The way Dave Prentis tells it, the union movement had a bright beginning and has an even brighter future. But as general secretary for Unison, the second largest union in the UK, it’s just the sort of thing you’d expect to hear.
Prentis has been in the headlines in recent weeks following strikes by Unison and super-union Unite over sub-inflation pay increases for public sector workers. The unions had demanded a 6% rise, or 50p more an hour, but were offered just 2.45%.
Both Unison and Unite claimed more than 500,000 members turned out to picket last month over the offer, although Local Government Employers insisted it was more like 100,000. Despite the vast contrast in numbers, Prentis believes the ongoing threat of further action will keep prime minister Gordon Brown and employers on their toes.
“The government isn’t just our government, it’s also our employer, so both the local and central governments have to sort out public service pay policy,” he said. “Failing to do so will lead to conflict throughout the year.”
Prentis rejected claims by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development earlier this month that the importance of unions was “overstated”. He insisted unions were making the right moves to adapt to life after Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister who brutally attacked the right for unions to even exist.
The merger of Unite and the US Steelworkers Union, and Investors in People accreditation for TUC and Unison, are proof of unions regaining power, Prentis said. Indeed, Unison has grown by 4% annually since its formation 15 years ago. “Trade unions will continue to grow,” he stressed.
Unions in his blood
Prentis was born in Leeds in 1950, and said he was probably the only boy within a one-mile radius to go to grammar school.
“I was part of a very big working class family, and when a trade union official advised me at 14 to get an education rather than go straight into the movement, I listened,” he said.
He went on to receive a general history degree at the University of London and a masters in industrial relations at the University of Warwick. In the early 1970s he joined the National and Local Government Officers Association (Nalgo) trade union, aged just 22.
“Unions were very strong back then, with a strong sense of purpose and history, and a lot of activity at local levels,” Prentis said.
By May 1979, he had worked his way up to deputy national officer with Nalgo, but then disaster struck, he said, in the form of Thatcher’s election.
“The experiences from back then are still very sharp in my mind today,” said Prentis. “There were attacks on the public services through privatisation, attacks on the right of unions just to exist, and Thatcher ended up breaking several unions.
“[Nalgo] managed to weather the storm better than others because the Thatcher government always had more immediate conflicts to deal with,” he continued, “but we were also very fortunate they didn’t win the election in 1997, because there were plans that would have changed that.”
In 1993, Unison was born out of the merger of Nalgo and two other organisations. It is now the second largest union in the UK, behind Unite, and represents about 1.4 million public sector workers. Prentis started as deputy general secretary, and moved into his position at the helm seven years ago.
When New Labour came to power in 1997, unions put faith in former prime minister Tony Blair to undo the harm wrought to the union movement in the 1980s by the Conservatives, with mixed results, according to Prentis.
“Since Thatcher left, Labour has relieved some of the legislative burden,” he said. “But we’re finding it very difficult to get this government to sign up to an agenda that gives back the rights we lost.”
Prentis called for the government to restore union powers including solidarity striking, whereby workers can strike even if they were not directly involved in a case, and to simplify the ballot procedure for calling industrial action.
“This government isn’t aggressively anti-trade union – its aggressively neutral, which is not the best place to be right now,” he said.
However, Prentis insisted he did not exert financial pressure on the Labour party to change its policies.
“There are discussions in place over the party’s direction, but we never use funding to dictate it. And even when we help establish Labour Party policy, the government doesn’t necessarily follow it,” he said.
Prentis said Unison would be campaigning for the re-election of the Labour party – but that defeat at the next general election would not be a disaster.
“The trade unions established the Labour party, so why would we walk away from our own party?” he said.
“But if they’re not elected, that in itself is not bad, because it could encourage rejuvenation. If you look at the Tory party, they had no support left whatsoever around the country [when they lost the 1997 election], but now all the old guard are removed and new people are coming through.”
Despite these words, and mounting speculation about the future of prime minister Gordon Brown, Prentis insisted he would not be working for a change in leadership.
“It’s not my role to seek to change the leader of the party or the prime minister of a country,” he said. “I don’t believe there is a risk of unions withdrawing support from Brown or Labour.”
CV: Dave Prentis
2001-present: General secretary, Unison
1993-2001: Deputy general secretary, Unison
1990-1993: Deputy general secretary, Nalgo
1983-1990: Assistant general secretary, Nalgo
1981-1983: National electricity organiser, Nalgo
1975-1981: Deputy national officer, water and transport, Nalgo
1973-1975: Assistant organising officer for local government members, Nalgo
1972-1973: Research assistant, Nalgo