Solidarity of a Lifetime

Hazel Marshall pays tribute to John Keenan and his contribution to the trade union movement in South Lanarkshire.

john keenan and other stars of nae pasaran
John Keenan (left) with Bobby Somerville, Bob Fulton and Rolando Drago, Chilean Ambassador to the UK, during an awards ceremony in Glasgow, where the three Nae Pasaran stars received the Order of Bernard O’Higgens medals, named after one of the founding fathers who freed Chile from the Spanish in the 1820s.

John Keenan, the Chair of East Kilbride and South Lanarkshire Trades Union Council, recently passed away at the age of 83 after a short illness. John was a trade union activist all his working life, known throughout his union, the AUEW, and the wider trade union movement, particularly in Scotland. As a shop steward and convenor in the East Kilbride Rolls Royce plant he was active on the shop floor and at a national level. As a member of the STUC General Council, and its President in 2006, he was a respected stalwart of the movement.

John was one of the key figures in the Rolls Royce workers’ boycott of the production of engines for Chile in 1974 that grounded most of the Chilean air force for a time, demonstrating real solidarity with the people of Chile. John and his comrades’ solidarity became more widely known in recent years through
the film Nae Pasaran, and along with Bobby Sommerville and Bob Fulton he was honoured by the Chilean government at a ceremony in Glasgow City Chambers.

John was an active trade unionist to the end, serving on the STUC Disabled Workers Committee, where his knowledge of benefits and pensions was invaluable. He continued working with the Citizens Advice Bureau where he was a valued adviser, dealing with benefit appeals and winning thousands of pounds for disabled people.

At our Trades Council meeting the Monday after his death, we discussed John’s involvement and history. None of our delegates could work out how long John had actually been involved with the trades council. In fact, no-one could recall a time when he was anything other than the Chair. We worked out that his
time in this role alone spanned more than four decades.

My involvement in the trade union movement is a blink of an eye compared to the lifetime John contributed. His is a legacy that few others’ can compare with. Beyond that, however, I feel gratitude towards the man who was kind, gentle, and always patient with those less informed than himself who sought his advice and knowledge. He was always willing to listen to your opinions, and to provide an alternative theory if he felt you needed another perspective, but he was always non-judgmental.

Never one to take the limelight, John was content to allow others to step forward while he worked tirelessly on projects that affected working people. Equally, he wouldn’t shy away from speaking up and imparting his knowledge in public forums. In April, for International Workers Memorial Day, John
laid a wreath on behalf of the Trades Council along with STUC Vice-President Lillian Macer and other dignitaries at the memorial outside South Lanarkshire Council HQ. Afterwards he spoke about the Bill proposed by Mark Griffin MSP to establish a Scottish Employment Injuries Advisory Council (SEIAC). As
always, he was knowledgeable and able to explain to his audience what the key issues were. This was to be the last time I heard him share his wisdom on a public forum.

Many people will write far more eloquently about John and his myriad trade union achievements than I could ever do, and I will not attempt to do so. John will be sorely missed by all in our Trades Council as well as across the wider trade union community.