Farewell Bill Speirs
I'M sorry to hear today that Bill Speirs, former general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, had died, aged only 57, though he had been ill for some years.
I met Bill about fifteen years ago, when I was involved in Workers Aid for Bosnia. He must have been the most prominent figure in the trade union movement to give support to this campaign, which was a Trotskyist initiative, its support coming largely from ordinary working people and students rather than 'big names' or bureaucrats. After a meeting in union premises on Grays Inn Road a bunch of went over to the pub, and I realised that the man getting the beers in and enjoying his discussion with some young convoy drivers -also Scots as it happens -was the Scottish TUC leader.
Now that I think about it, I was not entirely surprised. Shortly before this, wearing one of my other hats - as a representative of the Jewish Socialists' Group - I'd rushed after work one evening, invited to press the flesh with the pres - Yasser Arafat, - on his first visit to London, at a reception held in the Egyptian embassy. Having joined the queue, and been introduced to the Palestinian leader, shaking hands and exchanging a few words, I made my way through the throng to the drinks table. There was not much left.
I recognised Ken Cameron of the Fire Brigades Union, shook hands with writer Chaim Bermant, and was introduced to a former lord provost of Glasgow. Then I overheard a couple talking to Ken Cameron, the lady - whom I later learned was big in War on Want, and who was with Bill Speirs - was telling Ken "We have just been speaking to these people from Workers Aid for Bosnia. It's a Trot thing of course, but we have got to support it".
What did surprise me though was that Bill Speirs did not just put his name to Workers Aid or offer to speak at meetings, he was not content with helping fundraising, but managed to go out and see for himself by taking a place on one of te convoys. As I can testify these were bumpy rides on mountain roads and tracks, not the safe and easy luxury ride one associates with general-secretaries.
I made another trip to Bosnia a year later when asked to attend a conference in Tuzla. We flew to Split, then boarded a coach which took us via the dramatic scenery of the Neretva river. scene of World War II partisan heroism, and crossed by us on a bailey bridge, through battered Mostar. I got to know Bill and his friend Margaret from War on Want on this trip, and they must have guessed I was short of cash because Bill insisted on paying every time we stopped for refreshments. Later I was proud to join them when we came out of the conference hall in Tuzla to go and meet the Kreka miners.
Bill was keen not just what they needed for immediate relief but how British unions could help them in their plans for post-war reconstruction. He went back to Tuzla a couple of years later for a miners' international conference they organised.
It was on that previous trip via Croatia that our returning bus was held up at the border for several hours while Croat police went through everybody's passports looking for people whom they wanted to detain. It was Bill Speirs, out of the various 'celebs' and communicators on board, who stepped down, and exercising his full authority as representative of millions of Scottish workers, soon persuaded the police that if they knew what was good for them and their government ...well, I don't know what he said, but we were soon on the move again!
I can't claim to have kept in touch with Bill Speirs when he returned to his 'normal' union duties, though I was pleased to see and hear him speak as Scottish TUC leader on anti-war platforms in London, and at meetings on Palestine. I also still have a letter he wrote after I contacted him about an issue I have personally tried to take up, demanding an investigation into the murder in Paris of Egyptian communist Henri Curiel, for which nobody has been brought to justice. Bill expressed his support and asked me to keep him informed if there was anything he could do about it.
Meanwhile he was also challenging the Blair government over its treatment of workers like the firefighters.
Bill Speirs may not have been the most outstanding person in the trade union movement, and I can't recall ever seeing him on TV or hearing his name mentioned often south of the Border. But he was a trade unionist who saw his duties to the working class internationally, took up causes without regard to whether they were fashionable or would endear him to the Establishment, and he was prepared to help in ways which were not all that glamourous. I'm glad I met him, and wish I'd got to know him better. It is a tragedy that ill-health curtailed his active work, and has deprived Scottish workers of such a man.