Peter Pinkney who is returning, after three years as president of transport union RMT, to his job as a railway signalman talks to Peter Lazenby
It’s been a tumultuous three years for Peter Pinkney, pictured. The railway signalman from Middlesbrough was elected president of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) in December 2012.
It took him from his Victorian signalbox at Stockton in the north-east — Britain’s oldest operating signalbox, and probably the world’s — and pitched him into a life of constant meetings, negotiations, decisions affecting 80,000 workers, and international travel.
It also put him alongside a man who was Britain’s most prominent trade union leader, RMT general secretary Bob Crow. The partnership with Bob Crow was abruptly cut short when Bob died suddenly on March 11 last year.
They travelled together overseas on official visits. As we talked in the foyer of the Newcastle hotel where RMT last week held its annual conference, we were interrupted by two Romanians, who were one of several international delegations to the conference.
They sought Peter out to present him with a bag of small gifts, including a traditionally-decorated plate. There was no ceremony, just a friendly chat.
He had met them on a union visit to Romania and now they wanted to thank him for inviting them to the conference in reciprocation. The brief conversation ended with an invitation for Peter to return to Romania, this time on holiday.
Pinkney’s life to date has been one of contrasts. The 59-year-old became an apprentice welder after leaving school, when the shipyards, steelworks, chemical factories, railways and coalmines of the north-east provided tens of thousands of jobs for the working class.
“There were five and a half miles of steelworks in Middlesbrough,” he said.
Once qualified, he worked on projects such as creating the mighty girders and struts for the Forth Bridge and Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Welders were in great demand and could move with ease from one job to another. Steel, coal and railways were nationalised industries. Trade unions were strong and influential, including at shop steward level.
But Pinkney believes he fell foul of the union apparatus. “I became a junior shop steward in the boilermakers’ union. I argued against accepting our factory’s closure which the officials were agreeing to,” he said.
In 1978 the works closed, and he strangely found himself unable to get employment elsewhere.
“There were jobs but as soon as my name was mentioned I was turned away. I still suspect it was because I’d spoken out the way I did,” he thinks. “But it’s only a suspicion.”
His redundancy money kept him going for the best part of a year. Then in frustration he joined the navy for a five-year stint. He served on Polaris submarines based at Faslane. He hadn’t been deemed a security risk.
“At that point I hadn’t yet joined the Communist Party,” he points out, but recalls one incident.
“I was in a pub chatting with some CND people and was fascinated by them,” he said. “The barman was ex-navy and reported that I’d been hob-nobbing with them. I got into trouble for that.”
After the navy he again had trouble finding work.
“It was just after the Falklands war, the miners’ strike, Thatcher — Middlesbrough was devastated,” he remembers. He went to polytechnic but left after two years because he needed an income.
“I was married with a young family by then,” he said. (They brought up six children, two of his from a previous relationship, one from a previous relationship his wife had had, and three of their own.)
He is no longer married but has a partner.
“I saw the railways were advertising in the local paper for signalmen,” he recalls. “By this time I was in the Communist Party of Great Britain, Middlesbrough branch — I’d always leaned that way.
“I got the job as a railway signalman — I had no intention of staying there — but I ended up as a local union rep, and then branch secretary, then regional secretary.”
In 1990 the National Union of Railwaymen merged with the National Union of Seamen to form today’s RMT.
“There was the signalmen’s strike of 1994. I’m proud of that,” he says.
“I wasn’t interested in the union nationally though. Jimmy Knapp was general secretary. But when Bob Crow got elected in 2002 I changed. I went to my first annual general meeting in 2003, the one where we affiliated to the Scottish Socialist Party.”
The decision resulted, a year later, in the Labour Party expelling RMT from affiliated membership. Today it has no political party affiliation, leaving it to its branches and regions to support individual election candidates who they believe share the union’s socialist principles — usually Labour, but also Green, Socialist and Tusc, or others on the left.
“I went on to the executive for three years in 2004. Then I stayed on the executive,” he tells me.
When he was elected president in 2012, his pledge to his members was simple: “The RMT will fight for the abolition of capitalism and replace it with a socialist system,” he promised.
The RMT conference this week voted unanimously to defy vicious new anti-union laws planned by the Tories, and to form alliances with other militant sections of the trade union movement if the TUC fails to mobilise for a general strike.
Add to that the fightback RMT members are waging across the country, from strikes at London Underground — with the system’s four unions ready to take action at the same time — yesterday’s strike by ferry workers on the west coast of Scotland and weekly strikes in Yorkshire over the sacking of a train conductor, it looks like Pinkney’s promise on behalf of RMT holds good.
Controversially, in the 2015 general election he stood as Green Party candidate. He is dismissive when the subject is mentioned, and we move on.
Reflecting on his time as president he said: “In my travels I met some wonderful people. I have seen terrible poverty abroad, in this country as well. I can remember kids without shoes and I am seeing the same thing now, abroad and in this country, people who cannot read and write.”
He has been a tutor at RMT’s education centre in Doncaster.
“I think that was one of the best things Bob left us,” he believes. “Bob recognised the importance of education, that it was vital. When I was a tutor there I loved it.”
And the future?
“There will be something. I will still be involved in the movement. I’ve tried to be true to my beliefs. I have always been told to resolve our differences and go for the common enemy. That is what we should remember.”
For the immediate future, Pinkney will return to his job operating the Norton South signal box in Stockton.
“It’ll only last a year. They’re shutting it down,” he tells me. “I’ll be 60 next year. Whether I’ll be transferred to another, or take redundancy, I don’t know,” he said.
He’s passing on his family’s tradition of activism.
“My grandfather was a shop steward. My uncle was a shop steward. My son is a shop steward,” he says proudly.
One other trait he inherits from his family is his love of books.
“My family were great readers.
“I have always been grateful for that, anything from James Joyce to the history of the French revolution to Dickens,” he said.
If leaving the presidency of RMT leaves a hole in Pinkney’s life, it will not be empty for long.