Obituary: Ernie Leslie

Few jobs have been more under-valued by society than those of the full-time trade union officer at regional level. Owing to the pressures of out-of-hours branch meetings trade union officers can go for long periods without so much as an evening at home to themselves. All kinds of brickbats hurtle in their direction. They get little gratitude. And yet, time and again, they are the unsung heroes whose patience and, often, valour keep British industry going without catastrophic disruption.

Such a one was Ernie Leslie, a full-time official of the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) and, as it became in 1985, the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (AUEW) for 37 years. It is my opinion, as his local MP, and that of Sir Gavin Laird, general secretary of AUEW, a member of the Court of the Bank of England and much else, that had it not been for Leslie's guts and persistence in the early 1970s the British Leyland truck and tractor plant at Bathgate, then the biggest machine shop under one roof in Europe, would have closed, depriving central Scotland of 15 years of vital employment for 6,000 men before the coming of Silicon Glen.

Laird describes Leslie as "an old-fashioned type of trade union officer with estimable qualities. His job was to look after the membership. He never shrank from telling them unpopular things if the unpopular was the truth and in their interest. He never sought popularity. In these circumstances he was consistently elected and re-elected because members understood that he was operating in their real interests. Leslie for his part understood that business had to be profitable and efficient in order to provide work."

Ernie Leslie was born in 1920 in Leith, the port of Edinburgh, into a skilled craftsman's family. He had a sound education at Leith Academy for which he was always grateful. Later in life he would raise some left- wing eyebrows by saying that the belt for not getting his maths right, let alone cheek in class, made it possible for him to reach a standard that won him a skilled apprenticeship.

At 16, he joined Miller's Marine Engineers and showed aptitude as a calibration mechanic. One consequence of this rare skill was that Leslie found himself in a reserved occupation during the Second World War, though he was to work through the German bombing of Hull docks, mending the steering mechanisms of damaged ships. In a long-running dispute about skilled pay differentials, his AEU colleague, the late Alec Ferry, general secretary of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions, told me: "One thing you must always remember about Ernie is that he is an extremely talented mechanic himself and will always in any dispute uphold the claims of skilled craftsmen for favourable treatment."

A chance meeting with John Boyd, later to be the legendary and controversial general secretary of the engineering union, led to Leslie's being offered the job of district secretary for Edinburgh of the AEU at the age of 28. This post he held for 17 years during which there were massive changes and decline in the once famous Edinburgh printing industry. In 1965 he was appointed divisional organiser for the east of Scotland.

These were turbulent times in the union, with bitter and highly personal differences between Right and Left. In general terms Leslie was a cog in the right-wing machine but his close colleague Ronnie O'Byrne recalls that, precisely because Boyd had recruited him, Boyd was fizzing with rage when Leslie had told him that he supported unilateral nuclear disarmament. "Leslie was very much his own man," says O'Byrne. "I served on the Edinburgh and Falkirk District Committee with him and saw him in action." In the National Committee, which he attended diligently for 20 years, Leslie was a loyal if not automatic supporter of Bill Carron, the right-wing president of the union. He had many well- informed and constructive views as to what the union should do to promote training and education among its members.

Leslie was very human in his personal relations, which he conducted with a sense of humour. His attitudes are encapsulated by his treatment of the leaders of the women's sit-in strike at the Plessey factory in 1982. Mrs Ina Scott recalls this celebrated episode when the women, beds and all, slept for weeks in the Bathgate factory, fighting not for pay but for their jobs and against the closure of a once proud plant. Many weeks into the strike, John Smith, MP for North Lanark, later leader of the Labour Party, and I had come - as we did weekly, as local MPs - to give them support. An hour later Leslie turned up: and told the women to stop the sit-in and get back home. Unceremoniously he was hounded off the premises by the angry ladies. But before he left, no hard feelings, he did what he had done on every other occasion - give the strike leaders his tips for the dog racing (on which he was no mean authority).

Leslie had a disarming charm in dealing with angry members.

George Ernest Leslie, engineer and trade union official: born Leith 15 June 1920; divisional organiser, AEU/AUEW, Edinburgh and East of Scotland District 1965-85; MBE 1979; married 1942 Dora Tracy (died 1980; four daughters), 1982 Laura Buist (one stepson, one stepdaughter); died Edinburgh 27 November 1996.

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