Can we make Unite a fighting union?

Submitted by Matthew on 29 January, 2014 - 11:38

Unite is the UK’s largest trade union, with approximately 1.5 million members in industries as diverse as cabin crew, speech therapy, power stations, and car production. It has 100 full-time organisers, organising workers in mainly unorganised workplaces and industries. Its General Secretary Len McCluskey boasts that he has never blocked or repudiated a strike during his tenure and its “leverage” campaigns have seen noisy protests and intense lobbying beating the likes of Honda, London Buses, and major contractors and firms in the construction industry.

Yet Unite still suffers from the same cautiousness, poor organisation, and worse politics that hamper the rest of the trade union movement. The defeat at the Grangemouth oil refinery, an industrially strategic workplace with a well-organised and previously militant workforce, highlighted the union’s shortcomings in a graphic and very public way. In this article, Mark Best sets out the case for organisational and political reform within Unite to transform it into a genuinely fighting union.


The main “left” grouping in Unite is United Left. It is a very loose grouping that fails to coherently describe what it means to be “left” or to outline a radical vision for the union.

It is dominated by Morning Star Stalinists and ex-Trotskyists. It is doggedly loyal to McCluskey and the “left” leadership and officials of the union and is often hysterically hostile to the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP), a hostility which predates the latest scandals to have engulfed the SWP.

Much of what passes for discussion at United Left meeting centres on getting “their” people elected to committees and appointed to positions. A tradition of political appointments in Unite and its predecessor unions, the TGWU and Amicus, results in the raising of some spectacularly incompetent and lazy individuals to positions of authority within the union. The lack of any coherent definition of what it means to be “left” means that many of these fail miserably to put up a radical opposition to the bosses.

At the national official level, the politics of Unite are dominated by the cautious, fake-left, soft-Stalinism of the Morning Star. As a result, the union supports Labour almost unquestioningly and tells itself fantasy stories about the left-wing credentials of Ed Miliband and all sorts of uninspiring prospective parliamentary candidates.

Internationally, Unite seems to have failed to notice the role of trade unions or their need for support in countries like Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Mexico, Indonesia or Turkey. Instead it spends a phenomenal amount of attention on Cuba, promoting the Miami Five campaign and sending officials on junkets to Havana.

Socialists in Unite need to work together to define what it means to be “left-wing” — supporting workers to struggle to reshape our workplaces and our society in our class interests.

We need to raise the flag for an internationalism that involves lending support to our sisters and brothers fighting the class struggle in countries of the world where they most need our help and where their struggle may be most closely tied to ours (international organising campaigns, taking on international industrial sectors, or TNCs) rather than simply waving flags for the Cuban state.

And socialists need to raise big political questions in the union — the fight for a workers’ government, that would take key strategic industries into public hands, would reverse privatisation and repeal the anti-union laws. The left in Unite should argue for a far more critical and nuanced support for Labour — using the link to push socialist policies in the party, targeting support for candidates who support our key aims, holding MPs and the party to account when they fail to back us in action, and so forth.

For socialists, “taking an organising approach”, should mean relying on the strength of organisation to drive change; focusing on building membership, activity and, crucially, leadership within workplaces, sector by sector.

Unite has gone further than any other UK union in establishing an “organising department”, with 100 organisers focused mainly on sectoral organising. Yet its training still focuses much more on individual representation than on collective campaigning, negotiating, and winning industrial campaigns and disputes. Its officers are still commonly far too worried about upsetting their “good relationship” with an employer (even when in dispute!) than on taking on and beating that employer through collective action. The common response to a workplace issue is to advise on whether the workers have “a case” (i.e. a legal case) rather than to explore how they might campaign to improve their lot beyond the bare minimum the law states.

This has to change. Socialists should argue for the whole union to adopt a genuine “organising approach” — to campaign, to focus on growth, to fight to win, through sector-wide collective action. The Organising and Leverage Department should continue to grow its strength and ability to take on large corporations and sectors. Training and support of reps should be refocused in this direction.

The success of Unite's leverage campaigns can be measured pretty accurately by the level of hysteria whipped up in the right wing press and the determination of the government to ban it.

Leverage should continue to grow and develop. Using innovative, flexible, fast moving tactics to stay ahead of the bosses leverage can support industrial strength and help redress the imbalance of forces in the class struggle at the industrial level.

The same degree of planning, strategy and resolve needs bringing to unite's prosecution of industrial disputes. The creation of a strike fund is a great first step in supporting strikes but a disputes team should move in to support important battles, just as corporations shift in teams or consultants to oppose unionisation campaigns.

Instead of teaching officers how to avoid strikes, Unite should ensure its reps and employees know how to win them!

Capitalism is primarily organised by sector. Glaxo Smith Kline in Worthing competes with Bayer in Germany. Other pharmaceutical companies are the competitors their board concerns themselves with, not the garage in Chichester or the widget factory in Shoreham. And yet the primary organisational unit of Unite is the geographical region.

These Regions each have a well-paid Regional Secretary, a finance department, membership department, constitutional committees, and so forth. Branches and even individual membership “belong” to a specific region. One region may refuse to represent another’s member or may snatch membership from another. They hold much of the power and political sway inside the union. They “manage” the officers that are based within their geographical area.

By contrast, the industrial sectors will have little more than a national officer and their secretary. They will meet quarterly as a sector committee (NISC) and every few years as a sector conference. The national office(r) doesn’t manage or direct the work of officers, doesn’t have a team under them working to research, plan, and execute its work within their industrial sector.

This is despite the fact that these sectors look remarkably like old-fashioned industrial unions – Civil Aviation Transport, for example, includes cabin crew, baggage handlers, check-in agents, cleaners and security, porters, and everyone else working in airports across the country. And yet reps from Gatwick will meet reps from Heathrow only occasionally. They will have much closer constitutional contact with other reps from bus companies, IT companies, hospitals, etc., in their local area.

We should argue for much greater power for the industrial sectors. In the modern industrial landscape, it makes little sense to maintain the complicated, powerful and costly regional structures that Unite currently operates.

Unite is far from unique in the trade union movement in tolerating quite unbelievable sloppiness, laziness and ineptitude. Whilst effective management structures are in place in one or two departments, for the most part officers and staff manage themselves — with predictable results.

By introducing very rudimentary management structures into its 100% campaigning, Unite took a campaigning approach that had delivered a few thousand members in five years, to delivery of over 100,000 members in two years. And yet most of this growth is delivered by a minority of officers and a minority of campaigns.

To succeed, the union needs to extend the principle of managed teams, planning and accountability for work throughout its ranks. Training, support, and, where needed, discipline needs to given to all its employees and the lay officialdom and membership need to be able to take oversight of things like success of campaigns, officers’ expense claims, etc.

Unite is overflowing with committees. There are literally hundreds of them. But they too often lack power, fail to seriously challenge and hold to account the functionaries of the union, struggle to fill seats and fail to take decisions or to direct work.

There is no easy fix. To give democratic structures meaning, first a more involved culture needs to be built. A simple prescription of “more elections” is not enough. Activity and organisation — campaigning — is key to this. Much greater openness, publishing pay and expenses, campaign progress reports, etc., online would be a start. Likewise, better training and direction of committees to deliver effective oversight and campaigning would be a move in the right direction. In disputes, creating strike committees with real power would give the workers involved a chance to drive their own disputes and make union officials more accountable.

Some unions, notably in Australia, have set up processing centres to deal with individual issues and to channel contact. This enables them to ensure contact is followed through (through “case management” systems and software), to deal with individual issues promptly and efficiently, and to identify potential organising opportunities.

Instead Unite, like all other UK unions, handles enquiries on an ad hoc basis. Try calling a Unite local office; it is not uncommon to struggle to get your call answered. If you do get through, it is pot luck if your officer calls you back that afternoon, in the next few days or at all.

Establishing a processing centre could professionalise this work and could free up vital resources for campaigning in defence of members’ interests.

Too often the approach from officers and reps is wait and see, softly softly, politely ask… Taking on big, complicated issues or powerful, determined employers is simply not on the agenda if we “don’t have a case”.

Unite needs to be prepared, politically and organisationally, to take on these challenges. There are few significant “easy wins” out there for our class. We have to fight for them. This takes organisation, preparation, planning and above all a boldness of vision and action.

These, apparently technical problems, stem from the political and organisational problems sketched out above.

This article is in no way intended as an exhaustive examination of the problems and challenges facing Unite. Neither is it a finished prescription for the change required in our movement. It is intended to focus on a critical area of struggle for socialists and to start a discussion on how we should seek to influence the development of our trade unions.

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