Speech delivered by Len McCluskey to Unite Policy Conference 11/07/2016
This is the third time I have had the honour of addressing a Unite policy conference as your general secretary.
And it must be around the twentieth time I have attended the conference of my union in one capacity or another.
I can never recall in all those years the supreme policy-making body of our union convening in such turbulent times, and with such a weight of responsibility upon its shoulders.
Our country is riven after the EU referendum. Our movement is divided – bitterly and unnecessarily. Jobs are in jeopardy, and long-established rights could be under threat. Millions of working people are looking for urgent answers to the crisis engulfing us. Our members and many besides are looking for a way forward.
It is out of no sense of misplaced vanity colleagues that I say that the judgement and the actions of Unite, the greatest and largest trade union across Britain and Ireland, will be decisive. There is no other organisation in our movement – and no other conference beyond this one – that has the capacity to give the lead the situation demands.
In part that is because of the breadth of our organisation across our economy and our counties, from the car factories and steel plants now under a shadow, our oil and gas industry being ravaged, to the threatened public service and finance sectors and much more besides.
But it is also in part because we are a strong, stable working-class organisation firm in its principles and practical in how we apply them. Those values are more vital than they have ever been. They are the star we have to guide us through this storm.
Of course, there will be different views here in this hall regarding the European Union referendum, and about the roots and the solution of the crisis in the Labour Party.
That is natural and normal. We are a diverse and democratic organisation. And I know that this conference will debate these issues in a disciplined and respectful way, without hysteria.
Following our procedures and abiding by the outcomes. An example that other parts of our movement would do well to follow.
So, sisters and brothers, I can’t deliver the speech that I would have made had we gathered just three weeks ago. I know you will forgive me if I don’t touch on every aspect of our union’s life, as I would normally do, under these circumstances.
I will however, hopefully remind you of enough that has been going on to underline just what a powerful instrument all of us have created in Unite, and to indicate our unique potential to secure an outcome to this crisis in the interests of working people.
But I want first to say a word about the post-referendum situation. We’ll be discussing the executive statement on the European Union and how we should respond to Brexit later in the week but it wouldn’t be right to let this conference begin without saying a couple of things.
First, we should pause to remember Jo Cox, brutally slain while serving her constituents. Jo is a martyr to the values of an open and tolerant democracy, values which are immeasurably stronger than the rancorous prejudices which killed her.
Second, we must condemn with all the force we can muster the disgusting upsurge of racist attacks on migrants and black Britons alike undertaken by racists emboldened by the referendum result.
The moral responsibility for these outrages rests squarely with those elements of the “Leave” campaign who chose to conduct their campaign from the sewer.
But let me say on behalf of this union: Unite stands shoulder-to-shoulder in unconditional solidarity with all workers, wherever they come from, now facing abuse and violence in our country. Together with our whole movement and all decent men and women we say –
no to the racists, yes to workers solidarity.
What we debate and agree this week matters for one reason only – the power of Unite.
We are an industrial organisation first of all, and one that has proven we can win for our members at work and in industrial campaigns.
That is the sole reason we have any wider political and social relevance.
Our union has shown time and again, that it will use every tool at its disposal to get justice for wronged workers, no matter how mighty the opponent, no matter how long it takes.
Five years ago Unite took on some of the biggest names in the construction industry to get justice for blacklisted construction workers. The likes of McAlpines and Balfour Beatty and another 30 firms were all part of a blacklisting conspiracy that saw hundreds of workers lose their jobs. Their lives ruined for carrying out legitimate trade union activities, sticking up for their workmates, fighting for proper safety on our building sites.
Unite ran a powerful industrial and political campaign against the blacklisters. And we also had the power to take them to the High Court where a five-year battle for justice ended in victory with £10million won for some 256 workers.
But the price of justice cannot merely be measured in pounds and pence. These workers can once again apply for jobs within the construction industry without fear of discrimination or victimisation, although be assured we will still need to be vigilant. A simple but profound act of justice won for workers.
That is the power of Unite, and let me here pay tribute to our AGS Gail Cartmail who has done a fantastic job on the industrial front, linking in to the brilliant work of our Legal Director Howard Beckett and proving how integral Legal is now to our industrial work;
And of course above all let me pay tribute to the hundreds of activists across the country who secured this great victory.
Another example: Two years ago this union began a campaign to save our NHS, an institution that binds together all members of our union (including the hundred thousand who work in it) and indeed our community as a whole.
Led by the organising team, they had a plan with one clear objective – to protect the NHS from the international trade treaty known as TTIP, which would permanently leave our health service at the mercy of private business.
I think it would be fair to say that before our Organising and Leverage Department got on the case few people knew what TTIP was or what it meant for our NHS. Two years on, hundreds of thousands are now enlightened.
We explained that TTIP would mean hospitals forced to hand over contracts to American private health care providers with any refusal to do so meaning the NHS could be taken to a secret court with almost unlimited fines.
Our NHS sold off bed by bed, doctor by doctor, nurse by nurse and hospital by hospital to private companies who view illness as a cash cow for shareholders. We fought – and we won. Thousands took part in campaign actions up and down the country. We made enough politicians pledge to stand up for the NHS to force a Tory Prime Minister – yes, a Tory Prime Minister – to back down or face a historic defeat in the Commons.
Working together with our MPs, a proposed amendment to the Queen’s Speech to exempt TTIP for the NHS was tabled. The government, faced with the strength of our argument and the passion of our campaign capitulated.
Now, thanks to your Union, our NHS will be protected from the sinister trade deal TTIP. Thanks to your union, and to Sharon Graham and her organisers no private company will sue any Labour Government that ends privatisation. Thank you, Sharon.
Sisters and brothers – helping save the NHS, that is the power of Unite.
One final example – for now: Unite last summer began a campaign to stop greedy multi-million pound companies creaming off the tips of their lowest paid workers. It was our members; waiters, kitchen porters and bar staff, who said something needed to be done to end this scandal.
So our communications team and our new private services sector started a summer of pressure against one of the worst offenders, Pizza Express, which stood accused of taking an 8% slice from credit card tips that customers left for staff.
Our campaign sparked a huge media blitz that gained local, regional national and international media coverage. It was supported by a social media campaign that made hundreds of thousands of the company’s customers aware of the nasty little scam.
After just a couple of weeks of our campaign, in the face of public outcry Pizza Express folded. So did Giraffe, Zizzi, Bella Italia, Belgo and Café Rouge. It even prompted the business secretary, Sajid Javid to act, which takes some doing, I can tell you. It was a campaign that showed the strength of our union with our Community members working side by side, supporting our industrial members in their fight for justice.
So know today, because of this union and the grit of our members, those working to deliver good service are getting a fairer slice of the money they make for their bosses.
Colleagues, let me also recognise at this point our London and Eastern Officer Dave Turnbull for the dedication he has shown over many many years organising in this the most difficult of sectors. One of the unsung heroes behind the scenes.
Workers getting a fair deal – that is the power of Unite.
All these examples show Unite at its best: Creative, smart and strategic campaigning. Human and financial resources able to get behind our members and their demands.
Exposing shameful business practices; Embarrassing bad bosses, taking on government policy. And above all, delivering for our members.
It is victories like these which have led the Tory government elected on such a slender
vote last year to introduce the petty and partisan Trade Union Bill.
They are not attacking us because we are weak, but because we are still too strong for their liking. There is a trend in Toryism which will never rest until free trade unionism is virtually destroyed in our country.
The Trade Union Bill pandered to these worst instincts. There was absolutely no public clamour for the Bill, which simply threw together the anti-union wish list of every adolescent Thatcherite on secondment to a right-wing think-tank.
Thanks to our effective lobbying and the TUC, and the good work of a number of Labour peers, some of the worst features of the Bill have been dropped. The attack on check-off in the public sector, and the threat to our right to campaign politically have been diluted at least. Modernised balloting methods to be examined.
But what remains is bad enough. Arbitrary ballot thresholds to make the right to strike still harder to exercise. Further picketing restrictions. New powers for regulators to interfere in union business. Agency workers to be used as strike-breakers.
However, be in no doubt that your union will not let this mean and miserable legislation obstruct our defence of members’ interests. Wherever possible we will find means to operate within these new restrictions, without reducing our support and services to our members.
And where that may not be possible, we will not allow this vindictive piece of class law to stop us defending our members. Under the guidance of the Executive we will not retreat from our principles.
We have shown over the last few years that we can find imaginative ways to put pressure on bad employers without entangling ourselves in strike laws. Indeed, so menacing do our Leverage campaigns seem to the employers that bosses of law firm Eversheds held a seminar for its blue-chip corporate clients on the problem recently.
It’s a shame that Eversheds didn’t invite me to take part. I could have given the assembled business leaders very simple advice as to how not avoid a Unite leverage campaign. It’s easy:
Pay our members decently, don’t tear up established agreements, don’t victimise trade unions, treat workers with respect. It’s not difficult. Just do those things and I can assure you that you will never see our Leverage team on the pavement outside your office, or inside your shareholders’ meeting.
Not all employers are so sensible of course. There are a number of contenders for the title of unacceptable face of capitalism today. Let me say a word about one of the favourites for that accolade:
Mike Ashley, boss of Sports Direct. Just a few weeks ago Mike Ashley made a confession to MPs at a business select committee hearing – a grilling he only had to face because of Unite’s relentless campaigning at his Shirebrook establishment. He told the MPs: “I’m not father Christmas. I’m not saying I’ll make the world a wonderful place”
I know several thousand of his workers who’d agree with him including: The hundreds of workers who have had to leave work in an ambulance, the woman who went into labour in one of his toilets cos she was scared to take time off, the thousands who were denied the minimum wage.
Yes, Mike Ashley your right, you’re no Father Christmas – you’re the Grinch who steals people’s wages, peoples dignity and people’s lives.
This year, the public focus on Mike Ashley and Sports Direct has been driven by Unite. From demonstrations to petitions, from banner drops in football stadiums, our own original research to popular news reports we have kept the spotlight on this 21st Century mill-owner. The result – Mike Ashley exposed before the court of public opinion. And now he’s talking to Unite, because his brand was turning toxic.
So I say to Mr Ashley come clean and do the right things – end these shameful work practices, stop treating your workers as industrial serfs and work with Unite to modernise your industrial relations.
And let me say here how proud I was of the way that our assistant general secretary Steve Turner and our officer Luke Primarolo gave evidence on behalf of the workers and Unite in the House of Commons – a masterclass in exposing the reality of exploitation and abuse in today’s workplace.
Shirebrook you know tells another story too. Denis Skinner reminded us that when there was a colliery on the site where Sports Direct’s operation now sits, there were hundreds of foreign-born miners among those digging the coal. Yet there was no tension – because they were all getting the rate for the job, all covered by the same agreement, all in the same union.
No undercutting. Proper regulation. An environment where, despite the dangers and difficult conditions, the dignity of everyone’s labour was upheld.
It would be an over-simplification to say that the anti-migrant hysteria whipped up by the right could simply be tackled by better conditions at work. But I do say that stronger trade unionism is not just good for people at work, it is a gain for society as a whole.
So this year we have reaffirmed our primary purpose with the Work Voice Pay campaign – sharpening our collective focus on the workplace with a broad industrial strategy for Unite as a whole, more than the sum of our industrial parts.
We are setting our industrial expectations, our minimum standards. A Unite culture of independent, fighting trade unionism: Secure work. A strong voice. And decent pay. We are developing practical tool-kits for shop stewards: From guides on campaigning around pay to templates for strong industrial agreements.
And now, for the first time the latest pay and anniversary data, available to our shop stewards.
You will be given further details of this later on this week, but our broad industrial strategy is the latest indication that Unite is always looking to improve and upgrade the support we give to you, our front-line fighters, for workplace justice. The most important people in our union.
Growing Unite, organising in new companies and sectors, making our workplaces 100% union strengthens your fight. No union in Europe devotes more resources to organising than Unite, and the results continue to be impressive. 100%, Unite is growing, moving forward. It has delivered.
Campaigns are being co-ordinated across industries to grow, over 7,000 new members in automotive alone, Industrial planning is critical. And we are going to take Unite organising into key sectors.
Our organisers are now focussing on energy and water.
Looking to grow our Union in sectors with real economic power – so that no employer will be able to hide from Britain and Ireland’s biggest union. The work of our organising department is not of course the only way Unite is growing. We have always made clear that we are keen on mergers which can add real industrial strength in the industries we organise in.
I mentioned earlier our successes in winning justice for our blacklisted members in construction, working alongside sister unions of course. One of the reasons the construction industry has long been rife with bad employment practices is that trade unionism has been divided.
That is why the vote by our colleagues in UCATT to seek to transfer into Unite is such an exciting and important development. It opens up the possibility that for the first time in British trade unionism’s long and eventful story, there will be ONE trade union on the building sites and construction yards.
Bringing UCATT together with our own construction sector will give far more power to the elbow of activists and organisers working in one of the most challenging industries in the country.
We can serve notice to employers in an industry that is perhaps no more than ten or fifteen per cent organised at the moment, that we now have the strength, the resources, and above all the unity to win for the workforce.
I am delighted that UCATT acting general secretary Brian Rye; Jerry Swain, regional secretary, and wives are here with us in Brighton today and I would ask colleagues to give them a warm welcome.
The servicing of our members is crucial and I want to record my thanks to the Unite Officers core who do what is a difficult job day in day out. We may not always get it right but I know that they are committed to our cause and objectives.
I hope very much that well before we next meet in conference, UCATT will have become part of the Unite family.
Let me now turn to the issue which I am sure is in many of your minds – the political crisis, particularly the extraordinary events in the Labour Party.
After the EU referendum, the Tory government was plunged into a deep crisis. Cameron going. Osborne eclipsed. Johnson knifed. Gove derailed. Just a year after being elected, a government rudderless and to blame for dispatching the country, via an unprepared referendum, into a pit of uncertainty. How ironic that a manoeuvre designed to overcome Tory divisions has ended up creating the mother of all splits.
What a chance for Labour to step forward and speak for the country. To offer itself as the strong opposition and government-in-waiting that millions are looking for in this situation. It was time for unity and a calm voice. Instead we have seen a cowardly attack launched against the Party’s elected leader which has deprived the country of ALL parliamentary opposition and let the Conservatives off scot-free in their moment of turmoil.
This is the responsibility of people who had never accepted Jeremy Corbyn’s victory last year – they never accepted his overwhelming democratic mandate.
I know that not all Unite members are of one mind about Jeremy Corbyn or about the political situation. It would be extraordinary if we were. Some may want us to stay out of the political arena altogether.
Some will have doubts about Labour, or about its leadership. But our union is guided by its rules and values, by this conference and by our Executive Council in how we intervene in politics. Not by Len McCluskey.
And the clear message – shared by tens of thousands in that extraordinary summer of 2015 – was to seize the chance of a new kind of politics, radical, engaging, and pro-trade unions that Jeremy offers.
Of course it has been a bumpy ride since. Mistakes have been made. But most of the attacks on Jeremy are deeply unfair, such as over the EU referendum where his position of remain-and-reform was very close to the centre of gravity of Labour voters, two-thirds of whom backed him.
But whatever doubts there may have been, surely the whole movement could agree that here was an opportunity after the referendum. To speak for Britain. To provide real opposition to a broken government. Instead, powerful interests saw it as a different opportunity – overturning a vote of just ten months ago by launching a squalid Westminster bubble coup.
Sisters and brothers, this was an attempted political lynching, designed to bully and bludgeon Jeremy Corbyn, this deeply decent and kind man, out of the job he was elected to do.
This is not just about Jeremy and his position. The coup has snowballed into a wrecking operation against the Labour Party itself, destroying it at least temporarily as a parliamentary force.
I know some of those who quit did so with a heavy heart, and some with a measure of dignity. But the instigators of this – we know who they are – will be branded forever with the mark of infamy for betraying their party and their country, for putting their selfish personal interests first when the times called for solidarity and statesmanship.
Let me ask Angela Eagle, who I regard as an old friend, but who resigned as shadow business secretary a question – did you give thirty seconds thought as to how this would help the workers at Tata, fighting for a future made still more uncertain by Brexit? And the oil and gas industry facing obliteration? Or have they been abandoned in their moment of need?
On the other hand, I have nothing but praise for those people who stayed in the Shadow Cabinet and those comrades who stepped forward, often unprepared, to fill the gaps in order to make sure that there was something like a functioning Labour frontbench able to hold the Tories to account. They are heroes of the movement and they too will not be forgotten.
Unite made its views clear from the start. We stood by Jeremy Corbyn and his anti-austerity message which is in line with our own union’s position. How could we not? Not only was he the democratically-elected leader of the party with an unprecedented mandate, here was a man who had always – ALWAYS – stood by us, stood on the picket lines, joined our campaigns, argued our case in parliament, advocated for workers’ rights.
He stood by us. What sort of people would we be, had we joined in the witch-hunt. Never mind that I could not have come to this conference, I could not have looked myself in the mirror, had this union done anything other than stand by Jeremy.
But I also recognise the traditional role of trade unions in the Labour Party to stabilise and find a way forward in a crisis. We have been here before more than once.
There also needs to be a reconciliation with the PLP. We must re-establish mutual respect and unity and address real concerns over campaigning, policy, image and the rest. That is what I was working for over the last week – to try and hold our Party together, as the trade unions have done so many times in the past when politicians have let us down.
It is regrettable that these efforts have been sabotaged. I will however continue to work with trade union colleagues and others to chart a way forward, including meeting the legitimate concerns of Labour MPs. Since there is now to be a leadership election, I must warn that any attempts to keep Jeremy Corbyn off the ballot paper risks a lasting division in the Party.
It is time for everyone to commit to a democratic and dignified procedure as the only way to avert such a disaster for working people.
There could yet be an early election. Whenever it comes it is an opportunity, not a threat as some see it – an opportunity to get rid of a hopeless, hapless, divided Tory Party which has led the country to disaster and then walked away, turned inwards on its own leadership row.
And for that Labour must unite, and speak both for those in its heartlands who, in despair, voted for Brexit as well as those millions deeply angry and fearful at the way the Tories have taken us out of the EU.
This union is up for the struggle, both to reunite Labour and take the fight to the Tories. In doing so we will be expressing the profoundest interests of all working people in our country.
Sisters and brothers, more than ever, we need our unity. Without your support, there is little I or your Executive Council can do to deal with the storms breaking around us. But when I look at the road travelled, I believe we can all be confident about the road ahead.
We have built an integrated, united union with a common culture and stable democratic procedures out of a mosaic of industrial traditions. We have done so in the teeth of political and economic headwinds which would have blown off course an organisation with shallower roots in our nation’s life.
We have reached out into the community as no union as done before, to bring those pushed onto the margins of society into our movement. We value and support the work of Unite Retired Members and of our youth structures.
Our fighting back culture is entrenched – for more than five years we have never once repudiated our members taking industrial action, and although 95% of our time is dealing with and solving problems, on those occasions where our members need to fight, we have established a strike fund which is currently £35million to give them support and show employers that our members won’t ever be starved back to work again. And it works – there are many in this hall who can testify to victory being achieved.
Our Organising and Leverage initiatives are studied closely by all our friends, and have alarmed our enemies. We are solvent, well-managed, able to deliver both front-line support and a range of other services to Unite members.
Our chair, Tony Woodhouse, often reminds me of the number of initiatives we have taken, which can take your breath away. And most of all, we are a union of principle. We do not throw words to the wind or indulge in pointless gestures or posturing.
We reach agreements where possible and fight for our members where necessary. We don’t dwell on dogma, but we don’t confuse right with wrong. We debate difference and we cherish unity. We stand proud in the British, Irish and international labour movement. And we do all this because of you, you here in this hall and thousands of our workplace representatives around the country.
We have much still to do my friends, and we will do it together. While we remain united. We will remain strong.