Last week my evenings were kept busy with Unite meetings.
On Wednesday, Derek Simpson, Joint General Secretary of Unite, addressed union activists from the London region. On Thursday, I was on the platform for the first open meeting of the joint left, from the TGWU and Amicus sections, in the new union. There was a real contrast between the two meetings.
The first meeting was, using a euphemism, characterised by a ‘frank exchange of views’. Derek presented his perspective for the union. A fair number of the 120 Unite activists there disagreed with Derek’s analysis – and weren’t afraid to let him know.
Derek argued that we could not go back to ‘old fashioned’ trade unionism. He said that solid organisation in the workplace was insufficient to stop the bosses doing what they wanted – particularly relocating to low wage economies. He said that most disputes went down to defeat. Even with the Union’s organising agenda, he expected membership to continue to decline. Not the most inspiring analysis, maybe!
Part of the way forward was ‘global unionism’ – though Derek did not spell out what a global union should do.
The other side of Derek’s perspective was our relationship with the Labour Government – and it was probably this that exacerbated the real discontent amongst the activists in the meeting.
Derek was clear that the Government had betrayed its supporters in the trade union movement. Brown listened to the CBI but not to us. We still have Thatcher’s anti-union laws on the statute book after 11 years of a Labour Government – and Brown has pledged that he won’t change them. Derek argued that the Tories would win the next election unless Brown changed course. No one disagreed with that part of the analysis.
The problem arose when Derek described what we should do about it. He argued that we should all join the Labour Party to influence its policies. I think it’s pretty unlikely that many of our members will want to join the Labour Party. Amongst NHS workers, Labour Party members are few and far between. Why join a party that’s cutting our pay, threatening us with redundancy, and privatising the services we deliver?
Derek added, though, that the problem wasn’t Labour policy, but the failure of the Government to implement Labour policy. It’s hard, then, to see how joining the Labour Party in order to change its policy will do any good. It’s also a bit bewildering that the leaders of the ‘Big 4′ unions agreed last year to scrap contemporary motions at Labour’s conference – doing away with an important opportunity to highlight the Government’s policy failings so as not to embarrass Gordon Brown.
Most of the anger expressed in last week’s meeting, though, was around Unite’s funding of the Labour Party. Labour could no longer survive without Unite. Labour has lost most of its individual and corporate donors, and is now funded primarily by trade unions – with Unite being the biggest donor. Unite members give the Labour Party millions of pounds every year.
Unsurprisingly, activists at the meeting asked what we are getting for our money – and wanted us to put conditions on our continued funding. I find it downright peculiar that we oppose the Labour Government dismantling the NHS, while simultaneously handing over the cheques that allow them to carry on doing precisely that. Derek’s view was that it would be ‘unprincipled’ for us to attach strings to our funding. It was clear in the meeting that many union activists would have no problem at all going to Brown with a package of demands – stop the privatisation of the NHS, repeal the anti-union laws, build more council housing and so on. Let’s make our funding conditional on getting some real results.
How many of us kid ourselves that Warwick I has been a triumphant success for trade unionists? The promises haven’t been delivered. Now we’re seeing the same strategy all over again. Warwick II won’t deliver real gains unless unions are willing to stand up to Labour.
Derek’s analysis just didn’t fit with the excitement and enthusiasm of many London activists. Unite members have been universally excited about our Union’s victory with the Shell drivers, but that was almost missing from Derek’s presentation. A construction sector activist talked about how unofficial industrial action had won many of the gains in that sector. In London we are in the middle of a pay campaign that seeks to unite the bus drivers from all the privatised bus operators in a common fight for better pay and conditions. There were local government strikers in the room buoyed up by their demonstration and rally earlier in the day. Argos workers were also represented – about to go on strike the following morning at 6 am in a dispute over pay.
Activists want a Union that fights for us. That sense of a fighting union was pretty much missing from the perspective presented to us at the meeting. The meeting finished in some uproar, with Derek being challenged to a debate on the issues.
The first meeting of ‘Left United’ the following evening was a much calmer meeting – and also a much more positive one. I was on the platform with Tony Woodhouse, the Chair of the Unite Executive Council, and Len McCluskey, an Assistant General Secretary. There were good numbers from both the Amicus and TGWU sections.
What united us was a belief that the Union can move forward. Speakers said the Shell dispute showed what could be done. A Unite local government striker talked about GMB members, not officially on strike, refusing to cross picket lines earlier in the day. The possibilities of rebuilding our movement are so clearly there at the moment.
I started my speech with a description of what it can feel like as a workplace rep. We’ve been battered by employers, and left with endless queues of members needing representation. I sometimes feel I’m more of a lawyer than a trade union activist. For many of us, the heart of trade unionism, people fighting together as a collective, has been absent from our work far too often. Things have begun to shift, though. We’ve seen important victories – Shell and Grangemouth. We’re seeing public sector workers starting to stand up for themselves. There’s a sense of a change in the mood.
Many trade union members have lost confidence, but now we have a real opportunity to rebuild. One example: the BNP talks about migrant workers taking ‘our’ jobs and driving down wages. Often our opposition has taken on an almost moral tone – ‘it isn’t their fault’. Now we can point to an alternative that wins for all workers. The Argos strikes going on at the moment include Polish migrants, organised into the union, fighting for decent pay across the board. The BNP breeds on demoralisation. The union movement can now demonstrate a real alternative, based on our confidence and our collective organisation.
That’s the role of the left in our Union. It is not to replace the existing structures, but to campaign within them to rebuild confidence and organisation. That means spreading the word about our victories, to learn the lessons and ensure they are spread throughout the Union. We fight for a democratic Union with full lay control because it is our pay, our conditions, our lives, at stake – and ordinary members are best positioned to understand what they want from their Union. We fight for equalities – against racism, sexism, homophobia, discrimination against people with disabilities – because every division within our ranks only strengthens the hand of our employers. We fight for a Union that delivers for its members.
The joint left meeting last week was an excellent start. There’s a lot to do, though, in a union of two million members. There is room in the left for a lot more people…