I first became aware of Tom Durkin in the late 1960s when, as a member of the YCL Executive Committee and national youth committee of the engineering union, TASS, I began spending more time in London. Suddenly, the giant with snow-white hair who had no need of a megaphone on demos was identified to me. Tommy was an astonishingly confident organiser, whose marvellous booming speeches, though appearing entirely extempore, were crafted from constant reading of politics, literature and history.
I learned that, on arriving in Britain in the early 1930s from Ireland, his desire to break out of poverty saw him walk every inch of the way from Liverpool to London to find work. Having left school at the age of 13, he devoted his life to self-learning. Once in the capital, he found this in the building industry and eventually became a leading rank and file organiser for UCATT and one of its predecessors, the Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers (ASW).
He joined the Communist Party in 1940 and worked for a period full-time for the Party, serving in the army during the war. At an Anti Nazi League protest in the late 1979s, at the desecration of a Jewish memorial, he spoke movingly of his experience of arriving as a soldier at Auschwitz at the end of the Second World War.
For a long time he was a London District Committee member and on its Secretariat. 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.
His lack of sectarianism was shown when, in 1976, SWP Right to Work marchers were arrested at Staples Corner, Tom turned up outside Hendon magistrates’ court with the Brent Trades Council banner to show his solidarity. He helped set up the Willesden International Friendship Club, which led to the Brent Community Relations Council. He was a founder member of the Brent Community Law Centre and the Unemployed Workers Centre.
More famously, 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 national impact of the dispute led the then Labour government to set up a Cabinet Committee. 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. Despite APEX, most activity was co-ordinated by a broad Grunwick Strike Committee, mainly due to Durkin’ s role, though there are those who sought to claim credit for themselves. Every morning he was on the picket line.
A leaflet written immediately after the strike by Tom Durkin, entitled ‘Grunwick: bravery and betrayal’ pointed to the lessons that workers should not be divided nor prevented from providing solidarity through mass pickets or secondary action, whether by referrals to Acas, commissions of enquiry or the law courts, but should continue their industrial action. Only strong action by workers could secure success on the ground.
Tom was not afraid to tread where others feared. He took to the columns of a Marxism Today in an article entitled “Goodbye to Détente” in May 1981. His conclusion was a delight: “ … may I say a word to some of our anti Soviet critics. You are fully entitled to your views but temper them occasionally with a little self criticism.” In 1985, he was expelled from the CPGB for supporting the Morning Star.
He supported the women at Trico fighting for equal pay and was a member of the south-east regional TUC, playing a vital part in the first People’s March for Jobs in 1982. He commandeered a lorry to collect wood for the Greenham Common Womens Peace Camp, protesting against the siting of American Cruise missiles at the airbase. During the 1984 Miners’ strike, he ensured thousands of pounds were raised for the Kent miners’ hardship fund in Brent.
He was a strong supporter of the Morning Star and member of the CPB until his death at the age of 87.
GS personal knowledge,
Morning Star 28th December 2002, Sarah Cox,