Arriving in Britain in the early 1930s from Ireland, Durkin's desire to break out of poverty saw him walk every inch of the way from Liverpool to London to find work. Once in the capital, he found this in the building industry and became a leading organiser for UCATT and one of its predecessors. During the 1970s, Durkin, who by now had also taken the role of president of the Brent Trades Council, played a leading role in the major disputes of the decade. He was prominent in the national strike of building workers of 1972.
More notoriously, he played a major part in the famous Grunwick dispute in 1976, when 137, workers walked out of a film processing plant in Willesden. The strike was centred on the lack of union recognition at the plant and involved the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff union, which represented the strikers.
The strike was co-ordinated by a broad Grunwick Strike Committee and attracted a wide range of support to picket lines, due in part to Durkin' s role. The national impact of the dispute led the then Labour government to set up a Cabinet Committee to deal with the issues that it raised. Durkin was also a member of the south-east regional TUC and played a vital part in the first People's March for Jobs in 1982. He was a strong supporter of the Morning Star and member of the CPB until his death at the age of 87.
Source: Morning Star 28th December 2002
A TRIBUTE FROM BRENT TRADES COUNCIL PRODUCED AT THE TIME OF TOM DURKIN'S DEATH FOLLOWS....
Tom Durkin, A life of Struggle.
Tom Durkin, for years President of Brent Trades Council - Brent’s local TUC - died just before Christmas aged 87.
Many will remember him as the giant with the snow-white hair and booming voice. The great orator who never needed a mega-phone, who supported all workers in struggle, whatever the weather or time of day...
Born in Ireland to a large, poor family, like many he came to England in the 30’s looking for work. He tramped from Liverpool to London, sleeping under hedges and begging crusts of bread, finally finding work in the building trade. The work was poorly paid and insecure, and there was many a death or serious injury caused by poor safety. When he demanded safer conditions he would be given his cards, and be back to the dole queue. As he struggled for work to stave off starvation, he watched with growing disgust those whose wealth was gained at the workers expense. His vision grew for a world of social justice, of peace and racial harmony, free from exploitation by ‘the bosses’ He became a communist and from then his life was committed to a struggle for a better world -‘for the millions and not the millionaires’. And poor though he always was, Tom would never turn away someone begging food, sharing whatever he could. ‘I can never forget what it felt like to be hungry’ he said.
He became a leading member of UCATT, campaigning for union recognition to improve safety on building sites and for proper contracts of employment, and assisted the organisation of the 1972 National Building Workers Strike. He was elected to the Greater London Association of Trades Councils and the South East Region of the TUC, and was well known as one of their most colourful figures. He was an organiser of the Peoples March for Jobs in 1982, reminiscent of the Jarrow Marches of the 30’s, where thousands joined against Thatcher’s unemployment policies.
There was hardly an industrial dispute in which Tom was not involved, from supporting the women at Trico’s fighting for equal pay, to campaigning against factory closures in the borough.
Many will have heard him speak - outside factory gates, or on the steps of Brent Town Hall. And his speeches were brilliant, eloquent and carefully argued. Largely self-educated (he left school at 13) his intellect and knowledge of history, literature and philosophy exceeded many a graduate - Shakespeare, Burns, Byron, Shelley, the Bible, Marx and Engels - he had read and knew them all, and would refer to them often, bringing their ideas to life.
Tom welcomed the growing ethnic diversity of the borough and did much to influence the Trades Union Movement in taking up fights against race discrimination. He helped set up the Willesden International Friendship Club, forerunner to the Brent Community Relations Council. He was always proud that Nelson Mandela had addressed a packed meeting of Brent Trades Council in the ‘60s before he was incarcerated and he gave consistent support to the anti-apartheid movement. Years later he was to welcome the young women from Dunns supermarket, who were sacked for refusing to sell apartheid’s goods.
When 137 Asian workers walked out at the Grunwick film processing plant in Chapter Road demanding Union recognition, Tom was there to take up their cause. Every morning without fail he was on the picket line, and organised trade unionists from across the country to support their fight.
During the 1984 Miners Strike he welcomed Kent Miners to Brent and raised thousands of pounds for their hardship fund. Later the Trades Council was invited to go down the Betteshanger mine and after feeling the cold, the heat, the dark and the dust, we were entertained with a good old sing-song in the social club. And there was nothing Tom liked better.
Tom’s activities were not restricted to the Trade Union movement. He was a founder member of the Brent Community Law Centre, the Local Economy Resource Unit and the Unemployed Workers Centre. He spoke out for the homeless, the NHS, Schools, and for Peace.
Besides public speaking, he had other skills. He was a poet, a lover of music and a craftsman. Memorable too were the ‘hi-fis’ he built out of old junk to take on demonstrations, mount on cars etc. (elections in the borough have been much quieter and less colourful since his decline). His archives of the Labour movement, his hatred of throwing anything away that he could recycle . . . his legacy lives on in the Trades and Labour Hall!
He could have used his considerable talents for self-advancement and, no doubt, have lead a comfortable life. A mighty voice for ordinary people, you only had to see him with small children or with his beloved cat (who could do no wrong) to witness the soft side of this fierce but gentle giant.
He will be greatly missed. He leaves a widow, 3 children and a number of grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Kate McLean on behalf of Brent Trades Council