After a lifetime in the thick of working class struggle, Bill Ronksley, former president of train drivers' union Aslef and Sheffield TUC secretary, has died aged 94.
Talking politics with Bill was like stepping into a time machine - from hearing him vividly recount fighting Oswald Mosley's fascist Blackshirts first hand in the 1950s, to shaking hands with Pablo Picasso at a world peace conference in Sheffield, listening in awe to Paul Robeson singing and speaking to huge crowds or organising solidarity amongst railworkers during the Great Miners' Strike of 1984-5.
Bill, a Communist Party member since his 20s, was a legendary figure in the trade union movement. He saw out the years when the CP were banned from being trades council delegates.
A farmer's boy living in the country north of Sheffield, as a youth he began working as a messenger on the railways. He worked as a fireman on steam locomotives before becoming a train driver.
Bill remained a member of Aslef for 76 years and it was not for nothing that his portrait featured on an old-style Aslef banner of the kind where heroes of the movement are depicted. He spent his whole life fighting against the capitalist class.
Always smartly turned out in shirt and tie, it was a pleasure to go for a pint with him before trades council meetings after he'd downed his customary tea of fish and chips.
He met Picasso - creator of the great anti-war painting Guernica -off a train as part of a welcoming party at Sheffield station in 1950. Bill, 26 at the time, recalled, "The clearest thing I remember is the main guy reaching into his pocket and saying: 'Well, Bill, since it’s Picasso, I suppose I’d better put my false teeth in.' "
"We presented him with flowers. It was quite embarrassing, though. We only had one bunch and were due to collect other dignitaries later that day so, after the photographs were taken, I had to say 'Excuse me, but do you mind if we have thoseflowers back?' I think, perhaps, he laughed.
"He drew a dove and auctioned it off, but the story goes that he drew one or two others while he was here and gave them to people as gifts, and they became worth thousands. I sometimes joke that I should have asked for one."
Bill bitterly remembered the conference in November 1950 being wrecked by the then Labour government, which refused visas to many delegates, including Paul Robeson.
Bill was a big supporter of the Stop the War Coalition, which Sheffield TUC backed throughout the imperialist wars in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq.
A framed photograph of Bill with Picasso inspired me to organise a Stop the War event in Sheffield in 2009 to mark the 70th anniversary of Picasso’s painting.“Picasso’s War and Peace” commemorated the anniversary of Guernica being painted during the Spanish Civil War.
Martin Mayer, current secretary of Sheffield TUC, said. "One of his proudest moments was during the 1984-5 miners' strike when Aslef won the support of its members to refuse to move coal during the entire strike - one of the reasons why Thatcher had to get trucks to move coal to the coking plant at Orgreave, thus paving the way for the battle over which we are still fighting for justice today."
Bill was never sectarian and resolutely spoke out and supported SWP comrades victimised by right-wingers in Unison after leading strikes against cuts in the 1980s.
As Maxine Bowler said, "I had so much respect for Bill Ronksley. He was a class warrior to the end a fountain of knowledge and despite the fact that we came from different political traditions he was completely non-sectarian.
"We worked together setting up the committee against the war in the Balkans and opposed the first war in Iraq in the early 1990s and until very recently he was still attending the Sheffield trades council executive and full meetings."