Rodney Bickerstaffe and the late Ken Gill were trade union contemporaries in battles against a former Conservative government, fighting for social justice and jobs and against attacks on employment rights and public services. Now chair of a non-charitable trust to celebrate and continue Ken’s legacy, the former UNISON general secretary reflects on the life of his long-time friend and says the struggles they fought together are in many ways no different than the struggles of today.
Rodney, first of all, tell us a little about Ken?
“First, Ken had this great burr from Wiltshire. It wasn’t dialect because it had been topped off with London. But he was able privately and publicly to get his points over – sometimes very hard points – with that lovely mellifluous language.
Second he was a giant of a man. He was a big man and he had a great sense of presence on platform or off the platform. As well as his presence he had this intellect and behind that a hinterland of literature and political study, although Ken came from a modest upbringing and knew real poverty a kid. He was self taught in many ways – his education was in the University of Life.
Thirdly the core of the man was that he was a communist. Way back in his distant youth, he met a communist and it sparked off a deep interest in politics and the philosophy of the left. It never left him. He developed it all through his life.
He was a great teacher. He used to say: ‘Rodney, there’s this book here, this is something you ought to read and think about’. And he had this great sense of humour, a charm about him that went with his accent and a great intelligence.
As a trade unionist, he was always on the other side so far as the establishment was concerned, whether it was in his own union as a young man or eventually at the TUC, where he served for 18 years on the General Council as well as being President.
And when it came to the Labour Party Ken was always to the Left, speaking his mind, patting people on the head where he thought it was appropriate, but more often than not saying to them: ‘This isn’t right, we are all going to pay for it in due course’.
Despite his radical viewpoint, he was respected by many on the right-wing of the trade union movement and politics. Even employers and captains of industry at the end of the day were saying: ‘This is one straight and clever man.’
But he’d also get very very angry about the wrongs to the disadvantaged and the poor.
I got to know Ken when I was young official in London in the mid-70s. I was one of the ones that he arrested his mantle on in a sense, and it turned into a great friendship.
Ken finished school at 15, trained and worked as a draughtsman and then got involved in the union TASS, which he led for 18 years and which through various mergers is now Unite. So, much of his life he was representing workers in the private sector, but he took a much broader view….
Ken was one of the few people who wasn’t in the public sector who sided with me and mine. He was a huge supporter of public services and nationalisation. He would always be found in a corner arguing with somebody who thought that we should have PFI or privatisation or outsourcing of public services.
He would say: ‘Look don’t accept this view that the private sector is everything and that the public sector ought to be down on their knees bowing and thanking the private sector for using the wealth off which the public sector lives.’
He would say, it’s much much more a two way thing. Without proper state-funded healthcare, without proper state education, without state support in various other ways, at the end of the day, the private sector would suffer and you would end up with a downward spiral and we’d all be poorer.
You met Ken in the 1970s and shared many of the subsequent battles against the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher into the 1980s and early 1990s. We now have a Conservative Government again. How much has changed?
1970s, 80s, 90s, noughties, Ken would be saying they are the same battles: trade unions under attack; cuts to the public sector; privatisation; millions of unemployed.
The theme we got from Tories at the time was that unemployment was a price worth paying. They say: ‘It’s harsh – but you will thank us at the end of the day’. Well not families who broke up because of that unemployment. Not families whose bread winners may have committed suicide because of the pressures. Not families who saw their hopes and dreams dashed. We were a rich country but it was a divided society, no sense of social cohesion. And into the 80s it got worse. The rich got richer the poor got poorer.
This is the case now. It’s not just the bankers’ bonuses, but huge pay and benefit packages enjoyed by the captains of industry. We see the huge profit margins of supermarkets and other multinationals, making billions of pounds. It’s the tesco-isation of the UK. We’ve got millions unemployed and more to come because of the cuts to public spending.
Privatisation wasn’t much of factor in the 1970s when I first met Ken. But it moved apace in the 1980s and in the 1990s, including under New Labour, all the way up to 2011 when we know that privatisation of the NHS is very very much on the cards.
So in many ways the challenges are identical. Ken would be saying, this is capitalism and class struggle – the ruling class looking after themselves and the working people having to fight every inch of the way to get a share of the wealth they create.
Just like in Thatcher’s days, the employers are demanding a clamp down on trade union rights – and they have a very receptive hearing in Government.
Yes – but these are not new messages. They go all the way back to Tolpuddle in 1834, this use of law to stop people gathering together, to stop them exercising their freedom of association. There are 6 ¼ million people in unions today – of course there were 12.5 million in Ken’s heyday.
But the lessons are the same – people have to learn all over again that there have to be protective laws to stop strong employers and strong politicians of the right who would move against trade unionism.
They can say when we take industrial action: ‘Think of the country, think about productivity’. And then just like that they move whole factories and whole industries to anywhere else in the world where there are no trade unions and a downward spiral on wages so they can make more profit. And then they con us by saying, ‘It’s so that you can have a cheap shirt, a cheap TV’. And you know what it is really. It is more profit for them.
Ken used to talk like this all the time. And of course, he was a central figure, helping to mobilise solidarity with the miners and printers who were victims of Thatcher’s anti-union laws. He also helped prepare the labour movement’s intellectual armoury by, for example, playing a leading role in establishing the Institute of Employment Rights.
Ken was passionate about the struggles of people across the globe against colonialism and racism, their battles for justice and freedom and their attempts to build a better future for themselves for freedom and justice. After retiring, he chaired the Cuba Solidarity Campaign between 1992 and 2009. Tell us about Ken the internationalist.
Internationally, Ken had huge outreach, not just Cuba although Cuba was something he was involved in from the word go. He was not somebody who came in late in the day but right from the beginning. He was inspired by the Cuban people’s determination against America and its blockade, to choose and control their destiny, build a society based on need not profit, and their achievements in health and education.
Ken made a major commitment to South Africa, both personally and through his union. When Mrs Thatcher was saying Nelson Mandela was a terrorist Ken saying just the reverse. Just an example – it was Ken, who ensured that there was deposit for Wembley stadium to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s birthday in 1988 which helped raised the profile of the anti-apartheid struggle worldwide.
Ken was totally anti-racist and abhorred the Apartheid system for the way it despised, segregated and oppressed black people.
Could you tell us about Ken and his favourite newspaper?
The Morning Star was the only long time supporter of his sort of politics and his sort of trade unionism. He would always read the Morning Star whatever else his favourite broadsheet was. A bit like Bernard Dicks, (former assistant general secretary of NUPE), who would always read the Morning Star and then The Daily Telegraph – to know what the other side were thinking! Ken was selling the Morning Star as a youngster, or the Daily Worker as it was then, and he continued to support it all his life, becoming and staying for many years the chair of the People’s Press Printing Society that publishes the Morning Star.
But it wasn’t all work…
Ken loved reading, he loved films. And he was a top class artist. You’d think it would be doodling. But in fact he would get the essence of somebody at a committee meeting, at a conference, at the TUC general council, in a cafe or restaurant, almost anywhere. And he’d find an appropriate line or two to go with it. There is a book of his cartoons. If people haven’t got the book, they should.
Rodney, you Chair of the Ken Gill Memorial Fund. Could you tell us about the purpose of the Fund?
After Ken died the family and Ken’s friends decided to establish The Ken Gill Memorial Fund, a non-charitable Trust. It will be in existence until 2017, the centenary of a very significant date, as well as 90 years after Ken’s birth.
By supporting the Fund people can help us continue in some way Ken’s life work: supporting the Morning Star; supporting strong trade unions and the battle to defend and improve trade union and employment rights; and supporting Cuba and solidarity with people around the world who are trying to build a better future for themselves.
But also, by supporting the Fund now people can allow us to keep his memory going after 2017. You can help us keep his ideals going as a beacon for people in the trade union and labour movement over the decades ahead.
I think it is very important that everybody who is conscious of Ken and what he did in his life supports the Fund.”
Ways you can remember Ken Gill
· Affiliate your branch to the Ken Gill Memorial Fund, or simply make a donation. Download an affiliation form at http://www.kengillmemorial.org/ or by contacting Tom Gill at email@example.com or 07961 222 853
· Order your copy of Hung, Drawn and Quartered: The Caricatures of Ken Gill from: The Morning Star, cheques for £12+£2 p+p should be sent to PPPS, William Rust House, 52 Beachy Road, London E3 2NS or call 020 8510 0815 to order by credit card.
Upcoming events supported by The Ken Gill Memorial Fund include:
• UNISON conference “One Good Cut” fringe meeting with Ben Dyson from Positive Money – Friends Meeting House, Mount Street, Manchester June 21st 12.45 pm
• A celebration of 50 years of UK solidarity with Cuba on Saturday 11 June. See more at http://www.cuba-solidarity.org.uk/news.asp?ItemID=2018
More information on the Ken Gill Memorial Fund and Ken Gill’s life, including photos and audiovisual material, at http://www.kengillmemorial.org/