UWU: Why an independent union for paid trade union staff is needed

Andrew Kersley

If you work for a trade union and have a dispute with your employer, where do you turn? The Union Workers Union (UWU), a new trade union for trade union employees, was launched in March to answer that very question. LabourList spoke to UWU general secretary Chris Musgrave to find out more…

Andrew: Why do you feel a trade union for union employees is necessary?

Chris: There are lots of unions that don’t recognise an independent union for their staff for the sake of collective bargaining. Many of us find that kind of extraordinary, given what unions do for their members on a daily basis. We believe as trade unionists that all workers, regardless of who they work for, should have access to an independent, campaigning and member-led union to advance their wants and wishes.

Quite often, we feel the interests of unions conflict with the interests of union workers. That conflict quite often leads to a detrimental situation for union workers. The union movement rightly is at the vanguard of various different projects in terms of equality. There are very few and in some cases no equality networks for the paid staff of trade unions, so we’re in the process of setting those up along protected characteristic lines.

Would you say unions are unable to police themselves?

There are some unions that are excellent employers, who very much are the change they want to see. There are probably more unions that don’t maintain those standards. I think the reasons for that are numerous.

Quite often it’s political: lots of unions adopt a particular political ideology, which could be detrimental to the paid staff of the union. Quite often it’s financial: lots of unions are struggling financially for one reason or another. The union movement has been in decline since 1979 – subscriptions and pay rates have stagnated since then, while costs have increased.

But this is the uncomfortable truth: some unions are not in financial difficulty, and they just choose to be bad employers. And that really is at the heart of why we need an independent union.

You mentioned “political reasons”. What do you mean by that?

Some unions’ executives are populated by individuals that hold the ideology that paid staff are bureaucrats who are overpaid and don’t deserve the good pay, terms and conditions that they receive.

By those individuals, would it be fair to say you mean the Socialist Party or Socialist Workers Party?

Yes, it would. Not exclusively, but yes generally.

Moving on to UWU itself. How does the organisation work?

At the moment, we are completely member-run. All of our activists work on a purely voluntary basis, outside of their working time. We are predominately the paid staff of various trade unions. At the moment, we have members at 24 different UK unions. We have an executive committee of nine people and they do the bulk of the work, in terms of maintaining the website, writing content, providing casework support, representation and advice to members or developing campaigns.

Bear in mind we only got listed back in March, so we’re still in the process of establishing branches. We have four functioning branches and more under development. We have said that each national union is its own branch and will get support.

What do you hope to achieve?

We would like to be the union for paid trade union staff. That said, we don’t want to take members away from other unions – most of us in the UWU have double carded or even triple carded for years. We very much see UWU membership as something to augment the membership of other trade unions.

How did you first get involved in trade unionism?

I started my career in the civil service and I joined a recognised union – PCS [Public and Commercial Services Union]. I come from a family of miners in the Welsh valleys, so trade unionism is something I was brought up on. What really activated me was the New Labour centralisation programme. There was a proposal to close a load of regional tax offices where I worked, and I became involved and eventually led the campaign to save the offices.

It kind of grew from there. I was working for PCS on a local and a national level, and then in 2010 I did the TUC organising academy. I left the civil service at that point and took up a job at the NUT [the National Union of Teachers, now part of the NEU]. I went from there to work for UNISON for a while as a regional organiser focusing on more industrial disputes. After that, I worked for the ATL [Association of Teachers and Lecturers, also now a part of the NEU]. I recently left there to work for the Royal College of Nursing.

You’ve worked across a lot of the union movement in your time. What has convinced you of the need for a trade union for union workers?

Some of the trade unions I have worked for have been among the best employers and some of them have been among the worst. I suppose I would say I’ve seen how to do it and how not to do it. That’s at the heart of the UWU, really. We want to celebrate that best practice and promote that best practice and encourage all trade unions to be the change they want to see.

We recently saw the publication of the damning report into institutional sexism at GMB. What’s your view on how widespread sexism is in the union movement as a whole?

I think it’s rife in the trade union movement. I attended one of our branch meetings this week, and one of our members said you could quite easily have put any union’s name in that GMB report. It exists across the movement and manifests itself in different ways in different organisations, sometimes it’s more overt, sometimes it’s more subtle, but it’s ever-present.

And unfortunately, it isn’t just sexism. Many of our members have experiences racism, which is a fairly open secret in the union movement right now. Right now we’re working with the UWU women’s network and the UWU Black members network to come up with a charter, which we’re hoping to launch next year to get unions as employers to sign up to.

What would you say are the biggest problems in the union movement right now?

We have got four campaigns that are the central pieces of our work. The first one is defending pay and pensions. We’re seeing increasing numbers of unions looking to reduce particularly hard-fought-for pension arrangements.

Secondly, there’s institutional racism. We believe that there is a significant problem in the movement with institutional racism, to greater or lesser extents. What we want to see is a greater number of BAME workers employed in the union movement and a greater number moving up into middle and senior leadership positions because we are woefully behind even some of the worst employers we negotiate with.

The third one is a very similar campaign but for women members. There are a significant number of women workers in the union movement but a significantly low number in leadership positions, so we’re campaigning on that.

The final one, but by no means the least one, is the growing issue of transphobia in the movement. We passionately support trans rights and we’re campaigning for a clearer and better understanding of trans rights across the movement.

In light of the GMB report and movements like Black Lives Matter, do you expect trade unions to make any changes?

I think they should, but I don’t think they will. Some unions are locked into a particular way of doing things and without the involvement of organisations like the UWU and others, I don’t think they’ll change on their own. But there is hope. We’re in the midst of a round of general secretary elections for some of the bigger unions, so the effect of that change in leadership remains to be seen.

UWU currently has a small membership, so what can you do for those members right now? 

Our membership is small. We only got listed in March of this year, so we only have about 120 members in 24 different unions. We hope in future to be the union for all paid staff in trade unions. We estimate there is in the region of about 5,000 potential members within the UK so from that perspective we will never be a mass union like Unite, UNISON or GMB. Our pool of members is small, but what we hope to do is work collaboratively with sister unions to improve the working lives of our members.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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