Last week was the first meeting of the newly elected Unite Executive Council. It lasted for two days, unlike the one day meetings I have been used to on the Amicus NEC. I have written a full report (Unite Executive Council Report, May 21-22, 2008) for circulation to the members I represent in the Health sector but I would just like to add a couple of comments.
It is always a challenge to bring together two organisations with very different traditions. Amicus was only in existence for four years so its traditions were quite thin – primarily derived from the very bureaucratic AEEU (and before that the EEPTU) rather than the more lay-led MSF, Unifi, and GPMU. The TGWU, however, had a rule book and structure that had lasted over 50 years. There was a new language to learn. TGWU colleagues were consistently talking about “remits” – that is any motion sent from one “constitutional committee” to another for action.
In spite of the challenges around the language, I was impressed by the level of participation of the TGWU members. Some were complaining that the two day meeting seemed “rushed”. They were used to holding the full-time leadership to account, with regular reports from each of the National Officers on their respective “trade groups”.
I hope this tradition continues. I do have concerns, though. Both of our Joint General Secretaries argued for limitations on the involvement of the lay members of the Executive. They both opposed Executive Council sub-committees that could provide a more detailed oversight of areas of the Union’s work. They both opposed National Officers being required to report to the EC. The challenge facing EC members is whether we have enough confidence to ensure that the full-time officials remain responsible to the EC rather than, as so often seemed the case on the Amicus NEC, the other way round.
The other thing that struck me was that much of the discussion seemed disconnected from what was happening in the world outside the County Hall Council Chamber. Charlie Whelan, who was Gordon Brown’s “spin doctor”, and now runs the political department of the Union, mentioned as an aside that Labour was bound to lose the Crewe and Nantwich by-election the following day. The question that was not really discussed was “Why?”
Unions now provide 90% of the funding of the Labour Party – with Unite by far the biggest contributor. We have a Government, though, that continually attacks our members. The below-inflation three year pay “offer” in the NHS is just one illustration of why Labour has lost so much support. We are told by the press, although it was not discussed at the EC, that there is to be a Warwick II at the end of July. Given that Warwick I, agreed between the Trade Union leaderships and the Government before the last election, remained largely a paper promise, what can we expect from Mark II? Very little, I suspect. Maybe another face saving job meant to help Brown win the next election.
We should be using Brown’s weakness to press home our demands on pay, privatisation, and employment law. Instead, we end up doing a deal on agency working that allows Brown to save face. It is no wonder that – as fewer and fewer of our members are prepared to join or remain in the Labour Party – our General Secretaries insist that the political work of the Union has to be exclusively under the control of indvidual Labour Party members. The rest of us might have a different view on how the political fund should be used. We are Britain’s largest trade union. We need to ensure we use that strength as an effective force for our members.