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‘Some tough battles along the way’

Unite GS Len McCluskey moves vote of thanks for outgoing TUC president
Len McCluskey, Unite general secretary, Sunday, September 8th, 2019


Unite general secretary Len McCluskey moved the vote of thanks to the outgoing TUC president, Mark Serwotka.

 

He said:

 

I’m delighted to move this vote of thanks to our presiding president.

 

He’s spent a year campaigning up and down the country against austerity, for a general election, for a Jeremy Corbyn-led government and, above all, for stronger unions.

 

I wasn’t able to be at the latest of those rallies, the People’s Assembly Stop Boris rally in Parliament Square last week.

 

But I’m told that Mark swore more in his speech than I’ve ever done.

 

What a remarkable trade unionist and trade union Leader with a proven track record Mark is. Not least because for a time as PCS GS he literally had no pulse.

 

Now I’ve known a few politicians and trade union leaders who I’ve suspected didn’t.

 

But never known one who really didn’t.

 

Thankfully for all of us he was in the capable hands of our NHS.

 

So how did Mark get here? For one of the least bureaucratic trade union bureaucrats, it’s an unlikely story.

 

Joining the civil service as a benefits clerk at Aberdare job centre straight after leaving school at 16, he also joined the CPSA and wasted no time in getting active, Quickly becoming branch secretary.

 

He soon showed his firebrand credentials, leading a series of strikes in Aberdare and across the South Wales valleys, including a 6 month strike in Caerphilly.

 

One of his colleagues from those days told me that that even in those early days Mark was an inspirational leader – “he only had to stand-up and we’d all walk out” he said.

 

Born and bred in the Valleys, Mark cites his adoptive parents as having been hugely inspirational to him. Perhaps that’s why he took a more cautious approach to his domestic arrangements than he did in his early trade union activities.

 

Because in his mid to late 20’s he came under pressure to move out of his parent’s house and see the world. So he did – by moving a few doors down the road, from 59 to 44 Glan Road.

 

That was some big world Mark. All the freedom of your own space but the home comforts of dinners and washing at his parents’ place a few doors up the road.

 

Little wonder that at a tender age, attending his first group executive meeting in London, and staying in a hotel, Mark asked one of his new comrades whether it was OK to have a bath.

 

“Of course!” was the reply. But Mark was unconvinced.

 

“But if everyone has a bath surely the hot water will run out!”

 

You’ve come a long way since then.

 

As an activist, Mark got involved with left politics in the CPSA.

 

On the day of the Poll Tax demo in March 1990, Mark joined hundreds of thousands of others marching through central London but sloped off at 3pm with a group of like-minded lefties for a CPSA rank and file meeting plotting his latest campaign on how to take on both the Thatcher government and the CPSA leadership. Well, why overthrow one if you can do both?

 

So there they were, plotting the revolution in a pub by Trafalgar Square.

 

This being the days without mobile phones or the internet they were entirely oblivious to events unfolding outside.

 

Two hours later they emerged blinking into the daylight to the sight of a fire burning at South Africa house and mounted riot police charging up and down.

 

Sorry Mark, the revolution had started without you!

 

Being part of attempts to defeat successive CPSA leaders in the 80s and 90s didn’t exactly endear Mark to the bureaucracy, but they were helpless when it came to his popularity with the rank and file. He always did have the ability to turn a conference debate with a single speech.

 

Perhaps it was that power of persuasion, or merely coincidence, that Mark’s stay in Papworth hospital coincided with the junior doctors’ strike? Much to the delight of the junior doctors, Mark was able to join the picket line at Papworth on strike days.

 

Fortunately, while in Papworth, Mark didn’t have the same experience as one of my old General Secretaries. He was lying in his hospital bed when he saw the Union’s President arriving with a bunch of grapes.

 

A bit of small talk and the President reported that the Executive had passed a motion wishing the General Secretary a full and speedy recovery. After munching a few of the grapes he continued.

 

The vote was 12 for, 8 against and 3 abstentions.

 

It’s struck me while talking to people about Mark how even those who haven’t shared his politics – like him as a person. This popularity led to a campaign to encourage him to stand for union President and eventually to stand to become the first General Secretary for PCS.

 

In a two horse race, this social security worker, now based in an office in Sheffield and working part time to look after his kids, captured the mood of a membership eager for some radical ideas to shake the union up a bit.

 

Well, the rest is history as they say.

 

Mark’s membership covers a wide range of civil servants including those working in job centres and it reminds me of a mate of mine in Liverpool, who told me that working in a job centre was very tense indeed.

 

Because if you got the sack you still had to come into work the next day.

 

There have been some tough battles along the way.

 

But the stoicism and indefatigable optimism of the long suffering football fan has stood Mark in good stead during his battles against austerity. A lifelong Cardiff City fan, Mark honed is maths skills working out the number of points needed to avoid relegation.

 

The history of the Bluebirds is glorious, well at least according to Mark. The plucky underdog fighting against the riches of the top elite.

 

The unfortunate Bluebirds had to suffer the indignity of having the blue kit that gives them their name briefly changed to red by their owner.

The protests that followed must surely be the only anti-red campaign Mark has ever been associated with in his life. (And he won.)

 

Mark I’m proud to call you my friend and comrade. I wish you every luck in your chairing of our congress in the days ahead.

 

And I move the vote of thanks with pleasure.

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