TUC General Secretary speech to Congress 2023

Paul Nowak's speech to the 2023 TUC Congress.


Thirty four years ago,

I started work at ASDA just over the water in Bromborough

And I joined the union when someone handed me a form on my first day at work

Five years later, as an activist in a call centre,

I was sacked by an agency

Because I’d helped organise a union

And a few years after that, the wonderful

Frances O’Grady

Who’s here today

Frances took a chance and gave this gobby activist from Merseyside

A place on the TUC organising academy

And not once during all my time as a union activist

Did I ever think I would be stood here

in Liverpool

As General Secretary of the TUC

But here I am –

and I can’t imagine feeling prouder or more humbled than I do right now

Congress, thank you for your support and welcome to Liverpool!

When you come out of the centre later – look across the Mersey

You can literally see the hospital where I was born

Liverpool is where I went to college

Went to work

Met my wife, Vicky

And raised our family

But like so many in this city, my roots stretch out across the world

My grandads

 – Chin Tsang – Jimmy

 – and Jozef Nowak –

came here in the second world war

Played their part in the fight against fascism

Married strong Liverpool Irish women

And stayed

Jimmy came from Hong Kong,

A cook in the merchant navy.

When the war was over, Britain rounded up and deported hundreds of Chinese sailors from this city

Somehow he managed to stay

Married Betty

And they brought up my mum, and her ten sisters and brothers

In Liverpool’s Chinatown

My grandad Joe was an engineer in the Polish RAF

He married Peggy

And they had my dad, and his five brothers and sisters

Joe spent most of his life working in English Electric on the East Lancs Road

A hard worker

A wonderful dad and grandad

And a man who woke up with night terrors because of what he’d seen during the war

I am proud to be the grandson of immigrants

Proud of my family

And proud of the contribution that they

and millions like them

Have made to this country

So when I hear the Home Secretary talking of a “migrant invasion”

That her dream is to deport people to Rwanda

When I see immigrants housed on a barge with legionella

Or hear that the Immigration Minister ordered a mural for kids painted over

For me – it is personal

Because the real enemies of the working class

Don’t arrive in a small boat

They fly in by private jet

Our movement stands with all working people

Wherever they were born

Whatever their race

Whatever their nationality

Every migrant is my sister, my brother

And this government

shames us all

Because our country should never turn its back

On those fleeing persecution, poverty or war

I am proud of this city

Proud of the way it has picked itself up

Proud of those who’ve helped regenerate it

But look beyond the gleaming dockside

The museums,

the tourists, the students, the football, the music,

the nightlife

In this city, one in five adults is out of work

One in three local kids – trapped by poverty

Demand for foodbanks doubles every year

And a quarter of a million people are sat on NHS waiting lists

Here in Liverpool alone

And it’s not just Liverpool

It’s everywhere

Nothing works in this country anymore

And no-one in government cares

The Conservatives have broken Britain.

They’ve had 13 years to sort out crumbling concrete in our schools

But five days before the new term, they tell schools they can’t open

Because – and I quote the education secretary – everyone sat on their arses

Could you think of a more perfect metaphor for this government?

A crisis of their making

Someone else gets the blame



Past their sell by date

Yet, this government

that can’t keep our rivers clean

Or run trains on time

Or run a functioning NHS

Can find time to attack the right to strike 


The right to strike is fundamental

Without the right to withdraw our labour

workers become




This new law isn’t about preserving services for the public

It’s about telling us to get back in our place

Don’t demand better

Sit down

 – shut up

Well that’s not going to happen

Not on our watch

We fought their attack

on the right to strike

in Parliament

We’ll fight it at the ILO

and in the courts

And, when the first worker is sacked

For refusing to work on a strike day

We’ll fight it in workplaces

And on the picket lines

And Congress, this movement will fight it every single day until it is repealed!

Now, my dad, John, spent most of his working life as a welder

He worked at Cammell Laird in Birkenhead across the river

But if you know that industry, you know this

Sometimes there was work

Sometimes there wasn’t

And sometimes the only work going was on the other side of the world

But he and my mum, Anne, knew that they were building the chance of a better life

For me and my brother John

When we were born

 – in the seventies –

There may not have been a lot of money around

But we took the basics for granted

No food banks in every town

No legions of people sleeping on our streets


good union jobs,

paid good union wages

Families expected that life would be better for their kids than it was for them

That’s all we ask for now

Wages that go up 

Waiting lists that come down

Kids that aren’t hungry

Working people treated with respect

Able to go on holiday every summer

To take the kids out

To treat them at Christmas

It shouldn’t be too much to ask for

But it’s a long way from where we are

And I know

who’s to blame

This cabinet of millionaires




I’ve been general secretary for nine months

Travelling up and down the country

Talking to reps and activists

Reps like Daz who showed me round Airbus

Where there are four thousand union members in a world class employer

Ahmed, Colin and Jimmy

 – reps at B&M –

Where both the company and the union are growing fast

Joanne, a rep at a mental health hospital in Blackpool, standing up for outsourced cleaners

And three messages came back to me from each and every conversation with reps and members

One – we’ve got to build stronger unions

Two – working people are hurting – but the wealthy have never had it so good

And three – it’s time for change in Westminster

Let me start with our own movement

Because this is the stuff we can do ourselves

Not waiting for an election

Not waiting for legislation

What we can do right here, right now

Those Tory ministers who say that strikes don’t work?

Tell that to the Jacob’s workers who won six and a half per cent

To the Kingsmill bakers who won nine per cent

And to the Liverpool dockers who won an incredible eighteen per cent pay rise

And tell that to the public sector workers across the UK

In health,

in education,

in the civil service

Voting for action

Taking action

Winning better deals for members

By any measure it’s been a massive year for unions

But despite the wins

Despite the media coverage

Despite the new activists

our membership is not growing

So many young workers support our campaigns,

but they don’t join our unions.

All too often there isn’t a union in their workplace

No rep comes over on day one – like they did to me –

And gets them to sign up


Nothing is more important than building a stronger trade union movement

Because it’s a stronger movement that can deliver the change workers need

It matters every day, in workplaces

And it matters in the face of the big challenges too

Without strong unions, the shift to net zero will see good jobs destroyed

Communities ruined

Without strong unions,

Artificial Intelligence and new technology will deliver a digital dividend for the tech giants

not workers

And without strong unions,

Workers will never have the power to enforce their rights at work

Look – my job is to lead the TUC

I can’t recruit members to unions – only you can do that

But here’s what I can do

Reps are the beating heart of our movement.

But our reps need to reflect today’s working class.

So starting today, the TUC will train at least 500 new Black activists each and every year

Employers coordinate

 – so we must coordinate

And so this year,

We’ll ask our unions to come together and organise across whole industries

And I’m proud

Following the scandal at P&O

that our first joint union campaign

Will be organising seafarers

With Nautilus and the RMT

No more P&Os!

And we will expand the

“Our Work Matters” campaign

to seek union recognition

For every outsourced facilities worker

At Serco, Sodexo, ISS, Mitie and more

No matter the contract

No matter the workplace

No matter the employer

Every outsourced worker needs a union!

We will turn our Solidarity Hub

which has helped unions win so many strike campaigns –

Into a Growth Hub

To turn union wins into union membership


if you beeped your horn as you passed a picket line

If you signed a petition or shared it on social media

If you thought

“You know what, good for them, standing up for themselves”

There is a union for every job

There is a union for every industry

There is a union for you

Join a union today

Because when you join us

Together we will win.

More workplaces – recognised

More wage rises – bargained for

And, deal by deal, workplace by workplace,

Built by unions and working people

A more equal society

The past 13 years have been tough

But not everybody has suffered

Last year Britain’s top bosses saw their pay rocket by half a million pounds each

Porsche reported record sales in the UK

And a single bottle of Scotch sold for three hundred thousand pounds

I say again

The real enemies of the working class don’t arrive in a small boat

They fly in by private jet

They bank record profits

And then they have the gall to tell workers not to ask for a pay rise

It’s not right

It’s not fair,

and it’s not sustainable

We need an economy that rewards work – not wealth

This much inequality is bad for our economy

Fairness and growth go hand in hand

And that’s why those with the broadest shoulders should bear the greatest load

And here’s a few things

That any Prime Minister

 – even this Prime Minister –  Could do today

Let’s start by closing every single loophole – like those for non-doms

Levying VAT on the fees for private schools

And beefing up revenue and customs so we can clamp down on the tax cheats

And why stop there?

We could have proper windfall tax on the energy companies

That would raise two billion pounds extra this year

We could ask the richest 140 thousand people

to pay just little bit more

And raise another ten billion this year

We could tax capital gains at the same rate as wages

And raise twelve billion pounds this year and every year

Congress, It’s time for fair taxes

Time for a fairer Britain

But that fairer Britain won’t be delivered by this government

So if like me

You’re tired of this country where nothing works

Tired of a government of the rich for the rich

Tired of rampant inequality

Vote them out

Last year Keir Starmer addressed this Congress

I heard him

You heard him

He didn’t just make us a promise

He set out a plan

A new deal for workers

The biggest expansion of workers’ rights in a generation

 – No more zero hours contracts

 – No more fire and rehire

 – Employment rights from day one,

 – Union rights to access the workplace

 – New fair pay agreements

 – Repealing that attack on the right to strike

That will be the choice at the next election

We want that first one hundred days Employment Bill

Through in one piece.

Onto the statute books

And into the workplaces

And that’s why

When the time comes

I will tell anyone who asks

 – Vote for working people

 – Vote for change

 – Vote for the party WE named for OUR movement

Vote Labour

Look, I’ve talked enough

You’ve heard me set out a challenge to unions

To get this movement growing again

A challenge to our politicians

To ask more of those who already have the most

And a challenge to both wings of our movement

to kick this rotten government out of office

Let’s go united into that next election

Let’s deliver that new deal

Let’s win for working people

Solidarity, Congress

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