SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 137 - April 2010

Building the left in the Unite union

AN ELECTION for a new general secretary of the giant Unite trade union will take place before the end of 2010. Already a number of candidates, from left and right, and both the Amicus and T&G union traditions in the merged union, have declared they are going to stand.

Socialists have to take a serious attitude to union elections. Generally, it is not enough to simply say that all candidates will be the same, even if they come from the union officialdom. Firstly, there will be differences and it is important to identify which candidates will take the union forward as a fighting organisation and which will hold it back. Secondly, an abstentionist attitude will not necessarily make ordinary members, particularly the most active and thinking ones, listen to what socialists have to say about the union.

Last year was an important one for industrial struggle, in which Unite members played crucial roles. The victory at the Lindsey oil refinery (alongside GMB union members), followed by the occupations at Visteon car component factories, which secured a partial climb-down by management, showed the way forward for workers in the private sector and industry. The reinstatement as convenor at the Linamar car component plant in Swansea of Socialist Party member Rob Williams capped this wave. But it was not all success for Unite. On the negative side, officials stepped away from the Vestas wind turbine dispute, when the union had a toehold in the factory, and it was only through the intervention of the RMT rail and transport union that the workers had any union representation.

Socialist Party members in Unite discussed the possibility of standing Rob Williams in the general secretary election, beginning by putting his hat into the ring at the hustings of the United Left (UL), the new broad-left organisation in the union, last September. Rob would put forward a socialist programme for Unite.

Also seeking UL support was assistant general secretary Len McCluskey, the favourite to get the nomination. But Rob was not the only rank-and-file candidate. Jerry Hicks, the sacked convenor at Rolls Royce, Bristol, also stood. Court action by Jerry had forced Derek Simpson to stand for re-election as the Amicus general secretary last year and, in the subsequent election, Jerry had come a credible runner-up to Simpson in a field crowded by right-wingers. Scandalously, even Amicus Unity Gazette (AUG), the so-called left organisation in Amicus, had selected a right winger, Laurence Faircloth.

Jerry Hicks had refused to participate in that selection meeting, as he believed that, had he attended and lost, he would have been obliged not to stand. Socialist Party members felt that Jerry made a mistake in not putting his programme to the meeting. Even if he had lost the AUG selection and there had been no genuine left candidate at all, it would have been absolutely correct for Jerry to stand. In the Amicus election, the Socialist Party supported Jerry Hicks. There was no question of splitting the left vote (even though some ‘lefts’ supported Simpson), and the term of office was for just one year, not for a full term. Simpson was always the favourite and Jerry had undoubtedly the best programme in the election.

When it was decided to stand Rob Williams as a candidate in the UL hustings, Socialist Party members met Jerry Hicks to discuss a common strategy. But Jerry seemed insistent on standing again. One common socialist candidate would be best, but the tremendous support gained through Rob’s reinstatement campaign, and the feeling of a wider layer of activists that he should stand, at least in the hustings, meant that it was necessary to discuss tactics with Jerry and, at least, suggest to him a method of working together.

Jerry and his supporters became concerned about the UL hustings being fixed. Certainly in some regions, new supporters, including some Socialist Party members and those who had been in struggle, like the Visteon workers, were being excluded. Jerry was adamant that this would lead to him walking out. We came to the conclusion that this would be counterproductive as we wanted to get our ideas over to a larger audience. So we decided not to walk out but refused to give carte blanche acceptance to the hustings meeting. In the event, Jerry Hicks walked out twice – Socialist Party members helped to get him back after the first occasion – but his tactics meant that many UL supporters no longer saw him as being serious about building the left. Rob Williams won 49 votes, about 22%, and came over as representing a serious force inside the union, while the majority supported Len McCluskey.

Following the hustings, Socialist Party members came under pressure from UL supporters. Was Rob going to stand in the general secretary election? Many of these questions were prefaced by the worry that a split candidature of the left would let in a right-wing candidate, which could set the union backwards. These points cannot be ignored or considered as irrelevant. After wide consultations inside and outside the union, the Socialist Party circulated its position in leaflets for two major events in the union calendar, the National Industrial Sector Conferences and a UL quarterly meeting.

There was also the question of how to further the development of the UL as a strong and democratic force in the union. While the AUG had been largely discredited, through different factions packing meetings, the T&G Broad Left had come out of clandestinity, sometimes with halting steps, so that the left had nominal control of the union’s general executive. The formation of the UL was seen as step forward, a new start, and it would be wrong at this stage to write it off as ‘hopeless’. The big debates on the future of the union, including how to defeat the anti-trade union laws and the question of disaffiliation from New Labour, are beginning to take place in the UL at regional and national level.

Given these factors, the Socialist Party came to the conclusion to critically support Len McCluskey in the general secretary election. This support is qualified by proposing a socialist programme for the union, taking on the anti-trade union laws, demanding the democratic election of officials, withdrawal from New Labour, an open election campaign, democratic procedures in UL and so on. The left should discuss the way forward, particularly in the crucial period after the general election.

In recent meetings, McCluskey has probably gone further on the Labour Party question than joint general secretaries, Simpson and Tony Woodley. He has said he will continually review the effect (or lack of it) of affiliation if he is elected. Woodley and Simpson were props of a pro-capitalist Labour government in which the working class gained a few scraps. Whoever is elected as Unite’s general secretary will not face a similar situation. He or she will come to office in a stormy period of huge cuts in public expenditure and big redundancies in industry, and may be forced to take a far more radical stance because of the anger of the membership.

Socialists do not necessarily always support the ‘most left’ candidate in union elections. What has to be taken into account are the forces and organisations behind the candidates, and what the consequences of their campaigns would be. In this election, Jerry Hicks, while more radical on economic programme than McCluskey, is not prepared either to break with New Labour, the issue which has boosted support for left candidates in unions like Unison. Nor is he prepared to build either a left organisation or a ‘left opposition’ in the UL. This will not strengthen the left.

Socialist Party members in Unite will support McCluskey but put forward a programme we feel he should be fighting on. This will include demands for a shorter working week, better pay, including a living minimum wage, repeal of the anti-trade union laws and support for genuine nationalisation. Support for McCluskey is contingent on there being no accommodation with right-wing groups in the union in an attempt to gain votes, and no attempts to sell a bad deal to members in a dispute, particularly the current British Airways cabin crew battle. If any such scenario occurred, it would be correct for socialists to review their position.

Unite, with well over a million members, has potentially tremendous industrial strength. The members deserve leaders who are prepared to struggle with them to defend their conditions and rights. Socialist Party members will help develop that leadership to show a way forward, linking up with socialists in other unions, like the RMT and PCS, which have made decisive steps in transforming their unions into fighting organisations.

Kevin Parslow


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