GMB: more to the big picture

Submitted by martin on 20 July, 2021 - 7:36 Author: Dale Street
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Solidarity 600 carried a eulogy, by “a group of GMB activists and officers”, for newly elected GMB General Secretary Gary Smith. According to the article:

“Dale Street describes Giovanna Holt as the only candidate (in the election contest) with a proven track record of taking on bullying and misogyny in the GMB.

Unfortunately, he provides no evidence for this claim, which is a problem as we don’t know of any evidence for it either. So until Dale puts his evidence on the table, we’re just left with an assertion.”

The evidence already on the table was the first online hustings in the recent election contest (10th May, 2021), in which Holt described herself as the only GMB employee ever to have taken the GMB to an Employment Tribunal and remain a GMB employee.

(In their article the “group of GMB activists and officers” praise Smith’s performance “in both the candidates’ debates.” (There were two sets of hustings.) One assumes, therefore, that they logged on to the debates.)

The recording of the hustings has been removed from the GMB website (“Oops! This video does not exist.”) and the date of the Tribunal hearing (2013) means that it is not on the UK.Gov website of Tribunal decisions.

But the report on the Tribunal’s judgement published by the Independent (20th July, 2013) is still available online:

“Gary Jones (GMB Lancashire Secretary), Kevin Curran (GMB General Secretary) and three others, as well as the union as a whole, were found guilty of sex discrimination in a 120-page document, which paints a picture of a highly dysfunctional organisation. …

The union generally, and Mr Jones in particular, were found guilty of seven counts of discrimination against Giovanna Holt. Discrimination against Maxine Nixon, also a Regional Organiser, was proven on 18 counts. …

Both women complained to the court of a climate of fear in which they were bullied, sworn at, and had their work undermined. …

Mr Jones told Mrs Holt that if she had any dealings over the Tribunal proceedings with Mrs Nixon he would ‘blow [her] out of the fucking water.’ Her attempt to organise a seminar on bullying was greeted by a phone call from Mr Jones in which he said: ‘What the fuck is this all about? This is about your fucking case, isn’t it?’”

Readily available evidence therefore shows that Holt has indeed challenged bullying and misogyny in the GMB.

But while both Smith and Azam promised in the hustings to fully implement the recommendations of the Monaghan Report, neither were able to point to anything comparable in their own previous records.

(Nor did either of them come back on Holt’s comment in the same hustings that it was impossible to have been a GMB National Officer (such as Azam) or GMB Regional Secretary (such as Smith) and not to have known of the culture uncovered by the Monaghan Report.)

Of course, this does not necessarily invalidate the uncritical screeds of praise for Gary Smith which the “group of GMB activists and officers” have penned in their article. But such unstinting praise merits criticism on other counts.

Gary Smith, we are told, was “the only candidate with any kind of commitment to an industrial fightback by the union”, the candidate with a record of “challenging collaboration and institutionalised corruption”, and the candidate backed by “the best organised and most militant sections of the GMB”.

Even if one accepts such claims at face value, there is much more to Smith’s record than that. As the article which provoked the ire of the “group of GMB activists and officers” pointed out:

“Smith also has a record of being anti-Corbyn, anti-Richard-Leonard, pro-Jackie-Baillie, pro-Anas-Sarwar, pro-fracking, anti-green-politics-in-general, and pro-big-battleships (but only if built in the UK).”

More recently, through the pages of the “Morning Star” (formerly a paper with which no socialist worthy of the name should associate, but now apparently different rules apply), Smith has blamed the GMB’s decline on the union’s supposed prioritisation of involvement in the Labour Party:

“Over the last five years the GMB’s membership has been allowed to decline as we paid more attention to faction fights within the Labour Party than the industrial landscape.”

None of the above is mere assertion. The evidence on the table is Smith’s own repeated and in-the-public-domain statements, and his circulars to the GMB’s Scottish membership:

“The party of Labour were not in touch with the real world experiences of working-class Scotland. Those who orchestrated the Labour Party’s abject defeat (in 2019) should own it – they were well warned by GMB Scotland.”

But in their article the “group of GMB activists and officers” explicitly refuse to engage with any of this (“we want to take a step back from the matters Dale focuses on”). Instead, they write, they want to “look at the big picture”.

But surely “the big picture” of a serious assessment of the outcome of the GMB General Secretary election is Smith’s overall trade-union politics and record, rather than just those elements which the “group of GMB activists and officers” have chosen to select?

And once that “big picture” is taken into account, then the unrestrained enthusiasm which the “group of GMB activists and officers” displays for their new boss looks a lot less convincing.

The same applies to their dismissal of the fact (pointed out in the article which they criticise) that Smith is a white male Regional Secretary: “The majority of class-conscious activists in the GMB, including the majority of women and black activists, don’t buy identity politics.”

Leaving aside the general point that this is a phraseology normally – and justifiably – associated with white males of a certain age, often encountered in trade union bureaucracies, who don’t quite ‘get it’ when issues of discrimination are raised, the criticism shows no understanding of one of the core points of the Monaghan Report:

“The GMB is institutionally sexist. The General Secretaries and all Regional Secretaries are, and always have been, men. Regional Secretaries hold disproportionate power in the GMB. … Regional Secretaries have always been, and are all currently, men. This is important because this is where power in the GMB is located.”

When Monaghan wrote that, she was not engaging in identity politics, nor asking anyone to “buy” identity politics.

She was pointing out how sexual harassment, the male monopoly on Regional Secretary posts, and the union’s overall lack of democracy and accountability were not discreet issues but interlocking aspects of the same phenomenon.

Hence the really quite unobjectionable reference in the original article to the irony of the outcome of the General Secretary election contest:

“Ironically, the report identified the role played by white-male Regional Secretaries as the root of evil in the GMB — but the sole candidate in the election who was a white-male Regional Secretary was its winner.”

The Monaghan Report also emphasised the centrality of reasserting lay-membership control over the GMB bureaucracy. Its very first recommendation was:

“The Central Executive Council and other lay bodies within the GMB should claim and exercise the authority the Rules give them over the General Secretary, Regional Secretaries and the regional bodies.”

It is true that, by contrast, there is a political tradition which believes in the self-reform of the bureaucracy. It is a tradition which, for understandable reasons, appears to exercise an attraction for the “group of GMB activists and officers.” But it is not our tradition.

By way of conclusion, it might also be recalled that this was not the first time that “the class struggle choice” Gary Smith stood for election as GMB General Secretary.

He first stood in 2015, when he was GMB National Officer for Energy. He secured three times the required number of nominations to get on the ballot paper – but then pulled out of the contest and was appointed the union’s Scottish Regional Secretary.

Smith denied that a Howard-Beckett-style deal had been cut with the outgoing GMB General Secretary: Withdrawal from the contest in exchange for a Regional Secretary’s post. But not all GMB members were convinced by his denials.

(Could anyone in the “group of GMB activists and officers” perhaps throw any light on this matter? Or on why “the class struggle choice” refrained from standing against Tim Roache in the 2019 General Secretary contest?)

I also recall being assured in 2015 – perhaps by one of the same “group of GMB activists and officers”? – that Smith was “the pro-Corbyn candidate” (sic), only to then be denounced by a current doyenne of the GMB Scottish bureaucracy for securing a branch nomination for Smith.

Denounced in 2015 for getting a supporting nomination for “the pro-Corbyn candidate”. And then denounced in 2021 for not shedding tears of joy at the election of the “class struggle choice” who had just spent five years denouncing Corbyn.

This is all really quite confusing.

But I’m just a humble empirically-minded GMB grassroots activist. So, who am I to pass judgement on the profundities of the strategic (and no doubt dialectical) thinking of a “group of GMB activists and officers”?

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