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LEGENDARY Scottish miners’ leader Michael McGahey famously and often reminded us that “we are a movement, not a monument.”
It was a quote that the late Rodney Bickerstaffe, ex-Unison general secretary and president of the National Pensioners Convention, kept returning to in his wonderfully crafted speech at the unveiling of a memorial to McGahey in Bonnyrigg at the 2006 Midlothian TUC Workers’ Memorial Day.
In light of that, what would Bick (as so many knew him) make of the new memorial website launched this week by friends and comrades to celebrate his life and learn from his legacy?
We hope he would have welcomed it. He certainly put enough work in during his latter years to ensure that as much history, information and learnings were deposited in the archive at Warwick University.
He recognised the importance of being a movement rather than a monument, but also the all-important lessons from past struggles and from the thoughts, strategies and ideals of the giants in the labour movement — and the activists on the ground who decade after decade rose to what often seemed impossible challenges.
On his retirement from Unison in 2000, he said: “At the STUC I recall McGahey and [Jimmy] Airlie, giants of the trade-union movement. But they are all giants, be they members, stewards or leaders, high or low paid who have passed us the banner.
“It is they who have brought us to where we are. Everyone has to hand over the banner … as each of us here will hand it over to those who follow. The job is to make that banner shine more brightly.”
But we can only do that if we learn from those who put the gleam in the banner in the first place — learning from voices that were ours, not the mass media’s — and a new website hopes to contribute to that.
The idea originated shortly after Bick’s death in 2017 as Unison colleagues in Scotland discussed the need for some form of public repository to keep his legacy alive for current and future generations.
In 2019, ex-Unison official Bill Gilby drove things forward, linking up across Britain and beyond with colleagues Jim Sutherland and Peter Morris and enlisted me to develop the website.
The site at rodneybickerstaffe.org.uk, although still a work in progress, is intended as an easily accessible hub for causes, speeches, writings and reminiscences.
Many people and campaigns have stories to tell about how they were inspired and supported by Bick, and they will be encouraged to share their stories.
The website aims to be informative but also simple and uncomplicated, a lesson learned from Bick’s own speeches.
If the public-speaking adage of “tell them what they already know in words they can take away” applied to anyone, it applied to Bick in the succinct and powerful oratory that summed up the complexity of people’s experiences and gave the working class a voice.
A prime example was when he was challenged about the effect on burials during the “winter of discontent” with the question: “What about the dignity of the dead?”
His immediate response was: “What about the dignity of the living?” Gravediggers digging through a foot of snow, turf and six foot of gravel in bitter cold and getting paid a pittance.
And in 1986, addressing the TUC in his long hard fight for a minimum wage — something we take for granted today — he knew how to shame opposition in the movement: “For those who argue that the working poor can receive a tax or social security handout, I refuse to accept that is good trade unionism.
“The labourer is worthy of his or her hire and, so far as I am concerned, we should not be subsidising low-pay employers.
“We are not into the politics of greed, and if some stand up and curse us, there are millions that will stand up and bless you.”
The website will remind people who he was and the importance of the words he spoke.
Words we could do with using just now, like when he warned against a Labour move to the centre at the STUC in Glasgow in 1996.
“In reaching over to the centre, to middle Britain, it shouldn’t be done at the expense of the disadvantaged, the sick, the pensioners and the dying.”
It is said that a Labour politician once sarcastically referred to Bick (among others) as “the conscience of the party.” History tells us that conscience is just as important now as it was then.
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