Life of leading Edinburgh trade unionist John Stevenson to be celebrated at event on Saturday
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A social worker with the city council for nearly 40 years, he was a key figure in Unison’s City of Edinburgh branch, ending up as branch president before his retirement in 2019.
He also worked on the union’s national campaigns and communications, created Unison’s website and for 30 years edited the union’s newspaper “Scotland in Unison”.
Born on July 16, 1950 in Edinburgh, Mr Stevenson grew up in Easter Drylaw and attended Trinity Academy. He was in the 22nd Edinburgh Boys Brigade, advancing through the ranks from Lance Corporal to Lieutenant, winning Best Boy trophy and the Queens Badge, and became an award-winning bugle player, taking part in Beating the Retreat at Edinburgh Castle Esplanade and the Leith Pageant. He also loved BB football and qualified as an SFA referee.
He studied Languages and Linguistics at Edinburgh University and though he did not finish his degree, he never lost his love for language, reading German poetry for leisure.
As a student he played professionally in bands, performed conjuring tricks between sets – and was accepted into Edinburgh Magic Circle.
After a short period working for Scottish Gas, he cleaned beer kegs for Scottish & Newcastle, was a pizza chef in Paris in order to learn French, ran an ice cream stand in Chelsea, became a semi-professional magician and children’s entertainer, and a loading agent for Lloyds Shipping covering Leith Docks.
He also worked as a BT telecommunications engineer, building telephone exchanges, before retraining as a social worker. He worked in Pilton, Muirhouse, West Lothian and elsewhere setting up projects like an adolescent placement scheme and redundancy counselling for British Leyland employees.
Colleagues said he was a “sensitive and skilful” social worker, known for his kindness especially when working with families living through difficult experiences. He helped steer Edinburgh and Lothian’s social work teams through significant changes.
Unison colleague Danny Phillips said: “John skilfully balanced his trade union leadership with his commitment to social work. He never saw a contradiction between management and trade unionism, becoming president of Unison’s City of Edinburgh Branch while remaining a senior social worker, protecting workers’ rights and children and families.
“A big figure in Scotland’s biggest trade union, perhaps his biggest contribution was the integrity he brought to Unison’s campaigns and communications. Generations of trade unionists were trained by John, learning how to put Unison message. He always supported activists coming through.
“With boundless energy and intellectual curiosity, he introduced modern techniques to improve the lives of working people. He took Unison into the digital age, introduced websites (he taught himself code) wrote blogs and pioneered Unison’s social media – in the days when you had to persuade people why organisations needed these things.
“In 1993, the story goes, John’s boss needed to talk to him but couldn’t find him. Was he with a client or community meeting? Leading a union delegation to the council chief executive? At another Unison conference? ‘No’, said a colleague ‘he is meeting Nelson Mandela’.
“He was also a proud co-owner of his beloved Heart of Midlothian FC – on account buying a few shares, and a couple of old plastic Tynecastle seats for his garden.
"John was a raconteur who could delight audiences with a well-crafted joke. But he always maintained a sense of discipline in his work, politics, and trade unionism, prepared to put his case but abide by the decision of the majority, and he made a difference.
Mr Stevenson died peacefully at Edinburgh’s Western General Hospital on Wednesday April 6, 2022. He is survived by his wife Morag, and his children Seonaid and Robbie.
The family invites anyone touched by John’s life to an open celebration, 1pm on Saturday at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh 9 Queen Street, EH2 1JQ