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Monday, 13 August, 2001, 12:17 GMT 13:17 UK
Jimmy Knapp: Old school, new ideas
Jimmy Knapp
BBC News Online profiles the RMT's first general secretary, Jimmy Knapp, who has died aged 60.

When Jimmy Knapp became general secretary of the National Union of Railworkers in 1983, he was widely regarded as a union leader of the old school - left-wing, uncompromising and opposed to change.

But his gruff Ayrshire growl and bullish manner belied his passion for reform and energy for leadership at a time of unprecedented change in the rail industry.

His values were instilled at an early age. His Kilmarnock childhood gave him a socialist education and a sense of a community who "had to work to better themselves".

Jimmy Knapp left school aged 15 to become an apprentice railway signalman, and always explained: "Without the principles I got then, I would be nothing."

An empty station during the 1989 rail strike
An empty station during the 1989 rail strike
By the age of 18, Jimmy Knapp was something, initially the subscriptions collector at his local union. Two years later he was branch secretary, and by the age of 31 he was living in London as a full time union official.

When the NUR's right-wing leader Sid Weighell retired in 1983, Knapp was the left-wing's "candidate from nowhere". Despite his earlier failure at the nominal exam for would-be executives and his very low status on the union pecking order, he gained a surprise landslide victory over the then assistant general secretary.

His predecessor denounced him as being from the hard left; he certainly maintained the appearance of a trade union dinosaur.

But from the start of his long tenure, Knapp led the NUR dynamically, forging links with other rail unions, including the more militant Aslef, and restoring unity in the NUR executive.

Almost single-handedly he persuaded the union conference to follow government legislation and hold ballots before taking industrial action.

An Intercity train
He fought rail privatisation
In 1985, he was hoisted by his own petard, however, when this led to a humiliating defeat of the executive's recommendation for a strike over the introduction of driver-only trains.

More favourable was its 1989 decision to take action over pay and collective bargaining. A series of one-day strikes paralysed the rail network, without alienating commuters. Management improved their offer by 1.8% and Knapp scored a significant victory.

Jimmy Knapp's role changed with the times. 1990 saw railworkers join ranks with seamen, and Jimmy Knapp became the first general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union.

Meanwhile, in the early 1990s, the government outlined its plans for railway privatisation. Facing the threat of enormous redundancies, Knapp called for more investment, and promised that privatisation would be fought "publicly, politically and industrially".

Although he held his position for more than 17 years and maintained his popularity with the rank and file members after the privatisation of the rail services in the late 1990s, he faced criticism from the union's hard-lefters for failing to fight the great rail sell-off.

Jimmy Knapp drinking a pint of beer
Jimmy Knapp enjoying a pint
But he called this a hysterical attack and an insult to the hardworking and dedicated activists he led.

And in contrast to these extremists, whom he termed "a few people in a smoke-filled room", he remained a dedicated constitutionalist, promising "full and frank debate, where membership remain informed and involved". "After all," he told them, "it is your union."

And Jimmy Knapp remained his own man. In contrast to other media-schooled personalities with sharp suits and 20-second sound bites, he continued to construct complex arguments in laconic tones and don the green union colours of his past.

He remained the one the image consultants let get away, but was content to let his principles take precedence over his style. "You have to take me as I come," he said.

See also:

13 Aug 01 | UK Politics
Knapp dies at 60
13 Aug 01 | UK Politics
Jimmy Knapp: The life of a union man
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