Unite elections: An interview with Howard Beckett

Workplace nominations for the Unite general secretary election are underway, and there are three candidates competing for the left vote. rs21 members in Unite interviewed Howard Beckett, currently assistant general secretary responsible for the union’s legal and political work, about his election platform.

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

Why are you standing for general secretary and what changes in Unite do you hope to introduce?

Steve Turner is running on the idea of partnership with employers. I reject that. When you talk in that language it diminishes the fact that we are in a class struggle. 

The union should not be centrally run. We need to ensure that there is a relationship across sectors with strengthened collaboration between national officers, regional sector specialists and regional secretaries.  

I am banging the drum for Unite to have its own TV channel, with regular interviews with high-profile politicians and activists, constant news and evaluation of industrial and political landscape. It could be used for advice, distilling information for our reps, and even cookery shows. If we start talking to wider society the next generation will see exactly what a union does, understand the importance of collectivism and want to be part of this.

There are other things in the manifesto about the rights of Community members, anti-racism work and strike funds, making sure these become regionalised so our regions are able to support disputes better

The climate crisis is going to be the biggest issue facing workers in the next decade. Some industries will need to close, shrink or change dramatically and millions will be forced to migrate as parts of the planet become uninhabitable. How would you address these issues?

Climate change is right here, now. We need government intervention, and central to that is public ownership. Allowing this new industrial revolution to happen without public ownership would be a mistake. Freeports are a massive concern of mine because they will be used in the narrative around green energy when they are all about deregulation. We will see the government giving away tax benefits, attempting to remove unions organising. 

We have to demand green jobs for every fossil fuel job that is lost. Our collective responsibility is to not kill the planet. We expect good jobs, green jobs, that can be done in a way that gives people more leisure time. 

We also have a responsibility in respect of people migrating to the UK. The western world has created what it’s created, and we must accept our role in migrants coming into this country.

You have been a senior officer of Unite for a number of years, while our paying membership has declined. We face particular challenges organising atypical workers. We need to train more members to be effective activists. What is your plan for Unite to be more effective in organising in communities and workplaces, and where would you allocate resources?

Unite has the most difficult task in terms of growth because of the sectors we organise in and the rush to make those sectors precarious, or their being slowly killed off by a government moving to a service economy from manufacturing. We bring in about 10,000 members a month, but we lose people at the same time as bringing these new people in. Organising is not a silver bullet. 

We need to put resources into the regions, with the regions given much more of a voice about where resources go, but at the same time the central department needs a strategy for the big players. 

To talk about organising is to talk about how we give reps the tools to operate and service members when they come to the union. How are we going to make sure the union ticks all the boxes of the things we say we offer? If we do tick them all, with an organising strategy that works we will grow. It goes hand in glove with other parts of the organisation – political, education – why can reps at Jaguar Land Rover not make arguments for socialism?

Modernisation. If we have a TV channel giving people confidence in the successes we have and telling them what we do we will bring people into our union. If we have an app for precarious workers that lets them know when they’re working alongside another member we will grow. If we have an app that lets people know at a click of a button what their legal rights are, we will grow. That type of information needs to be given immediately to people so they know exactly where to go to know your rights, and that is to Unite. 

What lessons should we learn from the defeat of the Amazon unionisation ballot in the USA?

They picked the worst of the sites and just walked into it. One of the things missing was consumer mettle. One day in the month, people boycott, and that combining of industrial and consumer strength is key. Organising and winning is much more complicated than simply having people in a workplace. It’s also about winning the political narrative about what is happening in society and how collectivism can stop it. 

Participation in the union from workplaces to general secretary elections is far too low. Many members feel that the union is just a service rather than something they can get involved in, or that the structures are remote, top-down, incomprehensible and unresponsive. How would you increase participation and democracy in Unite?

Community members not having the right to sit on constitutional committees is wrong, and the same is true for those who are self-employed or in precarious work. I would ask the membership for the mandate to change this. 

I don’t believe the political committee should be limited to members of the Labour Party because the debate is much wider now. Having constitutional committees only accessible to Labour members means we limit the argument and don’t hear important perspectives.

I have sections in the manifesto about ensuring there will be a lay member who will be involved full time in the running of the union. I think the EC needs to step up to play the role expected of it in holding officers to account, and I am happy to have the debate about whether we should have more elected positions.

We have to communicate far better about branch structures. In so many workplaces [in the West Midlands] there were allegations of people not being informed that meetings were happening, that members had no access to branch finances. The reality is there’s £30m in branch funds not being used. I would have more regular elections of branch officials and do more to support people to communicate directly with their members.

Community branches need much more support, and I have manifesto commitments about what our Community members should expect in terms of welfare and financial assistance.

When I say I want a TV channel I mean a YouTube channel, but I reference it in this way so people can understand the size and scale of the concept. We are an extraordinarily wealthy union with £140m in cash assets, a strike fund of £40m and an overall balance sheet of half a billion. We have the resources to be ambitious.

How would you increase membership, participation and self-organisation by members of oppressed groups within Unite?

I’ve got a commitment out there to a candidates’ programme, a further commitment around Show Racism the Red Card (SRTRC), and an evaluation of everything we do from an antiracism perspective. But the reason I want to promote SRTRC is that I don’t think we have the skills and depth of understanding to do this, and anti-racism needs to be in the DNA of everything we do. I would increase the role of the SRTRC and I am making a commitment to hire an anti-racism organiser. 

Do you think it was right to pursue the appeals in the Sally Nailard case* and what would you do to tackle misogyny in Unite?

I think Sally Nailard’s case gets misconstrued by people. These were not allegations made against Unite in respect of our employees, but were about Unite reps. We don’t have the same ability to take action against reps exhibiting discriminatory behaviour as we would against employees. 

It was right for the Sally Nailard case to be fought because it was fought on the basic principle of whether we have responsibility for our reps, even though we have no contract with them in the way we do with employees. But we’re not the reps’ employers, and the argument left behind was that British Airways had responsibility for their staff. It was right for the case to be taken but it’s been over-emphasised somewhat. Going forward with it means education and courses we give to reps need to be constantly looked at to ensure people are not reflecting misogynistic behaviour. 

I wasn’t part of the decision to move Sally Nailard when she complained of misogyny, but therein lies the contradiction in this case. We did not employ the individuals she was going in to see again and again, so could not remove them. They had their own issues and complaints about her and that spun over into the types of behaviour none of us would countenance. The reality for the union was if we had not taken the decision to change her job the easy legal argument would have been ‘you didn’t move me from an environment in which I faced discrimination when you could have done’. It’s easy for someone to say ‘you have not looked after me’, but these arguments get made for the purposes of somebody wanting to win litigation, and we need to be careful as a union that we don’t buy into those arguments as being reflective of the truth. 

Misogyny exists in society so in any large employer you will see difficulties. But I don’t see there being any type of behavioural patterns similar to the allegations made in the GMB. We need to be careful we don’t suddenly label ourselves as something we are not, given we have a good proportion of women officers beyond the proportionality that exists in the membership. I do think there is more we could do for those in charge of Regional Industrial Sector Committees (RISCs). Women officers should be in charge of these so they can identify misogynist behaviour if it is happening. I do think this is a practical change we can make, but we need to avoid talking ourselves into a narrative where we say we have a misogynist culture in Unite because I don’t see it. 

What would be your priorities for improving Unite’s equality work?

That it streams through everything we do. We need to ensure equalities issues are dealt with by people who can step forward but don’t have the platform to be seen and recognised. Our Future Candidates Programme will address all inequalities, as it needs to be broad to make sure we’re giving the opportunity for everyone. In my manifesto I have a commitment to provide continuous training for staff and reps on combatting racism, sexism, homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. 

Over the course of the pandemic we have seen vast numbers of job losses and a rise in fire and rehire with remarkably little resistance. How would you change this?

The solution is industrial action. Employers realise that people’s ability to strike when they’re on furlough is limited – with British Airways, no flights were going anywhere anyway. But things are changing, we’re coming out of Covid now and the way to fight it is industrial action. This is why I keep referencing our £40m strike fund, with strike pay increased to £70 per day by the EC on my recommendation. It won’t be until there’s mass industrial action that the law will change. 

The UK response to Covid has been a disaster for lives and livelihoods. Countries that pursued a Zero Covid strategy, also known as elimination or maximum suppression, have fared much better. This would include an effective public sector Find, Test, Trace, Isolate and Support system including full pay for people off sick, isolating or unable to work, and the closure of unsafe workplaces. What are you doing to campaign for a Zero Covid strategy?

I’ve been vocal on this from the outset – I am the only person within the union who has. I’ve called for a Zero Covid strategy from the start and have spoken at Zero Covid campaign events. Preserving life is fundamental. It’s not just the amount of deaths – it’s the inequality of those deaths, as the most vulnerable have suffered the most. I put out materials explaining section 44 rights from the outset, I have supported walk outs and workplace closures by workers as recently as last week. 

What about Hinkley Point rank and file protests? 

People are being told to cross picket lines? By Unite? I’ve not seen this but I would be interested to see – please send me the letter. I wouldn’t want to be critical of people without knowing the facts but I have always been consistent – the approach of the union is to stand on the side of people who find themselves in struggle.

We already have repressive anti-union and public order legislation. Under what circumstances should Unite defy the law to protect the interests of Unite members?

If the laws are trying to restrict liberties then they should be defied. As soon as we start accepting them as valid then our liberties are lost, and it becomes only a matter of time before our entire movement is lost. Unite’s rule book has been changed to make a statement about Unite stepping outside of the law. It is becoming a reality for us now. 

The Policing Bill will affect everyone who protests, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, sex workers and groups disproportionately targeted by the police. How can we Kill The Bill?

I believe it will be killed. This legislation is being pushed through in the hope people wouldn’t recognise it for what it is, with a Labour leadership on side of the police and the establishment who didn’t put up a fight on Covert Human Intelligence Sources and were going to abstain on this until Clapham. Johnson hoped it would just pass undercover – but Johnson will not risk this as his poll tax moment. He will row back from it, and the more people who take to the streets the quicker that will happen. 

Resistance hasn’t been sufficient to prevent cuts and privatisation of our public services, or the suppression of public sector pay. How would you turn that around?

Strikes. Strikes! Targeted strike action. Simple as that. The idea that protecting the NHS is done by making speeches? Nonsense. People should be in Unite because they need to be in a union that will take the fight to the government. If we can’t make the argument for reversing privatisation now after Covid then frankly we all deserve what we get. If we can’t make an argument about care homes coming into public ownership under the NHS then we deserve what we get, and if we can’t defend the argument for a 15% pay rise then we deserve what we get. Here and now the reality for all of us there needs to be strategic, targeted industrial action. 

Would you support members in public services taking industrial action even when other public sector unions oppose it?

I’d support members taking strike action through Unite. When you’re talking about the NHS and multi-union workplaces you have to be strategic on how you take the action, but you can do it. Part of the organising strategy when you’re talking about the NHS, local authorities and public sectors where we’ve got to get public ownership back is to target those most influential, strategic jobs in the sectors and pull them out. So we need to be thinking: who is it we pull out to bring things to a halt? 

What are your plans for the relationship with the Labour Party now Starmer has replaced Corbyn?

He’s not a success as a leader. What’s going on now is a dereliction of duty with his failure to offer a narrative on zero Covid, or a narrative on nationalisation when it’s most needed, or resistance to fire and rehire. If he continues on the course he’s on he’ll become irrelevant, and Labour is quickly becoming a party of the establishment. 

It is for the Labour Party to prove its relationship with unions, and if it doesn’t speak on a daily, weekly, monthly basis on behalf of working people then it will become irrelevant to working people. But if that does happen, the union movement will not be found wanting. If I am general secretary, the union movement will step into that vacuum and talk with and for our communities, educate our communities and talk about socialism. 

What does that mean for Unite’s funding of the Labour Party and other organisations?

Unite has already reduced our affiliation and we’re on record as saying we will have to take great care that any further money is given to those who share our values. If they continue on this path there will be debates not just about regular funding and funding around elections but also about affiliation, and I will happily facilitate those debates. The only language the leadership understand at the moment is the language you would be giving to a bad employer. 

Anti Black racism, anti Gypsy, Roma and Traveller racism and Islamophobia have been on the rise in the Labour Party. How will you support members affected by this?

Every day I support members affected by it – with the authority of Unite’s Executive Council I have been supporting people around their suspensions. I am on record as saying I will give legal assistance to those who want to look at whether the treatment from the Labour Party is discriminatory. I would wholeheartedly ensure the support of Unite in respect of those communities in holding both Labour and wider society to account. Racism flourishes because people sit back and allow it to happen. In an institutionally racist society you can’t just be non-racist, you have to be anti-racist. 

You have been in charge of Unite’s affiliate services. What would you do to avoid many members’ main contact from the union being attempts to sell them affiliate services?

I think that has stopped. I’ve made those changes. I hope and expect people are receiving much less than they were before. Through the EC we have introduced standards in respect of how many times people can be called, and we’ve restricted the numbers of affiliates who can make those calls and the repetition of the calls. 

What’s your response to those who say you aren’t fit to be general secretary after being fined for wrongly taking money from compensation to injured miners?

I never took a penny of compensation from injured miners. I was fined because a cashier had stolen money from a probate file which had the Girl Guides and Guide Dogs for the Blind as beneficiaries. This cashier was in her sixties, and I felt it was an aberration. I was worried that she would be sent to jail so instead of reporting it to the SRA (Solicitors Regulation Authority) or to the police I gave her the opportunity of paying back the money in instalments, and the practice replaced the money. That was the reason for the fines. The media have tried to drag it into the miners because it suits them but I never took one penny of miner’s compensation, the practice never benefited from miners’ compensation and there was never one single complaint from a miner to that effect. I spoke at the Durham Miner’s Gala a couple of years ago and I think most people would understand that I wouldn’t have been invited to speak if there was any suggestion at all the practice had ever taken compensation off miners. You won’t find a single miner who raises these allegations, I can tell you that. It’s a lie, and if people want to verify that it’s a lie they can go on to the SRA website. 

Is there anything you’d like to add? 

I was expecting a question about whether I should be standing having never been a rep. Our reps are at the sharp end of the issues we’ve talked about today. I have put myself forward alongside them when they’ve been in those worst, difficult positions. To what extent does having been a rep 35 years ago help you being general secretary now? I don’t think it’s true that I don’t understand the workplace or what reps go through. From Ineos, Blacklisting, Birmingham bins twice, Visteon, Stobarts, British Airways – I’ve been on the front line and seeing things from the start to the finish. 

 

rs21 members in Unite have published a statement reviewing the three left candidates – read the full statement here. rs21 approached all three candidates who claim to be on the left, seeking interviews. Steve Turner declined. We plan to publish an interview with Sharon Graham in the coming days.

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