Part of the union
Regular Quest contributor Ralph Straw reports once more from the resettlement frontline, this time with some sound advice – learned the hard way, through personal experience – about why you really should consider joining a trades union when you make your own transition to a civilian career. Not doing so could cost you more than your job’s worth …
‘Is there anything going on between the Platoon Commander and the Platoon Sergeant? …’
This was the first time that I’d been up this close to the Regimental Sergeant Major.
‘Well, Sir … the thing is …’
‘Yes or no, Corporal Straw?’ he replied.
So here I was, the man wanted an answer from me and after 20-odd years in the Army he had heard his fair share of bluffing.
‘Yes, Sir, there is.’
That one phrase ended my career. Less than a month later I had signed off from the regular Army. In that month I was suspended from duty as a training instructor, investigated by the chain of command, arrested by the Special Investigation Branch for mistreating a subordinate and found that Jaffa Cakes are an excellent comfort food. All because my boss fancied a little dalliance with the Platoon Sergeant.
The story ends well, though. I was proved to be innocent. But it could have all ended quite badly for me. Several people in the chain of command (including Officers and Senior NCOs) made false statements and coerced junior soldiers to do the same. As my delightful Company Sergeant Major said at the time, ‘People are going to close ranks and protect their own interests here, Ralph.’
Which is exactly what happened. I wrote letters to my Commanding Officer, pointing out my obvious innocence, and the shameful lies of a Captain caught in the act and trying to protect her career. I was a small fish and I was going to be diced and used to keep the sharks away.
I wrote a letter to my local MP, Anna Soubry, then Under-Secretary of State and Minister for Defence Personnel, who was a huge help and authoritative voice. Having a mental breakdown proved to be a good method of coping with the institutional insanity that I was suffering. I also tried to sue my accusing subsequent saviours, but even a top London law firm knew I was on my own.
I had no one acting on my behalf or representing me. You may remember that big document that you signed years ago when you joined, where you waived your right to join a trades union? I can remember thinking that being in a trades union would have been really useful during that time. So, when I left the Forces, one of the first things I did was to join Unison, the largest public-sector union in the UK.
Being a Service leaver makes you an ideal person to work in the public sector – from one honourable profession to another. It is what I have done since leaving. I wanted to continue working with people and helping them to grow, rather than growing profits in the private sector. Not that there is anything wrong with that, I just know I would be rubbish at it.
Working in the public sector brings rewarding and real benefits. Whenever you’re working with people, you’re very likely to be doing something useful.
Public-sector work is not without its own risks of course, the obvious ones being the police, NHS staff, prison staff and the fire service. Whenever you are dealing with members of the public you’re at risk – physically and otherwise. More so if you’re dealing with vulnerable people or young people. Great care is taken to ensure that public-sector staff don’t put themselves in compromising positions. However, sometimes it doesn’t matter how much care you take, you find yourself blindsided on a Tuesday morning, as I did in the Regimental Sergeant Major’s office.
This is where being a member of a trades union is useful and reassuring. If you find yourself accused of anything or in bother, you have access to a representative. If you are interviewed, then your union will provide a legal adviser at no cost to you. Since leaving I have had cause to summon the help of my union. However, on that occasion it was completely my own fault …
‘Ralph, can I have a word?’ I have to say that I would have preferred not to. All the prisoners had been taken to the wing for lunch and I was just tucking into my jar of peanut butter.
‘Yeah … What’s up?’ I replied with a mouthful.
‘We just need to have a chat. You’ll need to bring all your personal belongings with you.’
My friend looked across at me with a knowing gaze. I was to become one of the ‘walked out’ – where a member of staff is escorted from the prison, flanked by two officers. I had heard tales of this myself – with regard to staff who had brought in drugs or mobile phones, or assaulted prisoners. I racked my brain trying to remember what serious criminal act I had committed that had led to my being summoned to the Governor’s office. I looked through the bars of my classroom window while gathering my things, and imagined that barred view of the outside world for 23 hours a day.
‘The police are investigating and, until that is concluded, you’re suspended without prejudice until further notice.’
‘I’m a supply teacher. I won’t get paid if I don’t work. You can’t be more prejudiced,’ I said, sitting in a chair, now surrounded by three men in suits and two uniformed officers.
‘I’ll need your prison ID.’
‘I am a supply teacher … I’ve just told you that … I’ve only got my agency ID. What have I done anyway?’
‘I can’t tell you that,’ he replied, handing me a letter that told me anyway.
It is alleged that at **** hrs yesterday, your vehicle, namely a silver Nissan Primera, collided with a green Mini Metro, causing damage to the handbrake.
‘Ah … I had forgotten all about that. I had meant to find the owner this morning. He was illegally parked anyway, one inch from my bumper. He blocked me in.’
‘It’s out of my hands.’
And apparently, so was I, as I was whisked away from the prison by two officers. This was my income, my livelihood. What would I do now? There was a van bringing a prisoner in as I was being taken out. He gave me an understanding nod, which I returned, both of us wishing to swap direction.
I returned home early. My wife thought I had come back to share the news that I had signed the contract for the permanent lecturer position offered to me …
‘No, I’ve been sacked.’
Here I was again, but now I had the support of the largest public-sector trades union in the UK. I contacted them right away and, within a few days, I was working in two other prisons. They did all the work for me.
After six weeks I received a letter from the governor:
After a very in-depth managerial investigation we have decided not to take the matter any further. You are free to return to work at HMP Leicester but only if you understand the seriousness of this matter.
I didn’t understand the seriousness, but I had accepted a fantastic opportunity to work elsewhere anyway.
So, dear Quest reader, I hope that you find some useful advice in this piece …
- Join a trades union. The cost of Unison membership is reasonable, ranging from £1.30 to £22.50 a month, depending on your salary. It’s like a mess bill, but you get more than tea and toast for your money.
- Watch out for office politics and managerialism. Being a former Service person, you are likely to have a low tolerance for nonsense. However, some people have made careers on it.
- Don’t panic.
To find out more about Unison, visit
Case Studies See all
Learn a trade: plastering, tiling, plumbing, carpentry, kitchen fitting, bricklaying …
Working for yourself as a self-employed tradesperson after completing an intensive training course may seem impossible but, as the following case study shows, with the right training and support you...Read more »
… with Army dog handler turned electrician, Adrian ThompsonRead more »