Unite General Secretary election: we need a union fit for purpose

Submitted by Matthew on 29 July, 2010 - 3:57

Branches and workplace reps’ committees of the union Unite are holding meetings to decide whom to nominate to take over as Unite General Secretary. Nominations have to be made by early September, and the election itself will take place in late October/early November.

Unite is Britain’s biggest union (with a claimed membership of two million). The result of the election will impact not just on Unite but also on the broader trade union movement and — as Unite is Labour’s biggest union affiliate — on the Labour Party as well.

Les Bayliss

One right-wing candidate is Les Bayliss. Backed by the Workers Uniting Group, Bayliss represents a continuation of the old-style machine-politics and bureaucratic despotism which prevailed in Amicus. (Unite is the product of a merger between Amicus and the TGWU.)

Bayliss’s saving grace is that he does not mince his words. According to his election material, he will put an end to “adventurism and infantile and phoney militancy that alienates our members and the general public.” He will have no truck with “bravado and mock militancy, cheap publicity stunts and ‘back of a fag packet’ bargaining strategies.”

Getting rid of mock militancy — if it actually exists — would be a good thing. But Bayliss is certainly the last candidate wanting to replace it by real militancy.

Bayliss promises a purge of bureaucratic overstaffing and inefficiency.

He will “eradicate from our administration expensive and outmoded methods of working and unnecessary duplication of processes.” He will “end the duplication of services in every region, the wasting of resources, the wasting of expertise, and the weakening of the union through fragmentation.” Bayliss’s attack on duplication and fragmentation is actually code for: centralisation under the supreme control of the General Secretary.

Gail Cartmail

A second right-wing candidate is Gail Cartmail, who describes herself as the “independent progressive candidate”. She stresses that she is not backed by any of the factions in the union and can therefore unite the membership. Cartmail presents herself as the tree-huggers’ candidate:

“What our union doesn’t need is more infighting between the same political factions that have failed to bring the different sectors of Unite together. Sectarianism and division is not in our members’ interests, and a win for one of the factions will lead to more exclusion and a widening of rifts.”

Cartmail does not mince her words either: “You look at some of those people (i.e. the other candidates and their supporters) and it’s like a scene from Reservoir Dogs.” The other candidates, she says, are representative of a “white, male, pale and stale” culture.

Cartmail wants to usher in a new culture in which talent can flourish and progress to dizzying heights: “Unite needs to develop a cadre of diverse activists who can be groomed to take leadership positions, not just within the union, but as councillors and parliamentary candidates too.”

In other words, Unite should become a more efficient transmission belt for labour movement/Labour Party careerists.

With candidates like Cartmail and, even more so, Bayliss, this is not an election which the left in Unite can afford to sit out even if neither of the left candidates inspire a great deal of confidence.

Len McCluskey

The main left candidate for the General Secretary’s position is Len McCluskey. Despite our criticisms of his record as Unite Assistant General Secretary, and despite the limitations of his election manifesto, the AWL is calling for a vote for McCluskey.

McCluskey pledges to make Unite a democratic union, with members having the decisive say in how it conducts itself; a fighting union, which stands up for its members; an organising union, which reaches out to the unorganised; and a tolerant and inclusive union in which bullying no longer has a role to play.

In response to what he has rightly called “the class war which has been declared against the trade unions by the new government and employers,” McCluskey has declared that “now is not the time to batten down the hatches but to rise like lions!” It is “only organised labour which can defend jobs,” despite the threat of yet more anti-union laws:

“In the depths of a capitalist crisis, working people are to be denied any prospect of resisting. The trade union movement will not see these threats off simply by lobbying, necessary though that is.”

“We have to be prepared to demonstrate, protest and take industrial action where necessary to make it clear that we are not going to be the scapegoats for the bankers’ crisis, and to say that defending union rights is the same thing as defending working people’s living standards.”

In campaign meetings McCluskey has also spoken of the need to win back the Labour Party from the Blairites and Brownites: Unite members should join the party as individuals, and also secure delegations to local Constituency Labour Parties from their Unite branches.

McCluskey says the right things about the need to take on the Tory/Lib-Dem coalition’s offensive against the working class, the centrality of the trade union movement to the fightback, the use of industrial action, and the need to challenge Blairite-Brownite control of the Labour Party.

But there is a gap between what McCluskey says and what he actually does.

If McCluskey wants a democratic union it needs to involve the election of union officials (being paid roughly what the members whom they represent are paid), and the right of Unite branches to communicate with one another. Yet he has not mentioned electing, rather than appointing, union officials, nor of the right to inter-branch communication.

Time and time again Unite has failed to back up its members who find themselves under attack from their employers, and has allowed itself to be intimidated by the Tories’ anti-union laws. And McCluskey has been party to those failures. Reading McCluskey’s campaigning material right now, you would not even be aware of the BA dispute!

McCluskey wants an organising union which reaches out to the unorganised? But when Vestas workers on the Isle of Wight, some of whom were already Unite members, occupied their workplace last year to save jobs, Unite took a conscious decision not to recruit the rest of the workforce, leaving them to be recruited by the RMT.

And in the last Labour Party leadership contest and also in the current one McCluskey refused to support the candidate (John McDonnell) who represented the only serious challenge to the Labour right. Again, reading McCluskey’s campaigning material, you would not know that a Labour Party leadership contest was underway!

Calling for a vote for McCluskey does not mean relying on McCluskey to deliver what he says he stands for. McCluskey has not done it, in his capacity as Assistant General Secretary. There is no reason to suppose he would deliver in the role of General Secretary.

Campaigning for a vote for McCluskey needs to be linked to discussion about what needs to be done to turn the generalities in his election manifesto into reality. The election campaign needs to be part of a much broader campaign among the union’s rank-and-file members aimed at transforming Unite into a fighting union.

That discussion needs to be taken up in the United Left, the main force in Unite behind McCluskey in the election. The United Left varies from region to region but it tends towards being an old-style Broad Left which focuses disproportionately (but not exclusively) on union-internal elections.

Jerry Hicks

Another Unite member to put his name forward for nomination is Jerry Hicks. Much, but not all, of the criticism of Hicks from others on the left in Unite is wide of the mark.

Until being victimised and sacked for his trade union activities, Hicks was a convenor in the Rolls Royce Bristol plant. He commanded sufficient respect among members that they took unofficial strike action against his dismissal. After failing to win re-instatement — with the Amicus apparatus doing nothing to help him — Hicks turned down a job with Amicus on the grounds that all officials should be elected.

Individual elements in Hicks’ election platform place him well to the left of McCluskey — for example, the election of all union full-timers, re-nationalisation of the privatised industries, defiance of the anti-union laws.

But the positive aspects of Hicks as an individual and of some of his election policies are outweighed by a number of negatives.

Hicks condemns the Tory anti-union laws which saw Unite being dragged into the High Court because of alleged balloting technicalities over BA. But the same anti-union laws created the post of Trade Union Certification Officer. And it was Hicks who dragged Amicus in front of the Certification Officer in 2009 in order to trigger an election for the post of Amicus General Secretary.

Hicks wants to return ownership of the union to its members. At the same time he makes great play of opposing the removal of retired members from branch officer positions: “Retired members should have full and equal rights in the union’s structures.” This is not a quirk but opportunism. A disproportionately large number of votes cast in Unite elections are cast by retired members.

Hicks also plays to (a section of) the gallery with his (legitimate) attacks on the money which Unite hands over to the Labour Party without getting anything in return. Hicks calls for a “fundamental change” in Unite’s “relationship with the Labour Party”, but does not spell out what that change is. The fact that Hicks backs continued affiliation to the Labour Party is not in his election material!

Hicks says that, if elected, he will take only a workers’ wage. But his commitment to elected representatives taking only a workers’ wage seems somewhat selective. As a member of “Respect” he happily cohabits with George Galloway, who boasts of not being able to survive on three workers wages. Hicks backs the election of all Unite full-timers, but does not advocate a workers’ wage for any other Unite officials.

Hicks has not launched any new rank-and-file group in Unite which could campaign for the kind of policies which he advocates. Yet he has cut himself off from the United Left. Tt was his theatricals at the meeting held earlier this year to select the United Left candidate for the General Secretary’s election which resulted in a perception of him as a maverick who does not deserve to be taken seriously.

Hicks’ decision to stand (assuming that he, like the others, secures the required number of nominations) also raises the question of a split in the left vote. Is McCluskey so bad (by left standards) and Hicks so good (by the same standards) that the risk of Bayliss winning the election by “coming up through the middle” is not a relevant consideration?

In truth McCluskey is not so bad nor Hicks so good that the risk of a split in the left vote which paves the way for a Bayliss victory can be ignored. This consideration might not be decisive but it is important.

Activists in Unite need to organise for more than just a cross in a box against McCluskey’s name. Unite activists — and that includes Hicks and his supporters — need to use the election campaign as a springboard to push through the radical changes which are needed to transform Unite into a genuinely rank-and-file controlled organisation.

The Tory/Lib-Dems declaration of class war lends an added urgency to this task. The biggest union in Britain needs to be fit for purpose if it is to take on the coalition government and fight for a Labour government accountable to the working class.

Campaigning for a vote for McCluskey should not be an end in itself but a lever which opens up the prospect of making both the United Left and Unite itself fit for purpose.

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