Baroness Dean, a Labour peer and the first woman to lead a major trade union, has died aged 74.
From humble beginnings when she began work as a secretary aged 16 at the Printing, Bookbinding & Paperworkers Union, she rose through the trade union ranks and became president of SOGAT in 1983 and then its general secretary in 1985 – the first woman to hold that position.
Dean was in post during one of the industry’s most tumultuous periods, the Wapping dispute of 1986 when Rupert Murdoch moved production of his newspapers to new, non-unionised printing sites. Her role also brought her into conflict with other printing business owners over the years.
When SOGAT and the NGA merged in 1991 to form the GPMU, Dean narrowly lost out to Tony Dubbins when members voted on who would be the new union’s leader. She became deputy general secretary and held that position for a year.
Dean was elevated to the peerage in 1993, when she became Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde.
She was a familiar face at All-Party Parliamentary Print Group events held at the House of Commons and was The Printing Charity’s president last year. Just four months ago she addressed its annual luncheon, an event that marked 190 years of the charity.
In her address at the lunch, Dean talked about the importance of encouraging young people into the industry and said: "Print is not moving into its twilight, as some would have you believe. It has changed over the years and continues to change – it communicates the news, but also makes it.”
Tributes have been paid by many of her former trade union and industry colleagues. Neil Lovell, chief executive of The Printing Industry, said: “We are saddened to hear that Baroness Dean has passed away. She was an inspiration and will be remembered by us all at the charity not only as a former president but also for her tremendous support, great humour and energy.”
Tony Burke, assistant general secretary at Unite, which incorporates the former GPMU trade union, said: “Brenda Dean was one of the most prominent women trade unionists of her generation. She came to national prominence in the Wapping dispute with Rupert Murdoch who callously sacked 5,500 print workers in his attempt to break unions on Fleet Street in 1986. After being made a peer she kept her links with the printing industry, hosting events in parliament for the industry and she was the president of the Printing Charity in 2017.”
Tributes were also made via social media. Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC and the first woman to hold that role, tweeted: Very sad to hear about the death of Brenda Dean. A tough woman, leader of SOGAT, who took the fight to Rupert Murdoch at Wapping.”
Labour MP Harriet Harman, also on Twitter, said: “Brenda Dean was a pioneering woman trade union leader. I greatly admired her. She was steely strong but never hard. She was totally Labour but never sectarian. Her judgement was sharp & commitment huge. 360 degree progressive sister. Such a loss.”
Dean’s autobiography, Hot Mettle: SOGAT, Murdoch and Me, was published in 2007 and detailed her experiences as a woman in a man’s world.
She died on 13 March and her death was announced by the Lord Speaker yesterday.