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Bill Ronksley: railwayman, trade union leader and communist — 1924-2018

PETE LAZENBY writes on ‘a tower of strength for Britain’s railway workers and the whole trade union movement’ who has passed away aged 94

TRIBUTES have poured in for trade unionist, communist and international peace campaigner Bill Ronksley who died at the age of 94 on November 6.

Mr Ronksley became active in the trade union movement as a teenager in his home county, Yorkshire.

In 1939 he became a train driver and later went on the become president of drivers’ union Aslef.

A member of the Communist Party, he was involved in peace delegations to the Soviet Union and across Eastern Europe and was held in great respect there.

Since his death, stories about him from friends and comrades have flooded into the Morning Star, painting a picture of an activist with passionate beliefs, committed to working tirelessly in support of his principles.

They also depict a man always prepared to help others, with wise counsel, steadfast support — and action.

Mick Appleyard, who met Mr Ronksley in 1974, was a miner at Sharlston colliery in West Yorkshire during the 1984-5 strike against pit closures.

He recalled: “There was a railway line going into Eggborough power station to deliver coal. Bill told me: ‘If you put a banner over that bridge, there won’t be a train goes in there.’ And there wasn’t, throughout the strike. No coal was moved by rail.”

One of the most famous stories about Mr Ronksley was how, in 1950, he went to Sheffield railway station to meet Pablo Picasso, who was due to speak at a peace forum in Sheffield.

Later Picasso drew doves of peace to give away as souvenirs.
“Maybe I should have asked for one,” Mr Ronksley said later.
After retirement Mr Ronksley became secretary of Sheffield Trades Union Council.

Current secretary Martin Mayer said: “Bill spent his entire life in the trade union movement and held lay office throughout his life till his death.

“His knowledge and experience of working class history both here in Britain and internationally was immense.

“He was of course a life-long member of the Communist Party but was never dogmatic or forceful in his views when discussing politics with others. A quietly spoken man he shunned the limelight and was personally very modest.

“One of his proudest moments was during the 1984/85 Miners Strike when his union Aslef won the support of its members to refuse to move coal during the entire strike — one of the reasons why Thatcher had to get trucks to move coal to the coking plant at Orgreave, thus paving the way for the battle over which we are still fighting for justice today.

“He encouraged young people to get involved in the trade union movement and, in recognition of this, the Yorkshire and Humber Regional TUC launched the Bill Ronksley Award for Young Trade Unionist of the Year.

“He earned the huge respect of all who knew him both here in Sheffield and internationally and will be sadly missed.”

Tosh McDonald, former president of Aslef, said: “Bill, who I met when I joined the railway, was the full-time officer in District 4 then. He took me under his wing and for that I will always be grateful. He was a giant of Aslef and did so much for this trade union.”

Rob Griffiths, general secretary of the Communist Party of Britain, said: “Bill Ronksley was one of the finest of many fine trade union leaders produced by the Communist Party.

“Hugely knowledgeable, deeply political, straight-talking and fair-minded, he was a tower of strength for Britain’s railway workers and the whole trade union movement in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

“More of a doer than those who mostly just talk about it, he knew all about organising and winning strikes and securing solidarity for other workers in dispute.

“I know what he would be saying now, in the words of Joe Hill, ‘don’t mourn – organise’.”

Labour’s shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon said: “I’m so sad that my inspiring friend and comrade Bill Ronksley has passed away at the age of 94.

“He was truly one of the most wonderful human beings I ever had the pleasure and privilege to know.

“He was a selfless force for good and devoted his whole life and all its energy to the fight for a better world for the working class, here and internationally.

“Even in his nineties, the extent of his internationalism, anti-imperialism and anti-racism made him ahead of his, and our, time.

“He is irreplaceable. We can all learn something from Bill’s example.”

Friend and comrade Leslie Warsop said: “My fondest memories are of Bill and I when travelling together on the early morning bus to Sheffield in the 1960s.

“Bill would be travelling to London to Aslef headquarters, as Bill was the president of the union at this time.

“We would discuss current international politics and I was amazed at his knowledge.”

Barbara Warsop said: “I recall a story of Bill being present at a protest when Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists came to Sheffield in the 1930s. Bill must have been a teenager. Also I think he went to the Donbass region of the Ukraine to help coordinate solidarity from the miners there during the 84-85 strike.”

Mick Rix, former Aslef general secretary and now national organiser with general union GMB, said: “I first met Bill in the mid-70s. I went to the Morning Star Peoples Press Rally in Sheffield.

“Our family had also undertaken the programme to take in Chilean refugees after the fascist coup there. Bill was the driving force in Aslef in ensuring effective respite was given.

“As Aslef district organiser his weekend political schools were legendary. He had a way of ensuring peace and internationalism was at the forefront of what we did.

“Years later, I was fortunate to visit a number of countries and it was not that surprising how many people asked after him in different countries. Myself and Bob Crow as young men were sent to East Germany with a delegation from Aslef/NUR. We were let through Checkpoint Charlie in seconds, the others took a good while longer to get through. We knew why we got through without our passports being checked. On the other side immediately we were asked how Bill was and they implored me and Bob to pass on our best regards.

 “Bill was modest, he hated flattery, he didn't like fuss. Like many good activists of his generation, it was all about collectivism not individualism. He mentored me and many others in our movement.

“I often reflect how lucky was Picasso to have met Ronko — and in his beloved Sheffield too.”

 

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