Trade union leader

Born: December 9, 1941;

Died: May 16, 2016

KEN Cameron, who has died aged 74, was for 20 years General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union and in many ways the archetype of the hard Left union leader.

He was strongly committed to internationalist causes such as Cuba and Palestine, and an early and vocal opponent of apartheid who led calls for Nelson Mandela’s release from prison; at home, he secured substantial (some thought very generous) pay rises for his members and maintained – against stiff opposition – the FBU’s right to strike; he also gave his union’s unwavering moral and financial support to the National Union of Mineworkers during the strike of 1984-85.

The fact that, despite his firebrand credentials, no major industrial action was taken directly by the FBU under his leadership could be seen as contradictory; it certainly ensured that Cameron himself never earned the personal notoriety of union leaders such as British Leyland’s Derek “Red Robbo” Robinson or the NUM’s Arthur Scargill.

But it could as easily been seen as testament to Cameron’s effectiveness; during his tenure as General Secretary, there were only a couple of years in which FBU pay rises were not substantially higher than the private sector average. And, despite the union’s longstanding reputation as a hotbed of radical socialism, it held on to its rights, and maintained its members’ terms and conditions, much more successfully than others under what Cameron saw as a determined onslaught on the trades union movement by the Thatcher Government.

Not that Cameron took a much more favourable view of the Labour Party under Tony Blair’s leadership. Though he “cried with joy” when the party won in 1997, he admitted that he “cried real tears” at many of its subsequent policies. By the end of his time in office, he had concluded that “the Labour Party no longer sees us as their natural partners. We can no longer rely on them to be our natural allies.” In 2004, after Cameron had stepped down, the FBU disaffiliated from Labour, though it has made moves to renew its association since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader.

Ken Cameron was born on December 9 1941 in Fort William. His mother was an Irish Catholic and his father a “West Highland Wee Free” who worked as a lineman for the GPO. He left Fort William Senior Secondary, where he was a keen shinty player, at 15 and initially trained as a police cadet in Inverness-shire, thanks to the offices of an uncle on the police committee. Though he lasted a couple of years, he was never very enthusiastic, and the issue of his height loomed over him (literally; he was well under the regulation minimum for the time).

He then went to work as a cub reporter on the Aberdeen Press and Journal, where he did not distinguish himself. One of his first jobs was to cover Drumnadrochit Highland Games, which he rashly attempted from the vantage point of the beer tent, in the company of older, hard-drinking hacks. After he proved incapable of filing his copy, his companions helped out. Protests subsequently poured in to the paper, since the winner of the girls’ egg-and-spoon race was listed as having won the caber tossing, and he received an official warning.

The last straw came when Cameron was covering an international swimming competition and attempted to steer a colleague out of the bar to cover the water polo. Both ended up in the pool. Cameron was sacked; Ian McCaskell, the other reporter, went on to edit the News of the World.

He then had a year working as a labourer on a hydro-electric scheme before moving south to Birmingham to join the fire brigade. Both parents had been staunch socialists and Labour Party activists, and he quickly became involved in the union. His first campaign was in 1964, against new helmets that resembled German military ones. “They were impracticable because when you bent your head, they fell off,” he explained, “but also the local kids, in a rough old area where I worked, were giving us Nazi salutes and I nearly got the sack for refusing, on behalf of the watch, to wear the bloody things.” It was the subject of his first speech at the FBU conference in Southport that year.

Cameron’s mentor within the trades union movement were Mick McGahey, vice-president of the NUM Scottish miners and an old-school Communist, and Terry Parry, who became General Secretary of the FBU in 1964. Rising through the movement, Cameron was groomed to take over from Parry, and succeeded him in 1980.

He had learned a valuable lesson from the first national strike the union had ever conducted, in late 1977 and early 1978, which secured them far less than their demands, and led to a settlement in line with other public sector employees. Cameron realized that to preserve the union’s right to strike – in the face of demands that emergency service workers should be prohibited from taking industrial action – it would be prudent to broker a long-term deal.

Despite attempts to modify their terms and conditions, Cameron maintained the FBU’s position, with a campaign in 1993 and the threat of strike action in the run-up to the publication of the Burchill report in 1999, without ever needing to mount a full strike. Meanwhile, he campaigned vigorously for internationalist causes, supporting Yasser Arafat and giving honorary membership of the FBU to Nelson Mandela (who wrote to him on his retirement in 2000). He also served as chairman of the Peoples’ Press Printing Society, owners of the Morning Star.

He was also a staunch supporter of the NUM during their ill-fated strike, lending support from the FBU, acting as a liaison and offering unqualified solidarity. He roundly condemned Eric Hammond, of the electricians’ union, as “a traitor to his class” for continuing to work, though in private, Cameron later conceded that Scargill’s leadership had been a significant factor in the strike’s failure.

On one occasion, he withdrew £200,000 of union money (stuffed into a crisp box) to lend to the NUM. He then asked the bank manager for directions to the nearest bookies – though he noted that the clerk’s main failing hadn’t been failing to get the joke, but not asking for the name of the horse.

Cameron was a racing enthusiast himself, and (thanks to his time in Birmingham) a follower of Aston Villa. But his abiding passions and interests were entirely political. In retirement, he moved to Shawlands in Glasgow, and spent time putting the world to rights in Heraghty’s on Pollokshaws Road.

He married, in 1964, Barbara, with whom he had a daughter, Helen, and a son, Ewen. The marriage ended in divorce in the mid-1980s. He married, secondly, Nuala, who survives him with his children.

Asked for three words by which to be remembered, Cameron insisted on four, and then delivered five: “A socialist and a comrade.”