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Dr Harold Lewis

news 13 Feb 2023

Dr Harold Lewis, General Secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) from 1977 to 1993 has died in hospital. Our thoughts are with his wife Andrea.

Harold was a deeply committed trade unionist and labour supporter, becoming a branch chairman of the Clerical and Administrative Workers’ Union (now the GMB) at the age of 21. He had a long history within the ITF, starting in 1955 as an editor and translator, and then acting as personal assistant for three previous general secretaries: Omer Becu, Pieter de Vries and Hans Imhof. He was Assistant General Secretary of the ITF from 1967-1977.

“Key trade union leaders all over the world knew and respected Harold very much,” said David Cockroft, his successor, General Secretary of the ITF from 1993 to 2014. “Harold was determined to see all ITF affiliates treated the same, wherever they came from. The people who owe the greatest debt to the work he did throughout his ITF career are the rank-and-file transport workers who were always his first priority.”

Harold steered the ITF and its affiliate unions through a stormy period as the trade union movement saw its influence eroded by government repression in major economies, and the rise of globalisation and the collapse of the Soviet Union both made protecting worker rights ever tougher.

“Harold built ITF union solidarity beyond Europe and the US,” said Paddy Crumlin, President of the ITF, “and the strength of the ITF’s regional structures and influence globally owe an immense debt to him.”

“He was passionate in the fight against apartheid in South Africa and perhaps his greatest legacy will be his role in coordinating dockworker unions, including my union the Maritime Union of Australia, as they led the way in enforcing sanctions by refusing to unload South African ships.”

“Harold’s progressiveness and political and industrial maturity, together with his friendship with Jim Hunter and Tas Bull forged campaigning and organising initiatives at the ITF that continue to protect and advance the rights and lives of transport workers around the world today. His commitment to the ITF was maintained in his retirement including continuing to serve as a trustee to the ITF pension fund,” said Crumlin.

The ITF News of April 1993 noted: “It was absolutely typical of Harold, that once having declared his intention of retire at 60, that is exactly what he did and no amount of persuasion could change his mind.” At his retirement in 1993, Enzo Friso, General Secretary of the International Confederation of Free Trades Unions (ICFTU, now part of the ITUC) said:

“Harold is a very unusual person in the trade union movement – he only speaks when he has something to say.”

Following his retirement, Harold maintained his interest in the ITF and particularly in its traditions and history. Despite coming from a working-class background and having no first degree, he earned his PhD from Warwick University in 2003 for work documenting the history of the ITF.

“Even after his retirement, Harold worked in the interest of transport workers. His documentation of the ITF’s history and the struggles of transport workers and their unions will be an important reference for generations in our movement,” said current ITF General Secretary Stephen Cotton.

“There is no doubt that Harold had an enormous influence on the development of the ITF during his tenure,” said Cotton. “He was famous for cycling to work in all weathers and that kind of fortitude and determination characterised his period at the ITF and has left its legacy ever since.”