Last week he pulled off the biggest coup of his career, negotiating a landmark wage deal for workers on Heathrow Airport's Terminal 5, Britain's biggest construction project. Skilled tradesmen working for Laing O'Rourke on the terminal will get £55,000 a year – more than a director of a £50m-turnover contractor, according to Building's 2002 executive salary survey. Unskilled workers, including the refugees that BAA plans to employ on the scheme as part of its local labour strategy, will get £32,000 a year – more than most architects.
Brumwell was a driving force in the negotiations with BAA, which dragged on for more than two years. He led the talks with Laing O'Rourke alongside representatives from the other unions covered by the agreement (the TGWU and the GMB). Now Brumwell is facing a barrage of press enquiries over the deal, which – particularly in the light of the firefighters' pay strike – is causing the biggest controversy the union has seen in years. The agreement seems likely to set a benchmark for other contractors, too. The first group up in arms were electricians, who are now demanding that M&E union Amicus give them a major projects pay deal of their own.
"It's a unique contract, and a sensitive one," says Brumwell. "It's a world-class project and we want to make sure the labour force is world class. I'm pleased with the deal, but I don't want to gloat. The unions now have a very strong responsibility to make it a success."
But what excites Brumwell isn't just the big money: "It's all the other things involved in the deal, such qualifications, occupational health, direct employment. And involvement with the local community – we want to draw local people in to come and work on the T5 site and train them." However, Brumwell hasn't invited Building to UCATT just to talk about T5. He also wants to announce his retirement. "I've done my stint," he says. "I'll stand down next year. Probably in the next few months the union's executive council will announce the programme for a replacement."
Brumwell has come a long way in 12 years' service as general secretary of Britain's biggest construction union. When Building visits, the 125,000-member union's 1930s headquarters in leafy south-west London is in chaos. Hallways and offices are being refurbished and a driveway laid. This work should have been done in 1991, but at the time the union was engulfed by a different kind of chaos: it was just about broke. It was the pit of the recession, the industry was shedding workers by the hundred thousand and UCATT was in a mess. It was overspending by £3m a year and crippled by infighting. It was also the year that one George Brumwell was elected general secretary.
"I saved the union," says Brumwell. "I stopped the rot."
More specifically, he negotiated a deal with the banks, mortgaged the union's property assets and raised a loan to keep the show on the road. There was a period of intense E E political struggle as he fought to eliminate dissent and consolidate his leadership. He then turned his attention to winning over employers and improving UCATT's reputation. "We not only had an accounting deficit, we had a credibility deficit within the industry," he recalls.
Brumwell is leaving UCATT in good shape. He has built bridges with employers and has close links with the government – demonstrated most memorably when he took the stage at Labour's Blackpool conference to defend the PFI against the public sector unions.
If you want to do anything in the industry for the workforce, you’ve got to cut out the crap from both sides, all the posturing
Like many union leaders, his connections with the Labour government have given him extra bargaining power. Ultimately a pragmatist, he thinks Blair's government has had a beneficial effect on the construction industry: "My politics are quite clear - I've got a feet-on-the-ground approach. I acknowledge the changes this government has made, despite everyone knocking them."
In a stance that reflects New Labour's conciliatory attitude, he thinks UCATT should work alongside employers, instead of against them. But he makes no bones about the need for improvement in workers' pay and conditions, and admits that when talks break down, action is sometimes needed: "The industry is adversarial and it breeds adversarial natures. Militancy is the right word to use."
Brumwell has been in construction since his late teens. Born the son of a miner in a small County Durham town, he first joined a union aged 15, when he left school to work as an apprentice joiner in a North-east shipyards. But what really turned him on to politics was the construction of the Ferrybridge C power station in the horrendous winter of 1963.
"It was my defining moment," he says. "The whole site got laid off because of the weather and they began to take people back the week after – but myself and another shop steward never got back on site. We got shafted. My attitude was, 'Well, the buggers aren't going to get away with that'."
He was unemployed for months, living in a tiny caravan with his wife and their first child. But he fought back, a friend wangled him some work and he became a union branch secretary, before rising to UCATT regional secretary for Yorkshire in 1974.
Now 63 years old, Brumwell speaks in fits and starts, with frequent pauses. At first he is hesitant, but soon becomes voluble when discussing work. Not a problem, presumably, when he is holding talks – negotiation has been a key part of his job: "If you want to do anything in the industry for the workforce, you've got to cut out the crap from both sides; all the posturing."
His office is appropriately sparse and utilitarian, with personal items limited to a cluster of photos of his grandchildren and a miniature Cuban flag. This is the room in which Brumwell bargains on behalf of UCATT's members. He has heard a good deal of rhetoric here, and his dozen years in the job have made him fiercely critical of companies that make promises they don't keep.
"Wherever you've got major household names managing big contracts, making statements about how supportive of their workers they are, that has got to be followed up by what's happening on their sites, at every level," he says. "Do they know what their contractors and subcontractors are doing? Are they living up to their code of conduct and their standards? Quite clearly they're not. And it's time that big players in the industry started to mean what they say."
He meets employers' rhetoric with his own: a traditional plea for workers' rights: "If you want to give workers some dignity there have got to be good career prospects, there's got to be good fringe benefits, there's got to be a job next week and the month after."
One thing he and the suits have in common is a shared interest in the PFI. Forty-three per cent of the industry's workload is publicly funded, and that is bound to rise as the commercial market collapses and the government investment programmes in public services get into higher gear.
"Ideologically, me and the union are opposed to PFI because we think it's the wrong way to tackle the problem of public projects. But, having said that, given the choice of whether we're going to build a hospital or not, I'd say build it; given the problem of whether to build a school or not, I'd say build it.