Born in Tipperary in 1938, Mary Turner joined her first union aged 16. In July 2017, Mary passed away after an incredible career that took her from serving school lunches to leading her union.
She sounds like a pretty switched on 16-year-old – why did she join a union so young?
When Mary’s family moved to London, she got a job at Jackson’s Tailors on Oxford Street. On her first day her father asked her, “Have you joined a union yet?”. As a result, she joined the National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers, which later merged with the GMB.
What happened next?
A whirlwind romance! Mary met Denny and the couple were married within six weeks of meeting! Mary took time off work to bring up their children, returning as a dinner lady in Brent in 1969. There she joined the GMB, the union she stayed with for the rest of her life.
Was she an active member from the start?
Yes, very! Mary successfully recruited many of her colleagues into the GMB, hoping to improve their pay and conditions. At the same time, she also began campaigning for free school meals for all pupils. She was later instrumental in ensuring free school meals for kids became Labour party policy.
When was her work first recognised?
From the 1970s onwards, Mary became increasingly involved with the Labour Party, opposing the National Front and famously organising the catering for hundreds of activists at the People’s March for Jobs in 1983. That same year, Mary was elected to the GMB’s Central Executive Council, the union’s governing body, where she stayed for 30 years. At the time, she was the only woman on the executive.
I’m guessing that was the first big appointment of many?
You got it. Mary became Vice President of the GMB in 1988, and President in 1997. She was then re-elected six times, keeping her in the position until her death in 2017. In 2004, she became the Chair of the Labour Party.
How is she remembered?
With great fondness and respect, particularly by those in her union. For GMB members, ‘our Mary’ was a tenacious and tough campaigner, who rubbed shoulders with many of the UK’s most powerful figures, yet never forgot those she worked so hard to represent. She dedicated her life to helping others, and was awarded an MBE in 2010, and a CBE in 2017.