The woman who wants to end male dominance – and unite Unite

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She was a postman's daughter who failed her 11-plus and went to work as a hairdresser when she left secondary modern school at the age of 15.

Now, at 55, Gail Cartmail has an outside chance of being the first woman to lead a major trade union, and the first to lead an industrial union of any size since Brenda Dean ran the print union, Sogat, during the bitter Wapping dispute with Rupert Murdoch in 1986.

About 500 workers from a bewildering variety of professions will converge on Manchester today for a four-day policy conference of Unite, Britain's biggest union. It is so sprawling that you could find engineers, lorry drivers, speech therapists, bank tellers, graphic artists, and Church of England vicars rubbing shoulders with BA cabin staff, who have been on strike this week.

The real action will not be on conference floor, but in fringe meetings where candidates for what will be the most powerful job in British trade unionism will set out their stalls.

Unite was formed in 2007 by an amalgam of two giant unions, the TGWU transport union, and the engineering union, Amicus. Both were themselves the product of a series of amalgamations, with the end result being a conglomeration of 23 largely self-governing sections, with a total of over 1.5 million members, and joint general secretaries, Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley.

Mr Simpson and Mr Woodley are due to retire, and will be replaced by one general secretary, who will have a major influence on the Labour Party, of which Unite is the biggest financial backer. The odds are not in Ms Cartmail's favour, because within each of the two unions that made up Unite there was an efficient vote-garnering machine.

Those machines are still in place to deliver votes to their respective candidates – Len McCluskey, formally of the TGWU, and Les Bayliss, formally of Amicus. Both are assistant general secretaries of Unite, and supporters of the Labour Party, though to the left of New Labour – unlike another candidate, Jerry Hicks, who is way out on the left, with the film director Ken Loach backing him. McCluskey, a former Liverpool docker, is the front runner.

Unite has eight assistant general secretaries, but only one other is a dec-lared candidate: Gail Cartmail. She believes the fact there is no machine behind her qualifies her to pull together a notoriously disunited organisation.

She said: "A huge concern of mine is that my two colleagues who are leading rivals have factions behind them, and if either gets the politically important post of Unite first general secretary with a faction behind him, there will be a further period of disunity. I don't think in the present political climate, Unite can afford a further period of political (with a small p) disunity. This political factionalism aligns very strongly with nepotism. We need a fresh start and some pragmatism."

That pragmatism, she says, includes recognising that the old male unions made up of workers at the factory bench are in decline. A growth area for unions is among women in office jobs. It also means recognising that the business world includes flamboyant bosses like Willie Walsh, chief executive of British Airways, who have a machismo management style. She reckons that the way to deal with them is not to respond in kind. As she put it, let there be "no more Willie waving".

The first hurdle ahead of her is that candidates have to have the nominations from 50 union branches or workplaces. That ought not to be insuperable in a union with hundreds of branches, but shop stewards come under heavy pressure to deliver the nomination for machine-backed candidates.

Ms Cartmail believes she can turn the election into an interesting contest. "One day," she said, "we'll overcome the twittering that pays lip service to women in leadership positions but then uses the British Rail excuse, that it's the wrong type of woman. I have as much industrial experience as any of the candidates in this election and more than most. And I've had to be as tenacious to get to where I am. Now is the time to put a woman on the ballot paper."