Paul Kenny – 2012 Speech to TUC Conference

Below is the text of the speech made by Paul Kenny to the 2012 TUC Conference on 9th September 2012.

I am proud and honoured to address this 144th Congress of the TUC as President.

This past year has flown by. A year in which our trade union movement, mobilised millions of people into campaigning for pensions justice.

The biggest demonstration of civil and political defiance in living memory brought home to politicians and pundits that trade unionism was alive, well and kicking.

The Prime Minister called last November’s demonstrations ‘a damp squib’.

Sounds of laughter over his ill-advised refusal to acknowledge the two million plus people taking action could be heard from Glasgow to Gloucester, Cardiff to Carlisle.

Predictions of our demise as a movement were again somewhat premature!

One hundred years ago in Newport, the TUC held its 1912 conference. The President that year was Will Thorne, acknowledged as a founding figure of the Gas Workers Union which today has become the GMB.

Thorne was from the new breed of trade unionism, gas workers, labourers, dockers and general workers whose struggles culminated in the formation of new unionism, which by 1912 had come of age.

The TUC met in 1912 in good heart, membership was up by just under 350,000 to two million, a staggering increase in just a year. Membership at two million, and it was said in the years up to that milestone that trade unions were spent, a thing of the past, trade unions were a dying breed.

Will Thorne, Ben Tillet and others did not buy into that defeatist propaganda of one hundred years ago and we reject those same attacks today.

Two million became 12 million and today we stand above six million.

The challenge to us, with all the physical, financial and organisational assets the movement possess, is to recreate the energy, vision and political will to define ourselves clearly again.

This movement can be proud of what it has achieved for both the prosperity and people of our nation.

Many things taken for granted in today’s society did not land courtesy of politicians’ slumbers.

They came from the passion for social justice which has been at the forefront of our movement for the last hundred years and beyond.

I have never been lucky enough to have worked for any employer who came in on a Monday morning and confessed they had been unable to sleep all weekend worrying about whether I had enough pay, holidays, sick pay, pension benefits, respect at work, dignity and rights to be treated fairly.

These are the values our movement stands up for and it has been trade union collective bargaining and action which has secured work and social benefits which so many today rely on.

It is easy to remember just a few short years ago how those trade union voices which called for equality in our society were rounded on.

How trade union campaigns for gender, race and sexual orientation rights and an end to the discrimination endured by so many were attacked as political correctness and just plain loony left grandstanding.

Who today would take anything other than pride for the changes in attitude and process achieved by those campaigns?

But a word of caution, admiring what has been achieved must never slide into a failure of purpose over that which is still to be gained.

It is also clear, as we know only too well, that hard won advances and rights through industrial and political actions have to be defended, particularly where such advances edge into the power of such vested interests as those employers and politicians who argue for a ‘no rights culture’ of exploitation, insecurity and social conflict.

This year’s Congress badge is a simple message ‘Union and Proud’, because we should be. What working people have created by way of social change through their membership of trade unions is truly remarkable and deserves celebration.

As trade unionists we are a particular type of human being, it is our values for fighting injustice, campaigning for others, and our vision of a society based on equality of opportunity, which drives our agenda.

That is why so many in Government, the CBI or the IoD do not understand what makes us tick.

Their values are based on individual wealth gathering and free market exploitation with some lip service to the deserving poor!

Every essential requirement of a modern democracy is seen as a business opportunity to be exploited and ransacked, irrespective of the long-term costs to the economy or its citizens.

The destruction of social housing, energy policy, rail and transport infrastructure, were all carried through for reasons of commercial exploitation and those basic tenets of a planned economy which require long-term planning and investment, swept away in favour of the quick buck.

And see if you can guess who warned successive governments of the disasters of such moves.

Who said PFI would be a financial disaster?

Who said the culture of bankers’ bonuses was wrong and dangerous?

Who said paying billions to the private landlords instead of building affordable social housing was nonsense?

Who was it said that if you do not carry out maintenance on our railways, safety for passengers and staff would be compromised and, were we right?

Who for years has demanded action over the tax avoidance and evasion schemes so beloved of certain politicians and the City?

Who has led the charge for action on the scandal of over a million young people who are victims of this government’s economic experiments?

On jobs, public services, welfare and so much more, it has been the trade union movement centre stage and sometimes the only voice.

And who has been solid in demanding decent pensions for all?

And our movement’s gains on health and safety in the workplace did not land from outer space.

They arrived by way of a road built with the blood and broken bones of those thousands of victims of avoidable accidents, employer negligence and political indifference, which we continue to campaign against.

Trade unions are often the only course of support a person has when it comes to defending themselves against bullying at work or when seeking training, parental leave or plain old fashioned respect.

Trade unions are the largest collective body for good and social justice in the world and, if as a movement we do not stand for social justice, then we stand for nothing.

Our challenge is to grow, to organise those industries and workers which in some cases we have avoided, perhaps because of the difficulty of the task.

In the run up to the Pensions Day of Action, some unions discovered what some others had forgotten, people joined the union movement in their tens of thousands because we both spoke up for their interests and organised on a scale not seen for quite a while.

This historic year for the TUC has culminated in the election of Frances O’Grady, the first woman to occupy the office of TUC General Secretary.

Congratulations to Frances and best wishes for the future. But I hope that one day soon the election of a woman to leadership will create no more interest, comment or surprise, because it will have become far more frequent in all walks of life.

And a brief word of thanks to Brendan Barber, history will show that a transformation took place under his time in office.

Brendan leaves with the respect and thanks of us all for his contribution and help.

The fact that he announced his retirement after spending twenty two hours in a plane with me, on route to Australia is merely coincidental.

And a big thank you to all the staff at Congress House and in the regions for their wonderful dedicated work on our behalf. We truly have some very talented, principled, passionate people working for us all at the TUC and I for one am grateful for all they have done.

To my own union, the GMB, thank you for giving me the support to carry out at least parts of the duties of President this past year.

I end this address with a single message. Our trade union movement has so much to be proud about. We do not need to hide or apologise for who we are or for what we seek.

Are trade unions, a vested interest?

You had better believe it. We are.

But for a better, more equal society.