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The IR Guru Interview:

Our series of profiles on prominent figures in Industrial and Labor Relations

Gary Smith, GMB Union Scotland Secretary

“Having a healthy tension is a core part of industrial relations. How this is managed is the critical aspect.”

How did you end up on the career path you have?

I joined GMB at 16, on my first day as an apprentice at Scottish Gas. I took a particular interest in health and safety issues and pay and conditions – I was a Young Members’ activist and became a shop steward. At 26, I won a scholarship from the union that allowed me to return to education. I was given the opportunity to go to Ruskin College Oxford to study for a diploma in labour studies and then completed an MA in Industrial Relations at Warwick University. 

Following this, I went back to working in the gas industry and kept up my union work as an activist in the workplace. Eventually, I took on a temporary contract to do some recruitment work with GMB. That was to be the start of my career here during which I’ve held a wide variety of roles, including as recruitment officer, senior organiser, national officer and national secretary. I was promoted to GMB Scotland Secretary in 2015.

What experiences prepared you most for a career in industrial relations/employee relations?

For me, it was working in the gas industry and being in a unionised environment where the negotiated pay and conditions and health and safety standards were generally pretty good, with a degree of industrial democracy. People were engaged and had meaningful consultation over their working lives. 

Yet, this was against the political and economic backdrop of the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister. The effect of Thatcherism on Scotland shaped my world view in a profound way. The country went through perhaps the biggest deindustrialisation of Western Europe, with agonising social consequences. There was mass unemployment and a whole generation of young people left with no prospects. It sparked a deep sense of injustice. 

However, what became clear from being at Scottish Gas, where the working experience was relatively good despite problems such as the industry being privatised, is that trade unions do make a big difference in the workplace. They afford workers protection, which meant we were better prepared compared to workers in wider society and in other sectors who suffered huge job losses. More broadly, those experiences triggered a growing sense that people needed a stronger voice, and that collectivism and solidarity were crucial. 

What elements of the role most attracted you to industrial relations?

I strongly believe that together workers can get a better deal. I’ve always had a passionate belief that profit and value is generated on the back of working people and they deserve a fair return in the form of secure employment, good pensions, and decent pay that families can live on. Communities should have aspiration and hope to be able to afford a home, car or whatever; it’s not about subsistence living. For me, collectivism gives people that aspiration.

What does your current role entail?

I head up the union in Scotland. We have a team of 60 staff, trade union organisers and senior organisers who report into me and we have over 60,000 members in Scotland. 

I have responsibility for a budget of £7 million a year and there’s significant infrastructure to oversee.

Our mission in Scotland is being about jobs and work; we are rooted in the workplace. A key challenge has been reversing a generation or more of decline in union membership, which we have achieved in a significant way to become a high profile and dynamic organisation. That’s been attained by shifting our focus away from being too involved in politics to campaigning around jobs and work, but also addressing particular priorities including union culture and the equality agenda. Our aim is for the organisation to be a diverse one, a union that everyone, particularly working women, has the confidence to get organised in, and one that aggressively supports members in challenging discrimination in the workplace. 

Why do you think IR/ER practice is such an important part of the way an organisation is run?

Strong industrial relations practice encourages a better and fairer workplace. Where unions are present, workers get better outcomes and they are safer. That’s not an opinion, it’s what the evidence tells us. Importantly, I think industrial democracy also results in better quality change processes. In other words, people having a voice or vote in the workplace can add something positive to change outcomes. This is significant and sometimes much underestimated by employers since change is a constant in both the public and private sectors.  

Unions can potentially benefit companies although our union doesn’t embrace the partnership model. The employment relationship is not an equal or fair one, it’s always going to be tipped in favour of the employer. It is collective organisation that brings some balance to that relationship. As such, it’s entirely legitimate for workers and employers to have different and, at times, competing interests. Having a healthy tension is a core part of industrial relations. How this is managed is the critical aspect. 

What are the current key trends in trade unions?

In Scotland, the most important thing is getting back to fundamentals: being well organised in workplaces; campaigning on issues that are important to our members whether that be pay, safety, technology, flexible working and so forth; and allowing working people to have a voice. 

The most exploitative part of the economy invariably involves women, so an important part of our strategy (and one of the reasons we have grown in membership) is by being a union where women have the confidence to get organised. We need women at the negotiating table and coming through the ranks of the union if we are to address ongoing inequality and sex discrimination. 

The world of work is constantly evolving and with that requires changing ourselves as a union. The workplace has shifted. For example, there’s been a sea change in our membership, with 51% now being women. We have had to modernise and adapt, that’s something we are always doing. But the basics for a union stay constant – taking up and challenging industrial issues relevant to working people. What we have got back to, I think, and are now seeing more of is a trend for people to organise themselves and get to the negotiating table.

Ultimately, the union is a self-help organisation. We provide support for members but we can’t do the work ourselves in sorting out a serious problem between them and their employer. The workers themselves have to do that.

As we come through Covid there has been talk about ‘Building Back Better’. If we are to truly learn the lessons of the pandemic and repair the fault lines in our society that it has exposed, then as a country we have to be more ambitious and Build Back Fairer. Applause is not enough. The people who we rely on to keep everything going, deliver our goods and services and look after the vulnerable deserve to be better rewarded and protected. That can only happen through having a stronger collective voice. 

Interview by Rima Evans

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