Copyright: David Lawson - Unions Today July 2000Home page
They seem a tabloid editor's dream: grandiose stately homes paid for by hard-toiling workers to pamper union bigwigs on luxury weekend breaks. Or country clubs for the London headquarter mafia to arrange so-called 'courses' in subsidised luxury.
Peter Robinson has heard all the jibes and still comes up smiling. Stoke Rochford Hall, his 'rest home for tired teachers' in Lincolnshire, might look like a set for Brideshead Revisited but has been pumping profits into National Union of Teachers funds for more than a decade. 'Meanwhile, a host of blue-chip companies have put 'for sale' signs on their training centres because they cannot make them work,' he says.
Trade unions moved into a new era during the Thatcher years, adopting the training role abandoned by employers in a rush to cut costs. Some had already opened education centres, such as the AEEU centre at Esher Place, Surrey, the first residential college set up by a UK trade union. The end of apprenticeships and in-house professional training made them even more important to develop and maintain skills.
'We are able to provide some of the best training in the country. Many companies view this as a reason for recognising us as a union,' says John Lloyd, national development and education officer for the AEEU.
There is also an irony which has been lost on those still suspicious that someone, somewhere is rolling in illicit luxury. These buildings are a monument to a society which accumulated wealth in the hands of the few, yet they are being preserved by the very groups spawned in reaction to this inequality. A bloodless revolution has quietly taken place so the grandeur - now seen as part of our historic heritage - has been transferred into the hands of the many.
And there are many, despite what anyone may think. Around 800 NUT members pass through Stoke Rochford every year as part of its training programme. Other unions also use this stately pile by renting out the plush bedrooms, restaurants and leisure clubs. But the ultimate irony is that they are getting it on the cheap - subsidised not by their members but the commanding heights of the economy. More than 150 companies and conference groups pay full economic rates to hire the hall.
Many top names have given up running their own stately homes, partly because they make such obvious targets for potential critics. It is a rough world today for big companies, with pressure from shareholders to maximise value and a clutch of takeover merchants able to spot a saleable asset from the other side of the Atlantic.
NatWest Bank, one of the NUT's customers, knows all about this after losing a bruising battle for independence last year. It may not have been coincidence that the bank's corporate training centre Heythrop Park, a Georgian palace in 440 acres of rolling Oxfordshire countryside, was put up for sale for £15m at around the same time.
More than 20 other 'corporate centres' have come out of the shadows and onto the market as companies realise the dangers of subsidising these stately piles. Many were picked up from impoverished landed gentry between the wars for what would be considered a song nowadays, so at least they will turn a tidy capital profit if they were ever sold - even if they have previously been a drain on revenue.
Robinson caught the bug relatively late. Stoke Rochford, built 150 years ago as the last of a line of noble houses on the site, was a training college doomed to closure under government reforms by 1978. Assistant secretary Doug McAvoy gave the closing lecture and came away with the idea that the NUT could take over.
The union's executive was not exactly enthusiastic: Robinson points out that 25 voted in favour, 11 against and 12 abstained or were absent. Nor did the locals applaud: Lincolnshire Life added the sale to the Beeching cuts and local government reform as the three major disasters to befall the county.
Even parts of the membership were cynical. The hall became a fixture for debate at annual conferences. This was not stirred up by the tabloids but heavies like the Daily Telegraph, which sniffily pointed out how weary teachers would be rejuvenated by the soft beds, high-class cuisine, saunas and beauticians. Some militants derided the 'country club for Londoners' years after it began to show its value.
Robinson, who has been there from the start, points out that Stoke Rochford has paid for itself for the last decade and is the only trade union centre in the UK that is financially self-sufficient - a distant dream of the early supporters.
'We took Thatcherism, seen as the scourge of unions, and made it work for us,' he says. And they chose an apt location: the Iron Lady was born and learned her inimitable views in the thrall of her grocer father in nearby Grantham.
Now the union wants to take a further step into the brave new world of capitalism by seeking investment partners to help further develop its commercial potential. 'In the first instance we will be looking within the British , European and US trade union movements,' says Robinson. ' It is an unusual and dramatic development which will be very much in the vanguard of developing a trade union centre.'
Other unions are less forthcoming with financial details. The AEEU, for instance, is coy about revealing figures about Esher Place and another historic house, Cudham Hall in Kent. But development and education officer John Lloyd is effusive about their value, pointing out they are classed as 'centres for excellence' and 'a major priority for our strategic approach.'
Nor is he concerned about the image of a quality of accommodation and cuisine normally associated with the French chateau Esher Place resembles. The design dates back more than a century to financier Lord D'Abernon, but the pedigree of the site includes a refuge from the plague for Henry VIII, accommodation for Sir Francis Drake's Armada prisoners and the home of an 18th century prime minister.
It was a girls' school when the then Electrical Trades Union picked up the estate for what now appears to be a bargain £23,000 in 1952 to create the first residential college owned by a UK trade union. The faded splendour was restored and this has attracted makers of period TV classics including Poirot, Jewels and Bramwell as well as commercial conference organisers and other unions.
Lloyd sees the grandeur as 'relaxed surroundings' which enable visitors to 'focus on issues'. These range from training in workplace law and European workers' councils to sophisticated technical areas such as fibre optics.
'We have a skilled membership and it is vital those skills are maintained,' says Lloyd. 'We are proud to have done this for many decades and will continue to do so in the future.'