IT WAS with great sadness this week that we learned of GMB’s national president Mary Turner passing away after a typically brave fight against cancer.
To say Mary was a GMB institution would be understating it.
I have often described her as the “beating heart” of GMB, and she has been that for a generation of trade unionists.
A working-class woman who came to England from her home in Tipperary, her family settled in Kilburn, London.
The first thing her father asked her when she started work at 16 was “have you joined the union yet?”
She had, and never looked back. How thankful we all are for that.
Mary worked in Jackson’s the Tailors on Oxford Street where she joined the Tailor and Garment Workers’ Union (which fittingly would go on to amalgamate with GMB) before working in the print trade and being elected as mother of the chapel.
She met her beloved Denny and married him within six weeks of their first meeting, they shared a life of love and humour with their kids Denise and John and grandkids after that. We sadly lost Denny in 2015, and I know Mary missed him terribly.
When Mary and Denny’s children were young, Mary gave up full-time work, returning part-time as a dinner lady at Salisbury Road School in Brent to fit in with their routines and holidays.
She was already an experienced trade unionist and it took her no time at all to see that things weren’t right — people needed organising! Mary recruited her nine workmates to the General and Municipal Workers’ Union (GMWU) and when confronted by management, who demanded to know who she thought she was, replied laconically: “I’m their representative.” The rest is history.
It was at this time Mary found the campaign that she would champion for the rest of her life, in the fight for free school meals for all.
Mary and her co-workers saw what it meant for kids to go hungry, and the stigma attached to those queuing up in separate lines for their lunch.
She even appeared in a Labour Party party political broadcast on the subject in the 1980s, and I know she was proud when Labour adopted it as policy.
It wasn’t always easy for Mary as a prominent female trade unionist.
When she was first elected to the executive she was the only woman.
I’m not sure many of the men around at the time believed she would be there to stay, but along with her regional secretary John Cope, and later Paul Kenny, she showed exactly what she was about.
Mary was elected as our president in 1997 and has served in that role continuously ever since — a true example to working-class women everywhere, she never forgot where she came from and she never forgot why she was there.
GMB Congress will not be the same without Mary.
She has been a fixture chairing the business for longer than some of our young members have been alive.
Always a calming and supportive figure to first-time delegates when taking to the Congress rostrum to make their inaugural speeches, but a firm hand when delegates tried to bend the rules. Always with humour, always with compassion and always with a warmth that so many GMB members will remember her for.
Mary loved to laugh.
She regaled members and officers with tales from her early trade union days.
Many stories centred on pranks played by Paul Kenny on her or Denny at one time or another.
Over many years I have watched Mary with great love and affection; such eloquence mixing humour with grit, so caring and inspiring to all in her presence and so generous with her time, up for a chat and a joke.
But in recent months I was lucky to get really close to Mary and her wonderful family and enjoyed many a laugh about Mary’s love of jellied eels, the innocent mischief the kids got up to and the football divide in the family between Arsenal and Spurs.
I can pay her no higher compliment than, for those all too brief months, it felt as if I had my hero in life back on this Earth, my darling mum.
The word giant is sometimes overused but in the case of Mary she really was a true giant of our movement.
She has left this world having made a real difference to people’s lives, that’s something people in our movement aspire to.
Mary will be deeply missed by all of us and our thoughts and love are with Mary’s family, whom she loved so very much.
Mary may be gone, but she has left behind a union that has the values and principles she fought her whole life for at its heart.
In that spirit, we will mourn our loss but also celebrate her life.
If Morning Star readers would like to share your thoughts, stories or memories with Mary’s friends, family and GMB, we have opened a book of condolences — please click www. gmb.org.uk/ourmary The world truly is a sadder place with the loss of “our Mary.”