Mary Turner, who has died aged 79, was one of the most dynamic women members of the trade union movement, rising from school dinner lady to become president of the GMB trade union as well as a member of the Labour Party’s national executive committee. A hugely popular figure, Turner established a reputation as someone who wasn’t scared of standing up for the rights of those she worked alongside or represented, including hungry children.
Tim Roache, GMB general secretary, said: “The word ‘giant’ is sometimes overused. But in the case of Mary she really was a true giant of our movement.”
Turner, née O’Brien, was born in 1938 in Tipperary, Ireland, moving when she was 12 to Kilburn in north London, where she attended the local secondary modern. Her trade unionist father asked her, when she was 16 and just starting her first job, whether she had was in a trade union – and she was. It was the Tailor and Garment Workers Union, joined while working as a bookkeeper at Jackson’s Tailors on Oxford Street. She later worked in the printing industry, serving as a Sogat mother of chapel before taking time off to bring up her two children. She had married her husband Denny in 1956, six weeks after meeting him. (He died in 2015 and they are survived by their son John and daughter Denise.)
Joined the GMB in 1969, the next year she returned to work as a dinner lady in Brent, making her name by organising the poorly paid, untrained and badly treated female workers. Shocked at not only seeing hungry children but also those being stigmatised having to queue separately for free school meals, she began what became a lifetime’s campaign to get free school meals for all. Later, as chair of the Labour Party’s policy forum, working with Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, she would get the party to adopt this campaign as policy and incorporate it in the manifesto.
Elected a member of the GMB’s central executive council in 1983, she was at that time the only woman out of 40 to serve on it. In 1997, she was elected as national president of the union, a position to which she was repeatedly re-elected. She was still serving as president when she died, and was in charge at this year’s conference in June, putting people in their place and encouraging others, just as she had so frequently done.
Turner fought injustice wherever she saw it. Nothing was beyond her skills, from feeding 600 young marchers taking part in the People’s March for Jobs in the 1980s, and helping out in the steel strike, to taking on the National Front; always working to help low-paid workers and to make sure their interests were looked after.
A lifelong member of the Labour Party, she was elected onto the NEC in 1995, serving as its chair in 2003-04. A delegate to the Trades Union Congress, she spoke at every congress and in 2012 received the TUC Women’s Gold Badge. She also received an MBE and a CBE.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady described her as “a true champion of free school meals and a fighter to the end”.
Mary Turner, trade unionist, born 15 June 1938, died 19 July 2017