You couldn't find anyone more different to Dolly Sayle than Tom Durkin; six foot plus tall, built like a brick 'outbuilding', fists like flat irons, a great mane of white hair and a voice that never needed a megaphone to address a mass meeting.
I didn't know Durkin although I saw him speak many times and spent a fascinating afternoon chatting with him and the equally remarkable Mrs Jayaben Desai at Brent Town Hall in 1987.
Back in 1977 I went to University during the middle of one of the most important industrial disputes of the time.
Grunwick was a company which developed peoples photographs before digital - you would post in your film with the money and a couple of days later they posted back the pictures. For the time it seemed very modern except that this hid a Dickensian factory that only employed vulnerable women from ethnic minorities at very low wages. At a time when the average weekly wage was £78, Grunwick workers earned an average of £28, including compulsory, unpaid overtime.
Mrs Desai courageously organised the majority of workers in the factory and took them out on strike. Famously, she said during the dispute;
"In a zoo there are many types of animal. Some are monkeys who dance to your tune; others are lions who can bite your head off. We are the lions, Mr Manager."
For the first time, the white Labour movement supported a dispute involving predominantly black workers. This was in no small part due to the organising ability of Tom Durkin who led the Brent Trades Council at the time and fought tirelessly to bring about the solidarity which could have won the dispute.
Most importantly, the Cricklewood Postal Workers refused to handle Grunwicks mail, which paralysed the factory.
At this point the full weight of the right wing of the Conservative party and the State stepped in to save George Ward, the owner of the company. A series of lawsuits were launched and specially selected right wing judges ruled against the workers every time.
Every day, 6000 Metropolitan Police officers were mobilised to keep the factory open and, for the first time, the Special Patrol Group (a specialist riot squad) were used to defeat the strikers.
I'm in there, somewhere - just one more push;
Getting there was a nightmare, struggling from Clapham where I lived to Dollis Hill. I needed a very early start with no breakfast. It made a big impression on me to see the right wing leaders of the Trades Union movement and prominent Labour M.P.'s, who'd felt obliged to be there, sitting in a 'greasy spoon' Café eating a full English Breakfast, while the rest of us were outside mixing it with the Police.
It was those right wing leaders and the Trades Union Congress who were to sell out the workers, and a Labour Government which was supposed to be in control of the Police who did nothing.
The truth is that in the usual pushing and shoving, we were at a big disadvantage, except on the days when Arthur Scargill and his 'Flying Pickets' came down from South Yorkshire.
The Miners made all the difference, something I was never to forget.
In 1987 I made the journey back to Brent, to the Art Deco grandness of the old Town Hall, for the 10th anniversary of the strike. Tom Durkin and Mrs Desai spoke, but in truth, there were very few people there. I didn't grumble, it made for an extremely interesting afternoon talking about the dispute with the main people behind it, now that the attention seekers and careerists had moved on.
There was clearly some wistfulness in Durkin - I think he always harboured dreams of leading a large revolutionary crowd to storm Brent Town Hall and I understood where he was coming from.
While the Grunwick dispute may have been lost, it was the most glorious achievement to have fought the battle. There were lessons to be learned.
For the Tories it was the blueprint for how they were to destroy the Trades Union movement.
For the right of the Labour Party and the Trades Unions, it became clear to them that they had a choice; to fight with the workers or to sell them out. They sold out.
The fact is, everyone involved with the dispute knew how important it was at the time. I certainly did and I learnt some valuable lessons from it.
The moral is that you have to fight to win.
Durkin was everywhere; in the 1980's a friend of mine was active at The Greenham Common Womens Peace Camp, protesting against the siting of American Cruise missiles at the airbase.
Every so often, Tom Durkin would appear with a big lorry he had somehow 'borrowed'. He travelled around the building sites of West London, picking up wood for the women's camp fires.
This is the Eulogy issued by Brent Trades Council when Tom Durkin died - from those who really knew him.
Tom Durkin, A life of Struggle.
Tom Durkin, for years President of Brent Trades Council - Brent’s local TUC - died just before Christmas aged 87.
Many will remember him as the giant with the snow-white hair and booming voice. The great orator who never needed a mega-phone, who supported all workers in struggle, whatever the weather or time of day...
Born in Ireland to a large, poor family, like many he came to England in the 30’s looking for work. He tramped from Liverpool to London, sleeping under hedges and begging crusts of bread, finally finding work in the building trade. The work was poorly paid and insecure, and there was many a death or serious injury caused by poor safety. When he demanded safer conditions he would be given his cards, and be back to the dole queue. As he struggled for work to stave off starvation, he watched with growing disgust those whose wealth was gained at the workers expense. His vision grew for a world of social justice, of peace and racial harmony, free from exploitation by ‘the bosses’ He became a communist and from then his life was committed to a struggle for a better world -‘for the millions and not the millionaires’. And poor though he always was, Tom would never turn away someone begging food, sharing whatever he could. ‘I can never forget what it felt like to be hungry’ he said.
He became a leading member of UCATT, campaigning for union recognition to improve safety on building sites and for proper contracts of employment, and assisted the organisation of the 1972 National Building Workers Strike. He was elected to the Greater London Association of Trades Councils and the South East Region of the TUC, and was well known as one of their most colourful figures. He was an organiser of the Peoples March for Jobs in 1982, reminiscent of the Jarrow Marches of the 30’s, where thousands joined against Thatcher’s unemployment policies.
There was hardly an industrial dispute in which Tom was not involved, from supporting the women at Trico’s fighting for equal pay, to campaigning against factory closures in the borough.
Many will have heard him speak - outside factory gates, or on the steps of Brent Town Hall. And his speeches were brilliant, eloquent and carefully argued. Largely self-educated (he left school at 13) his intellect and knowledge of history, literature and philosophy exceeded many a graduate - Shakespeare, Burns, Byron, Shelley, the Bible, Marx and Engels - he had read and knew them all, and would refer to them often, bringing their ideas to life.
Tom welcomed the growing ethnic diversity of the borough and did much to influence the Trades Union Movement in taking up fights against race discrimination. He helped set up the Willesden International Friendship Club, forerunner to the Brent Community Relations Council. He was always proud that Nelson Mandela had addressed a packed meeting of Brent Trades Council in the ‘60s before he was incarcerated and he gave consistent support to the anti-apartheid movement. Years later he was to welcome the young women from Dunns supermarket, who were sacked for refusing to sell apartheid’s goods.
When 137 Asian workers walked out at the Grunwick film processing plant in Chapter Road demanding Union recognition, Tom was there to take up their cause. Every morning without fail he was on the picket line, and organised trade unionists from across the country to support their fight.
During the 1984 Miners Strike he welcomed Kent Miners to Brent and raised thousands of pounds for their hardship fund. Later the Trades Council was invited to go down the Betteshanger mine and after feeling the cold, the heat, the dark and the dust, we were entertained with a good old sing-song in the social club. And there was nothing Tom liked better.
Tom’s activities were not restricted to the Trade Union movement. He was a founder member of the Brent Community Law Centre, the Local Economy Resource Unit and the Unemployed Workers Centre. He spoke out for the homeless, the NHS, Schools, and for Peace.
Besides public speaking, he had other skills. He was a poet, a lover of music and a craftsman. Memorable too were the ‘hi-fis’ he built out of old junk to take on demonstrations, mount on cars etc. (elections in the borough have been much quieter and less colourful since his decline). His archives of the Labour movement, his hatred of throwing anything away that he could recycle . . . his legacy lives on in the Trades and Labour Hall!
He could have used his considerable talents for self-advancement and, no doubt, have lead a comfortable life. A mighty voice for ordinary people, you only had to see him with small children or with his beloved cat (who could do no wrong) to witness the soft side of this fierce but gentle giant.
He will be greatly missed. He leaves a widow, 3 children and a number of grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Kate McLean on behalf of Brent Trades Council
(a don't stop till you drop production)
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