Tribute to Bill Brett: Speech by Luc Cortebeeck, President of the Workers’ group

Statement | Genève | 14 June 2012

Our colleague Bill Brett, or to give him his full title Baron Brett of Lydd, who sadly passed away in March at the age of 70 was in all senses of the words ‘a big man’.

Both in his physical presence, and in his contribution to the British and international labour movements.

Politics was in his blood, born to Irish parents in Lancashire in the north of England, he started work for British Rail at the age of 16 and became a union activist from almost his first day on the job. He went on to become one the youngest elected councillors in London aged 21.

His ability and fierce competence saw him fill many union roles, culminating in his 10 years as General Secretary of the Institution of Professionals, Managers, and Specialists, at the time one of the United Kingdom’s largest white collar unions. During the same period he also sat on both the General Council of the British Trades Union Congress, and on the Executive of the Global Union Federation Public Services International.

His commitment to the International dimension of trade unionism was also shown in his dedication to this organization. He joined the Governing Body in 1992 and went on to become not just Chair of the Workers’ group, but in a tribute to his profound belief in tripartism, also one of the few non-government Chairs of the Governing Body itself in 2002-3; before becoming Director of the ILO’s London office from 2003.

During his time leading the Workers’ group he was centrally involved in key developments at the ILO including the drafting of the Declaration on the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and the negotiation of Convention No. 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour.

He raised the profile of the ILO significantly in Britain by highlighting the fact that Margaret Thatcher breached key ILO Conventions when she banned civil servants at the government intelligence centre GCHQ from joining unions – a decision that was reversed by the incoming Labour government in 1997 in which Bill Brett went on to become a Minister, serving in the Home Office.

As the TUC’s General Secretary, Brendan Barber, said of him ‘He would take on anyone in an argument, confident of his own position and the rightness of his cause.’

Bill Brett will be sorely missed by all who knew him, and I’m sure the GB and the many ILO officers and staff who worked with him for so long will join with me in sending our deepest sympathies to his partner and children.