Kate Losinska: Activist who struggled for the future of trade unionism in Britain while fighting factions in her own union

 

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
filmIdris Elba responds to James Bond rumours on Twitter
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Sport
Wayne Rooney warms up ahead of the English Premier League football match between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United at White Hart Lane
football
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones
film
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
News
Danielle George is both science professor and presenter
people
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Assistant

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have previous experience...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Administrator

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015