Unite: Is the merger finally on track?

It’s an open secret that the merger between the Amicus and T&G sections of Unite has been in real trouble. Progress towards integration has been painfully slow. Over the last few months, there have been bizarre decisions such as the instruction to Amicus reps that they’re not allowed to attend T&G training courses, and restrictions on the allocation of Amicus Full Time Officers to support T&G members. Very serious allegations have been made, at senior levels of the union, that one section has been deliberately withholding information from the other in order to obstruct integration. I’ve heard a growing number of reports – again at very senior levels of the union – that the leadership of the T&G has considered ‘demerging’: simply walking away from the whole Unite project.

As we slide into a serious economic recession, it’s more important than ever that we have a strong, united union that can fight for jobs, pay and pensions. For Unite to be diverted into the infighting and power games that have been going on is simple nonsense. A ‘demerger’ would be genuinely catastrophic. If we were to end up in this situation, it would be hugely damaging to the confidence of our reps and activists – and I believe would very seriously damage our movement as a whole.

The Executive Council meeting last week I hope will have been very significant indeed in changing where we are with establishing Unite. I’m working on a more detailed report of a three day meeting – but as a lot of people have asked me what happened, it seemed worth pulling out a few of the more significant discussions.

The last few weeks have been characterised by escalating levels of tension between the Joint General Secretaries of Unite. Media reports have claimed that Derek Simpson, in a meeting of officers in Scotland, “chose to liken union organisers to SS troops and cheerleaders in ra-ra skirts.” Few activists would see this as helpful in building a united union. The organising agenda isn’t perfect – but it’s the single most important element we have in building a strong fighting union that can defend its members.

Reports also emerged before the Executive Council meeting of a meeting of the Finance and General Purposes Committee – an important sub-committee of the Executive. Derek Simpson (JGS from Amicus) had been at this, but Tony Woodley (JGS from the T&G) had not, as he was attending a funeral. Rather oddly, Derek Simpson recorded the meeting, and sent the recording to Tony Woodley. Verbal and written reports of the meeting indicate that it was dominated by a very lengthy contribution from Derek Simpson, in which he highlighted sharp disagreements over union finance, membership integration, the leadership of different departments in Unite, the implementation of a voluntary redundancy programme, and a number of other issues.

Correspondence shared with Executive Council members showed that sharp disagreements between the two Joint General Secretaries remained at the time our meeting took place. The United Left meeting that took place prior to Executive meetings confirmed this. A number of Executive Council members therefore went into the Executive meeting feeling it was ‘make or break’ time for Unite. Without some sort of resolution to stark disagreements between the General Secretaries of the union, it was hard to see any way forward.

The whole of the first day was dominated by sometimes sharp divisions on where we are and who is to blame. The debate on the minutes of the Finance and General Purposes Committee was a particularly sharp one. JGS Tony Woodley gave his own view on the lack of progress towards full integration of the two halves of the union. He said that demerger wasn’t an option, and history would never forgive us if we allowed Unite to disintegrate.

Tony Woodley felt that the delays and the ‘dilly dallying’ with merger were deliberate. His criticisms of the leadership of Amicus were fierce. He talked about an attitude of paranoia, people trying to gain advantage, and people being more interested in who was going to be next General Secretary than in building a merged union. He sharply criticised the management of finance in Amicus. He rebutted, in a great deal of detail, claims that had been made by Derek Simpson around finance, education, the deployment of officers, the integration of membership, and the deployment of officers and organisers on the Amicus side without regard for agreed procedures. He defended the organising agenda, and the real growth in membership and new shop stewards arising from this. A little later in the meeting, he expressed strong concerns at the treatment of an individual staff member on the Amicus side.

There was a good discussion by Executive Council members. The mood was overwhelmingly for the games playing to stop, and for real progress to be made with integrating the two sections of Unite. There were strong views expressed that we’ve got to have real and accurate membership and financial information to do our job. EC members made it clear that there’s an expectation now of real, concrete steps towards progress, with EC members taking on much more direct hands-on control if this doesn’t happen. Particularly sharp criticisms were made of inappropriate handling of finance on the Amicus side.

The Chair put to the meeting proposals that senior officials should share information and progress integration – and, importantly, that the Executive Council would be meet again on 18th December to evaluate progress – and to take control if adequate steps towards integration had not been taken. Derek Simpson was evidently unhappy with this, concerned that some Amicus members might not be at the meeting on 18th December, and looked for a commitment that the Executive Council would not take a vote or seek a ‘shoot out’ if insufficient progress had been made. This simply didn’t fit. The Executive Council voted overwhelmingly – on the Amicus and T&G sides – to progress merger, to meet again on 18th, and to evaluate progress at that meeting.

So where are we now?

This was, without question, a very important meeting. The people who want to progress merger won. The people who want to obstruct merger lost. There is an expectation now of progress. My view is that one General Secretary emerged from a bruising encounter with his authority quite substantially diminished. The prospects for building Unite – as a real union that organises in the workplace and fights for its members – look far better than they have done for some time. The Executive Council, for the first time in my experience on the Executive, made a serious assertion of our own rights as the representatives of lay members. There were real steps forward. This was a positive meeting. If the commitments made at the meeting are carried through, demerger is a good deal less likely – and this can only be good.

It isn’t all plain sailing of course. The games playing that’s gone on to date needs to stop – but we have no guarantees that it will. That’s one danger. The other danger is one of ‘tribalism’ – that the Executive meeting will be seen as a victory for the TGWU and a defeat for Amicus. That would be to the detriment of all our members, from both sections of the union. The real task facing us isn’t about one section of the union slogging it out against the other section – it’s about working together to transform Unite into the union that our members deserve. That means building our industrial strength. It also means having the political courage to challenge Brown’s Labour Government.

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