In general, things have got better in UNITE since Len McCluskey took over as General Secretary. So why am I backing the challenger Jerry Hicks in the current election?
Jerry generally supports the positive things Len has done in office. This isn't an election where we have fairly openly right-wing candidates threatening to undo the progress that's been made. This is a choice between Len and Jerry, whose policies are effectively "Len Plus".
The central issue facing UNITE members is austerity whether you work in the public or private sector or are a retired or unemployed member. Job security, downward pressure on pay, pensions and terms and conditions, cuts to services and the welfare state - these are the central issues affecting members.
UNITE has some good policies (like this) and Len has made some outstanding speeches. But there has been a big gap between words and the action we need to win.
In 2011 we developed a strategy that involved using the public sector pensions fight as an opportunity to take mass industrial action over one aspect of austerity, and using that critical mass to help pull in action from other areas and over other issues. We saw the TUC demonstration on 26th March, the action taken by other unions (though sadly not UNITE public sector workers) on 30th June and then the colossal strike on 30th November 2011 which included action by UNITE members in health, local authorities and MOD / government departments.
On 30th November I spoke to hundreds of people. Only one thought that one day of strike action would be enough to win. Overwhelmingly people wanted and expected further action to increase the pressure on the government. On 7th December UNITE's Executive Council agreed an excellent statement on the next steps which said "The key to winning is to quickly and significantly escalate the action as early as possible in the New Year", supported a "national march in defence of our NHS in the New Year" and called "on all unions to stand together in opposition to government attempts to divide unions and offer terms of settlement to some while continuing the attack on others". None of this was delivered by UNITE's leadership:
- Even when National Industrial Sector Committees (NISCs) supported further action, none was called. Had this taken place during the period before other unions such as UNISON had balloted their members on the deals their leadership were recommending, action could have given confidence to their members to reject the deals.
- In December 2011, while refusing to sign in health and MOD / government departments, UNITE initially signed up to the "Heads of Agreement" in Local Authorities, though it later retracted its signature in response to government backsliding. We didn't even avoid division between sectors within UNITE, never mind between unions.
- The government pushed through the Health and Social Care Act, a massive threat to our NHS, with no serious industrial opposition and no major national demonstration.
Words are not enough, we need a General Secretary who will fight hard to turn them into action and deal swiftly with any officers who stand in the way of that.
Confidence and Leadership
If workplace organisation was universally solid and members were confident to stand up for their rights, the quesion of who leads our union would be less important. Members would do what needed to be done whether the General Secretary liked it or not.
But we don't start from where we wish we were. We start from where we are. Major defeats for the unions in the 1980s dented the confidence of a generation who now dominate the leadership of our union. The low level of industrial action since then has meant fewer new activists coming through and deprives them of the experiences that might build their skills and confidence.
We are in a situation where working class people face huge issues and threats from employers and the government, but often lack the confidence to fight back. In this situation the role of leadership assumes an exaggerated importance. When Len spoke at the TUC Congress in September 2011 and announced the intention to strike on 30 November, he gave members confidence which was rewarded with big majorities in the strike ballot and good participation on the day. When the General Secretary gives a clear lead, the members respond. We need this, but day in day out instead of intermittently. When members take action, they gain in confidence, the union gets stronger - and members often win a better outcome than if they'd done nothing. When UNITE fights back, non-members join us.
The same issues apply in the private sector too. The most important dispute of 2012 was the fight by sparks (electricians) against a massive cut to their income through a new package called BESNA which was being pushed by some of the biggest companies in the sector, such as Balfour Beatty.
The construction industry is not an easy place to organise - subcontracting, agency labour, temporary workplaces with a changing workforce and blacklisting are all major issues. When the BESNA attack was launched, the response from UNITE officials was poor. Sparks report being told that they should wait until the end of the 90 days when the new contracts would come in before campaigning, or that they had to "build an army first" before taking any action. Fortunately, many of them didn't listen. The rank and file got organised themselves and started holding protests and recruiting into the union. For this they were described as a "cancer" by a UNITE officer.
Under previous General Secretaries, that might have been the end of the story. To his credit, once the rank and file campaign was gathering steam, Len did come on board and give it support. A combination of rank and file action and (eventually) an official strike call in one of the companies led to the collapse of BESNA - a major victory.
So how does the record of the two candidates compare in this key dispute? Len got on board and deserves credit for that. Jerry was involved from the start, elected onto the rank and file committee and got stuck in to build up the campaign when it needed it most. If you've not seen Jerry speak, take a look at this video from a sparks' meeting in Manchester I attended to give support:
Jerry has proved, from his activity in his workplace over 30 years (he was unlawfully sacked in 2005 following successful unofficial action in his workplace which prevented the dismissal of two colleagues, through to his role in the sparks dispute, that he's prepared to lead from the front when necessary, even putting his job on the line for members.
There are so many things that could be done to raise the confidence of members. When members are fighting back, why don't we tour them round the country, raising support and solidarity, and using them to inspire others? When any group of members are fighting back, it should feel like they really do have 1.5m members behind them. We could do the same internationally too - wouldn't Area Activists meetings be livened up by speakers from Egypt or Greece? Solidarity strengthens those who give it as much as those who receive.
The Labour Party
Len is often highly critical of today's Labour Party, and has done more than any previous General Secretary to try to shift it closer to UNITE's agenda. He talks about wanting to "reclaim" Labour.
Once again, there is a gap between words and actions. Len often talks about giving no blank cheques to Labour. Jerry points out that the cheques haven't been blank, with over £3m a year going to the Labour Party from our political fund as affiliation fees alone.
Contrary to many public statements previously made by Len, money beyond affiliation fees IS going to Labour despite their policies still being so atrocious, for example via Constituency Development Plans.
It was very telling that Len vigorously opposed Composite 16 at the UNITE Policy Conference (which included motion 81 from the IT & Communications National Industrial Sector Committee). In summary, this called for:
- greater transparency of political fund expenditure
- at least 10% of the political fund to be spent on campaigning for trade union freedoms until the Labour Party does
- at least 10% of the political fund to be paid into our Dispute Fund until Labour's leaders support our members taking industrial action against austerity and in defence of public services
Len's opposition to the Composite will also make it harder for us to win support from members in the ballot to retain our Political Fund, which is due to start in April. Win this we must, as without it UNITE's freedom to campaign on issues deemed by the courts to be "political" would be severely curtailed - we would be campaigning with one hand tied behind our backs. But tying the use of the fund so narrowly to Labour makes it much harder to persuade activists that they should vote YES in the ballot and continue to contribute to the fund even if they disagree with how it is currently used.
Accountability of Officers
While many officers work hard and do their best for members, is it uncontroversial to state that their ability and dedication varies considerably. Len is working on a set of "standards" for officers and the introduction of a new Capability procedure, and these are positive steps, though they encourage accountability "up" through the UNITE employment structure rather than "down" to the members.
Irrespective of the personal integrity, politics, expertise and dedication of officers, they occupy a distinct social position which is different to that of members or of reps / stewards. They spend their time negotiating to secure agreements between workers and employers. They are neither, and are to some extent insulated from the pressures facing members in the workplaces. Sidney and Beatrice Webb (no redicals) described in the late 19th century "a shifting of leadership in the trade union world from the casual enthusiast and irresponsible agitator to a class of permanent salaried officers expressly chosen from out of the rank and file unionists for their superior business capacity".
The effect of this historically is that whenever workers put up serious resistance to their employers or the government, tensions develop between union full-time officers and rank-and-file members. When all is quiet full-time officers are often to the "left" of most members and more militant, but members often leapfrog past them when actively involved.
All this makes it really important that the members are as far as possible in control of their union, with the maximum possible democracy, participation and accountability at all times. But even this has its limits, and at high points of struggle rank and file members have often found they need to organise independently of the officials and official structures in order to win, as with the sparks recently. The Clyde Workers Committee in 1915 articulated a stance adopted by many rank and file groups since "We will support the officials just as long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them".
Jerry stands for election of officers, rather than the current system where they are appointed by a panel of Executive Council members. Not only does this provide a simple mechanism for removing any officers who are lazy or incompetent, it also helps accountability "down" to the members the officer is acting on behalf of rather than "up" to the General Secretary or Executive Council. And Jerry's deeds match his words on this issue too - in 2003 Jerry turned down a job with the union because it was appointed rather than elected.
Jerry also understands how union leaders living on six-figure salaries causes us problems. Not only is it an easy target for the right-wing press to suggest hypocrisy, not only should this not be our priority for spending members' money, but it also adds to the gap in viewpoint and experience between those at the top and the members they represent. Jerry wants "a General Secretary to live the life of the members they represent, on an average member’s wage not a six figure salary".
The UNITE Rules Conference passed an amendment (which I drafted) and which added what is now rule 14.8.5 in our rulebook. It gives the Executive Council the responsibility to "Determine one or more constitutional committees of lay members to which each officer employed by the Union shall
report and be accountable and ensure that the list of these allocations is available to members". I have chased this repeatedly, but it is still not properly implemented.
Part of the problem is the allocation of full time officers to workplaces. In many cases officers have allocations that have little industrial or geographical logic. Many workplaces have frequent changes to their officer allocation. All this makes it hard for the officers to build up expertise and working relationships. It makes it hard to make the officers accountable to the members. Many of the lay committees in the union aren't functioning well. Little wonder if the work those committees are supposed to plan, oversee and carry out involves large numbers of officers who have no relationship with the committee and never report to it.
Election or Coronation?
Even if I believed that calling a General Secretary election early was justified, organising it in this way is a disgrace. It is clearly intended to give an unfair advantage to one candidate. It is an unprincipled maneouvre intended to extend Len's term of office.
At the September 2012 EC meeting, the administration proposed a couple of rule changes. Firstly to remove the age 65 restriction on General Secretaries (which I supported - we can't have age discrimination), and secondly to double the number of nominations required for candidates (which I successfully opposed). In hindsight, I find it very hard to believe that the idea of Len calling an election wasn't a consideration at this time.
The election was announced just before Xmas, with nominations opening on 1 January. Normally there is plenty of notice of General Secretary elections, so all candidates can seek support and prepare a campaign. Not this time. This snap election was designed to favour the incumbent only. Even the facility for an email to members before voting was removed from the rules, to make it harder for alternative candidates to get their message across.
It's vital that Jerry gets as many nominations as possible, so that this unfair contest is at least a contest where members get to hear the arguments about the way forward for the union.
Some of the arguments I've heard against Jerry from Len's supporters are outrageous. For example, it is disgraceful to suggest that because Jerry has been out of work (and therefore ineligible for most of UNITE's structures under rule 6) he is a poor candidate. We should be supporting all our members who are out of work, but particularly those who have been sacked and blacklisted for their work on behalf of members.
Some people worry about whether Jerry has the experience to be General Secretary. I think anyone taking on the role would have a lot to learn and would need to rely on the team around them for support. Mark Serwotka of the PCS is widely regarded as one of the best General Secretaries, yet he was doing a low paid job in the civil service when he was elected. Jerry has a lot of experience in the movement, not just his 30 years as a shop steward at Rolls Royce, but also his time on the union executive.
Last time Jerry stood for election, in 2010, many people didn't vote for him because they were afraid of "splitting the vote" and allowing an awful right-winger in. In fact, Jerry got around 53,000 votes, coming second of four candidates, behind Len's 101,000.
Does it matter?
The odds in this election are stacked in Len's favour. But backing Jerry's campaign can make a difference in UNITE irrespective of the eventual result. It is an opportunity to put an argument to a million plus UNITE members about the need for a more serious fight-back, and in the process to put pressure on Len to up his game.
The size of Jerry's vote will also have an impact far beyond UNITE. The bigger the vote the more it will raise the confidence of members in other unions who are impatient with the lack of fight from their own leaders. And the more pressure those leaders will feel too.
Whoever is General Secretary, the key factor in our union is the membership - it's size, organisation, consciousness and confidence. If in the course of the election, members and activists have argued about the way forward for UNITE, have met each other and made links and connections, this is a positive development in itself.
The first step is to ensure Jerry gets enough nominations to appear on the ballot paper. Get stuck in.