Friday, April 29, 2016

The Sam Packer Story (1966) - short story

A Short Story from the December 1966 issue of theSocialist Standard


Sam Packer was in his teens when he got a job at the factory. He was a bright lad, energetic and jolly, and his workmates took an instant liking to him. Sam soon became one of the firm’s most popular employees; the foreman smiled at him; the manager acknowledged him with a nod.

After doing odd jobs for a few years Sam qualified for a place at a bench and promptly celebrated his promotion by getting married. Marriage set his life on a different tack. Pocket money, sufficient when he was single, dwindled when he had a wife to maintain. It almost disappeared when the children came.

The few pay increases the firm conceded had to go straight into Mrs. Sam Packer's purse because of rising living costs. Sam did his best to economise, rolling his cigarettes, mending the family’s shoes, wearing second-hand clothing and riding to work on a bicycle with sandwiches for lunch. In desperation, after a bout of nagging from his wife, Sam went to the factory office and asked for a raise. Very abruptly he was told that such matters were dealt with through trade union channels and that the firm, facing financial problems, could not afford to pay increases.

The “financial problem" story was true, the firm was soon absorbed into a large combine. Sam found the new management remote and impersonal. A notice was posted informing the staff that, following reorganisation, there would be certain redundancies. A demand for a pay increase was rejected.

Sam was furious. He talked of throwing up the job but his wife nagged the fear of unemployment into him. One evening, with several mates, Sam went to his trade union branch meeting where he got on his feet and bellowed out all the rude things about his employers that his mates were thinking. He was clapped and cheered and went home happily with the applause ringing in his ears.

Sam became a regular attender at the union meetings, speaking as often as the chairman would let him on every subject that came up for discussion. Always critical, always expressing the general discontent, always demanding fair play for the workers, he established a local reputation. “Sam’s the boy,” said his mates, “He’ll tell ’em.”

When a shop steward suddenly died Sam’s nomination for the job was unopposed. He was required to attend trade union conferences and, after an attack of butterflies-in-the-stomach, he made his first conference speech, following it with regular contributions to the debates. Consistently he proposed motions of censure against union officials, criticisms of employers and threats of strike action.

At the close of each conference Sam would go to a nearby pub and argue over a pint with other ale-supping delegates. He became as popular with them as he was with his local workmates.

One day, at the factory union meeting, the members took one of Sam’s fiery speeches seriously and decided to strike. Sam was thrust into the position of a strike leader. It was the first time he had been called upon to do more than talk and he was bewildered.

The employers, with ears to the ground and spies at the union meeting, learned of the strike decision. Business was brisk and they were not prepared to face a stoppage at that moment, so they sent a polite invitation to Sam to meet them at their headquarters. He entered the boardroom with knees knocking, but the assembled management greeted him so warmly, addressing him as Mr. Packer, passing round their cigarettes and making flattering remarks about his ability as a trade union leader, that he soon got over his nervousness.

The chairman candidly admitted that the company was making a moderate profit and was prepared to show appreciation to its staff by introducing a bonus system. He pointed out how, with increased production, the bonus could grow and make a substantial increase in the staff’s earnings. Sam was relieved. They sold him the idea with ease. He shook hands all round and left the building with a jaunty step.

Back at the factory Sam called a special union meeting and recommended to the members the acceptance of the firm's offer. Against feeble opposition the meeting agreed to accept, to withdraw the strike decision and to give Sam a vote of thanks.

With his reputation enhanced Sam was elected on to one committee after another. He served on district committees, area committees, finance committees and, eventually, national committees. He was sent to Trades-Union Congress and to Labour Party conferences. His name became known in trade union circles from Penzance to Penrith, from Lowestoft to Llandudno. He was photographed by the press and interviewed for television. He dressed smartly and gave up rolling his cigarettes.

He worked at the factory for only one or two days a week. His employers gave him leave to attend his union meetings and the union paid him an allowance for the days devoted to union business. He was continuously invited to attend social functions sometimes in the company of employers he had recently faced across a negotiating table. He lost his taste for beer and cigarettes and acquired one for spirits and cigars.

Being on christian-name intimacy with the top brass of his union, Sam was groomed for a full-time job as a union officer and when he got it he moved from his old address to a modem flat near to his union office. His workmates at the factory, who had been seeing him less and less, now saw him not at all. His salary enabled his family to treble its living standard. He had a sleek car and his cigars and his waistline gradually increased their girth.

There was a fly in Sam's ointment. He missed the exhilaration of the applause that used to accompany his old fiery oratory. If he gave vent to a speech in front of employers they smiled indulgently and his fellow union officers made cracks about soap-box oratory. He was expected to devise compromises and work out alternative propositions. He was not good at it. It fogged him, his mind rambled and he lapsed into silence.

As a trade union officer Sam was drawn into Labour Party activity. When a by-election occurred in his constituency he threw himself into the fray with zest. He was in top form addressing audiences in his old spirited manner, lambasting his party's opponents and drawing laughs and claps with his wisecracks, his slashing criticisms and his slangy oratory. Only question time made him uncomfortable. He did not know the answers so he skirted round questions with wit and sarcasm. After the by-election he decided to better equip himself with a study course on political economy through his union education scheme.

Promotion in his union further increased Sam's salary, the size of his car and the length of his holidays. He attended international conferences, flying to foreign cities and staying in the best hotels. To improve his image he took his wife around with him. The days of living in a two-roomed flat, riding a bicycle to work, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and mending his own shoes were so far behind him that he could afford to boast about them in contrast to his new status.

Mr. Sam Packer no longer spoke of workers’ rights, fair wages, the unscrupulous boss class and working class solidarity. Instead he spoke of national economy, trade balances, export problems, productivity and international finance. Although he allowed himself to be called a Socialist he carefully avoided references to class interests.

One day the 'phone rang in Mr. Packer's office. It was his National Secretary calling to tell him that the workers at the factory where he used to work were on strike for more pay. The employers had 'phoned union headquarters to complain that, as they abided by national agreements, they expected the workers to do likewise and what was the union going to do about the strike? The National Secretary had assured them that the Union did not condone unofficial disputes and that a union officer would be sent to the effected area to get the men back to work. That was a job for Samuel Packer.

Press reporters were waiting outside the office to bombard Mr. Packer with questions. He gave them a statement. He said that the strike was unjustified, that it was probably the work of an handful of agitators, that the workers would see reason when matters were explained to them and that the public could be assured that there would soon be a resumption of work.

A meeting of the strikers was specially convened to hear union officer Packer tell them that their action was ill-timed and ill-advised and that, if they forced wages up at this time, the price of their products would increase and foreign competitors would undersell them. If goods could not be sold the workers who produced them, explained Mr. Packer, would soon be out of a job. The sensible thing was to increase production without increasing costs, to be competitive in the markets of the world, capture orders and have plenty of work. When that was done there would be good prospects of a big pay increase.

One questioner asked, if jobs depended on selling goods and selling goods depended on low wages, then wouldn't jobs and low wages always go together? Another worker said that when he worked in an overseas factory he had been told the same story; the workers were being played off against one another.

Mr. Packer replied that he could smell a red agitator a mile away. He, with other union officers, was in the best position to keep a finger on the pulse of the national situation and to advise workers when to seek wage increases and when to bide their time. If they were as reasonable as he thought they were they would go back to work and leave their claims in the hands of the union where, he swore on oath, their interests would be well looked after.

The chairman counted the votes amid uproar and announced a narrow majority for a return to work.

Months later, at a Labour Party meeting, Mr. Packer accepted a challenge from a member of the audience to debate the question “Is the Labour Party a Socialist Party?" This, he thought, would be fun. He was astounded when Transport House informed him that, if he engaged in this debate, he must do so as an individual, not as a Labour Party representative.

For Mr. Packer the debate was a fiasco. He defined Socialism as “The greatest good to the greatest number," “Christianity in practice" and “The brotherhood of man." He amplified these definitions by reference to the Labour Party’s schemes for building houses, hospitals and schools, for increasing production and old age pensions and decreasing armaments.

His opponent defined Socialism as a system of society wherein the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth were commonly owned and democratically controlled by, and in the interest of the whole community. This, said Mr. Packer, was idealism, a pipe dream and totally impracticable. Human nature would not allow it. He believed in a practical kind of Socialism. 

Mr. Packer's opponent explained how this so-called practical Socialism was really a continuation of the existing social set-up with its wars, poverty, unemployment and insecurity. He quoted from Mr. Packer’s own trade union speeches to show that the abolition on the wages system was the only solution to the problems of wage earners.

In his winding-up address Mr. Packer became confused, then annoyed and finally abusive. He left the hall with a red face amid grins and laughs.

When the office of national union secretary became vacant Mr. Packer was an unsuccessful candidate for the job, but compensation came when, in the New Year’s Honours List, he was cited for the O.B.E.

Subsequently he accepted nomination as a parliamentary candidate in a safe Labour constituency. As a Member of Parliament his infrequent speeches were as empty as the benches around him. The Honourable Member Mr. Packer, O.B.E., knew the right people and was appointed to the board of a nationalised industry at a salary of £12,000 a year. He hob-nobbed with his fellow board members, all of whom were either ex-bankers or ex-company directors. He objected to any reference to his humble origin.

He gradually faded from the public limelight till he was stricken by thrombosis in his London home and died, despite the attention of two hastily summoned Harley Street physicians.

A few grilled old workers at the factory read of his death in their morning papers. The announcement was wedged between news of a wage freeze, closing factories, short-time working, redeployment and unemployment. One old timer, as he spread his breakfast margarine, said, “Packer, he used to work at our place. Led us up the garden, proper, he did. Still, it was our own fault. We ought to do our own thinking instead of leaving it to blokes like him.”

W. Waters

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