Margaret Eileen Longman
Master of Arts
13 July 2007 - Orator: Dr Stella Clarke
Madam Pro Vice-Chancellor:
In telling the story of Margaret Longman we will be tracing something of Bristol’s recent social history.
Marg comes from a family background closely connected with the trades union movement. Her grandfather and father were Shop Stewards on the docks at Avonmouth between the 1930s and the 1960s. This was an era when the Unions were strong and often confrontational and when their strength was seen to be crucial to the well-being of the workers, for many of whom their employment as docks workers was a precarious existence. So Marg grew up in a household preoccupied with the welfare and security of employment of ordinary people, and with the politics of trade unionism.
She was born just before the war in a small house in the Bristol suburb of Whitehall, shared with two old aunts. She remembers them refusing to go to the air raid shelter saying “they weren’t going to get out of bed for Hitler!” I am sure Marg would have felt the same! She has inherited much of their independent and challenging spirit.
She was christened by Mervyn Stockwood, then the rector of St Matthews Moorfield, who was also active in local politics as a Labour Councillor in Bristol, and who later became a well-known Bishop of Southwark.
At fifteen when she looked for her first job, she asked her local church for a reference rather than her school. The church, as she said “never ran you down”.
She worked first for E & SA Robinson, an old-establishd Bristol firm manufacturing packaging, and then for a cotton factory in the Barton Hill district of the city until she married at 17.
Whilst her two children were growing up she made sure she was always at home for them when they returned from school. To achieve this she worked as a silver service waitress at Rolls Royce and in the evening as a popular and socially aware barmaid in the local pub. One day her mother, who was working at the University, suggested Marg should apply to work here as well, since the hours could well be fitted into family life. Thus began, in August 1976, her 30 years of employment at the University.
Her job was to clean student houses. These were owned by the University and accommodated students not resident in the Halls. Marg is a woman with a great sense of humour. She certainly needed it in the job she undertook. I suspect that a number of people here will appreciate that cleaning students’ kitchen sinks was not the most attractive or sought-after job, and that it was extremely hard work. Her descriptions though of dealing with mountains of washing up, not on her work sheet, in order to reach the hot water are hilarious. By the time she reached the fifth sink the lot often went in a black sack. She discovered black sausages, not black pudding and hoovered up stray socks and underpants. She did this for 19 years alongside her union work. You may well feel she had already earned a medal – that was to come later, though.
Early in her employment here she got to know the woman who was greatly to influence her life and work and who became her mentor. She was Convenor and Branch Secretary of the University branch of the Transport and General Workers Union, the TGWU. Her name was Irene Alexander and fortuitously she also lived very close to Marg. Sadly she died in 1988 but I know that Marg and many others who have worked with the University would want to pay tribute to Irene for the huge inheritance she handed down.
Irene recognised in Marg her potential as a worker for the Union. She saw her commitment to fair play, her readiness to stand up for other people and the support she offered them, and in spite of Marg feeling she knew little about union work, she encouraged her to join in.
Marg recognised that it was necessary to understand the structures, both of the University and her Union. In due course she herself was elected Convenor of the University TGWU branch. It was she says “a career I never set out on” but for 19 years that is exactly what she did, representing the 800 or so manual staff of the University with her shop steward colleagues.
Union work is not easy. It has to be fitted into a normal working day and for branch officials it can involve being available seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Her quote that “people shouldn’t have to wait all weekend if they are worried” sums up the real concern which she exercised for her members over so many years.
She quickly came to understand that the good of her members and the success of the University tended to be symbiotic. It was necessary to develop a relationship with the University which recognised the needs of all parties, and it was always important to keep the bigger picture in mind. She also understood that she could not be in the business of blind advocacy of union members’ rights.
She was strongly motivated towards driving women forward to achieve the best for themselves and was determined that their low pay for hard work should be recognised and merit a better reward.
Through her persistence University of Bristol manual workers eventually received a permanent local supplement to their hourly rates of pay. Bristol was and is the only institution in the country to have introduced such a measure. When asked by other branches in the country how she had achieved it, she simply said to them “you didn’t fight for it”.
She was not always orthodox, but she was seen as having a passionate commitment to staff and as one who never gave up. She had a great affection for the University and her concentration on working out the best way for everyone to work together was recognised and appreciated by those with whom she negotiated. Her skill in negotiation was recognised when she was elected to the TGWU National Women’s Advisory Body and was appointed to representative duties at national level, culminating in her receiving a Gold Medal from the Union in recognition of her exceptional contribution. She also, incidentally, at the same time, served as a member of the University Council, our governing body, for ten years.
Now Marg is a great talker! I was told that most people pause at the end of the sentence so that you can break in, but she is usually in the middle of a much longer sentence at that stage, so interjection becomes impossible!
I was intrigued that in spite of this characteristic she was such a successful and popular negotiator, and I questioned the professionals who had known her. They all had the same comments. She had a genuine quality and never a personal agenda. She fought tirelessly, cleanly, and often with humour. She was seriously bright and intelligent, and although she might appear to go off on a digression, she always came back to the main issues. Although she felt protective and emotional towards individuals whom she represented she always kept in her mind that larger picture, recognising that there are two sides to most disputes and difficulties.
All these qualities led to her being selected to give evidence at national level on behalf of all universities manual staff to the Bett Committee, a review conducted by Sir Michael Bett in 1998/99 of pay and conditions in the higher education sector. Her evidence in particular led to Sir Michael’s recommendation that low pay for manual staff needed to be addressed. He himself is said to have commented that Marg Longman’s forceful evidence was the most interesting received on the topic, being both down-to-earth and believable. His report resulted in real improvements in the lot of lower paid staff, for which Marg Longman can take at least some of the credit.
Madam Pro-Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Margaret Eileen Longman, trade unionist and Gold Medal holder of the Transport & General Workers Union, held in great respect and affection within this University, as eminently worthy of the degree of Master of Arts, honoris causa.