Multiculture, Trade Unions

Unite General Secretary election: Interview with Gail Cartmail

“Trade unions exist to protect all workers irrespective of their ethnicity”

On the 24th November, the 1.5 million members of the largest trade union in the UK will have a new General Secretary. The new representative will be chosen between the 25th October and the 19th November 2010.

Jerry Hicks, Gail Cartmail, Les Bayliss, Len McCluckey are the four candidates running for the position of General Secretary. The closing date for the acceptance of nominations was the 6th October.

The Prisma is interviewing the 4 candidates to know their campaigns and proposals they have for the Unite members. As the only woman who ran for General Secretary of Unite, Gail faced adversity from the beginning of her career as a union activist in the mid-1970s.

Her trade union career began in the printing and publishing industry and during 2003 to 2006 she served as National Health Official for Amicus (trade union merged with Unite in 2007). She is currently Secretary-General of Public Services for Unite from there she launches her candidacy to head the largest trade union in the UK, with nearly 2 million members.

Why have you decided to run as a candidate for the position of Secretary General of Unite?

As the only candidate who is not backed by any grouping or political faction within the union, I am standing as the unity candidate.

What are your motivations?

My aim is to unite our union so that we can deliver on our promise to lead the trade union movement in terms of organizing workers, forging links with other workers internationally and achieving political influence that genuinely serves our members and their families interests and needs – both socially and economically.

Can you explain, briefly, what it is that sets you apart from other candidates?

First is the obvious difference, I am a woman who has fought hard for equality both with employers and within unions. Likewise as a union activist, I have fought hard for over 30 years to challenge a union culture that excludes and undervalues women and other under-represented groups.

I am also the only candidate who is truly independent of any political grouping or faction. This matters because for Unite to go forward and achieve our industrial, international and political objectives we need a unity of purpose and I am the only candidate who can deliver that.

What are your main electoral proposals?

Unity, common purpose, improved support from central and regional offices for union representatives and members; realizing the benefits of merger by ensuring Unite is managed efficiently and effectively; while leading the union movement with progressive policies.

According to the latest report from the Office for National Statistics the rate of unemployment in Great Britain is now 7.8 %, which leaves a total of 2,470,000 people unemployed.  What measures do you believe are necessary in order to lower this rate?

Official statistics show that the current obsession to reduce the deficit will result in the loss of a further 1.3 million jobs  to the economy – 600,000 public sector and 700,000 private sector.

Cities such as Newcastle and Hull rely on public services employing two thirds of their populations so drastic spending cuts of between 25 to 45 per cent will devastate the local economy and the lives of people within it.

There is, however, an alternative to the orthodox economic measures favoured by the coalition –  investment to stimulate growth.  This model, supported by many prominent economists, is based on the premise that private sector recovery will not happen without the stimulus of public works and investment.

The decision of the coalition government to cut the Future Jobs Fund shows a distinct lack of recognition of the appalling unemployment among young people. We need more job creation initiatives not less.

In the UK there is no official legislation regarding the employment of young people. Do you think this should change? Does your program involve any measures regarding this issue?

Young people face the triple whammy of more selective education that will have a class bias and worsen inter-generational disadvantage; increased tuition fees but with reduced university places and projects such as the Future Jobs Fund cut. I oppose in all its forms age discrimination and strongly object to the coalition government’s justification of austerity measures on the grounds of safeguarding the future generation – all their actions so far contradict this.

The National Minimum Wage (NMW) in the UK is currently 5.86 an hour.  Do you believe this should be adjusted to reflect the reality of the labour market?

No, there should be a living wage and this is supported by the National Equality Panel’s report to government earlier this year. The National Equality Panel’s (NEP) argued that an increased NMW would significantly reduce inequality in the UK.

Which sector of the workforce do you consider most vulnerable?

Workers in unionised workplaces benefit from what’s called the ‘union advantage’, for example better pay and conditions including health and safety standards. Seasonal workers, the hospitality and wider service sectors, home workers, bogus self-employed, agency and part-time workers, however, are  vulnerable to exploitation and unfair treatment. I served on the Commission on Vulnerable Employment and it was clear to me then that the Gangmasters Licensing Authority needed greater powers and wider scope.

Statutory bodies require greater coordination of information exchange and there is a lack of community based advice available to vulnerable workers. Women, black, Asian and minority ethnic workers are exploited in disproportionate numbers, which is why it’s important that the future General Secretary of Unite understand the issues and leads a strategy to organize these workers as well as push for improved legal protection.

On July of this year the British government decided to put a temporary limit on the entrance of non-European immigrants until an official figure is adopted in April 2011.  What do you think, specifically about this measure, and the new immigration policy of the new Lib-Con government?

Trade unions exist to protect all workers irrespective of their ethnicity or heritage. UK politicians tend to use immigration as a political football that plays into the hands of the far right and I believe unions should avoid aligning with this agenda.

Do you think that this measure could have an adverse affect on the British economy?

Any irrational blanket decision restricting incoming workers may indeed have adverse consequences.

Has the current trend of unemployment caused an increase in the amount of  job-seekers? In which areas do these jobseekers specialize in?

Unemployment forecasts show no sectors of the economy will be spared job losses. Of particular concern is the disproportionate impact on young people and the number of women involuntarily working reduced hours.

 

What is your opinion on the employment situation of Latin American and Spanish Immigrants in the UK?

The experience of immigrants and newly settled communities throughout our history is a story of exploitation and oppression. Low pay, long hours, poor housing and discrimination combine to create conditions of social and economic inequality that can blight future generations. Yet I have experienced first- hand the strength of community self-organisation and alliances with progressive organizations including trade unions.

In which campaigns to improve the working situation of immigrants have you participated?

Over the decades in which I have been a trade union activist I have worked with refugee groups in political solidarity and with the liberation movements of South Africa and Palestine. From my workplace in the graphics sector I was able to convince our union and the International Graphical Federation to expel the racist South African Typographical Union as a part of the international struggle to isolate the apartheid regime.

As a young activist I worked with unions to produce employment rights advice and union material in a range of languages. When working as a Regional Official I organized workplaces with diverse workforces around improving pay and against discrimination. I was National Officer for equality and led a variety of campaigns to support migrant and immigrant worker’s rights.  More recently I campaigned against the changes in access to English As a Second Language courses.

What is your opinion on the presence of foreign workers in Unite?

Our union has an absolute obligation to practice what we preach. That means understanding that members are entitled to non-discriminatory treatment as workers and members. Yet beyond that obligation Unite must implement positive action, removing any barriers to equal participation, language or cultural.

Do you think that your contribution can be positive for the union?

Yes, I have a lifelong commitment to equality and my life experiences and opportunities are testimony to the hugely positive impact membership of a union can have on individuals and collectively. For example I owe my education to the union. I would relish the opportunity to lead a union that ‘walked the talk’ on equality and unity of purpose.

Are there many Spanish members in Unite? Has unemployment led to a rise in the number of Spanish members of Unite?

I regret that ethnic monitoring of Unite’s membership is at a very formative stage. This is due to both the various mergers but also to a lack of real commitment. I know the importance of ethnic monitoring to properly monitor and audit the union’s performance in relation to services and participation and I would instill some urgency in getting ethnic monitoring up and running.

Certain companies and organizations abuse their foreign workers, particularly illegal immigrants. What measures do you believe are necessary to combat these situations?

All the recommendations of the Commission on Vulnerable Workers should be implemented. However the position of undocumented workers is particularly precarious. My fear is that spending cuts to be rolled out at the October Comprehensive Spending Review will severely reduce funding to advice organizations, active and trusted within minority ethnic communities. The exploitation of undocumented workers serves only to add to the profits of unscrupulous employers – the business of any union is to expose and tackle unscrupulous employment practices.

Some associations of Latin American workers defend the right of illegal immigrants in the UK to join unions.  What is your opinion on this matter?

Unions need to be upfront regarding the benefits that are available to members and it would be wrong to raise expectations in relation to legal challenges. That said, unions at all levels have a proud record of defending vulnerable workers, for example against deportation.

 

What do you think about the working situation of workers in the UK, in general, whether they are immigrants of British nationals?

Workers in the UK are more vulnerable compared to many other EU countries. It is cheaper and easier to sack UK workers and we can see decent work being relocated to lower wage economies. Union organization within the UK and between unions internationally is the only way I know of improving workers’ opportunities to have decent and secure work.

The cornerstone of effective trade unionism is unity between workers irrespective of gender, heritage and ethnicity, sexual orientation or disability. As general secretary I would use every ounce of my energy and commitment to lead a united union in the interests of all our members and their families.

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