Heroism was in the very soul of the woman who fought a 20-year battle for the future of trades unionism in Britain, just before it was eclipsed. Kate Losinska, a soldier’s daughter and wife of a decorated Polish Second World War airforce officer, proved herself the Boadicea of moderate workers’ association in the decades before Margaret Thatcher’s government passed the Trade Union Act of 1984, which had the effect of limiting industrial action and hence union power.
Losinska, described in 1975 as “a London housewife” in news reports of her first election to the presidency of Britain’s largest civil-service union, soon won the soubriquet “indomitable”. It was a quality that was needed in the years that followed, in which warring factions of right and left so racked her organisation, the Civil and Public Services Association, that it became known as the trades unions’ Beirut.
The 5ft-tall, bespectacled woman with the cockney accent “you could sharpen scissors on”, as one commentator put it, first made her mark after her election by taking her detractors in the union to the High Court. She alleged libel, and won, and though she was ousted the following year, she remained a prominent player in the union’s Punch-and-Judy politics for the next decade, at last being made OBE for services to it in 1985.
Reform of the block-voting system led by branch meetings of activists was a cardinal aspect of her campaign. She sought secret postal ballots of all members for the election of officials, something that turned out to be in the spirit of the coming age, when government legislation was to impose the secret ballot on unions as a prerequisite for any strike. In the 1970s, when union disputes were a prominent part of public life and pay settlements of double percentage figures frequent, the CPSA hierarchy and its 24-member National Executive Committee were prey to factions, with the left divided between traditional communists leading the “Broad Left” group, and Trotskyists in control of the “Redder Tape” alliance. Redder Tape was later to become identified with the Militant Tendency that influenced the Labour Party in the 1980s.
On her 1975 election, in which she trounced her nearest rival by more than 10,000 votes, Losinska declared: “I personally do not matter a row of beans, but what I represent matters very much to other trade unions which are also under attack.” When she was ousted, she vowed: “The CPSA is my whole life and I intend to carry on working for it.”
The girl from Selhurst Grammar School, Croydon, who had begun work at 17 in 1939 at the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, was to become CPSA President again from 1979-82, and once more from 1983-86, and in between remained one of the union’s two vice-presidents. She was also a delegate member of the Council of Civil Service Unions from 1970-87, and the council’s chairman from 1980-81.
Her prime coincided with the 1976-78 Grunwick dispute, the 1978-79 “winter of discontent”, the 1980 steelworkers’ strike and the miners’ strike of 1984-85. In 1983 she led a “deluge of criticism” of the miners’ leader Arthur Scargill by trades unionists when he spoke out against the Polish trade union Solidarity, the rise of which marked the beginning of the end for Communism in Eastern Europe. “He now shows blind allegiance to the communist philosophy and as such I don’t think he is any longer credible as a trade unionist,” she said.
The same year she remarked: “CPSA mirrors the state of the Labour Party. Militant Tendency is tearing the Labour Party apart, just as it is tearing the CPSA apart.”
She held “a fundamental objection to extremism” and opposed “political groups using the union for political purposes”, she told CPSA members in April 1984. All through her prominence at the CPSA and her leadership of the moderates’ “Daylight” group, she was the subject of attacks on her and her allies’ probity.
Her High Court action against the union’s then left-controlled executive in 1975 was to prevent censure motions being issued against her of which the plain object, her counsel said, was to punish her by diminishing her standing in the eyes of the membership in a way likely to prejudice her prospects for re-election.
The action arose from an article in Reader’s Digest in which she had said the union was being infiltrated by Marxists and Trotskyists, and a proposed reply by the executive in the union’s journal, Red Tape. Opponents later focused on her and other union moderates’ membership of the council of Truemid, an anti-communist organisation formed in the 1970s and originally associated with the SAS-founder Colonel David Stirling, but having as its driving force, according to newspaper reports, Major John Ogier, a wartime aide-de-camp to Winston Churchill and holder of the Military Cross for service in Italy, who died in 1977.
Losinska dismissed as “scurrilous” a claim by the Broad Left group in 1978 that Truemid had paid £10,000 for her presidential election campaign. Charles Elliott, chairman of the CPSA moderates, said Truemid had helped to produce the moderate group’s journal, Daylight, and was being repaid. But the moderates were, like the leftists, to split. In 1986 Losinska combined with the Militant Tendency faction to prevent the CPSA merging with the Society of Civil and Public Servants, which represented office managers, rather than the CPSA’s clerical grades. The moderates divided into the National Moderate Group, supporting Losinska, and the Democratic Moderate Group, which considered her too autocratic.
“I am not ashamed of joining forces with Militant Tendency to defeat a merger”, she announced, but her long-time champion, the Times columnist Bernard Levin, on 14 April that year gloomily quoted Edmund Burke: “the good must associate, else they will fall”, and withheld his usual paean of praise. The CPSA was later merged to become part of today’s Public and Commercial Services Union.
In retirement Losinska lived in the Republic of Ireland with her husband, Stanislaw, a holder of the Virtuti Militari, Poland’s highest military decoration, who as a lieutenant worked in the Polish air force’s intelligence section in London in the Second World War and served with RAF 301 (Polish) bomber squadron; and their son, Julian.
Kathleen Mary Conway, trade unionist: born London 5 October 1922; 1985 OBE; married 1942 Stanislaw Losinski (died 2002; one son); died Limerick 16 October 2013.