The battle for Unite

While not formally triggered, an election contest is under way for the leadership of Unite, the pivotal trade union in Britain both industrially and politically. ROB WILLIAMS examines the key issues at stake.

Over the next 18 months, and perhaps sooner, the three biggest unions in Britain – Unite, Unison and GMB – will have elected new general secretaries. Being the largest affiliates to the Labour Party, these elections will have particular significance for Sir Keir Starmer as he looks to consolidate his leadership victory over Corbynism. As it desperately looks to navigate out of the Covid crisis, the capitalist establishment is closely monitoring these events. In particular, it will be assessing whether Len McCluskey’s successor as the general secretary of Unite is capable of maintaining the union’s challenge to the Blairites in Labour. As the BBC’s Iain Watson said, “The result of that contest will determine whether the union works closely with Sir Keir Starmer’s leadership, or is willing to be openly critical”. (19 August)

If Len McCluskey goes the full term, the Unite election will be in early 2022, but there is speculation that it could be called earlier so in reality we are already in a pre-election period. The three candidates who have declared at this stage are assistant general secretaries Steve Turner and Howard Beckett, and the executive officer in charge of organising, Sharon Graham. It is possible that an open right-wing candidate could enter the race. But, according to Iain Watson, “there was a sigh of relief amongst many Starmer supporters” when Turner won the nomination of the union’s United Left group in mid-July.

What is the industrial and political programme needed for Unite and the whole trade union movement in this time of Covid, when workers are fighting literally for their lives and livelihoods?

Len McCluskey became the first elected leader of Unite in 2010 after it was established following the merger of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (T&G) and the Amicus union in 2007. His time in office has been in the most crisis-ridden period of capitalism since the second world war, following the great recession of 2008 and the subsequent austerity of the last decade.

However, even taking into account the Tory election victory of last December, the pre-pandemic period seems like a halcyon era compared to the prospect facing the working class now. As we move into the autumn, redundancies and even closures are multiplying as are the number of employers looking to seize what they see as an opportunity to viciously ‘fire and re-hire’ workers on worse pay and terms and conditions.

Len McCluskey’s legacy

The Socialist Party has worked with Len McCluskey and others in United Left (UL), the main broad left in Unite, and supported him in the three elections that he contested and won: in 2010, 2013 and 2017.

The UL has maintained a clear majority on the union’s Executive Council (EC) in this time. We have had a minority position in UL, and have had a number of differences with the UL leadership and with Len, but have been able to have a certain impact in UL and the wider union. Socialist Party members have stood on the UL slate during this period. In particular, Suzanne Muna was elected from this slate onto the EC in 2015 and, despite being the only Socialist Party member on the executive, with a clear programme and a tenacious approach was able to have a very important impact during her five years in office.

On the vital issues facing Unite over the last decade, Socialist Party members have been able to play a key role. We intervened in UL as the Tory cuts offensive was first rolled out, to criticise when, unfortunately, on the mammoth TUC March 2011 anti-cuts demonstration, Unite stewards’ bibs displayed the slogan borrowed from Ed Miliband, ‘Too Far, Too Fast’.  Rightly, this was corrected.

At the 2016 Unite policy conference, a resolution moved by a Socialist Party member was passed committing the union to call for mandatory re-selection of Labour MPs, in order to consolidate the Corbyn victory over the Blairites.

We have also played the crucial role in fighting for the union to demand that Labour councils refuse to pass on Tory austerity and set no-cuts budgets. This took on particular importance when a number of councillors who were Unite members were disciplined for voting against cuts. Many of these gravitated towards the Socialist Party and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). In particular, this issue came to a crunch in Unite in 2017 in the Birmingham bins dispute against the attacks from the right-wing Labour council. Assistant general secretary Howard Beckett was acting regional secretary in the West Midlands at the time and correctly attacked the cutting Labour councillors at the TUC and Labour Party conferences.

Under Len McCluskey’s leadership, Unite has broadly had a far more fighting standpoint. In his recent book, Why You Should Be A Trade Unionist, reviewed by Peter Taaffe in the March edition of Socialism Today (No.236), Len estimates that in the last three years alone, the union has had more than 1,000 industrial action ballots. In his time as general secretary, Unite has refused to issue repudiation letters when employers claim that Unite members have taken unofficial action. This issue was first raised through a motion moved by a Socialist Party member in the T&G section conference of Unite in 2007 before the full merger but was defeated at that stage.

This more fighting stance has been replicated on the political plane, notwithstanding the differences we have had with Len over the union’s political strategy. Prior to the election of Jeremy Corbyn, we argued that Unite should disaffiliate from Labour and lead the struggle for a new workers’ party. The audience for this call increased, particularly after Ed Miliband went on the offensive in 2013 against Unite and Len McCluskey personally, when the union implemented its longstanding strategy of seeking to campaign to select a left-wing parliamentary candidate in Falkirk in Central Scotland. But when Karie Murphy, who would later have a senior role in Corbyn’s office, was on course to be selected by Labour members in the constituency to replace the disgraced ex-Labour MP Eric Joyce, Miliband undemocratically halted the selection process. Worse still, he called in the police! This led to both Unite convenors, including Labour activist Stevie Deans, being sacked by INEOS at the nearby Grangemouth refinery, helping trigger the vicious dispute there.

Despite this, McCluskey mistakenly went along with Miliband’s subsequent move to dilute the influence of the unions in Labour through the ‘Collins Review’. He since claimed that this opened the door to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership election victory in 2015 because it allowed ‘registered supporters’ to vote as well as existing Labour party members (the majority of which did not vote for Corbyn in 2015). But Corbyn’s victory was an accident of history, only getting on the ballot paper because a few Blairite MPs – believing that he had no chance of victory (as Corbyn himself also believed) – ‘lent’ him their vote to head off any possible split away from the party if there had been no left-wing candidate in the election. Actually, there was an element of this in Unite itself, when Suzanne Muna at the EC called on Unite to support Corbyn and the union leadership realised that if they didn’t, and Corbyn didn’t get on the ballot paper, there would have been support among many members for the union to disaffiliate.

But during Corbyn’s election campaign and particularly in office, Unite was the major supporting Labour-affiliated union. It played a decisive role in defeating the attempted Blairite coup in 2016, ensuring that they couldn’t keep him off the ballot paper. It was a mistake, however, for the union not to mobilise to win mandatory re-selection of Labour MPs, indicative of the failure of the left to sufficiently take on the Blairites which opened the door to the victory of Starmer.

However, despite the differences we have had with Len’s approach, we have supported those measures that took on the Labour right, and stiffened Corbyn and John McDonnell and prevented further retreats. But Starmer’s victory has opened up a new stage and raises new questions about Unite’s political strategy.

An industrial and political fightback

We support the recent call by Len McCluskey for a “major gathering” in the autumn to resist Starmer. This was made after the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey from the shadow cabinet and the Labour leadership paying out settlements to eight people who had contributed to a scurrilous anti-Corbyn BBC Panorama documentary last year on antisemitism. Similar public opposition has been made by Howard Beckett.

We believe that such an event should be open to all those who oppose Starmer and the move to the right, in order to hammer out what is needed in terms of working-class political representation. Starmer’s victory represents a decisive defeat for the Corbyn left in Labour. But it would be a serious mistake to draw any conclusion that the union somehow needs to move in a non-political direction. It is crucial that the union maintains its position of giving a political lead.

Actually, Corbyn’s defeat raises the need for a discussion on political representation for the working-class, including a new party. There will undoubtedly be efforts made to resist Starmer’s pro-capitalist policies, including parliamentary rebellions by the 30 or so-strong Campaign Group of Labour MPs. Amongst Labour’s 7,000 councillors there will be some who will no longer accept an unending agenda of cuts, and Unite, like all trade unions, should support them in doing so. But Starmer and the Blairites now control all the key levels of the party and are determined to consolidate their victory over Corbynism. This then poses the need for Unite not to be politically constricted by its affiliation with Labour and, when it is blocked from defending workers’ interests within Starmer’s Labour Party, taking its own independent stance. This should include, for example, standing its own candidates, or supporting anti-cuts candidates, when faced with Labour candidates implementing Tory policies.

A political strategy for the union has to be tied together with what is needed industrially in the hurricane of redundancies and closures. Our starting point is that workers must not pay the price for this crisis but it won’t be Starmer’s. If Unite fights for every job, they will inevitably find themselves in collision with the Labour leadership, particularly in Labour councils. Already, it has been reported that Unite had to fight might and main even to get Starmer to verbally support their demand that British Airways’ flight slots should be taken away from them if management’s brutal attack on their workers wasn’t halted.

The campaign in BA must be backed by the most militant action possible. Unite is preparing for a strike ballot. Ballots will be needed in other companies in order to send a signal to the bosses and to give confidence to members that the union will fight. The employers feel the balance of forces is on their side and there are union leaders who will argue for partnership. But struggle in these conditions is not impossible, as the cynics and pessimists will say; it’s just that it must be at a far higher level. Such an approach nailed into the banner of the union is the start to prepare members for this new period.

This will mean, in addition to strikes, raising the idea of occupying workplaces. And in turn, this will pose the question of taking companies who threaten closure into public ownership to save jobs and defend communities. Unite has launched a powerful #BABetrayal leverage effort which, as in all these campaigns, is most effective when it is the supplement to the most powerful weapon at hand, industrial action. A mass meeting of Unite members at Heathrow which sanctioned a strike ballot appears to have forced BA back to the negotiating table. It has been a major weakness, however, that the union has so far not publicly called for BA to be re-nationalised.

A period of high stakes

The struggle that has opened up in Unite is part of a series of crises across the unions. They are all a reflection of the brutal industrial and political terrain that is now confronting the unions. Actually, we are merely at the beginning, with the economic effects of the pandemic not being fully felt yet. But even at this stage, it is clear that the ‘normal’ methods are not sufficient for workers to maintain their jobs and living standards. 

This was already posed in the last decade or so after the great recession and the subsequent Tory austerity offensive. Unite, along with left unions such as the PCS, which then had Socialist Party members in leading positions, did stand out against the sell-out by the right-wing leaders of the TUC, Unison and the GMB, but weren’t able to prevent it. The leaders were not able to face up to this full-frontal assault by the Tories and the generalised response that would have been necessary to defeat them.

The N30 public sector pensions’ strike of November 2011 was in effect a public sector general strike, and the big and vibrant demonstrations in virtually every town and city showed its mass character. If it had been continued and escalated the Tories could have been pushed back. However, its stalling after one day of action only emboldened Cameron and Osborne to roll out their cuts offensive. Unfortunately, even when the party was led by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, Labour councils acted as agents of the government, meekly in some cases, brutally in others, but all passing on the Tories’ austerity.

Similarly, in the Grangemouth oil refinery dispute in 2013, Unite was not prepared for the vicious methods of the Ineos management and the scale of action that was needed. It was not the case that the union or the workforce weren’t willing to fight. The workers had inflicted a major defeat on management’s plans to worsen the pension scheme five years earlier in 2008. When the company returned to the fray in 2013, Unite did call strikes and backed this up with a leverage campaign. But when the billionaire owner Jim Ratcliffe moved to put the site into ‘cold shutdown’, threatening its future, the confidence hadn’t been instilled into union members that it was possible to win.

What was necessary was to appreciate that the highest stakes were in play and only the most militant industrial and political action could have forced a retreat. This would have required a strategy that raised occupying at least part of the site, appealing for solidarity and calling a mass demonstration in Glasgow or Edinburgh to put direct pressure on the Scottish National Party government in Holyrood to intervene and nationalise the plant. In short, it would have meant revisiting the lessons of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders struggle of the early 1970s, when what was effectively a working occupation mobilised a demonstration in Glasgow of 80,000 workers, forcing Edward Heath’s Tory government to intervene.

This level of action must be popularised within Unite as it faces up to what could be a storm of redundancies. To do this means facing down those in the union who will argue for partnership with the employer or a ‘central role’ for the unions in a proposed ‘national recovery council’, mooted in Unite in the main by Steve Turner, and the TUC. A national council with full powers over the economy and the decisive voice for the trade unions and the wider working class as a whole is one thing, but a ‘recovery council’ dominated by big business and the Tory government is something else. Effectively, it is a recipe for ‘concession bargaining’ – negotiating away hard-won terms and conditions in the hope of maintaining some jobs. The de-industrialisation of the last thirty years or so has shown that this is a failed strategy. No-one would argue against bargaining with employers, that is an everyday norm for unions at all levels. But in a period such as this, it is necessary to spell out the reality, as brutal as it is, to arm the shop stewards and members.

Alternatively, to blur the class realities, creating the impression that there is a joint interest with the employers and even the Tory government, risks sowing illusions and demoralising activists. Union reps and members at British Airways already know that there is no such thing as partnership with some benevolent employer. BA bosses have ruthlessly sacked 12,000 workers and want to impose vicious attacks on workers’ contracts. 

The challenge of Covid

After N30, many of the union leaders subsequently came to see the election of a government led by Jeremy Corbyn as their ‘knight in shining armour’. But his defeat last December, now accompanied by the Covid-19 pandemic, has seen many of them wanting to shrink from the fight. This was shown initially by union leaders succumbing to the ‘national unity’ mood as lockdown was imposed by shutting down disputes and in many cases their union’s independent activity. However, on the ground and on the shop floor, union members, including in Unite, were forced into action, mainly unofficial, to make their workplaces safe. In some cases this meant demanding proper personal protective equipment (PPE), in others, shutting down what was deemed to be unsafe offices and factories.

The union leaders are far more susceptible to the pressure of their members, who they directly rest on, than Starmer or the TUC, who are more closeted. But given their defeatist starting point, at best they will zigzag between the competing forces of the government and the employers and the shopfloor. The second Covid wave has been accompanied by another bend towards national unity, with the TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady almost literally ‘arm in arm’ with the Tories and the CBI on the steps of 11 Downing Street. A serious programme is needed to arm Unite activists to fight this trajectory.

Actually, as the pandemic has shown, there is big potential for unions like Unite to attract workers, providing a fighting lead is given. The relevance of the unions has been shown all too clearly, when workers’ safety and jobs are on the line. Even within crisis-ridden capitalism, there are whole sectors ripe for a serious campaign to build the union. While high street retailers have been devastated, there has been an exponential growth in logistics and warehousing, often dominated by young workers.

Also, Covid has shown that there can be a ‘sectorisation’ of workers with different levels of confidence and consciousness to fight. Some workers, in manufacturing for instance, where redundancies are rife, can be shocked into temporary submission but in the NHS, where workers have seen their power and importance, there has been a mood to fight. Unfortunately, the unions have been slow to act but this fighting mood has been shown by protests organised by rank-and-file health workers. Unite, like the other unions, must give a lead to this and other struggles, and fight for co-ordinated strike action, as happened in the NHS in Northern Ireland before Christmas. The pay protests have had an effect with health unions putting in stronger pay claims, and Unite alongside the Northern Ireland Public Sector Alliance union (NIPSA) tabling the 15% demanded by protestors. But in all sectors, Unite can build if it gives a lead on a fighting industrial and political programme. This is what is at stake in the forthcoming general secretary election.

Renewing the left

Socialist Party members took part in the United Left hustings in July to elect its candidate for general secretary. This was despite us arguing that a vote was utterly premature, with the election not even having been announced. What was required on the left in the union was a wide debate, in many hustings and not exclusive to UL, where the programmes of all prospective left candidates, including Sharon Graham, could be examined and discussed.

This is still our position, despite the UL voting to select Steve Turner over fellow assistant general secretary Howard Beckett by a mere three votes out of the 737 that were cast. Howard Beckett immediately and credibly challenged the validity of this result but the UL leadership has stood by it, pushing ahead with Steve Turner’s candidacy, clearly with the strategy of establishing ‘facts on the ground’ that he is the left candidate.

However, we do not believe that Steve Turner presented a left-wing programme in the UL hustings. Howard Beckett correctly argued that Len McCluskey’s approach of challenging the Labour right should continue under Starmer: “We must hold his feet to the fire. Starmer cannot take our union and our finances for granted”.

But in response, Steve Turner made it clear that he was totally opposed to this combative approach, saying that a general secretary “isn’t an attack dog but a deal-maker behind the scenes”. This would take the union back to the days of Bill Morris in the T&G, who accommodated himself to the New Labour reign of Blair and Gordon Brown. The starting point would be putting Unite’s relationship with a Starmer Labour Party first. But what would this mean for busworkers, for example, should Blairite London Mayor Sadiq Khan roll out Tory cuts as a consequence of the developing Transport for London budget crisis?

Unite are currently involved in a joint campaign with the RMT and the other transport unions against potential transport cuts in London. But this approach would pose them pulling their punches in order not to embarrass Khan in the run up to the mayoral election next year. We support the RMT’s call for a united campaign that puts transport workers’ jobs and conditions first, raising the need for co-ordinated strike action if necessary. Similarly, what signal would this send to council workers as they face local authorities’ attempts to meet a possible funding gap of £10 billion in next year’s budgets, on top of the cuts offensive of the last decade? Unite is correctly exposing the vicious ‘fire and rehire’ methods of the likes of BA but council workers in Tower Hamlets have been on strike this summer because the Labour council have been employing the same measures.

The United Left election process raises serious doubts about whether it is still capable of playing the necessary role on the left in the union. When Unite was formed and the broad lefts of the predecessor unions merged, we said that the UL could either become a campaigning organisation in the new union, or a rightward-moving electoral machine. Increasingly it has become the latter, and with diminishing returns. For the second successive EC elections, the UL has lost ground. This year, its share was reduced by eleven seats, although still retaining a majority, and without there seemingly being a right slate against it. And not all the seats were lost to the right: construction sector militants Frank Morris and Tony Seaman were re-elected after being ejected from the UL slate, while Helen McFarlane won a seat in Scotland after being suspended from the UL’s leading body and then running independently. The decline of UL has also been reflected in Len McCluskey’s re-election votes. In 2017, Blairite candidate Gerard Coyne was only defeated by 5,523 votes after McCluskey’s vote crashed from 144,570 in 2013 to 59,067.

Partly due to the trajectory of United Left but also the industrial action and leverage campaigns that she has headed up, Sharon Graham is being seen by many militant reps as a fighting candidate of the left. She must marry her industrial strategy with a left political vision that takes on Starmer and the cutting Labour councillors.

The Socialist Party has historically worked with others in union broad lefts, where possible, to bring together activists on a left fighting programme that can take on right-wing leaderships and transform unions into fighting workers’ organisations. This is not only necessary in taking over the leadership but also afterwards to retain its independence in order to act as a constant check and lever to maintain such unions as left ones.

But nothing is automatic. Even broad lefts with a more fighting history than the United Left can be pushed back, if they can’t face up to new periods and do not attract new fighting elements. This has been the case in the PCS civil servants’ union in the last three years: our struggle with the leadership group around Mark Serwotka was rooted in this complex period and was in reality an anticipation of the series of crises now opening up in many of the unions.  However, that battle has seen a re-constitution on the left in PCS, with a new layer of militants, through the experience of that political struggle, being drawn to the Broad Left Network in which Socialist Party members play a key role.

Similarly, in Unite now, there is the potential through the general secretary election for rank-and-file members and left officers to forge a new left. We believe it will be necessary for such a left organisation to have a strong Marxist current present, with a political and industrial programme capable of facing up to this period.

It will also need to include moves to further democratise the union, such as the extension of election of officers beyond just the general secretary now. We support the election of all union officers but as a minimum, the assistant general secretaries and vacant deputy general secretary positions should be elected along with national officers and regional secretaries. We call for the two-yearly policy conferences to be annual and delegates elected on a branch basis. The union elections, from shop stewards to the EC, should be brought back to every two years from the current three.

We therefore call for candidates who have decided to challenge the approach of Steve Turner and the United Left leadership to be able to put forward their programme and policies to be debated openly in front of the members. This is a vital part of hammering out the basis for both a general secretary challenge but also a new left that seeks to transform Unite into the fighting socialist union that is desperately needed.

A socialist programme for Unite

• No return to partnership with the bosses – maintain the position of not repudiating unofficial action.

• Workers must not pay the price for Covid. Fight for our lives and livelihoods – for workers’ control over workplace safety.

• Fight to prevent workplace closures and redundancies – including union inspection of company accounts. Let’s see where the profits have gone.

• Nationalise, under democratic workers’ control and management, company plants threatened with closures and widespread redundancies. Integrate these into a socialist plan of production.

• Unite must take the lead in fighting for coordinated action against the Tories, their cuts and anti-union laws, including the government’s planned new legislation targeted at rail and transport unions.

• Use the union’s industrial strength to build links and solidarity between its different industrial sectors.

• Democratise the union – extend the election of officers from just the general secretary, beginning with assistant general secretaries, national industrial sector and equality officers and regional secretaries.

• For an annual policy conference on a branch delegation basis; biennial elections throughout the union from shop stewards to the Executive Council.

• The election of full-time union officials. Union officials to receive a wage no higher than the average workers’ wage.

• Unite should support council candidates inside or outside Labour who commit to refuse to pass on Tory cuts, and urge Unite members in councils to move no-cuts budgets in Labour-run authorities.

• No to Starmer’s revival of New Labour – fight for a mass political vehicle for workers with a socialist programme.