Union leader refuses pounds 9,000 pay increase

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The Independent Online

Labour Editor

The man yesterday elected leader of Britain's biggest union waived a pounds 9,000 pay increase and warned Tony Blair he would not be in his pocket.

Rodney Bickerstaffe, general secretary-elect of Unison, the 1.4 million- strong public service union, said he was happy to remain on his salary of pounds 55,236, and indicated that there were strong points of difference with Labour.

Asked about the gap between his own politics and those of the privately educated Mr Blair, he said: "He didn't go to an infants' school in Doncaster." The new Unison leader said that his relationship with the Labour leader was "new and developing" and that he did not want any "fisticuffs".

Mr Bickerstaffe said: "We are not in the pocket of the Labour Party, we are an independent trade union and we will continue to press those causes we believe in best, including a national minimum wage." Mr Bickerstaffe, 50, currently associate general secretary of the union, will take over the leadership in March at a time when Unison members are expected to vote more funds into Labour coffers, making the union the party's biggest affiliate.

The Unison election result was closer than expected with Mr Bickerstaffe taking 47.7 per cent of the vote and his closest rival, Peter Hunter, who stood on an anti-abortion and "anti-political correctness" platform, receiving 29.3 per cent. Only about a fifth of the membership returned their ballot forms.

Asked why he was forgoing the pounds 64,000 salary, to which he is entitled when he takes over as leader, Mr Bickerstaffe replied: "What you don't have, you don't miss. After 30 years in the movement, I am happy with the salary I've got." He said the gesture was not meant to be part of a "horse-hair-shirt revolution". He was "much younger in the job" than the 60-year-old current incumbent, Alan Jinkinson. The decision to waive the salary increase comes in the wake of union revulsion over the increase in earnings enjoyed by directors of public utilities where Unison has a large membership.

The general secretary-elect warned that he would expect a future Labour government to remunerate public-sector workers "fairly". Some observers believe that the first industrial action to be suffered by a Labour government will come from Unison members whose wages have been held down.

Mr Bickerstaffe came to public notice during the 1979 "winter of discontent", when his union, Nupe, was held responsible for a strike by gravediggers which left corpses unburied.

The new Unison leader was also blamed by close associates of Mr Blair for fomenting opposition to the Labour leader's plan to ditch the pro- nationalisation clause 4 of the party constitution.

As a leader of Unison, Mr Bickerstaffe spoke against reform at the special conference last April. But behind the scenes, he argued that the union should support Mr Blair.

Although identified with the left in the Labour movement, he has encountered considerable suspicion from some of the hardliners. He came under fire for allowing Nupe, of which he was then general secretary, to abandon its policy of unilateral disarmament.

The voting was as follows: Rodney Bickerstaffe 151,893 votes (47.7 per cent of the vote); Peter Hunter 93,402 (29.3 per cent); Roger Bannister 58,052 (18.2 per cent); Yunus Bashkh 15,139 (4.8 per cent).