Walter Greendale: Trade unionist who successfully sued 'The Sun'


Walter Greendale, a dock worker from Hull, was one of the most influential trade unionists of his day, fighting battles on behalf of people from the wharfs of Hull to the corridors of Downing Street. He chaired the Transport and General Workers Union in the wake of the Winter of Discontent at a time when the union boasted two million members, and when Moss Evans had taken over from Jack Jones, at one time regarded as the most powerful man in the country.

Walt, as he was always known, spent his working life fighting for better conditions and sat on the Trades Union Congress General Council and its prominent committees dealing with changes to employment laws brought in by the Conservative Government as it sought to curtail union power. Through it all he remained a working docker.

Lord Bill Morris, former General Secretary of the T&G, said: "He understood the dynamics of power in getting things done, linking the industrial with the political in the pursuance of social and economic change. He never lost touch with the grass roots of the movement."

Greendale was born in Hull in 1930, and followed in his father's footsteps by becoming a docker. It was a time when there was little security of employment and dockers still fought daily to get to the top of the queues for work. There was bribery among those hiring, and complacency among trade union officials, who were accused of being in the employers' pockets. Greendale joined the TGWU and went on to be one of the leaders of what became the powerful unofficial Joint Shop Stewards Committee, which Jack Jones visited and gave his support to. Wage rates were increased and the union took on a more dynamic role as its internal democracy was strengthened; the shops stewards received recognition from both management and the union leadership.

Greendale, recognising the importance of education, had become a part-time student on the trade union courses run by Hull University, and was to take them for most of his working life. He worked closely with Walter Cunningham, another union activist. Both studied at evening class trying to work out how to identify and respond to the changes to dock practices with the introduction of new technologies such as palletisation and containerisation.

They wanted to bring non-registered ports into the Dock Labour Scheme, strengthened by the Devlin Reforms, and together strove to give support to Hull workers. In 1975, carrying 200 portions of fish and chips, they were the first visitors to the Imperial Typewriter site which had been occupied by its workers, who were trying to prevent its closure.

He rose rapidly through the ranks of the T&G, winning a seat on its executive council in 1970 and eventually becoming chairman. Baroness Margaret Prosser, former deputy general secretary, was impressed at how he dealt with the different industries represented by the union. "There was," she said, "an industrial hierarchy with, for example at the time, the dockers and vehicle builders top of the tree. Walter, however, understood the needs and value of the textile and agricultural workers, seen by some as inferior because they were not so industrially strong. He was always a gentleman and a very nice colleague."

In 1978 Greendale joined the TUC General Council, one of the few lay officials to hold such a senior post, and remained on it for eight years. He sat on most of its important committees, including the influential Employment Policy and Organisation Committee, as it dealt with the new Conservative laws on picketing, secondary action and strike ballots. He represented the TUC on the Health and Safety Executive and, fittingly, the Workers' Education Association, and other educational bodies, all the time still working on the docks.

Rodney Bickerstaffe of the National Union of Public Employees recognised the importance of Greendale's input. "He was a strong lay leader, and that's important in a union, it's what you build on. He worked well with his general secretary, understanding what needed to be done, and dealing with the rest of us."

As relations between the TUC and the government, supported by papers such as The Sun, deteriorated, Greendale was the subject of a bitter attack by the paper as the union staged its elections in 1986. Under the headline "The Commie Grip Inside Britain's Biggest Union", Greendale was described as the "Godfather" and accused of manipulating the election. He lost his seat, and along with four others successfully sued The Sun for defamation, receiving damages and a printed apology.

In 1989, the government abolished the National Dock Labour Scheme, the unions responding with a national call for a strike. Threatened by Hull employers with losing the substantial severance pay on offer if they went on strike, the Hull dockers decided not to – with one exception, Greendale. He joined the Liverpool dockers on the picket lines. The strike was called off that afternoon, and expecting to be sacked the next day without severance pay, Greendale was surprised to be let off. The other shop stewards, led by Walter Cunningham, had threatened the employers with a strike if any action was taken against him.

With the ending of the National Dock Scheme, Greendale turned to local politics, becoming a Labour city councillor.

Peta Steel

Walter Greendale, docker and trade unionist: born Hull 10 December 1930: married 1953 Sylvia Franks (died 2011; four children); died Hull 12 September 2012.

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