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Albert Williams: Quick-witted trade union leader

Albert Williams, bricklayer and trade unionist: born Stockport, Cheshire 12 February 1927; member, executive council, Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians (Ucatt) 1971-92, General Secretary 1985-92; President, European Federation of Building and Woodworkers 1988-92; married 1954 Edna Bradley (two sons); died London 28 November 2007

As a young bricklayer, Albert Williams made a name for himself as a militant trade unionist in the Manchester area during the 1950s. He progressed through the ranks of his union, eventually being elected General Secretary of the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians (Ucatt) in 1984. His rise to the top of the union was matched by a move rightwards and by the time he retired from office in 1992 his plans for a merger with two other unions on the political right of the labour movement were being vehemently opposed inside his own union. His successor was elected on a platform of continued independence for Ucatt.

Before becoming the union's General Secretary, Williams served on its executive council during the tumultuous national building workers' strike of 1972, which had been called to demand a 30 a week basic wage. He sided with the more hardline minority on the executive that rejected a series of offers from the employers. The moderate-led union found itself being swept along by the determination of enough ordinary members to continue the stoppages. So when a settle-ment finally came in which the weekly rate for skilled workers rose to 32 and for labourers to 27.20 the stance adopted by Williams was seen to have been vindicated and his reputation enhanced.

Another outcome of the strike was the prosecution of the so-called "Shrewsbury pickets" on charges of conspiracy following police investigations into allegations of violent incidents on picket lines outside construction sites in Telford. The trial of 24 building workers at Shrewsbury Crown Court in 1973, at the end of which six of the "flying pickets" were sent to prison, remained a cause clbre of the trade union movement for years to come.

Williams wanted the union to offer robust support for the men, but again found himself in a minority on the union's executive which, though critical of the trial, was nervous about being seen to be too supportive of the jailed militants. Harnessing his enthusiasm for the cause of the pickets, the executive put Williams in charge of raising funds for the children and dependents of the men.

Albert Williams left school at the age of 14 and served his apprenticeship as a bricklayer with Manchester Corporation before being called up in 1944, after which he was sent to Burma, India and Malaya. On demobilisation four years later he went back on the tools, working for various employers in the Manchester area. His union career began in 1955 as a branch secretary in the Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers (AUBTW) and in the following year he was elected to the union's Manchester district committee.

In 1958, aged 32, he became the youngest ever member of the union's national executive, a position he retained until the AUBTW merged with other building trade unions in 1971 to form Ucatt. He was immediately elected to the executive of the new union and was re-elected twice before he won the ballot to become General Secretary in 1984.

The 1950s and 1960s were the decades of the wildcat strike and what was known as the shop stewards' movement. Williams epitomised the new breed of militant union rep. In Manchester, he joined the Communist Party, which gave many of that cohort a valuable education in the wiles of managing disputes and securing influence within union bureaucracies. They were skills that served him well in the then rough world of building trade unionism, even after he had left the Communist Party for the Labour Party.

His talents were quickly spotted by the Communist Party and he was encouraged to seek higher office. He served for three years on the party's national executive, resigning in 1962 at a time when its reputation had been damaged by the Communist-organised ballot-rigging scandal in the ETU electricians' union.

In the early 1990s, Williams was one of the architects of an abortive plan to merge Ucatt with the electricians and the similarly right-led AUEW engineering workers' union. The project, ironically, foundered because of stiff resistance within Ucatt from the base activists and shop stewards that had once been Williams' natural constituency.

His tenure of office as Ucatt General Secretary coincided with the Thatcher years and the union faced a huge challenge to its ability to organise workers as a result of the spread of labour-only subcontracting and bogus self-employment in the construction industry. Colleagues recall that in his days as a young activist and representative for the industrially militant North-west, Williams had led and championed many disputes in which the union resisted the hiring of "lump" labour. But years later he was eventually forced to accept the reality of what was happening at site level and at Ucatt's 1990 conference controversially pressed the case for self-employed labour to be admitted as members into the union.

Quick-witted and affable, Williams was fond of aphorisms learned in the building site canteen. One of his favourites, regularly deployed after some fiery speech at a union meeting, was "Fine words butter no parsnips." He would also inform building employers across the negotiating table: "You can always tell a bricklayer but you can't tell him much."

Jim Jump