Dave Atkinson, who died at the age of 91, was a lifelong communist and one of Tyneside’s most outstanding trade unionists of the 20th century. Dave started work in 1929 as a Post Office telegraph boy. He rapidly became an active trade unionist and joined the communist movement at the age of 16. By the time that he volunteered for active service, in 1939, he had been involved in the Aid for Spain campaign and was a postman driver, a branch officer of the Union of Post Office Workers (UPW) and a delegate to Newcastle Trades Council.
Dave’s army career saw his rapid promotion from machine-gunner in the Northumberland Fusiliers to lieutenant in the Royal Army Service Corps, with chief responsibility for vehicle waterproofing and amphibious training for the D-Day landings. After active service on Gold Beach, Normandy, then in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany, he volunteered for Burma and was promoted to captain.
Dave often remarked wryly that the army needed to commission working-class soldiers like him since the upper class officers didn’t know anything and too many were getting themselves killed. Whatever the truth of this, his leadership qualities were genuine – and his experiences served to sharpen, rather than diminish, his class perspective and his dream of world peace.
Demobilised in 1946, young Captain Atkinson dropped his title and returned to the Newcastle Post Office, again taking up his responsibilities as a union branch official.
He became North Eastern district organiser for the UPW in 1948, a post which he held until his retirement in 1975. He was then presented with the union’s highest national award, the gold badge and honorary national membership, in recognition of 43 years service as a branch and district representative. In retirement, he was, for many years, the union’s honorary auditor.
Within the wider Tyneside labour movement, however, Dave was better known as the spiritual and political “father” of Newcastle Trades Council, a soubriquet earned as a result of years of dedicated service and of always being willing to advise but also prepared to listen. In all, he served 35 years on the council’s executive committee, including many years as president, helping to make Newcastle TUC the leading trades council in the northern region at the time. His efforts were crowned by the successful four-month struggle in 1986 to raise over £45,000 to buy premises for the trades council and its Centre Against Unemployment, a building at 4 Cloth Market that is still in use for this purpose today. In December 1983, Newcastle TUC “adopted” apartheid political prisoner Harry Gwala as a positive gesture of solidarity with fellow trades unionists in South Africa.
Dave was delegated to contact Harry’s family and so began a correspondence which went on even after 1988, when Harry was released. Despite motor neurone disease, Harry became honorary president of the South African Metal Workers Union and a leading ANC activist and Dave was able to meet him when he came to Britain for medical treatment in 1989.
Within the Communist Party, Dave’s experience and knowledge were invaluable. As the leading Communist trade unionist on Tyneside, he was a constant adviser to then district secretary Horace Green. For many younger comrades, he was an inspiration and a mentor. He was meticulous in financial matters and, on re-establishment of the CPB in 1988, he became treasurer of the Tyneside branch, then manager of the northern district mobile bookstall Clarion Books. He continued to help at the Tyneside Morning Star Bazaar until well into his 80s.
On his return from Burma in 1946, Dave married Iris, the love of his life. Together, they formed a committed, loving, communist partnership. Both were strong supporters of the Soviet Union and active in the British-Soviet Friendship Society. They visited the Soviet Union on a number of occasions, allowing Dave to build and strengthen contacts with leaders of the Soviet postal workers’ union.
Sadly, Iris died in 1994, but Dave took great joy in his children Adrian, Neil and Sharon, their partners, his grandchildren and his first great granddaughter. In typical fashion, he celebrated his 90th birthday in 2005 by placing a substantial box advert in the Morning Star, thanking his family and the many individuals and organisations that had been a support in his own life – including the Morning Star.
In 1969, Newcastle Trades Council presented Dave with the Tom Aisbitt Award, a gold medallion given to “the most outstanding trade unionist in the area”. Tom, a personal friend of Dave’s, was a founder member of the Communist Party and had been a Woodworkers’ Union delegate to the trades council for more than 40 years. Dave’s statement in accepting the award aptly describes himself: “He was a marvellous man with an unswerving loyalty to, and belief in, the working class.”
Obituary in the Morning Star – Thursday 01 March 2007 by Ruth Wallis and Martin Levy