John Cogger

Highly effective president of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers
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The Independent Online

John Cogger, trade unionist: born London 8 April 1941; president, National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers 1990-93, 1996-99, 2002-03; twice married (two sons, one daughter); died London 9 May 2003.

John Cogger, a socialist and trade unionist, formed a deep attachment to two organisations during his lifetime. One was the Labour Party and the other was the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), of which he was president.

As a consequence of his abiding affection for both, he would have harboured considerable private misgivings about the decisions taken by the union's annual general meeting in Glasgow last Tuesday where delegates overwhelmingly passed a motion which will allow branches and regional councils of RMT to support organisations other than Labour.

More importantly Bob Crow, the union's general secretary, chose to interpret the resolution as a green light for "affiliation" to other more left-wing organisations such as the Scottish Socialist Party which could lead to the RMT's expulsion from Labour. Cogger would have been saddened to see his beloved union courting a schism with the party it helped to create.

The RMT president often said that while the Labour government under Tony Blair had been a bitter disappointment to trade unionists, affiliates should stick it out and fight from within. His concerns about government policies were made clear when he joined the demonstration outside the offices of the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott - a former RMT member - against plans to partly privatise London Underground. But a split would have caused Cogger considerable distress.

But there was only one matter where disagreement between Cogger and Crow led to a degree of animosity. This also concerned a question of affiliation. While Crow is a supporter of Millwall football club, Cogger was a season ticket holder at Arsenal. Cogger was also a member of the MCC and often wore its orange-and-yellow striped tie.

Cogger had a distinctive dress sense. In fact one of his colleagues described him - both mischievously and affectionately - as a "dishevelled dandy". He had a particular fondness for white socks which he often wore with loafers, a red jacket and his MCC tie. It was an imaginative, some might say idiosyncratic, deployment of colours.

Cogger was a hard-working RMT president and a highly effective operator in the RMT's boardroom at Unity House, near Euston Station in London, where his knowledge of the union's constitution was widely respected. He was a hard-nosed negotiator. Cogger was prominent in meetings at the conciliation service Acas where in the mid-1990s the union was involved in a prolonged battle over the pay of London Underground drivers. He learnt his skill at advocacy during 42 years as a trade unionist, having joined the Cricklewood Number One branch of the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) in north London in the mid-1960s.

Born in London in 1941, Cogger had first become a "box boy" - the most junior grade in a signal box - and then a train recorder - the person who records the movement of rolling stock - at Carlton Road Junction and Finchley Road in north London. After becoming a fully fledged signalman he worked in Brent, Cricklewood, St Pancreas, Euston and Hendon. He was actively involved in the NUR, the forerunner to the RMT, from the beginning of his career. He became a highly effective union representative in disciplinary hearings and tribunals.

Cogger acknowledged that his seminal experience as a union official came from his involvement with the North London District Council which covered an area which contained 36,000 NUR members. Speaking in front of the 160-strong council with four national executive members and three full-time officers on the platform was a daunting experience for a young activist.

He was taught how to conduct himself as a trade unionist by more senior colleagues such as Sid Hoskins, the north London district secretary and the Communists Jock Nicholson and Jimmy Prendergast - the latter a veteran of the Spanish Civil War.

Cogger attended his first Annual General Meeting of the NUR in 1971. Three years later he was a member of the National Executive. He was elected for another three-year term on the executive in 1980, becoming a senior figure in national negotiations.

In 1982 he was chosen as the executive's delegate to the Labour Party conference, but as he arrived in Blackpool he received a call from his first wife Ann telling him she had contracted cancer and returned to London to be at her side. Cogger met his second wife, Marina, while leading a union delegation to the Soviet Union in 1991.

He first became president of the union in 1990 and steered the organisation towards merger with the National Union of Seamen. He was the last president of the NUR and the first of the RMT. Presidents serve a maximum three-year term, but have to face election every 12 months. Cogger was re-elected seven times, in 1991 and 1992; 1996, 1997 and 1998 and again in 2002 and 2003. This was a measure of his stature among the members of the union.

Cogger was thoughtful and courteous and a doughty defender of socialism. He was also a bon viveur, who liked his food, his drink and convivial company. His legendary lunches were invariably rounded off with a cigar and a brandy or two. Nothing too good for the working class, as he might say.

Barrie Clement