Con Devitt

Con Devitt

by Don Franks

Con Devitt died last Sunday aged 86.

Con was a staunch socialist working class fighter, the like of which  this country has seen too few. Leader of the Boilermakers union and later, the Trade Union Federation, Con improved the lives of many workers and inspired many of the young activists lucky enough to know him. Of all the fine union people I knew, Con made the biggest impression on me.

When I first became a union delegate at Ford Motors I was a green young university dropout, knowing nothing about industrial struggle. Someone told me to go and get some advice from Con. As it happened, his flat at the time was just next to mine, so I went and knocked on the door. Con was getting ready for a party but was prepared to delay mixing with his guests to share some thoughts with a keen young bloke. He offered me a drink and began to advise me.

I had not met Con before and was not used to the thick Scots accent that he maintained throughout his life. “Alright, what ye’re ta do,” Con began. He warmed to his theme and the more ardent he got, the less the sounds meant to me. After quarter of an hour he nodded and grunted as if making an end of his discourse. Not having understood more than the first couple of words I thanked Con very much and went away almost as ignorant as before. Except I now knew that a good union guy would put politics before socialising.

Not long after our first meeting, Con knocked on my door. He said we were off to a union meeting, a boilermakers meeting, so I could see what a proper union meeting was like. The room was packed with short nuggety-looking men who talked and argued in brisk short syllables. Within the framework of formal meeting procedure several contentious resolutions were hammered out, like hot pieces of metal on an anvil.

Later on I also learned from Con by example. He just did not give a stuff about what the bosses thought. Everything was “for the fellers with the boots on”; ie first, foremost and last about what the workers wanted. Con had a knack of summing things up in a few words. “Always,” he told me “Always leave a job better than you find it. Even if it’s just a cake of soap in the washroom.” I remembered that and was proud of leaving one job with boss-provided coffee in the smoko room.

Con’s boilermakers were always at loggerheads with the boss and often with more conservative unions . One time we were in Trades Hall painting up slogans for a union march. Con idly painted two banners inscribed ENGINEERS UNION DEMAND WAGE CUTS and ENGINEERS UNION FULLY SUPPORT THE GOVERNMENT. Wharfie George Goddard angrily told Con to stop being silly and sectarian, but Con’s little joke did have some point.

During the time I knew him Con showed scant respect for the Labour Party and was, I think, a more effective unionist for that. One time we had a dispute at Ford car plant and wanted to put more pressure on the bosses. We knew if we went on strike at the juncture the whole place would be suspended. As we were discussing what to do the news came in that Norman Kirk had just died. A tear came to the eye of some workers, but Con’s eyes momentarily lit up. He thought for a minute and then whispered a suggestion to our union secretary and the motion was put that Ford workers take the day off as a mark of respect to Big Norm. Knowing Con, the bosses were furious.,but their hands were tied. We sent a nice card to Kirk’s family but got no acknowledgement.

Now Con Devitt has died and I think he did more for the working class than any politician alive or dead. Con was a big-hearted, generous man who I will always fondly remember and respect.

  1. PhilF says:

    You just don’t find union leaders like Con these days. He was deeply respected by the old SAL, too. My impression was that he was pretty non-sectarian. He was happy to speak at SAL stuff, or help other groups. As long as someone or group had strong class instincts and were fighters, he was happy to speak or be supportive.

    He and the boilermakers union were thorns in the side of both Labour and National governments and, indeed, the third Labour government went after the boilermakers, to try to destroy them.

    I think that whole old layer of class battlers – often not aligned to any far left group – that could be found sprinkled through the union movement was very encouraging, in terms of inspiration, to us young radicals. The Jock Barneses and Con Devitts of the union movement showed what the unions could be and that workers could be the champions of the liberation of society, not just a bunch of guys (club of blokes) who wanted a few extra cents in the pay packet.

  2. Maureen Devitt says:

    Great pleasure reading your testament to Con – it’s beautiful

    I’ve bookmarked your site, I’m unlikely to be any help, but I will be a loyal reader!

    I live in Glasgow, Con was my uncle.

    I thought you would like to see this obituary in the Herald Scotland:

    I had a call from a print workers union leader too, planning to write an obituary on Con for the Morning Star, if he sends me a copy I’ll let you know.