Obituary: Jim Slater

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The Independent Online
Jim Slater, seaman and trade-union leader: born South Shields October 1923; General Secretary, National Union of Seamen 1974-86, President 1986-93; CBE 1979; married twice (one son, three daughters); died Liverpool 29 May 1993.

JIM SLATER, a Tynesider and the former General Secretary of the National Union of Seamen, was one of the 'tightly knit group of politically motivated men' named by Harold Wilson, the then Prime Minister, during the 47-day seamen's strike in 1966. Slater reluctantly basked in the dubious glory of that Wilsonian accolade for the rest of his career.

In reality he was a hard-drinking Geordie from South Shields, County Durham, who did not wish to start a socialist revolution. He simply preferred to be left-wing than right-wing, and was not a Communist fellow traveller.

He swapped the lowly paid life of an able seaman deck scrubber in the Merchant Navy for the relative security of union office in the 1960s, where he won his reputation as a rabble- rouser and left-wing extremist. Like many union chiefs of the 'old school', he had worked his way to the top of the union after years of struggle with opponents inside and outside the union. He never forgave Wilson for branding him as a man trying to bring down an elected government. Again, like many left-wingers, Slater had his work cut out to keep his 25,000-strong membership united in times of crisis.

Seamen are a notoriously difficult bunch to organise because of the nature of their work, but Slater did a magnificent job. He and his union survived a succession of ballot-rigging scandals, the most notorious of which broke out 30 years ago. Slater was adamant that he never personally gained from ballot-rigging, although he was always willing to point the finger at those he deemed culpable.

Even at the time of his death Scotland Yard detectives are investigating more vote-rigging allegations made by a seaman's union widow years after Slater's retirement.

He came close to leading another strike in 1976, again under a Labour government, and his brilliant negotiating prowess won his men a generous pay rise at a time of government wage restraint. At 4am in a Brighton hotel bedroom a gale suddenly blew a window wide open and employers' papers were scattered across the room as the rain lashed in. Slater remained deadpan. He said: 'There, you see. Imagine what it is like for my members out there at sea in that awful weather. Here we are in a luxury five-star hotel talking about their pathetic pay and conditions while we are here drinking and eating of the very best. We should be ashamed of ourselves.' The shipowners had conceded by breakfast, although, for the sake of peace, Slater admitted with a wink that he had 'climbed down'.

Slater was a character and hated to admit publicly what his men earned with bonuses and overtime, in case their wives found out.

Throughout his life he was anti- South Africa and fought hard as an internationalist to seek justice for jailed black leaders and South African trade unionists. He was an environmentalist before it became popular and he passionately campaigned against the dumping of nuclear waste at sea. One of his greatest achievements was, after a lengthy campaign with other unions, to see dumping stopped in 1983.

Most British unions have him to thank for financial and moral assistance during their own strikes - the miners and railwaymen in particular. During the 1984-85 coal strike, Slater craftily imposed a 10-per-cent levy on his members' wages, without their knowledge and approval, and handed over massive donations to the National Union of Mineworkers. It was quite illegal, but Slater was proud of his solidarity with the NUM and the majority of his members did not complain.

He once claimed to have languished in a foreign prison cell for a short spell after an outburst against the local Fascist regime, and was anti- war. During the Falklands campaign in 1982 he appealed to his men from the decks of the QE2 not to volunteer. He was shouted down. He told them: 'Some of you won't come back and those who do will soon be forgotten after you get the sack.'

Being proved correct was no consolation. He was saddened in his later years to see his union effectively destroyed by British owners 'flagging out' their vessels overseas and cutting pay-rates into the bargain. His union membership had dwindled to 15,000 by the time it merged with the National Union of Railwaymen to form the 'Rail, Maritime and Transport Union' three years ago.

Just before his death Slater chillingly forecast that there would be more disasters at sea if owners continued to slash costs and pay by employing ill-trained foreign seamen who could not communicate effectively with each other or the passengers.

Slater first went to sea in 1940 and joined the National Union of Seamen in 1941. He was torpedoed in the early months of the war on his third ship, the Llanover, and claimed that he was immediately taken off pay as he entered the lifeboats. He said that his mother never got his wages once he had gone overboard, and that gave him the will to fight for better pay and conditions in his later battles with the owners. He once spent 56 days in jail in Canada after jumping ship and was a guest of the Dade County Jail. Officials apparently thought he was an illegal immigrant from Yugoslavia and failed to recognise his Geordie accent.

He was a leader of the National Seamen's Reform Movement and led his first strike in 1960, an action which got him blacklisted by the owners for 14 months. He was elected to his union's national executive in 1962 and became a full-time officer in 1966 after the seven-week National Seamen's strike. He was elected general secretary in 1974 and on his retirement in 1986 he was given the honorary title of life president.

He died suddenly of a heart attack in Liverpool, attending the anniversary celebrations for the Battle of the Atlantic.

(Photograph omitted)

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