Neil Kearney, An Extraordinary Man, An Extraordinary Life
Neil Kearney (1950-2009)
Neil Kearney, An extraordinary man, an extraordinary life
The tragic death of Neil Kearney, aged 59, has robbed the international trade union movement of a truly inspirational leader.
Neil died the way he lived. He had completed a day-long series of engagements with trade unions, company managers and government officials in Bangladesh aimed at secured respect for labour rights in the sector when he suffered a fatal heart attack in the early hours of Thursday morning. It is a measure of what he meant to the workers in Bangladesh that three days of mourning have been declared in the sector.
Neil served over 20 years as the General Secretary of the Brussels-based International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation. He was a brilliant and passionate defender of the rights of those workers worldwide who fall prey to the worst excesses of the international outsourcing of garment and footwear production.
Born in 1950 in Carndonagh, County Donegal, Ireland, Neil moved to the UK at the age of 17 in search of work and took a job in banking. He joined a union on his first day at work. In 1972 he joined the then National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers where he served as Head of the Information and Research Department for sixteen years. He was active in politics during that period, running for parliament twice in 1974 and four years later being elected Councillor in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea where he became the leader of the opposition. He was a lifelong socialist who resigned from the Labour Party over the Iraq war.
He married his wife Jutta in 1978 and had two daughters, aged 25 and 18 of whom he was very proud. When at home he loved nothing more than to get into the kitchen, roll up his sleeves and cook for his family.
Neil was elected General Secretary at the ITGLWF’s 6th World Congress which will be held in Frankfurt in early December.
In his capacity as General Secretary of the ITGLWF, Neil embodied the qualities of a true world leader – a consummate professional setting the highest standards for his own organisation and expecting the same in every workplace for which the ITGLWF had jurisdiction. As conditions worsened in the sector he became even more resolved to put the world to rights, repeatedly visiting over 140 countries worldwide to work with unions and help negotiate improvements in working conditions. He was absolutely convinced both of the ability of an individual to change the world for the better and of the need for individuals to pull together in the collective.
He will be remembered by ITGLWF members as a fighter who was tireless in his defence of trade union rights and who made it seem like anything was possible. He was fierce when dealing with exploitation and injustice, masterful in negotiations, and a true gentleman on a personal level. “With Neil’s death we lose an excellent General Secretary, a loyal colleague and a good friend”, says ITGLWF President Manfred Schallmeyer.
He was known for his unerring ability to cut to the heart of the most complex of issues, always putting the interests of workers front and centre. Despite the pressures he faced and the scope of the problems he tackled, his sense of humour enabled him to keep things in perspective and to break down barriers.
He had an amazingly detailed knowledge of the industry and of international labour standards as well as a keen appreciation of the limits and possibilities of corporate social responsibility. He played an active role on a number of multi-stakeholder initiatives and served as a board member of the UK Ethical Trading Initiative and formerly the US based Social Accountability International and was an active proponent of the MFA Forum. He worked closely with brands, retailers and manufacturers in an effort to secure sound industrial relations in the sector, making a profound impact on many of the company representatives he came into contact with.
It is perhaps fitting that the last place where Neil drew breath on this earth was Bangladesh, a country he visited over fifty times since 1988. Particularly memorable was his work to ensure that workers whose lives were devastated by the Spectrum factory collapse received adequate compensation and medical assistance. One moment he would be in engaged in discussions with top government and industry officials or planning action with union leaders, the next he would be carrying a paralysed worker in his arms into a better-equipped hospital or travelling miles on a horse and cart to visit an injured worker in his village. For Neil, it was all in a day’s work.
The work on the garment factory disaster brought the ITGLWF into contact with the Spanish retailer Inditex, with whom the ITGLWF signed an international framework agreement in 2007. Neil was in Bangladesh with Inditex at the time of his death.
The ITGLWF has been inundated with messages of condolences from all sides, for he touched thousands and will be remembered for generations to come.
The thoughts of the ITGLWF and its members are with Neil’s family.