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The IR Guru Interview:

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

Paul Nowak, Deputy General Secretary, TUC

“One person trying to resolve an issue on their own is very difficult. Having people to turn to for support and being able to work as a collective is much more effective.”


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

I’ve been a part of unions all my working life. I started working at Asda at the age of 17 when I was a student and was active in the GMB union there. Wherever I ended up working I was a union member or rep and I’ve worked in many different kinds of jobs – I had a stint as an estate agent, I’ve worked in a call centre and for the local council, for example.

In 1997, the TUC launched a programme called the Organising Academy, which was aimed at bringing in a new layer of organisers to build unions in workplaces. I’ve been at the TUC ever since.

My first job was a joint role with an affiliated union called the Banking, Insurance and Finance Union. I was based in the South West and was responsible for organising account management centres and bank branches.

I later became a Policy and Campaigns Officer in the TUC North West then became Regional Secretary for North East and Cumbria, which was a bit of a leap.

A couple of years later I was made Director of a project called New Unionism. It was set up to help unions reach out to new groups of members and look at new ways of organising. I was promoted to Head of Organisation at the TUC, then in 2013 was appointed Assistant General Secretary, then Deputy General Secretary in 2016.

I also sit on the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) Council, which is an independent, tripartite body with a statutory remit to promote and support good employment and industrial relations. 

What experiences prepared you most for a career in trade unions? 

Trade union education was important for me. I remember attending my first ever union training course at 17 and learning some real basics. At one session, when I was asked why I was there and what I wanted to achieve from it, I nervously mumbled an answer about wanting to effectively represent the people I worked with. The advice I received in response to that was direct. I was told I could make a start by taking my hand away from my mouth, standing up straight and talking with a bit of confidence!  For a young person in their first job that was useful advice especially considering I was surrounded by lots of experienced people from different sectors. That education was a whole new world opening up for me and proved as valuable as going to school or university.

Attending the TUC Organising Academy was also a fantastic opportunity for me. Without that I wouldn’t be where I am today. Union officers tended to have come from well organised workplaces or well organised sectors whereas I had held only temporary jobs after university so it was a real break for me. 

What elements of the role most attracted you to IR/ER?

I want to make sure people at work are treated decently and with respect. I was brought up with those sorts of values.

Ultimately, whatever side of the table you are on in terms of industrial relations, it’s about people. Most people want to be treated well, work for a successful organisation and feel that the job they do is rewarding both from a pay perspective and in terms of it making a difference. My day job is about improving people’s experience of work and making sure the organisations they work for are viable, profitable and sustainable.  

Conflict is all around us, it’s one of those things that happens in all human relations and interactions, not just at workplaces. How we manage it so it’s not destructive and divisive is fundamental. 

What does your current role entail?

I’m a jack of all trades really. I lead on certain policy areas such as public transport or industrial strategy and am responsible for the TUC’s work in the regions. I also have executive responsibility for our internal organisation, looking after everything from staff to pension to finances.

I have a lead role on inter-union relations and supporting the General Secretary if there are major employer disputes. My day varies every day. I could be talking with the rail minister one day and then the Department of International Trade the next about union concerns around trade agreements. It’s a wide brief.

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

We all see what happens when industrial relations or employee relations goes wrong.  And it’s not just about the high profile disputes in the press. The vast majority of our members will probably never take industrial action but it doesn’t mean everything is smooth for them at work. 

We spend a huge amount of our waking time at work and for many it’s a key part of their identity. So, we want people to enjoy going to work and feel like they have a purpose. The value of unions is that they can give individuals a more powerful voice. One person trying to resolve an issue on their own is very difficult. Having people to turn to for support and being able to work as a collective is much more effective.

What are the current key trends in IR/ER?

One of the big issues I worry about is the transfer of responsibilities from employers to employees. The traditional contract in the broadest sense of the word is breaking down as a result of bogus self-employment, outsourcing or use of umbrella companies. This has been exposed a bit more by the pandemic. For example, people have been worrying about self-isolating because they are given no financial support or sick pay – it’s the dark side of the gig economy. This is a big challenge for unions, government as well as good employers. How can companies such as Royal Mail compete with other parcel companies that don’t employ people, or provide company vehicles, sick pay or pensions? 

The other set of issues is around automation and digitalisation, which have become even more relevant as a result of Covid, as working from home becomes more commonplace. For me, the union role is not to try and roll back the tide but manage that industrial shift in a way that’s fair for working people and in a way they can influence and be able to see the benefits from it.

It’s not straight forward because for lots of people the ability to work more flexibly is a good thing. But there will have to be a resetting of the relationship and there are issues such as mental health to be looked at, as well as equality. So, where working at home becomes the norm, if an individual doesn’t have the appropriate set up for it (no dedicated work space, equipment and so forth) will that mean the message is someone can work for that organisation only if they have the adequate resources or appropriate living space? That’s a real problem.  

For unions, the challenge will be organising workers who may never have met each other. The work we do is based on people trusting each other and feeling confident they have support from others. Building that trust is going to be tricky and, so too, is union officers finding out what the issues are and building relationships if more workers are going to be based at home. 

A separate issue is also around decarbonising the economy and the move to net zero which will bring in industrial restructuring.  However, a unifying theme that sits on top of all these agendas is giving people some sort of agency and a chance to shape the changes. That’s where the TUC and unions come in – to empower workers.

How do you think the role of the trade union might grow in the next five to 10 years?

Unions have proved remarkably adaptable to the changing world of work and have actively helped influence developing trends. Undoubtedly given consumer habits, the expectations of younger generations and what’s coming down the line in the short to medium term, we will have to start thinking digital first. What will be important is unions being able to respond to questions or queries immediately, so members are not limited to calling up a union officer for help only at certain times. 

Unions will also have to become online facilitators of communication not just between the union and an individual but between members themselves, via networks or communities of interest. This is both an opportunity and a challenge because we have to make it all fit into existing formal democratic structures. But we have to make sure we stay relevant to workers whatever way they are employed or whatever their relationship with their employer.

We still have a lot more work to do to increase equality and inclusion especially at leadership level. I want people in every part of the country to be able to confidently say, “my union looks and sounds like me”, but it probably doesn’t at the moment. That’s a challenge we need to address.

What ambitions or goals are you still keen to fulfil?

I have had more engagement with politicians and civil servants during the last few months of the pandemic than the previous 20 years of my employment here. We have a key role to play in how work evolves and we have proved that over the last few months – we were critical in ensuring workers were given the support they have been. But unions are not valuable just during a national crisis. For me, a big ambition is a growing and stronger trade union movement. If I’ve made a contribution towards that than I’ll be happy.

Interview by Rima Evans

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