Hugo Pierre: Unison has “ducked out” of battles and not punched its weight

He wants to lead Unison and says it's "ducked out" of the battles its faced.

Hugo Pierre is one of four candidates running to be the General Secretary of the UK’s biggest trade union Unison. In part one of a two-part interview, he told Left Foot Forward about his grassroots campaigning in North London’s schools and how he would make the union more combative if elected.

Left Foot Forward is conducting interviews with all four candidates who secured enough nominations. Voting started on October 28th and the results will be announced on January 11th. Read our interview with candidate Christina McAnea here and Roger Mckenzie here and we’re trying to get an interview with Paul Holmes.

LFF: Tell us a bit about your background and how you got involved in Unison?

Hugo Pierre: My parents came over from St. Lucia in the 1950s and I grew up in the East End of London. Hackney back then wasn’t the diverse Hackney that we know today and there was a petition against my parents moving in.

We suffered from racism throughout the time we were there but we won people around, made friends and it was a great place to grow up. It got worse in the mid-70s though and we had to fight a lot of battles after we moved further out of London to Hornchurch.

My mum was a machinist, my dad was a factory worker and I remember the 1970s miners’ strike and the winter of discontent. That had a big impact on me in terms of being working class and having that class consciousness. In my first job, I became a trade unionist straight away. That was a no-brainer.

I got into local government at the Greater London Council in 1984s, supported the miners’ strike and became a NALGO shop steward there and a branch secretary at the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA). Thatcher abolished the ILEA and I got a job in Camden and have been the education convener ever since 1990 – first for NALGO and then for Unison.

What have you done for Unison members?

The main thing is to organise campaigns that have raised low-paid women out of poverty pay. We started with a nursery nurse strike. Then it was teaching assistants. There was a number of campaigns and we steadily increase the influence of the union in those workplaces. Most recently, we got outsourced catering assistant staff from the minimum wage to the London living wage.

We’ve also run succesful campaigns against the closure of the deaf school and against our local special school becoming an academy. There’s been no academy conversions in Camden.

Is it fair to say you’ve done a lot of grassroots campaigning while other candidates like Christina Mcanea and Roger Mckenzie have held more senior positions in the union?

Yeah. They’re full-time paid officials of the union and they’re both at assistant secretary general level. So in respect of them having a senior position in the union, it’s absolutley true. But I’m also a member of the National Executive Committee [as a representative of black members]. I was elected in 2015. I’ve also been elected to the national schools committee for a long time. So I thought I’d marry my grassroots experience of campaigning with my national experience to go for the General Secretary role.

And how do you think Unison has been doing? What should it change? What should stay the same?

Unison really doesn’t punch its weight. It’s the biggest union but most people wouldn’t know it – they haven’t heard what Unison does and the battles we’ve been involved in. That’s because we’ve ducked out of some of the main battles that we’ve faced.

On local government funding, our position over the austerity position has not faced up to the challenges. We’ve lost something like a million jobs in local government and our union’s voice hasn’t been heard and we haven’t been seen to be fighting those job losses. That has to change.

We should be looking at any way we can to have a national dispute. In 2011, we had the chance, there was two million public sector workers on strike over pensions and unfortunately Unison brokered a deal with the government which meant our pensions were worse than they were before 2011. We shouldn’t have done that – we should have continued to fight to defend the pension that we had at that stage. If we’d won that battle, austerity could have been over soon after.

On the NHS, we need to work with other unions for a national pay rise. At the end of the day, we need a national ballot on industrial action to win that and that’s not something we should shy away from.

We also need more elected leaders of our union. I don’t think that the General Secretary should be the only elected paid official position. We’v got a structure of lay democracy in our union but we don’t have a structure of elected officials to the union.

Over the pandemic, trade union leaders have been working with government to shape things like the furlough scheme. What would your strategy be if you were elected? Would you be meeting with Rishi Sunak or would you have a more combative stance?

Of course, we want to meet with whoever it was to get the money for our members need that we need – but just meeting and discussing doesn’t always get the results that you want. The TUC accepted 80% but why should people be restricted to 80% pay? And lots of people – particularly self-employed – who haven’t been able to get that 80%.

We should have had a much more combative stance. I don’t think it’s a good look when [Trade Union Congress General Secretary] Frances O’Grady was on the steps of Downing Street with Rishi Sunak and the leader of the Confederation of British Industry to say that the next round of furlough payments were going to be reduced [from 80%] down to 66%. The TUC has to be a lot more combative in fighting for trade unionists but also for the wider working class.

Joe Lo is a co-editor of Left Foot Forward

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