Obituary: Alex Ferry
Monday 25 July 1994
'FERRY. Amalagmated Union of Engineering Workers. On behalf of my union, fellow delegates, I would like to state . . .' For me and my contemporaries life will not be quite the same at conferences of the Scottish Labour Party, the Scottish TUC, and the TUC, and at the Labour Party National Conference without the rasping but ever mellower Clydeside tones of Alex Ferry. Striding to the rostrum to put the view first of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, later that of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers and in the last two decades that of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions, of which he was the effective general secretary.
None of us who was there at the Dunoon conference of the Scottish Labour Party in 1958 is likely to forget the spectacle of a passionate young Singer's shop steward with the good looks of the gods and deep, abundant flaming red hair proceeding to take on Johnny Boyd, at that time general secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering Union. Conference held its collective breath. Boyd, a Salvation Army preacher, told me years later that he greatly admired the 'lad' Ferry 'because he has guts and he is so constructive'.
A few weeks after that Dunoon conference I bumped into Ferry in the office in Royal Crescent, Glasgow, of Willie Marshall, the disabled Fife miner and wise General Secretary of the Scottish Labour Party, who said: 'You two should get to know each other.' Thus began for me 36 years of friendship with one of the most positive minds in British public life. Boyd's judgement was spot on. An example of Ferry's unselfish attitude to other people's concerns is the great help he gave me in arguing the case for the ship school project which resulted in the Dunera taking thousands of schoolchildren on educational cruises. Both in Scotland, and later in his UK role, Ferry proved to be a Solomon of demarcation disputes. James Lamond, Lord Provost of Aberdeen and later AUEW MP for Oldham, told me yesterday that in all his experience of the trade-union movement no colleague had had a greater grasp of detail. Ferry's achievement had been to keep together a confederation of 38 different trade unions.
Lamond, who worked at Hall's in Aberdeen before becoming an MP, believes that Ferry's concern for the smaller yards around Britain was instrumental in keeping them open and thriving until comparatively recent times.
I would assert that, by his skill in tackling delicate demarcation problems, Ferry saved British industry more lost working days than any other single individual in the last quarter-century. This is also the view of the Clyde shipbuilder Sir Eric Yarrow who told me yesterday that Ferry was outstandingly honourable and trustworthy in all his negotiations.
Alex Ferry was born and brought up at Dalmuir, by Dumbarton, on the outskirts of Glasgow. He went to school at St Patrick's, Dumbarton, a Catholic high school imaginatively led by the headmaster, the legendary Willie Monaghan, later a distinguished president of the Educational Institute of Scotland, who fostered the ambition of contributing to society by instilling in his pupils the best ethos of Roman Catholic education. Ferry grew up in Dalmuir with Gavin Laird, now the general secretary of the AUEW and a member of the Court of the Bank of England. These two 17- year-olds joined the same branch of the Amalgamated Engineering Union on the same night. They participated in trade-union affairs together from an early age and were the leading spirits in a celebrated apprentice strike in the early 1950s which contributed to a more serious attitude towards industrial training.
After he had finished his five- year apprenticeship, during which he won prizes for skill, Ferry joined the RAF as a fitter for his national service. In some ways, he claimed, the set-up in the forces had helped to politicise him but it also left him with the lifelong belief that Labour politicians should be careful to give the best possible equipment to those whom they asked to fight on their country's behalf, and that defence expenditure should not be seen as an easy milch cow. In 1954 Ferry returned to Singer's, at that time the largest employer in Scotland in a single factory, and became convenor of shop stewards.
Ferry is one of very few people who, afer being adopted for a parliamentary constituency - in his case Dumbartonshire East in 1967 - has then decided that, although he was certain to win the seat, he would prefer instead to continue serving in the trade-union
In 1964 Ferry was elected to full- time office as Glasgow District Secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering Union. In 1974 he was the union's West of Scotland divisional organiser, a position which he filled until 1978 with considerable distinction before being appointed general secretary of the Confed, in succession to another Clydesider, Jack Service. He was a considerable support to Jimmy Airlie and Jimmy Reid in the setting up of the Govan Shipbuilders experiment without which there would be no firm of Kvaerner Govan at the present time flourishing on the Clyde. Bobby Gordon, the present employee-
relations director of Kvaerner, said yesterday that Ferry was: 'a very honourable and trustworthy man. He helped Labour foundations for the new industrial relations we now have in the yard.'
The golden opinions which Ferry had won on Clydeside were repeated nationally when he went south. He won the greatest respect not only in his own union but also in others. Jack Jones told me yesterday: 'Alex Ferry was extremely competent in difficult situations and raised the profile of the Confederation.' Ferry's great crusade was to reduce the hours in the engineering industry to 37 a week. He did this, not because he was against genuine emergency overtime, but because he believed passionately that men ought to have the dignity of a proper wage not dependent on overtime and that people gave of their best if hours were reduced.
Bill Jordan, President of the AEEU, and his colleagues are enormously grateful to Ferry, who was their senior in age, for backing them to the hilt in the quest for the 37-hour week. Ferry was, Jordan said yesterday, 'like a rock to the trade-union movement during a period when the storms have been at their worst. We turned to him and he never let us down.'
Ken Eastham, secretary of the AUEW group in the House of Commons, reckons Ferry was the outstanding general secretary of the Confed since 1945:
Few trade-union leaders had a greater impact and none was a better negotiator than Ferry, who always kept his feet on the ground. He knew ever so clearly what his objectives were and for what objects he was prepared to negotiate.
It was this practical effectiveness which led the directors of Nirex to ask Ferry to join them as a successor to Ray Buckton. He was no token trade unionist. The chairman, Sir Richard Morris, told me yesterday: 'Alex Ferry was immensely sympathetic to people's concerns about the nuclear industry but most constructive in support for us.' Like his friend Gavin Laird, Ferry was anxious to do a job at the pinnacle of effective power and for this reason agreed to become a member of the Mergers and Monopolies Commission. He saw his role as that of resolving problems rather than striking any kind of a posture.
Alex Ferry was a man devoid of personal aggrandisement, willing to work day and night for what he could do for others. In this he was totally supported by his wife, Mary. Their life was not without its personal tragedy - one of their sons died at the age of 18.
At a time when the role of the trade unions is being questioned, the life of Alex Ferry demonstrates the importance and value of selfless trade-union leaders to the national economy and well-being.
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