Among Sally Hunt’s childhood keepsakes is an autograph book with scribbled personal greetings from the labour movement’s great and the good.
There’s a warm salute from Tom Jackson, the posties’ union leader, drawing a sweet little round face of himself complete with that flamboyant handlebar moustache. Len Murray, Jack Jones and Eric Varley all signed. So too did a certain Harold Wilson, who added the date, November 1974, plus his 10 Downing
Street address – presumably so the PM wouldn’t be confused with a humbler namesake. The autographs were collected by Sally’s Uncle, Ivan Rowley, a UCW Post Office national organiser hailed by Alan Johnson in his memoirs as “urbane, handsome...a cross between Richard Harris and Bryan Ferry”.
“I sometimes laugh about making my uncle get these,” laughs Hunt. “He was quite a tough man, but he’d say, ‘it’s for my niece, she’d like your autograph’.
There was this child asking and these huge figures were writing them. It’s quite funny and you realise in retrospect how lovely people were.”
Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union and this year’s President of a TUC 150 years young, credits Uncle Ivan with helping shape her own politics as well as collecting those autographs. “He was highly influential for me,” she admits. “I went to a meeting when I was a student and came back infuriated because I was told how the trade union movement had sold out the Portuguese revolution. I went to see him, outraged, and he said ‘Yes, I was part of the people who went over there to help negotiate through that process’.
“I thought I was going to die, I was so embarrassed. There’s grown-up land and there’s student land. He was in grown-up land. He taught me an awful lot in terms of organisation.”
Hunt was born in Germany where her father taught in a British forces school, studied at a Wiltshire comp, and then moved onto Sussex University. Her roots are deep in the labour movement. Collecting money for mining communities during the momentous 1984–85 strike, she discovered links with the areas she was supporting.
“My grandfather on my mother’s side was a miner in Kent,” adds Hunt. “and though I didn’t know until we were doing it the funds raised were for what used to be my grandfather’s old pits, Betteshanger and Snowden.
I always think stories have a habit of coming together.” In the chair for this landmark Congress, Hunt admits the past year as President proved an eye opener. “You end up realising the TUC does a huge amount of work that’s below the headlines,” discloses Hunt. “The staff, I have to say, are incredibly hardworking, consummate professionals but also they’ve got a rule book the likes of which I have never come across!
This is how we do things, this is how it’s always been done and this is how it shall be. “I’ve learnt that is something you take on at your peril. The TUC has its ways. It’s like a grand old lady of 150 – she knows what works and she knows what she likes!”
TUC birthday celebrations included a Speaker’s House reception in Parliament with Hunt formally introduced by banging on a door. “That was classic me,” she smiles, “I didn’t see why if the Speaker was banged in I wasn’t banged in. But that was quite dodgy terminology! I didn’t realise he was going to stand there and say ‘Can we bang Sally Hunt in’.
Luckily, I was in a room full of friends enjoying my discomfort. “It was good John Bercow did that and very good to see the Shadow Cabinet, to make the point that Labour and the trade unions are still one and the same family.”
The highlight of her TUC year, however, was the release of two jailed South Korean trade unionists after leading a delegation to that country’s London embassy, using the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang as leverage.
“We got them released and that matters. I really value it. That’s where this place (Congress House) and the reputation it’s built up over all these years can really make a difference. We can have dialogues on behalf of people who would literally risk losing their liberty and lives if they exercised the same freedoms we have.”
The year in the TUC chair coincided with Hunt making history as leader of the biggest strikes ever witnessed in UK higher education, as a wave of walkouts by university lecturers saved final salary pensions.
Forced to clear undemocratic turnout hurdles erectedby Tory anti-trade union legislation, the UCU recruited thousands of new members in a successful struggle, recording a double-digit percentage increase in the union’s size.
“I’m really proud of the people I represent. They did that in the freezing cold and not knowing what the outcome would be and they did it in a way no one expected them to,” Hunt emphasises.
“I’m very clear that it’s our branches who did the work. I hope we don’t have to do it again but I now know that we can. If we’ve done anything, we’ve shown other unions how it can be done. But I’m looking forward to a Labour government that will repeal legislation which is outrageous, absolutely outrageous. It has got to go.”
It’s little known that the UCU’s and labour movement’s gain is the nightclub industry’s loss. Hunt’s early jobs (Sussex University, Halifax and Nationwide building society staff associations), before joining the UCU, included a year on the doors of Brighton’s entertainment hot spots.
“I was a good bouncer,” she laughs, “it takes a lot of diplomacy, is all I’d say, and it is now a bit of a haze – a legal haze!”
Dealing with dangers posed by Brexit requires similar tact and Hunt’s very concerned about the rise of Britain’s far right.
She works with Care for Calais assisting refugees stranded the other side of the English Channel and is furious at the abuse of refugees.
“It just leaves you angry and so upset. If you look at people who’ve had the guts to travel for months we need to think what they could contribute because they’re incredible people. Brexit is going to make it worse.”
The Arsenal supporter had better hopes for the current football season when we met and admitted she’s also a fan of newspaper horoscopes.
“I like the Daily Mirror horoscope,” she says. “I tend to gravitate towards the horoscope page on any paper I pick up and I do think about the day and whether they’ve matched up. They fall short, most of them, but that’s never put me off. It’s probably a load of guff.”
High on Hunt’s list of dislikes is an aggressive “pro-life” lobby and she recounted a confrontation at her daughter’s Brighton sixth-form college. “I was coming home from travelling, my trolley trailing behind, and I stomped past them then thought I can’t bear it so stopped and had a bit of a row,” she recalls.
“Then I stormed off and, still not happy, stopped and demanded to have a word with the head of her college to tell them these people were outside. They’re nasty people. They lie and they scare young people and women.”
One thing for certain is this autograph hunter doesn’t scare easily.
Kevin Maguire is associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror.
Dr Mary Bousted will address Congress this afternoon. Watch Congress live
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