Socialist Worker

Austin Burnett 1914-2016

by Sabby Sagall
Issue No. 2494

Austin Burnett, who has died aged nearly 102, was a long-standing member of the Socialist Workers Party,remaining active in the party until well into his 80s.

Of Irish background, Austin was born in Hull to a single parent mother, and at 11 was sent to Canada, but then sent back to Britain and placed in an orphanage where he was brought up by nuns.

He returned to Canada where he worked as a farm labourer, and then, at the age of 22, accompanied Tom Mann, the great trade union leader, on a speaking tour.

For 12 years he was a chief steward on Blue Star Ferries.

He then worked on the railways for many years, became a union activist and an official of the old National Union of Railwaymen (now the RMT).
Austin Burnett

Austin Burnett campaigning for the Socialist Alliance

Finally, he was elected on to the union executive.

But being on the executive didn’t suit him, and he enrolled at the Open University to do a History degree, where he graduated, then received a Masters degree. In 2000, at the age of 86, he was a candidate for the Socialist Alliance in the Greater London Assembly elections, gaining 2,000 votes.

In 2014, Austin celebrated his 100th birthday. He received two letters of congratulation – one from the queen, and, as a life-long Arsenal fan, another from manager Arsene Wenger. “I valued the letter from Arsene Wenger far more than anything from the queen... I am definitely not a royalist,” he said.

Roger Cox remembers how in Brent SWP Austin talked of the urgent need in the 1930s to rebuild the union after the defeat of the General Strike.

Austin was a voracious reader and, despite failing eyesight, continued to read with a telescopic machine, devouring a wide range of different books—novels, history and politics. He also had a great sense of humour. When I saw him for the last time a few days before he died, he declared that we needed to set the world on fire.

Article information

Tue 8 Mar 2016, 17:38 GMT
Issue No. 2494
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