Unite after the General Secretary election

Unite member Kate Bradley reflects on her experiences campaigning for grassroots socialist Ian Allinson in this year’s Unite General Secretary election.

Ian Allinson stands with his votes at the Unite General Secretary ballot count. Photo credit: Kate Bradley

Last week, Unite announced the results of its 2017 General Secretary election. As anticipated, incumbent General Secretary Len McCluskey won. However, his 45.4% vote had almost halved since his victories in 2010 and 2013. Alongside the poor turnout in the election (12.2%), this shrinkage in his vote indicates disengagement and disillusionment with Unite that should not be ignored.

It was in the spirit of reinvigorating the grassroots of the union that Ian Allinson, chair of Unite in Fujitsu UK, ran against McCluskey and the challenger from the right, Gerard Coyne. Recognising the growing discontentment at the base of the union, Ian ran to offer a vision of what the union could be: principled, democratic, effective and worker-led. He took stands on issues such as supporting freedom of movement, opposing Trident and combating sexual harassment, and in doing so gained a respectable 13.2% of the vote, despite his relative lack of resources.

Unlike the other two candidates, Ian was clear from the start that the campaign was not merely about winning: that would be symptomatic of an attitude which sees the General Secretary as all-important. In fact, winning 13.2% of the vote-share was exciting because it told those of us working on the campaign that at least 17000 members shared our principles and vision. Many more said they agreed with us in principle, but tactically voted for McCluskey for fear of letting in Coyne. In this article, I will reflect on my experience on Ian’s campaign team over the last few months, considering some of the important ideas the campaign offered and how we can build on them now that the election is over.

One experience of Unite: where we are and where we could be

When I joined Unite in 2015, I first experienced the union as a mildly irritating service provider. I received three calls within the first two weeks of membership offering me health and life insurance. I took the free cover, which I’m sure is invaluable to many Unite members and their families, but what I really needed at the time was support with sexual harassment at work. I tried to find support in Unite, and all I found was guidance for union representatives with no clear route for ordinary members to reach out for help. After a while I gave up, tolerated the harassment and eventually left the job.

What I needed in that situation was a union which proactively engaged with its members in their workplaces – a union in which I’d have known someone was there to support me if I chose to report harassment to my boss. For Unite to be that union requires a structural and cultural shift away from its top-down approach and emphasis on top-table negotiations conducted on behalf of workers. Over time, this approach results in passivity from members (responsible in part for Unite’s poor turnout in this election) and shrinking membership.

This is why it was welcome news to me when Ian Allinson announced his campaign for the Unite leadership. I have known Ian for over a year as an impressive and sincere campaigner on workplace issues, including sexual harassment at work. As I’d hoped, he made opposition to sexual harassment one of the main pillars of his campaign, starting with being honest about the distance the union needs to travel before it can be fit to properly support people experiencing workplace harassment. In the spirit of transparency and honesty characteristic of the campaign, he released a suppressed report on Unite women officers’ experiences of bullying and sexual harassment which otherwise would have remained invisible to members. In order to solve the widespread issue of harassment at work – which the TUC reported is experienced by more than half of all women workers – we need to accept that it is a problem wherever it arises, even inside the union, and take visible, proactive steps to address it.

This stance on sexual harassment was reflective of the ian4unite campaign’s honest approach to improving the union: celebrating its successes, but also accepting where Unite is falling short and proposing ways to remedy its failings – political or practical. The issue of freedom of movement was another on which many members felt the union was falling short. The New Statesman pointed out that in recent years Unite has played a role in influencing the PLP against free movement, with McCluskey arguing that ‘workers have always done best when the labour supply is controlled’ on the grounds that the free movement of labour means downward pressure on wages. This acceptance of free market dynamics as inevitable is precisely what the union should be fighting, since unions are uniquely placed to prevent downward pressure on wages by resisting employers’ pay cuts and helping migrant workers organise. Ian was unflinching on this issue, arguing in The Guardian that employment practices privileging some workers offer no real protection i the long-run. The argument was crucial in shifting the debate in the union. During the early stages of the campaign, I attended multiple branch meetings and workplaces where I put the argument that we can only improve conditions for workers by improving them for all workers, a stance which gained Ian the support of many migrant workers inside and outside the union.

Instead of vilifying migrant workers, Ian’s campaign sought to bring their voice into the union. To demonstrate his commitment to prioritise the organisation of migrant workers within Unite, Ian and members of ian4unite accompanied activists from the Polish organisation Razem to majority-Polish workplaces across London to discuss with workers how and why they should join unions. The waste management sector is not glamorous, but it is a critical industry, and in many ways exemplary of modern capitalism: in a sector which was once well-organised, work has gradually been outsourced from local authorities to private agencies who employ Eastern European workers to do the worst jobs (such as sifting through recycling and waste) on incredibly low wages and precarious zero-hours contracts. Over time, the union presence on these sites has been crushed by employers exploiting language barriers and the precarity of many workers’ migration status. Only by overcoming the barriers to organising and empowering these workers can Unite prevent employers from making this work intolerable for anyone but the most marginalised people in society.

Defending the status quo, or fighting for a better future?

Combating sexual harassment and arguing for freedom of movement were just two aspects of Ian’s multi-faceted campaign which I hope will have a lasting effect beyond the election period. If Unite can better support women who have been sexually harassed at work and build a proper union presence amongst millions of migrant workers doing essential but often unseen work, it will be much better placed to support two of the most vulnerable sections of today’s workforce. Ian’s campaign took a principled stand on these issues which were otherwise lacking from the election.

Nevertheless, the closeness of the vote opened us up to renewed criticism for ‘splitting the left vote’ from those who argued, amongst other things, that defence of McCluskey was a tactical necessity in order to prevent Coyne getting elected at this crucial juncture in British politics. Undoubtedly, as Ian pointed out during the campaign, a victory for Coyne would see an intensification of the ‘partnership’ model and a political shift to the right for the union. However, the experience of the campaign and the count suggests that Ian took as many votes from Coyne as McCluskey, while 87% of members still didn’t vote at all. In any case, Ian standing cannot account for the significant drop in McCluskey’s vote, and the result shows us the dangers of leaving the right as the only challenge to the status quo. Since the Blair years, the left has often found itself making a choice between defending an uninspiring status quo which follows the right’s logic on issues like migration or risking shifts even further to the right by splitting the vote. And yet, as Ed Miliband and the Labour Party proved in 2015, the centre-left does not always win out even when socialists lend it ‘critical support’. Bolstering status quo candidates when we do not agree with their opinions means losing the ability to make clear socialist arguments and allowing the debate to drift ever-rightwards.

Today, unions are nowhere near as strong as they would need to be to pose a systematic and credible challenge to employers and the Conservatives’ fresh anti-union policies. To bolster Unite’s strength, it needs to be more democratic, more militant and less bureaucratic, and for that, we need to start organising at the grassroots again. Ian’s campaign was an attempt to strengthen the long-term project of building a fighting rank-and-file within the union. A rank-and-file movement can’t be created from an election campaign alone, but important connections were made. The campaign also gave us a platform from which to argue for progressive shifts in union policy and practice, as well as putting the argument for unions’ importance to a wider audience, and therefore I think it was crucial that Ian stood. Ian’s post-election statement makes the argument that ‘all meaningful change comes from below’. It is through building on the arguments and contacts made during the election that we can begin to make this meaningful change in Unite.

Our campaign is proposing to establish an ongoing organisation within Unite that takes rank-and-file organising seriously and fights for principled policy positions within the union. To begin to discuss this idea, there are initial meetings in Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham and London in early May (find more details here). Get in contact with us at ian4unite@gmail.com if you’d like to get involved.


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