Though known mainly as one of the most influential trade union leaders of his generation, Rodney Bickerstaffe, who died on 3 October 2017 at the age of 72, was also a passionate upholder of the memory of the International Brigades.
He was a founding Trustee of the International Brigade Memorial Trust and served in that capacity until 2012, when he became one of its Patrons.
Writing in 2014, Bickerstaffe said: ‘It’s vital that future generations learn the lessons of what happened in Spain and know about the sacrifice of so many decent people in the cause of freedom, social justice and democracy – a struggle that continues to this day.’
Rodney’s mentor as a trade unionist and socialist was Jack Jones, the Liverpool docker who became leader of the T&G (now part of Unite) and who was a veteran of the British Battalion at the Battle of the Ebro in 1938 and Life President of the IBMT.
Despite an age gap of more than 30 years, Rodney and Jack were also close friends. They first met in the early 1970s and kept in touch from then on. In 2001 Rodney accepted Jack’s invitation to became a founding Trustee of the IBMT. They travelled to Spain together to visit the Ebro battlefield in 2005 and Rodney, along with son Mick Jones, was at Jack’s bedside when he died four years later.
Jack Jones, however, was not alone in imbuing Rodney with the story and spirit of the International Brigades. His admiration for the volunteers who fought fascism in Spain had its origins in his own mother’s passionate support for their cause.
Pearl Bickerstaffe passed on her memories and lessons from the war in Spain to her son. Some of Rodney’s earliest childhood recollections were of looking through two large volumes of newspaper cuttings chronicling the tragic defeat of the Spanish Republic that his mother had kept while working at the time as a children’s nurse in south Yorkshire.
The cuttings were published two years ago as ‘A Spanish Civil War Scrapbook’ (Lawrence & Wishart/IBMT, 2015).
In his foreword to the book Rodney Bickerstaffe wrote: ‘The scrapbook Pearl kept during the Spanish Civil War was one of her treasured possessions. I thumbed through its stark pictures as a small boy and as I grew older tried to make sense of the tragic defeat of democracy in Spain. I asked her questions about the war. Why did we lose? Why didn’t Britain help the Spanish Republic? Why is Franco still the dictator of Spain? Her answers taught me many things and helped shape the beliefs and values I still hold today. For example, there is a time to fight in a foreign war, just as there is a time not to. And it’s better to trust the decent values of working people than it is to be swayed by the spin and self-interested arguments of the powerful.’
In his union career, Rodney rose through the ranks of the National Union of Public Employees to become its General Secretary in 1981 and, following NUPE’s merger with other unions, the General Secretary of Unison until 2001.
In his tribute to ‘Bick’, current Unison General Secretary Dave Prentis described him as ‘a true giant of our movement’ and a dedicated champion of all the union members he proudly represented. ‘He coupled a great sense of humour and love of laughter with a deep-rooted sense of social justice.’
Prentis added: ‘When asked what he believed his greatest achievements were, Rodney would respond: the National Minimum Wage and the creation of Unison. I’m sure many of us recall the powerful speeches and advocacy he provided to deliver these goals.’
Following retirement from Unison in 2001, Rodney followed in Jack Jones’s footsteps and was the President of the National Pensioners Convention for four years. Until his death he remained active in many campaigns and organisations, including being President of War on Want and Vice President of the Marx Memorial Library.
In recent years he was a regular speaker at IBMT events, notably the annual commemoration held in July on London’s Southbank.
There will be a private family funeral, and the family have requested no flowers but for any donations to be made to either Marie Curie (www.mariecurie.org.uk/donate) or the IBMT (www.international-brigades.org.uk/product/donations-ibmt).
Jim Jump, Secretary of the IBMT