You’ll never walk alone with Eric

Eric Roberts looks forward to a year as the president of ‘the best union in the country’

Eric Roberts

It’s been a long and winding road, but for new UNISON president Eric Roberts, the journey from mending the Beatles’ drums to being the leading lay member of the “best union in the country” gives him the opportunity to be an ambassador who’ll make the members feel good about themselves and their union.

Just a few days into his presidential year, he’s asked to talk about himself.

“No comment!” And he chuckles. “I’ve been trained in the media!”

Born in Litherland, Liverpool – “Litherland is a Viking word for ‘hilly land’” – he notes that, as a child, he entertained the idea that his parents had named him after Eric the Viking.

But after school, it was off to work in the city’s legendary Rushworths Music House. This was the sixties and “all the big bands went there”.

“I was an instrument repairer,” he recalls. “I did fix the Beatles’ drums, because when you started, the first job you had was to change the skins.

“I did all the orchestras in Liverpool too,” he notes, adding that polishing the brass instruments was an awful chore.

A change of direction followed, as he became an apprentice baker and confectioner at Blackledges, another iconic Liverpool name.

Summer work followed in Wales as wine waiter and the boots – “you’re called The Boots because you go round early morning cleaning people’s boots outside their rooms” – before he found his way to London as a trainee assistant manager at Lyons Corner Houses, then on to selling pots and pans at Selfridges.

‘I think everyone in the union is an ambassador.’

Then one day, he walked out of work onto Oxford Street and saw an ambulance go past.

“I thought: ‘That seems a good job’. And I joined the London Ambulance Service. That was 42 years ago and I’ve been there ever since.

“I love it,” he says with real intensity. “I love the people, I love the service, I love the health service.”

It was also where his union journey really began.

“I became – like everybody, you just fall into it, don’t you? – the branch secretary of NUPE north west London ambulance branch and, when we merged, I became the first secretary of the London ambulance branch,” he explains.

But the presidency is not a matter of ambition.

“I’ve never really thought: ‘I want to be on the NEC’ or something. I just did it because I thought I had a responsibility when somebody asked me.

“I wanted to represent people; to be in a union that cared, to be with people that I knew, if we acted together, we could change things … and I find myself being the president of the greatest union in this country.”

You sense that, while he’s had a couple of years to get used to the idea, now that the time has come, the scale of the task stuns him.

“Nobody knows the pride I’ve got in this – the pride and the passion.

” I’m apprehensive too. It’s a big job – a big responsibility. If you do it right, you can change things and you can do good stuff for the union and the members. And you can be a good figurehead and a good ambassador.

‘I wanted to represent people; to be in a union that cared’

“I think everyone in the union is an ambassador. And we’re good human beings; and we’re funny and we have all the feelings everybody else has – as we laugh and cry and work together for a common good.”

So how are things going so far?

“I feel like my first week at school!” he jokes, but what he hopes for in the coming year is to be a good leader for the union.

“I think I’ve got the philosophy of a leader. It’s to make people in this union feel good about the union, about the job that they do, about the public services they provide.

“I think I can play a part in that.

“I will put my heart and soul into being the face of this union – and if I can make one difference in the year, make people realise that the union is a good thing, to be in a union is a good thing … if people can say at the end: ‘Eric made me feel good’ … that’s what I want.”

A passionate Liverpool FC fan, he’d like to emulate coach Jürgen Klopp. “He’s passionate. He loves people, he hugs people – but he’s also tough and he knows what he wants.

“So if me and Jürgen, at the end of the next 12 months, can both celebrate – that’ll be great!”

‘I want to make people feel good about the union, about the job that they do, about the public services they provide’

And watching whether there can be such a twin triumph will be Eric’s four brothers and two grown-up children.

So, while the coming year could hold anything from a hard day’s night to a revolution, let’s make sure that, for Eric’s year as UNISON president, he’ll never walk alone.