At his last Conference, General Secretary Rodney Bickerstaffe looks to the lessons of the past and his hopes for the future in this special interview with John Stevenson, editor of Scotland inUNISON.
We stand on giants’ shoulders, said Rodney Bickerstaffe as he spoke of how the trade union movement had got to where it stands today.
“At the STUC I recall McGahey and Airlie, giants of the trade union movement.
“But they are all giants, be they members, stewards or leaders, high or low paid who have passed us the banner.
“This is not us, it is they who have brought us to where we are.
“Everyone has to hand over the banner as I will hand it over to Dave Prentis, as each of us here will hand it over to those who follow. The job is to make that banner shine more brightly”.
Rodney’s vision of the future is a single industrial union for the public sector and a single trade union movement for the world.
“We need to talk to civil servants, to teaching organisations and to build the profile of public services across the whole piece”, said Rodney.
We need to “move the ground together” and the bigger we are, the more we can “proclaim the public service ethos”.
That ethos is core to everything we do.
“It is ideological, political and a social belief. Public services paid from the public purse and delivered by properly trained and rewarded public sector workers”.
Passionately rounding on those who back privatisation, Rodney said, “Profit-taking has no place in the areas we cover; in healthcare, housing, care of the elderly, the sick and the dying. “If we do not speak up for them, who will?”
And he believes we have spoken up for them. In looking back to the merger, Rodney sees UNISON as having been crucial to the whole trade union movement.
“Without UNISON in those last seven years things would have been a lot worse. The merger was a voice and a vote for trade unionism and one that the members democratically chose.
“I know blue collar workers and white collar have sometimes felt left out by each other, but we are pulling together.
“There are new people coming into UNISON who have never been in NUPE, COHSE or NALGO and it has led to a UNISON culture.
“A UNISON culture of, whatever your job, you are worth as much as anyone else”
And what of the future? Rodney believes the wheel will turn in the next 10 to 15 years.
In the 1880s and 1890s the push to private provision saw corruption and non-provision of services because private companies failed.
Rodney sees parallels now. Yorkshire Water cannot make a profit and is looking to a takeover by users.
“But what if they cannot survive? It will have to be taken over by the government”, he warned.
When reminded of his active campaigning for a ‘YES YES’ vote for a Scottish Parliament, Rodney confessed he tended to see the Parliament at a distance from London.
“Why would I know better that the people of Scotland how their Parliament is working?
“I suspect it is feeling its way forward and I know that it will not want to be a rubber stamp for any organisation anywhere else”.
Rodney’s first priority is a smooth transfer to Dave Prentis and, given Dave’s medical treatment, that will require taking less of a back seat that he had envisaged for the next few months.
“I then hope to become President of the National Pensioners Convention. I spoke to them in Blackpool recently and got a very warm reception.
“At 87 Jack Jones is happy to stand down and Barbara Castle has also asked me to take on that mantle. It is an honour”, said Rodney with obvious pride.
He then launched into the familiar grasp of issues, statistics and political vision in this new role, that has made him so successful as a union leader.
“There are 10.25 million pensioners in Britain, one-fifth of the population.
“Grey power does work (luckily for both of us) – pensioners are a real power”, said Rodney.
“But we need to make sure that in old age the extremes of poverty and wealth are not continued”.
He acknowledged that was a lot of work to do, especially on building a link between the generations.
Young people should be campaigning for the elderly and the elderly should be standing up and marching for the young “on unemployment, lack of prospects and the minimum wage”.
Rodney also intends to do some international work. He was at Seattle pushing for core labour values to be accepted.
“There should be no child labour, no slave forced labour and real health and safety rights throughout the world”, he said.
“I don’t want to see people maimed and killed in factories, factories often owned by Western wealth treating people as scum”.
Partnerships were needed and could be built with unions and non governmental organisations to tackle these issues and Rodney was looking to SOLIDAR as a start to this process.
And he stressed that all this work would be unpaid.
“I have a good pension after 35 years and I am grateful for that and because it will allow me to do this work”, he explained.
Reach out to each other
Sitting with NEC member John McFadden (who arranged the interview), I asked Rodney to reflect of his personal touch that extends to an amazing memory for people.
There was also the ability, as I saw at an Edinburgh Branch AGM in 1999, to immediately engage members in conversation about the issues they want UNISON to address.
On a personal note I also reminded him of the welcome support he gave me on the death of my father very shortly after the death of his mother. He seemed genuinely touched and murmured a quiet “bless you” but was soon talking with passion about the need to treat and see people as individuals.
“In a major organisation of 1.3 million we need to try harder to reach out and touch each other.
“We cannot be bureaucracy bound, we are not so committee bound that we cannot reach out to each other.
“You can get so snowed under in a huge organisation, just as you can get lost in the hugeness of society. We are human beings, we have to reach out.
“For those in ill health, mental or physical, we need to reach out more.
“Trade unions have huge power to reach out be a force for good. UNISON in particular is, has been and will be a power for good”.
Anyone sitting through this talk with Bick could be left in no doubt that the passion, the energy and that clear vision will be well employed for the pensioners and on the international stage in the future.
In that self deprecating way, Rodney had interspersed the interview with “is this alright, is this what you wanted” and he finished on the same note.
Yes it was, and I will go a long way before I forget it.
I’ll also go a long way before I see John McFadden sitting so quietly for so long.