The right man for this job

Reporter’s Guide in association with Unite the Union

On a dreich March morning more than a decade ago an unnoticed mourner stood outside a Glasgow cemetery in the rain because there was no room inside the crematorium chapel.

That man was Gordon Brown and the man he came to remember was Jimmy Airlie, the leader of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilding workers. Jimmy was a former shop steward who took on the Tories and saved the yards.

The then-shadow chancellor wanted to pay his respects to a man he admired and a union struggle that he supported as a young lad.

The only time I ever remember Tony Blair talking about trade unions was to attack them. In fact he hated them. Indeed, Tony Blair spent many hours trying to work out how he could engineer a split between Labour and the unions. The unions were just as determined to keep ‘The Link’and in Gordon Brown they had a very strong ally.

Now before trade union members get all excited that we have a Prime Minister who will support them they should know that Gordon Brown will not be a soft touch – just ask the civil service unions who have been unsuccessfully fighting treasury-led job cuts and wage restraint. What the unions will get from Prime Minister Brown though is someone who is prepared to listen.

The unions will also get someone who is prepared to support union activity – with funds – if he thinks the money is being well spent. The Prime Minister has been a driving force behind the unions’ learning programmes.

Tony Woodley of the T&G has something in common with Gordon Brown. He too admired Jimmy Airlie and learnt a few tricks from the red Clydesider when they were the chief union negotiators for the Ford workforce. Woodley was a militant leader of the Liverpool Vauxhall workers before taking on national office and chief negotiator in the car industry.

He joined a long list of former car workers, including Ron Todd, who became general secretary of the TGWU. He was initially seen as a hothead but proved all his detractors wrong by negotiating some of the best wages and conditions in British industry.

Tony is now widely respected in the union movement. He is not just a shrewd negotiator, he is always prepared to say what he thinks particularly, to elected politicians, and is one of the few union leaders who have a direct line to the new Prime Minister.

The Jimmy Airlie connection includes Derek Simpson of Amicus. They were both members of the Communist Party. Derek was the Sheffield district secretary of the engineering union for many years and gained wide respect in the union movement by taking on ‘Tony Blair’s favourite union leader”, right-wing electrician Ken Jackson, for the job as general secretary. He actually put his own job on the line because if he had lost, under the rules he would have to have vacate his position in Sheffield.

Derek has since transformed his union and seen off the old right wing. The new general secretary was probably the first union leader not only to understand the use of new technology but someone who could use it himself. He’s a fanatical computer buff and has every new gadget available.

The merger with the TGWU would have been impossible under the old guard. In his first interview as Amicus general secretary he promised to ‘give Tony Blair a migraine”. He will be a lot nicer to Gordon Brown, a man he genuinely respects.

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