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Manuel Cortes: our new General Secretary

12 December 2011

Just a couple of days after becoming the TSSA's 21st General Secretary, the Journal met up with a still beaming Manuel Cortes in his new office opposite Euston Station.

It hadn't been a massive change of view for its new occupant - Manuel having spent the previous seven years as Assistant General Secretary in the office next door, but he was clearly relishing the opportunity to help lead the organisation which he's been intimately involved in for 13 years.

As well as hearing more about his plans for TSSA, his answers hopefully provide a broader picture of our union's new top official – where he comes from and how he approaches his work, life more generally and the struggle for justice for working people.


So, Manuel, you've not exactly come from a traditional background for a trade union leader. Thinking back to your childhood in Gibraltar, would anyone have thought you might ever be elected to a role like this?

Well trade unions had always been a big part of the community where I grew up. In Gibraltar of the 70s and 80s it was almost as though there was just one employer – the MoD – but because of that, the focus of the unions was very clear. That doesn't mean there weren't big problem though: when I was growing up, there was a real struggle going on for wage parity. If you were British from Britain, you got paid one rate, if you were Gibraltarian-British you got paid less and if you were a so-called 'alien' you received even less again. I remember how the unions united the entire community against this whilst I was growing up. We had huge strikes – with the electricity being cut off every other day, demonstrations and people being jailed for joining the protest. The unions at the time had something that's all too rare now: a base in every community. Everyone knew a shop steward, a union rep. I was brought up in that moment of struggle, where it was clearly possible to change things. And I think it's important if you're going to be part of something, you want to be part of the winning side! And we won that campaign – everyone got paid the fair, equal rate for the job. What we need to recreate is that kind of trade unionism, where unions are an integral part of the communities in which we live.

And how did you come to be involved in the movement yourself?

I left school at 15 with no qualifications. I got a job as an apprentice and the first thing I did was join the union. Soon afterwards I became a shop steward for my fellow apprentices and ever since then I've been an active member of a trade union - either as an activist, a lay official, or in a paid role.

I started off as an engineer. I gained various technical qualifications which led me to study at university in the UK. And that was really eye opening to me – how a lot of people there – through no fault of their own – had such a narrow view of society and no idea of the poverty that existed just a few minutes away from where they were living. I decided to do something about that – one of the things I was most proud of from my time as a full-time elected student representative was to organise an 'alternative tour' of Edinburgh, that took students to some of the local housing estates.

So after studying, where did you go next?

My first job after leaving university was as a recruitment officer for BIFU – a bank workers union. That really cemented my belief that the trade union movement was where I wanted to devote my energies. I did a year there and then returned to university for a business economics degree as I felt I needed to have a better understanding of how people theorised that the world works, to put me in a better position to challenge some of the things around me that it should have been obvious to anyone that they weren't working for ordinary people in the slightest.

After that I went back to engineering – I began work for Motorola – an American company that didn't have a union. Naively, I tried to organise one but I must have overstepped the mark – all that won me was the sack! I won a case against them, but they never gave me my job back. That really taught me a lot of lessons – so I have the utmost respect for people who are fighting against the odds in workplaces. And ever since, the one thing I always remember is how bad I felt when I got the bullet – and I would never want to put anyone in that position ever again.

And how did you end up joining the TSSA?

After getting sacked from Motorola it seems I was quite possibly blacklisted – I couldn't get back into the electronics industry. Having worked for Amnesty International for a year as a fundraiser, I knew I had skills I could offer and TSSA were advertising for a recruiter – this was in March 1998. When I first came into TSSA I knew nothing of the railway or the other industries we organise in – that definitely changed quite quickly! Soon after I became an Organiser, then a Senior Organiser, leading our team working on 'greefield sites', both building the union where we had no presence and in restoring recognition for management grades – something that had often been done away with during privatisation. I became TSSA's Negotiations Officer and from there I was appointed the Assistant General Secretary in December 2004.

Workers are under attack from both companies intent on maximising profits despite the recession and from a government ideologically opposed to workers organising themselves. This is a very difficult time for the union movement, isn't it?

You're right. And unions will not survive if all we do is to continue to talk to an ever decreasing audience. We aren't going to turn round total union membership by going back and just doing what we've always done. In my view there is a once in a lifetime chance that trade unions could recapture their relevance to a much larger number of people: because the government's cuts agenda is going to hit every person in society. We need to be at the forefront of the struggles against the cuts, we need to team up with the communities that our members serve to ensure that the next time the word 'union' is mentioned, its not something that's alien to most people, but that everyone knows we are bodies that have been standing shoulder to shoulder with them – either in defence of their local library or hospital, or closer to our own hearts – in defence of their local booking office or train service. And I think if we achieve that, we've got a chance to start reversing decades of decline.

So you see the potential for a new wave of trade unionists being brought in through this?

Yes. If we don't make a much greater effort to connect with young people there will be a serious question as to whether unions will be around in 50 years time. Trade unions lost my generation almost entirely, we've lost the one after that – we cannot afford to lose the next one. I'm an optimist – I'm confident that we've got a message that's increasingly getting through to people that without trade unions, you've got no rights, without trade unions, the employers can do as they wish, and that actually trade unions are a key vehicle to build a better society.

You've been elected to serve until 2017. How do you see things changing in TSSA over that time?

We have some huge challenges coming up. We are organising in industries that are contracting, however on the periphery of these – where railways stations are becoming shopping malls - there's a huge number of workers that no one is organising. Someone should be getting out there, trying to bring this predominantly young workforce – mainly women - into the trade union fold. So there are opportunities out there, but members have to be at the forefront of that. We can provide resources, we can hopefully try and inspire people to do things, but at the end of the day it has to be members in their workplace who are the shop window for trade unions, and who have to help us to build the kind of organisation that will allow us to survive in the future.

Let's be honest, TSSA has been around for well over 100 years. We have a very proud history, but history is history. We need to look forward to the future. The simple truth is there are too many transport unions - all of them very small – and several smaller than ourselves. It's not the best use of members resources to have triplication in many areas. We should be looking at ways of maximising what we do to ensure we can liberate resources to put on the front line. We've got a vision that says we want to see the creation of one specialised transport union and, whatever shape that might end up taking, I will work tirelessly to try and achieve that during my term of office.

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