Speech By Paul Kenny GMB General Secretary To Congress In Dublin On 9th June
This is the text of the speech by Paul Kenny GMB General Secretary at the 98th GMB Congress in Dublin on Tuesday 9th June. A video recording is available on the GMB website in the Congress archive- see link.
THE GENERAL SECRETARY: Thank you, colleagues. I suppose the smart thing would be to say I just formally move the report, move off, and we all get 15 minutes extra for lunch. That would be handy, wouldn’t it, Mary?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes.
THE GENERAL SECRETARY: Unfortunately, I can’t quite do that.
THE PRESIDENT: I am still in the chair.
THE GENERAL SECRETARY: Oh, yes, yes, yes. President, Congress, Paul Kenny, National Office, moving the General Secretary’s Report, formally pages 5 to 55, and for those colleagues who think that references always go in a hole in the ground, the report contains what has happened to the referred motions from 2014.
In commending the report I wish to pick out a few points. The National Office in 2015 has or will see the retirement of several longstanding employees:
Mick Balfour, from the Commercial Services Section, has retired;
Mick Hubbard, from Productivity Services who has been based up in Yorkshire, is shortly to retire; and
John McClean, who Mary spoke about, is due to retire before the end of the year from his role in the Health & Safety Department.
Touching on to the Health & Safety Report itself because I think it is a very significant document, the truth of the matter is the reason that report was so important is the fact that the budget cuts that have hit the HSE since 2010 have effectively meant that the service that we could rely on as working people has gone into decline. Whatever way round you look at it, and no matter how many arguments – because I do not sit there passing resolutions and attending meetings, I have an argument – the truth of the matter is that if you look at how much money has been cut and how much money is likely to be cut, there is only one end solution, and the end solution is what it has always been, you have to do it for yourself. That is why that report was so important and that is one of the reasons tomorrow in the Financial Report we will be having a discussion about where we need to organise and spend money in the future.
I also want to thank Phil McAvoy, who has left the GMB. He did a lot of work for us in the Pensions Department. Many of you will have come across him. He has gone off to take up another role in another union. I want to welcome Keir Greenaway, who is running the Pensions Department for us at the moment, single-handedly. Keir was one of the delegates here up to, I think, two years ago, a Southern Region member. If I remember rightly, he was one of those holding up a flag telling Vince Cable where he could go when he addressed Congress. It just shows you that you can get on in the GMB. In fact, during that incident I think he stood on a chair and held the flag up until one of the stewards asked him would he sit down because it was a health and safety hazard. (Laughter) I am not quite sure he ever thought he would actually be in the Health & Safety Department. Also, Alan Black, National Officer, has retired.
Look, the General Election has come and it has gone and with it, at least for now, are some of the policies this Congress and our members wanted so desperately. They knew what the country needed to revitalise, to bring about a fair economy that would benefit millions of working people and their families.
Frankly, I do not know about you but I have been absolutely sickened by the sights and sounds of old has-beens in the Labour Party lecturing the Labour Party and us about how the Labour Party Manifesto was too left, in political terms, and suggesting the election was lost because the British people wanted a return to New Labour. While you’re at it, why not throw in a few attacks on trade unions just for good measure.
There we have the very essence of why millions of working people stopped voting Labour between 1997 and 2015. From their long gravel drives, from their big pay directorships, after being ministers in a Labour government, and from the funny smells that emanate along the corridors of the House of Lords, these people are so quick to attack as left-wing things like outlawing zero hours, protection against the exploitation of working people, protecting the NHS, tenants’ rights, building homes, making non-doms and corporate tax dodgers pay their whack; they show their real hand about who they want to lead the Labour Party. If that lot is left-wing, then we are in the left wing of the labour movement. (Applause)
This union, you, have worked tirelessly over recent years to try and gain back the trust of our members and our communities in the Labour Party after the wealth and inequality gap widened under New Labour. You haven’t heard any of them say that, have you? It widened and we all know that.
Now we must put these broken, old, worn out lovers of privatisation, unregulated labour, and finance markets, back in the museums, frankly, that they have crawled out of in the last few weeks.
The General Election of 2015 may be lost but let me be dead clear, and I hope we will be dead clear this afternoon, the GMB has neither lost nor is repentant about standing up for our members’ interests; that is our job and that is what we are going to do. (Applause)
The GMB, indeed all the affiliate unions, actually, through TULO, pulled their weight. In fact, it was one of the most historical periods in the union affiliates’ history, working together, pooling information, and targeting seats. There can be no finger-pointing at the Trades Union Movement in this election. They worked their socks off.
TULO, I am absolutely proud of the work that was done and I will make a special mention to Byron Taylor and Felicity Appleby, the officers of TULO who worked for us, for all the affiliate unions. They did a fantastic job. And our own Melanie Bartlett, who worked there during the election, thank you, Melanie. She is in the delegation. She is a London Region delegate. (Applause) And there is our own National Political staff, Cath Speight, Gary Doolan, Lisa Johnson, John Callow, Marion Healey, and the one and only Hilary Perrin, and all the regional political officers. They made a difference.
Don’t let anyone ever tell you that we did not throw our weight into this. In fact, I will tell you this, if some of that so-called shadow front bench had half the courage and guts shown by our members knocking on doors, we would have won the bloody election. (Applause)
This Congress was always going to be about our union and our members and how best to serve them, and how to continue on with the changes we started in 2005, bringing a wider and more exclusive union back to its members. For those of us who have been privileged to have been on this decade-long journey, it is actually truly amazing what has been achieved and, more importantly, how those changes were achieved.
We are returning to our real purpose as a union, organising, campaigning, and winning for workers. We healed long-running wounds about national versus regional interest. It is cobblers. People who keep raising it have absolutely no understanding of where this union is going. We understand that actually whether it is a regional matter or a national matter, it is all about the members; it is all about the union and its members. (Applause) They are exactly the same thing.
If I had a list of changes we have made, you have made and supported since 2005, it would be just far too long to map out here but putting the union’s finances right was really important and it must remain important, however difficult sometimes that is. As long as we are financially right, then we can pass resolutions that we can campaign on. There is no point in coming here once a year passing resolutions on what the union should and should not do when the truth is we don’t have enough money to buy a bag of candles. So, the finances are important to the union.
We expanded Congress, pushing ourselves to rebuild our union and respect our branch officers and our activists. That is what has actually signposted the road to this Congress agenda. As our branch activity working party has shown, the branches are actually alive. Sure we have lots of things to do and we are going to modernise it, and sure we are going to make changes, we are going to listen, we are going to do things. As my very good friend, John McDonnell – and I mean the trade unionist not the bloody MP – my very good friend John McDonnell from North West and Irish Region, reminded us at Congress in 2005 that previous general secretaries wanted rid of branches, they wanted rid of annual Congress; you have no branches, you have no annual Congress, you have no democracy, and guess what, you have no union. Never let anybody ever come up with that crap, that you cannot have an annual Congress and you cannot build and construct a union based on grass roots and branches. Don’t every swallow that line again. (Applause)
When we sit up there, Mary and I, we are amazed because we can see it when people come to the rostrum, we can see the whole hall, the changes we made to Congress delegates make-up, to encourage the under-represented membership groups, more young people, ethnic minorities, and women. Look at the number of first-time delegates, look how we have challenged that. Doesn’t it make you feel good? It makes me feel absolutely delighted. (Applause)
Now, this was the point where I was going to stand back and invite Penny Robinson from Barking to come up but I am short of time, unfortunately, so I am going to try and tell you a bit about it. There are lots of things that we are fighting on, every day in every region, but there is one dispute that has taken our attention at the moment, and it is the dispute in the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham.
This is a situation where basically the council wants to inflict pay cuts of originally £2,000, now £1,000 a year on working men and women for basically doing safety checks that they have done for years, and that are part of their contractual rights, part of their pensionable pay, actually.
Our members said, “No, we’re not taking it.” So what do you think the union’s position is when our members say, democratically, “No, we’re not going to take a pay cut.” Should we tell them they are wrong or should we stick in and support them? Sorry, I did not hear you. (“Support”) That is half a row!
Look, there has been a very, very difficult bitter dispute. Intimidation, absolutely. Undermining the union, absolutely. It has split the Labour Group. Half the Labour Group or just under half are totally supportive of the union’s position and the workers’ position. The other half, or just above half, are not. We now have a divided local authority.
Now I have to say I am a bit restrained on this at the moment because after many weeks and some very, very serious issues, the council finally have agreed to some serious talks at ACAS, and Brian Strutton, National Officer, along with Penny and the stewards, will be conducting those talks. We all hope, do we not, that those talks are successful. We do, of course we do, but let us send a very clear message. The Executive on Saturday said, “Well, we hope that ACAS results in effective agreement for our members,” but just in case it does not, the Executive authorised £100,000 to go into a dispute and hardship fund to ensure that those members in Barking and Dagenham could not be starved back to work. (Applause)
Now, I am glad you clapped. You thought that was good, didn’t you? That is not where we are finishing. This is the GMB and an injury to one really is an injury to all. So, hopefully, we get settled but if we do not then I am telling you now, the GMB is going on the road. We will be going out to every region and every branch to look to raise an awful lot more money, at least another £150,000 for starters, to make sure that people understand.
No, I am not saying we are trying to load the dice at ACAS but I think people need to know we are serious. Every region, every section, will be asked to support physically and financially because there comes a line, wherever the line happens to be, and we do not always pick our own battle line but this is a battle line for us, when employers say, “We are going to cut your pay,” and we say, “No.”
If we allow it in Barking, then it will happen in Bristol and if we allow it in Dagenham it will happen in Derby. So, here it is. It has come up to meet us and we can sidestep it or we can say the GMB is supporting our members in that dispute and we will prosecute that dispute until either the local Labour Party, the right side of the Labour Party, which in this case is the left side – (Laughter/Applause) – gets enough votes to enter into a spirit of negotiation that satisfies us. The GMB is not going to be abused and certainly we are not going to have our members intimidated. So you will be hearing more of Barking.
I want to also ask you to fill in those forms. If you do not support another political party, fill in those forms and get a vote for who you want for the leadership of the Labour Party, and it will also affect the deputy leadership that you will have a vote for, and for those in London and Southern, particularly, the Mayor, which is also pretty important.
I have had two or three people hand these to me which basically have written on them, “none of the above”. Now, if you get your vote you may want to write it on, but now it is very important. Application forms are on the desk. We need everybody, as many people as possible in the union to fill in those forms.
This is all about change in the union. We have had the courage to change lots of things. We have had to in the union. We have changed lots of things. We looked at ourselves: how can we develop it? One of the changes we made to Congress, you see it around you how inclusive it now is, and we now have to do that industrially. We have a sectional structure. We used to have eight sections, we have pruned it to three and, frankly, it is not engaging as many people in the industrial sector that it should be.
So, the Executive is going to launch a six-month consultation process to see how we may be able to engage more people in the industrial process. The truth is we have tons and tons and tons of really, really good workplace activists, good shop stewards, but actually when it comes to playing a role in how the union works, they do not do it.
So we have to reach out, we have to effectively make it far more important, far more available for people to be able to exercise influence over decisions that are made. We have to draw in those activists in order they can drive and effectively govern their own industrial activities across their own industries.
Tomorrow Unionline, I think, is a year old. You will hear tomorrow a pretty good report about Unionline but it would be remiss if I did not from the General Secretary’s Report actually say a big thank you to Maria Ludkin, who did a fantastic job in driving the Unionline process. She will be reporting to you tomorrow. I wanted to go on record and say that it has been a fantastic process that we have been through and you will hear tomorrow how fantastic that has been.
Internally, well, we are going to have to continue to process. There are no more, by the way, officers and staff in the GMB. Under the new job evaluation scheme and the new process we now have one grading system and everybody in the GMB is now staff. You may not think that means much but historically in the GMB the officers were almost exclusively men, and the staff were, who do you think, almost exclusively women, except the heads of departments who happened to be men. Now, we have come a long way but part of the process of taking that journey is we do not need any more of those mental divisive titles about officers or staff. We are just all staff.
We are going to have to continue to switch resources, find better ways of doing things, to move those resources into the front line. We are going to be faced over the next five or even ten years, make no mistake about it, there is no political help coming from Westminster, we are going to have to do it for ourselves. Do you know what, in some ways I feel a little better about that. You know why, because at least I can rely on you and you can rely on me. At least we can rely on each other. (Applause)
We have to develop the services and better organisation; there is no doubt about it. The Health & Safety Report points that out. We have to be ahead of the game. We have to be smart. In Ireland, both North and South, there are going to be new organising plans. We have opened the college, Liverpool, North Wales, and Irish Region, fantastic achievement. We were down there the other day doing the unveiling, the dedication to John Toomey. That college as it develops will do trade union education and will bring people in to get trade union education.
We intend to have a long-term presence in Ireland. We have had members here many, many years. We intend to grow that membership, be under no doubt whatsoever. Again, I want to thank Dave Kearney, in particular, and Paul McCarthy, for the work they did in establishing the union again in Southern Ireland. (Applause)
Our own union, well, I always think of it like we have rebuilt the union. Imagine it like a burnt out old building, which is what most of the SMT will remember if you go back 10 or 11 years. It resembled a burnt out old building; in fact, a burnt out old building we did not even own ourselves. We have now added a few extra floors and we have extra wings, and the union has grown every year.
What I find strange, I love the union movement, I love the GMB, I think it’s great, I am sorry, I just do, and what I cannot understand or get my head round is why other people don’t think the trade unions are fantastic things, because they are. Trade unionists are wonderful, great people. They do not go in it for themselves. You think of how many charities they help, how many causes they help, how many people’s jobs they save, how to get counselling for people, get training, get pay rises; they are wonderful, decent, good people.
I will tell you something. I was at the Vatican two weeks ago to talk to a conference called by the Pope and we are the only union ever had an invite. I thought, yes, I am going to go because I think people need to understand what unions do. I cannot tell you exactly what the Pope said because he spoke in Italian – (Laughter) – and I do not even speak English! This is basically what the Pope’s position is. I am amazed.