TRADE UNIONIST – Manuel Cortes on international solidarity

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Manuel Cortes, 49, was re-elected in December as General Secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association for a second five year term which started in January 2017, winning 66% of the vote. This is an independent union with 18,000 members for the transport and travel industries.

He was born in Gibraltar on 2nd May 1967 and lived on the Rock until he was 18. His father is Spanish from Almeria and married Lali Acris, whose family had been in Gibraltar for generations. The wedding eventually enabled him to change his green alien ID card for a red Gibraltarian one. His mother was a hairdresser and his father worked as a driver. His younger siblings are Joseph and Natalia. The family lived in Referendum House on the Glacis estate and, as his parents had to work, his maternal grandmother, who came from Galicia, had a big hand in his upbringing. The language spoken at home was Spanish and when playing with his friends they spoke only in Spanish. The only time he was forced to listen and speak in English was at school where all the lessons were in English. Naturally, this posed difficulties as lack of English was a real weakness and the many school reports indicated that Manuel was a boy with intelligence but somewhat handicapped by his inability to command the English language. A natural talent for mathematics which did not require much English was learnt at school. The upshot was that he left school at 15 without a single GCSE. He contends that the majority of children living on the Glacis estate spoke Spanish daily in preference to English. Up to this point he did not see any necessity to learn English.

One of the few places a fifteen-year-old could get on without qualifications and when English was not his forte was the Gibraltar and Dockyard Technical College which catered for apprentices, full time students and technicians. Today, it is the Gibraltar College of Further Education. He took and passed a City and Guilds course in Engineering. This course taught him maths, technical drawing, engineering and workshop technology. At the same time, he made a determined effort to learn English and took the GCSE in English but alas, failed.

On the back of the City and Guilds success, he applied for a London scholarship, was awarded it and went to the Erith College of Technology in South East London where he obtained a BTEC National Diploma in Engineering. This course needed some English but the majority of the classes were confined to engineering. A fixed amount of subjects had to be passed at level 3 and this was achieved in engineering subjects. His English paper was a level 2.

As a result of this diploma he was able to secure a place at Heriot-Watt University where he took a four-year course for a Bachelor’s degree in Electronic Engineering. He swiftly realised that he needed to speak fluent English and found a good teacher who advised him to spend two or three hours each day reading the quality press, in particular the Financial Times. The teacher advised him to read the paper alongside a dictionary and he would find his vocabulary expanding by the week. As his English improved, he managed to catch up on the academic side which had been neglected over the years on account of his lack of English.

He had become involved in Gibraltar politics at an early age and was a founder member of the youth section of the Gibraltar Socialist Labour Party alongside Michael Feetham’s two sons Danny and Nigel, eventually being elected Chair. He was also an influential member of the Gibraltar Students’ Union. In later years, when the Conservative Government removed the housing benefits from students, he started a campaign on the Rock which resulted in the Gibraltar Government giving local students financial compensation to cover this loss.

As soon as he moved to the United Kingdom, he joined the Labour Party and became an activist. A Trade Union, the Manufacturing, Science and Finance (MSF) now part of Unite, was joined and he became closely involved in student politics.

On arrival at Erith College of Technology, he became active in the Students’ Union and found that it was a struggle to get elected to the executive committee because of his poor English. This made it difficult to speak fluently in public which is essential to obtain votes. However, despite this handicap, he was elected.

Then, at Heriot-Watt University, he was elected to be a sabbatical officer having already served in the Students’ Union Executive. This is a full-time paid officer who is responsible for a specific task such as welfare which is allocated by the committee. This means putting the degree course on hold for the year. This in turn meant that it took five years before he was awarded his Bachelors’ degree.

Manuel said; “At university, I found how many students, through no fault of their own, held such a narrow view of society and no idea of the poverty that existed just a few minutes away. I decided to do something about this and one of the actions that I am most proud of when I was a sabbatical officer was to organise an alternative tour of Edinburgh that took students to some of the local housing estates”.

He was also elected to the executive of the National Union of Students Scotland which is an autonomous body within the National Union of Students representing some 500,000 students studying in further and higher education in Scotland. It is run by full-time sabbaticals.

During his first couple of years at Heriot-Watt, he returned to Gibraltar for a long vacation as he could get a well-paid job in the dockyard as an electrician. One year, he worked on Gun Wharf which specialised in servicing yachts and super yachts. During one of the years, he ended up on strike as the Union was in dispute with Appledore Ltd. For the last three years, he stayed in Scotland dealing with an enormous amount of Student Union work.

By the time Manuel finished his degree a decision had been taken that a career in engineering was not for him and his love for politics and trade unions had overtaken any other career options. He found that his life had been taken over by the broad Labour movement which is the combination of the Labour Political Party and the Trade Union movement: one cannot function without the other.

In order to stay active on the National Union of Students and remain at university, he needed to find another course. He applied for the master’s course in Optical Electronics in Strathclyde University which he did well. This was for a calendar year of which eight months was at the university and four months in Germany on a practical project. This was an exciting time to be in Germany as it was shortly after the re-unification. Surprisingly, there was a rise in fascism in Easter Germany and Manuel became involved in anti-fascism activity. This led him to travel from the south of Western Germany to take part in the biggest ever anti-fascist demonstration in Rostock which is in the northern state of Mecklenburg – West Pomerania. It was as if the Nazis had taken over all the streets, the demonstrators wanted to clear the streets and make them safe for everybody. Eventually, the demonstrators won and the Nazis retreated. Upon his return to the university, he was awarded his Master’s degree. The studying in Germany was funded by the Erasmus European Union project.

A job had then to be found and he decided to stay in Scotland. Whilst still wanting to work in a union, he decided that he had better apply for jobs in engineering until a suitable union job came up. An interview with BT was passed and, whilst he waited for the follow up, a temporary position on a short-term contract for a year came up at the Banking, Insurance and Finance Union. He turned down the potential BT position.

At the end of the year, he was determined to work for the Labour movement but accepted a position as an electronic engineer with Motorola, the American multinational which had opened a plant in Bathgate. Motorola had little time for unions but Manuel was a union member so he clandestinely began to recruit members for a union which lasted for about 18 months before a whistle-blower reported him to management. This was the end as the management tried in every way possible to persuade him to leave the company and eventually gave him his P45. He took them to the Tribunal for unfair dismissal, won the case and was given a good financial settlement. Manuel decided to spend the money on travelling round Eastern Europe and on a master’s degree in economics. As he had no background in economics, he went for an interview where he had to convince the tutor that his knowledge of contemporary issues was sufficient for him to take the course. He was told that he had six months to gain an appropriate certificate to be allowed to enter the master’s stream. The tutor said that it was most unusual for any student to travel down this route to the Master’s in Economics. He passed the course and now had a double Master’s degree.

Amnesty International offered him a job as a fundraiser in Scotland. This lasted for 18 months. He joined the TSSA union in March 1998. The union was going through a difficult transition as the railways had just been privatised, membership was declining. His job was in recruitment which is all about people. Manuel is an advocate of people in the workplace taking control and of leadership in the workplace with union officials supporting the members. His philosophy was that the union should be member led with the paid officials being there to support the members and not to impose themselves on them but to offer guidance, advice and support.

Manuel was promoted to organiser, then senior organiser followed by a brief period as a negotiations officer. In the election for General Secretary, the victor’s mandate was to transform the union into an organised union and one result was for Manuel to be appointed Assistant General Secretary. In November 2011, he was elected the 21st General Secretary and in November 2016, he was re-elected for another five year term.

When he took over in 2011, the union was verging on bankruptcy with a deficit of £ 2.7 million and was in the process of seeking a merger. Fortunately, the union was not able to find a partner for a suitable merger. The most expensive financial outlay was on staff and so he had to reduce the headcount by a third from 68 to 46 members of staff. The union is now heading for the first financial surplus in a decade and there are no further merger plans.

Today, the Union enjoys a high media profile for a small union and Manuel writes many articles and is invited to take part in television programmes such as Andrew Neil’s Daily Politics on BBC Two.

The rules of the election allow Manuel to publish a two-hundred-word manifesto and he was able to include these commendations from the Chief Minister and a former Chief Minister who was also his long-standing mentor.

Fabian Picardo wrote; ‘Manuel learnt his socialism in Gibraltar and he is a rock when it comes to standing up for the rights of his members. As a friend and now leader of the Gibraltar Socialist Labour Party and Chief Minister of Gibraltar, I am proud to see what he has achieved and how his principles remain rooted to deliver results for the working people who rely on his leadership’.

Joe Bossano wrote: ‘I have known Manuel since he was a boy and have seen him brought up as a Socialist. He comes from a family or working people and he cares about the working people he represents as if they were family’.

Manuel is a firm believer that if you do not live in Gibraltar then it is wrong to offer advice from afar, it is up to the people who live there to make their own decisions. This year, because of Brexit, he was invited to attend a forum at the 2016 Trades Union Congress to help make the case for Gibraltar. The Chief Minister spoke about the difficulties that Gibraltar would face as a result of a hard Brexit. It was an open forum and Manuel was invited to say a few words. He also tried to place an emergency motion about Gibraltar at the Congress but alas, it was ruled out as it was not deemed to be an emergency.

TSSA is totally against Brexit and his contention is that although the majority voted to leave the EU in the referendum, he questions whether the majority really appreciate what Brexit means. It is one thing to say you want to be out of the European Union and other to know what the consequences will be. Views might be changed when it is discovered what it means in reality.

Manuel always tries to get down for the International Workers’ Day (May Day) and is usually invited to speak from the platform. It was impossible to be there for the 2016 rally but he intends to be there this year.

Manuel ended the interview with these words; “I am a Socialist and a believer that ordinary people have a lot in common irrespective of nationality; they have more in common than anything that divides them. When I spoke at a May Day rally on the Rock, it coincided with the collapse of the factory in India. I said from the platform that I have more in common with Spanish workers, with Indian workers, with British workers, with German workers than with any boss. My politics are rooted in the idea of international solidarity. We need to recreate the kind of trade unionism that sees them being an integral part of the communities in which we live”.

words | Mike Brufal