Brendan Barber: You Ask The Questions

The general secretary of the TUC answers your questions, such as 'Should housewives be paid wages?', and 'Are you on Facebook?'
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The Independent Online

Do you think the Tube strike did more damage to the cause of its workers than good? Nigel Baxter, London W4

The dispute has ended because Metronet employees have won crucial guarantees including on the future of their pensions. That's a cause worth fighting for. Disputes that affect the public are never popular, particularly when people are in the middle of difficult alternative journeys. Yet without unions, the cuts that have occurred in pensions over recent years would have gone much wider and deeper, and there would not be a new pensions system starting in 2012 which will compel all employers to contribute to staff pensions.

Did the RMT behave responsibly in going ahead with their tube strike during talks? Shaun Hopkinson, Bury

No one goes on strike lightly and it's always unfortunate when disputes cannot be resolved without industrial action, but the right to strike is fundamental in a democracy. It is up to the RMT, through its democratic structures, to decide how best to defend its members' interests.

Weren't prison officers being irresponsible by taking illegal strike action? Dan Harriet, Hertfordshire

The work of prison officers has been badly undervalued for far too long and I know, from working closely with them in recent years, that promises made to them by the Government have just not been honoured. As a result, prison officers were absolutely at the end of their tether. They are not only suffering cuts in their take-home pay, but are facing a more difficult job each day as prisons get more crowded and have an increasing proportion of prisoners with health and psychiatric problems. And it is not as if they just stayed at home – they were at the prison and ready to act in an emergency as they did in a number of cases.

Do you think unchecked immigration has lowered the wages of many working class people? Mike Cheadle, by email

There is very little evidence that migrant workers have kept wages down in official statistics and academic studies, though that does not mean that it has never occurred. But the answer is to ensure good wages and a fair deal for migrant workers, not put up the barriers.

Do you employ a cleaner, gardener or chauffeur? And if so, how much do you pay them an hour? Andy Laurance, Swindon

The TUC employs a driver who – among other things – tries to get me to the right places at the right time. We have on occasion employed gardeners at home to do a once a year clear out, paying whatever their going rates are at the time. Whenever we have help with other household jobs and cleaning we always make sure to pay well above the London Living Wage.

Why are there still so few female trade union leaders? Natalie Deane, Swindon

I wish there were more, though two out of the top three posts at the TUC are held by women. Unions have done much to achieve a better gender balance in their elected executives and officer corps, but this is not good enough without changes at the very top. I suspect the barriers are not very different to those in other organisations, and that the most senior jobs are hard to combine with family life. Some unions could do more to reduce the macho culture that still grips part of our movement.

What is the TUC doing to close the outrageous pay gap between men and women workers? Lisa Lawrence, by email

A huge amount. Unions are bargaining with employers to seek to eradicate the pay gap that remains, and when necessary are taking legal actions to win justice.

Do you think housewives should be paid a wage by the state? Laura Johnson, Worcester

I have never supported wages for housework, and I reject the implication that women should do all the housework in your question. But I do want to see action to ensure that children do not grow up in poverty.

With the development of superunions such as Unite, is there any need for the TUC any more? Roger Hunter, Lewisham

Absolutely. The TUC speaks for people at work in a way that no individual union can. Our campaigns carry weight, and in the last year alone have helped win the workplace smoking ban, tougher enforcement of the minimum wage and less reported achievements such as access to a new drug for asbestosis victims.

Do we now need global trade unions? Sue Hitchen, Slough

We certainly need much more powerful union co-operation across international boundaries in the face of the growing power of multinational companies, and British unions are increasingly forging those links.

Is Gordon Brown's cap on public sector pay deals fair? Richard Gooding, Brighton

No. Public servants do not understand why they should face cuts in their take-home pay. No one else seems to think that public sector pay is driving any inflationary pressure around at the moment. And failing to honour the recommendations of the independent public sector pay review bodies badly undermines a system designed to reduce industrial relations problems in the public sector.

Have you had any indications that Gordon Brown, as Prime Minister, will be any more sympathetic to trade unionism than Tony Blair was? Lauren Finch, by email

There has been a change of tone. As his job is to run the country, and mine is to speak for people at work, there would be something wrong if we were always in agreement. But on issues ranging from skills to pensions, housing to the health service there is a greater shared agenda.

Could you tell me three things that you would like to see our new Prime Minister do? Steve Leighton, by email

One, implement Labour's pledge to end child poverty. Two, create a real reform agenda for the public services that fully involves and respects staff. Three, act to stamp out the abuses suffered by Britain's vulnerable workers

Why do unions waste their money propping up a political party that has destroyed Iraq, cosied up to the most right-wing US president in recent history and promoted the private sector takeover of our public services? A Singh, London

Unions that affiliate to the Labour Party (not all do, and the TUC has never had a party political allegiance) have made that decision through their internal democratic structures. My own view is that Labour, working in partnership with the trade union movement, has been responsible for the most important and progressive social advances of the last century.

How do you feel about first Blair, now Brown, comparing themselves with Margaret Thatcher? Ben Brown, Tufnell Park, London

There's nothing wrong with having Mrs Thatcher's drive and determination, as long as it is harnessed to a progressive agenda – although I would add a sense of humour and an ability to see other points of view to the job description.

Do you feel that Thatcher achieved anything positive for Britain? Mike Davenport, Birmingham

Nobody can be wrong all the time, I'm just finding it hard to think of any examples.

Why is the TUC not doing more to repeal the anti-trade union legislation brought in by Thatcher? Paul Wellings, by email

The TUC campaigns hard against anti-union legislation, and is actively supporting a Trade Union Freedom Bill. But it has also been important to win new rights for people at work

How do you feel about Sir Digby Jones, former CBI leader, being appointed minister for Trade and Investment? Hugh Donnely, South London

His arduous ministerial responsibilities keep him much quieter now, and he's often abroad. I find myself able to cope with these prolonged absences.

Why do you not take the average wage and hand the rest of your inflated salary back to the members? Justin Blacker, Brighton

Because it's never been the policy of the trade union movement that everybody should be paid the same.

You spent a year working in Ghana. What did it teach you? Fiona Allen, Manchester

A huge amount about our common humanity whatever our skin colour, cultural differences, or level of economic development. Years later, the experience of living and working in a developing country still helps put some of the less important issues that dominate debate here in the UK – and even within the TUC – in perspective.

What role should unions take in combating climate change? Tom Higgins, by email

We want to see green reps in workplaces not just putting pressure on managements but encouraging colleagues to green the workplace. We also have a role to ensure that the cost of the more difficult changes that we will need to make in a transition to a low carbon economy are shared out fairly.

Should trade unions really be taking votes on boycotting nations? Carl Seak, Nottingham

The international boycott of South Africa played an important part in ending apartheid. So the straight answer to your question is "yes, when it's appropriate and effective". If you are really asking whether there should be an economic boycott of Israel, my answer is no. I fully share outrage over the plight of the Palestinian people that gives rise to this call, but destroying Israel's economy when it is clear that in a two-state solution Palestine and Israel will need strong economic ties will do nothing to build a sustainable settlement. I want to help strengthen links between ordinary Israeli and Palestinian workers as part of the search for peace and a boycott would derail all those efforts.

Are you on Facebook and do you have any Facebook friends? Dennis Lewis, by email

The TUC has said that employers should lighten up about Facebook and allow staff to use their breaks and free time to use social networking sites, but I'm not sure my daughters, Amy and Sarah, quite want me to go as far as actually joining Facebook. I find the Everton website sufficient distraction.