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Labour Movement Thank you to my old friend, ‘Bick,’ for doing what was right

JEREMY CORBYN pays tribute to the late Rodney Bickerstaffe, former general secretary of Unison

RODNEY BICKERSTAFFE was an outstanding trade unionist, a great socialist and a committed internationalist as well as a warm and fun loving friend. 

I have never forgotten speaking at a 100,000-strong rally at the opening of the World Social Forum in Mumbai in 2004. 

It was a huge affair with speakers from across the world such as Arundhati Roy, Shirin Ebadi and Mustafa Barghouti, but as I started to speak, I noticed a hand frantically waving at me from the back of the crowd. 

As this waving limb got closer to the stage, I realised that it belonged to somebody with horn-rimmed glasses and a beaming grin that was so warm and friendly that it could only have belonged to one person, Rodney Bickerstaffe.

Rodney always had an incredible knack of turning up everywhere, where you least expected him, but wherever he appeared, it was always to stand up for a just cause that he believed in, which in this case was the rights of both trade unions and the continually oppressed Dalit people.

I first met Rodney in 1974 when we were both officials for the National Union of Public Employees. I was an officer in London representing education and health workers and Rodney became the national officer for health, leading us through the 1982 NHS pay dispute.

He became general secretary of NUPE just as I was being selected to fight Islington North for Labour. He came to campaign for me there, just as he did in every subsequent election that occurred up until 2017 when he was unable to.

Indeed, despite being a general secretary of a major union, he would always campaign on polling day in Lewisham where he lived, turning up at 7am to drive residents to the polling station. That was Rodney, he got stuck in and he got stuff done.

After succeeding Alan Fisher as general secretary of NUPE and its merged successor Unison, Rodney led the union that was the most socially and racially diverse union, with the greatest proportion of women members, in Britain.

As general secretary, he sat on general council of the TUC, allowing him to push forward one of the great causes of his life and of his trade union, a statutory minimum wage. 

The idea of a national minimum wage for working people is now accepted across the entire labour movement and even further afield, but at the time it was bitterly opposed by many in the unions who saw it as an infringement on free collective bargaining and wage differentials.

Rodney and other comrades who believed in a minimum wage won the argument, however, convincing both the TUC and the Labour Party of its merits. 

This led directly to its introduction by the last Labour government, an enormous contribution to raising the wages of those who suffer the lowest pay in our society.

After retiring as general secretary of Unison in 2001, Rodney told me that he was going to dedicate himself to other causes both here and across the globe. 

He spent four years as president of the National Pensioners Convention, building on his previous work for pensions to be linked with earnings and prices.

He was a consistent champion of the Traveller community in Britain, who still face considerable discrimination, instead of being provided with appropriate sites and education which Rodney believed they deserved. 

He was also a great supporter of the anti-austerity movement at a time when many believed that austerity was an economic necessity and not the political choice that we now know it to be.

Rodney’s socialism did not stop at national barriers however. He had a genuine commitment to internationalism and at various times was president of War on Want and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Solidar Global Network, as well as being a patron of the Dalit Solidarity Network and the Anti-Apartheid Movement.

His output as a trade unionist and political campaigner was prodigious and it was based in his genuine love for his fellow human beings and an unnerving belief that a fairer society was possible.

Rodney, thank you for always being guided by what was right and not just what was easy, the time and energy you gave to supporting causes great and small, your unnerving support of Doncaster Rovers and your consistent good humour and grace which made me proud to be your comrade and your friend.

Jeremy Corbyn is leader of the Labour Party. 

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