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An era ends with the going of Sir Gavin

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 commonplace.

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 Commission.

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 amalgamation proceed.

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 20 years.

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.

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