Globe, Struggles, Trade Unions, United Kingdom, Workers

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW – Gerard Coyne: “We should challenge discrimination wherever it exists”

One of the challenger to the current leadership of Unite claims that the majority of their members voted for Brexit. After that, the challenge is to train workers who are already in the United Kingdom to face difficult times.


Gerard Coyne
Gerard Coyne

Marcos Ortiz F.


Coyne, 49, has been a member of the Unite union for 27 years, and today he works as the West Midlands Regional Secretary. Perceived by the majority of analysts as the most moderate of the three candidates competing to become General Secretary of the union, he claims to have already got the 50 nominations necessary to run.

Opposed to zero-hours contracts and lack of stability for those who work for agencies, Coyne argues that lack of skills and training and automation of certain tasks are some of the issues that must be addressed as soon as possible.

In a break between two meetings with union groups, he explains: “We must ensure that those migrant workers who are living and working in the United Kingdom have every right to remain here, just like the almost 5 million British citizens that are living and working in Europe have the same right to remain in Europe.”

migrant 1 London pixabay

What is your position on the freedom of movement for work?

My position is that the referendum last year gave a very clear signal in terms of what the views of Unite members were. Unite members, and the conversations I’ve been having with them, were overwhelmingly in favour of Brexit.

Now my view is that when you listen to the European leaders there is no access to the single market without open borders. That’s very clear from the negotiation positions that they are putting forward at the moment.

The reality is that the UK has got to face up to a situation where, if it is going to enforce closed borders, which is what a lot of Unite members were voting for, then we have to understand we are going to be outside of the EU and start preparing for that now. That means investing in skills, it means ensuring that we tie down investments from employers for 10 to 20 years inside the UK.

down and homeless mendigo pobre pixabay 8For Unite, are foreign workers as much of a priority as the rest of the workers?

Absolutely. My current job is Regional Secretary in the West Midlands, where we have organised and brought into the union agency labour which is overwhelmingly migrant workers. It is the basis of equality we should be defending and organising and making sure that those workers receive their rights, and are protected.

What would you do to end zero-hours contracts? They have risen by 20% in the last year.

There is almost a million people now on zero-hour contracts. Overwhelmingly, they are young people. I think that we have to –the Union– tackle them as effectively as we can. One of the specific proposals I’ve got is to introduce a Family Membership for Unite so that the young children of mums and dads who are members of the union and who are working on zero-hour contracts have the legal back-up and the support from the union to prevent them being exploited.

It’s a really worrying development along with the agency-workers that are in the UK economy. Actually, they are marginalised workers that don’t get the full protection of the law and they should do.

You said that you do not want to “play politics”, but rather to work for the 1.4 million members. What will happen to those not affiliated and who are working in precarious conditions?

My view is that Unite has a responsibility to organise those workers. We need to bring them into the union. But we have to be relevant to them. Part of the reason why we’ve got this exploitation taking place is that sometimes workers are afraid to join the trade union, but also we are not being as active as we could be to recruit them and to make sure that the union’s services are relevant to them.

Haití 3 pixabayI really believe that we need to be working much more in those sectors where we know that exploitation is taking place. And I am thinking very much of agriculture, of food processing, of logistics. These things that used to happen in the 19th century of hiring labour a bit on the dark side where people are literally picked for a night’s work – if they don’t agree, they don’t get a job.

You said that “we are living in an age of chronic insecurity”. If this is the reality for British workers, what do you think it is like for those who fear the consequences of Brexit? 

Arguably Brexit is going to be the biggest single “shock” to the UK economy since the end of the Second World War. And I think that there are a number of sectors that are going to find the next two years of uncertainty very difficult, and then the next 10 to 20 years extremely difficult in terms of retaining jobs in the UK and making sure that employers invest.

inglaterra luna pixabayThat’s why I think we can’t lose any time at the moment preparing for the UK’s exit from Europe, but why we should be talking to major employers about their investment strategies and it’s why we should be investing now in training and upskilling lots of the unemployed workforce to make sure that we have the skills and expertise needed for the challenges of Brexit.

But there is also a change in the workplace that has seen much more automation and in that way, it is also going to change working patterns in the UK economy. It’s a double-edged challenge for us, both in terms of the immediate impact of Brexit but also in terms of automation and the increased use of technology to change the way work happens.

For you, how important are Latin American workers to Unite? Are there specific policies for them?

Currently we have structures in place for committees that recognize black and Asian ethnic minority workers.

Gerard Coyne largeBut my view is that we don’t do enough on this and we need to do more. It’s about how the union challenges discrimination and harassment in the workplace. Those who work through the larger employers in the main, but not exclusively, have got good agreements in place on equal opportunities, in tackling bullying, discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

But, actually, the companies that supply into them don’t have as good employment practices. We should challenge discrimination wherever it exists. We should be using the pressure and the power that we have with the larger employers to make sure the medium and small-size companies honour their commitments.

This is to make sure that the Latino workers, the black workers, the Asian workers are treated with dignity and respect wherever they work. I am firmly committed to establishing those integrated equality committees.

(Intro Translated by Donna Davison. Email:


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