My time as Director of Unions21 – Ken Penton

Ken PentonUnions21 celebrates its 20th Anniversary this year. Former Unions21 Director Ken Penton takes stock of his time in the role.


I had been working for Labour Students for a year and was looking for something else challenging to do within politics when I approached by Bill Brown – a fellow Labour Student – to help him with what some work he had been doing for what was then called Unions 94 (in those days it changed it’s name each year. Changing it to Unions 21 after I left was a very good idea, not least on stationery costs!).


I actually joined a trade union via the Labour Party, which was seen as quite unusual at the time. I’ll be the first to admit that my knowledge of the trade union movement wasn’t that great at the beginning of my time with Unions 21, but I did think that trade unions had an important role to play in creating a decent, civilized society. What actually attracted me to working with Nina Temple – still the best manager I have ever worked for -, Mike Powell, John Monks, Hilary Benn and many trade union officers and rank and file trade union members who I don’t have space to mention, was that it was seen as a “neutral space for debate and discussion” to generate ideas on how unions could seek to gain the support of wider civic society so that trade unions were once again seen as a “force for good”. This was particularly important after the denigration of unions in the Thatcher years.


I had three great years working for Unions 21: the organisation provided me with a a host of personal and professional opportunities that I would never have experienced elsewhere. It also exposed me to all that is best – and some of what is worst – about British trade unionism.


As Unions 21 celebrates its 20th anniversary British trade unions are again faced with an anti-union Government that seeks to undermine the advances made by trade unions for working people over the past 150 years. The union movement needs to face up to that challenge and I am sure that Unions 21 has an important role to play in providing the space for trade unionists to generate ideas and strategies on how to do so.


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