With Sir Gavin Laird set to retire on Friday, Roy Rogers charts the
life and times of the union leader who earned the respect of industry
and politicians of all persuasions.
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THE retirement this week of one of Scotland's best-known and most
influential trade union leaders, Sir Gavin Laird, represents the end of
an era for Scottish engineers, the Amalgamated Engineering and
Electrical Union, and the Scottish trade union movement.
Sir Gavin was in his office in Peckham, South London, for the last
time yesterday before his official retirement, three years early, on
Friday at which time he will have served the AEEU, or AEU as it was for
most of his period, for some 33 years.
During that time he has proved a shrewd negotiator and administrator,
never ducking a challenge that needed to be confronted, and if he upset
people in the process so be it. Gavin Laird has never courted popularity
in the way that some do but he has earned the respect of colleagues and,
more than any other trade union leader of his time, of industry and
politicians of all persuasions.
Packing away his effects at the Peckham Road offices which are soon to
be vacated by the AEEU after a history-laden 95 years, Sir Gavin
reminisced over his humble origins in Clydebank where he attended the
local high school before starting work at the giant Singer factory which
sadly is no more.
His potential was apparent and he was soon elected shop steward, which
led on to him becoming full-time convenor of the huge Singer site before
he was 30.
Full-time union office beckoned 10 years later and within a further
three he was elected on to the AEU executive representing Scotland in
succession to John (later Sir John) Boyd who he subsequently succeeded
as AEU general secretary.
From that key position he successfully managed the depletion in
membership which hit many unions while avoiding the financial disaster
which has often accompanied it. He also played a pivotal role in the
prolonged amalgamation negotiations with the EETPU electricians and did
more than anyone to ensure they succeeded and that the amalgamation went
ahead bringing the EETPU back into the TUC fold, from which it had been
expelled five years earlier, in the process.
AEU membership peaked at 1.2 million in the late 70s, but as the
recession took hold it plummeted to some 500,000 today which with the
electrical section (the old EETPU) gives the current combined AEEU
membership of 800,000.
Gavin Laird, who was made a CBE under the Thatcher administration and
knighted earlier this year at the behest of the Prime Minister, has
always been his own man ploughing his often-innovative furrow and taking
lots of flack in the process only for his ideas to be accepted later.
As he reminded me yesterday he was the first to advocate taking state
funds for ballots and to support single-union agreements -- two issues
which almost saw the AEU thrown out of the TUC at the time. Both are now
He has also fostered the concept that unions and employers really have
much more in common than that which divides them: successful and
profitable companies being the best type for unions to deal with.
In line with this concept Gavin Laird stunned many of his trade union
colleagues by addresssing the CBI annual confence in 1986. Others
including TUC general secretary John Monks have since followed suit.
And for more than a decade he has been promoting a modern relationship
between the unions and the Labour Party, including the ending of union
block voting at Labour Party conferences and the introduction of a more
''arm's length'' approach to the unions which has since been taken up by
the Labour leadership.
''What Tony Blair is saying must happen should have happened a long
time ago'', he maintains, adding that he had never believed in union
barons trying to dictate to Labour.
Probably the most striking aspect of Sir Gavin's career is the extent
to which he was welcomed by private industry, commerce, and the arts,
not to mention his very successful eight-year stint as a governor of the
Bank of England. He has been a part-time member of the SDA, a director
of BNOC, the Arts Council of Great Britain, and the Forrestry
His impressive list of non-executive directorships still includes
Scottish TV, GEC, Scotland, Britannia Life, and Edinburgh Investment
Trust, while he is also non-executive chairman of employee buy-out
Greater Manchester Buses North.
As if this was not enough to keep him busy in his ''retirement'', Sir
Gavin begins a new, and unpaid, venture next month when he is due to
join the Armed Forces Pay Review Body.
Finding sufficient time to pack in all these activities would seem to
be his main problem. Money seems less of one because, in addition to
what he picks up from his non-executive directorships, Sir Gavin will
receive a one-off payment of around #30,000 and continue to receive his
AEEU salary until he is 65 in three years' time under the terms of an
early retirement package on offer to all AEEU executive members and
national officials over 60.
Five have now taken advantage of the offer and a further two or three
are expected to do so over the next year under a plan to reduce the
22-strong executive to a more manageable size. Only then can full
The pay-offs were not extortionate, were ''no more and no less than we
are negotiating for our members out there'', and would save the union a
lot of money, says Sir Gavin.
The retirement of Sir Gavin, who intends remaining in Bromley because
his wife Reena likes the warmer weather in the south, although he also
planned to buy himself a flat in Glasgow as his Scottish base, leaves
the AEEU without a Scottish top official for the first time in more than
He leaves the union in good financial shape -- the AEU section has a
surplus of some #5m -- but regrets the unavoidable fall in membership,
especially in Scotland, where AEEU members have been hit harder than
elsewhere in Britain and the fact that there remains no breakthrough
into the ''Silicon Glen'' electronics sector.