Former CSC chair and trade union leader Ken Gill dies

Campaign News | Saturday, 23 May 2009

Ken Gill, former chair of CSC died on Friday 23 May 2009.

The Campaign suffered its greatest loss with the death of Ken Gill who had been chair of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign and a member of the Campaign’s National Executive from 1993- 2008.

In recognition of the central role he had played in building the movement he was made on his retirement from the office in 2008 the first Honorary Member of the Campaign for his services to Cuba and the Cuba Solidarity Campaign. In one of the many tributes that were paid to him on that occasion by Cubans he was described as a “son of Cuba” which reflected the esteem in which he had been held in Cuba. He had also been awarded the Medal of Friendship by the Council of State at the behest of ICAP.

In his reply to the special presentation Ken said that the early days of solidarity work had been hard but he was proud to be a member of the Campaign, which he described as a star in the firmament of progressive movements and perhaps a model for other solidarity bodies.

Ken will be missed greatly by the Campaign and the wider trade union movement.

CSC stated:

Ken was an inspiration to all of us in the Cuba Solidarity Campaign in the struggle against the US blockade and to defend the sovereignty of Cuba.

Ken always said: “it is an honour to be involved in CSC because solidarity is the noblest of causes, and to give solidarity to the Cuban people is the greatest honour.”

The best testament we can give to Ken’s life is to continue that struggle.

'Hasta la victoria siempre'

From all in the Cuba Solidarity Campaign and Executive Committee

The Morning Star reported:

Ken Gill was born on August 29 1927 in Melksham, Wiltshire. During the second world war, aged 15, he became an apprentice draughtsman.

Gill was politicised at an early age, having experienced poverty in his childhood during the Great Depression and having lost his older brother Lesley, who was an airman in bomber command, during a raid over Germany.

During the war, his family took as a lodger a Welsh miner and Communist, who convinced the young Gill of the cause of socialism. At the end of the war, he became an election agent for the local Labour candidate in Melksham.

Gill was well known for his ability as a caricaturist, but his artistic talent was not limited to cartoons. As a child, his entry to a Daily Sketch competition of children's art was disqualified because the judges did not believe that a child could produce a work of such maturity.

As a working-class lad at that time, artistic talent was not a path to a creative career but to a seat in a drawing office and he duly "did his time" at a mechanical handling firm.

He continued in this field of engineering when he came to London, using his artistic skills to provide prospective customers with freehand perspective drawings.

In 1949 at the end of his apprenticeship, he moved to London and in 1950 he married Jacqueline Manley (nee Kemellardski), the former wife of Michael Manley, who later became prime minister of Jamaica.

In his early thirties, Gill became a director of a successful engineering firm, proving his skills as a salesman and negotiator.

However, his political commitments and involvement in trade unionism led him in a different direction.

He was elected as a regional official of the Draughtsmen's and Allied Technicians Association (DATA) in 1962 and was posted to Liverpool, with responsibility for Merseyside and Northern Ireland.

A wave of industrial militancy was sweeping both regions at the time, and Gill found himself leading workers in a series of industrial battles.

His success as a persuasive, militant but shrewd union official brought him higher office in 1968, when he was elected as deputy general secretary.

Two years earlier, he married Tess Gill, a civil rights lawyer and leading figure in the British women's movement. They had three children, Joe, Tom and Emma.

In 1974, Gill became general secretary of DATA's successor, the Technical, Administrative and Supervisory Staffs Association (TASS).

Faced with technological change and industrial decline during the 1980s, Gill reinvented TASS during the early part of that decade, taking in a range of unions, such as the Gold and Silver Workers, the Metal Mechanics, the Sheet Metal Workers and the Tobacco Workers Union.

In 1988, Gill and his long-time rival for the leadership of "white-collar" unionism Clive Jenkins - who was Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs general secretary - buried the hatchet and brought their two unions together to create one new union, Manufacturing, Science and Finance (MSF), with each as a joint general secretary.

Jenkins retired first and Gill became general secretary, serving from 1988-92. By the time Gill retired in 1992, it had become a large multi-industry union, eventually joining Amicus.

In 1974 Gill was the first and only Communist to be elected to the TUC general council with over seven million votes. He joined other leftwingers there and led a militant broad left grouping which spearheaded a number of ideological and economic battles during the militant '70s.

He was one of the most prominent members of the so-called "awkward squad" who made the industrial relations work of successive governments such a difficult task.

With the election of a number of leftwingers to the leadership of the big trade unions during the '70s, there was an expansion of "broad left" grass-roots groups, dominated by the Communist Party, particularly in the AEU, ACTT, TASS, ETU and UCATT. These groups worked around rank-and-file papers such as Engineering Voice, Flashlight and the Power Worker.

Gill spearheaded trade union opposition to the Labour government's demand for a social contract at the 1974 TUC and mass demonstrations against Barbara Castle's contentious industrial relations Bill, In Place Of Strife.

He was instrumental in promoting the Communist Party's alternative economic strategy within the trade union movement. This proposed a more radical socialist agenda as the answer to the economic woes and serious attempts were made through the trade unions to make it Labour Party policy.

There were strong fears within the Labour Party that this new militant trade unionism would seriously undermine the party. Prime minister Harold Wilson alluded to leaders like Gill when he spoke of "a tightly knit group of politically motivated men" out to undermine democracy.

In 1985, Cathy Massiter, a former MI5 officer who had resigned from her job the previous year, appeared on a Channel 4 documentary detailing how the security services had phone-tapped the homes of trade unionists, peace campaigners and civil libertarians, including two senior members of the current government - Patricia Hewitt and Harriet Harman, who both happened to be close friends of Tess Gill - despite the fact they had done nothing illegal.

In Gill's case, they burgled his home to plant a bugging device. The allegations were confirmed in Peter Wright's book Spycatcher, when the former intelligence officer boldly wrote that "we bugged and burgled our way across London at the state's behest."

Gill actually raised the issue directly with then home secretary Leon Brittan to little effect.

Despite being among the most prominent Communists in the country, Gill always saw himself first of all as a trade unionist.

The Communist Party at the time still played a powerful role on the industrial stage even though it had declined as a political force.

Gill fought within the TUC for the trade union movement to take more progressive positions internationally, and to support anti-racism and equality within the movement itself.

He and his union were active supporters of the fight against South African apartheid.

On Gill's initiative in 1988, the union paid the deposit for the stadium concert that celebrated Nelson Mandela's 70th birthday while he still languished on Robben Island, placing the issue of apartheid in front of the British people as never before.

This was acknowledged by Mandela when, after being freed and on his first British visit, he chose the union's conference hall to meet and thank ANC exiles and activists.

Gill hardly fitted the cliche image of a Communist. While he could be forceful and committed, he was rarely dogmatic or unnecessarily aggressive. He was tall, with a rugged handsomeness and his soft Wiltshire drawl and ready laughter belied his steely determination. His charm and persuasiveness easily disarmed many of his harshest critics. He was always a popular and well-liked member of the general council even if the colour of his politics weren't.

Gill believed vehemently that the unions were a necessary basis of any radical social change. But he also believed that the Labour Party was central.

"If you cannot win back the (Labour) Party," he said, "then you are certainly not going to be able to start another mass party."

He never relinquished his hobby of cartooning and drew his colleagues during the interminable speeches and discussions at union conferences. They captured the idiosyncrasies of their subjects and they now form a unique archive. The TUC in 2007, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, held an exhibition of his work.

Gill retired as a trade union official in 1992. But this didn't mean withdrawing to a country retreat or taking a seat in the House of Lords. He continued campaigning on radical issues, marching and speaking out against the Iraq war, right up until his illness confined him to his home.

He was particularly keen on promoting solidarity with Cuba. For over a decade, he was chairman of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign in Britain and met Fidel Castro on several occasions.

As chairman of the People's Press Printing Society management committee, he was expelled from the Communist Party of Great Britain for defending the Morning Star against the Eurocommunist leadership of the party.

He was later active in formulating the paper's broader appeal.

After his divorce from Tess Gill, in the '80s, he married Norma Bramley, a politically active teacher with whom he lived happily until the end of his life.

It was Norma who cared for Gill during his long battle with cancer, which he met with good humour to the last.

Ken Gill: 1927-2009

By John Green and Joe Gill

The Antrim Times reported:

Former trade union leader Ken Gill, originally from Melksham, Wiltshire, has died at the age of 81, the TUC said.

Mr Gill was general secretary of the AUEW-TASS, the union for administration staff in the engineering industry from 1974 to 1988.

He then became joint general secretary with Clive Jenkins of MSF - for skilled and professional workers - after it was formed from the merger of TASS and ASTMS. He retired in 1992.

He also served as president of the TUC in 1986.

Mr Gill originally trained as an apprentice draughtsman and became the director of a small engineering firm.

His career in trade unionism began in 1962 when he was elected as Merseyside and Northern Ireland regional official for the Draughtsmen's and Allied Technicians Association.

A life-long communist and the first communist to be elected onto TUC General Council and helped lead a militant left grouping there throughout the 70s.

He pushed the TUC for progressive international policies and was among the first union supporters of the anti-apartheid movement.

He was well known for his talent as a caricaturist and would often capture the likeness of his fellow union leaders during meetings, many of which were published in a book of his drawings earlier this year.

After his retirement he campaigned against the Iraq war and was one of the founding members of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign.

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2009, All Rights Reserved.

Reuters reported:

LONDON (Reuters) - Former trade union leader Ken Gill has died at the age of 81, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) said on Saturday.

A committed communist, he served as TUC president between 1985 and 1986, a year after the defeat of a miner's strike that closed a chapter on mass industrial action in Britain.

He had become general secretary of the white collar TASS union in 1974 and went on to be joint general secretary of the Manufacturing, Science and Finance union in 1988, before retiring in 1992.

"Ken Gill was a big figure in the trade union movement, during turbulent times," said TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber. "Always a champion of the left he fought his corner with a steely integrity. He was a great internationalist and anti-racism campaigner."

(Reporting by Tim Castle)

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