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Major Union Boss Wants To Inspire Activism In Non-Union Workplaces

Paul Nowak took over from Frances O'Grady as TUC general secretary in January 2023 (Alamy)

6 min read

General secretary of the Trade Unions Congress (TUC) Paul Nowak has said he hopes that recent successes by trade union activists will help drive up membership in workplaces with low union representation, ahead of his speech at the organisation’s annual congress on Monday.

The TUC has around 48 affiliated unions, with about 5.5m members, with the annual congress taking place every year in September to bring together delegates to make decisions about the trade union movement. 

Nowak, who started his role as leader of the TUC earlier this year, has already appeared on the picket lines of strikes across many sectors campaigning for better pay, including nurses, physiotherapists, paramedics, railway workers, university lecturers, civil servants, private sector workers and more.

As he prepares to give his keynote speech to the congress on Monday, Nowak wants to communicate to members that there is room for their movement to inspire more workers to join unions across a range of sectors. 

“The message to our own movement is that we've seen lots of union wins over the last 12 months, we've seen a renewed activism and life inside trade unions… but what we haven't done is turned all of those wins into renewed membership,” he told PoliticsHome. 

“Our membership will increase later this year, but I want us to take the union message out into non-union workplaces up and down the country.”

Workers for the American multinational technology company Amazon, represented by the GMB union, staged their first strike in the UK in February this year in protest against being offered only a 50p an hour pay rise in 2022 when living costs were steeply rising. 

Nowak argues this was a sign that more private sector workers were being “inspired” by the success of public sector industrial action; for example, in July, the government accepted the recommendations of the Pay Review Body and granted junior doctors, dentists, GPs and consultants a 6 per cent pay rise for 2023-24, after months of ongoing strike action.

“Unions are at our best when we amplify each other's campaigns and messages,” he said.

“I think groups of workers have been inspired by seeing all those taking action and winning in their workplaces.”

He added that another priority for congress this year will be to emphasise the need for “political change” – which he believes must come out of the Conservative Party losing the next general election. 

“At the moment we're lurching from one crisis to another,” he said.

“This week it’s RAAC concrete in schools, but next week, there'll be another crisis that the government will announce. Fundamentally, there is not one aspect of our public realm that is better now than it was 13 years ago.

“So if our members are frustrated about the state of public services and frustrated about what's happened to pay, they need to make sure we get this government out at the next election.”

Nowak expressed his support for the Labour Party, particularly for their proposed New Deal for Working People, which would introduce new employment rights for workers if Labour gets into government. 

Labour leader Keir Starmer will not be speaking at this year’s congress as the TUC has a tradition of the Labour leader speaking on alternate years, but deputy leader Angela Rayner, who is a former union activist, will take to the podium instead. 

Last week, Starmer carried out a major reshuffle of his shadow cabinet, appointing a number of veterans of the last Labour government in an apparent attempt to strengthen the experience in his top team ahead of the next general election. Some left-wing groups have criticised the reshuffle as being bad news for the left of the party, as "Blairite" figures such as Liz Kendall and Hillary Benn return to the frontbenches. 

Nowak disagreed with this assessment, however. Having held a reception for the leader of the opposition’s office on Tuesday, the day after the reshuffle, he said there was a “broad cross-section of the front bench” attending.

“I honestly don't buy the narrative that somehow this is about marginalising one element of the party for another element,” he said.

“I want the people who are going to deliver the stuff that matters to our members, whether that's Louise Haigh on transport and public ownership of railways, whether that's Ed Miliband and Rachel Reeves delivering on that Green Prosperity Plan.

“That's what's important to us, rather than whether you are a Blairite, Brownite, or a Corbynite. I'm a trade unionist, I just want stuff that matters to our members to be at the heart of what Labour does.”

As well as calling for fundamental political change, Nowak will use his speech tomorrow to specifically highlight wealth inequality and call for a national conversation on taxing wealth and windfalls.

“We've seen real incomes stagnate so wages are no higher now than they were in 2008, that's an unprecedented situation in terms of wages,” he told PoliticsHome.

“And alongside that, we see this sort of explosion in inequality. So the wealth of the top 1 per cent has risen 31 times and faster than everybody else over the last 10 years, and we don't think our taxation system has kept pace with that huge increase in inequality.

“We'll be using our congress and my speech to make the case for political change. We do want to open up this conversation about how we tax wealth in this country, about how you tackle that grotesque inequality.”

A new poll by Opinium shows that 61 per cent of the public think wealthy people should pay more tax than they are now, including more than half of people who voted Conservative in 2019. 4 per cent of the public think wealthy people should pay less tax.

The poll found three quarters of the public support a windfall tax on banks’ excess profits.

While the TUC has proposed a wealth tax on the richest 140,000 individuals, an influential group of Tory MPs is continuing to push for tax cuts ahead of the autumn statement, including on income tax and abolishing inheritance altogether. 

Conservative MP Simon Clarke, one of the leaders of the Conservative Growth Group (CGG), told PoliticsHome that a cut to the basic rate of income tax before the general election, which must be called before the end of 2024, would demonstrate “seriousness of intent” from the government.

Responding to the group’s demands, Nowak said the Prime Minister needs to “face down his own backbenchers”. Arguing against income tax cuts, Nowak said the economy currently “rewards wealth not work. Fundamentally, we want to flip that balance”.

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