On 7 April Kevin Curran resigned as General Secretary of the GMB union, to be replaced as acting General Secretary by the man whom he defeated in the election for the job two years, Paul Kenny.
Curran had been suspended as General Secretary on allegations of misdeeds in the election. Now a joint statement by him and the union says that he leaves with “his reputation and integrity intact… Each party has agreed to keep the terms of the settlement confidential. Neither party will be making any further statement”.
A union activist comments on the background to these moves:
The key issue in the GMB is who runs the union. At present the GMB is run by the Regional Secretaries. Any trade unionist who looks at the rule book can see this.
The Regional Secretaries are appointed officials, but under the rule book they are the decisive factor in the regional committees that appoint them. The regions have control of finance and so can determine what the Central Executive Committee and the national leadership are able to do. Input to the GMB congress and the Executive is effectively controlled by the regional structures.
The fact that union branch life is weak in the GMB helps let the regions dominate. But the rulebook itself is a factor in the domination.
The Regional Secretaries have great scope to decide on jobs and priorities in a way that maintains their power. They will support campaigns and struggles from time to time as they need to, but only those that do not affect their position.
They can be effective fake left-wingers when they need to be, in fact, all things to everybody. However, they run the union in order to maintain their power.
In the closure of the GMB’s National College, a big issue in the union, it was the Regional Secretaries who made the decision, not the Curran leadership, although Curran went along with it because the finances were not there.
Curran, in a crude and not very clear way, tried to reform the union and take on the power of the Regional Secretaries.
He at no time tried to build support in the union to do that, either with officials or with rank and file activists. But the key priority for GMB activists should be to take the power away from the Regional Secretaries and open up some democratic space to begin building and developing effective shop stewards’ and workplace organisation.
For two years, since Curran’s election, the Regional Secretaries have created huge and intense infighting in the GMB. They have been fighting to maintain their power in the union, and they have succeeded.
The most hopeful sign now is the talk of merger with Amicus and the TGWU. That will enable GMB activists who want change to feel confident enough to begin to move and discuss and fight within the debates about the shape of a new union. There are lots of good trade unionists in the GMB who want change, and the run up to the merger may help galvanise them.
However, Paul Kenny now has the power to negotiate on behalf of the Regional Secretaries over the merger.
He is aware that they will not all get the jobs that they want in the new union; but they can ensure that they get the maximum pay off. Already he is talking about hiking up the wages of the national officers and the Regional Secretaries. He has also brought back into the union, pro tem, a lot of former officials who had already received huge pay-offs to retire.
If the merger goes pear-shaped, I think Paul Kenny will get the GMB rule changed which bans an acting General Secretary from standing for General Secretary, or put into place a new General Secretary who will be one of his allies.
The key issues are to build a democratic union with membership control, clear open debate around ideas and issues, and a strategy that develops an effective shop stewards’ movement, able to fight back in the workplace and develop workplace organisation.
We need a different type of relationship with the Government.