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Jerry Hicks: ‘Let’s transform Britain’s largest union’

In an election that could rock the labour movement, rank and file candidate Jerry Hicks writes for Workers Power

 

There’s an election in Unite, Britain’s largest union with 1.5 million members. Nothing unusual in that. But it’s been called three years early and on the shortest possible timetable.

The official reason for the change was to avoid a clash with the General Election in 2015. Instead of using the opportunity to put pressure on Labour to adopt some pro-union policies for Unite’s millions in party funding, Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey brought the election forward because Labour don’t want to be seen in hock to the unions (I wish!).

So why no bring it forward 12 months to 2014. He said he wouldn’t, but he could stand. The truth is, Mr McCluskey is enjoying the trappings of power and wants another term. The snap election – called in December, just before the mid-winter break, with nominations closing in February – meant no other official had time to organise a campaign: a rank and file outsider no chance.

When I was made aware of the election, who would I support? There was no one from the officer class I could support. A shoe-in like Gordon Brown looked done and dusted. So I took soundings and stood. If I didn’t, the rhetoric would be wound down and the strikes wound up as we moved towards Labour’s General Election.

We passed the first hurdle with flying colours: 136 nominations, from every region. MrMcCluskey has a thousand. But last time in 2010, he had eight times the nominations, but only twice the votes. I came second out of four candidates, beating two assistant general secretaries.

Differences

This time it’s just a two-horse race and the contrasts are stark.

Mr McCluskey is subservient to Labour, with the date and timetable, and thinks Labour can be reformed. So he gives them more money. I say, keep every penny of our money, tightly clenched in our fist, and not hand it over till after the event, when Labour adopts union policy.

Mr McCluskey has the view that we should appoint officials. And once there, they can be there for life, at the behest of the General Secretary, who can promote them – like Gail Cartmell, who ran against him last time. Or the one who finished last: he was given £250,000 to leave the union.

I would have elected officials. Members among the printers, council workers, bus drivers, health members, in finance: it’s they who know our problems and should elect who should represent them, not a panel of officials.

Community branches, which organise unemployed and workers in unrecognised sites, are good. But they’re too few and too small; we need to improve. The General Secretary should remind us more often that it’s not our crisis.

My Community branch has agreed with bedroom tax campaigners that we’ll be there to stop evictions. That’s direct action. Don’t pontificate about direct action and move on to the next lecture theatre, Mr McCluskey.

My first strike was in defence of the NHS – secondary action. It’s illegal now; we’ve been criminalised. I’d rather be inside the law than outside, but I’d rather be on the right side: our NHS, our schools, members’ families. It should be our right to decide when to strike and not to be told. We have failed for too long to defeat the anti-union laws imposed by Thatcher but unchallenged by Labour and Unite.

Coordinated strikes are fine things, but they need to be sustained so others can join in – to join the dots – and add their demands to win a decent pension or avoid a pay cut.

It’s members who should drive disputes. They’re the ones affected, not the officials, so they should control disputes, their decisions sacrosanct not secret talks or other unions’ decisions, as happened with the pensions.

They know unity is strength. They could have won a victory, not left other unions, the PCS, NUT, in the lurch. Leaders should lead, members’ control.

The sparks

So, in construction, eight rogue employers broke the national electricians agreement, covering wages, sick pay, all sorts of things. They gave notice. But the officials said, wait. The sparks didn’t.

Within 10 days, 500 electricians in London made a decision what to do. They elected their own committee. I was honoured to be the only non-electrician elected.

Direct action: roadblocks not rhetoric. And they won a magnificent victory, the rank and file group. Every sector in Unite should have their own rank and file group, resourced by the union but only by officials at the rank and file’s request.

These are huge differences. One gets £122,000 a year, £2,000 a week, and was appointed to union positions for three decades. I will take an average workers’ wage, £26,000 a year. During those decades I was involved in strikes and occupations and that’s the difference: member, not official of the union. I turned the offer down to be a union official on principle.

One manoeuvred the whole thing. I’m a member. The things that go well, we’ll improve: more democracy, more control. So the next Vestas, the next Olympics, the next British Airways, we will make the judgement right over wrong, whether it’s legal or illegal, ballot or no ballot.

Two candidates, one vote, our chance.

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