The election few of us want

The Amicus section of Unite is now plunged into a General Secretary election that most activists regard as unnecessary and downright damaging.

Our members are facing the consequences of deep economic recession. This union should be fighting for jobs, and fighting on pay and pensions. So what are we doing? Spending at least six months worrying about whether one of our Joint General Secretaries stays in office until 2009 or 2010. This is just plain daft.

The background to all this is complex, and is worth a brief summary. Part of the arrangements for merging Amicus and TGWU were that Derek Simpson would stay on an extra year, standing down in December 2010. Back in May this year, this was challenged by Jerry Hicks, a former Amicus National Executive Council member. Jerry made a complaint to the Certification Officer that this was illegal. At the same time, he announced himself as candidate for General Secretary.

In October the Executive Council of Unite agreed rule changes that would allow an election for General Secretary of the Amicus section. This could only be done by delaying implementation of the new rule book, and therefore delaying the integration of the two sections of the union. Derek Simpson’s intention was that this would under-cut Jerry Hicks’ legal challenge. There is, of course, now a risk of further legal challenges around whether or not the Executive could do this.

I argued strongly against this, although this was a minority position. My view was – and is – that our priority must be building a strong united union that backs our members. Let’s challenge redundancies and pay cuts and repossesions of our members’ homes – that’s a lot more relevant than a completely unnecessary election. Building a strong union means getting on with merging the TGWU and Amicus sections, so our members can work together and support one another. I’m also appalled by the suggestions that the TGWU might be so sick and tired of all the shenanigans that they walk away from the merger altogether. This would be extraordinarily damaging to our own union and to the union movement as a whole.

So where are we now?

At this stage, we’re on course for an election whether we want one or not. I don’t! However, the task for union activists now has to be working hard to get a decent candidate elected.

I’ll be backing Laurence Faircloth, the left candidate in this election. Laurence was the only candidate to attend the left’s selection meeting held in Preston last week, and he was endorsed by the meeting. He talked about his support for lay control in the union; support for an end to our current practice of handing over millions of pounds to Labour and getting nothing back; support for an organising model of trade unionism but with priorities set by lay members; support for strong equalities work within our union and so on. Quite rightly, Laurence wants to move as quickly as can to a fully merged union, as that’s the only route to a strong union that can deliver for members.

There are, of course, other candidates.

We have Derek Simpson, elected as a left General Secretary back in 2003. Derek has moved a long way away from his origins. Derek’s approach has been characterised by a systematic attack on lay control and democracy in the union, by hostility to the left, by a strongly expressed view that organising is a waste of time, strikes and demonstrations are out of date, and that running a union is about managing decline. Derek set up a new centre right group in the union a few weeks ago, in clear opposition to Unity Gazette (the organised left group in Amicus).  There are many reports of Derek and his supporters obstructing the merger, and attacking the T&G. It’s Derek’s personal ambition that’s causing this unnecessary election. He does members a disservice.

I think one of the other candidates is doing members a disservice. Jerry Hicks has triggered this unwanted and unnecessary election through his legal challenge. He acted alone, without reference to the left in the union. He announced he was standing for General Secretary – again, acting alone, and without reference to the left. He chose not to attend the selection meeting for the left candidate, so he presumably doesn’t regard himself as being bound by the collective decision of the meeting. Jerry used to be a good trade unionist, and was savagely victimised by his employer back in 2005. Since then, though, Jerry’s played no part at all in the union at any level. It’s a bit of a mystery why Jerry has suddenly decided he wants to be General Secretary – but I firmly believe that being on the left is about seeking to build collective organisation, not playing your own individual games. Sadly, I think Jerry’s forgotten that.

A fourth candidate is Kevin Coyne, former National Officer for Health and now Regional Secretary of the North West. Kevin Coyne was a leading figure in ‘ MSF for Labour’ – a right wing group within the old MSF union that seemed to believe that slavish support for Blair’s Labour Party was a priority for trade unionists. Subsequently Kevin Coyne was a founder member of ‘ATU Network’ widely seen as an attempt to unite Blairites in Amicus. Does this union need more support for the right-wing of the Labour Party? Like we need a hole in the head!

Laurence Faircloth is the only credible candidate for those of us who want to build the left in the union, and those of us who are committed to building a fighting, campaigning union that backs its members.

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