IT’S hard to come away from a conversation with Kevin Rowan and not feel more empowered and better able to meet the economic downturn head-on.
The 45-year-old has taken everything the economic crisis has thrown at him over the last three years and is more determined than ever to make a difference to the lives of workers across the North East and Cumbria.
It is just as well that the North East has had someone like Rowan in its corner, with the region still coming to terms with the long-term consequences of the worst recession in living memory.
It is also reassuring to know that the union movement is something that flows through Rowan’s veins, with his father, mother, sister, brother-in-law and grandfather investing their time to stand up for workers’ rights.
Rowan, who lives with his family in Bedlington, Northumberland, grew up in Barrow in Furness, Cumbria. It was a town largely dependent on its shipyard – then operated by Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd (VSEL) – for employment.
He found his way into the union movement at a very early age, becoming a shop steward at the site a week before his 18th birthday.
He says: “I left school when I was 16 and went straight into the shipyard like the rest of the family.
“Barrow in Furness was a one- industry town at the time and I started as a shipwright and left 11 years later as a draughtsman.
“I remember being pointed in the direction of the on-site union after being outraged by a number of issues and was told that I should do something about it rather than just spouting off all the time.
“It was only after being appointed as a shop steward that I learned I was part of a family tradition, with most of my immediate family having worked as shop stewards or branch secretaries.”
And it wasn’t long before he was to have his first taste of industrial action, with many of the site’s 14,000-strong workforce going on strike for 13 weeks after the company announced plans to fix workers’ holidays over the summer.
He says: “It seems ridiculous to say now, but the company gave the excuse that it would help the town make up its crown green bowling teams.
“Bowling was, and still is, massive in the town, but the fact that it was given as the reason behind such a massive decision was ludicrous.
“What made it tougher was that my dad wanted to go back to work after 10 weeks while I was still on the picket line.
“It was easy for me. I would attend the picket line in the morning and then be able to go cycling in the afternoon. I lived at a friend’s house at the time and didn’t have any responsibilities. It was very different for my dad, who had to put food on the table and pay a mortgage.
“I guess it was a real lesson in industrial action and the fact that most people are reluctant to be put in that position. It was a real Catch 22 situation in that the issues involved were stupid but people were still paying quite a big social and personal price for them.”
Seen as an expensive member of staff at the company, Rowan found himself moved from pillar to post along with his fellow union reps, something which he believes help develop a fantastic career.
He says: “One of my friends at VSEL is now running a shipyard in California and is living the life of Riley. However, I chose the union path and a less sunny climate.
“However, if someone was to design a job around my interests and passion it would be pretty close to what I’m doing now, if not it.
“In the early days my mates would be going out on a Saturday night and I would be going down to Liverpool or somewhere for a union meeting.
“I even had to give up playing football because most of the games were played on a Saturday, which was when I would be travelling up and down the country.
“I’m still in touch with a few of my friends from Barrow and they would describe me as someone who has always lived and breathed the union movement, so it didn’t create tensions or resentment with the people around me.”
Rowan’s most challenging time at the yard was when it was announced that it was to downsize from around 14,000 to 3,000 in the early 1990s, with the decline in shipbuilding catching up with the town.
As one of the unlucky workers in the line of fire, Rowan used his redundancy pay to fund his Government and Public Policy degree at Northumbria University, which he chose to be nearer his long-term partner, Elizabeth.
After helping to run a trade union education unit in Carlisle, he took up the role of education and research officer at the GMB union in Newcastle, a move that he says was quite an eye-opener.
He explains: “It was pretty daunting moving to the GMB from trade union education. The GMB has a particular culture and is a strong and powerful union, which is reflected through the people that work there.”
And he adds with characteristic dry humour: “They all have a swagger about them and can be quite aggressive. I’ve even heard that some of them eat raw meat for breakfast. I remember that my first piece of advice before I started was to bring my body armour.”
Among the main issues of the time was the fact that between 10,0000 and 15,000 jobs were being lost in the North’s clothes-making and textile industries, with companies deciding to move work abroad in favour of cheap labour.
However, it was a time that really taught Rowan an important lesson about how effective unions can be as a force for good. He says: “Seeing factory after factory close was really tough, as it was certainly not the workers’ fault. Around 80% of the workers were women without any transferable skills to speak of.
“However, the efforts made by unions and council members to ensure that these women were provided with training to fit into markets such as the emerging call centre industry were vital.
“Seeing people pull out all the stops to get people re-trained and supported was really impressive. Something about that tangible link with the people who were affected gave me an enormous sense of empowerment to go out and fight the cause for them.”
It was in 2002 that the job of regional secretary Northern at the TUC came up and Rowan grabbed the opportunity to gain leadership experience with both hands. He believes the organisation has made great strides in helping workers seek a growing number of opportunities.
Heading a 26-strong team in central Newcastle, he says two of his biggest achievements have been administering the Learning For All Fund and its work in improving health and wellbeing in the workplace.
Here in the North East, Unionlearn – the TUC’s learning and skills organisation – runs the flagship Learning For All Fund, which is a pot of money helping unions establish work- place learning projects and learning centres.
Over the last year, the fund has helped more than 10,000 adults get back into learning and was recently successful in securing a £21.5m budget for 2011-12.
In terms of health and wellbeing, the union has supported initiatives such as healthy eating in the workplace and cycle-to-work schemes, which Rowan said has had a massive impact in the North East and helped to reduce cases of worker absenteeism. However, he acknowledges that he has a much bigger job on his hands over the coming years as the public spending cuts begin to take effect.
While he says that gaining consensus over action is not as difficult as it was – with most unions agreeing that action is needed – he is more than a little nervous about what the next four years have in store for the region.
He says: “That sense of purpose among unions is really strong. The difficulty we have is organising that because of the scale of what is happening in the public sector and the economy as a whole.
“I believe the cuts and measures that will be rolled out over the coming years will prove more dramatic than anybody understands.
“We know what’s happening in terms of headline figures, but seeing this feed through to public services and the private sector will be another matter altogether. I don’t think anybody has woken up yet to how big this is going to be.
“I’m not saying this in any kind of party political way. I’m genuinely concerned about the region going back about 20 years as a result of these cuts. I do hope I am wrong, genuinely.”
He is also concerned that, in his opinion, the Government has not given any strong indication as to what it intends to put in place to ensure that the economy can begin to recover.
“I believe the majority of businesses in the private sector would say that they are pretty worried that the Government hasn’t got a plan for economic growth,” he says.
“The business community was pretty pleased with how the economy was progressing generally before the election despite issues surrounding national insurance, tax and VAT.
“Many would also say that they were pleased with many of the regional development agencies that were in place, which had done much to help maintain investment into the private sector.
“There’s a real anxiety out there that the progress that we were making is going to be harder to make going forward. On a positive note, a lot of businesses have restructured and have looked at ways to cut the fat out of their organisations, while working with trade unions to obtain a satisfactory outcome.
“This will help them become leaner and more able to take advantage of the upturn, when it comes.”
School: Barrow Grammar School for Boys
1982: Joined VSEL (now BAE Systems)
1983: Became shop steward
1993: Left shipyard to move to the North East
1993: Northumbria University, degree in government and public policy
1995-97: Carlisle Trade Union education unit
1997-2002: GMB as education and research officer
2002-present: TUC regional secretary, northern
What car do you drive?
What's your favourite restaurant?
Pani’s in Newcastle.
Who or what makes you laugh?
My two sons.
What's your favourite book?
Catch 22 by Joseph Heller.
What's your favourite film?
It’s a Wonderful Life.
What was the last album you bought?
Jenny and Johnny – I’m Having Fun Now.
What’s your ideal job, other than your current one?
Something in the voluntary community sector.
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you'd teach it to say?
What’s your greatest fear?
Something bad happening to my children.
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Measure twice, cut once.
Worst business advice?
It’ll be all right, just go for it.
What’s your poison?
Glenmorangie malt whisky.
What newspaper do you read, other than The Journal?
The Guardian, FT and Morning Star.
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
£36 as an apprentice shipwright.
How do you keep fit?
What’s your most irritating habit?
Re-stacking the dishwasher.
Which historical or fictional character do you most admire?
John Yossarian – Catch 22.
And which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Sigmund Freud, Martin Luther King, Aung San Suu Kyi, Peter Kay.
How would you like to be remembered?