THE TOP job in construction union Ucatt was one that Brian Rye never sought. But having been catapulted into the role of acting general secretary last year, he has led the union through the most difficult period in its history.
Rye has faced financial challenges caused by decisions taken before his time, difficulties that eventually led to this week’s historic vote in favour of a merger with Unite.
But, he tells me at the close of what is expected to be Ucatt’s last biennial conference, it has also been a time of pride. Not least in the union winning a whopping £8.9 million of compensation for blacklisted members. Or its persistence in bringing legal cases over asbestos, holiday pay and other key issues in the construction sector.
“We’ve fought and worked hard to change the law to the benefit of our members,” Rye points out. “Significant changes haven’t happened by accident.”
Debates in Scarborough showed significant opposition to the merger plan in spite of the executive’s insistance that the union would go under without it. A second vote yesterday, on an emergency resolution to open final talks “as soon as possible,” was won by the narrowest of margins — 35 votes to 34.
Rye says he will work hard to ensure that “all members can themselves have the confidence going forward” that the merger will not leave them shut out.
And in spite of concerns raised by delegates that builders’ voices will be lost in a union as big as Unite, he sees an opportunity. “Our transfer will mean a very large vocal sector within Unite — the construction sector,” he says.
“There’s a huge task in front of us. There are two million construction workers who are not in a union. We have to be loud within the industry.”
And, after more than 40 years as a Ucatt member, rep and official, the former carpenter and joiner says he is more determined than ever in this fight.
“An old comrade once said to me: ‘Brian, you’ll always know which side you’re on when the barricades go up, and you’ll always know when the fire is in the belly.
“And there’s an abundance of people in Ucatt who have that fire in the belly.”