OBITUARY: Sam McCluskie

The KGB once attempted to recruit him as a spy, but he exposed them. "Big Sam" McCluskie, the former leader of the seamens' union, was always a colourful and controversial character. He was "a big, sort of lovable teddy-bear of a man", Sealink's boss James Sherwood said of him. "He is a moderate." The word "fixer" could have been invented for him; behind-the-scenes machinations and political wheeler-dealing were his stock in trade.

He loved his union and the Labour Party and fought all his life for better pay and conditions for seafarers everywhere. He maintained a healthy contempt for shipowners, convinced that they rarely had the best interests of his members at heart.

A famous Fleet Street journalist, not known for his love of trades unions, described him as "an honest old union thickie". In response, McCluskie invited him to his union headquarters to study the merchant shipping Acts and other relevant statutory instruments dealing with maritime safety. Like many union chiefs of his generation, McCluskie preferred facts to abuse, whether written or verbal; he would have done his best to educate his tormentor about the error of his ways over a beer in a nearby pub.

"Sam the Man", or "Samuel Joseph" as he became known to his colleagues in the labour movement, was a 19-stone giant elected Assistant General Secretary of the National Union of Seamen in 1976. He succeeded the late Jim Slater as General Secretary in 1986 and was appointed executive officer of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT) when his union merged with the railway workers' union in 1990. He retired the following year, aged 59, because of failing health but continued for a short spell as Labour Party treasurer.

Born in 1932 in Leith, the port of Edinburgh, into a Roman Catholic family, McCluskie was educated at the local St Mary's primary school, and later the Holy Cross Academy, Edinburgh. He left school without academic qualifications. "I played truant because I hated school," he said. "We received corporal punishment for truancy so I decided the only way to avoid punishment was not to go back to school at all."

He started an apprenticeship with a local firm, George Gibson of Leith, and worked in the engine-room of trawlers before joining the Army on National Service.He preferred the Navy "but they rejected me because I was too fat".

After National Service he spent a year "mucking about in Japan" before returning home to Leith and nine months of unemployment. The Merchant Navy beckoned, and he joined the Union Castle Line as a ship's steward at the age of 23, opting for the galley and cooking "because I like food. I do all the cooking at home."

Self-deprecating as ever, McCluskie enjoyed telling how he was persuaded to join one ship on a six-week trip. He said: "They lied. The bloody ship was away for 14 months. When I got home all I had to show for it was twelve pounds, one shilling and threepence." He blamed bad gambling and heavy drinking for his impecunious state on arrival back home.

His arrival on the trade-union scene was accidental. After complaining about an increase in union dues he was persuaded to become a branch delegate, rising eventually to a seat on the national executive representing the men of the east coast of Scotland.

Like most sailors who enjoy heavy drinking he "ended up in the jug". On a trip to Brazil his pals were arrested after a bar brawl with German sailors. He was upset not to be arrested so, to show solidarity with his comrades, he thumped a German in the presence of the police and was thrown into the cells. Shrewdly, he handed over his money to the police and collected it the next morning. His friends, however, had hidden their money in their socks, a trick known to villains everywhere. When they awoke, with hangovers, their socks and cash had been stolen by Brazilian cellmates.

"The local lads had done a runner with the money before our lads woke up," said McCluskie. "I was the only one with money so I had to buy the beer later for everybody, including the Germans we had been fighting with the night before."

He became a land-based full-time union official in 1964, representing Grangemouth and the Scottish east coast.

He was left-wing but never a stereotype leftie. He enjoyed hare coursing, for example, a leisure activity frowned upon by most left-wingers. He failed to persuade Neil Kinnock when he was Labour leader to drop the banning of coursing from Labour's manifesto. "Not every hare gets killed. Most escape after making a fool of the greyhound." His other hobbies included gambling on greyhounds and horses and watching his favourite soccer team, Glasgow Celtic. He was a shareholder in Heart of Midlothian football club.

McCluskie almost became a pop star by accident during the bitter P & 0 dispute in 1988 when his union suffered fines and sequestration at the hands of the High Court. He and the Labour MP John Prescott, sponsored by the NUS, recorded a single, "Why Don't They Leave Us Alone?", to raise money for the 1,000 seamen sacked by P & 0 European Ferries during a dispute over manpower reductions. The record featured McCluskie, Prescott and seven sacked Dover seamen on backing vocals.

The P & 0 dispute, a gallant failure for his union and his members, was the saddest episode in McCluskie's lengthy career. He had done his best to prevent the strike happening, because he was a past master of the compromise and the "secret deal" in smoke-filled rooms. But when the strike started he adopted a high profile, condemning the employers and the Government's anti- union legislation at every opportunity.

It was undoubtedly the financial aftermath of the strike, coupled with falling membership, which forced his small union to merge with the rail workers. He had seen what had happened to other unions in conflict with the law, notably the National Union of Miners in 1984 and the National Graphical Association in 1983, but still fought P & 0 when the crunch came, in spite of the legal and financial consequences for his union.

Fighting, as always, for a cause he believed to be just, he endured the indignity of his union's having to pay pounds 1m in fines and legal costs, the seizure of all its funds and property, eviction from its offices in Clapham, south London, and even the stopping of monthly old age benefit to retired seamen.

Sam McCluskie was a character, a wily, gravel-voiced Scot from the old school of trade-union leaders. He did not suffer fools and was a born bargainer, not a natural revolutionary or socialist fundamentalist who refused compromise. He publicly criticised the owners after the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster in 1987 but, privately, never forgave the seaman who went to bed and left the bow doors open.

He always attempted to get the best possible deal for his men and then sell it to them without fear of "sell-out" accusations. Above all, like his predecessor Jim Slater, he never ceased campaigning for increased safety standards.

He liked a drink, with Scotch whisky his favourite tipple. During his court-imposed three months of "exile" from his union headquarters in the strike of 1988 he held court in the Prince of Wales public house, fondly termed the "annexe". He said: "While the sequestrators are around I'll feel more at home here than over the road in the office."

McCluskie was put "on probation" for a fortnight before regaining control of his union's assets, promising only peaceful picketing as a prerequisite for regaining his union's funds from the sequestrators. But it was his revelation that the KGB tried to recruit him as a spy which had the tabloids beside themselves.

In September 1985 he disclosed that during a fraternal visit to Moscow 18 months previously, when he had been a contender for the Labour Party general secretaryship, he had been approached by a Russian.

Over the obligatory vodka and caviar the well-dressed Russian had said his country wanted to "make friends" with the United States and that McCluskie, if the new job transpired, would be in an influential position to assist Moscow, particularly with any useful documents which came into his possession. McCluskie said: "The man was asking me to be a spy. I am an ex-soldier and seaman and there is no way I would sell my country to the Russians.I exploded in anger and told him to `f ... off'.

"I didn't see myself as a 007 but I felt like shooting him that night. I didn't want to go to Russia again."

On his return to Britain he contacted the former Prime Minister James Callaghan and the shadow Foreign Secretary Denis Healey, and was later interviewed bv MI5, who showed him photographs of his would-be "controller". The man had been a diplomat at the Soviet embassy in London and had been expelled for spying.

Many of McCluskie's colleagues remained sceptical, however, pointing out that his revelations had stolen the show at that year's Trades Union Congress. McCluskie blamed the security services for leaking the story "to embarrass the TUC".

Colleagues close to McCluskie recall that his "emotions were always close to the surface" and that he always had a short fuse. Certainly, they remember him raging when his expected peace deal with the P & 0 chairman Sir Jeffrey Sterling collapsed in ruins.

All McCluskie wanted for his members, he said, was "not a penny more in pay nor a minute off the working day, just justice, dignity and the public's right to travel in safety".

Traditionally, the employers and the NUS had always been close chums - far too close for some sceptics - and this had led to some embarrassing "deals" which McCluskie had always managed to sidestep; for example, the NUS collecting a levy dubbed a "skull tax" for each low-wage Asian seaman recruited by the employers.

Years later, representatives of Indian seamen claimed they were due back pay from the employers and said they had not benefited from the levies paid out to the NUS. Two former NUS executive members demanded a police probe into the "missing" levy cash.

His executive also cleared McCluskie, in 1991, of agreeing a no-strike deal with Cunard, the shipping company, in return for pounds 80,000-a-year payments to the union. McCluskie and his senior colleagues also denied and quashed a succession of embarrassing ballot-rigging allegations from NUS dissidents.

After his appointment as a full-time official in 1964 he spent most of the next 13 years working as a branch secretary in posts round the country including Plymouth, Liverpool and Hull. It was in Liverpool where he consolidated his power base during the 1966 strike.

In Hull, he talent-spotted the aspiring ship's waiter John Prescott, later deputy leader of the Labour Party, who became a close friend.

From Humberside he eventually made it to Maritime House, the imposing NUS headquarters in Clapham, as national organiser. His arrival as a candidate of the Catholic moderates and soft-left Tribunites ensured that the old hard Right of the union quickly evaporated.

His early bid for the top job failed and he lost the general secretaryship election in 1974 to the hard-left Jim Slater, dubbed one of the "tightly knit group of politically motivated men" by Harold Wilson as Prime Minister in 1966. Baulked of the job he wanted, McCluskie threw himself into party politics with a passion which earned him a rebuke from Michael Foot during the 1983 general election. His outspoken "rent-a-quote" style had not gone down well in parts of Labour Party headquarters. He predicted, for instance, that a general strike would follow a second election victory by Margaret Thatcher. He was the Labour Party chairman at the time, and had used the firefighters' union conference as a platform.

He achieved his ambition of landing the top job in 1986, defeating a Communist official from Felixstowe and weathering another ballot-rigging storm.

One senior P & 0 chief described him as "the sort of guy you can work with. He is a realist, he is pragmatic and he is also very able." That was a judgement echoed by senior executives of the arbitration service Acas, who described him as a skilful negotiator, "not a shouting militant or table-banger".

He fought for improved safety standards at sea even after retirement, warning in letters to the press that health and safety legislation had been "watered down" in order to free business from restraints on profitability.

McCluskie suffered ill-health in his later years, surviving one cancer scare and a stomach disease - gangrene - on holiday in Turkey. This required an emergency operation on board ship.

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