“For employers, unions are a bit like children, they love them until they get an opinion.”
How did you end up on the career path you have?
I grew up in Liverpool, a city whose history and culture has been shaped by unions. After studying law in the early 80s, I had been heading for a career as a solicitor or barrister. Though partly because of the era and partly because of my roots I started to think more about trade unionism – I also didn’t relish the thought of working in a High Street practice doing conveyancing work.
What I had found most gripping during my law degree was studying industrial relations and labour law. So, I decided to do a Master’s degree in Industrial Relations at Warwick University, which was a well-regarded course and tended to attract people with ambitions to work for a union.
On the back of my MA, I managed to get a research job at the then Clearing Bank Union. Pretty quickly after that I moved to a negotiating role responsible for different bargaining units. In 1989, I became an Area Secretary for the Engineers’ and Managers’ Association (EMA), a predecessor union to Prospect. I was then promoted to National Officer before the EMA merged in 2001 with the Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists to form the current union, Prospect.
I was appointed as a Deputy General Secretary in 2004 then first elected as General Secretary in 2012.
What were the main challenges you faced along the way and how did you overcome those?
When I started out, a lot of union jobs were filled from within the membership. But I wasn’t from the shop floor, I wasn’t from an activist background. It was a highly unusual move at the time to go from a research job into a negotiating job, peopled tended to stay in research if that’s where they started.
So, at first, a big challenge was convincing people why they should listen to me. People questioned my credentials, the fact I came from a university background and had no experience of the workplace. I was also young, advising people a good decade or more older than me.
I quickly learned it was important to be clear I fully understood it was my job to look after the people I was representing in all circumstances. It helped enormously that I was naturally good at public speaking and could communicate well. The fact I also had a good command of my subject (my legal background was a real advantage here) and was a hard worker, which people always respect, soon reassured people I was able to stand toe to toe with any employer and do my job.
What experiences prepared you most for a career in industrial relations?
Studying law proved to be a really good choice for a career in the union sector. However, I also completed an MBA thanks to a former General Secretary of the EMA, Tony Cooper, who was extremely far-sighted and keen to prepare his team for the future. In 2000, two of us were sent off to do a full-time MBA at Cranfield University where I studied accountancy, economics and business management techniques. It was an opportunity that equipped me with a range of skills and insights that complemented my law training and negotiating experience. In the end, studying for an MBA proved to be crucial in preparing me for my future roles at Prospect.
What elements of the role most attracted you to IR?
An enduring part of wanting to work in the union sector is redressing the balance of power. People know when power is applied to them but they lack it. Unions remain a countervailing agency giving people voice, collectively and individually. Sometimes it’s even about revealing to people they have more agency than they might have expected.
The members that I represent are fascinating people doing fascinating things. The job offers enormous variety, no two days are ever the same, particularly since our union’s membership is very diverse covering so many different kinds of jobs, which we constantly have to learn about. I’ve been at the union 34 years but there are always new challenges or opportunities.
What does your current role entail?
There are two parts to it. First, there’s the chief spokesperson element where I articulate our policy to government, employers and other opinion formers and am part of the external representation of the union in the TUC and other bodies. Then there’s the chief executive role, which carries responsibility for governance, finances and people management. I spend around 60 per cent of my time on the executive role since we have more than 150,000 members, 257 staff members and an estate to manage.
One of the big challenges I face is how to be a good business manager within a trade union. Some trade union leaders really struggle with it. However, I’ve always taken the view that in terms of employee relations we should be able to say to other employers, do as we do not just as we say. I’m a strong advocate of good people and performance management, development of staff and strong financial and IT governance. After all, if we don’t count the money, manage our staff properly or invest in good IT systems none of us can do the job we need to do for our members.
What ambitions and goals are you still keen to fulfil?
I still expect to open the bowling for England and play centre half for Everton! But in terms of professional goals, I have two. First, that Prospect is seen as the premier union providing solutions to challenges of the workplace in the 21st century. Second, that when it’s time for me to step down there’s a cohort of people ready to take over and do a good job and take that goal forward, so to have succession planning in place.
Why do you think IR/ER practice is such an important part of the way an organisation is run?
It’s a misnomer that employee relations is synonymous only with unionised workplaces. There’s a dynamic of collective relationships everywhere – it’s just that some are mediated by unions and others through different power constructs. In non-unionised workforces those collective relationships tend to come to the fore in times of crises but it means they are going unaddressed until that point and they are not subject to any independent voice or scrutiny, which is a disadvantage.
For employers, unions are a bit like children, they love them until they get an opinion. Union recognition means that suddenly there has to be a justification for all sorts of decisions that previously could be put into action with no one challenging or opposing them. But it leads to a better outcome if an employer can explain the rationale behind a decision or action.
What are the current key trends/ innovations in the union movement?
Unions are now realising they have to segment their offering; move away from a rigid approach with services delivered in a particular way at a certain time to a more nuanced offering that better meets members’ individual needs or aspirations.
That will involve being digital first: embracing digital technology in the same way commerce did, perhaps five or 10 years ago, to enhance conventional communication methods.
At Prospect our digital reach has been expanding. For example, we connect with our freelance membership, who don’t have a workplace, this way. We offer webinars on a range of subjects linked to their profession or that provide relevant advice on issues such as tax, insurance or finding more work (especially important amid Covid-19). Our aim is to anchor the interest of the individual member but wrap around that a collective conversation and analysis about their industry – it’s about using new techniques to engage with members.
Digital communication has obviously been essential in the last five months during the pandemic. We have communicated directly with more members and reps than we have ever done through our more traditional representative structures. We have to build that thinking into future plans.
Unions are also getting more savvy at using digital to put pressure on employers. This is as employers are waking up to the fact there is a digital employee relations factor, whether that’s over social media or WhatsApp groups – and they are vulnerable to huge reputational damage via such means if a workplace problem isn’t addressed.
How do you think the role of the trade union might grow in the next five years?
During the Covid-19 crisis unions were seen to be part of the solution not the problem. That’s because we have the granular knowledge of workplaces and different sectors that was needed by the government to formulate policy and develop wage and income subsidy schemes. It will be interesting to see whether unions continue to hold that position or whether this government falls back to its more natural ideological state of being less willing to engage with unions. Will attitudes change during the next five years based on what we have experienced in the last five months, or will we fall back to the ‘old normal’?
Interview by Rima Evans