Rodney Bickerstaffe, ‘formidable’ union man who fought to end poverty pay
'The minimum wage is a statute in his honour'
06 October, 2017 — By Dan Carrier
RODNEY Bickerstaffe, who led the public service trade union Unison, has died aged 72.
Mr Bickerstaffe, who lived in Holborn, was a key figure in the campaign to get a national minimum wage introduced under Tony Blair’s Labour government and persuaded the Trade Union Congress (TUC) to take the idea up as a key policy. Many members of the TUC were fearful that introducing the minimum wage would undermine some trades but he battled to win support and it was eventually introduced.
When Mr Bickerstaffe, who had been elected NUPE general secretary in 1982, stepped down from union work, he continued to fight for causes he held close to his heart. Among them was work for pensioners’ rights and the International Brigade Memorial Trust. He was a regular at the cafés in both Russell Square and Red Lion Square, where he would meet with friends for coffee to discuss books, politics and poetry.
Born into a politically active family in Yorkshire, his mother Pearl was a nurse and a trade unionist. His grandfather Jack was a mechanic and also involved in trade unions – so Mr Bickerstaffe’s work with National Union of Public Employees and then Unison was not surprising. His father Tommy was from Ireland, but he never knew him. Mr Bickerstaffe was born in 1945 after his father had a brief relationship with his mother. He would later discover he had three Irish brothers.
He had previously told the New Journal of growing up in a politically enlightened household as a child, and later, as a patron of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, he published a book featuring a scrapbook of newspaper articles Pearl had cut out and kept during the 1930s. As with so many on the left, the story of the Spanish Civil War had been an inspiration to Mr Bickerstaffe.
“I was only too aware of the significance of the war in Spain and the important chapter in radical history written by the volunteers of the International Brigade,” he told the New Journal. His union career started aged 21 when he joined the NUPE. A shop steward, he rose through the ranks to become general secretary in the 1980s and was key in the amalgamation of NUPE with other public sector unions COHSE and NALGO.
Camden Unison branch vice-chairman Philip Lewis said: “Rodney would come to our events and he had a brilliant memory for people he had met. He never forgot anyone. He always loved a joke and a laugh. The minimum wage is a statute in his honour. He fought for it within the TUC when there was quite a lot of opposition. “here were groups who were worried about their differentials in pay and it took him a while to argue it through – he won them all over in the end. He was formidable.”