Duncan Corcoran (1913-2010)

Duncan Corcoran, who has died aged 97, was a short of stature but big of heart Greenock shipyard worker who became a force for change on a world stage.

As a shipyard worker he knew unemployment by the age of 22 during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Then a remarkable encounter with university students from a more privileged background set him and some of his worker comrades on a revolutionary path, which led them to become a force for change on a global platform.

At the time, October 1935, Mr Corcoran and his friends were helping out at a local youth club, where he was captain of the badminton team. A colleague, Thompson Revel, surprised Mr Corcoran by apologizing to him for jealousy, admitting he had hoped to be captain himself. Mr Revel, who lived on the next street to Mr Corcoran, was one of the students at Glasgow University whom Mr Corcoran got to know.

They were members of the Oxford Group, a Christian movement of the 1930s which called for a social revolution based on a change in people’s lives. Curing selfishness in people, they claimed, was the basis for a new economic order and an end to exploitation.

Mr Corcoran was attracted by the honesty and strength of purpose he saw in the students. They told him they had made a radical examination of their lives in the light of four moral standards: honest, purity, unselfishness and love. Mr Corcoran had little time for religion, but he decided to experiment with a daily “quiet time” to listen to the “still, small voice” of conscience and God’s direction in his life.

Through the students, Mr Corcoran met industrialists who were putting “people before profit”. Textile mill owner Steward Sanderson from Galashiels, for instance, told Mr Corcoran how he had moved into a small house rather than lay off any of his workers.

This deeply impressed Mr Corcoran. Such encounters touched his longing for a way out of the vicious cycle that seemed to be the lot of working people. He saw in the Oxford Group, later known as Moral Re-Armament (MRA) and now renamed Initiatives of Change, as the way to do so.

Among the students was Stuart Smith, president of the Students Union, and Archie Mackenzie, who was to go on to a distinguished diplomatic career at the United Nations. This remarkable alliance of workers, students, educators and businessmen were to remain lifelong friends.

In April 1939, Mr Corcoran and 12 of his MRA colleagues were invited to North America. The annual conference of the Canadian Federation of Mayors and Municipalities had passed a resolution that month calling for “moral rearmament”. The group travelled from the coal mines of Nova Scotia to Pennsylvanian steelworks and the Californian aircraft industry. Mr Corcoran became a trusted friend of American labour leaders.

All this contributed to good industrial relations in companies such as Boeing and Lockheed as America joined the war. Senator Harry S Truman, later US President, wrote about the MRA group in a report on industrial relations. “They have achieved remarkable results in bringing teamwork into industry in the spirit of not who is right but what is right.”

After Pearl Harbour, Mr Corcoran joined the US military, serving as a staff sergeant at US Air Force bases in Florida, Washington and Greenland.

Following the war, Mr Corcoran and his colleagues travelled to Germany in support of an effort to provide a moral and spiritual foundation for a reconstructed Europe. The Communist Party, then with an 80% hold on the industrial area of the Ruhr, was bidding for West Germany to fall into the Soviet camp.

Among the German union leaders Mr Corcoran came to know was Hans Boeckler, president of the new unified German Trade Union Federation. At a meeting chaired by Mr Corcoran, Mr Boeckler declared: “When men change, the structure of society changes. When the structure of society changes, men change. Both go together and both are necessary.”

To the consternation of the Communist Party, the Marxist representation in West Germany’s works councils dramatically declined, from 72% to 25% by 1950. One of the influences on this trend was the MRA centre in Caux, Switzerland, opened in 1946, which groups of German trade unionists, including Boeckler, visited.

Back in Los Angeles in 1948, Mr Corcoran married Lucy Davis, the daughter of a London businessman, who had also been working with MRA. She embraced Mr Corcoran’s vision for the role of world labour and a classless society. They had three children – Robert, Anne and Ian – and seven grandchildren.

They spent nearly three years in post-war Japan, becoming friends of leading unionists there. The following decades took them to textile factories in India, tea gardens in Sri Lanka, plantations in Malaysia and shipyards in Japan. Mr Corcoran regularly attended the annual conference of the UN’s International Labour Organisation in Geneva.

With his keen interest in world affairs undiminished, Mr Corcoran spent his last years in Wenhaston, Suffolk.

Campaigner; born January 3, 1913; died March 31, 2010.

First published in The Herald, Glasgow, 14 April 2010.