Dave Prentis: A Credible Union Leader?
A few days ago, I was disappointed to hear that Dave Prentis, the general secretary of Unison – my trade union – has been appointed as a non-executive director of the Bank of England.
As the leader of one of the UK’s largest trade unions, Prentis is involved in ongoing negotiations over proposed changes to public sector workers’ pensions. Under the government’s proposals, pensions would be based on the employee’s career average salary, rather than their final salary before retirement; this would reduce pension payments for everyone, but would particularly affect those women who choose to work part-time for a few years, or delay applying for promotion, while their children are young. Unison is unusual amongst trade unions for having a high proportion of female members, because its membership is drawn from people in the types of jobs that have a predominantly female workforce, so this was a particularly important issue for them. However, Unison were slow to mobilise, declining to ballot members for the June 30 strikes, and were one of the first unions to rule out further industrial action after N30, even though the government’s offer hasn’t substantially changed.
So why is this relevant to Prentis’ new, part-time appointment? He’s not the first trade unionist to take a non-executive directorship at the Bank of England (Bill Morris, former head of the TGWU, and Brendan Barber, the outgoing general secretary of the TUC, have also held the post), and there are arguably some benefits to having a workers’ representative sitting at this very important table. The role of a non-executive director is not to be involved in the running of an organisation, but to bring an outside perspective to its governance, providing criticism where necessary – it does sound like the kind of position where you might want the Left to be represented.
The problem lies in the fact that Prentis head of a union that is still involved in an industrial dispute with the government, and this is an appointment which has come directly from Downing Street. Although the Bank of England is formally independent of the government, new directors are appointed on the Prime Minister and Chancellor’s recommendation. This isn’t exactly the kind of honour that you would expect them to hand out to a man who is supposed to be fighting austerity and standing up to the government on behalf of public sector workers.
Since Prentis has accepted a prestigious job from the coalition government, it leads me, as a Unison member, to question where his loyalties lie. We don’t know exactly why he has been given the job, and there’s no clear proof that it was a reward for going quietly on the pensions issue, or that his future decisions might be affected by a sense of being indebted to the government, but this has opened the door to rumour and suspicion. From now on, there is a risk that union members will perceive the BoE directorship as a conflict of interest, and Prentis himself as a government collaborator. He has further undermined his credibility with the rank and file members, some of whom already felt betrayed when Unison decided to stop industrial action.
One of the reasons that union leaders are often criticised by the press and the general public, is because they earn far greater salaries than the workers they represent, so they aren’t affected by the results of the negotiations they lead. Someone like Dave Prentis, who earns over £92,000 per year, arguably has more in common with the bosses on the other side of the negotiating table – he certainly won’t need to worry about how he’ll pay the rent when pension contributions eat up more of his salary, or whether he’ll be able to afford to heat his home in his old age. Prentis will not be the “average man” keeping the economists and policymakers grounded in reality, because he’s already too far removed from the experiences of people earning an average salary. And by stepping further into the world of company directors, Prentis is inviting hostility from Unison’s rank-and-file.