Brendan Barber may have been “scarred” by much of what he has seen during 32 years at the Trades Union Congress (TUC), but today, as general secretary of the overarching union body, he insists the movement has a bright future.
In April 1979, four years after joining the TUC – answering a job ad some-what enigmatically titled ‘assistant’ – 28-year-old Barber became head of the organisation’s press and information department. Four weeks later, Margaret Thatcher became prime minister and unleashed 18 years of hell on the unions.
“The Conservative government systematically tried to force the TUC out of national life,” said Barber.
“It challenged us strongly and consistently for 18 years. At one point, Thatcher famously referred to us as ‘the enemy within’.”
“They were scarring experiences. I saw a lot of families hugely damaged, people sacked for not giving up their union membership,” he said. “But I look back on that period with pride, as I think the trade union movement proved very resilient in the face of such an onslaught.”
Barber had always been passionate about helping the underprivileged. Prior to studying social sciences at City University in London, he took a year out to volunteer as a teacher in Ghana.
The experience gave him a sense of how much inequality existed in the world, and on completing his studies he stayed on as president of the student union, which gave him a seat on the university’s governing body.
“That was very daunting at first, but I learnt that even on these bodies, not everyone was a genius or made the most brilliant decisions,” he said. After winning the right to turn two condemned blocks of flats into cheap housing for students, Barber gained the confidence to move on to bigger battles at the TUC.
The battle does not come much bigger than trying to arrest the decline in trade union membership that has continued to occur, despite a decade of Labour government. Barber accepts that unions needed to change, but confidently predicts an increase in membership on his watch.
“I wouldn’t want to say that mistakes have not been made,” he said. “Unions were slow to adapt to the political realities during the Tory years – we are just beginning to reform in areas where unions need to make bigger impacts, such as in tourism, hospitality and leisure.”
Unions lost four million members solely through the decline of the manufacturing sector, he pointed out.
“During the Tory years, you defended what base you had rather than looking outwards and encouraging greater ambition,” he said. “That is a corner we have had to turn.”
Focus on business
Barber believes he can arrest the decline in membership figures by focusing on politicians and businesses rather than workers.
Establishing a “relationship” with the new leadership in the Labour government is a key part of his strategy, as is appealing to employers to recognise the business benefits that trade unions can bring. “We want to see unions recognised as an asset to businesses rather than a threat,” said Barber.
The ‘super-union’ set to be created next week by the merger of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (T&G) and Amicus will play a big part in the future of the union movement, Barber stressed.
“It has the potential to bring real benefits in reducing duplication and pointless competition. What is important is that everyone within the new union focuses on delivering benefits rather than being inwardly focused,” he said.
T&G general secretary Tony Woodley and his Amicus equivalent Derek Simpson can consider themselves warned to pull together rather than fight for status. Union solidarity is central to what Barber is trying to achieve. As such, he slammed the war of words taking place at the AA road services group between the GMB union and breakaway body the AA Democratic Union (AADU).
“There is clearly a battle there. We are concerned that the AADU is not in the interests of joined-up industrial relations. The AA would have been wiser not to encourage the breakaway,” Barber said.
He hopes membership figures can be boosted by greater powers to unionise casual workers when the EU Green Paper on the modernisation of labour laws is discussed in the European Parliament this summer.
MEPs and UK employers have warned against the Green Paper leading to an all-encompassing definition of ‘worker’, arguing it would raise the cost of labour. But Barber said it would be “clearer and more justifiable” to offer all workers some protection.
Last year, Barber returned to Ghana and was able to revisit the school he worked at almost 40 years ago. “In many ways it had not changed at all. It brought it home how big its development needs still remain,” he said.
Perhaps a Ghanaian student visiting the UK would draw the same conclusions about Barber’s role at the head of the unions.
CV: Brendan Barber
- 2003-present: general secretary, Trades Union Congress (TUC)
- 1993-2003: deputy general secretary, TUC
- 1987-1993: head of organisation and industrial relations, TUC
- 1979-1987: head of press and information, TUC
- 1976-1979: assistant secretary, organisation and industrial relations, TUC
- 1975-1976: policy officer, training issues, TUC
- 1974-1975: researcher, Ceramics, Glass and Mineral Products Industry Training Board