I met Kate Heasman for the first time on a Saturday in January 1997. We were on our way to Accrington in Lancashire to protest against the sacking a month previously of an activist, Pat Walsh, and we travelled the last stage of the journey together standing surrounded by football fans in one of those horrible trains that look like 1970s buses and which the railway companies still imagine it is alright to inflict upon travellers in the north of England and Wales.
Kate was NATFHE President that year. I was a long way off becoming an NEC member but I recognised Kate from photos in the magazine and from seeing her at annual conferences. Naturally she spoke, passionate and full of anger. I could rephrase that sentence: Kate was a natural speaker who was passionate about standing up to injustice, whether the injustice was being done to an individual member or to a whole oppressed minority.
Some months later I saw Kate preside over that year’s annual conference. The union was in turmoil: a week before, the then General Secretary had been shown the door. Kate’s calm handling of the unprecedented situation – she carried on as though nothing had happened – meant that the union recovered its poise and became stronger.
Only years later, when I became an equality activist, did I have the chance to work with Kate and see the extraordinary quality of her work as NATFHE’s and UCU’s Equality Official. The responses to consultation documents that filleted proposed government policies and laid bare their shortcomings, while giving due acknowledgement to the things that we approved of, played a large part in establishing the Union’s reputation in the Trade Union equality movement.
As we worked together more, we became good friends. Kate had a huge capacity for friendship and spending a day or an evening in her company was always fun. I miss Kate terribly, but I count myself so lucky to have known her.
Kate worked a long apprenticeship in NATFHE. She was secretary of the Arnold and Carlton branch during the testing period leading upto and through the Incorporation. Kate loved teaching but perhaps her favourite course was the A level English night class. Students realised their potential and, in many cases, became friends. She grew totally committed to the union cause when she found that the new managerialism threatened the educational experience of her students as much as the conditions of her colleagues. Her greatest talent was to make friends and to build a branch that brought out the best in people and enabled them to play a full part in the struggle. She was never the diva but always the team builder who was never afraid to do the mundane hard work. Kate was involved in the Nottinghamshire Liaison Committee and then the East Midlands Region. She cut her teeth on equal opportunities in the Regional Women’s Panel and, strengthened by that experience, went on to become Chair of Region and then entered the national sphere.
Kate Heasman is greatly missed not just because she was a friend to so many, but also because she was quite simply the best National Equality Official in the trade union movement. The TUC and many other unions benefitted from her pioneering work.
Kate was my friend and my colleague. I had the privilege of chairing the Equality Committee for both NATFHE and UCU when Kate was the Equality Official and she was a joy to work with. Her knowledge of equality issues was second to none. She pushed the boundaries on issues such as religion and belief well before any legislation. She did not subscribe to any separatist view of equality and strove to bring all the strands together in the firm belief that we can all learn from each other’s struggles.
But beyond what she did in the ‘day job’ she was also the most magnificent and non-judgmental friend, who was always there to listen, to advise, to get very drunk with, to sing and laugh with, and just to enjoy life to the full with.
The world is a darker and sadder place without her.