Does a trade union background help prepare you for management? As the TUC meets this week in Blackpool, managers who were once activists talk to Patrick Butler

Many people would see union membership as a hindrance to a management career.

'I know of instances where it was made clear to union activists that they would not get on the management ladder. In many trusts it was quite clear they were not 'one of us',' says Alastair Henderson, head of the Unison senior managers group.

The arrival of New Labour has mellowed the attitude of many NHS managers towards trade unions. Forthcoming legislation based on the Fairness at Work white paper should enshrine union rights in many workplaces.

There is a new, comforting rhetoric of collaboration and partnership surrounding NHS industrial relations.

'There were always people who came up to you and said 'I'm a member but I don't broadcast the fact'. Now they come up and tell you quite openly,' says Mr Henderson.

Stephen Griffin, head of employment relations at the Royal College of Nursing and former head of personnel at St James' and Seacroft University Hospital trust, says managers ought to take trade unions more seriously.

Working for the RCN has given him an insight into nurses' motivations and concerns that he never had as a manager.

'Perhaps managers should shadow trade union reps as part of their personal development plans. And perhaps trade union officials should shadow managers,' says Mr Griffin.

Karen Caines, director of the Institute of Health Services Management, believes the skills that make a good shop steward are transferable and can help make an effective manager.

'In order to do their job well, a shop steward needs to have good organisational skills in addition to being able to clearly communicate and understand the wider issues.

'Talents like this, combined with a love of the NHS, are the driving force of good management.'

But Sally Taber, management adviser for the RCN, is more cautious. The reality is that union activism can turn out to be a disadvantage. There is no evidence that it can help your career in the NHS. Indeed, it may ruin it, she believes. 'I would not take industrial action,' she says.

Laurie Caple, chief executive of Northumbria Ambulance Service trust, and former NUPE and NALGO activist, says: 'I was very proud of my membership and I was active until 1983. But I resigned from NALGO when there was a dispute, and I found myself in a union that was pushing for industrial action. It was something I could not do.'

Bitter personal confrontation with the unions erupted nine years later when Northumbria Ambulance Service enthusiastically embraced trust status, local pay bargaining, and income generation schemes.

Unison was derecognised in 1992, although Mr Caple claims it derecognised itself.

'The story was that we threw them out. But they refused to talk to us. They did not believe in trusts and were determined to get rid of me.'

The trust does not recognise trade unions but operates a staff council, which he claims 'plays the role of a trade union'.

The previous strife has not dulled his enthusiasm for unions, however. 'I'm not anti-union. I believe trade union activism is a good training for a management career. Most of my senior people came up through that route.'

He is relaxed about Fairness at Work legislation, which could force the trust to welcome Unison back into the fold.

'If union recognition becomes a requirement that would not be a problem for us,' he says.

Jan Marriott is director of patient services at Worcestershire Community Healthcare trust and a former NUPE shop steward. She was also a health and safety rep and is still a Unison member. She says: 'Throughout the Tory years you had to keep your colours close to the mast. For a long time I did not speak about my trade union membership much. I think there's a very strong class system in the NHS.

'Certainly, unions like Unison are associated with the working classes. It does operate against us. When I was a staff nurse I was told if I really wanted to get on I should take elocution lessons. I was determined not to do it that way.

'But getting to the top in NHS management is a lot to do with gender, race, class and 'finesse'. New Labour is as class-ridden as the last lot.

'Being a steward and a health and safety rep taught me that doing things right first time - not the quickest, cheapest way - means everybody benefits. Personally, I think trade union repping is a very good management experience, but it depends on the culture in which you are operating. If your trust board is packed with private sector business people opposed to trade unionism, then it might not be such a good idea.'