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Interview 'Unions need to broaden our horizons — and become the political leadership in this country'

DOUG NICHOLLS, who is stepping down as GFTU general secretary, talks to Morning Star editor Ben Chacko about the lessons of a lifetime in struggle

Having been general secretary, first at the Community and Youth Workers Union and then at General Federation of Trade Unions, since 1987, you are retiring as Britain’s longest-serving general secretary. There have been significant changes in the movement over that time. What do you see as some of the strengths and weaknesses?

Unions are now more popular than at any time I have known. The public are behind the pay struggles in ways they never have been before. Remember in 1976 the big unions and TUC called a conference to argue that there should be pay restraint to avoid a spiral of inflation. No-one believes these days that higher wages are to blame for the cost of living crisis. 

There’s ebb and flow of overt struggle but I’m minded of what one of the leaders of the revolt in 1381 said: “In time of peace, be not all men at war with them that be rich.”

The weakness in the movement has been that some think that our role is to manage capitalism a bit better than capitalists can. 

While trade unions are defensive organisations and only a few have had a commitment in their rules to struggle for a socialist society, many have resigned themselves to the false view that unions do “industrial” things and the Labour Party does the politics. There’s nothing more political than saving jobs and fighting for wages. But we now need to broaden our horizons and become the political leadership of the country.

So while only a few trade unions, 15, out of the hundreds there are, have affiliated to the Labour Party, the general passing the buck has been, out of weakness, not that we can aspire and achieve more for ourselves and run things better than them, but we must pretend clever people elected to Parliament can do it better.

Our strengths reside in the opposite position which is deeply rooted in British working-class history from the 14th-century Lollards onwards. There is a red thread of politics which has broken out loudly at various points like 1381, 1549, 1649, 1834, 1968, 1984 and 2023, successfully achieving major transformation. The best trade unionists I have known are part of this tradition and fought fiercely for the independence of thought and country.

Another great strength remains that we organise on trade lines. If you are a worker in Britain it doesn’t matter if you are Muslim or Catholic, you join the union that organises your trade. And we have one trade union centre as a result.

Union density is currently at around 23 per cent nationally. What can we do to rebuild the trade union movement?

A figure that sits alongside this is that we now have less than 20 per cent collective bargaining coverage. 80 per cent of people cannot bargain collectively for their wages, they are at the mercy of the markets and employers. 

The unions in my view now have to continue to broaden the scope of industrial struggle. CWU is fighting for the future of a proper integrated, publicly owned postal service, the RMT for a nationalised, safe, efficient rail service, the doctors and nurses and health unions for a properly funded, publicly owned NHS, the teachers for progressive education, the civil servants for a well organised national infrastructure of government services, prison officers for humane prisons, social workers for integrated social care and so on. 

More of this should occur and the movement should go onto the offensive with a range of proposals for each aspect of life. We need plans. Alternative models of social organisation, an articulate vision for the whole country. Inspire, aspire, raise sights high, have ambition, project a vision for the future of our people.
It would also help if unions could resist the temptation to pinch each others’ members and block great unions from joining the TUC.

The vote to leave the EU, and subsequent successful pressure from many unions to push Labour into an electorally disastrous Remain position, revealed a disconnect between the labour movement and many working-class communities. What do you think caused that disconnect, and do you think the current strike wave is an opportunity to address it?

My first TUC Congress was 1988. Jacques Delors popped along to promise the British trade union movement a bit more adult education, perhaps a bit more health and safety legislation and a few seats round a few inconsequential tables in return for supporting the single European market and derogation of national sovereignty to the unelected EU commissioners. 

Largely the labour movement swallowed it, in a catastrophic suspension of our normal scepticism and critical analysis when dealing with employers. 

The movement relinquished its most distinctive feature — its self-reliance, its independence, its recognisition that you don’t get anything worthwhile without fighting for it. 

The fantasy was acute. It said despite the rampage of the neoliberal vandalism that followed, that if we put unelected overseas judges and commissioners in charge of our economy cheek by jowl with the banks, milk and honey will flow.

No other trade union movement I can think of has ever so willingly turned its back on its own country and people and welcomed in strangers to take over the shebang. Instead of recognising that the EU was a like a nursing home for clapped-out capitalist states huddling together for warmth, the trade unions here and many in the EU lauded it as a solution to all our problems.

If Margaret Thatcher can’t save us, perhaps Jacques Delors will, many thought. This hollows out the confidence that unions normally have in the power of collective action to actually change things. When facing an apparently insurmountable enemy you can at least vote out of office, you don’t sensibly choose another one you can’t remove from office.

It was a huge generational mistake running counter in fact to the entire history of the workers’ movement here which has been associated with national sovereignty, the universal franchise, and an independent and free trade union movement. 

Despite all the huff and puff for years Delors and his successors never unlocked the shackles around British trade unions and never allowed state intervention, manufacturing and public services to flourish. Quite the opposite.

Now, people aren’t daft. Hearing so many trade union leaders singing the praises of the obviously undemocratic and destructive EU labyrinth indicated that the unions, to put it politely, had had the stuffing knocked out of them and weren’t prepared to fight and organise any more. 

This whole fiasco came about after the years of destruction of engineering and our industrial base, the closure of the coal mines so bravely fought against by the miners, the clobberings at Wapping, the incessant anti-union laws and actions, the weakening of the dockers’ organisation and so on.

Some have declared that the “working class is back.” Is that how you see the current strike wave?

We never went away. We are always there. Action on the streets and strikes are just one part of the story. 

The constant unstoppable murmur and organisation of workers is ever present. Our predecessors going way back to the Middle Ages had the image of the sleeping giant waking. After periods of defeat and in the case of previous generations, slaughter, eventually new stirrings arise. 

The strike wave is a manifestation of thought of organisation, of a recognition that change must occur not just in the pay packet, but in society and the economy and in every productive, life-enhancing area of our country. 

The period of pillage is at an end. Strikes come and go, thought and organisation and a vision of a new social reordering do not. And transformation will come from the joining of the dots of those progressive ideas that demand we take responsibility for the running of our country.

You have been general secretary of the GFTU since 2010, and on its executive long before that. What do you see as the main role and achievements of the federation in that period?

Too many to mention! The international solidarity work has been stupendous, rebuilding links with Vietnamese unions for example, restoring discussion of the history of the labour movement to trade union education, finding new ways of engaging young people in union work, building links with community organisations, transforming the trade union education curriculum, creating a hotel and training centre with the best food, best service, best accommodation; putting economics back into the curriculum, helping new unions form and grow, providing 60 and more practical services to unions to save them money and improve the quality of their organisations, creating a friendly environment for professional groups in union staff teams to network and an informal support structure for general secretaries, and much much more!

Trade unions represent workers in the workplace, but a plethora of voluntary organisations exist to organise them in the community. How can greater links be built between the two?

The GFTU has started to do this and is leading the way. The first national community organisation, the Workers’ Education Association, has a seat on our executive and we are working with others to join us in this way. 

We have written a major policy paper suggesting ways in which unions and community organisations must work together at a permanent structural level so that the biggest divide in our society that between workplace organisations and neighbourhood and community organisations can be broken down. 

The GFTU is open to welcome the affiliation and membership and participation of community organisations. We need to continue this journey with the infrastructure bodies first. We also run a charity and fund it directly ourselves.
We have organised conference to begin this dialogue in earnest and are publishing a book on the subject soon.

Fourteen million people volunteer in community organisations and 850,000 paid workers work them. Community organisations share our values and democratic values and campaign on issues central to our work as unions. 

Trade union councils are where much of this work can start at local level and the district committees of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions do a great job also of bridging the gap. Unions like the Professional Footballers Association have long supported community organisations in the clubs.

So it is a question of joining up with each other, not on the latest campaign or picket line, but at executive and membership levels.

Paul Nowak, the TUC leader, has called for a “fundamental economic resettlement,” and Labour is promising a “new deal for workers,” yet in 2019 the last major political challenge to business as usual was heavily defeated. What changes do Britain’s working people need — and how do you see us securing them?

Paul is right. This area of work enabling workers to argue in an informed way for a new political economic settlement should now be the central thrust of the unions. 

Raise our vision of a newly ordered Britain looking after all of its people, making things again, ahead in advanced technologies, investing in skills and planning each section of the economy and its labour market and organising it with collective bargaining, treasuring our public services, undoing the chaos of privatisation, controlling prices, returning the Bank of England to public ownership, not relying on private banks for national borrowing.

Above all, reversing the key decision of Thatcher in 1979 to remove controls on the flight of capital out of the country. That opened the Pandora’s box. That led to the global speculation replacing wealth-creating manufacturing, that led to the City of London and the banks seizing political control over and above manufacturers and land owners and of course over national government. Truss was a buffoon but it was the City of London that did her in, not us.

But this takes us back to our perennial conundrum as a movement that is just as tenacious today as when I joined my union in 1976. We constantly relapse into relying on everything and everyone except ourselves. We lack the confidence to say we can run things as a working class better than them. 

In 1979 we got rid of the Callaghan government. Rather than take the logic forward and take over ourselves, there was the illusion that tweedle-dee Tories could have a go. 

Same when the miners rose, rather than get behind them and demand a future in every workplace, the unions thought the EU could help us out. Then the Blair thing, let him have a go, he seems well spoken.  

And now? Next time round, fail again a bit better perhaps, or take heart, take courage, take over?

Doug Nicholls retires as general secretary of the GFTU next week.


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