UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Bick's tribute to Bill Wedderburn

On Friday a funeral service took place in London to mark the death of Lord Bill Wedderburn QC, a renowned labour lawyer who died on 9 March 2012. Rodney Bickerstaffe former General Secretary of UNISON gave the following tribute to Bill on behalf of the trade union movement:

'I'm honoured to have known Bill Wedderburn and to be here for this champion at the celebration of his life. I've no legal mandate, but believe I speak for hundreds of thousands who've been helped by Bill's work , who's burdens have been lightened by his dedication to their cause. It's a great record, a stupendous legacy.

Think of it. Of the 7 billion people on our planet how few have the inclination, the will, let alone the capacity to stand up for workers and for their rights? Even fewer make an impact internationally; and not for days, but for decades. And all of this in the murky waters of the law.

So I want to squeeze into three or four minutes, all the respect, all the gratitude that I can, from trade unionists to this one stellar, spectacular working life.

As a new union official in 1966, like other whiz kids in the movement, I swung this book about like a shillelagh. Not Mao's little red book, but " The Worker and the Law", Bill's best seller for a quarter-century. A huge step in setting down labour law, bringing it within the understanding of the public - and even of me. Before this, we knew only that the law was complex, costly, and clearly not even neutral to trade unions and workers.

Bill cut through, Bill communicated, and most of all he cared.

Our activists knew of this book from circulars and union journals. That he cared gave them a lift, a new confidence as they went to meet the boss. Though they may not have read the words, they knew this author was neither hostile nor neutral. He was on their side! Here was a genuine genius. A university don who stood with them and for them.

Powerful stuff. Almost revolutionary. A decent lawyer!

Rookes versus Barnard, Kahn- Freund and the Donovan Report, Heath's 1971 Act, Bill's role in the 1974 Trades Union Relations Act, his work with Jack Jones, writings galore, debates on positive rights, he just powered on. Through the Tory laws to tie down unions and then GCHQ, he was tireless in his detailed analysis, his clarity and his opposition. Advising the TUC, and with my own union against water privatisation, he was an inspirational solution finder as we tried to carry forward the banner bright. He knew full well the hollow ring of Comrade Thatcher, as in front of the cameras ,she demanded strong , free ,independent trades unions in the Gdansk shipyards - and anywhere else, except here in Britain.

In passing, as you may imagine, he wasn't wildly happy when a future Labour leader wrote warmly of us having "the most restrictive labour laws in the Western world."

We shared his delight in his ancestor the anti-slavery hero, Robert Wedderburn
True to his roots, though I'm not really sure about Charlton Athletic; loyal to those from whom he came, perhaps unlike some in the Lords.

A peer himself, in his field he had few peers. A jack of all trades and master of them all: Labour Law, Employment Law, Commercial Law, Comparative Law, Social History, soccer.

Some say at times he could be difficult to work with, over -candid and not perfect like you and me. But if true, what a small price to pay for a lifetime of lucid scholarship, of commitment, of service.

We've been lucky in our time. We've had McCarthy, Flanders, Clegg- no, not that one -Hugh Clegg, and now Hendy, Ewing, Thompsons, Parsons and the rest. But all will agree that Bill was a one-off, a real Pathfinder .His work can be found now in the Modern Record Centre at Warwick and elsewhere. But his legacy is global.

Bill, in your working class Deptford days, your family made scales. You then strove in a field whose symbol was the scales of justice. Now, and in the trying years ahead, you'll be often weighed in the scales and you will never be found wanting. You were right, Bill. One day, we shall overcome, and you will be with us. Thanks.

Huge respect, and one hundred percent thanks - yes, and why not, from the workers of the world.