Lord Brett: Trade union leader and politician who fought for workers' rights around the world


Bill Brett was a large man in every sense. Tall, with a vibrant character and a reputation for forthrightness, he rose from being a railway clerk to lead the workers group at the International Labour Organisation, the UN body for employment standards, where he led the fight against the worst forms of child labour. Having spent years fighting for workers' rights, Brett, always an active member of the Labour Party, would go on to become a junior minister in Gordon Brown's Labour government, one of his responsibilities being to introduce the controversial identity card.

Brett was born in Bury, Lancashire in 1942 to Irish parents. He was fiercely proud of his background, paying frequent trips back to Carnagopple and Curry. He was educated at St Joseph's Primary School and then at Radcliffe Technical College in Manchester. He was a lifelong Manchester United supporter; he once played truant to watch his club but was spotted by a teacher, resulting in a caning. Eventually he would become patron of the Supporters Club; one of his earliest memories was standing in the rain to watch the bodies of the Busby Babes come home. On his retirement he was presented with a Manchester United No 7 shirt – David Beckham's number at the time.

He left school at 16 to become a British Rail ticket clerk. By 1964 he had become a full-time officer for the Transport Salaried Staffs Association, the first of several union positions which included working for the National Union of Bank Employees, the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staff, then in 1974 the Institute of Professional Civil Servants. His involvement with trade unionism came as a reaction to injustice: as far as he was concerned organised trade unionism was the best way of fighting it. He had little time for those who supported the block vote and unballoted strikes.

In 1989 he became General Secretary of the IPCS and a member of the TUC General Council. He oversaw the change in the union's scope of membership to broaden and include leading professionals, resulting in the renaming of the union to reflect such changes to become the Institute of Professionals, Managers and Specialists – now part of Prospect. Attempts to merge the union with others failed, however.

Brett's exuberance and his ability to analyse and cut through any argument to get to the base of any problem stood him in good stead with the fights throughout the 1980s with the Thatcher government, which included the GCHQ dispute. As a British Workers' Delegate to the International Labour Organisation, and a member of the TUC's General Council, Brett made sure that the problems of the British civil servants received a world profile and that GCHQ became a cause célébre with the worldwide trade union movement.

The TUC's General Secretary Brendan Barber met him during that time. "Brett was a big man with a big presence," he said. "He devoted his life to trade unionism but was never the bureaucrat. When Bill was in the room people took notice. He was never short of an opinion and his contribution to any debate was worth hearing."

It was his work for the ILO that established Brett's international reputation. He was to play a central role in the organisation over some 20 years, firstly as the British Worker member of the Governing Body; as Chair of the Group and subsequently of the Governing Body, and then as Director of the London Office. He played a major part in the development of the 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

Brett also fought hard against child labour. Paying tribute, the leading American trade unionists Penny Schantz and Jerry Zellhoeffer said in a statement: "Bill was unquestionably the strongest and most effective ILO Worker spokesman in recent history. Among his many contributions was the ILO's Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour. His contribution will impact for generations to come."

In 1999 Brett was made a life peer, serving in various capacities. In 2009 he became a government whip and junior minister, dealing among other things with ID cards. Later he would act as the opposition front bench spokesman on home affairs and international development. The former Home Secretary Alan Johnson, a fellow former trade union leader, specifically requested that Brett work for him. "He was excellent," Johnson said. "Bill's politics were driven by a fundamental belief in the importance of independent trade unions to a free society."

Peta Steel

William Henry Brett, trade unionist and politician: born Bury, Lancashire 6 March 1942; Assistant Secretary, Assistant General Secretary, General Secretary, Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists (formerly IPCS); cr 1999 Life Peer, of Lydd in the county of Kent; married 1961 Jean Valerie (divorced 1986; one son, one daughter), 1994 Janet Winter (divorced 2006; two daughters), thirdly Amanda Milne; died Carlisle 29 March 2012.

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