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Ronnie Cunningham retired from Nautilus International in April 2020 after having devoted his adult life to the trade union movement.
As a working-class boy in 1970s Liverpool, Ronnie left school at 16 to get a job: 'It's just what everyone did.' And it seems there were plenty of jobs available at the state-owned Post Office, which employed around 6,000 people at its Girobank complex in Bootle.
Starting at the Post Office in 1974, on his first day the young clerk became a member of the staff union, which was then the Civil and Public Services Association (CPSA). The union was strong in this workplace – so much so that there was a 40-strong CPSA committee there including 10 branch officers.
It was a role that caught Ronnie's eye, and at only 18, he successfully stood for election as a branch officer himself. 'I liked the idea of helping people, whether that was my own colleagues or other CPSA members,' he explains.
'At first, I carried on with my usual Girobank work alongside my union duties,' he adds, 'but after a year or so I was able to get one of the four branch officer posts that were on full-time release, meaning that our salaries were paid by the company but our job was to focus on union work.'
It was a change of scene and a way to develop new skills, but it certainly wasn't an easy option. Ronnie had a very busy decade in the 1980s, split between his Merseyside home and commuting to the union head office in London.
As he rose to serve on the union's National Executive Committee, and saw the organisation through the 1985 merger which created the National Communications Union (NCU), he found that he was usually spending Monday to Friday in London and only returning to Liverpool for the weekends.
By the early 1990s, he was tired of the travel and looking for something more local, and that's when he saw the role of industrial assistant advertised at the Nautilus predecessor union NUMAST. The job was based in the NUMAST offices at Mariners' Park in Wallasey – just across the River Mersey from Liverpool.
Ronnie remembers a daunting interview process led by the Union's formidable general secretary Brian Orrell. 'Brian asked me how people would take me going onboard ship as a union rep when I wasn't a seafarer. I just said, if I can solve their problem, they’ll be happy to see me.'
It was clearly the right answer. Ronnie joined NUMAST in 1994 and was promoted to industrial officer in 1996. He is grateful for the training and mentoring he received during those early days from national secretary Laurie Atwood and regional secretary Bob Elliott, and for the support from another colleague, Karen Jones, who still works for the Union as a membership and research administrator.
Ronnie's work was at the heart of what a trade union does: negotiating with employers, representing individuals at grievance or disciplinary hearings, and 'organising' – the union movement's term for bringing people together in a workplace to act collectively. While he was learning the ropes at NUMAST, he was based mainly in the Wallasey office, but when he became an industrial officer, he took it in turns with colleagues to spend one week in four in Aberdeen.
It's a time he remembers fondly. Aberdeen was booming, with plenty of jobs for seafarers supporting the North Sea offshore oil and gas industry. There were so many Union members onboard the supply and standby vessels that NUMAST employed a full-time ship visitor for them: George Findlay. 'George was an ex-fishing captain and a good, solid seafarer who knew everyone and could get you in anywhere,' smiles Ronnie. 'He was so helpful to me and great to deal with.'
Ronnie continued to rise up the career ladder at NUMAST, becoming a national secretary (a team leader) in 2001 and a senior national secretary (head of department) in 2009 – the year the union became Nautilus International.
In this period, it was Ronnie's turn to pass on his knowledge and experience to more junior colleagues, and he would always advise taking stock of the situation and keeping negotiations calm and professional whenever possible.
'Whether you're representing an individual member or carrying out collective bargaining, it's worth saying to the members beforehand that you won't be starting from a position of aggression,' he says. 'If I'm civil and have a friendly manner to the management, it doesn't mean I've "changed sides" – it's a sensible way of getting the right outcome. But it's horses for courses: we will of course take a firm line when the situation calls for it.'
In 2011, Ronnie was senior national organiser, bringing his long experience to the union's senior leadership team, and in 2016 he was appointed assistant general secretary. Throughout this time, he continued to sit on the oversight committee for the industry-wide MNOPF pension scheme and acted as secretary of the Nautilus Welfare Fund Committee.
Now that retirement is upon him, Ronnie can look back with satisfaction at this body of work, but he won't miss Nautilus too much because he has always maintained fulfilling interests in his home life. As well as spending more time with his partner Julie and their two dogs, he will continue sitting on the judicial panels for Employment Tribunals (ETs) – akin to being a local magistrate. He will also keep up his volunteer work as a long-standing local activist for the Labour Party.
'I never brought my political views to work, because Nautilus is a non-affiliated union,' he stresses, 'but I have been outraged to see how public services have been decimated by government cuts, and I will always campaign against that.'
Perhaps what Ronnie is most looking forward to in his retirement is helping to renovate and expand the premises of Sefton Amateur Boxing Club, of which he's been a member since he was 14. 'I used to do some bouts as a featherweight in the early days, but I've mainly used it as a way to keep fit,' he explains.
'I wanted to help run the club too, because it's such an important part of the local community, and we've been lucky recently to get a grant to do the place up. You could call it drug money!' he laughs. 'The Merseyside Police have given it to us as a charity from funds retrieved under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.'
Working as he does to help teenagers at the boxing club stay on the right track in life, would he recommend trade union work to them as a career option?
'Absolutely. Being a union official is a privilege. Every day is different and you get to help people who have been unjustly treated, so there's so much job satisfaction. You're not in it for the thanks, but it's nice to have recognition for doing a good job, and I have to say the highlight of my career was when Lord Len Murray, a previous general secretary of the TUC, said he was impressed with my work and I could represent him any time.'