Obituary: Bill Miles
Thursday 19 August 1993
HE WAS a typical 'man of Fleet Street'. When Bill Miles retired, aged 65, in December 1987, the curtain came down on a career spanning 30 years as a print worker and union official. As Sogat's General Officer responsible for national newspapers he was regularly in the spotlight of difficult and bitter industrial relations disputes.
Miles was a socialist, not of the revolutionary variety, but earned a deserved reputation as a tough and wily negotiator, admired by members and management alike. He was even liked and respected by journalists, an unusual feat during an era famous for its 'love-hate' relationships between print workers and scribes.
His final days in 'the print' were marred, sadly, by the Wapping dispute, an event which changed Fleet Street for ever. Miles was realistic enough to believe that negotiations with Rupert Murdoch were possible had they taken place in good faith at an earlier stage, but the entrenched attitudes prevailing in those days made his job almost impossible. He said: 'Trouble is that there was a school of thought in Fleet Street that believed a trade-union official was 'selling out' if he entered into any talks with management. It was labelled 'class collaboration'. Some people at the time simply would not listen to any discussion.'
When Brenda Dean became Sogat General Secretary in 1985, shortly before the Wapping dispute, she needed his great depth of experience and wisdom to help her through the crisis. Like his old mate Bill Keys, the late Sogat leader, Miles was one of a generation of print-union leaders fast disappearing from a scene just as rapidly as the scene itself was changing.
Herbert William Miles was born in Plaistow, east London, in 1922. His father, a railwayman, died in 1930 when he was only eight. Herbert - he disliked his first name, and persuaded his friends to call him 'Bill' when a teenager - was one of five children and the family survived with the help of the Board of Guardians, the buffer state which kept so many families from starvation in those days. When he was 14 he was lucky to get a job with a printing firm, Lamson Paragon, which was non-union. His colleagues wanted to join a union but they talked about it 'in whispers', such was the management's anti- union view. He eventually joined the Paperworkers Union, not long before the outbreak of the Second World War.
Miles joined the RAF and served overseas for three years. He was always reluctant to discuss those terrible years 'except to wonder what happened to our victory - the new world we fought for'. After the war he was delighted to see that his old firm had established a union chapel (branch), with a 300-strong membership, and he was soon elected chairman.
In 1953 Miles left for the Daily Express, where the 'glamour image' quickly dimmed. He was elected deputy Father of the Chapel in 1954 but after a brief spell in that role was sacked. He explained: 'I was told by management that I was incompatible. I was in the publishing warehouse and I was suspended from work for eight weeks while the union fought my case. I think I was sacked because I was challenging manning arrangements which were being introduced and to which I objected. That was unacceptable to management so I was dumped.'
When he was found a job at the Daily Telegraph, where pay rates were lower, the union subsidised his pay. He was unhappy with that arrangement and later left for the Radio Times and did Saturday work on the old Sunday Pictorial. That began a long spell of trade-union activity which helped guarantee his election, in 1960, as a lay member of the Paperworkers' national executive committee.
He was elected chairman of the Radio Times chapel in 1958 and in the following year was elected to the committee of the London Central Branch and then on to the union's national executive. He became a full-time union official on 1 May 1967 after his union merged with Natsopa to form Sogat.
His memories of Wapping were not happy, and he remained bitter about the role of the EETPU. But he admitted: 'We were not able to get people to believe that Fleet Street was going to change, whether or not they went along with those changes. I tried to persuade print workers to negotiate with Murdoch, but nobody would listen. You have to remember that we, in the print unions, had cried 'wolf' so often . . . we seemed to believe that Fleet Street wouldn't change. But Murdoch did it without us.
'That was the moment when attitudes changed. Yet I still believe that given the goodwill we could have negotiated our entry into Wapping. The difficulty was that I don't believe any terms would have been acceptable to the members.'
Bill Miles enjoyed retirement, spending more time with his two daughters, Gaynor and Rhonda, and three grandchildren. He improved his golf, lectured at universities on socialism and trade unionism, and worked for charities including Save the Children. He claimed there was more to life than going to work, 'and I intend to discover what the secret is . . .'
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