Delegates at UNISON LGBT conference paid tribute to Rizwan Sheikh, a much-loved Black LGBT activist, who died peacefully on 12 November, following a long illness.
Amongst others speaking at Rizwan’s funeral, Tim Roberts talked about Rizzy’s activism and friendships in UNISON.
His tribute is below and reflects so well how many of us feel about Rizzy. Donations in Rizwan’s memory can be made to St Gemma’s Hospice, 329 Harrogate Rd, Leeds LS17 6QD.
“Being a trade union activist was so very important to Riz. In fact being involved in any action or movement aimed at making the world a better place was very important to him. For Riz it was simple – the personal is political and the political is personal
“He first joined the trade union NALGO which merged with other unions to form UNISON. Within UNISON he soon became a leading activist in both its lesbian and gay and Black members groups. He ended up as a senior activist within his region and nationally. He was very proud to be the first Black co-chair of UNISON’s National Lesbian and Gay Committee. He filled an enormous place in our national group for years – even after he left the committee.
“In a time when the concept of institutionalised racism was barely heard of and it was still perfectly legal for an employer to sack a worker purely for being gay – Riz became a fierce and passionate campaigner for equality and stayed that way. His energy and dedication to challenging discrimination and for standing up for the vulnerable and was a motivation to us all.
“He was active in the union with the best track record on equality but he was never complacent. He never shied away from identifying the union’s shortcomings and arguing that it can and should do better. Rizzy could spark a debate in an empty room, but was always respectful of others views and challenged all of us to be better, to think more and to ensure our practice reflected the union’s principles.
“Rizzy was one of the most principled, committed and enthusiastic trade union activists and socialists I have met. Many colleagues from across the union have told me how highly regarded, respected and loved he was, and his loss will be felt acutely.
“Riz played a leading role in anti-racism and fascism work in the region. He didn’t just talk the talk, he helped shaped campaigns, walked the streets leafleting against the BNP. The organisation “Show Racism the Red Card” has contacted us to say how much they valued his work.
“He was particularly proud of the work he did in a TUC project in the northern region aimed at supporting migrant workers almost all in very low paid jobs and easily exploited by their employers. His achievements in this project remain today.
“There he is today. Probably the first time in his life where he has been in front of so many people and not made a speech. A speech with both conviction and clarity – condemning the Tories, standing up for immigrants and asylum seekers, attacking austerity, warning about the rising tide of Islamophobia.
“He knew that workers were not only better off in a trade union, but trade unions were stronger when our members are active in the defence of their rights. And so he encouraged, cajoled and reassured until people got more active. He would support under-confident colleagues to stand up in front of a few hundred people at a conference – the first public speaking they had ever done – and afterwards would give them a hug, tell them they were brilliant, then tell them that next conference they were going to make two speeches.
“He would see the potential people and get them to apply for a new job or stand for election. I have had a number of people tell me in the last few days that they wouldn’t be where they are today without the support they got from him.
“One colleague told me: ‘He believed in me even when at times I didn’t believe in myself. No matter where I was or what I was doing his encouragement, belief and support was constant.’
“He may have been taken from us but his legacy can be seen throughout our union.
“Rizzy brought his humour and warmth to his union activity. I can remember one meeting where – for reasons only known to him – he made all his contributions on the first day in a thick Geordie accent – only to spend all of the second day speaking as if he had never left Wolverhampton his entire life.
“And on the way to a conference or a meeting in another part of the country – there was invariably drama involving a missed train or plane, lost bag, misplaced phone or bank card, and often (and this may be relevant) some cute eye candy that had distracted him. Some of the situations he got in were pretty unfathomable.
“Rizzy was not one for false sentimentality. So I don’t think we should forget that sometimes he was a grumpy sod. He has moaned to me about a few people in this room and has probably moaned to more of you about me. No other friend has told me off like he did – indeed no-one else in my entire life has thrown a glass of water over me. But he only put people on the naughty step who he really liked and knew he could get away with it. And the grump was only temporary and soon he would be making jokes and requesting a massage.
“If life was fair then Rizzy would have lived a few more decades – making his friends laugh, being so proud of his nephews and niece and their children, knocking back vodkas and coke and then finally seeing out his days having found a way to stretch his pension to hire a live-in nurse who would certainly be buff and gorgeous.”