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Gail Cartmail interview: ‘Our members are going through absolute hell’, says new TUC president

'Great comradeship was formed at Wapping'

06 October, 2020 — By Angela Cobbinah

Gail Cartmail

FOR newly elected TUC chief Gail Cartmail, the best way to start the day is an early morning dip in the freezing waters of Tooting Bec Lido.

“It is an exhilarating experience no matter how tired you feel,” she says, looking as fresh as a daisy via our Zoom link three hours later. ”

I swim outdoors all the year around and how long I spend depends on the temperature of the water. It was 15 degrees at seven this morning, so I probably swam about 10 to 15 minutes. It always feels great.”

Gail certainly needs to be fighting fit. Elected president at last month’s Trades Union Congress after 40 years on the union frontline, she takes on the role at a particularly challenging moment in history, when the country faces jobs carnage due to the coronavirus lockdown, and the accompanying damage to lives that this represents.

“Our members are going through absolute hell,” she declares, going from smiley to grim in a flash. “They are not just concerned about their own circumstances, but about the communities they live in and their families. But it is important to avoid despair. I really feel strongly, if it were not for the role the TUC played since this pandemic, our country would be in a much worse place.”

Despite the absence of any high-level talks with the government – “there is no negotiation with this government” – the TUC has managed to “elbow” its way into consultations on vexed issues such as health and safety, resulting in tangible differences in the workplace, she tells me. “You don’t need to take my word for that. All the evidence and research shows that union-organised workplaces are safer and that couldn’t be more evident than during this pandemic.”

For someone who left school at 15 without any qualifications and started working life as an apprentice hairdresser, Gail’s rise and rise through the ranks of the trade union movement to preside over 5.5 million members has been impressive, to say the least.

The turning point came at the age of 20 when, after drifting from one job to another, she landed a position in publishing she really enjoyed but discovered that a male colleague doing the same work as her was being paid more.

“It was a lightbulb moment,” she recalls. “I knew about racism, antisemitism and homophobia, but a pay gap based on gender came as a complete shock.”

On the advice of her dad, a postman, she joined a union, and never looked back

“I was very, very young and what I realised then has been my abiding principle – that tackling issues alone is massively not as effective as tackling issues as a collective,” she says.

Such thinking did not come out of the blue, though.

“My father wasn’t an activist but he was a member of a union and good things came out of it, not least Christmas parties,” she explains. “When you are child you remember these things. It was a union man who came to the house – and he was a respected visitor; and during strikes the union distributed food packages. So that was sort of normal and how we lived.”

Following an opportunity to train in graphics, Gail joined the NGA print union and distinguished herself by becoming a shop steward in a male-dominated workforce as well as being the first woman to represent the NGA at a TUC conference, in 1983.

She took part in the mass demonstrations at Wapping when Rupert Murdoch transferred his printing operations from Gray’s Inn Road and Fleet Street there in 1986, sacking 6,000 print workers in the process, adding: “Wapping was a defeat, yes, but in the context of the most viscous anti-trade union laws of any democracy in the world, the fact that trade unions survive and still organise collectively was a victory. Great comradeship was formed, and we learned a lot about the power of the establishment and the affinity wings of the establishment have with one another, how they bolster one another.”

She went on to work as a full-time official for a number of unions and in 2007 was appointed Unite assistant general secretary, a post she still holds.

Born in 1955, Gail grew up with her two brothers and a sister in a loving family, latterly in Hertfordshire. Her mother, a wartime refugee from the German-occupied Channel Islands, worked as a foster mum, often to children of African and Asian students, which opened her eyes to a different world.

Money was often tight and that new bike might be a long time in coming, but even then she was conscious of the privileges of her post-war generation, first and foremost living in a warm and decent council home.

However, she failed the 11-plus and ended up in a secondary modern school. “It was a great divider,” she says. “The expectation was that you would go into factories or do some sort of menial work. It was not a great start in life.”

Ending the inequalities that continue to diminish people’s lives in such a way has been Gail’s mission throughout her union career, a quest sharpened by the austerity policies of the last decade.

As TUC president for the next year, her role is to facilitate productive debate within the organisation around rebuilding a stronger and fairer economy in this time of crisis. That makes for a pretty intense workload.

“It’s definitely all go, I am telling you,” she laughs. “By the end of the day, if I can keep my eyes open for a couple of pages of Ian Rankin, I’m doing well.”

She adds with a flourish: “I never envisaged an easy life but I am not moaning. It’s a great job and I absolutely love it. We are stronger when we fight for a common goal.”

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