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Unite Fight Back: rank and file group founded

A packed meeting in Somerstown Community Centre, north London, agreed to found a new rank and file grouping in Unite, Britain’s largest union. Jeremy Dewar reports

Saturday 25 May’s meeting was the first national gathering of Jerry Hicks’ supporters, following his remarkable election campaign for the General Secretary post. It was preceded by several regional and local rallies from Newcastle to Bristol, Glasgow to London and points in between, where the idea of setting up a grassroots organisation on the basis of the policies in Jerry’s election platform was equally warmly received.

Jerry kicked off the meeting, reminding everyone of what a great achievement we had made during the recent campaign: nearly 80,000 votes, 36% of those cast, with only an ad hoc coalition to get the message out to 1.5 million members. Jerry reminded us how the Unite officials refused to allow him access to branch secretaries’ phone numbers and emails, while his opponent McCluskey had every Unite fulltime officer plugging his candidacy.

Jo Benefield did the meeting the service of reproducing Jerry Hicks and Len McCluskey’s election addresses. Jerry stood unequivocally for:

  • Election of all officials
  • Funding Labour only once they support pro-working class policies
  • General Secretary to receive an average wage, £26,000, not £122,000
  • Rank and file organisations in every sector
  • Confronting anti-union laws and supporting unofficial action
  • One million “green” jobs.

McCluskey made none of these promises, instead ending with smear and innuendo:

 

I have a clear positive agenda. My opponent in this election has no such plan, merely a wishlist of gestures which would wreck our union and leave our members defenceless.“Crucially he played no role whatsoever in our union at any level for several years. He is a political opportunist relying on the support of the discredited Socialist Workers Party. We must not allow a small political clique to hijack our union.”

What crude scare-mongering and red-baiting. What exactly would “wreck” Unite? Supporting unofficial action – as successfully took place at Visteon and on the building sites? Demanding some return for the millions of pounds routinely handed over to Labour? Or is it returning £100,000 in salary and expenses to the union and the election of Unite’s officer caste?

Jerry himself revealed that McCluskey had no qualms in courting the support of the self-same “small political clique” (the SWP) and it was only after failing to secure it that he discovered its supposed clique character. Then groundlessly to whip up suspicions against the left “hijacking” the union is classic right wing demagogy, worthy of the old right wing leaders in the electricians’ union, Frank Chapple and Eric Hammond.

Shouldn’t a “socialist” General Secretary – as the United Left and Socialist Party have dubbed him – be more concerned at the hijacking of the union by the army of officials, who routinely connive with management to sack militants, delay or cancel ballots, and secretively negotiate away jobs and conditions?

But as Jo said, 80,000 Unite members read this diatribe and still voted for Jerry; imagine what we could achieve if we had been able to reach the 85% of members who did not vote.

 

What kind of grassroots network?

It is a clear sign of the serious commitment of the 65 sisters and brothers who were there that most of the three hours discussion was taken up with the question of how we should build on this, i.e. what kind of group should we set up to organise opposition.

Workers Power drafted a resolution and circulated it to Jerry Hicks and the SWP for comment and amendment before the meeting. What we wanted to avoid was for the meeting to pass without any decision on the way forward. This is the motion – amended by the SWP (mainly to change the name of the group from “Unite Rank & File” to “Unite Fight Back” and explicitly to exclude non-Unite members and fulltime officials):

 

Resolution to the meeting:

1. This meeting agrees to establish a network of members in Unite, called ‘Unite Fight Back’

2. Membership will cost £5 a year – and will be open to all members of Unite, but not to full time officers of the union.

3. We will aim to encourage the development solidarity networks in all of the sectors in Unite, though we will focus initially on passenger transport, civil air transport, construction and health where we have developed positive contacts from the election campaign and previous struggles. We will also encourage the development of similar networks on a regional basis.

4. The initial policies for Unite Fight Back will be those contained in Jerry’s election material, especially his election address to all members.

5. We welcome and support the development of such networks across unions, with a view to developing solidarity in struggle.
6. Today’s meeting will reconvene in September 2013, where reports, resolutions and elections will take place.

7. In the meantime, we will elect a steering group comprising of supporters who are Unite members.

8. Unite Fight Back will be orientated on the workplace, developing political campaigns and solidarity. We will also campaign to improve Unite policies and rules. We may also support credible candidates with good policies for office within Unite, but do not see this as our central function.

The aim of the motion was to ensure there was a new public face for the Jerry Hicks supporters campaign, one that did not rely on Jerry’s name, an individual membership structure so it could move forward democratically, a widely known and supported political basis for the group in Jerry’s election address, and finally an agreement to orienting to the workplace, solidarity and fighting bureaucracy, rather than elections.

This is completely unlike any other grouping in the trade union movement today. The Socialist Teachers Alliance, PCS Left Unity and Unison United Left, for example, all see their role as defeating the right in elections and, once in office, cautiously avoiding any bold tactics that might endanger their seats – even at the expense of members’ jobs, pay and conditions. This leads these broad lefts to conservatism at the crucial moment, as they tail the least politically developed members.

The broader, cross-union bodies – the National Shop Stewards Network and Unite the Resistance – are even less of a democratic movement of the rank and file. They are tightly controlled by the Socialist Party and SWP respectively. Because these political groups claim – to their own members and the wider movement – to be real “parties”, their leaders feel the need to entice union general secretaries onto their platforms to prove the power of their influence. In return, they promising neither to interfere in the bureaucrats’ control over their union nor to criticise and organise against them when they sell out or prevaricate.

So what a breath of fresh air it is to have a group that sees elections as a secondary tactic and the union bureaucracy – left as well as right wing – as an obstacle to militant trade unionism that has to be broken up and dissolved.

 

Opposition

There was opposition. But there was also comradely discussion and a real attempt to understand each other’s fears and to allay them.

The first and most fundamental objection came from a section of the Grassroots Left (GRL), which had been set up in 2010 in the wake of Jerry’s previous election campaign but which had failed to take off lacking wider support, particularly from the SWP, who had chosen to join McCluskey’s United Left instead.

What the comrades seemed to object to was the formation of a new rank and file grouping in Unite on a less political level. Gerry Downing and Golam Bhuiyan wanted – though they did not put this in a motion or to a vote – any new network to be established with the GRL’s Constitution, which Gerry Downing admitted took “about six months to agree… maybe we took too long over it”.

Workers Power had no political disagreement with the GRL constitution; on the contrary, we had played a role in writing and developing it. What we did oppose was the attempt to block the way to organising as many of the 80,000 Unite members who had voted for Jerry’s platform as possible by demanding too high a level of agreement from day one.

Unfortunately this sectarian approach would have caused any new organisation to be killed off before it was born. While we agreed with the comrades that a rank and file group needed to develop its politics, this could be done while building the new group; meanwhile no one expected or demanded that the GRL should fold.

In the end, the comrades, along with Jake Lagnado, abstained on the resolution, though in an encouraging sign of unity Gerry did agree to stand on the steering committee.

On the other side of the debate, Raymond Morell and Ian Allinson of the SWP both argued for the meeting merely to take an indicative vote on the motion, to take the motion around to supporters in Teesside, Manchester and Leeds, etc. and to make a decision only in September.

If this approach had prevailed, this would have continued the recent trend for left meetings to make no decisions, to limit themselves to being talking shops.

In the course of discussion, it became clear that Jerry himself had started to promote the ideas in the resolution in recent visits to Leeds, Hartlepool and Newcastle, that he was almost daily being contacted by members facing bureaucratic obstacles or wanting to “join” whatever he was leading. Even Ian Allinson spoke of the need to get newsletters out, spreading news of disputes and organising solidarity.

In the end, the SWP contingent – interestingly, I’d say most of the meeting consisted of independent supporters, not attached to any left group or the GRL – voted for the motion.

 

Where now?

There is plenty for Unite Fight Back (UFB) to be getting stuck into, as the meeting heard. Ian Bradley explained how Unite fulltimers had moved in to swamp the construction rank and file campaign on Crossrail – but were crucially delaying a recruitment drive on the sites. Ozzy from Cambridge reported on several disputes and strikes coming up at Equinox Housing in Southwark, RAF caterers and cleaners, and Leeds hospitals, while urging comrades to come up to Peterborough to a mass picket at Hanson Brick on 3 June, as Unite members enter their sixth week on all out strike.

Unite Fight Back and the ten-person steering committee that was elected will have to relate to all of these disputes, and to instances of bureaucratic intimidation and neglect, such as the suspensions and bullying currently happening in the Bassa branch at Heathrow. It will need to establish a website and facebook page for instant publicising of events, successes and problems, plus, as Ian Allinson usefully pointed out, a regular newsletter.

In addition, I think UFB should seriously consider launching its own union-building initiative. Not only will this mark it out as a pro-union network (contradicting McCluskey’s smears), but also make it less reliant on reacting to events, i.e. more pro-active. My suggestion was to launch a recruitment drive in the fast food outlets, like McDonald’s, KFC and Burger King, with a demand for a living wage and permanent, fixed hours contracts – just like they have been doing in the US. UFB could also link up with SWP and Left Unity branches in such a campaign.

With a perspective like this, there is no reason why UFB cannot grow and September’s meeting be twice as big. The success over the past five months, from a standing start, shows that it is possible for comrades from different traditions to work openly and honestly together to achieve something much bigger than its component parts added together.

Workers Power in proud to have played a not insignificant part in arguing for this course of action and doing all in our power to see such a potentially historic step was taken. But the real work starts now.

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