Denis Delay: Trade unionist who helped ensure that the scaling-down of the steel industry was as painless as possible

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The Independent Online

Denis Delay started his working life as a London docker and went on to become one of the most influential trade union figures in the steel industry throughout British Steel's 25 years in public ownership. He was born in Wapping in 1927 to a family working in the docks, where he lived throughout the Blitz. He joined a rifle regiment towards the end of the war; the noise resulted in him being partly deaf for the rest of his life. He was in Berlin for VE Day and was a guard at the Nuremburg trials. The experience left a marked impact upon him which he would discuss with only a very few. He returned to London, where he became a docker, joining the Stevedores and Dockers union.

In 1955 he became one of thefirst adult students to attend Keele University, where he read PPE, Philosophy, Politics and Economics. He played a prominent part in student politics and held the honorary post of Swanmaster, bestowed upon him by the Student's Union there for exceptional service.

His powerful, left-leaning political speeches, often about issues suchas the Suez crisis and nuclear disarmament, earned him a reputationas a socialist eccentric and a "true Keele legend". The description of eccentric – or cantankerous – would remain with him for the rest of his life. One former TUC colleague remembered him as having "a ferocious temper often employed against inanimate objects, notably telephones. His fixed-line office phone had claims to be the first mobile."

On leaving university he joined the Trades Union Congress EconomicDepartment in 1960, where he and David Lea, now Lord Lea of Crondall, were closely involved in the foundation of the National Economic Development Office and its involvement with George Brown's National Plan of 1966. He also played a prominent part in the TUC's centenary celebrations in 1968, when its then General Secretary George Woodcock instructed him and Lea to find a white cart horse to lead the parade.

He became secretary to the newly established Steel Committee, which had been formed in response to the nationalisation in 1967 of a grossly underfunded steel industry, and the foundation of the British Steel Corporation. A body was needed to talk to about issues other than those governing wages, and the Steel Committee became the national body – the first industrial negotiating committee - for these discussions. It was chaired for many years by Dai Davies of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation, and Delay established close relationships not only with him but also with Bob Scholey (later Sir Robert) and David Greaves of BSC in working to try and stop the steel industry's decline.

In 1973 the government approved a 10-year development strategy toconvert BSC from a large number of works into a more cohesive, compact organisation centred around five main areas. Faced by a downturn in the need for steel, a 14-month review by Lord Beswick, then Minister of State for Industry, led to an agreement in 1975 for a closure programme.

The work of the Steel Committee took on an added impetus, becoming an early example of industrial democracy, providing a forum whereby unions, management and government could discuss what should happen to the industry, and deal with the need for reorganisation of the plants and possible closures.

Delay, along with his colleague Brian Tyler, travelled around the country consulting workers, giving them a chance to have their input. As a result there was a less hostile reaction than expected when closures took place and redundancies were made and the Steel Committee was able to negotiate acceptable redundancy deals plant by plant. This was largely due to Delay's efforts; having worked in the docks and seen what had happened there, he took a pragmatic approach to what was likely to happen in the steel industry. The election of the Conservative government in 1979, however, led to a change in attitude to the future of the industry and with it further reorganisation, the privatisation of British Steel in 1989 and the ending of the Steel Committee's work.

John Monks, former General Secretary of the TUC, praised Delay's contribution to the industry: "Denis was the glue that kept the steel unions in order. The craft-production divide was deep as was the white/blue collar arguments. Regional differences could be tribal. Denis aimed to lift horizons to wider concerns, such as the rise of German and Japanese competition, the environment, Europe. He was a wise, quirky union officer."

After his retirement in 1990, Delay went back to his first – and continuing – interest in the London docks and their history. He played a major part in staging the Docklands Exhibition at Congress House in 1980. He was also involved in a personal capacity with the redevelopment of the Docklands in the 1980s and in establishing the Museum of London Docklands. He wrote a report on the Steel Committee and the steel industry for the TUC which summed up its history, and was writing a book on the history of the London docks from 1889 to 1955 when he died.

Peta Steel

Denis Delay, trade union leader: born London 30 January 1927; died London 21 April 2011.