Thursday 26 November 2015

Report from UNITE sector conference, November 2015

The conferences were organised over three days, with services sectors on Monday, manufacturing sectors on Tuesday, and transport sectors on Wednesday. The Graphical, Paper, Media & IT (GPM&IT) conference was on Tuesday. This report covers the plenary session on Tuesday morning, where the sectors were together, the GPM&IT conference itself and the immigration fringe meeting in the evening.


Len McCluskey described how media coverage of UNITE is through the lense of our relationship with Labour, rather than based on our primary role as an industrial organisation. UNITE was launching a new campaign on the themes "work, voice, pay" to give the union a more coherent industrial focus. He talked about the injustice of the Trade Union Bill. Referring to the debates about Trident, he argued that "above all" the union had to defend jobs and conditions.

Assistant General Secretary for manufacturing Tony Burke gave an update on various issues affecting our sectors and claimed that "we will do what it takes to save our steel industry".

Len gave a very long response to my question about whether UNITE would support deselecting Labour MPs who rebelled to support bombing Syria despite the lessons of the last fifteen years. He said that UNITE's strategy of encouraging members to get involved in the Labour Party and try to select working class MPs continues, and was being successful, having already resulted in some first class MPs being elected. He described how Corbyn had appealed to people sick of the idea that "There Is No Alternative". He thought that there was a learning curve in the Labour Party, as they adjusted to the new situation, and that this included Corbyn himself, who had said some things that were "inappropriate". He was having to get used to being a leader rather than a backbencher free to say what he liked. The Parliamentary Labour Party was on a learning curve too. They had to realise that the vast majority of Labour members had rejected the old style of politics. Len argued that he was not in favour of mandatory annual reselection, but he did support accountability. Some MPs are behaving despicably, and they should give the new leader a chance. John McDonnell is working on an industrial strategy - which would be the first in Britain for 40 years. The Labour conference had recently voted to oppose bombing Syria. Len condemned the Paris attacks, which he described as "fascist", but argued that it was important to keep a calm head. Syria was already being bombed daily. UK bombs would not make the difference. Hundreds or thousands are being kille daily. Some MPs want to vote for war merely to embarrass Corbyn. Len said he personally would vote to deselect them. He saw it as encouraging that young people were more engaged in politics thanks to Corbyn.

In response to a question about the government's attack on funding through FE colleges for education for union reps, Len said that rep training was key, and that the Executive Council's education sub-committee is looking at a strategy with Jim Mowatt.

A delegate from aerospace & shipbuilding asked about the prospects for diversification from Trident, given how the press had reported Len making disparaging comments around Labour Party conference. Len argued that there are tens of thousands of jobs in the defence sector, it would be devastating if they were lost, and it was our job to oppose such devastation. If it was feasible we shoudl engage in debate on diversification to guarantee the same type of jobs and skills. The National Officer, Ian Waddell, is preparing a report highlighting UNITE's own initiatives on diversification. We've never had a government that was interested, which has led to negative and frustrated responses. In 2001 the Labour government scrapped the body looking at diversification, so members in the sector felt nobody was listening. As general secretary, it was his job to defend ALL members' jobs and communities. At the same time we could try to do things differently. There are also issues around climate change, the civil nuclear industry, fracking etc. He would be guided by conference policy. UNITE would talk to anyone about diversification.

In response to a question about the junior doctors' dispute, Len ridiculed the attempts of the right to pretend that it would jeopardise people if there was an incident like the Paris killings. In such circumstances everyone knew where the doctors would be. Of course we should support their fight. UNITE members in the Medical Practitioners Association are involved.

In response to a question about the allegations that some union employees had been involved in blacklisting our own members in construction, Len paid tribute to the work done by our legal department in challenging blacklisting. Employers had now admitted liability and we were pushing for compensation. UNITE is in the lead on the issue. He argued that the allegations, which have been circulating for years, need to be proved - if there was evidence he would act. However, he argued that an internal investigation was impractical.

Len was asked how to respond to companies which wanted to cut costs by moving jobs offshore, threatening good jobs in the UK. He argued that multinational companies have no loyalty and would leave tomorrow if it could make them more money. The pro- free market government sees no issue with this, which is why our political work is important. This kind of thing doesn't happen in Germany. We also had to use our industrial strength. Siemens have an objective of protecting their "core workforce" in Germany, and when they make cuts they move work from the UK to Germany to do that. He asked who is protecting "British workers"? It is better for businesses to have local supply chains, who can fix issues that arise promptly. The UK needs an industrial strategy. He highlighted the case of Ford, for whom the UK is their most profitable market, despite not making a single car here, having moved jobs elsewhere, but they are still allowed access to the UK market. Len was excited to see Corbyn and McDonnell looking at an industrial strategy.

[Comment: I'm getting increasingly concerned about the amount of UNITE material talking about "British workers". Our members come from all over the world and we all need to unite if we are to win. Talk of "British workers" is divisive and weakens us, as it did during the disgraceful period when Derek Simpson followed Gordon Brown in arguing for "British Jobs for British Workers"]

George Hickman, Dave Roseaman, Sheila Rowley and Pasty Turner were elected unopposed to the Standing Orders Committee for 2017. Other elections took place on Monday & Wednesday.

Sharon Graham introduced the outline of the new UNITE industrial strategy, aimed at tackling declining living standards by extending collective bargaining and improving bargaining outcomes. An intensified focus on our core industrial work would also regenerate the union's industrial "brand" against the media representation. UNITE is an industrial organisation, not a political party.

The idea behind the "work, voice, pay" strategy is to establish core themes that are relevant across all sectors. Every worker can understand what UNITE stands for, and we can establish standards for negotating issues. The themes can be expanded and adapted as appropriate, for example:

  • Work: secure, permanent jobs, without zero hours contracts. No compulsory redundancies. Apprenticeships. "Rate for the job" to stop undercutting. Safe environment without discrimination.
  • Voice: Union voice for non-recognised workers. Extending the scope of bargaining (e.g. agency workers, job security). National and sectoral bargaining that covers everyone, looking beyond individual workplaces. Negotiations on service/product to shape the future.
  • Pay: RPI means a falling share when productivity goes up - focus on ability to pay. Life/work balance. Training. Pensions.
UNITE has begun building a database of workplaces showing the anniversary date for pay deals, agreements etc. Preliminary analysis of our pay deals against data from the Office of National Statistics shows 18 out of 20 sectors have a "UNITE premium" on pay. For example, in the GPM&IT sector (SIC codes 18,62,63) Office of National Statistics data shows pay falling by 1.2%, whereas UNITE agreements in the sector averaged a 2.2% increase. The second phase will be to add unorganised workplaces to the database. Sharon wants to know what fields would be useful to add to the database.

The information about the strategy and database will be disseminated and discussed at NISCs and RISCs. Sectors can develop plans for coordinated bargaining including industrial principles and standards, aligning anniversary dates, or targetting particular companies or sub-sectors. "Best in sector" agreements and clauses can be identified". Combines and networks can be established across sites, companies and sectors. Activists will be able to access the database of collective agreements as well as various templates and model agreements.

GPM&IT conference

Tony Burke introduced a new report "A digital new world" which has been produced by some members in the IT & Comms part of the sector along with the research department and Mike Eatwell, an officer in London & Eastern. It includes information about the profile and importance of the industry and discussed future trends and their possible implications for the employment and the whole economy. In due course this should be available on the UNITE web site.

Ian Tonks presented his report, covering developments in firms across the sector.

Richard Wileman was elected as the delegate to the 2016 TUC conference, with Raja Hussain as the substitute.
Aleksandra Tomczak (Ola) was elected as the delegate to the 2017 TUC conference, with Ged Dempsey the substitute.

There were international speakers from the USW in North America and the UNI, the international union federation.

Alan Tate, the head of UNI Global's ICTS (Information & Communication Technology Services) sector explained that packaging and IT are seen as the parts of the sector with most potential. The UNI strategy is to focus on key multinational corporations in the services side of ICTS.

Nicola Konstantinou from UNI Europa Graphical described how they had been organising round European Works Councils, then building trade union alliances for the companies, approaching management for global agreements on basic rights.

Leeann Foster and Alex Perkins from the USW described their efforts to protect members in US papermaking from what they saw as unfair competition. They had been bringing cases under WTO rules about "unfair subsidies" resulting in selling products below fair market value, which they described as "dumping". They are only allowed to bring cases if they have a company's support, and there is no governmental assistance. Multinationals tend to be reluctant to get involved in such issues. They had won some cases against China, Portugal, Brazil, Australia and Indonesia. While the USW is against trade deals such as TPP and TTIP, they are pushing for "three strikes and you are out" banning companies from the US market if they violate market rules three times.

[Comment: The strategy seemed to be to try to persuade US employers to join the union in a fight against foreign employers seen as unfairly undercutting them. This doesn't seem to me a likely strategy to develop the international solidarity needed to beat the companies dominating world markets and defend jobs.]

Conference heard a report on the disgraceful events at Tullis Russell papermakers in Fife. Despite being employee-owned, the directors had managed to put the company into administration, land and assets sold without the owners' knowledge or any warning. Over 400 workers had lost their jobs and had not been paid £18m they were owed. One family lost £90K as three people worked there. The CEO had walked off with a £500K bonus. As neither HMRC or banks were owed money, there was no proper investigation and no illegality has been proved. The Scottish government and local councils had been supportive with funding retraining, and 85% of the workers now had jobs in other industries. However, the impact locally had been devastating with shops closing etc. A few reps can't get work and fear they have been blacklisted. If this can happen in an employee owned company it shows how inadequate UK corporate law is.

Howard Beckett from the legal department talked about the need to see legal work as part of industrial strategy, rather than as a member benefit or something that is used when an industrial strategy has failed. He highlighted several examples where an aggressive legal stance had been important for industrial campaigns, and argued that was why the government was attacking unions' ability to use the law. When we choose to fight outside the law, we want to be able demonstrate how we tried to stay within it and that the issue is significant enough that members will take the action required to win.

Howard highlighted three recent ballots which had topped the proposed thresholds in the Trade Union Bill (Rolls Royce, GKN, and Syngenta chemicals). In each case it had been important to work out a proper strategy to win in advance. At Rolls Royce, only 60% of members were affected by the pensions issue. Normally that would make it hard to get a big yes vote. Reps had carefully chosen one key site to ballot, and workers at the other sites pledged to contribute financially to make up their wages. The site returned an 80% turnout and a 96% yes vote. After UNITE explained its action plans to the employer, including plans to move action to other sites after an initial 12 weeks, an agreement was reached without any action being needed. GKN had followed a similar strategy. Howard urged sectors to consider what strategies would fit in their industries and identify key powerful groups.

Employers often seek injunctions when protests take place at the same time as industrial disputes. Sometimes they even claim protests are secondary picketing. Where protests take place without any individuals, organisation or structure (e.g. committee, Facebook page) organising them, it is much harder for employers to blame them on the union or to find any other "target" for an injunction. Protests with speakers are harder to ban because they can also benefit from the right to freedom of speech.

Howard is keen to get feedback on the new Unite Legal Services web site, to which examples of the many cases we win for members in each sector are being added.

The new "low pay rate" of subs (currently just £2 a week) for those earning below the Living Wage or less than £15,000 a year, hasn't had much publicity. To pay for this the standard subs rate had risen significantly in 2015, but there will be no rise in 2016.

Legal officers are being appointed and trained in the regions to improve legal support to officers and reps and help ensure legal issues are considered early in campaign planning.

Mark Metcalf highlighted the books being published by UNITE, book of the month recommendations and rebel road (lists of plaques, museums, statues, pubs etc commemorating labour movement heroes) which are all on the learning section of the UNITE web site.

Industrial strategy

Sharon Graham was unable to attend the GPM&IT conference to discuss the outline she presented at the plenary, so this agenda item was not discussed fully. The National Officer undertook to circulate to all delegates the exercise that Sharon had intended to do, and encouraged us all to canvass views so that it could be discussed at the next NISC meeting. It was agreed to invite Sharon to that meeting.


The following motions were agreed:

1 Industrial Strategy for the Sector (from the National Industrial Sector Committee)

Conference welcomes the outstanding election of Jeremy Corbyn as the new Labour Leader with 59.5% of the vote on a platform of anti-austerity, and a bold new vision of a fair and just society for working people.

We congratulate Unite Executive Council for the decision to endorse Jeremy Corbyn and to recommend support for him by Unite members. We also congratulate the work of the Unite Political Department for the tremendous effort they put in to sign up more than 100,000 Unite affiliated supporters, more than half of the total number of affiliated supporters signed up by all affiliated unions. There is no doubt that Unite's Political Strategy to engage with and win back the Labour Party for working class values has been hugely important in achieving this success.

We therefore call upon the NISC to work with the Unite EC to:
  • lobby the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn to develop an industrial strategy that seeks to support the GPM&IT sector in the UK
  • lobby the Labour Party to adopt a policy towards National Sector bargaining
  • Lobby support for our Sector fight on procurement and public authorities use of GPM&IT recognised companies
2 Organising Strategy (from the National Industrial Sector Committee)

This conference recognises that large sections of the industries in the GPMIT sector are un-unionised or under-unionised, and that this weakens the bargaining position of every worker in the sector. Organising is therefore a high priority if we are to help workers in our sector to build more power to defend and improve their lives.

This conference congratulates the NISC on the creation of an organising strategy subcommittee in July 2014. To support their work we call on our National Officer, research department, RISC members, workplace reps, branch officers and officers with GPMIT in their allocations to work on mapping the sector so that we build a more accurate, complete and up to date picture of GPMIT workplaces. The mapping should identify, for each workplace, factors including:
  1. Address
  2. Number of workers by employer (including agency, subcontractors etc)
  3. Number of members by employer
  4. Details of all reps and branch officers
  5. Details of recognition, I&C and EWC agreements
  6. Other workplaces of the same employer
  7. Unite branch
  8. Officer
  9. Any other unions present
  10. Any union structures linking Unite at this workplace with other unions or other workplaces in the same employer
  11. Subsector (appropriate categories to be defined)
Communication is at the heart of organising. We call on all RISCs to email out a short bulletin following each meeting to all GPMIT reps in their sector, with a copy to the National Officer for consideration of the NISC. This can help engage more activists with our RISCs and involve them in the mapping and organising.

RISCs should use the mapping decide which of the following organising categories best fits each workplace in their region:
  1. Substantial single workplaces with recognition – “100%”
  2. Workplaces in employers with membership but no recognition – “green field”
  3. Workplaces in multi-site companies/groups where we have recognition in parts – “extend horizontally”
  4. Unionised workplaces in other industries with ITC outsourced on site to an employer with >20 employees – “client site”
  5. The rest – “nurture”
The NISC’s organising strategy subcommittee should develop proposals for organising and servicing each of these categories more effectively for consideration by the NISC and RISCs. These may include recommendations on officer allocation, branch structure and use of lay companions to allow resources to be focussed on building power for members to win more.

The NISC should provide a report to RISCs after each meeting on progress with the organising strategy.

[Comment: The mapping described in this motion clearly overlaps with that Sharon Graham was talking about for developing an industrial strategy, as well as with motion 3. In the discussion, it was clarified that the reports from NISC to RISCs are not intended to be full minutes or reports, but prompt updates on progress with the organising strategy. Similarly, the RISC updates to reps would focus on key points for information or action.]

3 100% Organising (from East Midlands)

Conference applauds the commitment of the Union to organising and the work of the organising department in growing our Union, which is key for the movement to survive. As activists we understand the need to look at new industries and to organise the non-unionised sectors of the economy, but this cannot be at the cost of losing traditionally well unionised industries.

This Conference calls for a membership audit of all national and international employers within the Sector; this could be achieved with the aid of the Research Department, and lead Regaional Officers. The information would be used to develop an organising strategy for the Sector, involving activists within recognised sites of the targeted companies to strive to 100% membership across the sites.

5 Collective Bargaining with the Sector (from East Midlands)

Over the last ten years we have witnessed the loss of our major National Agreement, the BPIF, which covered the majority of the printing industry. The Agreement was not only responsible for negotiating annual pay increases but more importantly it set out the minimum terms and conditions for employment within the industry.

As a result of this sector representatives have nothing to refer to when trying to negotiate rates of pay for new technology or changes in working practices within their workplaces. This vacuum has led to a decline in rates of pay and terms and conditions within the Sector.

Conference believe that the Union needs to address these issues or face a race to the bottom as companies play our members off against each other on terms and conditions of members working in this sector.

Conference calls upon the EC to publish a Unite Guide for activists working within the Sector, based on both past and present National Agreements held within the Sector. The Guide will be a useful tool in organising and as a means to try and ensure we maintian minimum terms and conditions within the Sector and protect the interests of our members.

6 Collective Bargaining Strategy (from South East)

Conference instructs Unite the union to facilitate, through the National Officer, group meetings of all the major companies in the sector, the aim being to coordinate a national collective strategy in group and sub-sector level.

7 Printing Industry National Bargaining (from South West)

For those GPM members not currently covered by a House Agreement or a National Agreement this conference demands that future wage negotiations revert to being carried out on a national basis or every effort made to re-establish national bargaining with the appropriate employers' organisation.

8 The March of the Robots (from London & Eastern)

World-wide sales of robots rose 23% in 2014 while prices fell by 14% meaning sophisticated automated systems can be purchased at £100,000 and some robots as low as £20,000.

In those manufacturing sectors that are most readily automated such as cars, other transport, computers, electronic and electrical equipment about 85% of tasks can be performed by robots.

It is expected that other sectors such as food preparation and manufacture, chemicals, metals, energy (drones are already replacing human riggers at oil sites), transport (driverless cars and trucks are being tested in California) and construction (remote controlled diggers are being tested in Sweden and 3D Printing in the Netherlands) will follow suit.

The US financial sector around Wall St employed 150,000 five years ago and that has now shrunk by a third due to technology.

Many work roles previously thought invulnerable to automation are now at a growing risk because the enhanced capacity of such systems have meant many job functions can be codified and with hugely advanced sensor systems they threaten hundreds of different service industry jobs.

This is happening now because processors that run computerised systems double in capacity every eighteen months. This has led to Cloud Computing that has freed a growing number of employers from the vast expenditure of owning their own large computer systems. That in turn has assisted the collection of Big Data using advanced mobile technology and the Internet of Things whereby machines communicate with each other generating even more data (50 billion devices connected by 2020). Technology observers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology to Oxford University have predicted between 35% and 47% of current employment roles are at high risk of automation.

The UK Tory Government has not been slow to see the advantages of such developments and alongside spending millions on R&D they have set up strategic bodies with academics and employers but notably no trade union representatives.

We call ont eh GPM&IT NISC to seek the support of the Executive to establish a working party of one senior lay rep per industrial sector to monitor these developments that threaten our members' (and future members') employment prospects.

The UK economy map highlighting work that is stategically important and future proofed needs revisiting in light of these innovations to ensure our organising efforts are flexible. Technology affects all sectors in some way or another.

Unite must lead the way on thhis by creating policies that result in technology helping to create a better society and environment and is not just used as the ultimate cheap labour resource to only create redundancies.

9 Agency Workers (from London & Eastern)

Conference calls upon our NISC to formulate a strategy to deal with the growth of agency workers within the sector. Conference would like to see a positive programme in place where workplace reps and regional officers are encouraged to firstly map the companies where agency workers exist and to proactively recruit and organise them, with the sole purpose of extending collective bargaining within the sector.

Agencies such as Aktrion and Ambtions Personnel are now the majority of the workforce in many of our companies, and their rates of pay, terms and conditions are usually set at the legal minimums. Using the statutory recognition legislation and the CAC we need to ensure that we provide a collective bargaining famework to remove this two tier workforce.

Our members need to understand that to ignore agency workers in their companies not only undermines our influence and power but put their own pay, terms and conditions and permanent roles at risk.

10 Holiday Pay (North East, Yorkshire & Humber)

Conference welcomes the campaigning work of Unite the union on holiday pay. This vital issue affects many employees across the Sector.

Immigration fringe

In the evening I attended a very useful meeting about the Immigration Bill 2015-16, which aims to create a "hostile environment for migrants" by laying "trip-wires" throughout society. The speaker was Don Flynn from the Migrants' Rights Network, who also handed out the TUC briefing on the bill.

The bill aims to increase requirements on employers, landlords, financial institutions and public servants to frequently check the immigration status of people they are dealing with. Employers and landlords can face hefty fines if they fail to do so. Immigration officials will be able to raid businesses and shut them down for 48 hours if they can't produce paperwork to show how they have checked their workers' immigration status.

The bill isn't just about people who the law says have no right to live or work in the UK, it also applies to the terms under which they are allowed to do so. The bill creates a new criminal offence of "working without permission". For example, if someone lets a room in their house to an overseas student, and they work 21 hours one week instead of 20 hours, the student could face up to 12 months in prison and deportation, while the landlord could face a hefty fine. The effect of these restrictions will be to increase harassment of anyone who looks or sounds as if they might not be British. Employers and landlords will feel under pressure to discriminate rather than taking the risk of falling foul of the law, making it even harder for workers from ethnic minorities to get jobs and housing. This will be made worse by requiring a high standard of English for jobs in the public sector - even where the role requires no dealing with the public.

Wages for anyone "working without permission" will be treated as "proceeds of crime", meaning someone who falls foul of the law has no right to their wages.

An excellent discussion covered many points. Immigration law has already been used by employers to break up workplace organisation and intimidate workers, as for the SOAS cleaners. Employers rely on migrant labour, and will increasingly do so as the UK population ages, but want workers feeling vulnerable and insecure.

The immigration bill will have a negative impact on many members, as well as on organisation. Reps need to be ready to support members affected. Don ended by pointing out that the bill relied on implementation to be oppressive, and there were many ways in which workers might fail to implement it, particularly when cuts force them to choose which aspects of their roles to neglect.

Sunday 22 November 2015

Help Ian Allinson & Nilüfer​ Erdem go to the Labor Notes conference in Chicago

I'd very much like to go to the Labor Notes conference next year, but the cost would be prohibitive. Me and a young member from the Hotel Workers' branch in London who also wants to go have set up an appeal to raise money to make it possible.

If you follow this blog you'll know that we'll do a detailed report back, so hopefully if we can go it will be useful for many more activists in the UK.

The text of our appeal is below, and if you want to contribute, please click here:

Help Ian Allinson & Nilüfer​ Erdem go to the Labor Notes conference in Chicago

We're union activists from Manchester and London who need your help to go to the Labor Notes conference, which takes place in Chicago 1-3 April 2016.

Labor Notes Conference:
  • Involves thousands of union members, officers, and labor activists who are on the front lines in workplaces and communities, organizing new workers and agitating together. Meet troublemakers from around the country and around the world.
  • Comprises more than 100 meetings and workshops include creative organizing tactics, beating apathy, running for local union office, winning contract campaigns, bargaining over technology, understanding the economy, life after “right to work,” and reviving the strike
Why help us?
We've already found some of Labor Notes publications useful and think there will be a lot of ideas which can help workers in the UK organise. If your help enables us to go, we will post a detailed report online. If your union body sponsors us we'll do our best to come and give a report in person.

Who are we?
  • Ian Allinson is an activist in Manchester, where he's the senior UNITE rep at the IT multinational Fujitsu. In 2009 he led the first national strike in the UK IT industry. Ian served on the union's Executive Council for ten years. Ian is currently on the National Industrial Sector Committee the Graphical, Paper, Media and IT sector. He runs iansunitesite, a blog about union matters. In addition to activism and working full time, Ian is currently doing a part time MA in Industrial Relations at Keele University.
  • Nilüfer Erdem is an activist in London, involved in the UNITE Hotel Workers branch. She's active in the Fair Tips campaign and in organising young, migrant and precarious workers. Nilüfer is a member of the London & Eastern region's Young Members' Committee.
What will it cost us?
  • Conference tickets will cost $210
  • Flights will cost us around £1000
  • A shared hotel room will cost us $125 a night, so at least $500 in total
The total is approximately £1500.

Saturday 21 November 2015

UNITE GPM&IT National Industrial Sector Committee meeting November 2015

The Graphical, Paper, Media & IT NISC met on 12-13 November, and this is a report of some points of potential interest. It doesn't include the (important) reports on what's going on in various employers and sub-sectors, as the NISC regards these as too sensitive for publication.

Steve Garroway from the north-west was elected as chair of the NISC and Linda Pollock from Scotland as vice-chair.


  1. The idea was floated of branches in the sector clubbing together to fund the employment of an organiser who could work on projects the NISC prioritised.
  2. UNITE membership in the GPM part of the sector continues to decline due to job losses, though these seem to have slowed. There are opportunities to spread organisation into new workplaces, including within companies already organised.
  3. RISCs should discuss the survey on agency workers and encourage reps to complete and return it.
  4. The new NISC elected its organising strategy subcommittee - Steve & Linda as chair and vice-chair, plus Ian Allinson, Gareth Lowe and Phil Hood.

Trade Union Bill

  1. Deputy General Secretary Steve Turner gave a presentation about the Trade Union Bill, which comes on top of the gagging act
  2. Public opinion, despite being against some particular strikes, is strongly in favour of the right to strike and against the use of agency labour to break strikes.
  3. He highlighted the connection between the proposed removal of the ban on agencies providing scabs during disputes and the Tories benefit sanctions. There is a worry that unemployed people would be told to take agency work to scab or lose their benefits. What would be the impact on social cohesion if agencies brought in labour from abroad to break a strike?
  4. He pointed out that many of the attacks on the rights of public sector workers could also apply to private sector workers where services had been privatised, outsourced or were supported by public funds.
  5. The government has dropped plans to include in the bill a requirement on unions to publish a detailed "dispute plan" including the use of social media. However, it is likely this will reappear in a new code of practice on picketing.
  6. While opposing the bill altogether, Steve's view was that the Tory majority would force it through, and UNITE had therefore been focussing on trying to get amendments, particularly in relation to the ballot process. He said that Vince Cable had previously agreed to allow workplace or online balloting, but the new government did not support this. CAC statutory recognition ballots are workplace ballots, and not one has resulted in a complaint.
  7. At some point UNITE will fall foul of the new legislation and be forced outside the law. This could be in relation to the ballot thresholds, where a majority voted to strike but it didn't count - UNITE would be forced to decide whether to call the strike anyway. Or a picket supervisor might refuse to carry a letter or wear an armband, which could lead to a £25K find for UNITE. Refusal to pay could be treated as contempt of court, as with the miners in the 1980s.
  8. There is lots of opposition to the bill, ranging from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD, the professional body for HR) and the FT to the Police Federation. Devolved governments and councils are saying they won't implement it.
  9. Letters and petitions will not be enough. In the 1970s it had taken action and civil disobedience to defeat the Industrial Relations Act. While the bill is still being debated, Steve urged people to continue lobbying MPs. Some Tories are very unhappy about aspects of it.
  10. Lots of materials are available for workplaces, which can be printed off or obtained from Regional Political Officers. Activists are encouraged to organise meetings, invite speakers etc.
Globalisation and digitalisation:
  1. Regional Officer Mike Eatwell talked through a presentation created by a Swedish colleague
  2. Mike argued that the potential impact of automation was growing past routine jobs and also into white collar jobs. A 2013 Oxford study of the US and a 2014 one on France suggested nearly half of current jobs are at risk of automation. Even if this is grossly exaggerated, the impact is still significant. Mike recommended a book called "The Second Machine Age".
  3. Mike also talked about other major trends. Population growth is expected to slow. Developed economies will need more migrants to sustain their economies. Technical developments such as cheaper and faster data processing; cloud; big data; artificial intelligence; mobile computing; individual crowd working (e.g. Uber); the Internet of Things and 3D printing would also mean large numbers of current jobs being destroyed and others created - potentially with bad terms and conditions.
  4. New technology displacing workers is nothing new. From the Luddites onwards the debates have always been about who will benefit. Will we win a shorter working week and better pay? Or will some work ever harder while others suffer unemployment? Capitalism encourages a short-term view where only shareholders' interests count.
  5. Big changes in employment patterns require big changes for unions too. IT work can't be stockpiled, so IT workers have a lot of potential power.
Health & Safety
  1. Bud Hudspith discussed his comprehensive written report.
  2. Leaflets are available for UNITE's campaign "Say no to unsafe jobs" and Bud had been pleased at a number of employers supporting the approach.
  3. The government had planned to exclude self-employed people from Health & Safety legislation, but they have retreated and watered this down to the point where it will make little difference in practice.
  4. Bud wants input for a review of the Unite Health & Safety Guide.
  5. UNITE is pushing for more female Health & Safety reps. Anyone interested is encouraged to contact Siobhan Endean.
  6. Occupational stress is the most common issue, and UNITE will be ramping up its work on this. Bud highlighted the materials available from the HSE. Surveys are useful, but they need to lead to action.
  7. It was agreed at a policy conference that regions should hold meetings for H&S reps, but many had stopped happening. More are being revived now. If your region isn't doing this, suggest it to the Regional Committee.
  8. Bud reported that where Area Activist Committees are having open meetings on H&S, they are getting very good attendances - he'd been at one with 300 activists the other day.
  1. Though it wasn't on the agenda, UNITE's attitude to "partnership" ran through many of the discussions (including industrial ones which I can't include here). This section of my report is comment about some of the ways partnership came up.
  2. UNITE's leadership had persuaded the delegation at the TUC congress to support motion 3 at the TUC congress, which was a pro-partnership motion from Community, amended by the FDA. In my opinion the employment relationship is inherently unequal, so the concept of partnership is both flawed and dangerous. It runs against the organising approach UNITE espouses. UNITE did express serious reservations in the debate at congress, but the support for the motion shows weakness and confusion.
  3. There was a heated discussion about UNITE's position on Trident (which is discussed here). Many of the arguments from those who supported Len McCluskey's position at the Labour conference (Trident jobs come first so keep Trident) rather than the position of the UNITE delegation at Scottish Labour's conference (scrap Trident and diversify to protect jobs) really hinged on a partnership outlook. At the heart of this is the assumption that the way you protect your jobs is to support the interests of your employer. This view would have prevented Lancashire cotton workers opposing slavery during the American civil war, or support for sanctions against apartheid South Africa. It gives ground to "There Is No Alternative" to whatever our boss plans - either we accept the jobs they offer or we have none. The contrast with Jeremy Corbyn's commitment to a Defence Diversification Agency (DDA) could not be starker, being based on the idea that we can find a better use for £167bn which would create many more good jobs.
  1. NISC meetings in 2016 are 21-22 January, 18-19 April, 30 June - 1 July and 6-7 October
  2. The government is slashing funding for education for union reps, which partly comes through FE colleges. The Executive will be discussing a report on the implications of this at its next meeting, and it was agreed to discuss this at the next NISC too.
  3. A group from the GPM&IT sector took part in a delegation to Palestine where they met various Palestinian and Israeli groups. One of the delegation explained how she had not been prepared for the horrific oppression she saw. Several of the delegates plan to do a talk about their experience in central London. They also plan to produce a report people can take into workplaces to raise awareness.
  4. Rick Graham from the research department is willing to help reps put together pay claims, but bear in mind that he now covers four UNITE sectors.
  5. I asked Rick to get more information on the reports of big changes to the use of contractors and its potential impact in IT.
  6. Two motions were agreed to go to the national sector conference (24 November). One was on organising in the sector. The second was about getting Corbyn's support for an industrial strategy for the sector.
  7. A new strategy for the IT & Comms part of the sector will be launched at the national sector conference.
  8. The IT & Comms Advisory Committee will meet again early in 2016.
  9. UNITE has regained union recognition at PCP in the West Midlands, having lost it over 25 years ago.
  10. The GPM&IT "change at work" training event will now be held 11-16 April 2016 in Eastbourne. Activists are encouraged to book places ASAP and by January because rooms may be released then if not booked.

Sunday 6 September 2015

Civil Rights and the Trade Union Bill

I've written a piece on the Tories' new Trade Union Bill and opposition to it, which has been published here.

Thursday 27 August 2015

Indesit national strike

This morning drivers and warehouse workers at Indesit depots around the country started their second strike over pay - this time escalating to 48 hours.

The strikers are based at Andover; Barnsley; Chepstow; Gateshead; Grangemouth; Hayes (west London); Mallusk (Newtonabbey, Northern Ireland); Trafford Park (Manchester); Raunds (Northamptonshire); Sharpness (Berkeley, Gloucestershire); Wednesbury (West Midlands); and West Thurrock (Essex). They are responsible for delivering white goods to homes and retailers.

This morning I visited the pickets at Trafford Park, who were already in good numbers and spirits when I arrived at 6am.

They've been offered just 1.5% while directors got rises of up to 30% - of a much higher salary in the first place. The gap between big increases for the fat cats and the crumbs for the rest was a big factor in provoking the strike.

The workers say their pay has been eroded by below inflation "rises" and unreliable or unattainable bonuses for years, while changes such as monthly pay, paperless pay, and weekend working have benefitted bosses but not them.

The workers rely on very long hours and overtime to earn a living. As well as striking they are working to rule which they believe can have a big impact. The long hours are also driven by huge loads, drivers often delivering alone, and imposed changes to warehouse processes which reduce efficiency.

Pickets were discussing the threat of the new Trade Union Bill which would allow bosses to hire agency temps to try to break strikes. As one of the pickets commented, it's not as if strikes are common. This workforce hasn't had a strike in decades, during which their pay and conditions have declined. Now they have had enough.

The current strike continues until 6am on Saturday morning. If there is no deal a further 24 hours of strike action is planned from 6am on Tuesday 1st September.

If you want to give support, the picket is at: Premier Park, Trafford Park Road / Acheson Way, Trafford Park, M17 1GA

Saturday 22 August 2015

Checking for discrimination in selection

There are many situations, from recruitment to promotion to redundancies, where employers make selections between people. You often hear people talking about the importance of doing "Equality Impact Assessments" and checking for discrimination, but I've always struggled to get guidance on how to actually do this.

Professional statistician Nancy Carpenter has worked with me to produce a guide to checking for discrimination in selection. It covers everything from how to get hold of data through to how to present it to your employer. I'm aware of several cases where analysis similar to what we describe has worried employers enough that jobs have been saved. I'd be interested to hear experiences from other activists.

Thursday 20 August 2015

Protect the right to strike

The Tories' new Trade Union Bill is a massive attack on civil rights, from the right to strike to freedom of expression and assembly.

TUC General Secretary Fraces O'Grady has produced a short video as part of the campaign against it:

The TUC has also produced a briefing on the proposals.  This is well worth a read, because the government's proposals go much further than the Bill itself.  Many of the worst aspects are contained in the linked consultation documents and in amendments to the regulations governing temp agencies to allow them to supply scabs during a strike.

The TUC is organising a rally and lobby of parliament on Monday 2nd November which everyone should build and attend.  It's also worth getting involved with campaigns such as the Campaign For Trade Union Freedom and Right To Strike.

As Len McCluskey argued so powerfully at the Unite Rules Conference, many workers are also going to have to be ready to break this unjust law if it passes or be unable to resist their employer successfully.

Friday 10 July 2015

Unite Rules Conference - day four (updated)

Note: This report has been updated following receipt of the official record of decisions.

The main excitement of the day was conference overturning the Executive Council over Gibraltar.  NR/4 created an Area Activist structure called the "Gibraltar Committee" for elected representatives from companies, sectors and branches based in Gibraltar.  The Committee will elect an observer delegate to the Executive Council.

Motion 15/2 introduced fixed 5-year terms for the General Secretary, preventing any repeat of the controversy of the election being called early to re-elect Len McCluskey. (The next GS election is due in 2018).

Motions 12/13 and 13/8 both sought to mandate electronic voting for union conferences.  They were remitted to the EC on the basis of a commitment that electronic voting would be used in future for close votes, but not for every vote because it slows down proceedings where the result of clear from a show of hands.

The "enabling motion" empowers the EC to make changes to the rulebook required to reconcile all the motions passed into a tidy and consistent new rulebook.  We are likely to have to wait some time to see the result.

13/3 withdrawn
13/4 lost
13/5 lost
13/2 withdrawn
13/10 lost
15/2 carried
15/3 lost
8/1 carried
8/2 lost
8/3 withdrawn
8/4 lost
8/5 withdrawn
4/1 carried
4/2 lost
4/3 fell
4/4 carried
4/5 lost
4/6 carried

NR/4 carried
28/1 fell

12/14 carried
13/12 carried
6/9 lost
12/5 lost
NR/7 lost
12/13 remitted
13/8 remitted
13/9 withdrawn
NR/8 withdrawn
Rule 14 (organising fund) withdrawn
Enabling motion carried

Thursday 9 July 2015

Unite Rules Conference - day three

The main excitement on Wednesday was motion 2/1 from the Executive Council, which removed "so far as may be lawful from rule "2.1 The objects of the Union shall, as far as may be lawful, be:".  Len McCluskey gave a great speech arguing why it was right to break unjust laws, even when passed by an elected government:

This is not the first time Len has made such arguments, but it is nonetheless very important that he does.  Not only do we face further attacks from the Tory government on workers' right to strike, but this forms part of a wider attack on the right to protest, on privacy against surveillance, and on access to justice.  His speech will be welcomed not only by many trade unionists, but by many campaigners engaged in direct action who often face vilification in the press and from politicians.

However, we shouldn't get carried away.  Given the rarity of effective strike action even when it is legal, it would be naive to expect Unite's leadership to readily lead more if it becomes more difficult.  Whether workers respond to new anti-union laws by trying to comply with ludicrous ballot requirements, or with action outside laws designed to make their action ineffective, both require strong workplace organisation.

It's amusing to remember the fierce opposition from Len and the EC when Gill George proposed essentially the same rule amendment at the previous Rules Conference.

Motions 9/1 and 14/1 strengthened the Young Members structures and put the qualifying age back to "up to and including the age of 27" rather than 30 from the 2018/21 electoral cycle.

Motion 6/1 clarified that members who lose eligibility for lay office may continue to serve their term of office and required the EC to establish a right to recall over members holding lay office.

A supplementary amendment to rule 6 added new clauses to bar from lay office members recruiting to other unions or who hadn't paid 13 weeks' subs. The EC assured conference that this would not affect members directing workers to join other unions in multi-union environment or joint campaigns, or members in newly organised workplaces.

17/1 clarified the operation of (the very few) national industrial branches and requires branches to hold at least four meetings a year.

17/8 changes the timescale for branch elections to January to March.

Motions 11/8 and 11/9 both sought to stop the union running its equality conferences in parallel on the same days, which limits activists who might have more than one oppression contributing to more than one conference.  Both were remitted to the EC on the basis of assurances that the issue would be looked at.  Conference was told that the decision on timing currently rests with the equality committees, who saw benefit of meeting on the same days as this enabled people to meet and discuss across the equality strands.

I was surprised by some of the gaps in the debate.  In recent years there has been a new wave of interest among young people, and especially on campuses, in fighting oppression.  The concept of "intersectionality" has been central to this revival.  Intersectionality is a recognition that multiple oppressions don't simply "add up" but that they interact - for example the stereotypes and prejudices affecting Muslim women are not the same as those affecting white Christian women - and this is not simply "sexism plus racism".  So in order to build the strongest and most united movement, it is particularly important to include people whose experience of one oppression is shaped by their experience of others.  The concept of intersectionality did not feature in the debate at all - it was framed much more in the older (and less unifying) concept of "identity".  Unless Unite finds a way to respond to the dominant ideas amongst young feminists in particular, it will struggle to engage with the vibrancy and radicalism that has been so encouraging in recent years.

Motion 11/7 sought to explicitly include Eastern Europeans in Unite's BAEM structures. This was remitted to the EC with a clear recognition of the racism faced by East Europeans. Latin Americans are already included in the BAEM structures.

Conference rejected a dreadful motion 12/6 from a Rolls Royce nuclear branch which sought to give every sector a veto on union policies that detrimentally impact their members. As one delegate put it, such a rule would have meant we couldn't have opposed hanging if we had members working as hangmen.

9/1 carried
9/2 withdrawn
14/1 carried
14/3 withdrawn
14/7 fell
14/8 withdrawn
14/9 withdrawn
14/10 withdrawn
6/1 carried
6/3 withdrawn
6/5 withdrawn
6/2 lost
6/6 withdrawn
6/7 withdrawn
6/8 lost
6/10 lost
6/11 carried
6/12 lost
6S carried
14/9 fell
16/9 withdrawn
17/1 carried
17/3 lost
17/5 withdrawn
17/6 withdrawn
17/2 lost
17/4 lost
17/7 lost
17/8 carried
17/9 lost
17/10 lost
17/11 carried
2/1 carried
NR/5 remitted
NR/6 remitted
11/1 carried
11/2 withdrawn
11/3 remitted
11/4 lost
11/5 lost
11/6 remitted
Additional amendment to 11.2 lost
11/8 remitted
11/9 remitted
11/7 remitted
11/10 withdrawn
12/9 remitted
12/10 remitted
13/6 remitted
7/1 carried
7/2 carried
7/3 withdrawn
7/8 lost
7/4 carried
7/5 remitted
7/7 lost
12/1 carried
12/4 lost
12/11 fell
12/6 lost
12/7 lost
12/12 lost
12/15 withdrawn
13/1 carried

After conference closed we were encouraged to join a local protest outside Brighton town hall against the Tory budget.  Though Unite's presence added a lot to the demonstration, I was disappointed at how few delegates (and even fewer EC members) took part.  We missed a real opportunity to showcase Unite's opposition to austerity to people in Brighton.  It was left to a lay activist to provide the posters to ensure we made a visible impact:

Wednesday 8 July 2015

Unite Rules Conference - day two

Tuesday's business was less contentious than Monday's, but covered a wide range of issues.

In the debate on retired members, Assistant General Secretary Steve Turner clarified that "Executive Statements", if passed, do actually change rules - it is up to the Executive Council to work out exactly how - after Rules Conference.  Personally I think this is a strong argument against EC statements - it would be much better if the EC actually put forward the specific rule changes they want so that delegates can consider and vote on them.

Executive Statement 3 means that the Retired Members' National and Regional Committees can each submit one motion to Policy and Rules Conferences.  Each Region can nominate one Retired Member as an observer to conference, with speaking rights.  Motion 10.1 clarified that triennial Regional Retired Members' Conferences are for "retired members plus" members who are officers in any type of branch.  It also gave the National Committee for Retired Members the right to elect a lay chair and coordinator.  Motion 15/1 decided that (non-paying) "ordinary" retired members are not eligible to vote in General Secretary elections.

Motion 14/4 means that all EC nominees will have the same access to information about and access to union bodies.  14/6 overturned the EC to say that there must be an audit of sector membership at the September EC meeting and those figures used to determine EC election constituencies for the following year.  Conference overturned the EC to pass 14/20 which means EC members can't act as "Stand Down Officers" during their term of office.  14/13 means that EC by-elections only take place during the first two years of a term - any vacancies after that would be filled by an observer elected by the relevant national or regional committee.

Conference overturned the EC to pass 19/4 and set up a national access fund to provide support such as sign language interpreters as required by deaf and disabled members to access branch meetings, national meetings and other union events.

Conference overturned the EC to pass 21/1 which harmonises expenses between constitutional committees, branches, education etc.  I think this is likely to mean the EC reviewing the expenses regime generally, to avoid incurring a lot of extra costs.

NR/2 gave significant autonomy to the Scottish region (within Unite Rules and Policy) and created more substantial structures in Scotland to support that.  Contrary to some press reports, the motion does not mean that the Scottish region can take decisions on political disaffiliation / disaffiliation.

Gold medals were awarded to John Keenan, Bob Sullivan and Bob Fulton (who wasn't well enough to attend), members from Rolls Royce East Kilbride who had organised the blacking of aero engines from Chile after Pinochet's coup - solidarity which gave life-saving hope to people in concentration camps on the other side of the world.

You can watch the short video about the boycott that was shown at conference.

Rule change 27/1 on member discipline established an Appeals Committee elected from Policy Conference to hear appeals against disciplinary sanctions imposed by the EC.  Conference agreed that for the year until Policy Conference, the Appeals Committee will be constituted by one person nominated from each Regional Committee, subject to the usual proportionality requirements.

22/10 lost
23/1 fell not moved
22/12 carried
22/13 withdrawn
22/1 carried
NR/1 carried
3/1 carried
3/4 withdrawn
3/5 fell
3/6 lost
Executive Statement 3 carried
10/10 withdrawn
10/11 fell
10/12 fell
10/13 fell
12/2 fell
12/3 withdrawn
13/7 fell
13/11 lost
14/5 fell
16/9 fell
10/1 carried
15/1 carried
6/4 fell
10/2 fell
10/3 fell
10/4 fell
10/5 fell
10/6 withdrawn
10/7 fell
10/8 fell
10/9 fell
27/1 carried
27/3 lost
27/4 lost
27/5 lost
27/6 fell
27/7 fell
27/8 fell
27/9 fell
14/4 carried
14/6 carried
14/11 withdrawn
14/12 lost
14/14 lost
14/18 withdrawn
14/20 carried
16/1 lost
14/13 carried
16/6 lost
16/7 lost
16/8 lost
16/14 lost
16/15 lost
16/16 withdrawn
16/18 withdrawn
16/20 carried
16/2 lost
16/4 remitted
16/5 lost
16/10 fell
16/20 carried
16/2 lost
16/4 remitted
16/5 lost
16/10 fell
16/11 carried
19/1 carried
19/2 fell
19/3 withdrawn
19/4 carried
21/1 carried
NR/2 carried
NR/3 withdrawn
Interim appeals committee constitution - carried

Tuesday 7 July 2015

Unite Rules Conference - day one

Most of the contentious business was crammed into day one.

It started lively, with conference decisively supporting my move to reject the Executive Council's undemocratic Standing Orders. Despite knowing in advance that the challenge was coming the leadership had no "plan B" prepared in case they lost the vote. Chaos and confusion reigned and eventually conference was adjourned until Len McCluskey came back with acceptable Standing Orders.  This was important not just for this year, but because they will be the starting point for future conferences.

Much of the debate on rule change motions submitted by branches and committees was overshadowed by Executive Statements which conference would have to reject in order to vote on many of the other motions.

There were debates on how some/all officers and senior staff should be elected or appointed. Conference rejected all the proposals, backing the EC's stance that it should continue making all officer appointments, that the General Secretary should be able to move them around rather than being linked to particular constituencies, and the General Secretary should appoint staff.

I'm a supporter of electing officers and making them accountable to particular lay committees. I thought there were two interesting points from the debate. Firstly, a view that frequent contested elections is a distraction and a cause of division and weakness, rather than an opportunity to engage and politically engage members. Secondly, a desire for centralisation of power within the union to allow it to operate coherently despite the centrifugal forces operating in a general union with sectors with different needs and priorities.

The other big debate was on the Labour Party. Conference decisively supported the EC statement which largely defended the status quo.  The debate was hugely influenced by Jeremy Corbyn's candidacy and the EC's decision to back him. Some who had felt the general election marked the end of the road for Labour argued this gave Labour another "last chance". To win the EC position, Len had to stress his commitment to recall Rules Conference if the situation with Labour changed, which I argued it will.

Rule amendments made by the EC since last Rules Conference were ratified
1/1 carried
3/2 carried
14/2 carried
30/1 carried
EC Statement 1 carried
7/6 fell
12/8 fell
14/7 fell
15/4 fell
15/5 fell
16/3 fell
14/15 withdrawn
14/16 lost
18/1 carried
18/2 fell
18/3 lost
18/4 carried
18/5 carried
EC statement 2 carried
2/2 fell
2/3 fell
2/4 fell
22/2 fell
22/3 fell
22/4 fell
22/5 fell
22/6 fell
22/7 fell
22/8 fell
22/9 fell not moved
22/11 fell not moved
SOC elected for Rules Conference 2019:
EM: Raffiq Moosa
Ireland: Frances Hourihane
LE: Bruce Swann
NEYH: Dave Allen
NW: Ian Bruce
Scotland: Shirley Johnston
SE: Stewart Dack
SW: Lynsey Wall
Wales: Julie Evans
WM: Barry Hartshorn

Wednesday 1 July 2015

Stop the power grab at Unite Rules Conference

Unite's leadership is engaged in an anti-democratic power grab and delegates need to be ready to put a stop to it.

Unite's Rules Conference starts on Monday and delegates have been sent a 160 page book of motions to change our rule book.  The sheer number of motions from our Executive Council (EC) is striking.  I understand that all or nearly all of these motions were not in fact proposed to the EC by its elected lay members, but rather by the full-time "executive officers" - of which Len McCluskey is the only elected member.

So far, so typically top-down.  But things get rapidly worse when you see the draft Standing Orders that the EC intends to propose to the Rules Conference.  There's a shiny new Standing Order 8.2 which we've never needed before.  It says:

"Should a Motion to amend the Rules submitted by the Executive Council be included in any grouping of Motions it shall be voted upon first and, if carried, all other Motions in that group shall fall. In any reply, the EC speaker shall speak at the conclusion of the debate." [my emphasis]
As the EC have submitted motions to loads of the groups, this means that unless conference rejects this Standing Order or votes down most of the EC's rules motions (most of which are harmless enough) then most of the motions from branches and constitutional committees will be tossed out without conference having the chance to vote on them.

It's worth being clear that this proposed new approach is far worse than the (bad enough) "Executive Statement" ruse that has become so popular for dodging contentious issues at Policy Conference.  In the past conferences still got the chance to vote on motions even if they passed an EC statement, unless the SOC and Chair decided that the subject matter of the motion was completely covered by the statement.  The old approach already gave the EC massive power over conference, as they can submit EC statements after seeing all the motions, where other bodies have to do it months in advance, and they get the last right of reply and the first vote.  The proposed new approach would give the EC the right to knock out motions which are unrelated to their own, as long as they are in the same grouping.

Rule 12.10 gives the EC the right to "draft the standing orders".  Delegates will be presented with a draft.  If they value their right to decide on motions for themselves rather than having them tossed out by the EC (which all too often means unelected executive officers), delegates should not accept the proposed standing orders without a change.  Better still, lobby your EC members to fix this before it is presented to conference.  Don't rely on any message to EC members sent via the General Secretary ever reaching them - you need to contact them directly.  Does our leadership really want to start conference by getting into a fight with delegates?

Thursday 11 June 2015

What does the Labour leadership election mean for the radical left?

My article below first appeared on Novaramedia.

Apologies for the long break in updates to this blog. I've been unwell, but hope to gradually resume normal service now.

What does the Labour leadership election mean for the radical left?

Losing the 2015 general election threw Labour into crisis, having already endured decades of erosion of its base. The leadership election is deepening that crisis, which is spreading into the affiliated trade unions and changing the landscape for everyone on the left – even those who don’t believe that meaningful change can come through parliament.

It is tempting to be cynical about talk of unions breaking from Labour – we’ve heard it for years. While the FBU disaffiliated and the RMT was expelled, the biggest unions have kept funding Labour and still try to paint a pro-business party red. The unaffiliated unions have not managed to build any credible alternative, and the dismal votes secured by TUSC and Left Unity are used by Labour loyalists to continue arguing that Labour is ‘the only show in town’ and ‘the lesser of two evils’.
Such cynicism would be misguided. Not only because gradual erosion does, at some point, lead to seemingly immovable cliffs collapsing into the sea, but also because Labour’s current crisis is more intractable than ever before for two main reasons.

First, Labour was annihilated in Scotland by the SNP offering mild reforms, positioning itself to the left of Labour. A few years ago, nobody would have argued that Glasgow was significantly less loyal to Labour than Manchester or Newcastle. Labour’s inability to survive the impact of the mass movement around the Yes campaign in the independence referendum and a credible alternative to its left shows how vulnerable Labour’s core vote is across the whole UK.

Labour’s electoral disaster in Scotland came after it had alienated many union activists by its false allegations against Unite over the 2013 Falkirk constituency candidate selection. These allegations led to two prominent Unite activists at the Ineos Grangemouth oil refinery losing their jobs, and helped an unpopular tycoon screw over the workforce at a major workplace, making many enemies.
Second, Labour faces a fork in the road. Miliband attempted to fudge his way to victory by accepting the essence of the Tory agenda – the free market, austerity, cuts, racism, anti-union laws – while offering a few populist ‘left’ policies that didn’t threaten the establishment significantly. After Labour’s defeat, nobody is arguing for a repeat of Miliband’s strategy.

Most of the Labour machine and the media are pushing the Blairite line that Labour lost by being too left-wing and now needs to appeal to Ukip voters and the middle class, oblivious to ample evidence that the Blairite strategy of ‘triangulation’ delivers short-term gains but leads to medium-term decline. They ignore the evidence that Labour’s vote didn’t switch to Ukip in large numbers, but rather stayed at home. Meanwhile most socialists and union activists think Labour lost by being too right-wing. Faced with these two apparent paths, Labour’s apparatus is pulling one way and its social base pulling the other.

These two factors alone would have been enough to force Labour into crisis, but the crisis is made even more acute by changes made to Labour’s rules following the Falkirk row, which changed the basis of the unions’ affiliation to Labour. Instead of being able to affiliate their entire membership, unions now have to get individual members to opt-in as Labour supporters. Only those who do will get a vote for the Labour leader. While for some unions, such as UNISON, this won’t change much because only a minority of members paid into the political fund, in others the change is huge. Nearly all Unite members pay into the political fund and previously had a vote. Now Unite is trying to persuade them to sign up as Labour supporters to get a vote. This will reduce the number of union members voting and make visible the minority support for Labour amongst union members.

During the previous parliament, Unite’s general secretary Len McCluskey spoke about what would happen if Labour lost the 2015 election. He predicted that Labour would lose if it failed to move left and appeal to working class people, stating that the balance of forces within Labour was such that if Ed Miliband went, he would be replaced by someone even further to the right. If that happened, he argued, Unite would have to discuss its relationship to Labour and whether to continue its affiliation or help create a new workers’ party. The media seized on this, and one can only presume Labour put pressure on McCluskey to issue his absurd denial that Unite is discussing disaffiliation. In fact, at Unite’s upcoming rules conference in July there are motions on the agenda proposing to remove affiliation from the union rulebook.

Jeremy Corbyn’s announcement that he is seeking nomination has changed the election dramatically. Instead of a contest between an unsavoury collection of New Labour figures, there is now a socialist option. But Labour’s election process means a candidate needs the backing of 35 MPs before 15 June just to get on the ballot paper. Corbyn is currently only on 14 pledges [at time of print]. While many MPs have yet to declare and switching support is still possible, it looks unlikely that Corbyn will make it onto the ballot paper unless one of two things happen. Another candidate with more than 35 nominations could decide to ‘lend’ backers to him, or unions could put pressure on MPs to ensure Corbyn gets on the ballot paper so that there is a real choice for voters.

Unite’s Executive Council, which has the power to decide Unite’s position, met this week. The meeting opted to urge MPs to nominate Corbyn to get him on the ballot paper, but refrained from endorsing any candidate. Aside from a desire to see Labour move left, there is another reason Labour loyalists within the unions will want to see Corbyn on the ballot paper: if he isn’t, they will find it much harder to argue for retaining the affiliation. Already Corbyn’s candidacy is encouraging union members to sign up as affiliated Labour supporters in order to get a vote. If Corbyn gets the 35 nominations, unions will be able to use this to increase the number of supporters right through to the 12 August deadline for new members and supporters to be included in the ballot. The more who sign up, the stronger the hand of those seeking to retain affiliation.

But even if Corbyn does get the required nominations and thousands sign up to vote for him, it seems almost inconceivable that he would win. Labour’s membership is not that left wing. If he loses to one of the New Labour clones, it will demonstrate to millions how deep the rot has gone in Labour and how unrealistic the hopes of ‘reclaiming’ it are.

In Labour’s heyday, reforms that improved things for working class people were supported by all the main parties and by business – at the time, improving living standards were compatible with high profits. In the neoliberal era that is no longer the case; the ruling class strategy has been to boost profits by driving down living standards and imposing ‘anti-reforms’. It’s not possible to win reforms without confronting the establishment: there is no going back to 1945. This is a key reason why Labour-type parties around the world have gone into crisis. They used to represent working class people’s rejection of the unpleasant symptoms of capitalism without rejecting the system itself. But while they wanted to get rid of the symptoms, they were never about confronting the establishment to do so. In this century, parties unwilling to confront the establishment are forced to accommodate to it as they near office and so disillusion their own base.

Labour’s crisis matters for everyone who lusts after radical change. Not only is Labour incapable of delivering meaningful reforms, it acts as a brake on action – union leaders in particular play a role in mediating between Labour’s pressure against effective action and the union membership. Labour no longer even performs the function of airing left-wing ideas in the mainstream, as demonstrated starkly by the leaders’ debates, when the leaders of the SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru brought anti-austerity and anti-racist arguments into the debate in a way Labour no longer does.

The main job of the British left over the next few years is to build a mass movement of resistance to the onslaught of attacks coming our way from employers and the government. But it would be a mistake to ignore the Labour’s crisis and its ramifications in the unions. A credible left electoral challenge can’t be wished from nothing. A genuine mass movement is needed for left electoral success, and for any left government to successfully challenge the establishment. A credible left alternative couldn’t just be Unite’s leadership, any more than it could just be Left Unity or TUSC. But weakening the link between unions and Labour is a vital part of that process, and will help remove the brakes from our resistance to the Tories too.