Bill Speirs: Trade union leader who espoused Scottish nationalism and led the Make Poverty History c
For all his Scotland-centric views, Speirs was an international figure who had
the respect of those involved in the international trade union movement,
espousing anti-apartheid action in South Africa and such causes as the
rights of Columbian banana workers, who were being exploited. He also had
fierce sympathy with the Palestinians as a result of many visits to the West
Bank. The director of the executive office of programmes for Unison, Bill
Gilbey, recalled as a fellow member of the international trade union team of
observers at the 2005 Palestinian elections, that the name of Bill Speirs
meant a great deal: ?The Palestinians we met and my fellow delegates from
other countries were almost in awe of Bill?s experience, knowledge and
understanding of the problems.?
William MacLeod Speirs loved to tell us that he was ?a son of the rock? ?
that means a proud man from Dumbarton.
In conversation with wealthy businessmen and grandees ? he was always pleasant
and good company with those with whom he had profound disagreements ? he
would say with a chuckle that he betted they weren?t born in such a superb
baronial mansion as his birthplace. He referred to Overton House, which in
the 1950s was a maternity hospital with marvellous views of the Clyde and
A clever son of a family going back generations in the engineering side of the
shipyards, he won a bursary to the John Neilston Institute, a famous Paisley
secondary school. This prepared him not only for university entrance to
Strathclyde but for a first class honours degree in politics. Following
that, and before joining the staff of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, he
was a successful lecturer at The University of Strathclyde, Glasgow
Caledonian University and the Paisley College of Technology.
I first heard his name from the Principal of Strathclyde University, Sir
Samuel Curran, who predicted that this brilliant student would soon become
one of my colleagues in the Scottish group of the parliamentary Labour
Party. This was not to be.
Whereas Speirs could most certainly have won selection in many west of
Scotland constituencies, he chose to join the STUC and help the then general
secretary, Jimmy Jack, in campaigns for improving workers? conditions.
No man in Scotland did more to promote the importance of health and safety at
Speirs did a great deal of the work in leading the opposition to Mrs Thatcher,
both at the time of the miners? strike and during the protests against the
poll tax. He was a tremendous hands-on beaver at organising meetings.
Because he worked so hard himself, he inspired other people to go to the
proverbial ends of the earth, and supported them when they defied the law in
relation to the poll tax.
To my dismay, Speirs was extremely effective in spreading the notion that a
Scottish parliament would protect Scotland against the ravages of Mrs
Thatcher. I know that he was angry that devolution had been, as he saw it,
denied to Scotland after the referendum in March 1979, and he was determined
to rectify the position in the 1980s and early ?90s. He was all the more
effective by being charming to those with whom he disagreed.
One of Speirs? triumphs, with his boss and friend Campbell Christie, whom he
succeeded in August 1998 as general secretary of the STUC, was leading the
Make Poverty History campaign. This culminated in huge demonstrations in
Edinburgh in the week of the G8 summit in Gleneagles in July 2005. His theme
of international trade union rights was the issue at the heart of any
effective programme for tackling world poverty: he demanded for all workers
the right to freedom from forced labour, freedom from child labour,
the right of non-discrimination in the workplace and above all the right to
form and join a trade union and to conduct bargains on a collective basis.
?I never met anyone whose core values and personal beliefs were so organically
connected to his public and political positions,? Dave Moxham, the STUC?s
deputy general secretary told me. ?Bill was a builder of broad coalitions
but a man who never compromised the interests of the workers he represented.
A powerful political innovator who remained uniquely approachable to those
who had less knowledge than he had.?
As general secretary of the STUC he was often called upon to give evidence to
the parliament in Westminster and to the parliament at Holyrood.
He made himself a considerable authority on the Scots whisky industry, saying,
?the STUC and the Scotch Whisky Association have worked closely together for
years in seeking to insure that the industry continues not only to survive,
but develop as a significant contribution to employment in the Scottish
Speirs told me that he did not want to be general secretary for more than five
years, and in 2006 he chose to step down, giving stress as his reason. In
fact his friends knew that it was the onset of an illness which was to cause
his death at the early age of 57.
William MacLeod Speirs, trade unionist: born Dumbarton 8 March 1952;
General Secretary, Scottish Trades Union Congress, 1998?2006; married
firstly Lynda (divorced; one son, one daughter), secondly Pat Stewart; died
Glasgow 23 September 2009.
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