Scrap all Regional Secretary posts. Overhaul the Legal Department. End meddling in lay-member democracy by full-timers. Reformat meetings of constitutional committees. Campaign for union policy on scrapping anti-union laws. Review support for the Morning Star.
These are the proposals which a motion passed by my Unite branch earlier this month called on the higher levels of the union’s constitutional committees to give consideration to.
The motion was passed in the context of, and on the basis of, Sharon Graham’s election as Unite General Secretary.
Graham stood on a platform of change, a focus on the workplace, and restoring lay-membership control of the union’s affairs. The motion’s proposals fleshed out elements of the mandate which her election has given her.
The post of Regional Secretary make some sense in an organisation based on geographical lines. But not in one, as promised by Graham, based on the ideas of industrial unionism and focused on the workplace.
(There is a case for the post of Regional Secretary in Ireland and the devolved nations. But one with much reduced powers – and elected by the membership in the Region.)
The union’s Legal Department, under the stewardship of Howard Beckett, has become dysfunctional.
Other unions have won cases which have benefited the trade union movement as a whole, such as Unison’s success in winning the abolition of Tribunal fees, or the GMB’s success in winning recognition of Uber workers as workers (as legally defined).
Unite’s Legal Department, on the other hand, has squandered millions of pounds on no-hope cases (Sally Nailard, Anna Turley, etc.) which would not have been of any benefit to anyone (apart from some Unite full-timers) even if Unite had won them.
Although the now departed Len McCluskey was elected in 2010 as the candidate committed to lay membership democracy, Unite became increasingly full-timer-driven under his regime, with full-timers undermining the most basic elements of lay democracy.
Graham’s election is an opportunity to organise the fightback against this. But it must also be said that the record of many of Graham’s own employees (in the union’s Organising Department) is no better than that of their bureaucratic counterparts in other sections of Unite.
Re-asserting lay-member control needs a change in the way meetings of the union’s constitutional committees operate. Too often they do little more than hear a succession of reports from full-timers, punctuated by perfunctory questions by delegates.
Full-timers’ reports are certainly an element of accountability. But meetings of Unite’s constitutional committees need to be lay-member-driven, with a format and agenda which embodies this.
Improving members’ pay and conditions – a central plank of Graham’s platform – will need a strategy of effective strike action. But the Tories’ anti-union laws, left on the statute books by Labour governments, are a massive obstacle to the right to strike.
Graham’s election is therefore an opportune moment for Unite to start campaigning for its own policy of scrapping all anti-union laws. Passed as policy in 2018, it has remained a dead letter since then. [For an initiative on this in Unite, see here.]
Finally, there is the issue of Unite’s financial support for the Morning Star and the piles of said newspaper which daily litter the reception desks of many Unite offices.
The Morning Star presents itself as a broad labour movement paper. But on key political issues it expresses, and propagandises for, the politics of the Communist Party of Britain – pro-Brexit, anti-transgender-rights, and uncritical of left antisemitism (which the paper itself promotes).
Increasingly, Beijing is taking on for the Morning Star the role which was played by Moscow for its predecessor, the Daily Worker. Hence the paper’s failure to campaign in support of the Uyghurs and the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and indeed its hostility to these struggles.
There are better media outlets for Unite to support – or even help create – than a Stalinist leftover.
Unite is in a state of flux following the General Secretary election. It will not last for long. Rank-and-file activists should take the opportunity to open up debate around their own agenda, such as the above proposals, and build support for it.
This is the immediate task, rather than relying on Graham to drive through change from above, or launching a new left organisation in Unite to act as her cheerleaders (which the newly emerged “Solidarity Shouts” could easily end up being).
The fate of the left in Unite in recent years – in the form of the United Left – was to function as an appendage of the General Secretary.
McCluskey has gone. But the response from the left should be to develop an independent programme and organisation, rather than to end up being an appendage of his successor.
• For Workers' Liberty's broader ideas for transforming Unite, see here.