Fred

Three words that don’t fit, Fred is dead.

 

Fred was my boss, a working class man who rose up in the ranks of the T&G to become the General Secretary of one of the largest trade unions in the world.  Twenty million members in the hard core sectors of mining, oil and energy, founded on international solidarity, the real stuff that saves lives and jobs.

 

Fred gave me my first proper job at a time when women didn’t get invited to take power in unions. His model of trade unionism was not the macho heroics of capitalist-counterpower but the ordinary everyday of sticking together. We worked together for over a decade, with Fred’s role as old-school gaffer, political dad and true friend.

 

My memories of Fred are dominated by smoking and laughing. Lots of both.

 

Sitting in a car park in Harare a week before the Zimbabwe elections with the threat of violence hanging over us for uncovering corruption. Waiting for a plane to take us out he says, between puffs “cheer up, they wont let us back in the country again”.

 

Crawling along a seam in a potash mine in Belarus, Fred me and our man mountain interpreter Eugene. Fred inviting Ludmilla to lunch to talk about human rights despite her being general secretary of a state controlled union in Lukashenko’s dictatorship. Even the Dutch who funded the work, normally immune to his gruff ways, were offended by his lack of political correctness, preferring to court the chaotic leadership of the independent trade unions. As we ate a dinner of pork fat and vodka with them that night, watching the male leadership put down Dutch tax payers money to bet who could have sex with me, Fred said gently “There are good politics and bad politics in all of these trade unions. You have to go with your gut which ones they are”. When we got outside our hands were so cold it was the only time I didn’t see Fred light up.

 

A trip to Nigeria to support the oil workers of Nupeng and Pengassan, when Fred goes missing for 8 hours. Picked up by security at the airport interrogated and dumped, minus computer and cash in the middle of Lagos. Sheltering Shell trade union leaders, Kokori and Dabibi at his and Rita’s home in London, raising the alarm to Nigeria’s head of police. His laughter at the look on my face as he walked into the hotel lobby. Apparently I was the whitest person in Africa that day. Our quiet conversation about how to prepare for our arrest the next morning – deleting files and phoning loved ones. A memory of me being on the phone to the British Embassy asking for representation and being told that the ambassador and his team were playing golf and couldn’t help. I can still feel the Tsunami of expletives coming at me from Fred across the room almost choking on the generations of class war behind that statement. Then working with the Nigerian trade unions for seven long days, knowing that all of them had switched off their phones in response to my calls for help. Eight hours and no trade union phones were working. I watched in disbelief at the mundane exchanges of niceties and Fred’s calm response to these men who had switched off their phones. That day Fred smoked 60 fags.

 

A decade of solidarity visits to Colombia, considered the most dangerous place in the world for trade unionists. In the later years we went to mediate the first ever negotiations between the Colombian Government, multinational companies and unions. The first ever tripartite discussions about security, contract workers and even HIV/AIDS leading to belly-laugh trips to the Cerrejon mine, talking about sex and smuggling condoms into the ladies lavs (that was me, not Fred). Fred walking out of the room when the once-powerful energy unions were presenting their renewal strategy which included a massive error threatening their survival. To criticise the Colombians is the political equivalent of punching kittens so right in the middle of the power point he walked out of the room waving a packet of fags. His smoking break let them change their minds without them losing face. Fred was a genius at strategic smoking.

 

I remember dealing with corruption in a Brazilian union caught up in the Petrobras scandal. Four months living in Rio, how bad can it be? Well, pretty bad. The day before I was due to fly out I was told that there was a contract out on my life. I went to see Fred, shaking.  Fred without pause for breath said “If they were going to kill you they’d just do it. A threat is just a threat’. And while I was momentarily speechless he took the opportunity to tell me that the Brazilian man I was in love with who worked with us was, in fact, married and it was probably best not to rely on his support any time soon. Fred held my hand as my legs went from under me. He smoked 10 fags in one hour while he waited silently for me to scrape my heart and my chin off the floor.

 

I remember negotiations with Sir Mark Moody Stuart, the then CEO of Anglo American at their offices tucked behind Buckingham Palace. Fred and Mark had negotiated with each other for years – a begrudging respect for each other’s long service in industrial relations. As part of our work to secure HIV/AIDS provision in mining communities we’d gone to negotiate a pilot in the mines of Ghana and Colombia, work which at the time was groundbreaking. Throughout the whole meeting Fred swore. Like punctuation in his own and everyone else’s sentences, at one point I counted 12 expletives in one sentence. Sir Mark looked sadly down at his hands and sighed. And then said “Fred, you know what we used to call you? Fred and his Bag of Fucks. I’ve never met anyone refuse to adapt their behaviour like you. Its a good thing that I’m very fond of you.” They both smiled. I think Fred was tickled that despite the extraordinary class and political distance in the room Sir Mark was a bit sweet on him. Fred smoked less in London.

 

Fred did not adapt to a diplomatic international world, remaining resolutely with the underdogs. It meant that he rarely spoke about his travels – not wishing to come across as obnoxious – preferring to keep his feet on the ground even in these exotic settings.

 

Fred had a political instinct like no other – no pause for thought or getting tied up in details, he cut the crap. It meant that he was often unbending and frustrated, waiting for the rest of us to catch up on the political realities around us.

 

Having finished my Phd on international solidarity, I am within two weeks of my viva. I had not spoken to Fred while I was writing, scared of his hating it, thinking me a pretentious intellectual. I think my love of psychoanalysis genuinely made his toes curl. I didn’t dare ask him what he thought of Surviving Work, despite my view that the politics behind it were formed during my time working with him, long before reading Freud.

 

Sometimes being in the union can feel like a suffocating bond where independent thought means breaking rank. But I regret allowing this aspect of being in the union stop me showing him my mind and my heart, and with it my immense gratitude to him.

 

I, like many people who didn’t stand a chance of making their mark, am indebted to Fred for taking a punt on me. He taught me to be as good as my word and to live according to what I fucking well believe.

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