Kevin Rowan, TUC regional secretary, northern
THE job of the region’s highest profile union leader has got even harder as millions of workers struggle against cutbacks. But Christopher Knox finds TUC regional secretary Kevin Rowan more than equal to the challenge.
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.”