Construction workers' leader
Friday 11 November 2005
George Brent Brumwell, joiner and trade unionist: born Hartlepool, Co Durham 22 October 1939; General Secretary, Ucatt 1992-2004; CBE 2003; married first Beryl Johnson (died 1999; one son, three daughters), second 2004 Dorothy Moorhouse; died London 8 November 2005.
George Brumwell, former General Secretary of the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians, is credited with having rescued Ucatt from oblivion during the 1990s, when political infighting and financial mismanagement had called the future of the union into doubt. He retired in October 2004. By then, Britain's 10th biggest trade union was operating with a healthy financial surplus and was expanding its membership of over 100,000 building workers and its team of full-time officers.
When he took office as General Secretary in 1992, an atmosphere of crisis and suspicion shrouded the union. In the previous year, there had been a walkout by a dozen full-time officials to rival unions. The trigger for the defections was the election in 1991 of a new Ucatt executive council with a majority opposed to the previous leadership's plan for a grand merger with the EETPU electricians' union and the AEU engineering workers' union.
However, the incoming executive was itself soon to open merger talks with yet another rival organisation, the Transport and General Workers' Union. Brumwell, who had been elected on a strongly anti-merger platform, was in the difficult position of having to carry out the instructions of his executive while all the time being sympathetic to the large body of opinion within the union that favoured continued independence.
Matters came to a head in 1994 and 1995, with a bitter power struggle between the executive council, whose members were full-time officials, and the general council, the union's rank-and-file supervisory and appeals body. The battle was eventually settled in the High Court in London, with a ruling upholding the general council's decision to assume control of the union.
Brumwell played a key behind-the-scenes role in the manoeuvrings which saw the executive council sidelined. In January 1995 he even discharged himself from a hospital bed in order to attend a crucial meeting of the general council.
By 1997 the tide had turned decisively. The union's bank balance moved into the black. Thanks to a rule change pushed through by Brumwell, a new lay executive council had replaced the previous full-time body. In addition, the union's national delegate conference had in 1996 voted overwhelmingly in favour of Ucatt's remaining independent.
Brumwell's legacy was not just to ensure that workers in construction had their own specialist and independent trade union. His other great ambition was to make employment in construction a lifelong career. "It shouldn't just be a 'loadsamoney' job for young men, but a profession to be pursued by men and women with pride and security from apprenticeship to retirement," he said.
During his stewardship of Ucatt, Brumwell supported several innovations which went some way to seeing this ambition realised. The Construction Skills Certification Scheme, which now has 750,000 building workers on its books, was successfully introduced. There were moves by the Inland Revenue to tackle bogus self-employment and lump labour in construction. The industry's first ever contributory pension scheme was launched. And several union-sponsored measures were taken to improve the health and safety of building workers.
Brumwell joined the Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers (ASW) in 1957 as a 17-year-old apprentice joiner with the Hartlepool shipbuilder William Gray. By 1962 he was the union convener at Eggborough power station in North Yorkshire, a position he held for three years.
Six years later, he was elected a full-time district official in Sheffield of the ASW - which merged with other building trade unions in 1971 to form Ucatt. In 1974 he became Ucatt's youngest regional secretary when he moved to Leeds to take charge of the Yorkshire region. From 1984 he was based in London as the full-time executive council member for the union's Midlands and Yorkshire regions.
In 1991 Brumwell won a sharply contested ballot to become general secretary of the union. The fact that he was re-elected unopposed five years later was a clear indication of the way that he had by then both put an end to years of factional infighting and imposed his personal authority on the union.
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