Exclusive interview: Paul Nowak outlines top priorities for the trade union movement

Paul Nowak on tackling discrimination in the trade union movement and the need for political change

Paul Nowak TUC workers rights

Paul Nowak talked to LFF about his plans for supporting unions through the cost-of-living crisis, fighting against anti-worker legislation, securing political change and tackling racism and discrimination in the trade union movement.

Commencing the role of General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) just over two months ago was a ‘baptism of fire’, Paul Nowak told LFF.

His first months on the job have seen a landmark day of strike action in February, the government pushing through legislation to undermines workers’ rights and a damning report into trade union sexual harassment.

Paul Nowak shared his hopes for the labour movement going forward and the need for political change.  

Growing a more diverse and representative trade union movement

One of Nowak’s priorities is to grow the trade union movement into a more diverse and representative movement, and one that is serious about tackling discrimination.   

Off the back of a damning inquiry that revealed sexual harassment and bullying in the TSSA union, Nowak acknowledged that there was a lot more to be done.

“The key thing on TSSA is recognising that it was a specific set of issues there, but it’s not a unique set of issues.

“TSSA is not the only union that is going to have problems with sexual harassment and bullying and bad governance, so we have to be prepared to recognise that as a movement and call it out.”

He referred to the TUC executive level sexual harassment working group who are working on what can be done at that level to support unions and officers, including training and workshops.

Talks at the TUC women’s conference next week will discuss what more can be done as a movement to tackle harassment, including what men in the movement can do, such as calling out unacceptable behaviour.

Nowak said: “If you seriously want to aspire to represent working people, we can’t have a situation where we’ve got unions run by cliques of people bullying their peers.

“I want it to be about a growing movement but a generally more diverse, representative movement so we’ve got more black workers around the table, so women feel that the trade union movement is a space where they can not just be involved in women structures, but have a voice right across the piece.

“We’ve just got a responsibility to be representative of people at work, and some of them look like me, and lots of them don’t.

“We’ve got to be a movement that’s relevant for all those workers.”

Support through the cost-of-living crisis

Currently, a top priority for the TUC is supporting unions and their members through the cost-of-living crisis, said Nowak, not just through policy work but by supporting workers to take action.

“Normally this would be through trying to influence government policy, for example to enhance windfall tax, equalise the capital gains tax with income tax and boosting universal credit,” said Nowak.

“What has been different is that we have been directly involved in supporting unions taking industrial action, helping beat the ballot threshold and setting up a new solidarity hub, as for a lot of members it’s the first time they’re taking action.

“They don’t know about standing on a picket line, what the law says, what they should do when they’re on a picket line, so we’re supporting members through the cost-of-living crisis through policy work and through workers taking action.”

Securing political change

Referring to the government’s current handling of the public sector pay disputes as ‘shambolic’ and their latest attempts to ‘divide and rule’ the movement by engaging in pay talks only with the RCN, Nowak has laid out the need for political change.

“We’ve got a government that’s failed working people for the last 13 years.

“I want to see a change of government, but a Labour government going in with a manifesto that reflects the issues that matter to our members and to working people generally.

“Going forward, the relationship with the government and trade unions has to be one where they’re actively engaged in the workforce and the unions about the ways we deliver services, how we are going to tackle a recruitment and retention problem.

“It’s a problem for the services and our staff as people feel every day that the workload and pressure is unbearable.”

He added: “Any private sector employer, if that was happening to their staff, I would expect them to take a step back and reset the relationship and see the need to get around the table, find a way forward and listen to the people on the frontline delivering the services.

“It’s a big ask from this current government and a definite ask for a future Labour government, to put the public sector workforce right at the heart of the debate over how you deliver public services.”

Another main priority for the TUC right now is protecting workers’ employment rights and defending the right to strike through tackling two pieces of legislation being pushed through parliament by the current government.

The Retain the EU Bill underpins ‘much of the legislation that we now take for granted like paid holidays and equal rights for part-timers’, said Nowak.

Whilst the ‘spiteful’ Strikes Bills would give employers the ability to sack workers who don’t meet minimum service levels.

Nowak said these bills reinforced the need for political change, with Labour saying they would repeal the Minimum Service Bill if they come to power.

Unions working together

Nowak emphasised the need to encourage unions to work together, to grow membership and organise difficult to reach parts of the private sector.

He emphasised that coordinated support comes in different forms, not just in mass strike days.

“Coordinated support doesn’t mean taking action on the same day, for some unions that absolutely is the right approach and a tactic that works well for them to amplify their voices, but for others it’s about saying we want our members to be front and centre on a particular day.”

“Solidarity is a two-way street and it’s about having respect for different approaches and different decisions.

“Ultimately, the decision to strike is taken by lay members who are having to take industrial action.

“The TUCs job is, when they take that difficult decision, they get the best possible support which might be all out on the same day or different technical decisions and it’s about respecting those decisions.”

Reflecting on the growing interest in trade unions as their visibility increases, Nowak said there is an opportunity to reach a new audience of workers.

“There’s a sense that we’re beginning to reach out beyond the traditional trade union audience and this is our opportunity to reach out to that generation of workers who aren’t in unions and demonstrate the difference a union makes.

“We’re sending a message that we don’t have to wait for a change in government, you can make a difference to what works now by joining a union.”

Having talked to workers across the country over the last two months, Nowak reflected that it’s a movement on the up.

“It feels like there’s life back in the trade union movement, not just because of strikes but because when you switch on the news, pick up a paper, go online and see unions in action, there’s a sense that people have a bit of confidence now.

“And a confident trade union movement is a movement that wins.”

Hannah Davenport is trade union reporter at Left Foot Forward

(Photo credit: Jess Hurd)

Left Foot Forward’s trade union reporting is supported by the Barry Amiel and Norman Melburn Trust

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