GMB president Mary Turner dies after illness
Mary, who chaired her union’s conference in Plymouth just last month, joined a union on her first day at work as a tailor in Oxford Street when she was 16. When she returned to work after raising a family, as a dinner lady, she set about organising her colleagues and campaigning for free school meals.
In 1997 she was elected as President of GMB, a position she has been re-elected into every year since. She has served on the Labour Party National Executive Committee, chairing the Party in 2004. In 2010, she was awarded an MBE, which was followed by a CBE in 2017.
GMB general secretary Tim Roache said: “I, and the whole of the GMB, are truly heartbroken by the loss of our President Mary Turner, a woman who has been the heart and soul of our union for a generation.
“The word giant is sometimes overused but in the case of Mary she really was a true giant of our movement. Mention the name Mary Turner and people will smile and say she had that unique blend of fighting spirit mixed with care and compassion.
“She has left this world having made a real difference to people’s lives, that’s something we are all proud of and that GMB will never forget. Be it fighting for dinner ladies in Brent, for hungry kids to have a free school lunch, for pensions, for young people, against discrimination and the National Front, Mary has led our movement. They broke the mould when they made Mary Turner, she will be deeply missed by her GMB family, including her beloved London Region.
“Mary may be gone, but she has left behind a union that will ensure the values and principles she fought her whole life for, will always endure. Our thoughts and love are with Mary’s family, whom she loved so very much.”
Politicians and senior trade unionists took to social media to Mary, with shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott saying: “So sad to hear that Mary Turner has passed away. Dinner lady, superstar and titan of the Labour movement.”
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Sad to hear news of the death of Mary Turner – a true champion of free school meals and a fighter to the end. RIP.”
Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner said: “So sorry to hear this sad news Tim. Mary was a wonderful trade unionist and l often talked about the value of school meals with her amongst many other things, a big loss.”
Cardiff Central MP Jo Stevens said: “Such sad news. Mary was an incredible trade unionist and sister. Sending deepest condolences to Mary’s family and to all GMB comrades on behalf of the GMB Parliamentary Group.”
GMB political officer Catherine Speight said: “Mary was a mentor and friend, and an inspiration to us all. I have never met a stronger woman ,she championed many causes, but will be remembered for her unstinting campaign for free school meals for all children a cause so very close to her heart. RIP Mary gone but never ever forgotten. Many heartfelt condolences to all her wonderful family.”
Daily Mirror associate editor Kevin Maguire said: “Saddened at the death of Mary Turner, a dinner lady who was GMB President. Privileged to have known the fab working class champion. RIP.”
UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis said: “Sad to hear Mary Turner has passed away – a truly inspirational woman who gave so much to our movement and those she was proud to represent. The thoughts of everyone at UNISON are with Mary’s loved ones and everyone at the GMB today.”
POA general secretary Steve Gillan said: “RIP Mary Turner a wonderful woman and it was a privilege to know you.”
UNISON assistant general secretary Roger McKenzie said: “Very sad news. Condolences to her family and friends.”
Former head of equality and employment rights Sarah Veale said: “I am so, so sorry to hear this. Mary was a huge and constant inspiration to me and to so many trade union women. My heart goes out to her family. RIP brave sister.”
Born in Tipperary, Mary Turner moved to the North of England as a child before finally settling in Kilburn, London. She was a trade unionist from the day she started work. When she was 16, her father asked her ‘have you joined a union yet? – that was the beginning of a trade union career that has spanned over six decades.
First joining the Tailor and Garment Workers Union (aptly a union that would go on to join GMB), Mary worked at Jackson’s Tailors on Oxford Street, then went on to serve as Mother of Chapel in the print industry before taking time off to raise her children.
For 59 years, Mary was married to Denny, whom she had married within six weeks of meeting. They shared a wonderful life together, filled with love, humour and happiness. Denny sadly passed away in 2015.
As a trade unionist, Mary was a trailblazer who never took no for an answer. When she returned to work part –time in 1970, she started work as a dinner lady in Brent and quickly set about organising the female workers who were poorly paid, untrained and treated badly. It was also during this time that Mary developed a lifelong passion that she would campaign on for decades to come: free school meals. Having seen hungry kids and the stigma of those who had to queue separately for free school meals, Mary could not let that stand and she was instrumental in ensuring free school meals for kids became Labour party policy.
From feeding 600 young marchers during the people’s March for Jobs in the 1980s, to fighting the National Front and leading, recruiting and supporting thousands of low paid workers, Mary has led our movement. In recognition of her incredible work, Mary was elected to GMB’s executive where upon her election, she served as the only woman out of 40 members.