What’s at stake in the Unite election?

The Unite General Secretary election has generated arguments and splits on the left with different candidates facing down the right. Ray M, a Unite rep in the Aerospace and Shipbuilding sector, argues that to build a sustainable left we have to develop a strategy that challenges the status quo in Unite. That means taking a different road to the official left. This article was originally published on voice.wales.

Unite the union | © Andrew Skudder/Flickr

Ballot papers for the election of the next General Secretary of the Unite union, one of the two biggest unions in Britain, have arrived through people’s doors this week.

With recent union elections returning right wing candidates in both the GMB and UNISON, the battle over who leads Unite is an important one for the whole left. If the right wing candidate, Gerard Coyne, wins, it will be a boost not only to the right of the union but the right of the Labour Party and wider movement.

But this election is about more than the internal battles within the Labour Party. Trade unions such as Unite, with over a million members and huge potential industrial power, are significant in their own right.

The truth is that all major unions, including Unite, failed to fight the devastating attacks on jobs, wages, terms and conditions during the austerity years. Now we are struggling to cope with yet another assault on terms and conditions as employers take advantage of the pandemic. For example, more than 10% of workers were threatened by ‘fire and rehire’ at the start of lockdown.

Following decades of defeat, the labour movement has retreated from many former ‘heartlands’ and struggles to be relevant in significant parts of the economy.  Many activists don’t start from the internal factions in the union or Labour Party, but from struggles in the workplace.

We need to start by recognising how the movement is failing millions of working class people. Then we can begin to effectively deal with the problems we face in the workplace and work out how these issues relate to the wider movement.

Last time the right nearly won

Despite offering nothing positive in his campaign, the right wing candidate Gerard Coyne came close to causing an upset in the last General Secretary election in 2017.

Incumbent Len McCluskey had 1,185 branch nominations versus 187 for Coyne, indicating that Coyne would get far fewer votes than McCluskey. But in the end, McCluskey only narrowly won with 45.5% of the final vote, with 41.3% for Coyne. A third candidate, the rank and file socialist Ian Allinson got 13.1% and was accused of splitting the left vote.

But the shock result in 2017 shows how the number of nominations can have little bearing on the actual result, and that widespread malaise over the Unite leadership can be capitalised on by the right if the left are seen to be the gatekeepers of the status quo.

Coyne’s campaign 

During the last election, Coyne breached data protection laws, launched a campaign of smears against Unite and Len McCluskey; failed to distance himself from support from the racist English Defence League and campaigned using the anti trade union Sun tabloid.

To distract from his disgraceful campaign, Coyne brought a litany of charges against Unite following his defeat and dismissal from the union. Despite several costly attempts to present these charges against Unite, not a single one of his cases, at the employment tribunal, with the Certification Officer or the Information Commissioner was successful.

They were all thrown out. The appeal judge also reported in his findings that Coyne had conducted an improper campaign with an abundance of personal attacks and had breached data laws and election rules. Having stood on a campaign of ‘cleaning up’ Unite, Coyne was sacked for the misuse of data during his election campaign.  While all of Coyne’s claims were widely trailed in the press, the judge’s findings were quietly ignored.

Despite claims of wanting to remain distant from bitter internal Labour Party faction fights, Coyne was being backed by Tom Watson to help undermine Unite’s support for Jeremy Corbyn. Today, arch Blairite Peter Mandelson is suggesting that Coyne is the only candidate who can save Unite.

However, whilst Coyne poses a serious right wing threat, he is honing in on legitimate concerns such as the cost of the Unite Birmingham Conference Centre. As if he possesses some sort of moral gravitas, he’s suggested that the centre was “an appalling waste of members’ money”. However, during his 17 year tenure as West Midlands Regional Secretary, Coyne raised no objections to the planned development. Coyne presided over all of the issues he is now complaining about – decline in membership numbers, opaque transactions, lack of democracy, lack of industrial strategy and so on.

Coyne is thoroughly discredited and unfit to run Unite. So we have to ask ourselves, how is it that someone as disreputable as Coyne can stand for election and get on the ballot paper? To answer this means facing up to some uncomfortable truths.

Problems in Unite

Working class communities have been fractured by more than four decades of neoliberal restructuring. Workers collectivity and solidarity has been undermined and our lived experience is more atomised than at any point in living memory.  Now our lives are being upended again. The pandemic is being used to force through huge changes to how we live and work together. Government and employers are making changes to create an employers  ‘new normal’. To defend our jobs, communities and standard of living we need a radical change in direction in the labour movement.

The approaches and structures that weren’t fit for purpose to fight austerity haven’t suddenly become appropriate today.

Unite has been led by the left since its inception in 2007 and It has supported and helped finance many of the major social movements against war, austerity and racism.

Once Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party, Unite and Len McCluskey in particular backed him against the right. It’s fair to argue that without this support Corbyn wouldn’t have survived as long as he did. So for those of us on the left, Unite’s position on the left in the labour movement is important. And clearly, this makes Unite a target for the right.

But support for policy positions and campaigns has rarely moved beyond the executive or the conference hall in Unite. Many of our positive policies aren’t carried through the union to the grassroots and the support for the left is broad but shallow. Only a small layer of lay activists are aware of these positions and a smaller number actively support them. This makes these positions and policies vulnerable to attack, as many members have no knowledge of positions taken on their behalf, let alone support them.

Despite being one of the largest unions in Britain representing members across the private, public and third sectors of the economy, Unite has failed to lead any determined attempt to organise and lead concerted industrial action across any sector. Taking positive political positions and supporting important political campaigns doesn’t detract from these failings.

Unite’s current structures belong to a bygone era that was appropriate for dealing with single site local employers. They are not fit for the modern world where members face multi-site and transnational employers. The majority of the power and resources in Unite lie within the regions, meaning we have a dysfunctional relationship between regions and national sectors. This structure hinders us when we want to organise or coordinate action against a single employer or across a sector that spans different regions. Where coordinated and effective action has been organised it’s largely been done independently by rank and file activists like those in construction who defeated the hated BESNA changes to terms and conditions in 2012 and in recent weeks the attempt to deskill electricians.

The mismatch between those structures and the industrial reality today also encourages a situation where key decisions are taken away from our democratic structures reinforcing a top-down culture that minimises membership participation which is the key to building workplace power. If we are to successfully rebuild we need to re-engage with existing members, rebuild in those areas we’ve lost and organise in the new sectors. To achieve this we need to develop a strategy with appropriate structures that encourage mass participation.

Deal on the Left

With the very real threat of Gerard Coyne, pressure has grown around the need for the left to unite behind a single candidate.

Howard Beckett, one of the original left candidates, has fallen in behind Steve Turner, who is the candidate of the United Left (UL), the official left in Unite who also has the most branch nominations. Many are surprised at this move and a substantial number of his supporters are disgusted by it. Whatever, the personal and political disagreements between both Turner and Beckett, what many fail to grasp is what they substantially agree on. They both have very similar visions for the union – defending the ossified power structures and despite the claims to want change, they both have in their many years in office maintained the status quo.

A joint statement reveals that Turner has pledged to implement a ‘blended manifesto’ if elected. This means he has agreed to support Beckett’s Unite TV initiative, giving each region and nation a studio from which to broadcast on YouTube. The ‘blended manifesto’ remains unpublished and it is difficult to imagine how they can reconcile significant differences over Unites relationship with Labour. We do know that this alliance will give more power to the regions which will further Balkanise the union, exacerbating existing difficulties for activists organising across their companies and sectors.

Even if they win the election this agreement is a recipe for further decline which will only create yet more opportunities for the right to feed off the growing discontent with the left leadership of Unite.

Steve Turner

So what about the two competing left candidates, Steve Turner and Sharon Graham?

Steve Turner has been an Assistant General Secretary (AGS) of Unite for many years with responsibility for manufacturing. On his watch we’ve seen the continued decline in jobs and membership. Turner prides himself in his relationships at Westminster. In a recent interview he’s quoted as saying, “It’s looking someone in the eye, just sitting down and having a straight conversation. People talk about ‘beer and sandwiches’, but that’s where a lot of our business is done, in the evenings, in a coffee shop somewhere, just having that break and building a relationship. Because a lot of this is about trust – believing that people are being straight with you and being confident in the person that you’re negotiating with, for them and us.” This approach underpins partnership, the idea that all sides have shared interests in reaching agreement. Partnership has been disastrous for our movement. The idea that we all have shared interests undermines the independence of trade union organisation.

Turner’s belief that compromise is not a dirty word, and that engagement is better than confrontation, means that his focus is on reaching deals, not fighting for workers’ interests first and foremost. For example, Turner recently joined with a small group of union officials – the TUC’s Frances O’Grady and Kate Bell, and Prospect’s Mike Clancy to meet Rishi Sunak and Treasury officials to help draft the furlough policy.

On the deal, Turner said, “People need to know this wasn’t a gift from government.” The furlough scheme has protected millions of workers from the ravages of unemployment but it’s also protected the Tories from the unpredictable consequences of millions of workers and their families being turfed out onto the street.  The involvement of Turner and other leading trade unionists no doubt helped secure a better package for workers.

Some of Turner’s supporters have claimed credit for Furlough, but the truth is that there was no public pressure from Unite on the Tories to implement it.

In fact, trade union involvement in the negotiations must be one of the best kept secrets of the pandemic. Because these negotiations were conducted in secret – most people who’ve benefited from the package would have had no idea about trade union involvement.

Moreover, it’s clear the Tories were under pressure to find a solution and in this situation it’s likely that more could have been won. Workers’ sick pay remains at pitiful levels leading to problems for those who need to isolate. Did our negotiators raise this? Who knows.

Either way, a public campaign around furlough and related issues would have raised the profile of trade union involvement and made it possible to fight for a better deal. This was a missed opportunity, and despite Turner’s protestations, most people have concluded that it was ‘a gift from the government’.

It’s never in the interests of the labour movement to keep negotiations with the Tories or employers private over issues affecting millions of workers and their families. Our strength is built through informing and involving our members and publicly confronting bosses. Ultimately though, the lack of member involvement means that a benefit like the furlough scheme can be taken away whenever the Tories think they can get away with it.

Turner’s manifesto has a raft of policies, particularly relating to Green jobs. He says he wants to establish a new industrial strategy and Green Transition Team to move towards a greener, cleaner economy. As AGS responsible for manufacturing he already has the power to make these changes. Many of us who have argued for years for a ‘Just Transition’ towards green jobs, feel that these policies won’t be implemented. Since the end of the Cold War, we were promised a ‘peace dividend’. What we got was tens of thousands of P45’s and site closures. Setting up a ‘Cross sector Defence Diversification Combine’ in manufacturing became policy in 2018 and nothing has been done to organise it. After years of supporting policies for a ‘Just Transition’, nothing has been done. Now employers are waking up to the need to transition from dirty carbon intensive products and processes. Their transition won’t be a ‘just’ one. They’ll aim to protect the ‘bottom line’ not jobs, wages and conditions. So, we need more than fine policies and commitments. We need action to support our reps, members and communities. Otherwise these policies are just another example of ‘Greenwash’.

Turner has been a supporter and co-chair of the anti-austerity coalition People’s Assembly (PA) since its launch in 2013 and this is one of the arguments made in support of his election campaign.  His support for the PA is welcome and should continue; PA has played an important role in mobilising large numbers against austerity. Mirroring failures across the whole left, however, it’s been unable to galvanise action on the scale needed to stop the cuts.

But there’s an important point around action against austerity that often gets missed.

The power to stop austerity ultimately lies with organising disruptive action in the community and workplace involving workers facing cuts in the public sector, with support from service users in the profitable private sector.

Unite is uniquely placed to pull together a campaign that involves workers in the public and private sectors alongside the community branches to develop a campaign to mobilise effective action across our class. Sadly, there’s no evidence that Turner has attempted to use his leading positions in the PA and Unite to argue for the kind of strategy that could stop the grinding cuts. There have been countless opportunities to organise nationally against cuts and privatisation but they have been scuppered by bureaucratic inertia and a lack of vision.

Sharon Graham

The election of a new General Secretary can’t resolve all of the problems we face. But it can herald a change in direction and open up the space for activists to rebuild our strength. There is unfortunately no rank and file candidate in this election and all those running have had a part to play in a union leadership that has not properly defended members when faced with an employers and government offensive in recent years.

However, to have any hope of moving forward we have to first recognise that we can’t go on like this. This is one of the critical points that separates Graham out from all of the others. Turner, Beckett and Coyne, with their years of support and defence of the status quo, have all in their own ways been responsible for the problems we face in Unite today.

While Graham has been part of the same machine, she has led initiatives across various sectors that have helped Unite activists build new organisation, defend reps and defend existing terms and conditions.

So for example, Graham led the drive to organise in the meat industry with a large precarious and migrant workforce where only 30% of workers were protected by collective agreements. Three years later, with over 10,000 new members joining, 80% of workers in the sector were covered by collective bargaining. In Honda, following the victimisation of the senior rep and threatened derecognition, a campaign of leverage on Honda won his reinstatement with over 1,000 new members joining Unite in the plant. Graham also led the campaign against the ruthless exploitation of seasonal horticulture migrant workers helping them win union recognition and the removal of the most draconian measures being used against the 4,000 workers.

Unite members at Go North West were recently involved in the longest bus workers dispute in our history against ‘fire and rehire’. Pressure from strikers and supporters got Andy Burnham, the Labour Mayor, on the picket line where he condemned ‘fire and rehire’. Workers’ action combined with leverage on Go North West resulted in victory. However, Turner criticised the tactics. He said: “I want to see Labour councillors elected on May 6. I want to see Labour mayors. And it frustrates me, it angers me sometimes, that some of the union’s campaigning right now is pitched against our mayors, against Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham. What’s that all about? I find that incredible that we would do that.” Yet the leverage action organised by Graham’s department which supplemented the 85 days of strikes, was part of the action that delivered victory for Unite members on the buses. Although the leverage campaign should have been organised earlier in the dispute, we have to wonder whether it would have been possible at all if Turner had been general secretary?

Those of us who have had to resist cuts or job losses administered by Labour councils or sanctioned by Labour Mayors, find it incredible that a prospective leadership candidate of Unite would undermine our campaigns that aim to defend our members’ services and livelihoods. Refusing to openly call out senior Labour figures when they are acting against the interests of Unite members weakens our ability to defend our members. It’s this uncritical support for Labour that reinforces our weaknesses and helps perpetuate decline, encouraging further apathy within the union.

The official left in Unite are increasingly disengaged from members and they support structures in the union that are a barrier to building the movement. They continue to support a relationship with Labour that pledges continued funding with little obvious return, while undermining the struggles of members who face Labour-administered cuts. If the left wants to build a relationship with the best fighters in the union and build a movement for change then we need a different approach.

Working class people are facing a crisis of representation in the workplace and in the political arena.

The most effective way to take on Coyne is through developing a programme for struggle and positive change that can appeal to broader layers of Unite members, who don’t normally vote in the union’s elections.

In her ‘Manifesto’, Graham points out that Unite’s political project in Labour has failed and the various movements outside of parliament have failed to build working class power. While she’s not in favour of breaking the link, she says, under her leadership, we will no longer write blank cheques to fund the Labour Party.

Graham also makes the critical point that under her leadership Unite will “Oppose any Local Authority, including Labour, if they attempt to force through cuts to jobs and services after COVID-19 and beyond. I will support candidates who oppose cuts to Unite members’ jobs and services and Councils and Councillors who fight against them.“ As well as pledging to oppose Labour councils implementing cuts,  this commitment is a radical departure from existing policy as it would also open up space for building support for anti-cuts candidates in councils and constituencies breaking the commitment to only support Labour Party candidates.

Graham also proposes to “Support only MPs or candidates for Parliament who are trade unionists.” This proposal has a limiting workerist flavour to it. Clearly, there will no doubt be candidates who are fantastic community activists or leading figures in social movements who don’t fit this bill but could be great candidates for our movement.

There are limitations with Graham’s campaign. She has taken an anti-machine politics approach, which can appeal to a broader range of members. But this has also meant that she has failed to speak out or support the Kill the Bill movement or the Palestine solidarity movement. These are crucial issues for the left, and we have to fight to ensure that union leaders take a stance on them to help us win these positions across the working class.

But these shortcomings do not mean that the left should back Turner, who clearly has his own political weaknesses. And neither do they mean that Graham is not a candidate of the left who does not have a stance on major political issues.

Graham has outlined a two pronged strategy for the union to re-engage with working class communities. In the workplace, Graham proposes first to rebuild shop stewards’ organisations across all sectors of the economy with company and sector wide combines.

She has also pledged to work with other trade unions to grow and develop power with an approach which could challenge the narrow agendas of competing unions and the failure of the TUC to help us build effective strategies to take on large employers.

Secondly, she says she wants “us to build on our work within the community by ramping up new campaigns that will be led by the people themselves.” Graham wants to “Focus on building a movement for change.” She says, “We will dedicate funds to build a progressive, non-sectarian platform that sits outside of electoral politics. We will grow our influence within marginal seats and organise within ‘left behind’ areas and constituencies where the Union is strong.”

Getting back to grassroots community organising with funding for political campaigns can help us re-engage with working class communities who no longer see any relevance in the labour movement and have become easy targets for right wing agendas. The reality is that many existing campaigns have little purchase in working class communities. Graham’s strategy is focussed on building up our capacity to resist in both the workplace and communities. Her pledge to use part of the political fund to finance projects beyond the Labour Party is a further significant and important change in direction.  Her strategy would allow the union to use our resources to build in ways that could help encourage working people to identify with the left.

In several campaign meetings, Graham has also argued that Unite should be playing a leading role in the recent movements for justice. The new Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill, if passed, would have a dramatic impact on trade union’s ability to operate effectively. Building a campaign in workplaces and communities against this wretched bill should be a priority for any incoming general secretary.

As a result of her previous campaigning, Graham has won the support of many of the reps most recently involved in major struggles. The lead reps in the successful strikes on Manchester buses, at Thurrock bins and the rank-and-file construction electricians, recently victorious in their battle against the employers’ deskilling agenda have all publicly come out in support of Graham.

They are attracted to her programme of improving the industrial organisation of Unite in the workplace. This has never been more important as companies threaten workers with ‘fire and rehire’ and look to victimise our reps. When we are thinking of who to vote for, we should take the opinions of our most militant and active members very seriously.

Splitting the Left?

Owen Jones, Novara and others on the left outside of Unite are in a panic about any potential victory for Coyne. Some of the predictions from the soft left commentariat are cataclysmic, claiming that our influence in the Labour Party will be shattered for years, if not decades. The argument goes that we should back Turner because he is the candidate of the UL, has the most branch nominations, and has been more willing to back political initiatives. But attached to this is the idea of the soft left’s strategy vis a vis the Labour party, and seeing Unite as a tool for waging this fight.

Putting aside the fact that the right will do everything in their power to ensure that the Corbyn moment will never again be repeated, the left inside the Labour Party have done a pretty miserable job of defending Corbyn and his legacy. He remains kicked out of the party, with barely any resistance from the left. The reality today, despite holding Batley and Spen, is that Labour is facing an organic crisis. The party is losing support across a range of constituencies and that includes trade unionists who increasingly believe that Starmer’s Labour Party doesn’t represent them. With the Bakers union and GMB now questioning the relationship, it’s unsurprising that many in Unite are also doing so.

One of the main problems with the approach of Owen Jones and others is that none of these commentators want to face up to the reality of a strategy that continues to fail Unite members and the wider working class, as long as Unite is seen to support the left. It’s this cynicism that ensures that workers will steer clear of anyone identified with this kind of left.

While the official left has been dominant for over a decade and a half, the reality is that the left is weaker now in Unite because of a Broad Left strategy that focuses exclusively on winning and maintaining control of the union machine at all costs. This means that the important weaknesses in our union have not been addressed and the relationship with the official left and workplace activists has been eroded. Recent elections in Unite for the executive and General Secretary have shown the strategy of the official left has been one of diminishing returns. Simply arguing for the same approach is leading us to defeat. We were too close last time and with turnout so low, we risk letting the right in every time.

Conclusion 

Workers are rejecting the status quo wherever you care to look. From Brexit, to establishment Labour, workers are crying out for an alternative. This dynamic can play left or right, however.

Coyne poses as the outsider but wants to turn the clock back to an era when Unite signed blank cheques to Labour while refusing to criticise their sorry record in Westminster, the mayoralities and council chambers.

His campaign therefore enjoys significant support from the likes of John Spellar MP and others on the right of the Labour Party and wider movement. However, Coyne is completely divorced from the experience of ordinary Unite members. Despite being dismissed from Unite over four years ago, he lives in a detached country pile in the rolling Worcestershire countryside.

Back then his house was valued at over £1 million. So he’s not short of a bob or two! However, even his lavish lifestyle can’t explain how he’s funded repeated costly challenges against our union and it’s clear that a well connected right wing which exists outside the union wants to see him do well.

Members who nominate or vote for Coyne aren’t desperate to elect a new right wing leader who lives in a million plus country pile. They see the existing leadership of Unite as a barrier. They are opposed to the status quo and want change. After years of decline with little sign of improvement, even Gerard Coyne can look attractive to some disengaged members.

The contrast between Turner’s approach and Graham’s is that whilst both have limitations, one is achieved behind closed doors with little if any membership involvement and the other is achieved by campaigning with members and building our workplace strength.

So, taking sides, confronting aggressive employers and challenging Labour where they are not prepared to support our members, is a necessary part of the struggle if we want to win. It’s also a necessary part of any strategy to rebuild the left in the union. With only 12.2% of members participating in the General Secretary election last time, the key for the left is to encourage greater participation in the election. Setting out a more combative position can help us enthuse more members and build turnout.

Despite being the candidate of the official left in Unite, Turner’s outlook represents a retreat to the right from McCluskey. As we’ve already seen his criticism of Labour will be muted which undermines our members in important battles. His support for partnership and a servicing model of trade unionism – where members are not involved collectively in struggle or the structures of the union leads to disengagement and passivity. It should therefore come as no surprise that right wing Labour MP Jack Dromey who previously backed Coyne is now supporting Turner. Dromey sees Turner as a safe pair of hands.

Unite’s support for the left is crucially important, but cannot be sustained whilst the membership is disengaged from our campaigns; as it is from most of the union’s structures and decisions. We have to move beyond capturing the machine and winning only formal support for decent policies, the social movements and the left in the labour movement.

We need to re-engage with members, build rank and file organisation and convince them to genuinely support these important positions and campaigns. To stop the right in Unite we have to change the status quo, deal with the real problems members face while providing hope for the future.

While there are valid criticisms about Graham’s reluctance to take up some wider political issues, her approach helps workers build up the capacities needed to resist the employer’s offensive and make it possible to put into practice the positive policies we have.

Graham’s campaign recognises the problems we face and outlines a strategy that can begin to bring about positive change, help us rebuild the movement with a left that’s connected to workers and communities. However, if elected as General Secretary, we will have to ensure that Graham publicly supports the political views of the union on Palestine in support of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, the ‘Just Transition’ towards green jobs, Defence Diversification and the many other positive policies of Unite. Whilst she has not actively supported these issues, it is misplaced to think that she would seek to drop them from Unite’s policy platform.

Finally, we should resist the idea that politics and workplace struggles are conducted separately. There is a rich history of well-organised workers taking political action in opposition to war, racism and solidarity with Palestine. It’s important to make the links between these struggles and encourage workers’ self organisation and activity.

Following the successful bus strike in Manchester, at least 40 Go North West strikers asked Unite to arrange a coach to the People’s Assembly demonstration in London for the 26 June. This example shows how workers can make the connections between their day to day struggles and bigger political questions.

When we win we are at our most radical. To win more consistently and on a sectoral and national basis we need to change our union. Of the three candidates, only Graham offers us the possibility for the kind of change we need.

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