Maureen Rooney, who has died of cancer aged 56, believed passionately that there was no such thing as an unskilled woman. One of her generation’s leading women trade unionists, since 1990 she was national women’s officer of the amalgamated engineering and electrical union (AEEU). She campaigned for training and better pay for women in engineering, encouraging them to improve their skills, fight for equal pay and conditions and, most of all, join the union.
Born in Blantyre, Lanarkshire, Maureen was educated at Elmwood Convent school in Bothwell. Then, from 1963 to 1966, she worked as a hairdresser. She married in 1966 and, after starting a family, worked from 1974 to 1990 as a machine operator at Hoover’s in Cambuslang, where she was drawn into union activity. She served on the mid-Lanark district committee of the amalgamated engineering union (AEU), and at the AEU’s conference. It was a tough school – the tradition was that people spoke without notes and there was no applause – but Maureen became an accomplished speaker.
The AEU was a male-dominated institution but, recognising the recruitment opportunities being missed, the then general secretary, Sir Gavin Laird, persuaded the union’s traditionalists to create the position of national women’s officer – and Maureen won the election.
Her brief was to build the women’s organisation within the AEU. She became a member of the Trades Union Congress executive committee, the confederation of shipbuilding and engineering unions’ executive committee and, from 1989, joined the Labour party national executive’s women’s committee.
Maureen believed the best advocates to bring women into union membership were women. She developed education and networks, so that wherever the AEU organised, women’s voices were heard.
Her finesse and inclusiveness gained her respect and friendship – whether colleagues agreed with her or not. She always sought consensus, talking critics round through charm and hard logic. Under her prompting, the AEU warmed to policies that it had previously opposed, such as the national minimum wage, positive action and all women shortlists for Labour party internal selections. She bridged the left-right gap in the Labour party women’s structure to ensure its survival and reinvigoration in the early 1990s.
In 1992 came the merger with the electrical, electronic, telecommunications and plumbing union, forming the AEEU. As a leading woman trade unionist, Maureen was, from 1990, a member of the TUC general council, its women’s committee and, from 1999, its executive committee.
She cochaired the women’s national commission (1993-95), the advisory body that gives the views of women to the government, and as chair developed consensus among the northern European delegation to the UN fourth world women’s conference in Beijing. She was also on the board of management of the adult literacy and basic skills unit (1992-95) and a vice- president of the National Childminders’ Association (1994-96). In 2000 she was appointed to the health and safety commission.
In 2001, she became the AEEU’s national secretary -the highest position ever held by a woman in the union – and in 1999 and 2000 she chaired the union’s conference. Had there been a larger women’s membership in the AEEU, there would have been a popular clamour for her to run for the highest office.
It is her style that those who knew her will remember: how she brought people with opposing views together with a wink and a smile, and made them realise that there is always more that unites us than divides us. She was a firm ally of John Monks, the outgoing TUC general secretary.
She died peacefully at home surrounded by her family. It is perhaps most indicative of her character that her last evening was spent watching the local election results. She was awarded the OBE in 1996 and the CBE in last year’s New Year’s Honour’s list. She is survived by her father, her husband Phil and her four children.
Maureen Gowran Rooney, trade unionist, born April 27 1947; died May 2 2003