Interview with Christina McAnea: Compromise, Communists and Red Clydeside

Christina McAnea is often accused of being the right-wing candidate in the race to be UNISON’s next general secretary. “I’m slightly bemused that I’ve been seen as that,” the current frontrunner tells me, as we chat over Zoom. “I say to people who know me that it’s the first time I’ve been called right-wing in my life.”

McAnea grew up in poverty-ridden, 1970s Glasgow. At the time, it was home to the three biggest council estates in Europe: Easterhouse, Castlemilk and Drumchapel. She lived in the latter, on the banks of the Clyde, just a few miles from the river’s famous shipyards. Her mother worked as a school cleaner, then a school meals worker, while her father, who became an alcoholic after his experiences in the war, left when she was 11. Throughout most of her childhood, she was on free school meals and once her father died the family started claiming benefits.

“We were definitely one of the poor families on the street,” McAnea tells me. “We lived in that hand-to-mouth existence where if anything goes wrong it’s a major catastrophe because you don’t have savings.” Every time she needed school shoes or a school uniform, it would be a new crisis for the family. From age 15, she had to start working constantly to keep her three siblings and mother afloat. “Just seeing the unfairness that was around was something that has stuck with me,” she says. “I think in some ways it’s even worse than that now. I think people’s opportunity to escape that and move on is even worse. When I was young, education was free.” She later adds: “Now I almost never meet anyone younger than me who’s come from that kind of background.”

Despite their circumstances, her mother was an avid reader with a passion for left-wing politics: “My mother always voted Communist if she could.” It was partly from her that McAnea first got the idea to join the Communist Party herself aged 15. “I grew up in a Catholic school and I would always question some of the assumptions that were made about religion and women and things like that,” she tells me. “I already had that rebellious streak, in that sense, but I always say I was a bit of a dull teenager. I was the person going to the library every night.”

Her joining the Communists may not be a huge surprise: ‘Red Clydeside’, as the area was once known, has a long history of radical left-wing activism. During McAnea’s childhood, it was the setting for the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders strike, where workers protested closures by continuing to work the shipyards after they were supposed to shut. It was seeing one of the strike leaders, Jimmy Reid, speak of his ideals that caused her to sign up. “I’ve never forgotten it,” she explains. In a packed Glasgow city hall, Reed spoke notes-free for two hours about his vision for society.

“Obviously they planned this, I now realise, but there were people walking up and down the aisle with boards and they were signing you up to the Communist Party,” she chuckles. “I joined.” She stayed with the Communists for the next decade, between working and eventually going to university. Then she left. “It just felt to me if I wanted to achieve real change, I couldn’t do it through the Communist Party,” she says. “Even if you don’t always achieve everything you want, you achieve nothing if you’re not in power.”

This pragmatism continues to inform her work. “For me, being a trade union activist and official, it’s always been ‘okay here’s the vision but how do you turn that vision into something that’s a reality?’,” McAnea says. “Having a great vision is fantastic and you need that, but then you have to also manage staff and resources to be able to put that vision into practice on the ground.” This approach shapes her views of the Labour Party. A 30-year party member, she tells me she now supports Keir Starmer as leader but has seen countless party leaders come and go, and has “never been a big believer in the cult of leadership”. As a UNISON officer, her two priorities when it comes to Labour are: “Is it still going in the direction we want it to go in and is it still making itself electable?”.

McAnea first started working for a trade union as a tribunals officer for the GMB in her native Glasgow. From there, she moved to their London office as a legal officer and to support the equalities team. She helped draft some of the rule book changes for the union that last to this day. “It was a fantastic experience.” From there it was on to the National and Local Government Officers’ Association (NALGO), one of the trade unions that would eventually merge to form UNISON. Over the years, she has worked as head negotiator in UNISON’s education and healthcare teams, as well as equalities officer, before eventually becoming the union’s assistant general secretary in charge of negotiating.

What does she think of the accounts of trade union sexism, in light of the GMB report? “I was genuinely shocked by that and surprised if I’m being honest,” McAnea says, but adds that there was sexism when she worked at GMB and “very few woman negotiators around”. She explains: “When I started, I would turn up to a set of negotiations and it was very common to be the only woman in the room… I think I held my own there. I was not particularly intimidated by it.” McAnea adds that she believes “sexist attitudes have decreased” and “every year they’ve got better”.

The general secretary candidate deftly sidesteps questions about Scottish independence and UNISON’s financial support for Labour, saying “it’s a matter for the members” on both counts. She does tell me that she suspects UNISON’s Scottish committees will “find it difficult to remain neutral” on a second referendum, given all the public support for independence at the moment, but avoids sharing her personal view on the issue. As she explains, it would be wrong to “tell places like Scotland and Northern Ireland or indeed Wales, you have to do certain things”.

Cynics might dismiss ‘leaving it to the members’ as an excuse, but McAnea presents it as part of a wider vision. “I think we have centralised too much in UNISON and we have to decentralise,” she explains. “It’s about saying to regions, you’re now having to deal with a whole range of political, organisational, industrial issues that happen in your area and you need the resources and the freedom to be able to do that without constantly having to come back and ask us things all the time.” For all the talk about warring factions in this general secretary election, the response sounds similar to the radical devolution and member empowerment being championed by other candidates in the general secretary race.

Describing her best moments while working in the trade union movement, McAnea raises her work organising for the 2014 NHS staff strike. It was “the first strike in the NHS in over 20 years”, she proudly tells me. “That was a fantastic moment. And I don’t mean this because strikes are a great achievement – you could argue that having ended up with a strike is not a great achievement – but it’s still exciting to be involved in a big national dispute.” After months of sustained industrial action, eventually, the government came back to the table. “We didn’t get everything we wanted, but we certainly got an improvement.”

McAnea says the biggest threat to UNISON members going forward is Covid, and specifically the Tory austerity that will undoubtedly come in the years after the pandemic. “It’s now a question of, are we strong enough to fight back and resist that?”. She says over the last few months she has “put a challenge to all our bargaining groups in all our regions and said: ‘do you feel you are strike ready?’.” The assistant general secretary explains that her job is just as much about handling strike action as it is negotiating. “Negotiations and disputes are on the same scale,” she says. “They’re opposite sides of the same coin.”

Why does McAnea believe she is being called the right-wing candidate? “You’re always going to get people who think the answer to everything is a strike and that we should never compromise, but as a negotiator, you know compromise is part of what you do up to a point,” she explains. “But the other side of negotiating is you have to be ready and prepared to take strike action when it’s needed and I’ve always been up for that.” The assistant general secretary tells me that a long career can make you an “easy target” for some. “If you’ve had to take tough decisions about pensions or pay disputes, there will always be people who are unhappy with the outcome.” She pauses before adding: “I’ve had it for 25 years, I’m used to it.”

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