Do backstamps affect how people spend their money? A trade unionists view.

Gary Oakes, June 07

Gary Oakes: Assistant General Secretary, UNITY

I was an apprentice for five years. I started as a caster of sanitary ware. Alf Clowes  got me interested in Union affairs. He worked at Twyfords with me, and went on to become the General Secretary of CATU (the Ceramic and Allied Trades Union).  Some people get involved with the union because an experience shows them the need for it, others because of people they know. Anyway, Alf got me interested, and I started to go to branch meetings. The whole of Stoke was Labour then.  People used to say ‘You could put up a gold pig for Labour round here and it’d get elected’, but times may be changing. I can’t see that for the past ten years the Party has had any coherent strategy on manufacturing.

Anyway, I worked at Twyfords. Later, I worked for a couple of years as a coalminer, at Wolstanton, and at a small pit – Victoria Colliery at Biddulph. This was in the period between the two miners’ strikes. I did a week at Ruskin College, in Trade Union Studies. Then I went back to Twyfords. I didn’t become a full time Union official until 1985. As a union, we have had to adapt to new circumstances. Last year we changed our name, from CATU to UNITY. We have become more community-based. Jobs are going all the time in the ceramic industry. Where do you turn when you have worked all your life as a lithographer and you are made redundant? We aim to support people setting up a new career – something they think they might enjoy. To give two practical examples, we recently helped someone who aimed to run a business doing nails and hair extensions, and another who wanted to be an embalmer. In the main though, the available jobs are work in sheds – warehousing, becoming a fork-lift truck driver. And these are not unskilled – you have to be able to work computers, to track the stock, as well as driving and lifting. Here in Stoke, we are at the centre of the country, a transport hub -- ideally placed for distribution. UNITY has something to offer people in this kind of employment, which tends not to be unionised.

During my working life ceramic production in the Potteries has gradually been decreasing. Most of the remaining manufacturers out-source now. Ware is made in the Czech Republic, or the Far East, or China. And although people talk as if this is something new, it has been going on for years. I remember Twyfords had a factory in India producing sanitary ware. To begin with, the quality of out-sourced ware was dramatically different, but now you would be hard pressed to tell them apart. Money is at the heart of it. The costs of production are so much higher here. In fact, a number of years ago a manufacturer said to me – and I’m not going to tell you who it was, but these were the very words he used – ‘Why should I continue to manufacture in Stoke-on-Trent when I can get the same product manufactured abroad for a handful of rice’.

Even the ceramic factories that people think of as quintessentially English are producing ware overseas. When Royal Doulton took ‘Old Country Rose’ and out-sourced it, the Union argued that it wouldn’t sell in the same way. We thought that economically they were making a false move, but we were proved wrong. Sales are up -- I’ve seen the figures. It seems to me in the main the general public buy according to price, not by the place of manufacture. I wonder how much the public even thinks about the backstamp or country of origin?