Many GMB members will be grieving today on hearing of the death yesterday of the union’s president, Mary Turner. Her health has been poor for quite a while, and had recently taken a turn for the worse, so the news was half expected, but nevertheless the huge and genuine affection that GMB activists and members hold for Mary means that it still feels like a tremendous shock.
Mary was an exceptional president of GMB, and anyone who has ever been a delegate to a GMB Congress will remember her warmth and generosity in empowering the lay members of the union to shape the union’s destiny through its sovereign decision making body. She has been in the role since 1997, and expertly provided encouragement and support for delegates who need it, while providing firm and no nonsense guidance for those of us who should know better. Given the poor state of her health, Mary’s assured performance chairing the union’s 2017 Congress in Plymouth this year was remarkable, and demonstrates the strength and bravery that we all admire so much.
She was also a tough and principled shop floor activist, in her own right, who had been a campaigner for free and nutritional school meals for all children long before celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver took up the issue. Indeed Mary starred in a Labour Party political broadcast on the subject in 1982. During the 1990s Mary and her colleagues fought a long battle with Brent council over school meals provision. Mary personified the best of GMB’s ethos that every worker, whether an engineer in a nuclear power plant, a cleaner in the NHS, a call centre worker or a solicitor is worthy of equal respect and dignity.
Mary herself had to overcome prejudice and opposition in what had been an overwhelmingly male dominated union, though she was supported by the legendary London Regional secretary, John Cope.
She built her own personal standing and authority as a formidable character and trade unionist who always had the interests of GMB and its members as her first priority. It was to no small extent her achievement that, following the 2004 turmoil over allegations of ballot rigging by former General Secretary, Kevin Curran, the union survived and emerged stronger.
Mary represented all that is the best of GMB, and all that is the best of the labour movement. She will be sorely missed.