This week (from 1 July) UNITE branches and workplaces can start to meet to decide who to nominate for the election for UNITE General Secretary.
This is clearly a very important election for members, because the General Secretary has a very significant influence over what sort of union we will have. The result is also important well beyond our ranks, because UNITE is such a significant organisation in Britain and Ireland - we are already seeing the media seeking to influence the process by carrying articles of widely varying accuracy.
The winner of the election will take office as "General Secretary Designate" when Derek Simpson retires in December 2010. They will then work alongside Tony Woodley, the remaining Joint General Secretary, until he retires in December 2011, at which point they become the sole UNITE General Secretary.
While opinion may be divided about the future direction of UNITE and who should lead it, most activists feel that a single General Secretary can't come soon enough.
The Executive Council (EC) held a special meeting on 18th June to agree the arrangements for the election. This was called at short notice and I was on holiday so unable to attend. However, the output of the meeting is captured in the revised timetable, rules and guidelines for the ballot which are published on the union's web site, which now has a dedicated section for the GS election. It is well worth every activist reading this material, so that they are clear what they need to do (and what they must not do). The arrangements are different to anything in either the former Amicus or TGWU.
Every branch and workplace is entitled to make a nomination, and I would encourage all to do so. This is a good way of engaging members in the election process and increasing turnout. As the nominating bodies will be published on the web site and printed with the ballot paper, nominations will also have a wider influence on the result.
The field of known candidates has now narrowed to four, with the withdrawal of Paul Reuter and Simon Dubbins. The four are:
- Jerry Hicks (jerryhicks.wordpress.com), a former convenor from Rolls Royce Bristol who was victimised for leading successful unofficial action in defence of a member, and who came second in the last Amicus JGS election
- Len McCluskey (www.unite4len.com), an Assistant General Secretary, backed by the United Left and by Tony Woodley
- Gail Cartmail (www.gailcartmail.com), an Assistant General Secretary
- Les Bayliss (www.les4gs.org), an Assistant General Secretary, backed by the right-wing "Workers Uniting" group and by Derek Simpson
Branches should receive nomination forms by post. Reps will need to request a form from their Regional Secretary, but note that it is one nomination per workplace, not per rep (as it was in Amicus).
Jerry's campaign inevitably lacks the polish and professionalism available to the Assistant General Secretaries who are standing, but the very fact that he doesn't hold high office means his campaign can raise important issues in ways that the others won't. It's quite clear that the courts are making more and more absurd judgements to tighten up the anti-union laws and thwart the democratic decisions of our members. The CBI is even lobbying the Con-Dem government for new and worse legislation. Groups of members are increasingly finding themselves in the position where they can only defend their legitimate interests by taking action in defiance of the anti-union laws. Historically, this has been the main way that such unjust laws have been overturned, rather than by just lobbying government. Jerry has been there and (literally) has the t-shirt. Of course that's not to say that every group of members either needs to or wants to defy the anti-union laws - but how the union raises the confidence of members and supports them is an increasingly important question.
We face the biggest economic crisis in most of our lifetimes, and governments and employers clearly intend to try to make working people pay for a crisis triggered by the greed and irresponsibility of the rich and powerful. Given that most members would feel that the union hasn't been effective enough in protecting and advancing their interests in the recent past, it is clear that significant change is required to match up to the period ahead. Jerry, coming from outside the union "establishment", is best placed to do this.
Jerry's commitment to the grass-roots is reflected in his support for officials being elected by the members, rather than appointed from above, and to take a worker's wage rather than the inflated GS package.
So what of the other candidates?
Len McCluskey is a decent left official, with the support of many good activists. There is much to agree with in his material (including the excellent web site), though the content tends to be rather vague, bland and general, probably as a result of the position he already holds and of trying not to put anyone off.
I can't work out from her material what Gail Cartmail actually stands for, though she is clearly aiming to pick up votes by not being in either of the main UNITE factions and as the only female candidate. Her campaign seems more about herself than what she would do for the union and its members.
Les Bayliss seems determined to lose the election by irritating many activists with a steady stream of unwanted "spam" email, as he has somehow obtained their email addresses. The content is also deeply worrying. Les has made comments which have been widely interpreted as a thinly veiled attack on our BA Cabin Crew members, just when they need all our support against a bullying and vindictive employer. He seems to want to resurrect the worst aspects of Amicus - the stifling top-down centralised control, the contempt for some parts of our membership, the half-hearted support for members who decide they need to resist their employer and the prioritisation of support for New Labour over support for members.
Whatever your own views - get involved and get members involved. Whoever wins the election, UNITE will be stronger if more members are actively involved and taking an interest.