The ratio of Unite full-timers to Unite members is around one to 5,000. But at a meeting held in Glasgow last Saturday (27th August), falsely called under the name of the United Left Scotland (ULS), the ratio was around one to six.
The dozen or so full-timers who attended the meeting – supposedly convened to rebuild the ULS as a force which “campaigns for a democratic union controlled by the members” – represented a total annual pay packet of over half a million pounds of members’ dues.
There was nothing surprising about the turnout by full-timers, including several who had never had any involvement in the ULS: the same full-timers had played the leading role in encouraging selected Unite members in Scotland to attend the meeting.
In addition to the effort put in by full-timers, the meeting had been publicised by an e-mail dishonestly sent out in the name of the ULS.
The e-mail was sent from “firstname.lastname@example.org” (not the actual ULS e-mail address, but a close imitation). It was headed “United Left Scotland Meeting” and signed off as “United Left Scotland” (but without an individual’s name attached).
According to the e-mail: “It is important to say that we have a level of support for this intervention from friends within the National United Left Committee.”
Over a month later, not a single one of these “friends” has yet come forward. Nor have the organisers of the sham ‘ULS’ meeting yet been able to name a single “friend” on the UL National Co-ordinators Committee.
The e-mail claimed that “any left-leaning member of Unite” would be “very welcome” at the meeting. But this was just another lie. Whole swathes of the ULS membership, including all members of its elected Co-ordinators Committee, were not sent the e-mail.
The bogus ‘ULS’ e-mail about the bogus ‘ULS’ meeting was dishonest from beginning to end. It is inconceivable that the Unite full-timers who encouraged attendance at the meeting were unaware of the e-mail.
The meeting was a carefully choreographed affair, with a specially prepared ‘narrative’ of the ULS presented by different attendees for the benefit of those Unite members who had no previous involvement in the ULS.
More than a touch of surrealism was added to the affair by the yawning abyss between the criticisms voiced of the ULS and the actual track record of many of those voicing them.
The ULS, it was claimed, excluded people. It was riven by personality clashes. It was only concerned with winning positions on committees. There was a male-macho culture in its meetings. It failed to convene regular meetings. It failed to support Unite members in dispute. Its meetings did not discuss politics. Its meetings discussed abstract political theory.
True, the last two criticisms are contradictory. But what counted at last Saturday’s meeting was not consistency, and even less so honesty. All that counted was launching a barrage of criticism against the ULS in a sorry attempt to justify the staging of the sham ‘ULS’ meeting. Read the rest of this entry »
Above: the reality of Brexit … and ‘Lexit’
The following letter appears in today’s (July 20) edition of the Morning Star. We republish it here because (a) letters do not appear on the MS website; (b) it’s from an active and well-respected Unite member, and (c) it states some simple truths very bluntly. I might also add that as the MS is under the political direction of the Communist Party of Britain (CPB), and campaigned for a supposedly “left” exit vote in the referendum, it is to the paper’s credit that they’ve published such a stinging rebuke:
Brexit vote has encouraged racists
AS A delegate to Unite’s policy conference in Brighton, I was disappointed to find in the Communist Party’s conference bulletin no mention of the spike in racist attacks on migrant workers.
Many trade unionists actively campaigned against leaving the European Union because we knew the racists and right would use the referendum to whip up hostility to migrant workers. Exit from the EU has shifted politics to the right, not the left.
In my local shop a Romanian worker who has been in the country for many years is fearful for her children walking home from school and now sleeps with a bucket of water in her hall in case there is an arson attack in the night.
Many of the rights and protections gained by European trade unions through campaigning in the EU will be lost as directives relating to the workplace fall away.
This right wing government will move increasingly to a low-wage, low-corporation tax economy.
It is disappointing that the CPB is adopting a Little Englander approach and turning away from European solidarity. I struggled at times during the referendum campaign to separate the political positions of the CPB and Ukip
Chair, Lewisham Town Hall Branch LE/1183
Unite votes to stay a union: defence workers and McCluskey give ‘Marxists’ a lesson in Trade unionism
Johnny Lewis reports from Unite’s policy conference:
The first big debate of Unite’s conference concerned Trident: conference was confronted with a number of motions, calling for scrapping Trident now and an Executive Statement which argued for opposition in principle to nuclear weapons but; “Unite does not and never will advocate or support any course of public policy which will put at risk jobs or communities. Although in favour of defence diversification “Until there is a government in office ready, willing and able to give cast-iron guarantees on the security of the skilled work and all employment involved, our priority must be to defend and secure our members’ employment”. This Statement was passed overwhelmingly and with it the motions calling for trident to be `scrapped now’ fell.
For the union leadership and the defence workers this debate was not really about trident but the very character of the union, it is fair to say this character was encapsulated in the Statement and in particular no support for policies which `… put at risk jobs or communities’. The resolutions opposing the Statement with their demand of ‘scrap now’ violated that idea of a union’s function. If such a resolution had been passed, while it would not have materially effected defence workers’ jobs, it would have signalled support for a policy which put jobs at risk, and the union would, to use the words of one of the speakers, have “abandoned us”.
Although victory for ‘scrap now’ would have had no material impact on jobs it would have had a very real impact on the union’s unity. Large numbers of defence workers would have left and at best joined the GMB (at worst joining Community or leaving the movement altogether), and who in their right mind could blame them? I don’t think those arguing to ‘scrap’ got the implications for the union – until McCluskey spelled it out in his closing remarks.
With one or two exceptions those opposing the Statement were white collar, from outside manufacturing and from London, while supporters of the Statement were largely manual workers from the industry and from outside of London. This division mirrors Brexit and has been observed within the Labour party. While it is clear the vast majority of the ‘scrap now’ support can be characterised as Corbynistas it is not possible to clearly pigeon hole those supporting the Statement except to say they saw themselves as trade unionists rather than political animals and a majority would not see themselves as Corbyn supporters.
The main problem for the ‘scrap now’ speakers was how to argue a position which if passed would have meant the union’s abandonment of the Trident workers. Unable or unwilling to confront this conundrum they ignored it, speaking in general terms and in equal measure about diversification and the need to support Corbyn – of course the most zealot Corbynistas where those outside the party.
Both these points were easily dealt with by the defence workers: on diversification they pointed out that the ‘scrap now’ advocates were substituting the potential to develop diversification which had been opened up by Corbyn’s victory with the present situation where there are no diversification blueprints and even if these existed the Tory Government is not going to implement them. The diversification argument existed simply as a prop to enable scarp now to avoid arguing there real position `scrap regardless’ of the impact on members or on the union.
The Corbyn argument was of a different order: here the ‘Marxists’ came into their own, and the broad sweep of history and grand strategies alighted on the shoulders of the Unite conference.
Their line of argument went something like this: Unite supports Corbyn; failure to support ‘scrap now’ would be a failure to support him and so give a hostage to Labour’s right. On the other hand supporting ‘scrap now’ would be a massive boost to Corbyn’s struggle in the party and by default the movement which has gathered around him. Needless to say, this missed the mark by some many miles.
If the Corbynistas are a broad socially liberal movement, the self-proclaimed ‘Marxists’ within it should want to move beyond liberalism and build a class-based movement which by definition must include the defence workers. Indeed, building a class movement will largely depend on how far the left wing of the Corbynistas can turn it outward and proselytize among workers such as those in the defence industry. The supposed ‘Marxists’ in this debate provided a master class in how not to build that movement. Most striking was the unintended consequence arising from combining ‘scrap now’ with the Corbyn struggle in the party: the effect was to reduce defence workers to pawns to be sacrificed in the great game that is the left vs right battle within the Party.
That approach illustrates the complete failure of these ‘Marxists’ to recognise the division between the economic and political, and within this division that unions are primarily economic entities. A consequence is these people continually push unions to adopt programmatic demands appropriate to a party rather than a union. In this instance asking conference to supress the union’s core function of defending member’s terms and conditions in pursuit of a political goal, the only possible result was to further repel the defence workers from the left and Corbyn.
The real tragedy in this vignette is that until now the only serious work undertaken on defence diversification has been that of defence industry workers. Now a Corbyn labour party can build on that work harnessing the workers in the industry, their unions and party to formulate diversification blueprints. This approach was central to the Statement:
“Unite commits to campaigning to secure a serious government approach to defence diversification… and urges the Labour Party to give the highest priority to this aspect in it considerations.”
We have then a platform which can not only develop diversification policies but also a process where defence workers will be exposed to the ideas of the left opening the possibility of winning them over to socialism.
Apart from the decisive victory the debate itself was well run and a joy to watch as the defence workers and McCluskey, provided the ‘Marxists’ with a lesson on what is a trade union and how it should function. I hope (but doubt) they will have learnt their lesson.
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.
Speech delivered 20th June (NB: not the same as his piece in yesterday’s Guardian)
May I start by expressing Unite’s shock at the death of Jo Cox and our deepest sympathy to her family.
We can only hope that the outpouring of grief from across the nation will help Jo’s husband, Brendan and his family in these unbearable times.
Her death places in context what is really important in our lives.
She was, of course, a passionate advocate for the Remain campaign and would surely want political debate to continue.
Brothers and Sisters,
As this referendum campaign draws towards a close, I think everyone can agree on two things.
First, it matters. As we come up close to the moment of decision, this feels like one of the most important votes any of us will cast in our lives.
And second, this is close. The elite complacency of the start of the campaign, that this was just a quick canter to the winning post for REMAIN, has disappeared.
This could go either way.
For those two reasons, I wanted to speak out directly, both to and on behalf of the members of Unite, the biggest trade union in the United Kingdom, also as someone who can legitimately claim to know the hopes and fears of the working-class communities across the country, the sort of community I grew up in and have kept my roots in.
There is no need for a spoiler alert – Unite is fighting all the way for a Remain vote, and for Britain and British workers to build their future in unity with the rest of Europe.
But I have not come here to lecture or to patronise those working people who take a different view. Who can be surprised that in so many industrial areas, voting for the status quo is not exactly a popular option?
I am just asking all those people, including many Unite members, to reflect on their concerns, and whether they would be best addressed by staying in Europe, or by a Brexit.
And I want to flag up what I believe will happen to working people on the morrow of a vote to leave.
Let me turn first to the issue of IMMIGRATION:
Some pundits and commentators, like explorers returning from a visit to the deep unknown, are stunned to find that this has become an issue.
I for one am not in the least surprised. I understand those concerns. They are NOT, for the greatest part, anything to do with racism or xenophobia.
They are to do with the systematic attempt by our greedy elite to hold down wages and cut the costs of social provision for working people.
Let us be clear – what has been done in the last ten years is a gigantic experiment at the expense of ordinary workers. Countries with vast historical differences in wage rates and living standards have been brought together in a common labour market. The result has been huge downward pressure on living standards.
What happens when two hundred workers are competing for jobs where previously only ten did? Wages are frozen or cut.
What happens when workers can move from a country where a job pays £5 an hour to one where the same job pays £20? The answer is that many do so move, and the same job then ends up paying just £12 an hour.
That is why trade unions have never been in favour of a so-called free labour market. Control of the labour supply in an industry or across society has always been the core of our mission, to ensure that workers get their fair share of the wealth they create.
But let me be clear about something else. Pulling up the drawbridge against the rest of Europe is the wrong answer. Read the rest of this entry »
Text of a speech by Jim Kelly, London & Eastern Region Chair of Unite, at a Norwich meeting “What future for the Left in Europe?” making the case for trades unionists to vote and campaign for REMAIN in the EU referendum.
Above: Jim Kelly
Unite is the largest private sector manufacturing union in the UK, with around half a million members employed in manufacturing. We are clear that a vote to Remain will be better for our members employed in British manufacturing than the chaos and uncertainty that will follow a Brexit. The same applies to the public sector, where TU membership is far stronger.
Unite research shows that Brexit will have a disproportionate impact on exports to the EU in industries where membership is strong, Aerospace, 54%,
Transport, 44%, Finance, 44%, Food manufacturing, 53% and the Chemical industry 54%. This will have a devastating impact on union membership.
Within TUC affiliated unions the overwhelming majority, in terms of membership support Remain, with only three small unions, RMT, ASLEF and the
Bakers Union supporting exit.
Unite’s position on the referendum issue was agreed overwhelmingly at the 2014 Policy Conference.
“That on balance of advantages at present Unite would argue for a vote to stay in the EU while also campaigning against a neo- Liberal agenda being
promoted from Brussels”
We went on to agree we should be addressing the need for hope & solidarity: developing A new vision based on the values of social justice;
This was a continuation of the decision of the 2012 conference to reject a Brexit position. It was recently decided at the April EC to join the Remain
campaign, as a “permitted participant” but not to work with the Tories but to support “Another Europe Is Possible” and urge our members to vote
Unite is all too aware that some of our members, like many working class people across the UK have been influenced by the right wing and its supporters in the media. Some on the Left are also advocating Brexit.
*Those on the Brexit left wishing to leave the EU need to be able to positively answer two questions; that exit will benefit unions and workers,
and their campaign will help develop worker’s consciousness *
Why these two questions are fundamental is because Unions can only progress member’s interests in two ways; industrially and through legislation. As unions’ industrial power has declined so the importance of pro-union legislation has increased. Seen as a totality such legislation creates a floor below which unions and workers’ rights cannot fall: with two major exceptions (TU recognition and the minimum wage) all such post 1980 legislation originates from the EU.
In the UK our floor of rights is weaker than many other European counties, a cumulative effect of the way European laws have been introduced in the
UK, with UK governments using their rights to Opt Out to water down EU legislation.
While we may blame many things on the EU, the majority of problems unions have with EU legislation is a consequence of how successive UK governments have enacted that legislation.
Let’s look at two cases:
First; The recent steel crisis caused by dumping of cheap inferior steel on the world market by China. It was the UK government which vetoed the right of the EU to impose tariffs to keep foreign steel out of Europe. Also other EU members have state-financed steel plants – for instance in December 2014 Italy did this 2014 to prevent a steel plant closure. EU law didn’t ban bailouts for British Steel – after all, Gordon Brown part nationalised a number of banks in 2008 – Sajid Javid and the UK Tory Party simply wasn’t interested in supporting tens of thousands of workers due to the UK Tory government’s free market dogma.
Secondly, The Posted Workers Directive: this has frequently been cited by some as an example of legislation which divides workers and undermines pay. In reality the Directive gives member states latitude to determine what constitutes the minimum rate of pay. The Blair Government set the rate at the National Minimum Wage (thereby creating a two tier workforce) while in Ireland they linked the Posted Workers rate to the ‘going rate’ set by collective bargaining: meaning far less room to drive down wages and divide workers.
A much higher level of workers’ rights in Europe applied across the EU would ease some of the pressure whereby employers exploit free movement of
labour to accelerate the race to the bottom, exploiting both UK and migrant workers.
However weak the present floor of rights may be, post-exit would see the government dismantle it, further eroding unions’ abilities to defend members and further worsening workers’ terms and conditions:
· Priti Patel (employment minister) has called them a “burden” and said she would like to “halve” them.
· Boris Johnson said it was “very disappointing” that Britain had not made “changes to employment law”, complaining that we “need to weigh in
on all that stuff, all that social chapter stuff”. Boris at his most articulate!
· Chris Grayling, when asked what European “red tape” he disliked, he referred to health and safety laws.
The consequence of this pulling apart of the floor of rights could also accelerate a European wide race to the bottom. What possible benefit can unions and workers derive from such a development?
Unless, of course, someone wished to contend the floor of rights was irrelevant or believed the Tories will leave it intact (as some people on the anti-EU left sometimes, incredibly, appear to do).
The Press has made much of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership during the referendum. My view is that Jeremy’s strategy of presenting a “warts and all” argument focusing on worker’s rights, consumer protection and democratic reform while strengthening European solidarity to fight against austerity is absolutely correct.
The issue here is not Jeremy but in many cases the UK media sucking up to Farage, Gove and Johnson and making the divisions in the Tory party the main focus of their reporting
Although it is impossible to say what level of destabilisation would result if we Brexit on 23rd, we can say with certainty it will have a detrimental impact on all unions and their memberships.
Moreover, the impact of a serious downturn caused by Brexit is likely to have precisely the opposite effect to what the Left Leave advocates believe will happen: rather than helping the fight against austerity, attacks on unions and workers will be intensified while the labour movement will be divided and unable to respond as a direct consequence of the political chaos an exit victory will cause within our ranks.
In truth such chaos will not be down to the left’s intervention, rather an exit victory will boost an insurgent populist right and it is that which our movement, including the Labour Party will have to contend with.
Across Europe and North America globalisation is causing a rising level of hopelessness among large sections of the working classes who are being
galvanised into activity by the programme of the populist right, whether Farage, Le Pen or Trump. The common denominator across all these movements, and what roots them in worker’s consciousness is the appeal to their respective nationalisms and a sense of alienation. This referendum should not be seen solely as being about “in” or “out”: it is also a key episode in the formation of this populist right-wing.
For many workers supporting exit, the referendum is a lightning rod for hitting back against the causes of their social problems, whether it is about politicians not listening, their growing impoverishment or their belief that exit will reverse Britain’s decline; not least by stopping immigration.
In voting for exit many workers, clearly including many of our members, will not have been influenced by the arguments of the left, rather they
will cast their vote bound hand and foot to Johnson, Gove and Farage and the hard-right leadership of the Out campaign.
Once the impact of destabilisation on the working class is grasped and the wider political impact on working class politics understood, it should be obvious that our enemies’ enemy, in this instance UKIP and the hard-right of the Tory Party, is not our friend.
The above is not to endorse the EU as it is today – far from it. Those who advocate leaving are right when they speak about its undemocratic nature and we on the left know what to do about its shortcomings: our problem is we have not done it.
Organising industrially and politically is our answer = it is our answer to the limitations of the Posted Workers Directive; it is our antidote to blaming foreign workers; and on a pan European level it is our answer to the present democratic limitations of the EU. For those of us who wish to remain we need to use the existing European-wide trade union and political institutions and networks to campaign not only to democratise the EU but also to fight for our Europe – a social Europe.
Our starting point, however, must be to ensure we stay in.
Unite for Khan
Download and read the Unite draft submission to Sadiq’s manifesto
- Business, growth and jobs – Unite Khan manifesto submission [PDF]
- Equality and fairness – Unite Khan manifesto submission [PDF]
- Housing and planning – Unite Khan manifesto submission [PDF]
- Safer and healthier communities – Unite Khan manifesto submission [PDF]
- Transport and infrastructure – Unite Khan manifesto submission [PDF]
Why London and Eastern Region of Unite came to support Sadiq
On Saturday 16 May 2015 Unite’s Regional Committee met to interview 5 candidates who had put themselves forward to be the Labour party’s candidate for the London Mayor election in May 2016.
The committee, which is made up of lay members from across all of Unite’s industrial sectors including; b us and taxi drivers, cleaners, charity workers, health and Local Government workers, printers, bank employees and members from manufacturing, spent over 4 hours listening to the views of all the candidates to four questions we posed on transport, housing, workers’ rights and equalities.
At the end of the meeting the committee held a vote and it was decided that London and Eastern Region would support Sadiq Khan as our first preference candidate (to be the Labour candidate) and Diane Abbott as our second.
All of the candidates performed well, but the meeting felt that Sadiq offered the best vision for London and Londoners, closely reflecting the values and policies of the regional committee.
Since the hustings Sadiq has come out with a number of policy initiatives that underline why we were right to give him our support including:
- A one wage structure across the London’s bus network
- A clear commitment to build more social homes for rent at affordable levels
- The creation of an economic fairness unit at City Hall to deliver a £10 per hour London living wage
- End the use of companies who have taken part in blacklisting union members
Sadiq Khan offers the best hope of Londoners including our members. If he is successful he will clearly make a difference – That’s why we are supporting Sadiq.
You can find more about Sadiq’s plan for London at www.sadiq.london
Guest post by Bill Sharpe
Arguing against the renewal of Trident must have seemed so simple, an easy win for the Corbyn Labour leadership, swords into ploughshares and we all walk off arm in arm into a Trident free sunset – maybe singing the Red Flag. That may well have been how the Corbynistas saw it playing out, yet right from the outset when they started this particular hare running, the reality was very different. The parliamentary timetable was always against Labour having any real say, it was always going to engulf the Party, and particularly the PLP which was not going to be helpful as the key unions (GMB and Unite) were always going to be for renewal. Everything points to a fudge at the next Labour Party conference and with it inevitable demoralisation among the Corbynistas. My union, the GMB, will be quite happy with this, as we have thousands of members whose jobs depend upon Trident.
The one thing that may change this is how Unite votes on the matter at its forthcoming Policy Conference. Although Unite’s defence workers are fully behind renewal, the conference has a number of anti-Trident resolutions on the agenda and if it were to vote against renewal it would once again change the balance of power within the Labour Party.
Unite is generally seen as the most influential left wing union and socialists will view Unite’s forthcoming debate primarily in political terms – a left vs right `shoot out’: on one side the defence industry workers who are seen (probably rightly) as pro – imperialist, right wing, reactionary etc etc; on the other side the union’s lefts who want to scrap Trident, end austerity and are Corbyn supporters – also probably true. Such a view is to miss the point. The Unite debate will not be a political but an economic, a trade union, matter – or at least I for one would hope so.
Unite Policy Conference delegates have three possible choices: they can vote for `unconditional support’ for renewal, `scrapping only’ if suitable alternative work can be found or `scrapping regardless’ of whether alternative work can be found. For sure, the `scrapping only’ positon will bring together a big majority within the union leaving `unconditional support’ the minority position. There is however a fatal flaw in the ‘scrapping only’ standpoint.
When the Berlin wall fell the defence industry went into free fall with many thousands of jobs lost. In response the unions undertook a number of studies looking at alternative work; some were very imaginative but none were viable. What employer was going to pay top dollar to some of the most highly skilled workers in the county (after space technology putting together a Trident submarine is the second most complex technical exercise humanity undertakes) concentrated in one of the most inaccessible places in the county to build white goods or wind turbines? The alternative work plans were seemingly consigned to the dustbin of history. However some 25 years later variants of these plans were resurrected, finding their way onto Corbyn’s election campaign website as part of his pitch to scrap Trident.
While intellectually lazy and/or self-deluded socialists have tacked onto the end of their anti- Trident arguments the demand for alternative work, so resolving (to their own satisfaction) the problem of mass redundancies and the devastation of Barrow and surrounding areas, workers in the industry have looked into the matter and are telling us there is no such thing as alternative work. Consequently ‘scrapping only’ is in effect a vote for renewal – a position I for one hope the Unite conference will adopt. However many on the left, including it would seem, many in Unite, stand on the ‘regardless’ position.
The problem with the ‘regardless’ position is when the rhetoric and caveats are removed such resolutions are calling on the union to support the sacking of several thousands of their fellow members. For a union to vote for a `scrap anyway’ resolution would be a fundamental violation of its core functions: the defence and enhancement of terms and conditions and the aspiration to organise the entire working class regardless of their political views.
This issue illustrates in a very stark manner the underlying and enduring difference between general class interests, which translate into political interests – in this case the scrapping of Trident – and specific sectional interests which are unions’ economic concerns and in this instance mean keeping Trident.
In saying unions should support ‘scrapping only’ I am not saying a union is always right: such a view would suppress any critical judgement of unions and deny any right to independence of thought by socialists when dealing with unions: it would mean (at best) becoming a more realistic variant of the unions’ house journal the Morning Star. I am, however, saying socialists should recognise that a union must pursue its members’ interests, even when these come into conflict with broader socialist views.
For socialists who wish to be critical of unions there are two possible approaches: one can be characterised as `politicising unions’, which starts from recognition of the division between the political and economic as a given and as far possible attempts to mitigate the sectional and where possible merge the sectional into a more general class interest. This is done within the unions themselves around industrial matters, but more importantly engaging with and helping develop a socialist political culture within the unions.
To begin to undertake such a task one has to recognise the existence of the political / economic division. But in this period of union decline the dominant approach of leftists and would-be Marxists is to be seemingly unaware or indifferent to the division. There are clear parallels here with 3rd period Stalinism. In this approach the left is continually attempting to turn the union into a political rather than an economic entity, they view it as a form of political party and continually demand its programme appropriate to a party – political unionism. Such an approach can only succeed by either superseding or suppressing the union’s economic function of defending member’s terms and conditions.
A ‘scrap anyway’ positon illustrates this point in a very blunt manner, as it inescapably means supporting the loss of many thousands of jobs (an unfortunate by-product of the greater good) and with it supressing the unions function of defending members jobs.
The ‘union as a political party’ approach is also how the best trades unionists tend to perceive (and reject) what socialists are about: it needs little imagination to work through the political lessons defence delegates will take away from Unite Trident debate as they listen to their `left wing’ bothers and sisters explaining why they should lose their jobs.
The Unite Trident debate holds within it two possible ways socialists can approach unions: if their conference can get beyond a debate about ‘scrapping regardless’, which is to recognise they cannot support non-renewal. They will then be in a position to play a pivotal role in taking the alternative work debate forward. At present the demand for alternative work is merely a rhetorical prop for socialists, with no real content – based on present realities it can go nowhere. Unite has the ability to demand that labour links alternative work for the defence industry into a broader call for a rebalancing of the economy which should have centre stage in Labour’s 2020 manifesto.
The ability to move the alternative work debate on is made possible by the space opened up by Corbyn’s victory: it should be seen as part and parcel of the potential which now exists for the refounding of a labour movement. Although in many respects this will be very different from 1900s, now as then, socialists have a choice: either they engage with this or cut themselves of from it: posturing and empty sloganising will inevitably fail, but pursuing the politicisation of the unions (as opposed to the left’s agenda of “political unionism”) may just offer a way through the dilemma.
By Pat Corcoran
The Unite report of its recent conference for members in the defence sector is at: http://www.unitetheunion.org/news/unpatriotic-government-policy-putting-defence-jobs-at-risk/ McCluskey says that his speech is not a nationalist rant. Which is the roundabout way of saying: it is a bit of a nationalist rant.
The book of conference motions for the 2016 Unite policy conference has just been published. There are 13 pages of motions about Trident renewal, ranging from full support to outright opposition. Most motions take the latter position. Unsurprisingly, the motion from the Aerospace and Shipbuilding National Industrial Sector Committee (NISC) does not. What that motion calls for is for Rule 2 to be upheld. Rule 2 of the Unite Rulebook is a commitment to protect members’ jobs and communities. As the motion puts it: “We are not a political party, we are a trade union.”
In fairness, Unite does face a genuine dilemma: Around 7,000 people in Barrow-in-Furness work for BAE Systems Maritime, with up to 10,000 more working for its suppliers. The firm is currently building seven nuclear-powered Astute-class submarines and planning the Successor programme to replace the aging Vanguard-class submarines, which carry nuclear missiles, ensuring jobs for 30 years. The industry is responsible for around one in ten jobs in the area and if the supply chain is taken into account it’s probably nearer one in five.
In addition, Unite has a long established tradition of respecting the wishes of its directly effected sectors when it comes to key industrial issues.
McCluskey and the overwhelming majority of the Unite EC would genuinely like to see nuclear disarmament, but they face a real dilemma: surely the first duty of a trade union is to defend the jobs of its members? The Aerospace and Shipbuilding NISC has a point about Unite not being a political party.
There is only one way to resolve this dilemma: Unite must commission an expert report into how to replace Trident-related jobs and put serious resources (ie financial resources) into coming up with a detailed, practical alternative jobs plan, just as the Lucas Aerospace shop stewards did in the 1970’s. Corbyn could also be offered support for abolishing Trident so long as assurances are forthcoming regarding a future Labour government safeguarding jobs. Sadly, there is no sign at the moment that McCluskey and the United Left majority on the EC are minded to adopt such a strategy.