Obituary: George Henderson, vocal union leader and passionate campaigner for the rights of the elderly

Born: 27 September, 1933, in Edinburgh. Died: 30 November, 2011, in Edinburgh, aged 78.

George Henderson was a plasterer by trade, an infantryman with the Royal Scots by call-up during the Suez crisis, a trade union leader by career, a battler on behalf of the elderly by choice, a candidate for the Scottish Parliament by his party’s demand and joined the Order of the British Empire by royal decree. Until he died of cancer, his mantra as a defender of pensioners’ rights was: “Age is an accumulation of wisdom and experience, not an affliction.”

Henderson was a union man all his life, mostly as a senior figure within the powerful Transport and General Workers’ Union (TWGU), which in recent years merged into the union known as Unite.

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It was his commitment to secure employment, safe conditions and fair pay for union members that won him an invitation to Buckingham Palace in 1995 to receive his OBE from the Queen. Proud though he was of that day, he insisted the award was due more to the work of his union colleagues than himself. He always told them that his proudest day was when his union awarded him its own Gold Medal for loyalty and achievement.

George Paton Henderson was born, as he put it, “in my granny’s council house at 41 Candlemaker Row, overlooking the Greyfriars kirkyard where the famous Skye terrier known as Greyfriars Bobby is buried”.

George’s father, a regular in the Royal Scots never made it home from the Second World War, killed in the field in 1941 when George was eight. That left the young schoolboy to help look after his widowed mother Helen and his wee brother Tommy, then aged four, especially after his mother, forced to earn a living as a char lady, had an accident while working at the McEwan’s brewery, which meant she had trouble working thereafter. It was a more common than uncommon situation for working-class Scots at the time, but it had a huge effect on Henderson’s later life as a warrior for workers’ rights.

He left school at 15 to start as an apprentice plasterer in Edinburgh and, aged 18 and the war over, he was allowed to complete his five-year apprenticeship before being called up for National Service in 1954.

Able to follow his father’s footsteps in the 1st Battalion, Royal Scots, he served in North Africa during the run-up to the Suez crisis, fortunately missing the worst of the combat.

Back on civvy street in Edinburgh, he became a staunch member of the Scottish Plasterers Union. While still in his twenties, he was appointed its national organiser, with overall responsibility for wage claim negotiations, disputes and health, welfare and safety issues in the workplace.

Appointed a member of the Edinburgh Trades Council Executive, he found himself as a union representative to local prisons, young offenders’ institutions and various hospital boards, including those of the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, the Sick Childrens’ Hospital and the Scottish National Institute for the War Blinded at the Linburn Centre in Wilkieston, West Lothian.

When the Scottish Plasterers Union was incorporated into the TGWU, with Jack Jones at the helm, Henderson was invited to London first as national secretary of the union’s Building Crafts section, later as national secretary for the entire UK construction industry.

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It was a big job, which took him overseas and often to 10, Downing Street, to lobby successive prime ministers. It also made him one of the “Group of Eight” leaders of the construction industry, who persistently warned prime minister Margaret Thatcher against her government’s construction cutbacks, policies which helped lead to the recession and crises of today.

Henderson reportedly once told Mrs Thatcher words to the effect: “Prime Minister: to be honest, to the construction workers and thousands of other sufferers, you are like a modern-day Nero fiddling while your country burns.” The Iron Lady’s response was to do away with the Group of Eight.

Henderson was later named vice-president of the UK government-backed Skill Build, aimed at training young people to international standards to compete on behalf of the UK in competitions associated with the UK Skills organisation supported by the Prince’s Trust.

When in 1997 the Geneva-based International Labour Organisation (ILO) approved a new organisation to be called the International Construction Institute (ICI), Henderson was elected as the new grouping’s executive secretary. The ICI has since been engaged in projects around the world, including El Salvador, South Africa, Bosnia and Kosovo, training local people in the rebuilding of their homes, schools, roads and other infrastructure.

Even while still at the TGWU, and notably in his later years, including through his illness, Henderson became passionately involved in giving a voice to the elderly in Edinburgh, Scotland and the UK as a whole. After the death of Jones in 2009, he became president of the TGWU’s retired members association and chairman for Scotland of the National Pensioners Convention.

On his retirement, he moved from London back to Edinburgh, where the rights of his fellow “greys” – senior citizens – became his main focus. He particularly encouraged his fellow seniors to take computer training, as he had done, to keep up with the times, and campaigned vociferously for higher basic state pensions.

In 2007, he ran for the Scottish Parliament in the Lothians constituency for the Scottish Senior Citizens Unity Party, polling a respectable 4,000-plus votes in the wake of the SNP.

George Henderson, who died of cancer at the Marie Curie hospice on Frogston Road West, Edinburgh, is survived by his wife Helen (née Simpson), son George, grand-daughters Hayley and Kelly and great-grandsons Baily and Crawford.

Phil Davison

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