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The IR Guru Interview:

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

John Hannett OBE, former General Secretary, Usdaw

“A lesson I learned fairly quickly was to never promise anything you can’t deliver.”


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

I didn’t set out to be a general secretary of a union, I’m not sure anyone would hold that ambition in the same way as they might for a chief executive of a PLC, for example. 

I left school at 15 and got a job at Guinness Exports in Liverpool.  I was initially nominated to be a staff spokesman then became the union representative. My interest really sparked from there, I got more involved with the Labour party and in 1985 I became an employee at Usdaw in its Manchester region. After five years, I was promoted to national officer covering mail order companies, such as Grattan. 

I was elected to Deputy General Secretary in 1997 and then General Secretary in 2004. I retired from Usdaw age 65 in 2018. 

Separate to Usdaw, I was also on the Low Pay Commission for 11 years and involved with Acas for six years, sitting on its council.

What were the main challenges you faced along the way?

The governance duties as General Secretary were a big challenge. Being responsible for the direction of the union, membership numbers, finances and politics was tough. There is also a different dynamic at Usdaw because we mainly deal with the private sector and have a relationship with as many as 400 different companies, from large retailers such as Tesco down to very small businesses. That can be hard to manage. 

Another big challenge I faced was around partnership working, a model based on a less adversarial way of working. When I was running for Deputy General Secretary, although we already had an agreement at Tesco the company started pushing the mantra they wanted the voice of all their employees to be heard. The union was concerned that it was a way of working around us rather than with us. 

But I believe in partnership working. In the mid-90s I led a team that met with Tesco for a number of months on this. The board was split between those who felt a union could add value and those who questioned the need for a union at all. We ended up being successful in securing a partnership agreement. I was very excited about it although I was also heavily criticised for it. It was a real risk as this way of working was unproven. Some members were suspicious about what partnership working really meant and thought it was too cosy a way of working with companies.

The reason for me feeling positive, however, was because the agreement extended the usual model of industrial relations. So, it went beyond the core work of pay negotiations, grievance and discipline and allowed us to get more involved. I felt that this would help us build trust with employers, so we could gain more for our members. 

Another reason I felt the partnership agreement at Tesco was of benefit was because it allowed us to talk to other unions recognised by Tesco in 14 other countries.  I was Commerce President of UNI Global (a global union) at the time and we were keen to build union presence in other countries. It was an important step.

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

Getting things wrong especially in the early days.  The first strike I led at Guinness was over pay and it lasted three weeks. We couldn’t work out how we got ourselves in that situation and how to get ourselves out of it! It became a lesson about how important it is to properly think through your actions. 

The other lesson I learned fairly quickly was to never promise anything you can’t deliver. This came on the back of quite a strange story. At Guinness, when we were going through a massive change involving a reorganisation and job losses the company decided to stop the Christmas hamper it gave to all staff. This was a big deal – this hamper used to create a lot of goodwill. At the end of a big meeting of 300 workers about it, I took a question from a guy who had never spoken at a union meeting before. He said: “I’ve heard a rumour that not only have they got rid of the hamper, they are getting rid of the Easter eggs too.” At that point everyone laughed – in the middle of job losses people couldn’t believe this was the major concern. I confidently replied that there was no truth in that rumour. Except they did get rid of the Easter eggs and that chap haunted me for years after that.

What elements of the role most attracted you to IR? 

I have never enjoyed seeing someone treated unfairly. At Guinness, when asked to become a union rep it felt good to be making a difference. And it was fulfilling because it was about achieving an outcome. The idea that I could articulate a concern from an individual or group of people and be listened to, or save someone’s job, or help bring about positive change was very rewarding and it gave me a sense of purpose. 

What was your proudest achievement?

At Usdaw, I wanted to put in place a business model that wouldn’t look out of place in a PLC and ensure the union was financially sustainable so it could survive difficult times. That was tough. Unions might be effective at articulating what they want from an employer but they don’t like change themselves. I introduced a modernisation programme in the early 2000s, led from the bottom, to improve management practices: accountability, performance indicators and so forth. As a result, over a 10-year period we grew by 100,000 members. I was pleased to be able to retire from the union knowing it was in a healthy position. I don’t believe any union has an automatic right to survive, we have to continually improve what we do and measure what we do. As a movement we have to be progressive.  

My work on the Low Pay Commission was also a real highlight. 

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

I always remember one company director explaining they needed to capture ‘added value’ from his staff. One of our officers plainly told him that as he was a senior player in the business earning a significant amount of money, his added value had already been ‘bought’ and so it was simply part of his job. He went on to ask how a part-time worker with childcare responsibilities and all sorts of pressures at home could show the same added value. How could they be expected to show the same level of commitment given the pay they were on, the limited hours and all the responsibilities they were juggling? 

It wasn’t an unfair point. The pressures people feel have at work are immense and when companies implement changes by simply pronouncing them to be in the best interests of the business without having any dialogue around them, that’s not going to work.  That’s not the way to get added value from staff.  Unless employers find the time to talk and ensure staff understand the reason and rationale behind changes being made, all they are doing is treating people as just another commodity.

This is where IR comes in. IR is about leading through that change in a more positive way. 

What are the current key trends/ innovations in IR?

Union membership isn’t healthy, which is worrying. In the past, they have enjoyed closed shops, so all employees had to belong to a union. More recently, there have been quite a few mergers, which to all intents and purposes has masked the fact a lot of people still aren’t joining unions.

I think things have regressed to some extent. I don’t believe there is enough dialogue taking place between employers and trade unions currently, and with everything going on such as Covid, Brexit and trends towards home working and new technology, if there ever was a time for more progressive dialogue between managers and unions, it’s now.

However, we shouldn’t just be meeting when there is a crisis, when there isn’t enough time and space to get off the treadmill and think more creatively.  I’d like to see greater understanding between the two sides, not just on the part of employers but unions too. For me, it’s not a question of ‘cosying up’ to employers but recognising there is mutual benefit in striking a balance, having a partnership arrangement in place. 

Training about the role of the union rep and the HR manager is crucial so the relationship between the two can be built on a stronger foundation despite them inevitably having conflicting views. Information sharing is also vital. It’s important for reps to hear about the pressures on the business and for middle managers to understand the pressure on us to achieve certain outcomes. 

The Low Pay Commission is the one structure where we have economists, trade unionists and business leaders able to reach an agreement by consensus, despite each member having their own responsibilities. It proves that people with totally different pressures can still get to an outcome. Why is that possible? Because the Commission meets regularly, everyone shares information and gets to know each other, as well as the unique challenges and obligations each person faces. 

Interview by Rima Evans

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