‘The real enemies of the working class don’t arrive in a small boat. They fly in by private jet.’

Paul Nowak
© Jess Hurd

Below is the full text of a speech delivered by TUC general secretary Paul Nowak to TUC Congress in Liverpool this morning:

Thirty four years ago, I started work at ASDA just over the water in Bromborough. And I joined the union when someone handed me a form on my first day at work. Five years later, as an activist in a call centre, I was sacked by an agency because I’d helped organise a union.

And a few years after that, the wonderful Frances O’Grady, who’s here today… Frances took a chance and gave this gobby activist from Merseyside a place on the TUC organising academy. And not once during all my time as a union activist did I ever think I would be stood here in Liverpool as General Secretary of the TUC.

But here I am – and I can’t imagine feeling prouder or more humbled than I do right now. Congress, thank you for your support and welcome to Liverpool! 

When you come out of the centre later – look across the Mersey- you can literally see the hospital where I was born. Liverpool is where I went to college, went to work, met my wife, Vicky, and raised our family. But like so many in this city, my roots stretch out across the world 

My grandads, Chin Tsang -Jimmy- and Jozef Nowak – came here in the second world war, played their part in the fight against fascism, married strong Liverpool Irish women, and stayed.

Jimmy came from Hong Kong, a cook in the merchant navy.When the war was over, Britain rounded up and deported hundreds of Chinese sailors from this city. Somehow he managed to stay, married Betty, and they brought up my mum, and her ten sisters and brothers in Liverpool’s Chinatown.

My grandad Joe was an engineer in the Polish RAF. He married Peggy, and they had my dad, and his five brothers and sisters.Joe spent most of his life working in English Electric on the East Lancs Road. A hard worker, a wonderful dad and grandad, and a man who woke up with night terrors because of what he’d seen during the war.

I am proud to be the grandson of immigrants, proud of my family and proud of the contribution that they, and millions like them have made to this country. So when I hear the Home Secretary talking of a “migrant invasion”, that her dream is to deport people to Rwanda, when I see immigrants housed on a barge with legionella, or hear that the Immigration Minister ordered a mural for kids painted over .. for me – it is personal.

Because the real enemies of the working class don’t arrive in a small boat. They fly in by private jet.

Our movement stands with all working people, wherever they were born, whatever their race, whatever their nationality. Every migrant is my sister, my brother, and this government shames us all.

Because our country should never turn its back on those fleeing persecution, poverty or war. I am proud of this city. Proud of the way it has picked itself up, proud of those who’ve helped regenerate it. But look beyond the gleaming dockside, the museums, the tourists, the students, the football, the music, the nightlife.

In this city, one in five adults is out of work  One in three local kids – trapped by poverty. Demand for foodbanks doubles every year. And a quarter of a million people are sat on NHS waiting lists. Here in Liverpool alone.

And it’s not just Liverpool. It’s everywhere. Nothing works in this country anymore. And no-one in government cares. The Conservatives have broken Britain.

They’ve had 13 years to sort out crumbling concrete in our schools. But five days before the new term, they tell schools they can’t open. Because – and I quote the education secretary – everyone sat on their arses.

Could you think of a more perfect metaphor for this government? A crisis of their making: someone else gets the blame.

Useless. Incompetent. Past their sell by date.

Yet, this government that can’t keep our rivers clean, or run trains on time, or run a functioning NHS, can find time to attack the right to strike. 

Congress: the right to strike is fundamental. Without the right to withdraw our labour workers become disposable, replaceable, exploitable. This new law isn’t about preserving services for the public. It’s about telling us to get back in our place. Don’t demand better. Sit down. Shut up. 

Well that’s not going to happen. Not on our watch. We fought their attack on the right to strike in Parliament. We’ll fight it at the ILO and in the courts. And, when the first worker is sacked for refusing to work on a strike day, we’ll fight it in workplaces and on the picket lines, and Congress, this movement will fight it every single day until it is repealed! 

Now, my dad, John, spent most of his working life as a welder. He worked at Cammell Laird in Birkenhead across the river. But if you know that industry, you know this- sometimes there was work, sometimes there wasn’t. 

And sometimes the only work going was on the other side of the world. But he and my mum, Anne, knew that they were building the chance of a better life for me and my brother John when we were born – in the seventies. There may not have been a lot of money around, but we took the basics for granted.

No food banks in every town. No legions of people sleeping on our streets. Jobs,  good union jobs, paid good union wages. Families expected that life would be better for their kids than it was for them. 

That’s all we ask for now. Wages that go up . Waiting lists that come down. Kids that aren’t hungry. Working people treated with respect. Able to go on holiday every summer. To take the kids out. To treat them at Christmas. It shouldn’t be too much to ask for. But it’s a long way from where we are. 

And I know who’s to blame: This cabinet of millionaires…Disconnected. Dysfunctional. Disgraceful. 

I’ve been general secretary for nine months travelling up and down the country talking to reps and activists. Reps like Daz who showed me round Airbus, where there are four thousand union members in a world class employer. Ahmed, Colin and Jimmy – reps at B&M – where both the company and the union are growing fast. Joanne, a rep at a mental health hospital in Blackpool, standing up for outsourced cleaners.

And three messages came back to me from each and every conversation with reps and members. One – we’ve got to build stronger unions. Two – working people are hurting – but the wealthy have never had it so good. And three – it’s time for change in Westminster. Let me start with our own movement, because this is the stuff we can do ourselves.

Not waiting for an election. Not waiting for legislation. What we can do right here, right now.

Those Tory ministers who say that strikes don’t work?

Tell that to the Jacob’s workers who won six and a half per cent. To the Kingsmill bakers who won nine per cent. And to the Liverpool dockers who won an incredible eighteen per cent pay rise. And tell that to the public sector workers across the UK, in health, in education, in the civil service. Voting for action, taking action, winning better deals for members. 

By any measure it’s been a massive year for unions. But despite the wins, despite the media coverage, despite the new activists, our membership is not growing. So many young workers support our campaigns, but they don’t join our unions.

All too often there isn’t a union in their workplace. No rep comes over on day one – like they did to me – and gets them to sign up. Congress: nothing is more important than building a stronger trade union movement.

Because it’s a stronger movement that can deliver the change workers need. It matters every day, in workplaces. And it matters in the face of the big challenges too. Without strong unions, the shift to net zero will see good jobs destroyed, communities ruined. Without strong unions, artificial Intelligence and new technology will deliver a digital dividend for the tech giants, not workers.

And without strong unions, workers will never have the power to enforce their rights at work. Look – my job is to lead the TUC. I can’t recruit members to unions – only you can do that. But here’s what I can do. Reps are the beating heart of our movement. But our reps need to reflect today’s working class. So starting today, the TUC will train at least 500 new Black activists each and every year. Employers coordinate- so we must coordinate.

And so this year, we’ll ask our unions to come together and organise across whole industries. And I’m proud, following the scandal at P&O, that our first joint union campaign will be organising seafarers with Nautilus and the RMT. No more P&Os!

And we will expand the “Our Work Matters” campaign to seek union recognition for every outsourced facilities worker, at Serco, Sodexo, ISS, Mitie and more. No matter the contract. No matter the workplace. No matter the employer. Every outsourced worker needs a union! 

We will turn our Solidarity Hubwhich has helped unions win so many strike campaigns into a Growth Hub. To turn union wins into union membership. So if you beeped your horn as you passed a picket line. If you signed a petition or shared it on social media. If you thought, “you know what, good for them, standing up for themselves”.

There is a union for every job. There is a union for every industry. There is a union for you.

Join a union today. Because when you join us: together we will win. More workplaces – recognised. More wage rises – bargained for. And, deal by deal, workplace by workplace, built by unions and working people, a more equal society.

The past 13 years have been tough. But not everybody has suffered. Last year Britain’s top bosses saw their pay rocket by half a million pounds each. Porsche reported record sales in the UK. And a single bottle of Scotch sold for three hundred thousand pounds. I say again: The real enemies of the working class don’t arrive in a small boat. They fly in by private jet. They bank record profits. 

And then they have the gall to tell workers not to ask for a pay rise. It’s not right. It’s not fair, and it’s not sustainable. We need an economy that rewards work – not wealth. This much inequality is bad for our economy. Fairness and growth go hand in hand.

And that’s why those with the broadest shoulders should bear the greatest load. And here’s a few things that any Prime Minister – even this Prime Minister –  could do today. Let’s start by closing every single loophole – like those for non-doms. Levying VAT on the fees for private schools and beefing up revenue and customs so we can clamp down on the tax cheats

And why stop there? We could have proper windfall tax on the energy companies that would raise two billion pounds extra this year. We could ask the richest 140 thousand people to pay just little bit more and raise another ten billion this year. We could tax capital gains at the same rate as wages and raise twelve billion pounds this year and every year.

Congress, It’s time for fair taxes. Time for a fairer Britain. But that fairer Britain won’t be delivered by this government. So if like me, you’re tired of this country where nothing works, tired of a government of the rich for the rich, tired of rampant inequality: vote them out. 

Last year Keir Starmer addressed this Congress. I heard him. You heard him. He didn’t just make us a promise .He set out a plan 

 A new deal for workers.The biggest expansion of workers’ rights in a generation. No more zero hours contracts. No more fire and rehire. Employment rights from day one. Union rights to access the workplace. New fair pay agreements. Repealing that attack on the right to strike.

That will be the choice at the next election. We want that first one hundred days Employment Bill through in one piece. Onto the statute book.  And into the workplaces. And that’s why when the time comes I will tell anyone who asks – vote for working people. Vote for change. Vote for the party we named for our movement.

Vote Labour.

Look, I’ve talked enough. You’ve heard me set out a challenge to unions to get this movement growing again. A challenge to our politicians to ask more of those who already have the most, and a challenge to both wings of our movement to kick this rotten government out of office. Let’s go united into that next election. Let’s deliver that new deal. Let’s win for working people.

Solidarity, Congress.

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