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.

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

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.