By Nigel Flanagan in The Travelling Renegade
The passing of Rodney Bickerstaffe – a former General Secretary of UNISON, a leader in the British Trades Union Congress and a campaigner on so many issues – has been marked by genuine grief and sadness. Union members, activists and union staff will all be joined with his friends and family in mourning the loss of a great friend and comrade. Jeremy Corbyn led tributes to him in the UK Parliament (very rare for a trade union leader like `Bick`). So many others have written (with much more close knowledge of him than I have) about his absolute passion, warmth and intelligence.
When as Organisers we talk about leaders – Bick had all the abilities and skills we need. But I just want to dwell on the one rare thing he possessed. He had integrity.
Integrity does not come with the post. It has to be earned – the hard way.
His integrity was expressed in the fact that he was a consistent and passionate advocate of a minimum wage, even in the years when British unions had massive bargaining power. The Tony Blair government introduced it in its first Parliament largely because of what Bick had said and then done to make it a priority. As Tony Blair once said `you don`t boo Rodney Bickerstaffe` in reference to the price of trying to oppose him. The Minimum wage is now a permanent part of life in the UK, the only arguments being about it now are at what rate of pay it is set.
His integrity showed in his Internationalism. Not for Bick the showy photo opportunities but the hard task of advocating for the likes of Cuba and Palestine. He was part of the campaign in the UK that sustained the boycott movement of South Africa to defeat Apartheid. In his later life he dedicated much of his time as a Patron of the International Brigade Memorial Trust to ensure that the sacrifice of those volunteer fighters against Fascism in Spain are remembered. He is also remembered as the President of the superb UK Charity War on Want – constant campaigners for the Palestinian cause and many others.
He was a genuinely popular and respected General Secretary of UNISON, overcoming many obstacles to lead the creation of the union – a fantastic advance for public sector workers – and then leading the union as its first elected General Secretary. UNISON was never about Bick, he never saw it that way. He preferred the pride that its 1.3 million members had in their union.
Here again his integrity shone through. He stepped down as General Secretary at the age of 55. There was no desire on his part to cling to the position of General Secretary. Many thought this was a big mistake. He was perhaps too modest and did not realise how many members, activists and staff thought he was leaving too early and that he should have stayed on. He should have stayed on longer – because he had the integrity that would have made him a continued success.
He turned down many honours from the British State, including a seat in the House of Lords. Instead he went on to become General Secretary of the Pensioners Movement, campaigning passionately for a restoration of the link between pensions and wages, abandoned by Thatcher.
He stuck by the British Miners during their titanic year long strike in 1984. He worked hard – not to persuade them to return to work like so many General Secretaries and Labour Leaders at the time -but to support their cause, to raise solidarity and to argue their case. He stuck up for his class.
I was lucky to work with him for a very short time. He was warm and funny, he was caring and considerate. But mostly he was passionate – he had few enemies inside the movement because of respect for his intelligence and his true values. He took me for breakfast a few times, where he asked the famous Bick question – `what will he be like in front of the Bin Workers at 6.00 in the morning`- his litmus test for potential organisers! He was a fantastic active patron of the Jack Jones Trust, working with us in memory of his dear friend.
I want to quote the best thing he said to me about union work
`We do our bit and pass it on`.
I remember him as a warm and comradely man of great passion and intelligence. a great speaker, a super leader. But that word – integrity – is what I remember the most. The workers have lost a champion.
He more than did his bit, now he has passed it on. Thank you Comrade.