Obituary: Sheila Smith

YOU ALWAYS knew where you were with Sheila Smith. A tiny woman with a pronounced limp, she was a convinced trade unionist, feminist and someone who made her views crystal clear.

But she did not fit into the "fiery" left-winger stereotype in her years as an activist and eventually president of the old local government union Nalgo (National and Local Government Officers' Association). Smith was never considered completely "on-side" in the trade union sub-culture - her views were a touch too right-wing for most of her colleagues - but she was never a Conservative.

She was associated with the outer fringes of the Labour Party in her younger days, but, if she was ever a member, none of her colleagues knew. When, in 1981, the "Gang of Four" established the Social Democratic Party, they counted Smith as one of their supporters. If anything, that was worse than being a Conservative to many trade unionists. Even right-wingers in the Labour Party, who might have privately toyed with the idea of joining the SDP, felt themselves forced, in public at least, to distance themselves from her.

To complicate matters she launched a movement within Nalgo that was erroneously seen as the brainchild of the Far Left. Sheila Smith was one of the principal forces behind the notion of "self- organisation" in Nalgo. This was a movement within a movement which spawned pressure groups to promote the rights of women, ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians, and the disabled. One of her long-term aims, of securing a strong female representation among full-time officials at the top of the union, has never been completely realised.

Her enthusiasm for the project was borne of a deep feminist conviction which brooked no argument. She accepted that to campaign in support of a structure dedicated to promoting the rights of women, it was logical - and just - to extend that opportunity to other people whose lives were blighted by discrimination and prejudice.

In fact the policy of self-organisation prompted a rash of "loony left" stories in tabloid newspapers and proved, often quite usefully, to be something of a thorn in the side of the permanent officials.

The daughter of a milkman, Smith was born and brought up in Stoke Newington, north London, and educated at the Skinners' Company's School for Girls. She joined Nalgo in 1951 and held many union positions including president (1969-70) and chairwoman (1972-77) of the branch representing the Greater London Council and Inner London Education Authority. She also sat on the women's rights committee of the southern region of the TUC.

She was a member of Nalgo's national executive and sat on several key committees including that concerned with equal opportunities. Finally, in 1986, she was thrilled to become president of her union, only the second woman to hold the post.

She opposed the creation of the public service union Unison through the merger of Nalgo, the National Union of Public Employees (Nupe) and the Confederation of Health Service Employees (Cohse) - but the movement towards amalgamation became inexorable, and Unison was launched in 1993. Smith contended that the other unions were less democratic than Nalgo because they were dominated by full-time officials rather than lay members like herself. She also argued that the political fund of the other two organisations, which were affiliated to the Labour Party, would eventually dominate the non-aligned fund of Nalgo. Thus far this does not seem to have happened.

Sheila Smith was a heavy smoker and in her later years suffered from emphysema, as did her father. Towards the end of her period as president she was extremely short of breath because of her illness and only willpower kept her going.

Smith dealt unceremoniously with those with whom she disagreed, but she leavened her occasional stridency with personal kindness and a sense of humour.

Sheila Kaye Smith, trade unionist: born London 16 December 1932; President, National and Local Government Officers' Association (Nalgo) 1986; died Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire 14 October 1998.

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones