UniteLive's stories of the year - TUC president Gail Cartmail in inspirational speech

On the eighth day of Christmas – Unite AGS and TUC President Gail Cartmail tells how unions are without doubt a force for good

Reading time: 9 min

Every day for the ‘twelve days of Christmas’ this year, UniteLive is running a different story from our top stories of 2021. Today, we look back at TUC president and Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail’s inspiring speech at TUC conference back in September.

‘Actions speak louder than words’

“A ‘union’ isn’t an inanimate object – it’s a living and evolving force for change – as someone once said, “there’s power in the union” and it’s great to be a part of it,” Cartmail said as she opened her address to the virtual audience.

“So let us take heart that Union membership has grown for the fourth year in a row, with 200,000 new members over the past three years – that’s cause for celebration – our focus is to do even more to build membership and organisation.

Women as leaders

“During my year as President we have seen two women earn their place as the leaders of our two biggest unions.

“Christina McAnea, Unison’s first woman elected as general secretary by a union with a majority of women members. Representing workers at the forefront of providing essential services throughout the pandemic – yet for many their ‘women’s’ work is still undervalued and low paid. Christina is dedicated to changing that and I am proud to have her as a sister and friend.

“And my friend [from Unite] Sharon Graham – an organizer and negotiator of extraordinary ability – winning campaigns others said could not be won. Quite rightly Sharon points out there is a library of policies highlighting inequalities women face at work and she has pledged to bring to the bargaining table demands for action.

“Twenty years ago my union held a girl’s lobby of the CBI. Our daughters demanded ‘equal pay in our lifetime’ – my daughter was 8, Eleni is now 28.

“The fact that in 2021 women effectively work the first 64 days of the year for free makes my blood boil – so let’s take inspiration from the women’s suffrage movement – now is the time for ‘deeds not words’.

‘Public sector pay affects women’

“And let’s be clear a public sector pay freeze and an offer to the NHS that falls far short of what they need and deserve – is picking the pockets of the majority female workforce who stood between us and despair when we needed them most – a shameful affront, which says so much about Tory values.

“During the pandemic many have seen the disproportionate impact of lockdown on carers, mostly women. A brief look at our history shows this is not a new challenge.

“Thirty-four brothers founded the TUC in 1868 – 75 years later in 1943 the TUC elected their first woman President – Anne Loughlin.

“When Ann was 12 her mother died, she cared for her four sisters. She was 16 when her father died and became the family breadwinner – working for 3 pence an hour in a Leeds clothing factory.

“Aged 21 she took up as an organizer for the tailor and garment workers union and the following year she led a strike of 6,000 clothing workers in Hebden Bridge. And she became her union’s general secretary in 1948.

“Ann Loughlin was one of only six women TUC President’s up until 2000. The millennium has evened things out however when I am asked does having women in the leadership of unions make a difference – I say damn right it does.

Alongside the 13 unions now led by women we also celebrate the women who lead the TUC, Wales TUC, Scottish TUC, Irish Congress and International TUC.

“Remember sisters the words of the African American civil rights activist Angela Davis – ‘lift as you rise!’

“The TUC report that emerged from our disabled workers committee on sexual harassment showed disabled women face an appalling level of workplace abuse – abuse that must be resisted and reversed alongside our movement calling out the increase in hate crime against our LGBT+ members.”

Gig ecomony and a force for good

Cartmail went on to discuss the work of unions in the gig economy and how unions are a force for good.

“We know collective solutions and actions safeguard the rights of individual workers and union’s are beginning to make inroads into the gig economy – well done GMB in winning recognition and a fair deal for Uber drivers.

“Over the year our movement has again proven we are a force for good.

The TUC and all our affiliates worked to support our incredible vaccination programme – delivered not by the private sector, but our wonderful NHS. Vaccines developed by our brilliant scientists and academics, many of them Prospect and UCU members, and administered by our members in the NHS.

“Combined our unions represent the UK’s biggest, democratic mass movement – we are a movement of, and for, working people – and it was union health and safety reps who knuckled down safeguarding workers at the height of the pandemic. They fought to ensure workers had the correct PPE; negotiated Covid-secure work practices; and exposed negligent employers.

Reps: ‘We owe them so much’

“We owe them so much. And all our reps – hundreds of thousands of workers doing extraordinary things – representing their colleagues, winning decent pay and conditions

fighting for equality, and helping workers access life-changing learning opportunities.

“Our reps efforts mean unionised workers earn more, are paid more equally, have more access to training, are more likely to have better pensions and holidays, and are safer at work.

“As the world changes, so must trades unionism – so we look, sound and feel more like the workers we aspire to represent.

“Our challenge is to rebuild our values of equality, solidarity and collectivism – at the same time as making sure we remain relevant in the world of Netflix, What’s App and Spotify. In an age when decisions, choices and communications happen in the blink of an eye.

“Rather than being trapped by nineteenth century bureaucracy, we must liberate the potential of twenty-first century technology – exploring new gateways into trades unionism, new models of membership, and new ways to organise and bargain.

“This is especially relevant to our young members and the mass of young workers not yet signed up.

“I want to acknowledge the important work of the TUC’s Anti Racism Task Force led by Patrick Roache. The case for radical change is overwhelming. And Patrick will report on the glaring need for action across society and within our movement during Congress.”

‘International movement’ 

She reminded Congress, “We are an international movement – those of us supporting the struggle against apartheid remember and repeat the South African workers slogan – “an injury to one is an injury to all”.

“The far right’s ruthless targeting of women’s abortion rights in Poland, Texas and elsewhere goes hand in hand with what the UN calls the “shadow pandemic” – the upsurge in violence against women and girls.

“TUC Aid helped fund the Building and Woodworkers International programme of training to tackle violence against women and girls – training that reached thousands of workers across Latin America and the Caribbean. Solidarity in action.

“We have also seen far right authoritarian regimes using the Covid crisis to crack down further on worker’s rights whether it is in Hungary, Brazil or India.  We must continue to build solidarity with our sisters and brothers facing brutal violence in Colombia – over 100 social activists have been killed this year so far.

“We stand with those facing arrest and repression in Turkey. As we stand in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in Palestine – we repeat our demands for an end to the injustice and an end to the brutal and illegal occupation.

“Saying these words take me back to meeting the Colombian trade union leader Carmen Mayusa in Bogota women’s prison – we campaigned and she was released – then her brother’s butchered body was delivered to her family home.

“And of the Palestinian children I met in refugee camps and villages in the West Bank and Gaza during the first Intifada – whose artworks invariably depicted violence against their families and the destruction of their homes.

‘We stand together’

“When we speak of solidarity – we must remember that each and every one of our fellow trade unionist in struggle is one of us – and that solidarity is two way – we stand together.

“Our fight for economic, social and racial justice and peace extends beyond national borders. Decent work for all must be at the heart of a new global economy. And our history tells us the best way to improve pay for all workers and to raise standards – is through strong unions and collective bargaining.

“We can look back proudly at historic victories such as the Chainmakers of Cradley Heath, the so called ‘Matchgirls’ of London’s East End and the Ford sewing machinists in Dagenham and their sisters in Halewood – yet in so doing it is our collective responsibility to win for workers – here and now, tomorrow and in the decades ahead.”

She concluded by saying, “Solidarity, have a good Congress and remember actions speak louder than words.”

By Amanda Campbell


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