The congress of the general union GMB in Newcastle on 5-9 June voted to affiliate to No Sweat and to support the new labour movement in Iraq.
The run-up to the congress had been fractious, with Kevin Curran, who was elected as general secretary in early 2003, being suspended by the union’s executive in March on charges of misconduct during the general secretary election and then resigning, under a mutually-agreed but confidential deal with the Executive, three weeks later.
Curran put out a letter just before the congress criticising the union’s direction, but this made little impact at the congress. It was mostly a victory rally for Paul Kenny, London regional secretary of the union, who had been defeated two-to-one by Curran in the 2003 contest but was endorsed by the congress as Acting General Secretary, to continue in an office until a new congress in 2006.
Kenny played the congress skilfully, emphasising that the union had come through a tough time but now the wounds could be healed and it could move forward.
The congress also passed a motion opposing the TUC Academy scheme until there has been fuller consultation. Activists fear that the scheme could convert the TUC into a government agency, using government money to control unions’ education and training programmes, and gearing those programmes to teaching “social partnership” rather than workplace organising concepts and skills.
As GMB London regional secretary, Kenny has shown himself to be competent and dynamic, employing talented and sometimes radical organisers and increasing union membership (as well as acting as a not-very-left “fixer” for the trade unions within the London Labour Party). As general secretary, he is likely to make the notoriously sluggish GMB more lively.
Not addressed at all at the congress, however, were the underlying problems of GMB structure. In many areas, the union’s workplace and branch organisation is extremely weak. Full-time officials do the work that in other unions would be done by workplace reps or lay branch officials.
The union’s rulebook gives extraordinary power to the regional secretaries, who are appointed by the regional committees of the union but then effectively control those regional committees and, through a highly regionalised structure, the union as a whole.
On 30 June a meeting of representatives from the GMB, TGWU, and Amicus set January 2007 as the target date for a founding congress for a new “super-union” into which all three large general unions will merge. The key question here is the structure and nature of the “super-union”.
It should not copy the GMB’s regional-baron structure! GMB activists will be pressing for a democratic, rank-and-file controlled union; for an emphasis on developing workplace organisation; for sectoral organisation within the union, allowing workers in each sector to define their aims and tactics through democratic lay committees; and for a challenge to the New Labour government in place of “partnership”.