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May 7, 1999

When Rodney Bickerstaffe was elected general secretary of Britain's biggest union, Unison, in November 1995, he turned down a Pounds 9,000 pay rise.

"What you don't have, you don't miss," he said at the time. But in spite of this philosophy, he has managed, from humble beginnings, to secure quite a lot.

He was born 54 years ago in London to a young Yorkshire nurse, Elizabeth, and brought up first in an unmarried mothers' home, then in the University Settlement in Bethnal Green, East London, where his mother worked for a professor.

Aged two, he went to live with his grandparents in Doncaster, sharing a room with his mother and a home with numerous other Bickerstaffes.

Educated in Doncaster, he went on to Newcastle Polytechnic, where he studied sociology. He was just 21 when he joined the National Union of Public Employees, in which his mother was already active, as a Yorkshire area officer, becoming deputy divisional officer for the Northeast in 1974.

In 1977, he went to the union's head office in London as national officer responsible for members working in local government, universities and the water industry. As universities' negotiator in the Winter of Discontent, he gained a reputation as a tenacious fighter for his staff members in the sector.

By the time he became joint NUPE general secretary in July 1981, with the late Alan Fisher, he had established his name as a tireless campaigner for a statutory national minimum wage and against low pay. He has continued this in his work for Unison, which was created in July 1993.

Often a critic of new Labour, he was nevertheless chosen to chair the full employment task group.

Said to be charismatic, a skilled and witty orator and a proud Yorkshireman, he is married with four children and has three grandchildren.

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