KEN CAMERON, whose funeral takes place in Glasgow today, was a rarity in the trade union movement in that he was not merely popular but actually loved by virtually all who met him.
Born in Fort William and proud of his Highland roots, this gentle Highlander was without ego and, even after taking up the reins of Fire Brigades Union in 1980, retained his gentility.
Philippa Clark, who went to work for Ken in 1987 as his research officer, already knew him as a “great socialist comrade” and knew of his achievements for firefighters.
But her overriding memory of working for him is that, “whenever he wanted anything, he always asked pleasantly and politely and always said thank you.
“He could have said: ‘Phil, you need to do this and I want you to do that,’ but courtesy and politeness were what he showed to all staff in the building.”
Looking back now, she regards working for Ken as a “huge privilege.”
Ken’s wife Nuala, who was already working at the FBU when Ken became general secretary, also remembers his kindness, especially with young members.
“He always took time and patience to sit with them. He wasn’t remote, always approachable, and enjoyed debate with younger people.”
But she also recalls his “terrier-like negotiating skills” when face-to-face with employers on behalf of the membership.
Ruth Winters, the first ever FBU woman president, sees Ken as “the sort of man who made me and many others the people we are today.
“Personally, I just adored him, I loved him as a father figure.”
She was most influenced by Ken’s humanity and internationalism, explaining: “Being a trade unionist is one thing, but some people miss the bigger picture. Ken never moved away from difficult conversations with members. He took on amazing issues — Venezuela, Colombia, Palestine in particular.”
Winters notes that, when Ken and his then president Ronnie Scott “weren’t sure about the route they were taking on equalities, they always listened to people like us who were going through it and they actually acted upon it.”
National officer John McGhee was one of Ken’s younger members who first heard him speak at union conference in 1989.
“He opened conference with a speech in defence of the Liverpool football fans after Hillsborough, saying we don’t believe the papers,” McGhee says, impressed at Ken’s far-sightedness and readiness to stand against the tide.
He cites Ken’s impish humour during an evening meeting with previously unknown Tory minister Lord Ferrers.
“I’m Ken Cameron. Call me Ken, what do I call you?” was Ken’s opening gambit. He was told: “I’m Lord Ferrers. Call me Lord Ferrers.”
For the rest of the evening, Ken called his noble pomposity “Comrade Lord.”
McGhee identifies himself as always a big Ken supporter, but “we had our disagreements. You could disagree with Ken, but it was never personal. Five minutes later, he’d move on and you’d be discussing a horse race, football or families.”
For Micky Nicholas, the first black EC member representing black and ethnic minority members, the most important thing about Ken was his support for what were seen as minority causes.
“He always backed the underdog. He supported international causes long before they became international causes,” he says listing Nelson Mandela and the Anti-Apartheid Movement, Cuba, Nicaragua, Palestine, Venezuela, Polisario’s struggle in the Western Sahara and many more.
Nicholas points to the significance of Ken’s decision, after evidence of ill-treatment and discrimination against black, women and lesbian and gay FBU members came to light, that the union “would be the flag-bearer for encouraging and supporting people like myself to self-organise.
“Some good comrades of Ken fell out with him over it because he was determined to do something.
“He said he couldn’t go from fighting for Mandela and the ANC and not doing the same in his own union, which was all about self-organisation and self-representation.
“That encapsulated Ken for me. If it was the right cause for the right reason, Ken always supported it.”
South African Rivonia trialist Denis Goldberg remembers arriving in London after 22 years in an apartheid jail ready to take his place again in the struggle. “Among the first active trade unions I came across in the fight against apartheid and the building of solidarity with the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party was the Fire Brigades Union where Ken played such a leading role,” he says. “Besides stirring addresses on the issues, I recall convivial evenings of intense discussion and certainty that the course of action we supported was the right way to go. “Come hell or high water, come opposition from bosses and politicians, Ken knew that the struggle must continue. “We need more giants of the working class movement like Ken Cameron.” Cuba Solidarity Campaign director Rob Miller and national secretary Bernard Regan praise Ken as a “wonderful friend to the people of Cuba.” They acknowledge his role in leading the FBU to “a position of unswerving support for the Cuban people and their struggle for national self-determination, free from the constant aggression of US interference in their affairs. “He was a great supporter of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign and spoke at many CSC events up and down the country.” From Palestine, Nablus Fire Department chief Ramez Al-Dele’ wrote on behalf of local firefighters to express “condolences to his bereaved family, FBU members and all firefighters in the UK. “Nothing compensates our sad feelings for the loss of our beloved who shared all our moments of unity and support during the journey of life.” Former public service union Unison general secretary Rodney Bickerstaffe, who served on the TUC general council with Ken, remembers how seriously Ken took solidarity with the Palestinian people. “He was always so annoyed that, if you spoke up and said there was something rotten in the state of Israel, you would be accused of anti-semitism, which was totally untrue. And that attitude is still around today.” Summing up Ken’s qualities, he offers loyalty and prescience of what is right and what is wrong. “With Ken, you always got consistent support, no matter how difficult the road was. There was never any thought of reward for him personally or his union. People who say trade unionists are all for themselves, Ken Cameron belied that in spades,” he declares. Bickerstaffe alludes to Ken’s liking for the “occasional glass of whisky and a cigarette,” noting his gregarious nature. “There was always a huge amount of laughs. He had a phenomenal stock of memories of right-wing people, left-wing people, various occasions. “Drinking sessions weren’t just for drink. They were for learning and teaching. If I sat down for a glass or two, I would rise up a lot wiser and more knowledgeable,” he insists. Bickerstaffe stresses that, while Ken was a life-long Labour Party member, he was one of those Labour people who was “as close as close to the Communist Party and a great supporter of the Morning Star.” Ken expressed this support during the crisis at the paper in 1998 when I was sacked as editor and National Union of Journalists members went on strike for my reinstatement, backed by a petition organised by the Campaign to Save the Morning Star signed by large numbers of the paper’s shareholders. Ken chaired the pre-strike rally in London’s Conway Hall at which a group of likely lads opposing strike marched into the hall and placed themselves in the front row directly facing Ken. He reacted to the suggestion that this might be intended to put pressure on him by observing loudly: “They’ll no’ intimidate me,” discarding his speech notes and delivering a barnstorming performance, complete with jabbing finger, berating the paper’s management committee for causing the crisis at the Morning Star and backing the journalists’ strike decision. After the successful culmination of the strike, Ken took over as chair of the management committee and worked to extend trade union support for, and involvement in, the paper. Ken’s aptitude for telling stories and making jokes about people was matched by his ability to laugh too at tales in which he starred.
John McGhee gives as an example the occasion when he, Ken and others were walking from a meeting in the Scottish FBU regional offices through Glasgow’s Enoch Square where a scene, involving a small fascist rally, from the popular cop series Taggart was being filmed.
“We knew they were filming, but Ken didn’t. He heard this right-wing shouting and bawling and he’s set off. He didn’t say to the rest of us, let’s get them off the street. He just went for it.
“We just caught up with him and told him about the filming before he disrupted the scene.”
McGhee also recalls national pay negotiations in London’s Belgrave Square in the midst of a Tory government-imposed 1.5 per cent pay rise for public-sector workers and FBU determination to stick to the national pay formula won in the 1978 strike.
“We were outside chanting: ‘You can stick your 1.5 per cent’ and Ken emerged onto the balcony to report: ‘Comrades, we’ve defended the pay formula — 1.4 per cent!’”
Nevertheless, “he was a good negotiator and we still believed in him.”
All good things come to an end and Ken’s stint as general secretary finished in 2000 and he and Nuala were able to relax on holiday in Kefalonia or visiting relatives in Australia.
But, apart from keeping his hand in with employment tribunals, the central arbitration committee and Unite Against Fascism, Ken used to meet up with old FBU cronies Ronnie Scott and Bill Craig in his local Shawlands pub Heraghty’s.
“I called them the Last of the Summer Wine. He didn’t drink as much after he retired, but he still enjoyed the craic in pubs,” says Nuala.
Ken Cameron leaves his beloved wife Nuala, children Ewen, Helen and stepson Sean , and grandchildren Hannah, Luke, Malachy, Roisin, Katie and another Roisin.
His funeral takes place today at Linn Crematorium, 413 Lainshaw Drive, Glasgow G45 9SP at 1pm. Afterwards at the Carnbooth House Hotel, 80 Busby Road, Carmunnock, Glasgow G76 9EH.