- Interview by
- Marcus Barnett
When Dave Prentis announced that he would step down as Unison’s general secretary of Unison at the end of 2020, it signalled the end of an era.
As the union’s leader for two decades, the 72-year-old Prentis’ retirement was hardly unexpected. But no clear successor to him exists, meaning that the incoming contest to replace him is set to be a fascinating one.
Shortly after Prentis’ announcement, Roger McKenzie – currently an assistant general secretary – threw his hat into the ring.
McKenzie’s socialist and industrial credentials are strong. As a former regional secretary for Unison in the West Midlands, he helped build the union significantly. He was also a significant figure in the 1980s Labour Left, where he chaired the Labour Party Black Sections. He also co-chaired the Anti Racist Alliance, and led the TUC’s response to the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry in 1999.
Here, he speaks with Tribune associate editor Marcus Barnett about his background in the movement, his industrial and political vision for Unison, and the need for the entire labour movement to seriously confront the political and industrial challenges ahead of us.
Can you give readers a bit of background about your political history and your track record in the movement?
I’m originally from Walsall in the West Midlands, where I joined the Labour Party in 1981. I trained as a painter and decorator after leaving school in 1979. I won a one man dispute with a painting and decorating firm when they tried to short-change me on my wages. The strike was won because suppliers took pity on me and refused to cross my picket line as I stood there with my cardboard, handwritten picket sign.
I was a senior shop steward for NUPE when I went to work for Walsall Council. After a number of years working in their pioneering decentralised housing department I left to tutor in trade union education in Manchester before heading to do the same at Tottenham College. During this period I became chair of the Labour Party Black Sections as well as co-chair of the Anti-Racist Alliance.
I was also a two term Labour councillor in Islington, which included a period as chief whip. I was also the CLP secretary to Islington North Labour Party for a few years, where the MP was and is Jeremy Corbyn.
I then became a full-time officer for the National Union of Civil and Public Servants, where I was the national education officer. I also served as the equalities officer covering all strands of equality for a period within the union. I worked for the union through two mergers into what is now known as the PCS, where I negotiated in key civil service areas as well as leading on race equality.
After that I left PCS to work for the TUC as their race equality officer, where I led on their response to the Stephen Lawrence Report before being promoted to the role of Midlands regional secretary. During this time I led for the TUC on the government-appointed MG Rover Task Force when 6,000 workers lost their jobs overnight.
After 4 years in this role I moved to Unison as their West Midlands regional secretary and in just over a year was promoted to assistant general secretary, where I lead on organising, recruitment and the union’s education programmes for members and activists. I have been a member of the TUC general council for around 4 years and a member of the Unionlearn board for a similar period.
At this moment in time, where do you think Unison – a union tasked with the great responsibility of organising huge, largely non-unionised sectors like social care – stands?
Social care is just one of the challenges that we face as a union. We have around 150,000 workplaces where we have members with around 40,000 employers.
Our challenge, particularly in the post-pandemic era, will be to stay in touch with our members and to reach out to new members in these areas. That means prioritising organising and getting the resources of the union closer to our members and activists with a national organising plan for the whole union.
Social care has already been identified as a national organising priority of the union so plans are already being developed for a hard-hitting organising campaign against a number of major employers in the sector. My plan would be to put significant organising resources into not just winning a few disputes but into changing the sector as a whole.
In that context, where do you think the union’s priorities should lie? What would you bring to the table as a general secretary?
The union needs to be an organising union that concentrates on bringing the union closer to the members. This would mean that activists get the resources that they need to do their job and the union is much more visible and accessible to our members. My focus would be to significantly build our membership to 2 million, our activist base to 100,000 and our union learning reps to 5,000. This builds a stronger union that can deliver real change in workplaces for all sectors of the union.
What has Unison got right in the last few years? And what do you think it has got wrong? What would you seek to change as general secretary?
Unison is the best recruiting union in Western Europe bar none. We need to concentrate far more on building an active and vibrant organising and campaigning union that delivers for all of our members, regardless of where they work.
What sort of political role do you see for Unison? What would a political strategy under your leadership look like?
Unison needs to be a critical friend of the Labour Party. We need to maintain the key manifesto commitments from the last Labour Party manifesto, such as bringing public services back inhouse and delivering real wage increases for our members. We would expect no moving away from these commitments from Labour.
A political strategy within Unison with me as general secretary would not just be about our engagement with Labour and our opposition to the Tories – although that is central.
I would also launch a programme of political education across the union so that an active and engaged membership would fully understand the environment in which we live, and the strategy that the union was pursuing to bring about a fundamental shift in society in favour of working-class people.
I asked a question earlier about your priorities for Unison. But in this new decade, what do you think that we, as a movement, should be doing to rebuild our industrial clout – and to centre working-class people’s lives in politics?
Posturing gets us nowhere. If we’re not organised, we can’t win. That’s why I am prioritising organising within Unison and across our movement. I would work alongside other TUC affiliates to get much better co-ordination of our organising and industrial activities and priorities. None of this works unless we have more union members who are better organised in workplaces, with more members doing things within Unison and across the rest of our movement.