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Gill, Kenneth [Ken] (1927–2009), trade unionist and communist, was born on 30 August 1927 at 19 Leaze Road, Melksham, Wiltshire, the youngest of four children of Ernest Frank Gill (1892–1979), an ironmonger's shop assistant, and his wife, Mary Ethel, née Trueman (1891–1950). He grew up in some poverty in a council house, a home with no books, and with his mother taking in washing to supplement the family's income. He left Chippenham secondary school at fifteen. In 1943 he took up an engineering draughtsman apprenticeship at Spencer (Melksham) Ltd, later part of the General Electric Company (GEC). He had turned down officer cadet training, on principle, and was already well aware of society's divisions. Arthur Nye, a communist and a wartime lodger at his family home, was a strong influence on the young Gill, cementing at fifteen his lifelong commitment to socialism. Gill was deeply upset when in 1944 his elder brother Leslie, serving in RAF Bomber Command, was killed over Germany. In the general election of 1945 Gill was the agent for a prospective if beaten Labour candidate.

Before he was twenty-one Gill became an active member of the trade union the Association of Engineering and Shipbuilding Draughtsmen, soon the Draughtsmen and Allied Technicians' Association (DATA). He moved to London in 1948, working in design, project development, and engineering sales. Though interested and successful in his work, he was more concerned and engaged with trade union and political matters, and joined the Communist Party, becoming active in its London district. In 1951, while travelling to East Germany for a youth congress, he was arrested for a time by the American military; his arrival at the congress was met with a standing ovation. Much exercised about the Algerian struggle for independence from France, he was also in demonstrations in Paris in 1953, and in 1960 on a visit to Prague met a group of freshly successful Cuban revolutionaries. International solidarity would remain one of Gill's lifetime passions. In 1956, out of loyalty to the Soviet Union, he was one of a minority of communists in his local London branch who did not resign his membership over the Soviet invasion of Hungary.

Gill was elected as a full-time regional official of DATA in 1962, responsible for Merseyside and Northern Ireland, and then the Republic of Ireland. He led a number of successful strikes and disputes and his charismatic and persuasive style and rational approach marked him out. By 1968 he was again in London, briefly as district organizer for south London, then at the head office as editor of the union's journal following Jim Mortimer, later general secretary of the Labour Party. In 1970 DATA became the Technical, Administrative and Supervisory Section of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (AUEW-TASS), a section of an uneasy grand alliance of engineering industry workers. In 1972 Gill became the appointed deputy general secretary of TASS, and in 1974 he was elected general secretary, and was also the first communist for many years to be elected to the general council of the Trades Union Congress (TUC). His leadership saw his union grow to a quarter of a million members through mergers, radical campaigning, and vigorous recruitment. TASS unified with a number of craft unions in the 1980s, but political and personal differences led to its leaving the AUEW grouping in 1985, to merge three years later with the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs to form the Manufacturing, Science and Finance Union (MSF). At first joint general secretary with Clive Jenkins, Gill became the sole general secretary upon Jenkins's retirement in 1989, and remained so until his own retirement in 1992.

From the 1940s onwards Gill believed that effective trade unions were not only a key ingredient of any true democracy, but an essential part of any nation aspiring to be socialist. He strove not only to build union strength in terms of membership numbers, but also to educate the members to understand their political relevance and to use their power. This was never attempted or achieved in a hectoring or menacing style, but in an illustrative, almost parable-telling way. His rise through the union movement owed as much to his personable and sensitive reading of people and of possibilities as it did to his strategic thinking and his unswerving commitment. He was not a dreamer; he had ideas and plans and he carried them through, prepared to take usually calculated risks, but never plunging his union into lengthy, costly, or unwinnable disputes. As a trade union leader he was a constant challenge to unfair employers, but he was a particular gadfly, not to say nemesis, to successive governments in the fields of industrial relations, economic policy, and foreign policy. When in 1969 the Labour secretary of state for employment, Barbara Castle, brought in a contentious white paper on industrial relations, entitled In Place of Strife, Gill was a vocal opponent of her proposals, and spearheaded trade union opposition, resulting in the legislation's withdrawal. He was to continue this strong defence of trade union independence against Margaret Thatcher's policies, and even when long retired he vociferously attacked new Labour and Tony Blair in particular for failing to reinstate union rights. Through all his years, he argued that capitalism's grip on the life chances of working people, the perennial plight of the ‘have-nots’ in contrast with the immense wealth of the ‘capitalist class’, demanded constant struggle.

On the issues of the economy, be it opposition to wage restraint under the ‘social contract’ of the Labour government of the 1970s, the Thatcher government's privatization of the utilities, the 35-hour week, or support for a British-owned manufacturing sector, Gill was persistent. Unlike some of the then leaders of private sector unions, he early promulgated the view that the public sector should not be cut back to free up the private sector, but that all trade unionists should defend the welfare state's role and civilizing relevance. In the 1970s he strongly encouraged union acceptance of the Communist Party's Alternative Economic Strategy. He was no great fan of the tripartite approach of committees of unions, employers, and government, and memorably said of the TUC representatives on the National Economic Development Council that they were ‘loitering without intent, in the corridors of power’ (Trades Union Congress, 5 Sept 1984). Gill was, though, profoundly faithful to the central idea of a single all-embracing TUC, even though he regularly criticized its actions or inactions.

Solidarity with other trade unions in their difficulties was important to Gill, and he often gave active support to causes not directly his own. From the start of his union career, he championed the need for more rights for, and active membership of unions by, women and black and ethnic minorities, positions he was able to further when elected chair of the TUC equal rights committee. He and his union were at the forefront of help in countless disputes of other workers, not least the miners' strike of 1984–5. In 1985 he was elected president of the TUC, and was a firm defender of the National Union of Mineworkers' year-long strike when others wavered. His scorching internationalist solidarity and communism were driving forces. He was a lifelong supporter of the Soviet Union. This was a major factor in his expulsion from the British Communist Party in 1985 when it changed its stance and distanced itself from Soviet policies.

Anti-racism, and especially support for the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, was one of Gill's major concerns. Well ahead of much public and institutional opinion, he was early on accepted as a close friend by the African National Congress and its leadership, and was a regular visitor to the country following the end of apartheid. The issue featured in many of his speeches and articles. Typically, it was he who guaranteed the deposit for the Nelson Mandela concert in London in 1988. On his release from prison in 1990, Mandela pointedly visited Gill at his union's head office before he met the British government. Always an ardent fan of Fidel Castro, and stridently against the American blockade of Cuba, Gill would push this issue whenever and wherever it was possible. In retirement he continued this advocacy as chairman of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign (1992–2008). The other task that he fulfilled was the unending struggle to keep afloat the left-wing British newspaper The Morning Star. Gill had never failed to stand up for this paper since his youth, when he sold it on street corners in Wiltshire. Again he continued this work into his retirement, as chairman of the People's Printing Press Society (1988–95), publisher of the paper.

Ken Gill was a tall, handsome, charismatic leader. Well read, he held deep convictions which were the bedrock of his humane outlook. Always passionate as well as compassionate, he was a public speaker with a persuasive, rational, authoritative manner. He was a progressive, often radical and sometimes militant, spokesman for his own members, and for working people across the world. Three positive advantages were his Wiltshire burr, which he kept throughout his life, his humour, and his unpompous approach, all of which added to his popular and generally winning way. Even some who were fanatical opponents of his communist beliefs and of his militancy could not fail to admit his charm.

From childhood Gill had an acknowledged and great skill as a cartoonist. With mocking but usually gentle and apposite drawings and quotations, friends and foes were often won over with small gifts of his sketches on the reverse of agenda papers, invitations, menu cards, or anything else he had to hand. National newspapers occasionally featured his caricatures. In 2009 a collection of his cartoons was published as Hung, Drawn and Quartered. His other enjoyment was the cinema. For all his opposition to American imperialism, he relaxed by watching his huge collection of westerns and Hollywood dramas from the 1930s and 1940s, as well as political documentaries; he was also a big fan of American crime fiction.

Gill was married three times. On 18 March 1955 he married Jacqueline Andrée (Jaki) Manley, née Kamellardski (b. 1918), commercial clerk. Of Polish–Jewish descent, she was the daughter of Stephen Kamellardski, chemist, and the former wife of the Jamaican politician Michael Manley, and before that of the Jamaican educationist Robert G. Verity. The marriage was dissolved in 1964, and on 17 February 1967 Gill married Sarah Teresa (Tess) Paterson (b. 1943), human rights lawyer and daughter of Allen Paterson, solicitor; they had two sons, Joe and Tom, and a daughter, Emma. This marriage was dissolved in 1990, and on 18 September 1997 he married Norma Alice Bramley (b. 1943), headteacher, and daughter of John Douglas Bramley, coalminer. He died on 22 May 2009 at his flat in Coram Street, Camden, after a long battle with lung cancer, and was survived by his wife, Norma, and the three children of his second marriage.

Rodney Bickerstaffe

Sources  

J. E. Mortimer, A life on the left (1998) · Morning Star (25 May 2009) · Daily Telegraph (25 May 2009) · The Guardian (25 May 2009) · The Times (26 May 2009) · The Independent (3 June 2009) · www.kengillmemorial.org, accessed on 16 Aug 2012 · WW (2009) · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) · b. cert. · m. certs. · d. cert.

Archives  

 

FILM

 

BFI NFTVA, current affairs footage · BFI NFTVA, documentary footage

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA, current affairs recordings · BL NSA, interview recordings


Likenesses  

photographs, 1975–88, PA Photos, London · G. Wood, photograph, 1982, Rex Features, London · obituary photographs

Wealth at death  

£271,727: probate, 12 Oct 2009, CGPLA Eng. & Wales