Rounding the corner to see the hotel's magnificent terracotta frontage, however, I remembered why I knew its name. In Gentlemen Of The Press, the first published history of the NUJ, Frederick Mansfield recounts the Metropole's appearance at a critical early point in our union's story.

Tim Dawson, Pete Lazenby and his partner Joan Heath; © Adam Christie

Tim Dawson, Pete Lazenby and his partner Joan Heath

In 1906, the forces that brought the NUJ into existence had very nearly come into alignment. All over Britain, newspaper workers were feeling that they needed more forceful representation at work. Nowhere was this more strongly felt than Leeds, where George Letham had been asked by colleagues to draft a rule book for a journalists' union that they were planning to establish.

He had done this when word came from Manchester that, acting on similar impulses, a group of journalists around William Watts had met and resolved to form a union. Friendly dispatches were exchanged across the Pennines and a meeting was called to decide whether the Yorkshire activists should throw in their lot with their Mancunian colleagues. So it was that a meeting was called at the Metropole Hotel to which around 200 journalists from all over the West Riding descended.

Their resolution that evening was to work together to form a national union. As a result, when the NUJ's founding conference took place at the Acorn Hotel in Birmingham, the Leeds and Manchester contingents were the largest in the room and Letham's draft was largely adopted as the founding rule book. Those northern centres would continue to provide the main basis for NUJ organisation for nearly two decades.

It would be stretching the truth to say that one can yet find echoes of that meeting in the Metropole today - recently rebranded as The Met. For a hotel that has been quite so extensively renovated, however, it does retain an unusually Victorian air. Even the rooms at the rear of the building are well proportioned and the circulation space and the corridors and lobbies feel expansive.

[NUJ President Tim Dawson; © Lucy Adams]

A billet with resonances of NUJ history certainly seemed appropriate, given my business in the city. I was there to mark Pete Lazenby's half century of union membership. The lavishly moustachioed activist started his reporting career on Otley's Wharfedale Observer in 1967. He joined the Yorkshire Evening Post in the early 1970s and continued filing copy for 40 years. And for much of that period he was the YEP's Father of Chapel - forming a beneficial double act with Pete Johnston, his opposite number of the Yorkshire Post. Upon retirement, he almost immediately took up a position as the Morning Star's northern correspondent.

My evening with the branch was filled with warm sharing of stories and comradely bonding; the sort of thing that make union membership magical. Everyone told funny stories about Pete, and Pete told the funniest. The point he made again and again, however, was that his role as a chapel official was far less important than what he and his work mates had achieved collectively.

The Metropole Hotel; " Tim Dawson

The Metropole Hotel

He is right to the extent that collective endeavour defines everything that unions do. But leadership does make a difference - with all the temporal demands, difficult calls, and occasionally uncomfortable decisions that it requires. Journalists on the Leeds papers have been enormously fortunate in having someone with Lazenby's talent and enthusiasm in their midst.

I was moved to pen him a ditty, that I inscribed in a more recent copy of the union's history.

In praise of Pete Lazenby, Leeds dissenter

With Wharfdale brogue and yard-brush 'tash
this champion of the toiling class
has 50 years supporting workers
who slave before their flashing cursors
now ascends to be Life Member
but retains his title - lead dissenter.

Is there significance to any of this beyond noting a pleasant evening enjoyed by all? Perhaps.

Unions have never been any more or less than working people coming together and acting in concert to improve the conditions in which we sell our labour. We make progress in opposition to powerful forces that deploy reserves of money and influence of which we can only dream. One way to even up our chances is to exploit the armoury provided by our history.

There is much in any union's narrative arc that offers clues that are helpful to understanding and responding events today, as well as providing inspiration when confidence lags. A potentially supportive army whose lives have been beneficially by unions in the past provide a further resource. More than anything, though, honouring lives dedicated to the movement reassures those making sacrifices today that the good they are serving is part of something greater.

Churchill was right that "history is written by the victors". Victory will more likely be ours, however, when we make history our weapon.