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Paul Kenny – a hard act to follow

Kenny in DublinThe scenes at GMB Congress last week in Dublin were electrifyingly emotional when General Secretary, Paul Kenny, announced that there would be an election for General Secretary, but that he could not commit to another five years. The affection that activists hold for PK meant that when the news that many of us were expecting became a reality, there was still shock, and a spontaneous standing ovation, with many delegates in tears.

In my opinion there are two aspects to PK’s popularity. A very important attribute is that he personally treats members and activists with respect, and the easy rapport that Paul has with president, Mary Turner, ensures that GMB Congresses have more of the atmosphere of a big family gathering.

But PK’s popularity is also based upon success. Membership has grown from 571000 in 2004 to 630000 today, including growth of 8500 members in the last twelve months; net asset values have grown from £25 million in 2003 to £69 million today, and each year under PK has seen an operating surplus, compared to regular annual losses in the preceding period. Both membership and the financial health of the union have grown year on year. To put this in perspective, the much vaunted membership growth of RMT under Bob Crow did see a boost from 57000 in 2002 until reaching 80041 in 2008, but then growth stopped and between that year and up to 2013 membership only reached 80105 (This is the last year for which a return has been made to the Certification Officer)

In addition, after one year of trading, the trade union owned law firm, Unionline, a joint enterprise between GMB and CWU now has a Work in Progress (WIP) sheet of £25 million, giving an estimated valuation of £150 million. Rule revision at this year’s Congress has embedded Unionline into the GMB’s rulebook, so that the asset could not be disposed of without reference to, and a vote by, GMB Congress delegates. In contrast, while Unionline’s profits are fed back into building the union, many traditional law firms associated with the union movement pay million pound bonuses to directors.

Participation and inclusivity has improved. Annual Congresses have been restored, and with more delegates, including measures to ensure the participation of underrepresented groups. GMB now has as many women as men in membership, and representation of delegates at Congess reflects the full diversity of the union’s membership. GMB has also undertaken a more critical engagement with the Labour Party, encouraging members to become involved and to promote candidates and policies in the interests of working people, but perhaps with less public gestures towards the gallery then other unions make.

A significant change has been the introduction of the GMB@Work organizing agenda, which recognizes that employers and their workforce have opposing interest, that it is the process of industrial relations which builds the union, and that every workplace needs to be organized so that an industrial action ballot could be run. Implementation of GMB@Work is uneven, but there are significant advances in membership density and results for members where it has been done well.

When Kenny first took over the union in 2005 as Acting General Secretary, (in the wake of a scandal surrounding the circumstances of former GS Kevin Curran’s 2003 election) the union looked in a bad way, and a shotgun wedding with TGWU on unfavourable terms looked inevitable. Kenny turned the situation around and it is therefore no exaggeration to say that the very existence today of GMB as a healthy, solvent, independent and combative union is his achievement. Kenny gave a new confidence to GMB, and swept away the old habits of industrial partnership; in his own words:

“I am sick of people trying to camouflage what we are about. We are a vested interest and proud to be one. Our vested interest is the working people of this country, the people who have no other voice than the trade union movement.……. I do not go to parties and introduce myself as an “industrial relations expert” or a “purveyor of partnerships”. I am proud of what we do, who we are, and where we have come from … The fact that there is decent pay, or a pension scheme, or proper health and safety, or respect from the management is down to union organisation”

There will now be an election for a new General Secretary, and we must choose wisely so that the union which Kenny returned to the combative traditions of its founders, Will Thorne and Eleanor Marx, and which has been returned to the control of its lay members, continues to build upon those acheivements.

picture credit : Rachel Harrison from Twitter


  1. mickhall says:

    By accepting a knighthood Kenny has betrayed the people he represents. The honours system is an integral part of the wretched English class system which ensures the UK is one of the most unequal nations in the western world.

    There is absolutely no political reason why anyone should take a knighthood, the only reason people accept betsy’s baubles is vanity, egoism or self interest, normally their is an element of all three.

    1. Andy Newman says:


    2. Rod says:

      Paul Kenny worked hard for his knighthood: he supported Labour’s austerity offer and backed Miliband’s successful campaign to dump the LP’s collective link with the trade unions.

      Len McCluskey, who did the same, will be rewarded similarly.

  2. James Martin says:

    Well I’m a GMB member and have been for some years and I think Kenny has betrayed the movement by accepting his Tory gong, not that the gushing lov-in from Newman wants to see that.

    As to the union, it has failed to respond adequately (or at all) to academisation in schools (my sector) and has lost ground significantly as a result. It’s membership services are a joke, the last time I tried to contact the Dublin office (which is my ‘local’ one in the NW on England) I was pretty shocked to discover it closed at 2.30pm, while even when I got through changing branches took an age of argument. Meanwhile the last time I was balloted in a local dispute with my employer the ballot was declared void because the relevant official had put the wrong question on the ballot paper which made us look even more incompetent than we did already (which then led to many of my colleagues joining Unite).

    So forgive me if as a mere rank and file member I do not have the same gushing silliness for the union or sell-out who is about to retire on a nice fat pension.

    1. Robert says:

      Might be a training day, I contact my local office all the time and I get through OK no issue.

      The award is disappointing but at least it’s not Blair.

      My grandson is now heading into work or at least I hope, I’ve told him to join the Trade Union which would be the GMB, if he needs lawyers or solicitors it’s cheaper then paying for a legal team now that legal aid has gone.

      Going to tribunals all now cost and if your not in a union it could be expensive.

      But that’s why I would join and not much else.

  3. gerry says:

    Andy – I was a GMB member when I was working in security in the last few years, and as a union they were pretty good – accessible, open and welcoming . I met Paul on one of the anti- austerity marches in London, and personally he was how you describe: warm, and not patronising or distant.

    But I also loathe the wretched honours system – as most socialists do – with its inbuilt establishment sucking-up, and so am sad that he has accepted his honour….but overall the good that he and the GMB has done well outweighs the bad (accepting this gong)….

  4. mickhall says:


    You cannot live in the UK today and despise the the gross inequality without seeing the link between the English class system and the honours system. ‘Whatever’ will not cut it. It makes you appear not to have any argument to put about our criticism.

    Whatever way you look at it Paulie by accepting ia gong has placed himself in the same camp as the ruling class. Why blot his biog for such a silly bauble?

    Please tell dont tell me he accepted it not for himself but the the union and its membership.

    I had hoped we had moved beyond the days when TU leaders accepted such so called honours. It seems not. It will be interesting to see what tasks he takes on in retirement. no masters no gods.

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