Securing change is within our grasp, TUC’s Paul Nowak tells National Conference

10 June 2024

Paul Nowak, the TUC General Secretary, gave a rousing speech to Prospect National Conference 2024 in Birmingham on Sunday, 9 June, where he touched upon the general election, what workers might expect from a new Labour government and the need to revitalise the trade union movement.

Paul Nowak addressing Prospect National Conference 2024

Nowak stressed that while, like Prospect, the TUC was not affiliated to any political party, he left Prospect’s 300-plus delegates at the International Convention Centre in no doubt what outcome he was hoping for from the July 4 election.

“It is time to vote out one of the most incompetent, right-wing, anti-union, nasty, morally bankrupt governments that this country has ever seen. That change of government is desperately needed because this is a country where nothing works anymore,” he said.

“Public services starved of funding, sewage on our beaches and in our rivers, railways run for the benefit of shareholders, not passengers. Wages in real terms lower now than they were in 2008 and our civil service, the glue that holds our society together, run down, denigrated and attacked.”

Although a Labour win could not be taken for granted, the prize within our grasp was very real, Nowak said.

“A new publicly owned energy company run in our interest, our railways back where they belong in public ownership and above all a Labour government that will deliver a new deal for working people.”

“The biggest expansion of workers’ rights and trade union rights in a generation: banning zero hours contracts, ending fire and rehire, Day One Employment rights, giving unions new rights to access the workplace, new fair pay agreements, lifting up pay and standards across whole sectors of the economy and repealing the anti-trade union legislation, including the Minimum Service Levels.”

Nowak told delegates about how, in January, the TUC held a rally in Cheltenham to mark the 40th anniversary of the GCHQ dispute, in which members of one of Prospect’s predecessor unions played an important role.

“We used that March in Cheltenham to make clear our intent to see that Minimum Service Level legislation is repealed at the earliest opportunity,” he said.

“I am confident we will do that with a change of government, but let me be very clear for the benefit of Tory politicians and employers across Britain: if any employer is stupid enough, or reckless enough, to use that legislation to try and force workers to cross their own picket line the TUC and our whole movement will stand by any worker, and any union, in the firing line.

“We will defend the right to strike and will defend every worker who exercises their right to strike in this country.”

A modern and progressive union

While the ‘fundamental right to strike’ was important, of course, Nowak also paid tribute to the Prospect activists ‘in the hall and beyond’ for their everyday union activities that make workplaces better and safer for their colleagues, such as handling the disciplinaries or grievances.

“Prospect members do jobs that we all rely on, that everybody in this country relies on: air traffic controllers, energy workers, HSE officers and inspectors battling to protect lives in the face of cuts, forensic scientists, those working in film and TV.

“Whatever your job, whatever your occupation or industry, in Prospect you have a modern effective, progressive union fighting your corner.”

Underlining his point, Nowak mentioned the Prospect campaigns against sexual harassment in the MOD, on closing the public sector gender pension gap, on speaking up for Parliamentary staff who have faced bullying and harassment, for new nuclear, green energy and fighting for the civil service.

“Conference, all civil servants deserve and demand respect, fair pay and a fair deal at work. It won’t surprise you that I don’t think we’re going to get that fair deal from this current government, and that underlines why we need a real change in our politics.

“A new government, a new deal for workers and a plan to grow our economy to rebuild our civil service and all our public services.”

Paul Nowak addressing Prospect Conference 2024

An international family

The TUC General Secretary acknowledged that the trade union “family unites workers across the globe and we live in a dangerous and volatile world.”

“Last month I was in Ukraine meeting our sister unions and I saw at firsthand the impact that war is having on union members there on their families, and on their communities.

“Surgeons who work through air raid alerts; power station workers under rocket attack; transport workers who keep the trains running in dangerous circumstances. We’ve got war in Ukraine, but also in Yemen, in Sudan right across the world… And daily we see the human cost of the onslaught in Gaza

“Last week the TUC’s General Council met the Palestinian Ambassador, and we reiterated our clear and unequivocal calls for a return of all the hostages, an immediate ceasefire, respect for international law, and above all, a recognition that the only route to peace in the Middle East lies in a two-state solution built on a safe and secure Israel, but also a safe and secure free Palestine as well.”

Growing our movement

In the final section of his speech, Nowak set out the challenge of growing the trade union movement in the years ahead.

“Whatever happens at the election, whoever wins, whatever the size of the majority, it’s also important that the whole of the trade union movement works hard and redoubles our effort to build a stronger, growing, more diverse, more inclusive and more representative trade union movement.

“As a movement we face some big structural challenges. We’re not recruiting enough young workers and we’re not organising enough workers in the private sector. As your motion to our Congress last year made clear our private sector membership in this country is at crisis point.”

The TUC would be working with other unions in the private sector, including Prospect, over the next few months to develop effective growth strategies.

“I know that these have been tough times for the people that we represent. Tough times but I think also hopeful times because the chance of securing change is within our grasp,” Nowak said.

“Not just political change on July 4, but the prospect of economic and social change too. The chance to build a fairer, greener, more equal country; the chance to build a country where workers get decent pay and secure employment; where everyone has access to great public services and, crucially, where strong unions win.”