I have decided to seek nominations for the General Secretary election. It is essential that this election does not become a battle between Len McCluskey, offering more of the same, and Gerard Coyne, offering to turn the clock back to the bad old days when our union backed New Labour even while they attacked our own members – and saw membership decline. If members want to see a Corbyn government, Unite needs to shift the debate by fighting in workplaces and communities now, rather than relying so heavily on internal battles within Labour. This is the second time that Len McCluskey has foisted a premature election on us based on a false premise. Many activists recognise the election timetable as an undemocratic manoeuvre which minimises members’ voice.
I’ve been a workplace activist for 25 years at Fujitsu, building up the union in a largely unorganised industry. I led the first national strike in my industry in 2009-10. For ten years I served on the union’s executive before stepping down in 2014. I’m chair of Unite’s UK combine in Fujitsu, where my own workplace is currently in dispute and taking strike action over pay, pensions and job security. Nationally we’re fighting against job cuts from automation and offshoring.
Members have fought off attempts to victimise me and other reps. Unlike the two establishment candidates, I’m in the workplace, at the sharp end like the thousands of other reps and activists who make Unite the fighting union it is today.
Despite some progress during Len McCluskey’s time as General Secretary, our union is still falling far short of an adequate response to the onslaught members are facing from government, local authorities and employers.
There have been too many missed opportunities. Why was there no call for action or even a national demonstration in defence of the NHS when the Junior Doctors had the government on the ropes? Why was the momentum over public sector pensions frittered away? Why did we waste the opportunity around the London Olympics to smash the illegal blacklist? Why did we not call effective action when New Labour and employers attacked us at Grangemouth, or call for nationalisation which could have put huge pressure on both the SNP and Westminster governments? Why was our response to the Trade Union Act so pitiful?
The attacks on workers’ right to organise and strike are part of a wider assault on civil rights. The Tories want to scrap the Human Rights Act and leave the European Convention of Human Rights. Prevent means snooping, harassment and censorship for Muslims. We’ve had an international wave of anger against police violence, racism and deaths in custody. WikiLeaks exposed the level of state surveillance, while the role of undercover cops spying on peaceful protesters is gradually being exposed. CCTV is everywhere, and now we have the snoopers’ charter (RIPA). Migrants (and anyone suspected of being a migrant) face increased harassment, abuse, incarceration and deportation. Corporate secrecy blocks our rights to information about government actions and spending. Kettling, arrests and bail conditions restrict our right to protest. The Terrorism Act, which would have criminalised support for everyone from Gandhi and Mandela to the International Brigades, remains on the statute books. The state helps employers to blacklist workers. Tribunal fees and legal aid cuts restrict access to justice. We need to get off the back foot - Unite should be working with the campaigns around all these issues to organise conferences around the country and launch a positive movement for civil rights. Members need to support and learn from campaigns involving civil disobedience. If the government is putting effective trade unionism outside the law we need to educate and train ourselves how to respond – defying the Act requires action, not just slogans.
Few in Unite would agree with the Tory “partnership” ideology that “we are all in it together”, but Unite’s leadership has been going along with it in practice. It’s natural that employers will lobby for vanity projects from which they hope to make fat profits, such as Trident, Hinkley Point, HS2 and Heathrow expansion. The strategy of trying to save jobs by lobbying for our employers’ business plans has failed miserably. A million Unite members, and millions who should be members, are facing cuts to pay for these extravagancies when we should be seeing investment in public services and in the wide range of jobs that would improve our lives and tackle climate change. It is our own employers cutting jobs or moving them offshore and we need to fight to defend them. We’ve seen a similar problem with Unite’s “Brexit on out Terms” document - defending workers’ rights only merits a brief mention towards the end.
Following the Brexit vote Len McCluskey’s backsliding on free movement of workers is not good enough. Workers have sometimes responded to setbacks or defeats by claiming some privileged access to jobs, housing etc. and sought to exclude others – often on the basis of gender, race or nationality. Sometimes this works for some people for a short time, which is why this response can seem tempting. But it is misguided. Our ability to secure decent jobs and housing depends on our unity. As soon as workers slip into trying to protect their interests at the expense of other workers, that unity is undermined and we all lose out. You can’t argue to end free movement of labour without accepting that migration is a problem, and you can’t see migration as a problem and consistently build a united workforce – including the many migrants who live and work here.
As Jeremy Corbyn put it:
“It isn’t migrants that drive down wages, it’s exploitative employers and the politicians who deregulate the labour market and rip up trade union rights. It isn’t migrants who put a strain on our NHS, it only keeps going because of the migrant nurses and doctors who come here filling the gaps left by politicians who have failed to invest in training. It isn’t migrants that have caused a housing crisis; it’s a Tory government that has failed to build homes”.
Rather than giving ground to the nationalists and racists, we should take inspiration from the Unite members at Fawley oil refinery who fought and won equal pay for workers irrespective of their country of origin or employment status. They built unity, rather than sowing division.
The arguments around migration are a good example of how equality, along with young members’ work, has to be made more central to Unite’s industrial agenda. The huge gender pay gap is a symptom of employment and pay practices which are unfair for all members, where managers have too much discretion to exercise their power and prejudices.
When he announced he was standing, Gerard Coyne accused Len McCluskey of "playing Westminster power games". In reality, Coyne is playing the biggest Westminster power game of all. He is backed by the Labour right who want to turn the clock back to the days when Labour leaders never backed members in a fight, supported anti-union laws, let PFI rip through our services, imposed cuts while spending billions on illegal wars. The discredited Ed Balls has already supported Coyne. McCluskey is right to have finally come behind Corbyn. But backing Corbyn through the Labour Party structures is not enough. Corbyn faces massive opposition from the establishment. His best chance of success is if there is a real movement of resistance to Tory policies at grass roots level. “Wait for Jeremy” is not good enough when our rights, jobs and services are under attack every day.
Across our union there are activists and members who are doing their best to organise members to fight back. When they are doing so it should feel like you have a million members behind you. But communication in the union is poor, most activists feel isolated, and it is much too hard to access the support you need. The branch reorganisation was too top-down and has left too many members without access to a functioning branch. As a workplace activist of 25 years in a difficult environment, I understand those frustrations. My campaign will help link up those on the front-line who want to build a more effective union. Our organising strategy has been a real step forward, but it is too disconnected from the membership.
Increasing the participation and power of workers must be Unite’s number one priority. That cannot be done without a real commitment to democracy at every level of our union. I favour the election of officers, where members get to choose who represents us and whose salaries we pay, whereas McCluskey and Coyne want to tell members who will represent us. If elected, I wouldn’t take the current six-figure salary for General Secretary, I would stay on my current wage.
Some will doubtless argue that by seeking nomination I am risking the union sliding backwards under Gerard Coyne. Unite members are better than that. In recent General Secretary elections the right wing candidates haven’t even made second place.
Standing as a workplace activist against two senior officials would always be an uphill task. When the election process is so skewed in favour of the incumbent it is doubly so. But ultimately members will not be silenced – it is after all our union. Whatever the result, this campaign will force key issues onto the agenda and bring together those within Unite who want something better than more of the same. And after the last 18 months nobody should rule out the underdog.
Members don’t want the clock turning back with Coyne, but neither can we keep waiting for effective resistance from McCluskey. I don’t have the resources of the establishment candidates. If you want to see a grass roots socialist challenge then don’t just sit back and wait. It is always member activity that produces change, and this election is no different. Please get involved.
If you want to get involved in the campaign, or want materials or a speaker for a workplace or branch nomination meeting, please enter your details here. You can also email firstname.lastname@example.org and donate towards the cost of the campaign via https://donorbox.org/ian4unite
I have run a blog about Unite for a number of years: www.iansunitesite.org.uk