A chance to change our unions?

Elections are coming up for the General Secretaries of Britain’s three biggest unions: UNISON, Unite and GMB. rs21 members in Unite discuss the significance of the coming election, what workers need from a candidate and how we can use the process to campaign for the unions we need.

Unite banner on TUC demo
Unite banner on TUC demo. 12 May 2018. Photo: Steve Eason

Most Unite members are unaware of the impending election, and most won’t vote when it happens. The 2017 election in Unite was hotly contested but the turnout was a mere 12.2%. Most workers see their union as either an insurance policy they have no engagement with, or as the organisation in their own workplace. But General Secretary elections matter. Three candidates have already declared and there will be hustings held by the United Left this Saturday (18 July). This article explains why a debate is both urgent and important.

Firstly, the results matter. The General Secretary wields enormous power. They are top decision-makers between conferences and meetings of the Executive Council. All the union’s employees report upwards to them rather than to members. They decide the allocation of vast resources. They shape the policy and culture of the union, and how much space there is for activists to participate, organise and campaign effectively. They are the main public face of the union, shaping relationships with the Labour Party, other unions, the TUC and social movements.

Secondly, elections are a major opportunity to involve many thousands of workers in a discussion about what sort of union we need. The 130,000 union members who did take part in 2017 may be a minority, but are not to be sniffed at. Such discussion is urgently needed when we are facing a public health crisis, mass job losses, a climate crisis, gross inequality, poverty, collapsing public services and attempts by employers to intensify work, change working practices and worsen pay and conditions.

Thirdly, the process of the election provides opportunities to strengthen organisation. During an election (pandemic permitting!) activists and candidates can visit workplaces to talk to workers and reps. This is precious when most members and even reps have no real involvement beyond their own workplace. Building networks of solidarity between activists strengthens the movement as well as making rank and file members less dependent on unreliable official structures.

More of the same is not good enough

We are rightly proud of our union – we achieve important wins week in and week out – protecting health, saving jobs, challenging bullying and discrimination, over pay and conditions and all the rest. But we have to be honest, it’s not good enough.

Throughout the pandemic, Unite’s leadership has continued to deepen its ‘partnership’ approach with employers. Unite pressed for the government to bail out our employers as the route to protect jobs. This provided cover for the government’s massive corporate handouts, a classic example of ‘trickle down economics’ that actually causes wealth to rush up to the richest. Defending jobs will take more than a grumpy press release and a few ‘consultation’ meetings. We will not save lives, jobs or the planet by asking government to hand cash straight to the corporations. If we want real job security we need whole sectors of the economy to be taken into public ownership and transformed under democratic control to build a safer, sustainable and more equal future for all of us..

Despite the great work done by many in Unite, members’ experience of the Union is patchy. Resources, information and support are often hard to access for activists at workplace level. Few know how to navigate the byzantine structures or who the real decision-makers are. Even when decisions formally lie with lay member structures, information is often filtered by unaccountable union employees. How can you organise without knowing who the members are, without being able to communicate with other activists in your area or industry? Only those ‘in the loop’ know what’s going on in their union. The committee structures filter out people without union recognition and paid union ‘facility time’, isolating those who are trying to unionise new workplaces. Many branches were not functioning well even before the pandemic. Unite structures represent a serious barrier to effective organising in employers crossing multiple regions. We need a radical overhaul to democratise our union, increase participation and empower workplace activists.

While some unions, most notably the National Education Union (NEU), campaigned effectively over safety around coronavirus and grew rapidly, Unite now fears the loss of 100,000 members from the catastrophic recession. A defensive approach now means no effective defence. It is perfectly possible to organise around redundancies – but that means giving proper support to those members in less organised workplaces. Mass job losses can be fought, but this will often require militant direct action that creates a crisis for government and employers. Unite has good policy on opposing anti-union laws, but has done little to implement our policy to train members in direct action methods which will be critical in the coming months.

This means strengthening branch organisation, not weakening it: it is outrageous that the recent Unite Executive Council (EC) meeting decided to respond to the jobs massacre by cutting funding to branches. This is despite rule 17.3, according to which branches must get ‘direct access to a proportion of membership subscriptions’. Branches will get no money at all automatically – they will have to ask regions for it – a huge centralisation of resources and power. We have had enough of sectional, personal and political favouritism, not to mention women not being taken seriously. £27m may be sitting in branch accounts but most active branches have little money. The large sums are almost all held by inactive branches, a few huge geographical branches, and branches which built up large strike funds. Tackling the issue of inactive branches or branches that have built up huge sums for no particular purpose would be completely legitimate. Stripping active branches of resources would be a disaster.

Effective organising means engaging with the working class as it is today, not some false image of what it was fifty years ago. Middle-aged straight white cis men without disabilities are a small minority of the working class. Maximising participation and power requires principled opposition to discrimination and conscious efforts to include and unite the diverse working class and all our issues. Not enough has been done to tackle sexism within the union which affects members and employees alike. Our stance on migration remains an unprincipled fudge – Unite cannot earn the full trust of migrant workers while backing the exclusion of migrants from some jobs. We have to cleanse the shame caused by senior Unite officials signing a transphobic letter in the Morning Star and update our membership systems and forms to fully include non-binary people.

Before Corbyn, relations with Labour were becoming increasingly strained. We cannot go back to the days when Unite action was held back to avoid embarrassing a right-wing Labour leadership. We can’t afford to hold back in fighting Labour local authorities which implement cuts and privatisation. And as Starmer drives socialists out of the Labour Party the issue of democratising the political fund rather than devoting it all to Labour will be back on the agenda.

The election

Len McCluskey was last re-elected in 2017, and the rules specify a five-year term of office. However, McCluskey has never served a full term, preferring to trigger snap elections when the timing suits his agenda. He claims the election is due in 2021 but that he hasn’t yet decided when to announce his departure. This hasn’t stopped candidates starting to come forward. So far, three senior union officials have declared their desire to stand after several years of phoney war. Steve Turner and Howard Beckett are competing for the backing of the United Left (UL) faction, while Sharon Graham is standing without a faction but with support from much of the Organising and Leverage Department. All have been big players in the status quo and have so far not indicated any break from that.

It would be a disgrace if the election process began before the pandemic is over. This would reduce the organising potential of workplace campaigning. The election process is already heavily biased against rank and file candidates. Senior officers (mis-)use information they have for the purposes of their job to help them campaign, while the union has stopped providing information about branches to other candidates. An election campaign conducted largely online would favour candidates with access to member data and huge budgets to fund phone banking, mailshots and social media advertising. The Certification Officer ruling from the 2017 election gives a glimpse of skulduggery that goes on. In that election only the rank and file candidate, Ian Allinson, was transparent about his campaign funding. When branches are being starved of funds are the EC really going to allow huge sums of members’ subs to be diverted into internal electioneering?

The UL is holding national hustings on 18 July to decide who to back – but things don’t look as if they will be that simple. UL is the dominant faction in Unite, including McCluskey and most of the EC. Though it includes more socialists than any other faction, it also attracts careerists without genuine left credentials. Its dominance has led to it becoming ever closer with the union bureaucracy, rarely showing the independence it did when it played a crucial role in overturning McCluskey to back Corbyn as Labour leader in 2015. At union conferences in recent years, the UL has been on the right of almost all the major debates. These factors, and a focus on elections make it hard to maintain unity when people back different candidates in internal elections. McCluskey’s supporters and union officers triggered a split in the Scottish UL which was seen as insufficiently loyal. In the recent EC elections the official UL candidates were roundly defeated by ‘United Left Scotland’ candidate Helen McFarlane. In the UCATT (construction) sector rank and file candidates Frank Morris and Tony Seaman defeated official UL ones. The large North-West region is refusing to take part in the national hustings.

Unite Alliance claims to be on the left but generally comprises more right wing layers who haven’t joined UL, though it has sometimes challenged UL from the left over issues of union democracy. It is unclear whether a clear right-wing candidate will emerge this time – the impetus behind Gerard Coyne’s campaign, to break Unite’s support for Jeremy Corbyn, has gone.

Unite Rank and File is a grouping which emerged following Ian Allinson’s 2017 rank and file election bid. It is focused on solidarity and campaigning rather than internal elections, and has played an important part in putting forward left positions at union conferences.

In 2017 the UL complained bitterly that Allinson risked ‘splitting the vote’ and letting Coyne in. This didn’t stop the UL defeating proposals to change the election system from First Past The Post, which would have enabled a more diverse field of candidates and enabled members to vote for their preferences without fearing unintended consequences. Instead, UL backed changes to the rules to make it even harder for rank and file candidates to get on the ballot paper. The number of nominations required was raised from 50 branches or workplaces to 5% of all branches – which would mean around 150. For comparison, Ian Allinson secured 78 branch nominations plus some workplace nominations in 2017. Rank and file members have no way of knowing what the nominating workplaces are or how to contact them. The UL, far from championing an open, democratic union is protecting the bureaucracy from the members.

What now?

No election has been called yet, and more candidates may come forward. So far, there is no sign that any of the senior officials standing are arguing for the kind of change we need for our union to respond effectively to the health, economic and climate crises. It would be good if a credible socialist rank and file candidate emerged. Achieving the required nominations would be a huge challenge, but the process of trying to do so would enable important arguments to be put inside the union, help to galvanise resistance and build networks. If no such candidate emerges, or if they fail to secure the required nominations, socialists will have to decide which senior official to critically back. Even then, the campaign offers opportunities to shape the debate, build power, resistance and solidarity.


  1. I’d like to see a candidate who talks about bringing the Community section properly into the union. Leadership is the only issue I get a vote on – nothing else! So ‘my’ union may say and do all sorts of things I don’t agree with.

    • Absolutely! Someone who understands that worker doesn’t just mean someone who currently draws a wage for doing work for an employer, but means all those whose labour maintains and reproduces that workforce whether waged or not; whose position as unwaged labour is manipulated trough the benefits system to keep wages and conditions down in the waged sectors, is used to create competition for the most marginalised and insecure forms of waged work, and held as a threat over the waged worker thinking of standing up to this exploitation – all whilst bearing the cost of the massive amount of care work (principally childcare) which capitalists externalise onto the unwaged sector. Someone who understands that there is more to “the wage” than the number of pounds that go into a bank account at the end of the month, that all the “natural” and monetised services and commons which keep us alive and determine our quality of life are part of it as well, The way the union functions in terms of the position of the Community section really mirrors the way the unwaged are positioned in class terms – everything to do with care and social reproduction is cast onto the Community section – housing, benefits, public services and transport from the service-user perspective (as opposed to the perspective of those directly providing the service) – but given few resources and negligible power to do that work – work which, like domestic and community-based care work, is not taken seriously as “work” or even dignified with that term.

      However, it also follows that the Community section itself needs to change: my experience of my own branch – full of good committed people, by the way so no offense to them – was that it is dominated by retirees and people who are unemployed or sick but otherwise represent the “traditional” image of a unionised worker (white, male etc), and therefore does not challenge the notion of who a worker is, or indeed what work is – these are people who are temporarily or permanently out of waged work, but are still defined in relation to that part of their lives. There is consequently no serious capacity for organising around unwaged work as such, or for considering this as more than an essentially private or personal matter, or recognising the enormous contribution it makes to the employers’ ability to profit or indeed to the actual value of the wage “in use”, as it were, in the overall context of a worker’s life. Of course it can be (and is) argued that the purpose of unions is precisely to confine itself to matters directly related to the waged workplace, but even on a pragmatic basis that does not seem like a good way to win power, and certainly not at a time when our survival as a species is threatened and the connections and alliances between waged and unwaged, “workplace” and “community” concerns, are more vital than they have ever been.


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