By Peta Steel
Ken Cameron, the stalwart socialist General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union who has just died at the age of 75 was one of the most charismatic and effective figures in the trade union movement as it came under attack from the Tory Government during the 1980s.
Cameron was a constant supporter to the Mineworkers, print workers and ambulance workers as they faced action from Thatcher and her Ministers as they tried to dismantle the welfare system and strip workers of their rights.
Cameron was General Secretary of the Fire Brigades’ Union from 1980 to 2000, and during that time led the fight to stop the fire brigade from being privatised and to protect their pay and conditions. At the same time he did much to support other trade unionists and in particular the National Union of Mineworkers raising money to help them and liaise with other organisations.
Cameron was born in Fort William in the Scottish Highlands in 1941, his mother who was Irish worked in the local big houses as a cleaner taught him about socialism. He was to remain immensely proud of her and of his background for the rest of his life. His clear Highland’s accent though later tempered through years of living in England would demand immediate attention as he spoke.
Like many Scots he received an education that gave him a fundamental understanding of international relations and an abiding hatred of apartheid and injustice.
He left school determined to make a difference. A brief span training as a journalist on the Aberdeen Press and Journal came to an end when he was sacked after falling into a swimming pool whilst covering an international swimming competition. Jobs in those days were less easy to come by as the exploration of the local oil fields was only just beginning.
Cameron who had also worked as a special constable moved to Birmingham where he trained to be a policeman, before joining the fire brigade service.
It was no surprise that he became increasingly involved with the Fire Brigade’s Union; gradually rising through its’ ranks, becoming one of its most progressive and charismatic leaders. He was to lead the protest following the strikes of 1977-78 as the fire brigade were threatened with cut backs under a Labour Government. In 1980 he became General Secretary of the FBU a role he was to hold for the next 20 years.
His appointment came as Thatcher with her hard views at taking on the trade unions and dismantling the nationalised industries was elected in to Government. He was one of the first to warn of the impending struggle and to try and unite the unions so that they could defend themselves.
But it was during the miners strike to protect jobs during 1984/1985 that Cameron came to the fore playing a leading part in raising money to help the union. Even travelling to the USA to raise funds; And at one time taking money from his own union’s funds to help them, the £20,000 was paid back six years later.
Cameron became a familiar face on the picket lines and at meetings constantly giving support. He was to do the same during the Ambulance Workers Strike. He never turned down calls for help and earned a reputation for being approachable and supportive.
He was also a champion of international causes giving strong support to the ANC and Mandela in the fight against apartheid, which was in those days being undermined by Thatcher who looked on Mandela as a terrorist and in raising awareness of the problems and the injustice suffered by the Palestinians.
He was to move the first pro Palestinian motion at Congress in 1982. On his retirement he was to receive a personal letter from Nelson Mandela who by that time had become a friend, becoming an honorary member of the FBU in 1990.
He was both sanguine and pragmatic when Blair became leader of the Labour Party, resisting measures that would see the jettisoning of Clause Four. But on the day the motion to get rid of it passed, mourned its loss and made reference that Labour would come into government but would lose some of its soul in doing so.
On his retirement he served on the Central Arbitration Committee. He was chair of the PPPS management committee which runs the Morning Star for several years.
Paying tribute to him Matt Wrack, General Secretary of the FBU said ‘Ken was a forward thinking, socialist union leader who devoted many years of his life to protect Fireworkers pay and conditions. Ken defended everything that was good about the work of firefighters.
Asked how he would describe himself Cameron said: ‘a socialist and a comrade’.