Paul Nowak - credit Jess Hurd
Paul Nowak, TUC General Secretary
Credit: Jess Hurd

Interview: Paul Nowak

Interview with Paul Nowak - TUC General Secretary.

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Paul Nowak - credit Jess Hurd
Paul Nowak, TUC General Secretary
Credit: Jess Hurd

Paul Nowak, TUC General Secretary

In January of this year, Paul Nowak took over as General Secretary of the TUC.

Born and raised in Merseyside, Paul first joined a union at seventeen, when he was working part-time at Asda. In the years that followed, he worked as a call centre operator and a hospital night porter.

Later, while working as a rep for the financial services union BIFU (now part of Unite), Paul was a member of the first ever intake of the TUC’s Organising Academy. He joined the TUC as a staff member in 2000 and went on to become regional secretary for the North of England and then Head of Organising. For the last ten years, he’s served as Deputy General Secretary to his predecessor Frances O’Grady.

A lifelong Everton fan, in his spare time Paul can be found spending time with family and playing the guitar with friends.

Hi Paul. You’ve taken your role at a turbulent political moment, but also at an exciting time for the trade union movement. What are your biggest priorities in the months and years ahead?

Hello to all Accord members. Yes, these are definitely turbulent times! When I became General Secretary in the New Year, I said I had three immediate priorities. My first priority is to support working people and unions through the cost-of-living crisis – not just by demanding action to boost pay, but standing shoulder to shoulder with everyone involved in industrial action. My second priority is to push back against attacks on our rights which make it even harder for unions to fight for a fair deal. And my third key priority is to secure political change, including a New Deal for working people. Fundamental to all three is my defining mission: to build a stronger, more diverse, more inclusive trade union movement. That demands we put equality at the heart of everything we do, whether it’s fighting racism or tackling sexual harassment. Accord is a great example of us putting our aspirations around equality into practice with around 65 per cent of Accord members women and 13 per cent from a BME background. But there’s more to do if our wider movement is going to look, sound and feel more like today’s workforce in all our fantastic diversity.

One of your first jobs in the trade union movement was as an organiser for the financial services union BIFU. What did that experience teach you about the finance sector and the kinds of challenges our members face?

I was 26 when I joined BIFU, and my experience working there was incredibly important. I learned that the finance sector is vital to the UK economy but is constantly changing amidst massive global competition. Since the crash of 2008, we’ve had loads of restructuring, high-street branch closures and redundancies – with LBG shedding around half its staff. That’s invariably meant fewer people doing more and more work. And finance has always been on the frontline of tech change, with the growth of mobile and online banking just the tip of the iceberg. At BIFU, I also saw for myself that the vast majority of finance workers aren’t City highflyers on massive salaries and bonuses, but branch staff, call centre staff and other workers, often on middle incomes at best. And the work they do has never been more important than it is now: helping workers and their families manage their finances, mortgages and savings. Millions of people really depend on them. 

Protect the right to strike campaign on red background

How does being part of the TUC help our members as they face these challenges?

Just as workers are stronger together in a union, unions are stronger together in the TUC. We bring together 48 unions representing 5.5 million workers in every part of the economy. We are a unique democratic organisation of, and for, working people. And by pooling our experiences and expertise we are a more effective lobbying and campaigning force for our members. From campaigning for flexible working for all to setting the agenda on AI, the TUC represents the interests of workers and their unions to government, opposition parties, industry and employer associations, and a range of campaign groups and allies. We are also part of a broader European and international trade union movement, ensuring the concerns of workers are heard by key organisations such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the OECD (the Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development.

And Accord plays a key role in the TUC. Your General Secretary, Ged Nichols, is a great source of advice, experience and wisdom. He also has a great sense of humour – and you need a bit of humour in these jobs! He’s also a fellow Evertonian, so we deal with adversity on a day to day basis!

One of the big threats facing the trade union movement as a whole is the anti-strike legislation that’s been introduced by the government. What’s the TUC doing to fight the Minimum Service Levels Bill? And what can our members do to support the campaign?

We’re doing everything we can to stop this blatant assault on a fundamental British liberty, the right to strike. With more than one in five of the workforce affected, this is a massive, massive priority for us. We held our successful Protect the Right to Strike Day earlier this year, showing that the British people are strongly in favour of workers’ right to withdraw their labour. We’ve worked with peers to defeat the government several times in the Lords and we’re actively looking at how to defeat the legislation in the courts should it make it onto the statute book. And we’ve secured commitments from Labour that, should it win the next election, it will repeal the legislation at the first opportunity. Huge thanks to all those Accord members who have already joined our campaign – new supporters are always welcome. Please visit our Protect the Right to Strike micro-site to find out more.

Ged Nichols, Paul Nowak, Neil Magill
L-R: Ged Nichols (Accord General Secretary), Paul Nowak, Neil Magill (Accord President)
Credit: Rod Leon

In September, the TUC will come together for its annual Congress. What are the big issues on the agenda?

This year’s Congress in my home city of Liverpool is shaping up to be huge. With an election looming on the horizon, we’ll be calling for action on the cost of living, for stronger employment and trade union rights, and for an economy that rewards work rather than wealth. Unions will be demanding investment to rebuild our schools, hospitals and services – alongside a radical plan to decarbonise our economy with good, green, unionised jobs. And we’ll be campaigning for fair taxes to pay for it all – with wealthy individuals and corporations paying their fair share. Last but not least, we’ll be taking forward the work of our pioneering Anti-Racism Taskforce. Thanks to Accord and Unite, LBG was one of the first big private sector employers to disclose its ethnicity pay gap – with its Black staff paid 17 per cent less – so this work is really, really crucial.

Finally, what’s your vision for the trade union movement over the next ten years? How do we need to grow and adapt to the changing world of work?

Over the past few years, we’ve had to deal with some huge challenges including Brexit, the pandemic and the terrible war in Ukraine. And over the next decade, we must get to grips with rapidly accelerating tech change, the demands of net zero, and even more globalisation. But I’m positive about the future, because there’s never been more need for strong unions and a strong collective voice for working people. We must reach out to those millions of workers who need us most, including young workers, private sector workers and our growing army of precarious workers. We must talk in a language today’s workers can relate to, not in obscure trade union jargon. And we must exploit the incredible potential of digital in our organising, campaigning and member servicing work. 

There are lots of reasons to be optimistic. During the pandemic, we negotiated the furlough scheme that saved the livelihoods of one in three workers. Unions have signed breakthrough agreements with Uber and Deliveroo and broken through anti-union strongholds like Ryanair. And we’ve recorded net membership growth in four out of the past six years. Accord has a special role to play in growing our movement – you have shown how trades unionism can thrive in the private sector service economy where most people work. By building a diverse network of reps, encouraging LBG and TSB to become living wage employers and putting flexible working at the heart of your agenda, you have shown what modern, forward-looking trades unionism can deliver. So thanks to Ged and everyone at Accord. Keep up the good work – and together let’s build that bigger, better trade union movement!

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