One out of order, all out of order
This week's unseemly brawl by Aslef officials continued a rich tradition of union leaders' excess. David Felton celebrates the labour movement's answer to the hotel-trashing rock star
Saturday 29 May 2004
THE BARBECUE BRAWLERS
THE BARBECUE BRAWLERS
Shaun Brady , general secretary, Martin Samways, president, and Michael Blackburn, assistant general secretary of Aslef
Shaun Brady and Martin Samways, respectively general secretary and president of the train drivers' union, Aslef, were suspended this week - along with a third official and three members of staff - after a less-than-fraternal brawl at the union's palatial offices in Hampstead, north London, during a barbecue. This newspaper reported that during the fracas, in the garden of the former home of conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, Samways got "a good kicking" and Julie Atkinson, Brady's assistant, was "laid out". Ms Atkinson has made a complaint to police and Camden's finest are now investigating.
Precise details of how the brawl started are difficult to establish, but one version has Samways leaving his bed in a flat he occupies on the site to complain about a party-goer who was loudly slagging off left-wingers.
Another has Brady taking issue with unacceptable behaviour by the president, who allegedly turned up late and uninvited at the party. Mick Blackburn, assistant general secretary, was also suspended, although he claims that he was only trying to separate the other two.
The union's annual conference, which was due to take place in Scarborough next month, has been postponed as a result of the incident.
NO EXPENSES SPARED
Roger 'The Dodger' Lyons, former joint general secretary of Amicus
Roger Lyons, who until this week was joint general secretary of the white-collar union Amicus, is known for his assiduous expense claims, which were first revealed in an internal investigation two years ago. The investigation cleared Lyons of any wrongdoing, but he was none the less forced to step down as joint general secretary after the Government Certification Officer for Trade Unions ruled that he was in the job unlawfully because he had not been re-elected.
Meanwhile, his detractors remain fascinated by those expenses, which included £6,366.70 claimed for hotels and meals over nine months, and £2,757.90 claimed for "sustenance". The latter category included claims - ranging from from £4 to £19.65 - relating to meetings with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown (who usually supply coffee and biscuits), as well as £877 spent in takeaway restaurants and off-licences near his home in Finchley, north London - and, most famously, for 25p for a bun, bought on a credit card at Patisserie Valerie in Soho, central London.
Lyons also submitted bills for office equipment - a total of £1,869.10 - covering everything from the purchase of batteries to internet services, radios (one for his bathroom), video recorders and a briefcase from Selfridges.
Robert 'Bollinger Bob' Parker, former Scottish regional secretary of the GMB
Robert Parker was forced to resign as leader of the GMB general union in Scotland in March last year after four complaints of bullying and harassment were lodged against him at employment tribunals by his own staff. All were settled with the union's funds taking a hammering. The biggest payout, of £300,000, was made to Margaret McAvoy, Parker's former PA, who claimed he had sexually harassed her. His downfall coincided with revelations of a lavish (and union-funded) lifestyle. Indulgences funded by his members, who are among the lowest-paid workers in the country, included a taste for oysters and copious amounts of Bollinger champagne (six bottles would be put on ice for him when he checked into his regular suite at the Thistle Hotel in Glasgow).
Over a three-month period, he racked up £ 2,760 at restaurants in Scotland and England and spent £1,400 in restaurants during four days of the union's conference in Brighton. Parker, a former parks department labourer, earned £40,000 a year as a union official and had corporate American Express and Visa cards. He was reported to have spent £820 on Champions' League final tickets and drove a £25,000 silver Mercedes. According to a former colleague: "Lunches with Parker would start at lunchtime and would end in the early evening."
THE RAUCOUS RAILWAYMEN
Bob Crow, general secretary of the Rail Maritime and Transport union, and 14 other RMT officials
Bob Crow, leader of the main rail union RMT and 14 union regional officials ran up a £4,203.74 bill for a boozy night out at the exclusive Corse Lawn House country hotel in Gloucestershire. Managers at the hotel were reported to have apologised to other guests at the hotel, who included couples expecting a nice, quiet meal to celebrate a wedding anniversary, for the RMT party's rowdy and occasionally foul-mouthed behaviour. The union insisted that the night out - which included an excursion by taxi to a pub - was a "justifiable expenditure for an officers' conference"; and it was the union that picked up the tab.
Crow, who has been described as a bit of a rough diamond, moved on the next day to a champagne reception at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium, where his boys, Millwall, were in the FA Cup final. No wonder he appeared a trifle jaded when he turned up on Breakfast with Frost on Sunday morning.
Crow's enthusiasm for Millwall has sometimes got the better of him in the past: complaints have been made to the club's management over his behaviour and ripe south-London language while watching the match from the press box.
THE NOT-SO-RED BARON
The late Joe 'The Cherub' Gormley, former president of the National Union of Mineworkers
Joe Gormley led the National Union of Mineworkers in the 1970s when the union only had to sneeze for a government to lose office. Noted for his rosy cheeks, small stature and broad Lancashire accent, Gormley would reply to questions about his champagne lifestyle with a retort borrowed from an earlier Labour politician: "Nowt's too good for the working class." This particular defender of the working class - who went to work down the pit at the age of 14 - smoked big cigars, rode around in a Jaguar, travelled to Ascot races by helicopter and lived in a large union-owned house in commuter land. He also won big pay rises for his members, bringing down Ted Heath's government in the process in 1974.
Gormley was also known for his consummate deviousness in the murky world of union politics. (He made sure that Communist Mick McGahey could not succeed him, only to let in Arthur Scargill.) After he retired, Gormley joined the ultimate gentlemen's club, the House of Lords, as Baron Gormley of Ashton-in-Makerfield. He was recently named in a BBC television programme as having been a Special Branch informer, spilling the beans on "dangerous" left-wingers in the trade union movement.
KEEPING DOWN THE WORKERS
John 'Big Boss' Edmonds, former general secretary of the GMB
John Edmonds, one of Britain's leading union officials in the 1980s and 1990s, presided over an organisation which was accused of unfair dismissal, bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination on the grounds of race, gender and disability - all the stuff, in short, that unions such as the GMB were meant to fight. More than 60 complaints were lodged at employment tribunals by union employees, costing the union more than £4m. The union also posted a £19m deficit in its pension fund for employees at a time when it was attacking retirement provisions in the private sector. Kevin Curran, Edmonds's successor as general secretary of the GMB, had hardly unpacked before he was told by the union's bank that he would have to sell £2m of shares to meet the monthly wage bill.
Belligerent and outspoken, Edmonds, who was educated at public school and Oxford, argued the Old Labour case and instigated a financially crippling recruitment drive. Among many complaints about his staff's bizarre behaviour was one concerning a union official in the north who, on recruitment campaigns, rode a Harley Davidson paid for by the union. A source inside the union said: "This union must rank among the worst employers in Britain."
THE £817 CURRY
Andy 'Chasse-Spleen' Gilchrist, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, and friends
The £82,000-a-year general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union gained notoriety last year when, at the height of the firefighters' strike, he used his union credit card to pay for a meal with four companions at the fashionable Cinnamon Club in Westminster. The bill came to £817.31 and included four bottles of Chateau Chasse-Spleen, a cheeky little Medoc, which at £85 each is more than many firefighters earn in a day.
The Cinnamon Club is favoured by media types, celebrities and politicians for its designer Indian food, and the Gilchrist party sampled a good part of the menu and drinks cellar. The Rajasthani roast venison at £25 was a particular favourite and in all they polished off six bottles of wine along with assorted aperitifs and digestifs. It was an uncharacteristic blunder by the usually media-savvy Gilchrist, a member of the "Awkward Squad" - the new breed of left-wing union leaders determined to give Tony Blair a hard time.
Gilchrist, the son of a school dinner lady, subsequently refunded his union the cost of the meal and the revelation does not appear to have done irreparable harm to his standing with FBU members or colleagues in the union movement. (Many general secretaries were probably muttering "There but the for grace of God ...")
THE LIFT SHAFT INCIDENT
Derek Fullick, former president of Aslef, and Sid Weighell, former general secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen
Derek Fullick, a south London train driver and president of Aslef, was at the TUC headquarters in the 1980s for a meeting where he had a frank exchange of views with Sid Weighell, then general secretary of the rival National Union of Railwaymen. This celebrated contretemps ended with Fullick grabbing the NUR leader by the braces and threatening to throw him down the lift shaft. Wiser counsels prevailed, and the combatants all left the building safely - using the stairs.
Aslef has a reputation as an unreconstructed union. Its full name is the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, although there haven't been firemen on trains for decades.
As for its views on gender - one former official, asked why there were so few women train drivers, replied that if God had meant women to drive trains he would have put a sink in the cab.
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