By Jim Denham
The proposed creation of a giant new union, made up of the TGWU, Amicus and (probably) the GMB has caused much excitement and some misgivings within the trade union movement.
The idea was hatched from lengthy and highly secretive talks between the TGWU’s Tony Woodley and Amicus’s Derek Simpson. Even the executives of the two unions knew nothing about it until a joint announcement from the two general secretaries on 2 February. The secrecy was probably necessary, given the extremely delicate nature of the negotiations, but it also served to fuel concerns about democratic rights and accountability amongst some activists — in the TGWU especially.
It is important to understand that this will not be a “merger” in the traditional sense. It will be much more like the amalgamations that led to the creation of the TGWU in 1922: existing unions putting aside their differences and creating an entirely new organisation.
The Amicus Broad Left (organised round Unity Gazette magazine) seem to be overwhelmingly in favour. They have already invited members of the TGWU Broad Left to observe at their meetings and seem to have extensive common ground with the TGWU Broad Left, except for their policy in favour of the election of officers, on which the T&G Broad Left does not take a position.
Much of the caution and suspicion (not necessarily outright opposition) within the TGWU Broad Left, seems to stem from a dislike of Amicus (or, rather its predecessors, the AEU and EETPU) and a fatalistic view that the right wing and the bureaucracy are bound to dominate the new union, a viewpoint asserted with little coherent explanation in Socialist Worker on 12 February, and rather more articulately in this email comment from a T&G activist:
“Let’s look at the nature of the beast we want to get into bed with… the AEU and EETPU have a long history of destroying or suppressing lay member democracy. Derek Simpson may have signed up to democracy but has his ruling old guard? If we create this new union then the Amicus old guard will be a very big factor together with the old right in the TGWU and the GMB…
“In the 1980s the EETPU was the scourge of the left and all progressive forces. Remember Eric Hammond savaging the miners at the TUC? Hammond’s old mates have not gone away in Amicus. Who was the biggest friend of New Labour in the 90s? Yep, Ken Jackson of the AEEU: plenty of his sort are still about in Amicus.”
But, as another contributor to the same email discussion comments: “We are not joining a right wing union: we are talking to two other unions with the intention of forming a new union. Any of the three unions can — and has — moved from one side of the political spectrum to the other in a very short space of time… There is the possibility of building a two to three million member, democratic, fighting union. We should attempt to achieve it.
“The biggest problem on the left at the moment is that people think losing is the natural order of things. So wild adventurism or defeatism seem to be the only options. We have the real possibility of writing the rule book for the biggest union in the history of the British and Irish labour movements. We might prove inadequate, we might get shafted, but the prize is too big not to have a go.
We could have a left wing union in which the regional secretaries [bastions of right wing power and patronage within the TGWU], if they exist at all, are petty functionaries with no personal power. It must be worth a crack”.
One real and serious issue about the rulebook of a possible merged union is the control of its political fund.
Amicus has a structure which largely prevents its members having any say over the union’s political activity. All decisions about the union’s political action are taken through an elaborate (and largely empty) system of conferences restricted to people who are Amicus delegates to local Constituency Labour Parties.
Worse, a large proportion of incumbent Amicus delegates to CLPs are full-time officials appointed as delegates, not lay members elected by Amicus branches.
Even in the case of a very big political revival among the rank and file members of Amicus, it could take many years to change this structure to make it responsive to members’ views.
If a merged TGWU-Amicus, or TGWU-Amicus-GMB, has similar rules about its political action, then the prospect of the unions mounting a real fight to restore a working-class voice in the Labour Party — a flickering but real possibility over the last couple of years — will be blocked for many years. Perhaps until it is “too late”, i.e., until Blair and Brown have lived down their discredit over the Iraq war and consolidated the New Labour structures sufficiently to make them union-revolt-proof.
During the AEEU-MSF merger which created Amicus, the MSF left eventually voted for this esoteric political structure because the rulebook of the merged union was presented to them as a take-it-or-leave-it, vote-yes-or-no question, and other bits of the new rulebook seemed to them about as good as they were likely to get.
Two important lessons follow for activists discussing the “super-union” plan: insist on democratic membership control of the union’s political activity, and insist that the discussion on the rulebook of any merged union provides space for detailed amendments, not just a yes-or-no vote on a complete draft.