Trade union leader renowned for his honesty

ONE of the most likeable of trade union leaders, Jimmy Knapp, who died yesterday, was respected by colleagues and adversaries alike and, despite his strong Ayrshire accent, never failed to win public support even when his members were causing considerable disruption.

His secret was straightforward honesty. What you saw was what you got, and the travelling public, even those from the Home Counties who found Jim's inflection challenging, could recognise his facts from company spin.

One of the last times I saw Jimmy was when, despite being severely weakened from prolonged chemotherapy, he insisted on attending a gruelling session of the Cullen Inquiry into rail safety, where he made a powerful case for renationalising the railways.

Later that day he attended a retirement function for an old colleague from the rival union Aslef, something he stressed he was determined to do. It was there that so many of his rail industry colleagues from management as well as the unions effectively said their farewells to him.

More than any other leader Jim never missed an opportunity to stress that privatisation of the

rail industry, and especially the fragmentation that accompanied it, had seriously compromised

safety standards.

But despite his obvious expertise in an industry which had been his life and his record of integrity, his repeated warnings were largely ignored.

His knowledge of railways began at the age of 15 when on leaving Kilmarnock Academy young Jim joined the industry as a signal box lad, taking up his first union post with the then National Union of Railwaymen three years later. Rising through the ranks to London-based NUR divisional officer in 1972, he was elected head of the main rail union in 1983.

Jimmy was elected on a left-wing ticket when, way back in 1983, he broke the right-wing stranglehold on the NUR. His politics had not changed and he was still viewed as an old left-wing Labour dinosaur by Labour modernisers and as such was out of step with large swathes of government policy, especially rail privatisation.

But during his 18 years at the helm of the largest rail union, since renamed the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, the far left, in particular Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party, had been making great inroads into the rail unions - making Jim far more acceptable to Labour leaders.

On his election to the top office, Knapp deliberately cultivated a low-key management approach in stark contrast to the bumptious, bullying demeanour of his predecessor, Sid Weighell, and the aloof attitude of his predecessor Sir

Sidney Green. Looking somewhat older than his 42 years, the new general secretary had little time to bed into his role before becoming engulfed in the biggest industrial confrontation of modern times, the year-long pits strike in defence of jobs and communities which tore the nation apart before ending in defeat for the miners and the rundown of the coal industry.

During that turbulent year, rail workers came under immense pressure from British Coal and the Tory government to help break the colliers' strike, but generally maintained union solidarity, and coal movements by rail faced serious disruption.

After that year-long baptism of fire he headed up the first significant industrial action on the railways for many years when, in 1989, the NUR staged a series of successful one-day stoppages over pay and conditions. But it was the damaging four-month dispute by signal workers over deadlocked restructuring negotiations that brought him most fame or infamy as rail services were severely disrupted during 19 days of strike action throughout the summer of 1994, which cost British Rail some (pounds) 300m in lost revenue.

Some tabloid newspapers tried to demonise the amiable Scot, but the level of public support remained remarkably high, as it did in the subsequent attempt to stave off rail privatisation. Indeed, the rail unions seemed to have caught the mood of the public, and came close to averting rail privatisation, which was eventually finalised and forced through by the Tories just before they were themselves pushed out by the electorate.

From humble beginnings at Hurlford in Ayrshire, Jimmy Knapp rose to become not only one the top trade unionists in the land, with a seat on the TUC's ruling general council and a place as one of the TUC's ''gold-plated six'' who met regularly with the prime minister, but also worldwide by virtue of his extensive work with the International Transport Workers Federation, where he met his second wife, German-born Eva.

He has always gone about his work with courtesy and honesty and not a little wry humour, as demonstrated at a London Underground tribunal when the employers' barrister declared that, if the union's policy on seniority-based promotion had existed in Nelson's time, he would never have made admiral.

Canny Knapp replied that he did not know about that but ''with one eye and one arm he would certainly have failed the railway medical''.

For relaxation Jim liked to support his favourite football teams, Kilmarnock when north of the Border, and Crystal Palace when at his south London home, or walking in the countryside with Eva, with whom he had planned to move to Spain on retirement.

James Knapp, trade union leader; born September 29, 1940, died August 13, 2001.