8 Days Remaining

Wednesday 4th
posted by Morning Star in Features

Trade unionists and figures from the labour movement remember the former general secretary of Unison – a staunch defender of the working class

Unison general secretary

Rodney, or Bick as he was known to many, was a great personal friend to many of us and a dedicated champion of all the union members he proudly represented throughout his career. 

He coupled a great sense of humour and love of laughter with a deep-rooted sense of social justice and commitment to Unison.

Our thoughts are with Rodney’s family, especially his wife Pat who was an ever-present support to him in all his work and was the love of his life.

At the time of Rodney’s death it is worth reflecting on his response during the Winter of Discontent to the question “what about the dignity of the dead?” 

Rodney replied: “What about the dignity of the living?” 

We at Unison hold this truth close — and we will continue Rodney’s fight to ensure dignity for our members, our families and all in our communities.

When asked what he believed his greatest achievements were, he 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. 

Rodney was at his best when he was fighting for the causes he believed in, and our movement has today lost one of the greatest campaigners and orators of his generation.

Everyone involved in our union will share in the grief felt at Rodney’s passing. He was a friend, a comrade and a leader, and thanks to his work the lives of countless people have been changed for the better.

Rodney was the very best of us, a true giant of our movement and we will all miss him greatly.

Jon Skewes 
Policy director at the Royal College of Midwives

I worked for Rodney as Unison was formed. He was an inspirational leader, a very funny man and had the capacity to remember the name of every member he’d ever met. 

I met Rodney after he retired on a number of occasions and he was a kind of unofficial historian of the trade union movement and its leadership. He knew everyone. 

He was irrepressibly chirpy, and had just huge commitment to the trade union movement, the Labour Party and progressive causes throughout his lifetime. We will miss him greatly.

His speeches were joke after joke after joke, usually pointed at leading members of the Conservative government.

He played a huge part in a bottom-up critique of Thatcherism.

Rodney wore his learning and intelligence lightly — using people’s language and humour to undermine the power that certain people had at the time.

Jon Lansman
Chair of Momentum

I remember sitting with Rodney in the Westminster Arms after the Refugees Welcome demo that followed Jeremy’s election. Rodney was incredibly enthusiastic and excited about Jeremy’s election.
He was general secretary through a period in which the Labour Party moved significantly to the right. 

Rodney did what any pragmatic leader of a trade union needed to do in terms of maintaining relationships with Labour. But his heart was always on the left.

The national minimum wage was one of his most important achievements. It was symbolic that he took over from Jack Jones as head of the National Pensioners’ Convention. Rodney succeeded Jack as a towering figure of the movement. They both had a similar stature in the movement. 

Heather Wakefield 
Unison head of local government

What I always really appreciated about Rodney was the incredible respect he had for members, members of staff. He’d ask how your aunty Mary was, he’d come round and have a chat with staff. 

He was such a voice for those society takes for granted, like gravediggers and care workers. 

“The personal is political” really meant something to him.

Dennis Skinner

I planned to go and visit Rodney in the hospice probably tonight or tomorrow — I’d got the map out to see where it was — but I was too late.

Rodney was a first-class trade union leader. He was on the left, and he was not one that wobbled or wafted in the wind. 

He had a tremendous voice, I don’t think he fully appreciated it, but he had a voice for the big crowds.

All in all, you can look back over his record and he was always fighting the hardest battles. Rodney was never found wanting.

Jeremy Corbyn

Rodney was a warm, decent and principled man, an outstanding trade unionist and socialist, and a great friend and support to me over many years. 

We worked together in Nupe when I became an area officer for the union in 1974. As national officer for health in the 1982 pay dispute, he was such a huge help to our members.

Among so many memories of Rodney from the events and conferences we both attended, perhaps my most cherished is the opening of the World Social Forum in Mumbai in 2004. 

It was a huge event, held in the evening under floodlights, and as I was leaving the stage, that familiar voice called out to me to express his genuine joy that such an enormous range of campaigns from all over the world had been brought together in one place.

I last saw Rodney just before Labour Party conference and was deeply moved by the love for him shown by all the staff, from all over the world, at University College Hospital. 

Despite his pain and sadness at his condition, he was full of optimism and hope.

We talked of Nupe days, our friend Tony Benn and health campaigns around the world. At the end of our lovely chat he told me, in mock commander tones, to go home and said how pleased he was at the success of our party and wished us well for conference.

Thank you, Rodney, for being a pal, a leader and a very decent human being.

Frances O’Grady
TUC general secretary

I’m very sad to hear that Rodney has passed. Not every union leader can say they were loved. But Rodney was loved by everyone.

He was a very warm and charismatic leader, with an amazing ability to remember everybody’s name regardless of job or rank.

Rodney will be remembered as a great champion for equality and social justice, especially for low-paid women. He was the powerhouse behind the introduction of the national minimum wage.

Rodney was a pillar of the TUC general council and our movement.

Len McCluskey
Unite general secretary

The union movement has lost one of its “greats” today. Rodney was renowned for his warmth and encouragement towards young activists building the foundation of future leadership. 

From us all, Rodney, thank you for all your service, your commitment to our values and your friendship. Our thoughts are with Rodney’s family and union friends.

Angela Rayner
Shadow education secretary and
former convener of Unison North West

I’m so sorry to hear of the death of Rodney Bickerstaffe. Rodney was a staunch defender of the working class. He was a giant in the trade union and working-class movement. I’m proud to have known him — such a fighter for justice.

Arthur Scargill
Former president of the National Union of Mineworkers 

Rodney was in the forefront in the defence of Britain’s National Health Service and sought justice for both employees and patients. 
He deplored the privatisation of the health service by both the Tories and New Labour; a principled position admired by trade unionists and socialists.

Rodney played an outstanding role in support of Britain’s miners in the historic 1984-85 strike. 

He, together with trade union leaders Jim Slater, Ron Todd, Jimmy Knapp, Ray Buckton and Ken Cameron provided moral, practical and financial support which enabled our members and women’s support group to sustain its monumental struggle against the Coal Board and government for over a year; the longest national strike in British history.

I have always had the utmost admiration for both Rodney and his wife Pat — who throughout have always campaigned as a team. 
Miners will never forget the role that Rodney played in support of the strike but also his role in supporting both young and old in their fight for equality and justice.

Rob Miller
Director of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign

Rodney was a wonderful friend to the people of Cuba. As general secretary of Unison, he was one of the key protagonists in the trade union movement here that helped bring the issue of solidarity with Cuba in from the cold and to the forefront of trade unionism in this country.

Rodney recognised the value of international solidarity and saw that Cuba offered a real alternative to the cuts and austerity-led agenda which so marred the lives of millions of working people here and saw the ongoing assault on public-sector provision. 

John Haylett
Morning Star political editor

Rodney was elected to lead Unison in 1995, the year I took up the reins at the Morning Star. He was a consistent friend to the people’s paper, contributing regularly to its pages, offering advice freely and keeping my spirits high during periods of adversity with his generosity of spirit and sparkling wit.

Helen Hague 
Former Financial Times and
Independent industrial correspondent

Rodney was approachable, and always supportive of workers in struggle.

There was a great nobility about his solidarity. He was such a brilliant guy. It’s such a cliche to say he was an inspiration to many, but he was.

He got so much shit in the Winter of Discontent — he was at the sharp end of the abuse. He rose above it completely, by focusing on the cause of low pay. He had time for people — he had no truck with any kind of hierarchy.