Strong words, softly spoken

First published in Progress magazine

John Hannett is general secretary of Usdaw

Grown-up trade unionism delivers for workers, argues John Hannett in consersation with Richard Angell and Adam Harrison

As leader of one of the few trade unions increasing its membership, John Hannett is a man worth listening to. Usdaw has added 110,000 members to its ranks over the last decade, bucking the trend for union membership. This is all the more impressive for a union that represents members in shops, factories and warehouses that have struggled in the grip of recession – including those working in the 807 Woolworths stores that were forced to close in 2009.

Having just been reappointed to another two-year term on the Low Pay Commission, when we speak with him Hannett is quick to welcome the cross-party consensus around the minimum wage. ‘Despite the arguments predicting the end of the world, that have proven to be unfounded,’ Hannett explains, ‘the vast majority of employers and various stakeholders, including political parties, have recognised its value … It’s a great flagship Labour party policy.’

Though this political consensus holds, alongside a growing recognition that low pay remains a challenge, Hannett is aware that the issue remains a battleground in a general election campaign that will be fought, in part at least, on the terrain of living standards: ‘The challenge now for the LPC is set against two backgrounds. One, is it the right time to increase it at a faster pace? Two, the political background of the chancellor using the figure of £7 and Ed Miliband talking about £8 to be achieved over the next five years.’

Hannett is keen to keep the commission above the political fray: ‘It’s the one body that has been able to keep a consensus since 1999, despite the individual pressures on those constituents, whether it’s the economists, business, small business leaders or trade unionists. It’s proved its value’. But, he says, ‘The challenge now is that, against the background of the living wage campaign that’s out there, the fact that pay has fallen behind or not kept pace with wages, the commission’s work will become even more important in the years ahead.’

Whatever the debates around the statutory minimum wage, Hannett is determined to get the best deal on pay as general secretary of a union that represents many of Britain’s lowest paid workers. ‘Where unions exist there is clear evidence that those employers [with unionised workforces] want to stay above the minimum wage’, he argues. ‘It was never a living wage issue. It’s a minimum, and therefore it does play out in the sense that the better employers do not want to be seen as a minimum wage employer’.

As well as low pay Usdaw is grappling with underemployment – where workers are unable to get the number of hours they need to make ends meet, the skills agenda and a rapidly changing retail sector. Usdaw had 30,000 members in mail order companies that have since been lost to online retail.

‘We have to recruit 75,000 members a year to stand still’, reveals Hannett. But Usdaw is doing more than standing still, having achieved remarkable growth over the last decade, which its general secretary attributes to the union’s ongoing programme of change and modernisation. ‘We had to look at every aspect of how the union manages itself’, says Hannett. ‘The union has to give the best possible service.’ Instead of relying on tradition models of engaging with members, Usdaw’s organising strategy has been based on face-to-face engagement and a programme of organising academies to support existing members and recruit new ones. ‘If we’d said, “The union’s financially sound, our membership’s OK and we’re not going to go for a real review of how we do things”, we wouldn’t have 430,000 members now. That is phenomenal growth when you consider the turnover.’

Hannett believes this approach will be crucial to Usdaw’s future in retail, which is experiencing a growth in non-unionised retailers like Aldi and Lidl. ‘On one level we’re going to have to spread our resources to the non-unionised companies so we protect the workers in those companies, but also keep one eye on the fact that shopping habits are changing and that will bring its own challenges in organising’.

Usdaw’s relationship with the Labour party, like all affiliated unions, is also changing. Hannett is a member of the implementation group for the Collins review proposals. He believes that ‘it’s too early to say what the outcome’s going to be’ as a result of the reforms, but remains of the view that more needs to be done to connect trade union members with the political process. ‘We’ve been thinking, long before the Collins review, about engaging our members with politics. We’re going to do everything we can to connect them to politics and connect them to Labour party politics … We think we can make a case to show why Labour makes a difference and therefore get affiliated supporters.’

He is a strong supporter of an open and engaged party: ‘I’ve never understood some of the detractors to Progress. The reason I like it is that I’ve come along and I’ve heard people come with interesting views and different opinions. That’s really how you inform the decision-makers, the opinion-formers.’

With Hannett’s gentle Merseyside accent, we are reminded of the Caffrey’s strapline from the 1990s: ‘Strong words, softly spoken’. When Hannett speaks you know it is important meaning people – the Labour leadership included – stop and listen. His growing membership is surely better off as a result of that influence.

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Richard Angell is director of Progress. Adam Harrison is deputy editor of Progress

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