Satnam, when we first met, you were Prospect’s branch chair at Rosyth Dockyard in Fife. More than 10 years on, you’re still a senior rep on the branch executive and a member of the union’s national executive committee, but this year became vice-president of the Scottish TUC and next year will be hoping to be its president. How does that feel?
To be honest, it does not really feel any different when I am at my workplace. The workplace issues are still the same. I still find myself involved in personal cases. It is making a difference to members by helping them to secure a positive outcome that still gives me the biggest buzz.
My most recent case was only some weeks back, when I helped the member who sits opposite me in our open-plan office to be re-graded up to the next band, as she was being paid at a lower grade than her work warranted. It took many months but the re-grading was backdated to the date of her appointment, so at the end of the month saw everything corrected in her pay packet.
To get back to your question, it is outside of the workplace that I find things have changed the most. So when I find myself in STUC meetings sitting beside Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon or another government minister I often have to pause and think, “How did I get here?”
But most of the time I think what an honour it is to be the first ever black vice-president of the STUC in its 119-year history. That is a good and humbling feeling.
What are you expecting to be the biggest challenges the STUC will face during your time as president?
Undoubtedly it will be the combined impact of Brexit and the economic downturn. Either on its own would be bad enough, but the two combined will present challenges that will manifest themselves to members through reduced employment opportunities, increased inequality and increased discriminatory practices.
I recall a conversation I had with Tony Benn, the late Labour politician, 10 years ago, where he said that when times are hard, racism returns.
This is so true and we have seen so much scapegoating of our country’s troubles, from across the political spectrum, with misinformation and myths on migrants and migration.
Already as a result of Brexit, we have seen huge spikes in race hate crime against EU and non-EU nationals alike. These are core issues for trade unions and for society.
For a union like Prospect, which has so many members from the EU working in STEM industries, their worries in relation to hate crime and also about their future within the UK are very real and need to be tackled by the trade union movement as a whole.
What do you personally hope to achieve during your term?
It is no secret that next year I hope to secure the support of the STUC General Council and become the first black president of the STUC since it was formed in 1897.
I have strong credentials. I have been elected onto the STUC Black Workers’ Committee for the last 18 years of its 19-year existence. I take great pride in the fact that for all this period the black trade union members of Scotland have entrusted me to take forward their issues through Scotland’s trade union movement.
Over this period I have come to realise that being a visible black role model sends out a potent message in itself. The message being that if a quiet, understated and otherwise ordinary looking black man can reach positions of leadership and influence, then it is achievable for others too.
The power of this symbolism and the potential it has to take forward the trade union movement to which I am so committed is one lasting legacy that I would wish to leave. Not only for the immediate future but also for future generations.
How has the equalities bargaining agenda changed in the last 10 years. Is it better or worse?
My experience has been somewhat mixed. The 2010 Equality Act, which established the Equality and Human Rights Commission, was originally held up to be the solution to drive equality improvements across all of the protected characteristic strands.
In reality, the EHRC has been shackled by ongoing funding cuts. So the public sector equality duty is not getting enforced and employers continue to fail in compliance with impunity.
On a positive note, there is increasing awareness among employers, helped by trade unions, that diversity and inclusion makes good business sense and, in many cases, is a strategic imperative to achieve business targets.
This has made practice align better with policy as employers act to address conscious discrimination. However, most employers still have a long way to go in tackling institutional or unconscious bias in order to create a more level playing field for all.
In short, there have been tangible improvements but there is still a long way to go.
What is new for unions to tackle?
I can speak with some authority from a Scotland perspective. The Fair Work agenda is the most exciting thing to have come up in a long while. Particularly so in the sense that it meets our members’ expectations of fairness, justice and equality – all core trade union values.
I think the STUC can take great credit for driving forward the concept of Fair Work. In the wake of the fairly high-profile Ineos industrial dispute at Grangemouth, the contrast in the way that the UK and Scottish governments tackled the issue could not be more stark.
Westminster put the focus on the negative aspects of the dispute and tried to blame the trade unions. Holyrood, on the other hand, undertook a review that flagged up the positive, forward-thinking and business-critical role of modern progressive trade unions such as Prospect, citing a range of very real examples that could not be argued against.
The recommendations of that review led to the formation of the Fair Work Convention, the creation of a Scottish government post with the title Minister for Fair Work and also the joint commitment from government, industry and trade unions to put Fair Work into practice. Trade unions need to grasp this opportunity by placing ownership of this visionary aim squarely with the workplace reps who are key to delivering it.
What old issues still need addressing?
The way that the right-wing media report on trade unions frustrates me no end. Even though I choose not to buy publications that do this in print, you cannot seem to avoid it.
This is a real challenge as it works against trade unions. That, along with an extremely unhelpful and overtly anti-union government, negates so much of our efforts to build our movements.
What made you get involved with trade unions?
I became a member because it was considered the norm to join. A colleague recruited me – something that is unfortunately less common these days. I became a rep very early on in my career and I would say that I was not an active rep until some years later.
That has made me extremely patient with new reps – after all, every rep is a volunteer. The thing that changed my level of activism was when I realised that the trade union was the ideal vehicle for addressing discrimination not only in the workplace, but also in wider society.
To this day I have not come across a better or more broadly based democratic organisation that has equality of some form or other embedded within everything that it does.
But as we all know nobody ever does anything on his or her own. For me it was the STUC’s Black Workers’ Network where I first found the encouragement and the support to grow my activism. And that is why I never miss a network meeting, because to make our work sustainable, I now have to encourage and support others.
Would becoming STUC president represent the culmination of your trade union career? If not, where to next?
The STUC presidency would be the icing on my career as a workplace rep and an equality rep. So hopefully years down the line the things that will be remembered by future generations was that I was black, grounded and that I never stopped dealing with individual member issues. There is a tendency for trade unionists who take on policy or full-time roles of becoming detached from workplace issues and from grass-roots members.
On the question of where next, since I promote Prospect as a union for life, I intend to live by that. So I will be a workplace rep for as long as I am able, thereafter I will get involved in whatever trade union capacity requires my input. Coupled with that there are a lot of things that I want to do while I am physically fit and able enough to do them. So my current plan is to retire early from paid work, probably within the next five years. Sports and travel will feature strongly when I retire.
What has been your career path?
After graduating with an honours degree in chemistry in 1985, I began working as a scientific officer within the Ministry of Defence at Rosyth. A short while later the Rosyth site was privatised and all employees were transferred to Babcock.
Currently, I am radiochemistry manager and head of profession for Babcock in Scotland. I am a chartered scientist and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry. My duties still involve managing and supporting the staff within the very same section where I myself started all those years ago.
I have somehow managed to maintain parallel trade union and scientific careers all the way through.
From its small beginnings at Rosyth about 30 years ago, Babcock is now an established FTSE 100 company, with nearly 40,000 employees worldwide. I am happy for anyone to challenge my claim that I am Babcock International Group’s longest serving black and minority ethnic worker.
What is your greatest achievement so far as a union rep?
Probably being presented with the 2010 STUC One Workplace Equality award by Nicola Sturgeon, who was deputy first minister of Scotland at the time. While my trade union activism is wide-ranging, that equality award distils the essence of my work as a trade union rep, encompassing all my workplace, Prospect and STUC roles.
What message do you have for young workers?
The first part of the message is the same as that for everyone else. Join a union. Become active in your union. Grow your union.
For young workers I would tell them that the future of our movement lies in their hands. It is a great movement but unless young workers take their share of the responsibility to make trade unions sustainable into the future, they will not be there to help them or their colleagues when it is needed. And it will definitely be needed.
Describe a typical day for you?
It might be a cliché but no two days seem to be the same. I normally manage to blend my work as a scientist along with a whole host of trade union activities. Although I do tend to do my trade union work in recurring “phases” that sometimes last months or years.
The past year the dominant phase has been as a union learning rep, using union-led learning as an organising opportunity to successfully introduce positive action initiatives into the workplace to improve diversity and inclusion. I must write an article about it some time, because I think it is the sort of good practice that has worked very well and so needs to be shared.
Who has been the biggest influence on you?
I have so many mentors and role models from within the trade union movement. But I guess family were a big influence on my values. Specifically my late father who instilled into me my work ethic and also my sense of fairness.
If you were first minister what would be on your to-do list?
If I were first minister, I would like to think that my to-do list would be similar to my current one. I don’t think getting the same level of stimulating variety would be too difficult.
Work-life balance: how do you relax?
Work-life balance. Those are three very important words. Physically I like regular exercise, my favourite being volleyball. I like good food, always focusing on quality and variety. The variety part extends into my liking for fine wines too.
Which six people would you invite to dinner?
Obama, Mandela, Gandhi, Colm McConnell (former Rosyth branch secretary), my partner Leigh and, of course, one of my children. It would be undiplomatic, and possibly dangerous for me, if I were to name which of my five children received the invite.