THE flag flew at half mast outside Newcastle’s Civic Centre yesterday as staff honoured union leader Kenny Bell, who died on Sunday.
For decades Mr Bell fought for the rights of workers, and continued to do so through a year when he knew his throat cancer was terminal.
Mr Bell, 62, continued to protest about Government spending cuts affecting the council despite undergoing gruelling chemotherapy treatment for a disease which left him with just 12 months to live.
He passed away on Sunday at his home in Blackhall Mill, Gateshead, leaving partner Joyce and their sons Patrick, Jack and Joseph.
Politicians and officers at Newcastle Council came together yesterday to praise a man who led the authority’s Unison branch for 10 years, following a lifetime in the trade union movement.
Former Liberal Democrat council leader David Faulkner said: “He fought his cancer with great courage and determination, so typical of the man. Kenny was a modern and progressive trade union leader, and a great champion for staff and for the city council, of which he was proud.
“His politics were on the left but he never let them get in the way of productive industrial relations. In fact, he told me he got on at least as well with the Liberal Democrat administration as he did with Labour before us.
“Last year, in a ceremony at the Mansion House, Kenny was given the Lord Mayor’s Award in recognition of his service. It was richly deserved.”
Labour council leader Nick Forbes added his praise. He said: “Kenny was a visionary trade union leader, who inspired many to fight for social justice and fairness. He developed strong and effective relationships between the council and the trade unions, and I will personally miss his energy and optimism.”
Chief executive Barry Rowland added: “Kenny has made a massive contribution to industrial relations at the council. He was instrumental in helping us through a difficult period of change, always standing up for the workers with a passion.
“He was blessed with common sense, a practicality that could solve any problem and a warm sense of humour that endeared him to all that he met. I will miss him as a colleague but more so as a friend.”
Mr Bell was also Unison deputy regional convener for the North East. After learning of his cancer he began to voice concerns about the future of the NHS even louder than before, regularly lobbying to fight off health cuts.
Only last month Mr Bell was telling reporters of the need to stand up to the Government before even deeper spending cuts are introduced.
Doctors informed Mr Bell last autumn that he had an aggressive form of cancer of the oesophagus, and was originally told he only had five months to live.
Newcastle Council said that despite Mr Bell undergoing punishing treatments of chemotherapy, he continued to work, attending meetings and negotiating the rights and pay of his members.
He also made a number of public speeches speaking out against Government spending cuts which he said were particularly unfair to the region.
Deputy Unison branch secretary Paul Gilroy said: “Kenny had a strong sense of justice and fairness which characterised everything that he did. He was also a thoroughly nice guy whose passing will leave a huge void.
“The branch officers and staff have lost a colleague, mentor and, above all, an inspirational friend.
“Our thoughts are with his partner Joyce and their three sons.”
Funeral arrangements have yet to be announced.