Interview with Carole Vallelly, Trades Council and GMB activist

Sadly there wasn’t enough room in the magazine to print the full interview, so it is available below.

Interview with Dave Chapple, Chippenham, August 9th 2011

1. The Wiltshire and Swindon General Branch GMB

I joined the GMB a three Tolpuddle festivals ago through a friend, who was working as an ‘accompanying rep.’ What she was doing really interested me: how a trade union really helped workers, standing up for those in small or unorganised workplaces who otherwise wouldn’t have had a voice. People like me! At the time I was working as a pub assistant manager in Corsham, Wiltshire, where I live.

Just before I joined the GMB I supported the Corsham protests against the election of a local BNP councillor. The youngster who organised it was a school friend of my daughter. Corsham is not the sort of place that protests: we’re very quiet! There were rumours of coach loads of BNP, rumours of street fighting, but loads of us went down to the demonstration. We were so angry that a fascist had been elected unopposed: no one had voted for him!

When I was younger my mum, my dad, my brother and my sister all worked at Westinghouse at Chippenham. When you joined Westinghouse you joined the TGWU-no question about it!

So I was aware of unions, but because I’ve been a single parent with four children I’ve done a lot of part-time jobs, been self-employed. I never joined a union myself because I associated them with the bigger industrial places-like Westinghouse. Of course now I’m in the GMB I know there are a lot of workers who are the only union members in their workplace.

My friend took me to a branch meeting. There were only eight members there but everyone as really friendly. This is really important, especially if you’re a woman in a male-dominated group. So now, whenever we have a new member come along I go over and talk to them and offer them a drink.

I wasn’t used to formal meetings, so there was terminology used that I didn’t understand. My first couple of meetings I didn’t say anything: quite unusual for me! Then the GMB sent me on a couple of training courses and I found my feet.

The GMB has school support staff; care home staff; working-class women who need representation. Southern Cross care home staff are in our branch. Now, I’m an accompanying rep as well as an activist in my Branch, Wiltshire and Swindon General GMB, which is 3,200 strong and growing.

The GMB in Wiltshire has many large workplaces that are very well organised: for example, Nicholas and Harris, a bakery inSalisburyor D and S Packaging in Devizes. Nicholas and Harris stewards just won a national TUC shop stewards award, and the publicity from that might have been the reason we are recruiting even more members there. These large firms are represented by stewards and sometimes ourSwindonfull time officers. So a steward would take the dismissal interview and an officer would take the appeal if a sacking resulted.

We have been supporting several workplaces who have requested strike ballots, and we are currently making sure our branch records are absolutely up to date and accurate, to prepare for a national public sector pensions ballot.

2. GMB campaigns: schools, pubs and hospitals

Personally, as a GMB branch activist-accompanying rep and training co-ordinator- I spend a lot of time representing people: at disciplinaries, redundancies, or grievances. I have undergone redundancy consultations in very stressful situations where are members are basically being bullied. One school in Chippenham, had 27 GMB support staff members who we being made redundant because of restructuring and it’s been a complete cock up! The head had given assurances that these staff would be paid until December 16th and did not have to attend: then an HR manager said they had to attend after the break of they would only get the statutory redundancy pay. I had to threaten to have every member occupy the school reception on the first day, demanding individual redundancy consultations, to get justice.

Quite often I find managers like head teachers actually breaking the law in how they are treating their staff. One member had a disability, and was blatantly turned down for a suitable job: I had to remind the head of the case law which stated that if you have a redundancy situation and you need to redeploy someone who is disabled, then you have to make every reasonable adjustment to positively discriminate and redeploy them first if at all possible: of course they hadn’t! We are still fighting this through our GMB solicitor.

In the last few weeks we’ve been having a recruitment drive at theGreatWesternHospitalinSwindon: all grades, from Carillion cleaners, porters to nurses. What has helped is our Branch president is a member there in the computer section. Most of the staff, believe it or not, aren’t in a union, although Unison and the RCN obviously have members. We thought about this campaign carefully. Even though the GMB is a recognised NHS trade union, we needed to get the GMB name linked locally  with this particular hospital, because there is a perception that we are not a hospital union. The campaign was simple: a stall in the reception area, with our leaflet about changes in the local NHS: the Great Western Trust has just taken over, and there is a lot of fear and uncertainty. Our stall also had GMB carrier bags and pens. There was also an offer on a GMB watch, and a free mug if you joined up another member: things like that. Many inquirers just wanted an assurance that the GMB’s Indemnity insurance cover was just as good as the RCN’s! (It is, provided you are not self-employed). It was very useful to us that we could offer local reps and officials in a locally-based office that could get to the hospital quickly. We had twenty members to start with; we signed up another twenty from the stall, and GMB forms are still coming in.

The GMB does our in house reps branch training days twice a year and get solicitors down to give talks on workplace law. Obviously we are in regular touch with all our stewards, but not enough of them come to Branch meetings, even though we circulate these around the county.

We take Union Learn very seriously. It really does give people so much confidence. They walk away empowered. They know what their rights are; they know the language and the jargon; they know how to talk to management. For example, at Nicholas and Harris they have some very good learning reps, they organised English Second Language courses. Staff became active in the union through this: now all the shop stewards as well as the majority of the workforce are Polish.

Health and Safety courses are also important to give reps a positive plan to just go in and tell their manager they are going to have a safety inspection, whether they like it or not.

3. Women and the Trades Unions

Through the White Horse Trades Council I’ve also become a delegate to the South West Regional TUC, its executive and women’s committees, and the national trades councils conference. I became the chair of the women’s committee a few months ago, and we produced a good leaflet for Tolpuddle, highlighting how women are under attack from this government. The sisters on this SW TUC Women’s committee bring along their own different strengths and we work effectively together. On Tolpuddle Sunday I MC’d in the marquee, introducing the bands. I hadn’t done it before, but it went well!

The South West TUC Women’s Committee, with GMB, Unite and Unison, put on a 2011 International Women’s Day event in Exeter which was brilliant: 80/90 women came, and there were some great speakers. The women’s committee were thinking about how to fund this, and I thought: ‘I’ll ask the GMB.’ So I e-mailed our regional secretary Richard Ascough and asked him for £2,000: he said OK! Later I asked him if that sort of request usually turned down, and Richard said: ‘No: it’s just no one has ever asked me before!’ We are having another day of workshops in November, but we don’t want to just preach to the converted, so the committee is looking at getting women’s input and issues into all the South West Regional TUC events. There is still under-representation: Some trades council shave no female delegates at all. I’ve frequently been on courses when I’ve been the only woman in the room. I went to a GMB meeting inPlymouthrecently, and out of thirty people in the room there were just two women. We are chip chip chipping away. Women are now just under 50% of the membership in the GMB, and a lot of that is just in the last couple of years. So, yes, I think women are improving their position in the trade union movement all the time.

4. White Horse (Wiltshire) Trades Council

At a GMB Branch meeting it was announced that there would be a meeting to set up a trades council in West Wiltshire and I volunteered to attend. This was October 2009. There were twenty-odd trades unionists that night in Trowbridge: it looked promising, so I volunteered to become secretary. My branch colleague Andy Newman said: “Go on! Go on! You’re MORE than capable!” My first trades council meeting, only a couple of months after I’d joined the GMB, and I was secretary of one!

I found the idea of activists from different unions, different workplaces in an area was brilliant: I still think it’s the way forward! Trades unions have been great in setting up anti-cuts campaigns, working with community groups, and, especially, mobilising support for the March 26th TUC demonstration.

White Horse (Wiltshire) Trades Council was a huge learning curve for me: I had to find out about and tailor-make our constitution and model rules; get a bank account; then contact all the local trade union branches; chase up affiliations and delegates. For a new trades union activist to join a trades council would have been unusual, but to become secretary of a brand new one was quite a challenge.

So far we’ve had affiliations and delegates from GMB, CWU, Unite, RMT, UCU, NUJ, POA, USDAW, and Unison. We’re working on the others!

There is lethargy with union branches affiliating to trades councils: it can be quite hard. Unfortunately, getting a branch officer just to put pen to paper is the tricky bit. People do get home at night and think to themselves: ‘Can I be bothered to go out to a meeting?’ Also, it can be the same people who do everything, so if they get overstretched they can burn out.

Full-time union officials need to be more aware of the work trades councils do.

Working-class history has been just as important to us in our first two years as our current struggles. The first thing we did was organise a wreath-laying ceremony at the tomb of the Trowbridge working-class martyr Thomas Helliker. Thomas was a 19 year-old at the time of the machine breaking in the early 19th Century. There was a fire at Littleton Mill where he worked. Although witnesses stated that he was elsewhere at the time of the arson attack, Thomas refused to name names of those who were there, and for this he was hanged at Salisbury Jail on his 19th birthday. His comrades carried his coffin all the way back acrossSalisbury plain and he was buried in Trowbridge churchyard.

Many people in Corsham and Trowbridge itself didn’t know about Thomas Helliker, so when we got the town mayor to attend the wreath ceremony with us trades unionists and local historians, thousands of people read and heard about it for the first time in the local media.

White Horse trades council followed this up with a 2010 day conference on Wiltshire working class history. We are now raising the money to publish the proceedings as a book. (See advert, ed.)

We organised a successful Village Pump folk music evening at the Lamb Inn, Trowbridge. I think socialising, getting to know one another, trades unionists building personal relationships as well as discussions at formal meetings is so important. We’ve run coaches for March 26thLondon demo, and to Tolpuddle: filling a coach is enjoyable hard work! We’ve shown solidarity to local workers on strike, though, sometimes, the local full time official forgets to inform the trades council of their dispute.

We lobbied County Hall at Trowbridge against public sector cuts: sometimes only a small lobby can get a great deal of good publicity if it’s well organised, and give some encouragement to local council trades unionists who are too demoralised or plain scared to attend themselves.

My own branch is an example of the difference real support for a trades council can make: whether it is a large donation for our banner, or a subsidy for a coach to a demonstration, the GMB in Wiltshire, and our Branch Secretary Andy Newman in particular, has been brilliant. We affiliate and send delegates not only to White Horse but also Swindon andSalisburytrades councils. I’m still trying to reel in the more reluctant union branches: bringing them over to the dark side. In the GMB nationally, there is not a lot of discussion about trades councils, although some of our Remploy stewards are also trades council activists. What would help are articles in GMB magazines, and an annual national meeting for GMB trades council activists.

The idea of ‘community’ is important: not only the community of people who live and work around you, but also the local community of trades unionists. Links between trades councils and good community groups: for example, we had a speaker come to us from the Trowbridge Storehouse Food Bank. They put food on tables through social referrals: so if you have lost your job, with no benefits coming through for a couple of months, and you have no way of feeding your family; someone who has gone sick from work with no sick pay: they step in. That speaker took away donations from our trades council and my GMB Branch.

The media have been very helpful: they are starved of news around here! For example when we brought our new banner to the Justice for All protest, with the local Citizens Advice Bureau, the TV, radio and press all came. This protest brought to people’s notice the Government’s ideological drive to ensure justice will only be available to people with money.

Events like these mean that trades unionism is no longer underground. On March 26th this year I did radio interviews in the morning and evening.

The key to a successful trades council isn’t so much the money but getting enough people involved: people who are comfortable with protests!

5. What we have to do

When I first joined the GMB I was distrustful of all politicians, and now I found myself a member of the Labour Party. What has persuaded me is that I have never hated a government like I’ve hated this one: Lib-Dems in particular. A lot of trades unionists I know did join the Labour Party after the last election: the thinking is, ‘The Labour Party should be the party that represents working class people: it’s not! I know it sounds silly, but if enough people like me join it, perhaps it could be dragged back to its working class roots. I still don’t like politicians!

There is still a problem of the perception of trades unionism back in our own communities. Corsham is not a hot-bed of socialism and I don’t know a single other woman trades unionist in the town! I do have to travel!

One Corsham woman said to be, when I told her I was a trades unionist: ‘Oooh, that sounds harsh!’ As if I was a kind of terrorist or something!

I think we are winning. I’ve said how the GMB is increasing its membership. With everything that’s happening, people are going to realise that they do need the unions behind them. I think we have a great opportunity to recruit. People are fearful: because of the economic climate, employers are trying to drive down terms and conditions: ‘If you don’t like it, you know where the door is.’

A lot of young people, perhaps a majority, just don’t know what a trade union is. We need to get back into schools and colleges and explain what we are about. When they get a job, at least they’ll know we’re here!

I think the working class needs a political party to represent them; there are also a lot of industries that really do need organisation: I’ve worked in a lot of pubs and you don’t have contracts, you work too many hours, you don’t have holidays you should or get paid for bank holidays. But if we recruit these workers, you have to look after them afterwards! If we can use this economic opportunity to recruit, the more noises we make about the rights of the working classes, the more other people are going to see unionisation as necessary.

It needs to go back to the days when my parents, my brother and sister worked at Westinghouse, and you joined the union: no question about it!

We need to normalise trades unionism.

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