The past few weeks have seen a tube strike, a walk-out by members of the Prison Officers Association and local government workers requesting an industrial action ballot.
As ever, Unison, the trade union for people delivering public services, was central to the Congress. This year’s priorities will be drumming up support for its motion on affordable housing, and unveiling a hotline for NHS workers who encounter racism in the workplace.
Mary Maguire's no-nonsense but approachable manner typifies the modern face of trade unions, a million miles away from the tub-thumping stereotype of the 1970s and 1980s.
Maguire, who seems wistful for an era when union membership was a tradition within families, is eager to publicise the array of work that Unison does on behalf of its 1.4 million members. And a lot of this has nothing to do with industrial disputes.
Unison, explains Maguire, with the persuasive eloquence of a politician, ‘is a union that is modern, forward-thinking and relevant for this day and age’. She wants to convey that it casts its net wide. ‘I’d like to see Unison defined not only in terms of looking after its members’ interests, but also as a champion of the people who rely on those public services, such as a child being looked after by social workers, or someone’s granny who relies on a home help so she can have an independent life.’
She elaborates: ‘We are trying to convince the media that a union is about much more than strike action. I’d like Unison to be defined in terms of what we’re for rather than what we’re against.’ This involves strategies such as placing case studies in the press that build understanding of people who work in and rely on public services.
Regional and national press used to be the main target for Unison, but today, with digital and rolling TV news, a broader approach is required. ‘Twenty years ago we used to post our press releases – can you imagine that now?’ she hoots. ‘If we had a dispute, there was one story and one picture. Today, you constantly have to find a new angle on a story to move it forward.’
She also mentions the difficulty in maintaining a balance between raising issues of public interest and scare-mongering.
MRSA, she says, was a particularly challenging story in this respect: ‘Our members use hospitals – they’re patients as well as workers – so we have to be responsible.’
Apart from a brief stint as a sub-editor, Maguire, aged 53, has worked in unions since the late 1970s. Her loyalty is derived from a belief that ‘people who are doing a decent day’s work should get a decent day’s pay. My dad was a postal worker and was involved in the postal strike in the 1970s, so I know there used to be exploitation.’
A member of the Labour Party for more than 30 years, Maguire also worked for the party as a press adviser during the general elections in 1992, 1997, 2001 and 2005. She enthuses: ‘When you’re trying to promote a story, it can feel like a hard slog. But an election is the most exciting thing for any PRO because everyone’s talking about it.’
Alan Jones, the Press Association’s industrial correspondent, says that Maguire’s insider status with Labour has been useful to him. ‘I’ve worked with her for a long time and she’s been extremely helpful. She is very capable and knows exactly what the media want. I have huge respect for Mary because she passionately believes in trade unions and is loyal to Unison and to its general secretary, Dave Prentis.’
Jones believes that Maguire’s contribution is all the more impressive because the unions have a hard time getting their voices heard in the media. He says: ‘Union press officers have a difficult job getting media coverage of union activities. I think they have to try disproportionately harder than other PROs to get their message across.’
Overall, though, Maguire appears to be happy with Unison’s coverage, explaining that in the absence of any significant advertising budget and an annual press budget of just £140,000, positive media portrayal is certainly an important membership tool. Considering that the union must attract at least 14,000 new members every year, simply in order to maintain its existing membership levels, positive press coverage plays a crucial part in recruiting and retaining Unison members.
Maguire is proud that younger workers are now joining Unison. Indeed, the latest issue of the quarterly title U, which is sent out to all members, boasts a 21-year-old cover star. Jodie Rule is a policewoman and Unison representative from Essex, who shares her first impressions of the Unison conference.
Maguire also highlights that legal cases fought by Unison have helped to bring certain issues, such as stress and passive smoking, into the public arena. The union hooks stories on surveys that cover aspects of life in the workplace.
With a team of just three press officers in an open plan office in the Unison headquarters located just off London’s Euston Road, Maguire appears to work tirelessly for Unison, even taking phone calls from journalists in the middle of the night. A union insider, who has known her for nearly 20 years, says simply: ‘If there was such a thing as a College of Cardinals for union PR, Mary would be the Dean.’
PRWeek: What was your biggest career break?
Mary Maguire: Becoming head of communications for Unison when it was a new organisation was a huge challenge. It was a merger of three 100-year-old unions, and we had to bed it down. The other thing I’d mention is the opportunity I’ve had working on general election campaigns.
PRWeek: What advice would you give someone climbing the career ladder?
MM: PROs starting out in a union need to know as much as possible about their union and what makes their members tick. Spend time with them and do your best for them because you’re their champion. Also, never be afraid to take advice.
PRWeek: Who was your most notable mentor?
MM: Veronica Crichton (communications adviser for the Labour Party for more than 20 years from 1975, who died in 2002). I always called her V. I first came across her during the 1992 election, and I thought she was fantastic. She took no rubbish from anybody and was unflappable.
PRWeek: What characteristics do you prize in new recruits?
MM: People who are good writers with experience in either press or journalism. They must also be able to work in a democratic organisation because our members decide the union’s policy. They need to be people who can tackle complex briefs efficiently.
Head of press and broadcasting, Unison
Co-ordinating press officer, Unison
Chief press officer, Nalgo
Feature writer/news editor, Public Service Union journal
Chief sub-editor, Newsagent & Bookshop, Haymarket
House of Commons, Hansard reporter