Lord Greene of Harrow Weald - Obituaries - News - The Independent

Lord Greene of Harrow Weald

Moderate railwaymen's leader

Sidney Greene's appointment as General Secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen was unexpected and sudden. He was 47. It was 1957 and he had been deputy to "Big Jim" Campbell for only three years when the ebullient Campbell was killed in a car accident on an official trade-union visit to Ukraine. Greene was to be General Secretary for the best part of two decades, until 1975, and in the pivotal position of Chairman of the Trades Union Congress Economic Committee, from 1968, he was to exercise discreet influence in those turbulent times.



Sidney Francis Greene, railwayman and trade unionist: born London 12 February 1910; Assistant General Secretary, National Union of Railwaymen 1954-56, General Secretary 1957-75; CBE 1966; Chairman, TUC Economic Committee 1868-75; Chairman, TUC General Council 1969-70; Kt 1970; created 1974 Baron Greene of Harrow Weald; married 1936 Masel Carter (three daughters); died Harrow, Middlesex 27 July 2004.



Sidney Greene's appointment as General Secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen was unexpected and sudden. He was 47. It was 1957 and he had been deputy to "Big Jim" Campbell for only three years when the ebullient Campbell was killed in a car accident on an official trade-union visit to Ukraine. Greene was to be General Secretary for the best part of two decades, until 1975, and in the pivotal position of Chairman of the Trades Union Congress Economic Committee, from 1968, he was to exercise discreet influence in those turbulent times.

Greene had joined the railways straight from school at the age of 14. He worked mostly in the marshalling yards of London before he was appointed a junior union organiser in 1944. He told me that he had wanted to go into the forces but that his was a reserved occupation and he was forbidden to do so.

Ten years later, having proved himself a conscientious and effective organiser in the London Region, he was given the job as Assistant General Secretary. When the awful news of Campbell's death reached the union, few thought that Greene would get the job as he wasn't considered to be General Secretary material, but rather as a behind-the-scenes person. However, as often happens, heavyweight candidates cancelled themselves out and Greene was chosen as a compromise candidate to lead what was in those days half a million or more workers.

His attitude was very much that he had to do his best for railwaymen, rather than become immersed in the politics of the Labour Party. He was delighted to be asked on a fairly regular basis to official dinners in Downing Street, in days when the aristocratic prime minister Harold Macmillan and his wife Lady Dorothy thought that a dinner for foreign dignitaries was incomplete without the presence of a couple of trade-union leaders and their wives. In particular, Ernest Marples, who was responsible for transport, was enormously relieved to have the conciliatory Greene rather than his firebrand predecessor.

Greene's willingness to work constructively with a Conservative government was looked at somewhat askance by certain other trade-union leaders. But Sid Weighell, his acerbic successor as General Secretary of the NUR, believes that Greene's attitude served well for the industry, if not for the Labour Party.

The incoming Labour government of 1964 found Greene equally helpful. He was against strikes. In his diary for 10 February 1966, Dick Crossman, then Minister of Housing, records:

At Chequers this strike hadn't been mentioned at all and throughout Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday I had been virtually certain it couldn't take place, that somehow it could be settled. All the way through the railwaymen had been divided and Sidney Greene passionately against it. I was pretty certain that at the right dramatic moment the PM would intervene. But the general public didn't know that and they were still afraid that the trains would stop on Monday.

This, like a number of other strikes during Greene's watch, was averted. Greene simply took the view that strike action created great hardship for the wives of his members - he was always very sensitive to the hardships of railway women, since their case was powerfully put in the family home by his own wife. He was also acutely sensitive to the fact that the railways faced real competition from road haulage and buses, and the infant but rapidly growing air-transport industry. (It ought however to be said that in the mid-1960s Greene was one of the strongest critics of Prices and Incomes Policy.)

His deepest concern, perhaps, was unemployment. In his diary for 15 December 1968 Tony Benn recalls:

I went to Chequers for the second day of talks. This time it was the TUC discussing their economic document, which they wanted to talk to us about before they published it. Sid Greene introduced it, saying there was a lot of concern about unemployment and the present rate was politically difficult. He doubted whether the £500m balance surplus was right.

Greene had become critical of the Chancellor Roy Jenkins's economic caution.

Harold Wilson in his 1971 volume The Labour Government, 1964-1970, referring to the events of 11 June 1969, recalls that a revised Prices and Incomes document was accepted and

Vic Feather [General Secretary, TUC], Sir Frederick Hayday [National Industrial Officer, National Union of General and Municipal Workers], Alf Allen [General Secretary, Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers], Sidney Greene, Hugh Scanlon [President, Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers] and Jack Jones

[General Secretary, Transport and General Workers' Union] were appointed [as an ad hoc committee to review the policy]. They had prepared a form of words, which we found woolly and inadequate, designed to give a more detailed interpretation of the rules which we had in mind.

Greene was torn between wanting to keep a Labour government in power and scepticism about whether the proposals of that government would work.

Sid Greene's relations with Barbara Castle were always ambiguous. I had the suspicion that he didn't care for a woman who couldn't drive a car being Minister of Transport. In her own diary for 27 March 1974 Castle recalls:

When I arrived Sid Greene was drawling out that the General Council had given quote unquote general approval to the budget as quote going in the right direction unquote.

It was about this time that I personally came into close contact with Sid Greene, at the fag-end of his period as General Secretary of the NUR, when I was Vice-Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party and he was on the joint TUC Labour Party liaison committee. In the half-dozen meetings when we overlapped before his retirement I was struck by the fact that he seldom spoke, but that when he did speak his points were succinct and exceedingly pertinent.

He had become a director of the Bank of England in 1970 and I felt that it was as a director of the Bank of England rather than a trade-union leader by that time that he contributed. Certainly, he was held in the deepest respect by his fellow directors in Threadneedle Street. Lord Richardson of Duntisbourne, who as Gordon Richardson was the then Governor, characterises him as "absolutely straight", "easily talked to" and "thoroughly nice".

He became a member of the House of Lords in 1974, as Lord Greene of Harrow Weald, and, in making his maiden speech on 25 February 1975 on the Trade Union and Labour Relations Amendment Bill, he encapsulated his view:

I do feel that there is too much heat in industrial relations. Basically it is something that should operate between men and women of good will, seeking to get agreement between one side and another.

Greene continued his interest in his union, in 2002 attending the opening of the new headquarters of the RMT (the NUR's successor, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers), in Clapham, south London. Bob Crow, General Secretary of the RMT, described him as "still very much at the top of his game".

Sid Greene was a man of good judgement. But perhaps I would say that, since one of his last acts was to select three Members of Parliament, Robin Cook, Tam Dalyell and Donald Dewar, as NUR-sponsored MPs, at a time when trade-union sponsorship was of great importance in our constituencies.

No matter that John Smith, himself an unlikely member of the Society of Boilermakers, acidly commented: "Cook, Dalyell and Dewar - they would be hard pressed to be driver, fireman and guard on any train."

Tam Dalyell

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