Brendan Barber: The union man who won't use a megaphone

The TUC general secretary tells James Moore why softly-softly tactics are needed as the Coalition wields the axe
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The Independent Online

Pay freezes, job losses, cutbacks and a public that is rapidly falling out of love with the Coalition Government it ended up with after last year's inconclusive General Election. Surely, then, now is the time for a fire and brimstone union boss to make hay?

The softly spoken Evertonian Brendan Barber does not quite see it that way: "Some people prefer a different, noisier, more aggressive, style. But I'm not offended when people say they think I'm measured or reasonable. I've got my own way of communicating our issues. That doesn't mean they aren't strongly held views and that doesn't mean they aren't strongly expressed when I see ministers. But it is important that you carry wider public support with you. It makes your representations that much more powerful."

Perhaps Mr Barber is in fact being shrewd, rather shrewder than some of his critics (one left-wing outlet cattily described him as bumbling) give him credit for. Because if Mr Barber can carry the public along with him, the union movement as a whole stands to benefit. The TUC's 6.5 million members might even start to grow again after years of decline. Hence the big demonstration against Government cuts planned at the end of March, which some see as an alternative to unpopular strikes? "We may see some issues where strike action is necessary. But this wider campaign is about bringing about political change. We want to bring people along with us," he says

That doesn't mean Mr Barber is unwilling to leap to the defence of some his more controversial colleagues, such as the tube drivers. When I mention the frustration their series of strikes has engendered among Londoners, he says: "The reality is people only take strike action in exceptional circumstances, when they feel it's the last resort. These decisions aren't taken casually or lightly. The legal requirements are that there have to be ballots of members and a free vote. Unions are concerned when strikes have an impact on the wider public. Unions look to win public support if they are in a position to have to take action. So the picture that's sometimes painted by some of our critics, as if unions are indifferent to the wider public interest, happy to put people to trouble and inconvenience in pursuit of a narrow self interes, I don't think that's a fair characterisation.

"Any strikes in the transport area that do impact on the public attract that type of criticism sometimes. But the reality is, they actually don't take place that often. And the unions work very hard to resolve things without industrial action."

But it is, in part, these strikes that have encouraged the likes of London Mayor Boris Johnson and the CBI to call for draconian new union laws. Although the Government has – so far – held back. "I very much hope that they stick to that position and continue to resist some of the calls from backbenchers, Boris Johnson and the CBI, much to my disappointment, for changes in the law on strikes in particular to make it more difficult for workers to use a democratic right. There is absolutely no justification to make the strike laws even more restrictive. They are already the most restrictive in the advanced industrial economies."

More generally, Mr Barber is pleased that, despite the TUC's sound and fury against the cuts, ministers have been prepared to talk to unions, even to the extent of appointing an envoy. "They have said they want a proper dialogue. We do have this fundamental disagreement about the core judgements they have made on the economy but they are prepared to talk about the implications. There are opportunities to put our views. But then we are a voice that has a right to be heard."

Not that those views are likely to be moderated anytime soon. Mr Barber is a comfortable talker, sitting in his shirt sleeves, even resting his feet on the table. He takes them off when it comes to cutbacks, an issue which the TUC has grabbed with both hands: "We may not be going into a double-dip [recession] but the level of growth will be bumping along the bottom. We won't be generating tax revenues, people will be thrown out of work and we'll be seeing huge damage done to social cohesion. The cuts will have a deeply regressive effect. They hit the poorest and the weakest hardest. And that's now beginning to emerge much more clearly. We are not deficit deniers, but let's at least get the economy growing. Cuts hit people right across the economy and the private sector is going to take a massive hit, too."

Not every part of it. It's bonus time again at the banks. And here Mr Barber's views are very much in line with the majority of public opinion: "I feel very strongly that this is a sector that bears a very very heavy responsibility for the recession and the crisis that precipitated the recession that we're all paying a very heavy price for. I just feel that the speed with which they've gone back to business as usual is outrageous. There's no semblance of a recognition about quite how much public anger there is and about quite how much damage these reward systems do to the banks. It isn't just about moral outrage, about greed and so on, although there's clearly an element of that, just look at the figures.

"Take Goldman Sachs. The amount they had to get off the US authorities to prop them up virtually equated to what they'd been shelling out to senior executives for the past five years. The entire business was in jeopardy because of the level of bonus they were paying out."

He continues: "My concern is not just banking. Over a long period we have seen a massive divide opening up with those at the top of corporate Britain more generally with their reward packages continuing to accelerate so they are now 100 times greater than the average worker. Shareholders, that includes the big institutional investors that represent the savings of millions of ordinary people, they need to take their responsibilities as owners much more seriously."

Mr Barber cites a recent speech by outgoing CBI director-general Sir Richard Lambert on this point: "There needs to be some leadership from corporate Britain. Richard Lambert rather powerfully made that point – they risk being regarded as aliens the more they insulate themselves from what's happening to the community."

At one point there were some who might have applied the term "aliens" to union bosses. Not to this one, though. It is a while since the TUC has truly been able to roar. Mr Barber isn't really the type. But if he plays his cards right, his public profile, and crucially, support, will grow. And the words of this softly spoken union leader and his organisation will be heard ever more clearly.

Brendan Barber: CV

* General secretary of the TUC since 2003, which represents 55 unions ranging from giants such as Unite to the Professional Footballers' Association.

* Born in Southport, Merseyside, and attended St Mary's College in Crosby. After a gap year teaching with VSO in Ghana he took a degree in social sciences at City University London. Was President of the Student Union there.

* Worked for an industrial training board for a year before joining theTUC in 1975. Made head of Press Department in 1979 and of the Industrial Relations Department in 1987. Appointed Deputy General Secretary in 1993.

* Aged 59, married with two daughters and lives in Muswell Hill, London. A keen golfer and supporter of Everton FC.