On the runway job I learned of the problems of labour relations. We had to build up a big workforce and as we were a Government Department, and in Northern Ireland, we were walking on eggs all the time. Politicians were looking over our collective shoulder and, to our complete amazement, asking questions in Westminster – no less. In one case we had inadvertently taken on a Free State (Eire) worker while there were men still on the dole in Northern Ireland. This was brought up on the Floor of the House with predictable consequences. Theory, it seems is more important than practice but our General Foreman had other ideas.
It was his practice to telephone the Labour Exchange to send us a batch of hopefuls – most were hopeful they wouldn’t suit – and then line them up in a hangar. He would address them along these lines; “This is pick and shovel, the hours are so and so, the pay is so much and those who don’t want to work step forward and we’ll sign the form.” The majority stepped forward, proving our point. Signing the form was the easy way out for us, it said that as far as we were concerned the man was unfit for the work in question. The problem was that if we had played it by the book, signed all of them on, we would have had a mountain of paperwork within days with malingerers, wasters and the downright bloody minded who would then have to be sacked, with reasons given, and we would still be back to the handful who wanted to work. We were risking the wroth and penalties of Authority, but it was expedient.
Lunchtimes – The Long Wait It was always my practice on jobs that were big, to go round the whole site during lunch time, when the men were clear and the machines were silent. I took my time, looked slowly and carefully, with the over all picture viewed from a different perspective to that of my assistants, who were too close, and too familiar with their section. I could also view the future areas of work for possible problems. Belfast was built on alluvial mud called sleech, which, dried out has a hard crust over successive layers of mud progressively becoming softer, so it is totally unpredictable and supports very little weight, unless paved piled or treated. This day, on my wander, I went where work would soon be started.
To give an idea of what this silt, or sleech was like, one day in summer, when the ground had dried out and the sleech had a hard crust I set out during the lunch hour to look at the site where we would be working next, suddenly I found my feet sinking. I knew better than to struggle, I just sat on my widest part, giving minimal loading to the ground and waited for lunch time to end in the hope I would be missed and rescued. There was one case while I was working there of a man stranded, sinking off the shore at Holywood, and people had to rescue him in the way one does with quicksand, with the weight spread over wood or sometimes metal ladders lying flat, and possibly throwing the man ropes.
A warning based upon experience On one of my lunchtime wanderings I was within inches of being impaled on a forest of 40mm steel reinforcing bars, forming a retaining wall. Fifteen feet above the steel, walking along timber scaffolding planks, one slid and tipped and my leg went through the hole opening at my feet. Don’t ask me how, but I grabbed a rail before the other followed. Stupidly I was wearing bifocal glasses, and had not seen the bad footing as it was obscured by the division in the lenses.