Professor Nina Fishman: Dynamic labour and social historian best known for her work on trade unions

Professor Nina Fishman was one of the outstanding labour and social historians of her generation. Her academic qualities were enhanced by an encyclopaedic depth of research into the most remote, albeit fascinating, aspects of British, European and American labour history. This was combined with a vivaciously enagaging personality that became an inspiration to countless young students whose minds Fishman opened up to a subject which some universities thought, mistakenly, had lost its old appeal. Professor Fishman's magic was to revive that interest, which she consolidated in numerous books and learned essays, culminating in a magnum opus two-volume biography of the miners' leader, the late Arthur Horner.

This seminal work, to which she devoted years of original research, was finally completed as she fell victim of an incurable cancer: it remains as a powerful memorial, to be published early next year. Without doubt the Horner biography will rank as one of the great classics of British labour and trade union history – a fitting bequest from this exceptionally talented and vividly charming woman.

The Horner book contains another aspect – it reflects the political, intellectual and moral character of the author as much as it describes the subject. Nina Fishman grew up under the spell of her remarkable father, Professor Leslie (Lazar) Fishman, the son of Jewish refugees from Czarist Russia who escaped to North America.

A talented economist on the US academic circuit, he joined the American Communist Party in 1939 and when America came into the war enlisted in the US army. He was involved in the D-Day landings but refused officer training to remain in the ranks as an outspoken Communist.

In post-war America his political commitment wrecked any chances he had of reaching academic stardom in the United States once McCarthyism took root so he quit America to bring his family to Britain after winning a Ford Foundation fellowship to work in the economics department of Cambridge, where his mentor colleague was Professor Nicholas Kaldor. Later Fishman moved on to Keele University where he was appointed the first Chair in Economics. It was under his umbrella of inspiration that his daughter Nina began her economic and history studies at Sussex University.

She was the eldest child with two younger brothers and determined to follow her father's commitment to research and political history. Yet there was one big difference; she refused to join any political grouping, and though she preserved a commitment to the socialist idea she resisted membership of any party; she carefully steered clear of Communist Party membership despite close contact with numerous senior British communists. Yet much of her historic research became devoted to labour and trade union history in which prominent communists played a crucial role.

A great deal of her early teaching was lecturing to groups of trade union shop stewards on labour history. It is an interesting Freudian exercise to speculate on why she resisted following her father's political footsteps while in every other sense was devoted to him and his lifetime's work. The answer in my view is that she rose above an emotional legacy to remain attached to objective research, as well as recognising the flaws and contradictions in communism. This emerges powerfully in her brilliant analysis of Arthur Horner's political dilemma.

Horner , the general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers after the Second World War, was the British communist who probably exercised greatest influence of all on trade union thinking at that time. Indeed, along with Ernest Bevin he was arguably the most impressive British trade union leader of his time. Nina Fishman's book tells the Horner story by exposing his inner conflicts like a piece of political drama straight out of Roman history – perhaps, also, with an undertone refecting the author's own political dilemma.

Nina Fishman was born in San Francisco on 26 May 1946 and came to England with her parents in 1968, a 22-year-old already equipped with strong academic potential from her Californian education and her father's tuition. At Sussex University she read economics and history, specialising in trade union and labour studies.

With a good degree she found jobs with various trade union organisations, notably in the research department of the National Union of Mineworkers at its then London head-quarters. She became prominent in the NUM's administration during the 1972 national coal strike, after which she moved back to teaching, first at the Polytechnic of North West London and then as a highly admired lecturer at the University of Westminster.

From that base she was regularly involved with the TUC in running courses for shop stewards. That is where she met her future husband, Phil McManus, who was a full-time trade union official at the Kodak factory in North London. Fishman also came under the academic focus of Professor Eric Hobsbawm, who persuaded her to read for a PhD and supervised her progress; again it was an inspired accident of circumstance which certainly helped to propel Fishman to her eventual Professorship at Westminster, where she gained the personal Chair of History.

From there she was encouraged to move to Swansea in 2005 as Honorary Professor in the Department of History, where she worked closely with senior academics such as Pro-Vice Chancellor Professor Noel Thompson and Professor Christopher Williams. Both of them speak with great warmth and admiration of her work and her devotion to students' interests and welfare.

In addition to her academic commitments in Britain, Nina Fishman held various honorary roles in European institutions; she was a firm pro-European, a strong believer in electoral reform and, as Professor Williams has said, "undoubtedly a driving force" in everything she did. Hers was a death far too early. She is survived by her husband and two brothers, David and Danny Fishman.

Geoffrey Goodman

Professor Nina Fishman, academic, labour and social historian: born San Francisco 26 May 1946; married Phil McManus; died Swansea 5 December 2009.