Ken Gill

Trade union leader and all-round firebrand

Trade union leader and all-round firebrand, here are six things you need to know about Ken Gill.

1. He was a smart kid

Ken was born in Wiltshire in 1927 and won a scholarship to Chippenham Grammar School in 1938. Even as a teenager he knew his own mind: during the Second World War he left school aged 16 to become an apprentice draughtsman, making detailed technical drawings. He refused officer training because of his ideological opposition to the class distinction.

2. He believed in a better world

Ken’s early political awareness was shaped by his experience of poverty during the depression, and the loss of his brother Leslie, an RAF airman, during a raid over Germany. As a young man, he was influenced and inspired by a communist cobbler who lodged with his family – a philosophy that never left him.

3. He was a lifelong leader

In 1962, Gill was elected a regional official of DATA (the Draughtsmen and Allied Technicians’ Association). By 1974, he became general secretary of his union, staying in the position for 18 years, during which – through several mergers – his union became Unite. In 1985, he became president of the TUC.

4. He was passionately anti-racist

Ken often confronted racism within the trade union movement, consistently campaigning for equality. Under his initiative, his union guaranteed the deposit for the 1988 Wembley concert that celebrated Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday, helping raise the profile of the anti-apartheid struggle. He was a member of the Commission for Racial Equality from 1981 to 1987.

5. He was a brilliant caricaturist

If you ever saw Ken doodling during a meeting or conference, chances are he was busy capturing the essence of someone in cartoon form. As a boy, he was disqualified from an art competition because the judges didn’t believe a child could produce such mature work. Ken’s last public speech was at the launch of his book of caricatures in 2009 – Hung, Drawn and Quartered.

6. He was both arrested and shot at

Ken went to East Germany during the height of the Cold War for the World Peace Congress, where he was arrested by the US military police. A few years later, he was in Paris for protests demanding Algerian independence, at which the police opened fire on demonstrators.