A Personal Appreciation, Keith Hodgson
Phil Lenton, my old friend and union comrade of nearly forty years, died unexpectedly after a short illness in a Newcastle hospital on 24 November 2017, aged 71. He worked for the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) and UNISON from 1971 to 2000, firstly as a union organiser, then as Divisional Officer in the Northern Division and, eventually, as National Secretary in UNISON, in charge of the challenging process of ensuring branch mergers in the new union.
Phil was a remarkable man who lived a full and eventful life, always committed to supporting working class people in struggle and fighting imperialism. For me, he is always someone who lived his dreams. Phil was born into a political family in Twickenham, South West London. His father, Walter, was a trade union representative for the Railway Union before the war and then became a union official in the water industry. Phil was a lifelong communist and, following his sister’s activism in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), set up the youth CND in Feltham and was active in the Young Communist League. Phil left school at sixteen after a fairly bruising educational experience at the direct grant Hampton Grammar School. In the early 1960s he busked around Europe and Scandinavia, and managed to get arrested in Grosvenor Square on an anti-Vietnam demonstration. Aged twenty, he applied to Coleg Harlech in Wales, a college for mature students. His former headmaster had written a reference saying ‘in my view any public money spent on further education for Lenton would be wasted’. Asked at the interview if he could explain this, Phil said he was the only son of a plumber at the school, a communist, and the Head was class-biased. ‘That’ll do for me – you’re in’ was the reaction of the interviewer.In 1971 Phil started work for NUPE under Alan Fisher and Bernard Dix.(1) He was sent to Newcastle, on his motorbike, to work with the Divisional Officer Rodney Bickerstaffe. This was the start of their lifelong friendship and “Bick” was an inspirational mentor and guide throughout Phil’s union career. In the first NHS ancillary workers’ strike in 1972, Phil learnt much about organising and industrial action and recruited in the Royal Victoria Infirmary (RVI), the very hospital in which he died. Phil was an impressive organiser. He had courage, and was brave in dealing with hostile employers. He was always prepared to take risks and we were all fortunate in having Bick as a national guide when things sometimes went wrong. Phil had a dogged determination and always brought a wider analysis and understanding of class struggle to his work. There were numerous disputes and strikes Phil was involved in organising, with others, during the 70s and 80s, especially in response to Thatcher’s attempt to destroy unionism in Britain. But a couple were particularly significant. The first was the 1982 NHS strike which lasted eight months and saw us organising, with the National Union of Miners (NUM), picketing of pits in Durham and Northumberland in support of the nurses. Phil was instrumental in building these links, which became a matter of reciprocal solidarity when the miners were faced with their own year-long battle against pit closures and Thatcher’s attempt to destroy them in 1984/85. The second big struggle was the anti-privatisation campaign in the Northern Division against Thatcher’s attempt to impose compulsory privatisation of hospital and local government services. From the start Phil, together with other organisers, developed a strategy of vigorously opposing any discussion of privatisation by the Regional Health Authority and District Health Authorities. For a year or more this was very successful. The next stage was to fight any attempt to cut wages to ‘win’ a bid against contractors. Phil was the organiser of the major dispute, again at the RVI, when the management called for drastic cuts in pay for the low paid domestic staff in order to undercut bids from three contractors. Three days of strikes were called and Phil requested solidarity support from other trade unions. This led to around 5,000 workers turning up to support the RVI picket line, a completely spontaneous march through Newcastle and a rally in Leazes Park. When the police asked ‘who was the organiser of this illegal march’, Phil pointed to the back and said ‘some bloke down there!’. The management eventually backed down and accepted the in-house bid on existing terms and conditions. By 1987, the Cleaning and Catering Contractors Association complained to the Regional Health Authority about being denied contracts because of ‘unfair union action’. For many years they avoided the Northern Division, which had the effect of protecting workers’ wages. We called it ‘creative industrial action’. Phil was also instrumental in developing the tactic of workers’ occupations in the Northern Division. The week long occupations of the Water Treatment Plant at Howden in 1983, and the NHS Cook Freeze Unit in Newcastle in 1986 were especially significant. There was also the 12-hour strike of nineteen care workers employed at Craigielea, a private nursing home in Gateshead, that Phil organised in order to protest against their bad treatment and low wages in 1988. A ruthless management, using Thatcher’s new anti-union laws, sacked all the staff and refused to negotiate. This terrible defeat was eventually turned into a major success by the staff as they recorded their own protest song and, with Northumbria University, developed their own play, which toured all over the country. After nine months they all got new jobs and legal compensation. Many said it was the best nine months of their life.(2) In 1994 Phil was asked by Head Office if he would be willing to be deployed to work as an organiser in Durban with the African National Congress (ANC) for the first free election in South Africa. This request for support had come direct from Mandela, who was dealing with the threat of civil war between ANC and the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party, and needed experienced organisers to help. Phil agreed, despite the perceived risks, and the understandable concerns of his family.Within a month he arranged for me to join him to help with voter education. As ‘ANC comrades’ we were able to work in squatter camps with the most dispossessed of Africans. We were at the last rally of the election at Kings Park in Durban in front of the whole leadership of the ANC: Mandela, Sisulu, Tutu, Naido, Mbeki. Maybe half a million Africans piled into the park. It was the biggest rally we had ever seen. After the rally and the call to go out and vote, the crowd surged forward. Fearing we were going to be crushed we were forced to dive under the stage and came up in the dignitaries’ area, which was interesting. It was probably the most significant political event in our lives.Later that night Phil said ‘what could ever be better than this?’. As all the ANC comrades had talked about the role Cuba had played in bringing about the end of apartheid, we both agreed that ‘maybe only the Havana Jazz festival in Cuba’. We called this conversation ‘dreamtime’ because, a week after we returned to work in Britain, Phil received a letter from UNISON International Department asking if our region could host a visit from the General Secretary of the Cuban Health Workers’ Union. We did go to the Havana Jazz Festival the following February and Phil went on to develop the most remarkable links and solidarity with Cuba and the Cuban health workers. He managed to organise the filling of three ships with a large number of ambulances and buses, and tons of medical equipment and powdered milk, under the banner of ‘Health – a Trade Union Ship for Cuba’, helping to breach the USA blockade. He promoted the idea of twinning between regions of UNISON and the Cuban Health Workers’ Union, and between individual hospitals. He was instrumental in successfully persuading the TUC to change its policy on Cuba. Phil was awarded Cuba’s Medal of Honour in 2002 in recognition of his achievements in support of the Cuban International Medical Brigades.Phil loved African and Cuban music and in advance of the merger with UNISON, NUPE was hosting a delegation of South Africans from our sister union, the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU) in November 1992. Phil had been instrumental in developing twinning arrangements between NUPE and NEHAWU. As part of our solidarity exchange Phil, as Divisional Officer, managed to get agreement to fund and organise a concert for our comrades. He arranged for the top South African reggae band Lucky Dube to play at Newcastle Civic Centre.3Over 600 attended one of the largest multi-cultural events at that time in the north. When the music management company saw the success of the Lucky Dube concert they offered to bring African superstar Fela Kuti to Newcastle as part of his visit to the UK. It was always one of Phil’s regrets and a source of reflection on what might have been, that the prospect of accommodating the 26-piece band, plus his entourage, made it financially impractical. Phil never really retired and, after leaving UNISON in November 2000, he started working on international projects for Octagon, a
north east history40charitable company channelling funds to help develop self-help in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. Of particular note was his work in Chupanga, Mozambique, which had been devastated by flooding, and with the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Syria.More recently, Phil was active in helping to develop the Friends of the Durham Miners’ Gala and ensure its long term survival as the biggest working class event in Europe, and he was instrumental in securing the future of the Easington Colliery Brass Band. The Durham Miners’ Brass Band played at his funeral and he would have been intensely proud of their powerful rendition of the miners’ hymn Gresford.Phil is survived by his wife Rosemary Luckett, whom he married in 1984, and by their two children, Annie and Daniel; and sons Sion and Joseph from his first marriage. The children all spoke movingly at his funeral in Gateshead. He was a remarkable trade unionist and a remarkable man who somehow managed to make dreamtime a reality.(4)
1 Phil Lenton, ‘NUPE in the North’, North East History, Vol 47 (2016), 113 -130.
2 Keith Hodgson, ‘Campaigning at Craigielea’, as above,131-133.
3 Northern News and Views: Commemorative Issue, Journal of the Northern Region NUPE(Newcastle upon Tyne), May 1993.
4 An obituary appeared in the Guardian, 31 December 2017, and can now be accessed via https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/dec/31/phil-lenton-o
This appreciation was first published in North East History Volume 49, 2018