|Roger speaking in 2016|
Our movement has lost a bright star. Roger Lewis, secretary of Lambeth Council’s joint trade unions has died an untimely death at the age of only 60. Roger's loss will be felt not only amongst the workforce of Lambeth Council but much more widely throughout UNISON and the labour movement, and will be felt particularly brutally by those campaigning for the rights of disabled workers.
I have known Roger as a committed socialist and trade union activist for more than 30 years. Roger arrived to work in Lambeth Council in 1987, a young and enthusiastic socialist in his mid 20s. He worked in social services day centres where he rapidly became a leading shop steward for a group of workers who were often treated badly by managers whilst delivering vital services to a vulnerable client group.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s when strike action was still a frequent feature of a trade union life, Roger was a reliable and stalwart picket as well as developing as an experienced and effective caseworker representing individual trade unionists facing difficulties in the workplace.
I remember Roger outside the Town Hall, protesting against cuts and the poll-tax, supporting the advice centre and youth centre occupations and demonstrating against the Gulf War. I also remember Roger as part of a group of twentysomethings having our first drink at the newly opened Wetherspoons pub in Brixton (!)
Roger was one of a number of our shop stewards at that time who was a member of the Socialist Workers Party and, whilst that meant we did not always see eye to eye on every dot and comma of our politics, as a left-wing Branch Secretary I knew I could rely upon Roger and his comrades when the chips were down.
Though sensible managers respected Roger as a diligent and effective shop steward, some of his local managers were not in that category. In 2005 a hostile local manager seized upon a malicious complaint to try to secure Roger’s dismissal. With the support of his legendary UNISON Convenor, Jackie Lewis, Roger fought off this vicious attack.
However, in a cruel twist of fate, at the same time, Roger who was already suffering with arthritis, found that a degenerative condition was costing him his sight. Once more, local management tried to get rid of Roger on the grounds that he could not carry out his duties. Roger and his trade union branch fought back and won.
Not only did Roger retain his employment as he lost his sight but he took on a new role and, from then onwards, as well as continuing to be a leading trade union activist, Roger played a vital role in developing Lambeth’s service provision for disabled people locally. In a short blog post I cannot possibly do justice to the many ways in which Roger contributed to our society. There will I'm sure be others who can say much more.
Such was Roger's courage and determination as he faced acquiring a life changing disability in mid-life that he was not distracted from his commitment to the class struggle. On the contrary, Roger acquired a renewed focus and rapidly became a key figure in UNISON's Disabled Member’s Self Organised Group in the branch and beyond.
When the Coalition Government launched its savage attack upon public services and our welfare state, Roger was to the fore in organising Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC) an organisation to which Roger gave his persistence and commitment, and through which he became a nationally known figure.
As Roger became an increasingly common sight, with a megaphone or on a platform outside Parliament or on a demonstration, he remained a fully committed member of his union branch and continued his valuable work for the Council. When my retirement from UNISON roles in 2017 created various vacancies, Roger stepped up to take on the challenging role of Secretary of the Joint Trade Unions for Lambeth Council.
This involved the vital and often thankless task of building and maintaining unity between the different trade unions while leading negotiations with the Council over a period during which it repeatedly and determinedly demolished its own Human Resources function. The workers of Lambeth Council enjoy decent conditions of service and broadly fair staffing procedures, and for the past five years Roger Lewis, more than anyone else, mobilised our collective organisation to defend those rights.
I had hoped to see Roger last month when he was in Brighton representing Lambeth at UNISON's National Disabled Members Conference. Characteristically, however, when I was unable to get out in the evening, Roger couldn't meet at the end of the Conference as he had to get back to Lambeth for a work commitment. I have no doubt that right up until Roger was taken into hospital having had a heart attack last Friday, he was working hard for our class and our movement. I cannot describe the anger I feel that someone who did as much as any of us to defend our pensions from successive attacks will not have enjoyed a single day of retirement.
I have known and represented a very great number of trade unionists and trade union activists. Roger Lewis shines out in my memory for his courage, commitment and determination. If he could inspire an old cynic who is writing this blog I can only imagine the inspiration which his example will continue to offer to so many comrades for so long.
Farewell Roger and thank you for your comradeship.