Obituary: Ken Cameron, trade union leader

Ken Cameron, Fire Brigade Union chief who warned of Thatcher's onslaught on unions. Picture: Contributed
Ken Cameron, Fire Brigade Union chief who warned of Thatcher's onslaught on unions. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 9 December, 1941, Fort William. Died: 16 May, 2016, Glasgow, aged 74.

Ken Cameron was a tough-talking, Left-wing union leader and internationalist, who led the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) for 20 years, while also putting the union’s weight behind the National Union of Mineworkers when Arthur Scargill called a national strike in 1984-85; he was one of Britain’s most active union leaders on the international stage, putting the union’s domestic muscle behind international issues.

Considered one of the FBU’s most progressive and charismatic leaders, he was the first general-secretary to bring a pro-Palestine motion at the Trades Union Congress in 1982, as well as throwing his weight behind the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, counting Fidel Castro among his friends; he also helped establish Justice for Colombia with the train drivers’ union Aslef; he later made Nelson Mandela an honorary FBU member in 1990. A vociferous critic of South African apartheid and Israel’s policy in Palestine, Cameron achieved such international recognition that he received a personal message of thanks from Nelson Mandela upon his retirement.

During his support for the miners’ strike, Cameron committed the FBU to unreserved moral and financial support, lending the NUM £200,000 of union funds.

When withdrawing the money, Cameron’s sense of humour came through, asking the bank manager for directions to the nearest bookie. The banker was not amused, but even worse, in Cameron’s eyes, was that he didn’t ask for the name of the horse. The money was for miners’ welfare and was paid back after the strike.

Close to the Scottish miners’ president, Mick McGahey, and Scargill, and despite private misgivings about Scargill’s tactics, Cameron rallied other unions to support the miners, reproaching the electricians’ leader Eric Hammond of being a “traitor to his class” for not bringing his power station workers out in support.

Born in Fort William in 1941, Kenneth Cameron was the elder of two sons to Eileen, his Irish Catholic mother who worked as a housekeeper to a local doctor, and Kenneth, his father, a local who was as a lineman for the GPO and a “Wee Free”. Both were staunch socialists.

Upon leaving school at 15, Cameron enlisted as a police cadet in Inverness-shire despite being well below the required height, but left after two years to join the Aberdeen Press & Journal as a trainee reporter; this too proved unsuccessful.

On one occasion, he was given a warning after failing to file accurate copy from the Drumnadrochit Highland Games, because he had spent too much time in the beer tent with hard-drinking hacks. “The phones never stopped ringing,” he recalled, “Because Marie Macdonald hadn’t won the tossing of the caber, she’d won the egg-and-spoon race.” The final straw came when he fell into the pool while reporting an international swimming competition; the editor fired him.

After a spell as a labourer on a hydro-electric scheme, Cameron moved to Birmingham in 1961 and joined the fire brigade, soon becoming active in the union.

His first campaign, in 1964, was against new helmets which not only fell off and resembled German military ones, but prompted youths to give fire-crews Nazi salutes. He narrowly escaped the sack for refusing to wear one. That year it became the subject of his first speech at the FBU conference in Southport.

As a full-time FBU official, Cameron impressed not only Terry Parry, its then general-secretary, but the communist Scottish miners’ leader, McGahey. Cameron would repay McGahey’s faith in him when Scargill called the strike. Groomed by Parry for leadership, Cameron duly succeeded him in 1980, having already led the protest following the strikes of 1977-78 as the fire brigade was threatened with cuts under the Labour government.

Cameron’s rise to the top coincided with that of Margaret Thatcher, who became PM in May 1979, and who was noted for her hard views and her willingness to take on the trade unions and dismantle the nationalised industries. He was one of the first to warn of the impending struggle and to try and unite the unions in order to defend themselves.

Cameron learned from his previous mistakes and realised that to preserve the union’s right to strike – in the face of demands that emergency service workers should be prohibited from taking industrial action – it would be prudent to broker a long-term deal; with the Conservative governments of Thatcher and John Major the union was on the defensive, fighting to defend wages and retain pensions, and opposing attempts to ban the right to strike in the public sector. He stood fast and talked tough but secured better terms for his members without a strike action.

During his tenure as general-secretary, during difficult times, there were only a couple of years in which FBU pay rises were not substantially higher than the private sector average, and he maintained its members’ terms and conditions, much more successfully than other unions under the onslaught from Thatcher.

In the 1990s Cameron led an FBU campaign against bullying, homophobia, racism and sexism in the fire service. He conceded that some union members “bring their prejudices to work”, but blamed management for the fact that, as late as 1999, less than 1 per cent of firefighters were women. After an independent investigation into inequality in the service, Cameron and Ronnie Scott, the union president, drove through changes, creating black and minority ethnic, women’s and, eventually, gay and lesbian sections within the union, and encouraged recruitment. This led to the election of Ruth Winters as the union’s first female president in 2002.

With the Labour landslide of 1997, he “cried with joy” but admitted that he “cried real tears” at many of its subsequent policies, particularly at the height of a bitter dispute over pay and conditions. By the end of his stewardship, Cameron concluded that “the Labour Party no longer sees us as their natural partners. We can no longer rely on them to be our natural allies”. In 2004, after Cameron had stepped down, the FBU disaffiliated from Labour, though it has made moves to renew its association since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader.

Upon retirement, Cameron was appointed to the Central Arbitration Committee, a government body overseeing the regulation of employment law, and served on industrial tribunals.

Cameron married twice; first to Barbara in 1964, with whom he had a son and daughter; they divorced in the mid-80s. He is survived by his second wife, Nuala, whom he married in 1996, and his children.