The Lowdown: GMB chief Kevin Curran

Two union leaders, two million members and a mauling for ministers and managers
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The Independent Online

If the Government declares tomorrow, 'We are going to increase tax on ice-cream,' and it affects our members, we will oppose it. If it will help the members, then I will support it."

There is no ice-cream battle in the offing, but Kevin Curran, the new general secretary of the GMB trade union, is trying to demonstrate that he does not let his personal views (on politics, rather than desserts) get in the way of his job.

He calls himself a "lifelong socialist" and, although not the same (fire)brand of leader as Fire Brigades Union chief Andy Gilchrist, Curran has not been afraid to criticise New Labour, and his personal politics are firmly on the left. "The state should take more interest in managing corporations and those things that directly affect people's lives," he says.

"In quieter moments I sometimes think that we have had the industrial revolution, which generated countless billions in wealth, yet here we are in 2003 saying we can't afford a train service and a health service that we want.

"Can someone out there explain to me when we are going to be able to afford all these things?"

But Curran says his views do not affect his day job. "Most people would say my politics are quite radical, but that is my personal politics," he states. "I'm not general secretary because of my personal politics; I am here to look after members' interests. It is very important to differentiate. Some people don't have that ability; I have it in bagloads."

Taking over from John Edmonds in July, he immediately hit the headlines when check-in staff led an unofficial walkout at British Airways. However, Curran emerged not as a firebrand but a peacemaker, and Rod Eddington, BA's chief, wrote a letter of thanks to him after the dispute was resolved.

Curran has been a member of the union since 1975 when he joined the old United Society of Boilermakers and began a campaign to get rid of asbestos in his workplace. He takes the top job at a tough time. Trade unions, including the GMB, have started threatening to withdraw their financial support from the Labour Party, and meanwhile he has to rejuvenate the finances of the GMB, which recently had to sell assets to pay its own staff. Curran says he will solve this problem without compulsory redundancies.

"We have a very sound asset base but we need to get our operating costs under control. There has been a lack of financial discipline in the organisation. We are a union; we are not naturally business people in inverted commas."

His first Trades Union Congress in the top job begins on 8 September, and he is arguing for a broad campaign against gender inequality, proposing compulsory pay audits at companies on behalf of the 42 per cent of his 700,000 members who are female. "That we have still got a huge gender pay gap is becoming increasingly unacceptable to our members, after 30 odd years of so-called equality legislation," he scolds.

Another foe is the "fat cat", particularly directors who are paid handsomely for poor performance. The union wants legislation to force companies to give workers the same pay rises as directors, and he rebuffs the argument that this could prompt a "brain drain" of talented businessmen leaving for other shores. "I'm a bit fed up about this argument that if we don't pay them, they will leave. Real leaders in British industry are stimulated by meeting challenges and overcoming them, not the size of their wage packet."

One of the GMB's more traditional campaigns is to regenerate British manufacturing. The union is staunchly pro-euro, in line with many industrial companies. Curran criticises the view that manufacturing now belongs in areas like the Far East: "The service industry is all very well, but when you look at the fact that a manufacturing export is worth six times more than a service export, why would we want to let go of that?"

He laments the image of engineers as "metal bashers", as well as the dearth of manufacturing skills among most of the UK population. But Curran says that the industry can be revived with a bit of effort and a fresh strategy, and points to his achievements in the North-east before becoming general secretary. He chaired a group of marine engineering companies in the area, including Swan Hunter and Amec, persuading them to improve the workforce's skills base and plug generation gaps with new apprenticeships. The key to this, he says, was looking at the workers as a pool of resources: they are all paid the same to discourage the poaching of staff. He says the initiative led to orders of £130m, with 2,000 people gaining work, including contracts won against global competition. "Five years ago we had people saying, 'Let's shut the shop and forget it. Let's build houses on the river [Tyne] or whatever, or make [the economy] more leisure-based.' Now we have a viable industry."

The issues that the GMB fights on are broad, as are its members' employers - from Asda to Group 4, Rolls-Royce to local government. Curran is opposed to PFI and the privatisation of public services, and has arranged for some of his 700,000 members to meet Gordon Brown with alternative proposals for improvement.

In general, Curran says his members now look beyond money. "In the past, most people would be looking for increases in pay year on year. While that is still around, there is more emphasis on the quality of their lives and the quality of their working environment, and career enhancement and satisfaction. The Government has largely contained inflation, which has helped make the annual wage round less of an issue."

However, one area of dispute is still simmering: pensions. The GMB is leading strikes at chemicals firm Rhodia over the loss of its employees' final-salary scheme. Curran adopts a combative stance when the views of the Institute of Directors' head of policy are put forward - that final-salary pension schemes are an outdated concept now people move jobs regularly. "It is all right for Ruth Lea and many people like her, who will all be well looked after," he retorts. The GMB chief proposes that the plans could be administered by trade unions for their members.

Curran also has harsh words for the Government on employment rights, particularly over its unsuccessful attempt to halt the European Information and Consultation Directive, which would force employers to consult with staff on major decisions such as job losses.

"I was very disappointed in the Government in dragging its feet on this and trying to vote against it in Europe," Curran says. "It was a really abysmal performance."

He offers a similar view of the employers' organisations, such as the IoD and the Confederation of British Industry, when they complain of the lashings of Brussels "red tape" strangling business: "I find the whole attitude defeatist. The whole idea that we can't cope or we can't manage - it's a nonsense."

He bemoans the opposition to European social legislation, seeing it as an assault against improved workers' rights rather than against red tape: "Again there is this line that ... we must work longer hours and generally be battened down all the time.

"It's almost like the old military hierarchy: there's the fat cats at the top and the poor bloody infantry, and the worse you treat the infantry, the more disciplined they will be. It's an outdated concept."