It was the best of times, it was the worst of times
Even the most casual observer of trade union affairs cannot help to have noticed the battle royal that is going on right now for the heart and soul of Britain and Ireland’s largest union Unite.
This battle is one that is not only being played out in our schools, factories, hospitals and offices, but also on social media and in the pages of mainstream media. You might wonder why this election for general secretary of the country’s biggest union is so “front of stage”, to answer that we need to look to the side bar in this exchange of ideas, the Labour Party. The battle for Unite is seen by some as the struggle for Socialism and a new form of politics and economics which speaks to real people against turning back to a less democratic, less inclusive type of politics and trade unionism which does deals with bosses whilst the politicians link arms with the corporate giants rather than the workers who they are supposed to speak for.
So the first question is “Why all the noise?”
To answer this is to look back to the formation of the “Mighty Unite”. The union came about from a merger of the T&G (Transport and General Workers Union) and AMICUS in 2007. The first couple of years was painful for all concerned, many in the movement would refer to this embryonic merged union as Untie rather than Unite due to the huge challenges that the meeting of these two tectonic plates of the movement presented us with.
The T&G had been in existence since 1922 and its strong proud history of lay representation had been built through struggle. The General Executive Council of the union was fiercely proud of its lay structures and were always happy to challenge any paid official, including the General Secretary, if the matter warranted it.
AMICUS on the other hand had only come into being five years earlier in 2002 from a merger of the hugely powerful AEEU and MSF unions. Further mergers into AMICUS in 2005 had brought in the GPMU (PRINT) and UNIFI (FINANCE). AMICUS was a union of many unions, it had never had the time to develop a clear identity of its own prior to the 2007 merger with the T&G and it was strongly influenced by the traditions of the AEEU.
The T&G under Tony Woodley, a left wing General Secretary, were focused strongly around organizing and their culture of organizing and activating workers pervaded the union almost as much as their strong fighting back mentality, not ones to do deals with the bosses, not seeking confrontation, but clearly being up to the job if confrontation was forced upon them. The union had a right wing element but this was starting to dwindle in most regions, especially since the election of Woodley. The unions left were well organized in a broad left structure which had the ability to mobilise effectively through large groups of committed left activists at all levels.
AMICUS was a strange political concoction, with a strong left element in the “Unity Gazette” (broad left group) but also containing both centrist formations, apolitical groupings and a fierce right wing element. Partly that mixture can be traced back to the turbulent politics within the constituent unions which formed AMICUS. In particular Ken Jackson of the AEEU was seen as a strong right wing leader who ruled with a strong hand, the National Executive Council was often unable to voice their will effectively. Jackson was toppled by an officer from the Yorkshire region Derek Simpson, who became General Secretary prior to the merger and led AMICUS through its formative years. Derek, though seen as a left winger and supported by the Gazette, later shifted politically and some feel was subsumed into the new world of power and money which he began to inhabit. It is said that every General Secretary moves to the right when they are elected, some more than others.
Following the merger Unite ran with two General Secretaries, Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson. This was the case until the election of 2010. The election was a bitter affair with a number of rival candidates. No candidate who came from the actual “right” of the union stood for election, though some would say that Derek Simpson’s chosen candidate, Les Baylis, an AEEU enforcer, certainly portrayed all the characteristics of the right. The election initially saw four former AMICUS candidates stand, (One, Simon Dubbins, ex GPMU, subsequently was forced to step down from the contest as he was not compliant with rule in relation to his membership), ultra leftist Jerry Hicks, Les Baylis and Gail Cartmail (ex MSF) and just one candidate from the former T&G, Assistant General Secretary Len McCluskey.
The birth of a giant
In January 2011 Len McCluskey became the first sole General Secretary of Unite the Union and the union began to really establish its identity as he leading fighting back union in the country. Unite elected a strong left executive most of whom would support the new broad left organization “United left” and were close to the strong industrial organising model and left politics of McCluskey.
From 2011 onwards the union really started to find its feet and soon established itself as a key player industrially, politically and internationally. These were the three pillars which Unite stood on as agreed by the policy conference of the union. The course was set, the Captain was at the helm and the ship was steered from success to success with a strong confident adept crew who were loyal and determined to exert their lay authority in line with the new Unite rule book and philosophy.
Industrially we started to not only reverse decline via our organizing strategy, but also to strengthen our activist base significantly. Education was used as a key tool to build strategically within combines. Many of the lessons Unite was learning had their historical comparisons, but we were also building a new clear, focused industrial militancy fit for the 21st century.
The years have come and gone since the birth of Unite and no doubt history will judge us by our mistakes more than our successes, so let us just dwell on some of those successes.
Young workers are not joining unions, this is an issue internationally and certainly one which trade unionists in the UK have struggled with for some time, yet in Unite this trend has been reversed due to the initiatives of Len McCluskey in first, bringing young members into the heart of our policy conference, giving them observer status but also allowing them to speak in all the debates. Their contributions in those conferences have been outstanding. Len also listened to the leading young members themselves and then created a new post for National Young Member coordinator. Since that post has been created and our young member structures have been rejuvenated, Unite has grown in 12 months by a net 24,000 young members.
Community membership, another initiative of Len McCluskey, launched in 2012 and now seen by the whole trade union movement as an important voice for those who are unwaged in our society. Unite took a big step that no other union has done in such an effective way and opened up its doors to those for whom the trade union movement has been closed to for generations, to carers, the disabled, unemployed workers and others who are currently unwaged. We now have 16,500 Unite members in the community section of the union, who lead the way on matters of social justice and have been an amazing source of strength and inspiration for our industrial members. Unions across the world have sent activists and organisers to examine our community structures in order to look at adopting similar social movement trade union models in their own countries.
Our Unite Political Strategy is seen by many in the movement as a manifestation of everything that unions have been talking about for twenty years but not doing. Most unions have tried to develop political structures in order to re-engage Labour with organized labour in the unions and with ordinary working class people, In many traditional Labour areas people lost faith in the party and its political direction. MP’s seemed to care more about their duck ponds than the library closing down the road. They seemed to have experience of life which wildly differed from that of their constituents. Many of the political elite appeared to come from three or four professions with an increasing number coming into politics through being professional politicians as researchers or bag carriers for existing MPs.
Unite has developed under Len McCluskey a political strategy that comes from the premise of “no more blank cheques” If we support a politician we need to know they are listening to our members in their constituencies. We are proud as a union to have run political schools and developed our key members politically in order that they are able to challenge the political barriers that confront them, their families and their communities on a daily basis. We have also developed a candidate program in order to level the playing field for our members who wish to take up representational roles in the Labour Party.
To imagine a trade union should not be political, is to fail to understand trade unionism. If we only confine ourselves to consider what goes on behind the confines of the factory gate then we miss a big trick. Pay is important to our members, but the way our society is structured and the political and economic issues which our members face every day impact on what that pay can purchase and whether their social wage is being eroded. Every day it is political and economic decisions which frame the world we live in and our ability to feed our families. Our union must be in the political trenches as well as the industrial ones.
Our fightback stance as a union is also what has come to define Unite. Under Len and our left EC, we have built a £36m strike fund which makes employers think twice before taking us on, they know that starving our members back to work is not an option. Many officers ensure that when they encounter intransigent employers, that they make them aware of our strike fund in the same way as they are made aware of our successful leverage campaigns which have won for our members on each occasion that they have been put into action.
My old shop steward used to say, you know when you’re doing the right thing as a trade union when the press, media, employers and government are all attacking you. Well all those forces come together to attack our union, Unite often bears the brunt of vicious attacks in the right wing press and media, our members are vilified in the press and even attacked in parliament, as is our General Secretary, named “Red Len” by the gutter press and accused of all kinds of skulduggery by the Prime Minister, just shows me he is the right man for the job, or rather the “left” man for the job, which is exactly what we need to counter those who stand against our members.
Unions aren’t private members clubs, they are organisations that reflect the best traditions of collectivism and collaboration, they are bodies which should stand on proud moral ground, aloof from those who would simply criticise workers especially from those media barons like Murdoch, who have done their level best over the years to demonise our very existence. We stand for fairness and social justice inside and outside of the workplace, we stand against bigotry and hatred.
Unite has stood up for our members collectively and our activists individually when they have come under attack and we have won. This is why we are loved by workers and feared by the bosses in equal measure.
No longer can we class ourselves as ex AMICUS, AEEU, MSF, or T&G. Hundreds of thousands of our members joined our union as Unite, they have always been Unite and they see Unite as a strong force for good in our society and a providing them with a strong voice at work.
Policies or smears, the choice is ours!
Flash forward to 2017 and Unite is now in the fight of its life for the very soul of our union, a fight to retain our position as a fighting back union, to retain our strong lay democracy and to retain our very identity. We are in the midst of a General Secretary and Executive Council election. The lines were drawn early on with our existing General Secretary Len McCluskey being the obvious choice for most activists within the union. For all the factors which have been spoken about in previous paragraphs Len is the person for the job in my opinion.
Sadly those who would oppose all that we stand for as a union are massing their forces against us. Many of those forces are not even Unite members, some have never been members of any trade union and many of them are prepared to use any dirty tactic to win. They will not win, they must not win, or we would be heading for the dark past of shady deals with employers, of doffing the cap to our so called masters and of a form of trade union dictatorship which thankfully belongs in a bygone era.
Gerrard Coyne is the main rival in the leadership election, his campaign is largely run by the right wing of he Labour Party, his closest allies are Labour MP’s like Tom Watson, Jack Dromey and John Spellar. He has used data which appears to have been obtained by erroneous means. Many Labour Party members who are not even members of Unite have been contacted by Coyne’s camp asking for their support, there is a huge question over where their data came from, which is the subject of numerous complaints to the DPO and the electoral body conducting the election. A joint campaign appears to have been prevelant alongside Labour Mayoral candidate Sion Simmons, phone banking Unite members claiming to be from the Labour Party. All of this from a candidate who says he thinks Unite is too political and should take a step back from involvement in politics. Perhaps he just wants the union to take a step sideways away from left politics into the centre right ground inhabited by his closest friends and allies.
The turning point for many has been where Mr Coyne has fought his corner. He has fought it in the gutter using lies, smears and half truths, he has used masked thugs dressed in skeleton masks in stunts which discredit our great union but the final straw was when he used the very media barons who spend time demonising our union, trade unionists and working people in general, to take his message to a wider audience. The Sun newspaper, the Daily Mail and Express. Our colleagues in GPMU must be furious that he uses Murdochs anti union rags to promote himself as somehow “cleaning up Unite”, this last straw has been a particularly cruel and insensitive one as it hits home to those who remember Hillsborough, Orgreave, all the lies about our miners, our dockers, our print workers, our steel workers. These are the same papers who supported Margaret Thatcher in her one woman crusade against unions, they wrote and continue to write the tissue of lies around any worker who stands up for themselves and goes on strike. The same rags also ridicule health and safety and fill their pages with sexism, racism and homophobia.
There is a third candidate in this election sadly, a good trade unionist who has fought a clean campaign, whose policies could generally be described as ultra leftist and somewhat over idealistic. Ian Allinson a rep from Fujitsu is an ex member of the EC from the IT sector. Sadly some left leaning members will choose to vote for Ian, thus splitting the left vote. I’m sure Gerrard Coyne’s team must have been thrilled at this candidate putting his hat in the ring as he is almost certainly not taking a single vote away from Coyne. Naivety is unfortunately a political disease in some left circles. We are always stronger when we stand together, if only Ian could have bridged his differences with our left EC and leader then we would have a united front against this hugely dangerous challenge from the right of the political spectrum.
What is at risk here in this election is the whole future trajectory of the Labour and Trade Union Movement. It is difficult to see how Coyne would run a union whose entire executive, 90% of its activists and 90% of its officers and organisers were diametrically opposed to the policies which he wished to pursue, especially given that Unite is a lay controlled union. It is hard to see how the lay activists who run Unite and have been roundly criticised for corrupt practices by Coyne and running a dirty union which he intends to “clean up” , would find a way to worj with him. The way previous right wing union leaders have tackled problems like this is by ignoring the lay activists and sacking the officers who opposed them. His task will not be that easy with Unite whose very rule book sets in stone the overarching authority of the membership as voiced through conference and held in custody by the Executive Council.
The stakes are high and complacency is not an option, Len has over 1,100 nominations as opposed to a couple of hundred to Coyne and 70 to Allinson, but nominations aren’t votes. As a loyal member and activist of Unite and in a personal capacity I urge every Unite member to stand up and be counted.
VOTE LEN MCCLUSKEY for general secretary and vote for your United Left candidates in the EC election. Do not let our union turn back the clock. We need strong leadership. United we stand in our Unite family.