Like everyone who knew Rodney Bickerstaffe, or Bick as he was affectionately known, especially NUPE lay activists and staff, I have many fond memories of him and believe that it is time I put a few of those memories in writing.
Rodney and the Trades Council
Long before being appointed to the NUPE organising staff in1980 I was active in both the Bakers union and the AUEW in and around Doncaster, (Bick’s home town), so became aware of his work, support and dedication to the low paid workers in NUPE and the wider labour movement.
I worked for a bakery owned by Rank Hovis McDougal in Thorne, 12 miles east of Doncaster. Active in the Bakers union I was elected to the Thorne and District Trades council and later became its president. Along with our secretary Leighgay Shipley, a well known NUPE activist who would be remembered by delegates and staff for his robust interventions at many NUPE conferences, we attempted to strengthen the council. However, it became obvious that this would not be possible and consequently it was decided to merge with the Doncaster Trades Council. As a result its name was changed to the Doncaster and District Trades Council. It was a very active trades council and probably one of, if not the most militant in the country. It organised many demonstrations, gave support to union branches and was always ready to support pickets of striking workers.
It was at this time I first met Rodney, who regularly attended trades council meetings and was always very vociferous, helpful and constructive. Rodney of course later became General Secretary of NUPE and other delegates who became well known in the trade union movement were Arthur Scargill, President of the NUM, Ken Sampey, President of NACODS, George Brumwell, General Secretary of UCATT, Brian Day, District Secretary of Doncaster and Barnsley AUEW. Not bad for one trades council in the late 1960s/early 70’s.
Rodney and The Queen
In 1980 I was appointed Area Officer for NUPE with responsibility for members in Cornwall (South West division) and Rodney became General Secretary in 1981.
In 1984, he was invited to attend a dinner organised by the NUPE North Cornwall Government branch, whose secretary was Eric Hayne. Bick arrived in Plymouth on the Friday and I took him round the television and radio stations covering Cornwall and Plymouth. I have no hesitation in stating that as a result of those interviews the Trade union movement increased its membership and activism throughout the county.
On the Saturday he attended and spoke at the NUPE shop stewards committee (Branch District Committee) and not surprisingly received a standing ovation and generated massive enthusiasm throughout the county which was not best known for its activism.
On Saturday evening, accompanied by Frank Huff, South West Divisional Officer and myself, he spoke prior to the dinner, again receiving a standing ovation. After an excellent meal and lively conversation, Eric Hayne thanked everyone for their attendance with special thanks to Bick and immediately afterwards requested all present to be upstanding and drink a toast to the queen. Bick looked at Frank Huff in amazement , and Frank in turn looked at me and the three of us remained in our seats, perhaps because the queen was not a NUPE member! Rodney never let me forget about the dinner in Camelford, North Cornwall. “Bless our Gracious General Secretary”
Rodney & Privatisation
Rodney was of course vehemently opposed to all forms of privatisation and defended the public sector at every opportunity. In September 1983 Cornwall hospitals were among the first to implement Margaret Thatcher’s legislation on privatisation, and put its laundry services out to tender. A county wide campaign of opposition then followed.
At 6am one morning I was woken by the home phone ringing and as I answered it I was greeted by a resounding “Good Morning, it’s Bickerstaffe here”. I immediately stood to attention. He asked me what the weather was like in Cornwall and, rather foolishly, I said that I didn’t know as our curtains were still closed, to which he replied that he expected all officers to be out recruiting at that time of the morning. In an attempt to redeem myself I said that normally I would be but I’d been out ’till the early hours of the morning recruiting the night shift at Truro Hospital. (I’m not convinced that he believed me!) He then requested me to do him a favour and cover for him in a debate on the BBC radio 4 Today programme about the privatisation of the public sector because he had another appointment. I agreed and he said I could do this by telephone, that the programme was going out live at 8am and that there would be a Tory MP in the studio. The radio debate lasted about 12 minutes. Incidentally the Tory MP in the studio was Mrs Theresa May, later to become Prime Minister. I am sure that had Rodney been able to participate Mrs May and her privatisation views would have been politely ridiculed and she may never have become PM.
Bick and our baby
Another fond memory of him was during the 1987 GCHQ rally and march in Cheltenham. I was approached by Frank Huff asking me if I would I mind taking Rodney back to the Cheltenham station as he had to catch a train back to London to be in time to address the Wapping strikers rally and picket. I of course agreed and told Frank that I had Sue (my wife) and our 3 month old daughter (Eleanor) with me but there would still be room in the car.
After the rally I found Bick, who politely asked if I could make room in the car for another who was also heading for Wapping.I thought it would be a bit of a squeeze but said it wouldn’t be a problem. Seconds later Jimmy Knapp, General Secretary NUR, arrived at the car. Rodney was a tall man but Jimmy was rather larger and I therefore suggested that Sue could sit in the back with the baby on her knee and Bick or Jimmy could sit in the front. They would have none of this and insisted that Sue remained in the front and they would both sit in the back with the carry cot and Eleanor across their knees, and off we went to the station. Unfortunately I did not have time to take a photograph but I’m sure such a sight would have caused much merriment!
I of course have many more great memories of Rodney and it has been great to record a few personal friendly recollections of a comrade, a fighter and a leader of working people.
Ken Terry, NUPE 1980 -1993 and UNISON 1993 -2009