This Tuesday, September 15, will be an unforgettable moment in the life of Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail. Because on this date, at the close of this year’s TUC conference, Gail will become the President of the TUC and hold the office until the close of next year’s conference.
Presiding over the Trades Union Congress is probably the greatest honour any active trade unionist can hope to achieve. But, like most from a working class background, it was not an easy path to the top.
Gail’s father was a postman and her mother was a refugee from the Nazi-occupied Channel Islands. Gail was proud of her father, a union member, like everyone working for the Post Office then.
“Christmas was great,” she says. “The Post Office laid on a Christmas Party – with presents – it was lovely.” But Gail particularly remembers the union helping out during times of strike. “We had visits from union reps who came to our home, making sure we were all alright.” But best of all were the strikers’ food parcels.
“The food parcels were certainly something to remember – we ate well – sometimes better than we normally did. We even had tinned salmon!” she recalls.
Gail grew up in a council house – and the issue of access to decent housing is close to her heart. “It was post-war Britain and Labour had come into power, giving us the NHS and decent council homes, ending the misery of living in slums so many had had to endure. That’s the difference a Labour government made to an entire generation.
“We still needed two shillings for the meter – and we had a tin bath we brought in and set down in front of the fire – but it was very much better than what had gone before. When my father was told that he could buy his council house he replied, ‘Whatever for? Another family could make good use of this house when we’re gone. No,’ he said, ‘they’ll have to carry me out feet first.’ And that’s exactly what they did. Those were the values of his generation.”
London’s West End was the place to be in 1970 – and Gail got a job as an apprentice hair dresser and then worked in Debenhams department store in Wigmore Street, opposite Wigmore Hall.
“The music from the Hall often wafted in while the orchestra was practising or performing. I met all kinds of people working there,” Gail recalls. “The clientele were mostly the nouveau riche and also the faded, landed gentry – who were surprisingly dirty! The £5 a week I earned did rankle alongside the privileges of the elite, but on the positive side I worked with a lovely Polish woman and a gay Czech man – it was all a wonderful mishmash of backgrounds and ethnicities.
“Through my Czech friend I developed a network of gay friends. I really learned a lot from my time there. Everyone was different, an individual, and that all seemed quite normal to me. It was no big deal.”
To earn more Gail left the hairdressing, working in pubs, all the “crappy jobs” as she puts it, behind her. Aged 20 she got a job in publishing – where something that would change her life happened.
“All was going well and then I found out that the man working next to me – doing the same work, was paid more than me – just because he had a wife.”
Gail was mystified by this. It was 1975 and shortly before the Equal Pay Act of 1970 was supposed to be fully implemented. Gail in a brave move, went to ask HR if there had been some mistake in her pay. “HR said there had been no mistake – my colleague was married and that qualified him for a higher rate. So I said what if I was married – would I get a higher rate too? No, was the reply. Because you wouldn’t have a wife.”
There was a clear injustice going on against women throughout the country. Gail says there still is. “It’s still different pay rates for millions of women – despite it being 50 years since the Equal Pay Act came in. The gender pay gap is still affecting lives.”
Gail calls this, “a lightbulb moment. I knew about racism, anti-semitism, homophobia – but a pay gap based on gender genuinely came as a complete shock.”
She turned to her father for advice. “He said, ‘Don’t moan at me – join a union!’” she laughs. Gail joined one of Unite’s heritage unions and from that day to this, has never looked back.
Through the Communist Party of Great Britain, Gail was to meet the man who became her inspiration and mentor, the legendary Solly Kaye. Solly died in 2005, but the anti-fascist leader who defeated Mosley in the Battle of Cable Street, 1936, taught Gail unequivocally that through collective action, lives could be changed for the better.
And it was in her next job, in the graphical sector, that Gail found that being active in a union could bring about the sort of changes Solly spoke of, and which were desperately needed for workers throughout the UK.
“I joined the National Graphical Association – the NGA,” (another Unite heritage union) “and it was my first big union experience. I met some brilliant people who had new ideas on what working should actually be like.” Gail made friendships that have lasted a lifetime – including with her friend and fellow union campaigner, Megan Dobney.
In fact Gail was to become the union’s top rep in her workplace – or Mother of Chapel as they say in the print trade. “Becoming Mother of Chapel in an almost entirely male workforce was an exceptional honour for me,” says Gail.
Speaking out – TUC 1983
And she was not to let her members down. She represented the NGA at the TUC conference in 1983 – the first woman from her union ever to do so. Speaking from the rostrum was an incredibly proud moment for Gail – especially as Solly, a leading internationalist, had advised her on her speech.
Gail spoke against the electricians’ union attempt to reverse the support for a Palestinian State alongside Israel that the 1982 Congress had agreed. She told the conference that in 1982 the world was appalled by the massacre of Palestinians – men, women and children in the Sabra Shatilla refugee camps in Lebanon – and that the TUC’s decision must stand.
The conference supported her and the electricians had been defeated. “Our collective actions defeated that motion. It was an incredible moment – I felt it was Solly who had made that speech.”
During the apartheid regime, Gail’s chapel triggered the expulsion of the South African Typographical Union from the International Graphical Federation. Her deep commitment to equalities, collectivism and internationalism has seen her work in the West Bank and Gaza during the first Intifada and also share platforms with democracy campaigners in Iraq, Iran, Palestine and Turkey.
Gail has always been a courageous speaker for those whose voices are not heard. She visited a Colombian women’s prison to meet with jailed women trade union leaders in what was the most dangerous of nations to be in a trade unionist.
She was a key contributor to the UK’s disability champions’ scheme and most recently has been involved in the fight to stop violence against women – a hideous and overlooked side effect of the Covid-19 lockdown.
As for her year of TUC presidency Gail says she wants to focus on two key themes. First to encourage more women to become active in their trade unions and secondly to protect and promote the importance of young people in the workplace and help them become active in their unions.
Gail says her favourite quote is ‘Sisters lift as you rise,’ from the African American activist, Angela Davis. She believes that many women who have become leaders or who have done well in their careers suffer from what she calls the ‘imposter syndrome’.
Many of you reading this will understand exactly what that means, what that does to your confidence and self-belief. Because many women in leadership roles are always looking over their shoulders, waiting for someone to say – ‘why are you here?’ or ‘shouldn’t this job be done by a man? Feeling like a fraud waiting to be found out; judged only on your appearance – the list goes on. Gail wants to end this and give women the hope and confidence to be the leaders they were born to be.
I ask Gail what she would say to a young person starting out at work. Echoing her father’s words to her she says, “Join a union. Talk to your work mates.” She recognises that’s not always that easy – she was threatened with the sack herself. “But,” she stresses, “in a unionised workplace it’s not that easy just to sack someone. Join a union because the union has got your back.
“You might think that management has power over you because they are the employers –but they need a workforce, that’s why they employed you. Unions have power too. Unions have the power of collective organisation – and that is a force to be reckoned with.
“I would say to young people look at the campaigns you’re interested in – Me Too, Black Lives Matter, climate change campaigns – they work because they’re collectively organised. We need to get across to young people that we need them to use this energy and determination in the workplace.
“Many young people are being exploited at work – we have to get them to see that they can be part of the change they want to see happen – to get decent jobs, good pay, proper pensions. By young people joining in with the collective dynamism of a union we can achieve this and so much more.”
Gail is truly inspirational proof that women can achieve their goals, to the benefit of many.
I am sure that Gail will achieve her goals as TUC president – and the Unite Live team wishes her every success.
I asked Gail one final question – on hearing of her presidency what did she think Solly would have said?
She laughs. “Mazel tov!” she says.
By Amanda Campbell @amanda_unite