Unite’s recent rules conference marks a step forward for the union, which voted to support Jeremy Corbyn for Labour leader and to back illegal action taken by workers fighting against the cuts. Luke Wilson of Unite London ITC branch explains the challenges ahead for Britain’s largest union.
Union rules conferences are seldom the kinds of events that get the revolutionary juices flowing, as delegates gather to debate the minutiae of internal union procedures, dissect standing orders and deconstruct equality policies. However, we live in interesting times, and the full-blooded attack by the government of the 1% on the labour movement has prompted stirrings amongst its leadership. It was against this backdrop that delegates and leading members of Unite gathered in Brighton earlier this month.
Whilst political parties are notorious for reneging on their election pledges, the Tories have kept their promise to carry out the worst attacks on trade union rights since Thatcher. Under the current proposals, strike ballots in many public sector industries will be deemed unlawful if either the turnout is less than 50%, or less than 40% of those balloted vote in favour. To underline the rank hypocrisy of this policy, the Tories themselves won the election with only 24% of the vote, only 16 MPs out of 650 meeting the standard in their own constituencies.
Not content with making it harder to hold a lawful strike ballot, the Tories are introducing a new crime of ‘unlawful picketing’, with jail-time for offenders, and companies will be allowed to hire scab labour directly to break the strike. In other words, the ‘right to strike’ will become the ‘right to strike completely ineffectively’, which rather defeats the point.
These plans prompted Unite general secretary Len McCluskey to argue that if it were to become impossible to hold a lawful strike, the union would have to consider breaking the law. In a significant move, the rules conference accepted his recommendation and voted to remove the phrase “so far as may be lawful” from the part of the rulebook governing strike action, potentially paving the way for the union leadership to support illegal strike action. This also opens the doors to a general strike – action that would be deemed political, and thus illegal, under current anti-trade union laws.
The other big issue was the relationship between the union and the Labour Party. Given the austerity-lite programme put forward in the Party’s failed election campaign, its subsequent inability to stand up to the Tories in any meaningful way, and its near-complete collapse in Scotland, the question of disaffiliation seemed to be on the table. However, Jeremy Corbyn’s labour leadership campaign, and the Unite executive’s decision to back him, cut across this. Hence, the conference voted to support the National Executive’s statement largely supporting the status quo regarding the Labour Party – that is, for Unite to remain affiliated. Unite’s Scottish section was granted significant autonomy, however this fell short of devolving control over political affiliation.
Unite’s support for Corbyn reflects an enormous – and possibly decisive – boost to Corbyn’s campaign, with Unite already claiming that they have signed up over 50,000 people to vote for Corbyn. The task now is to mobilise the full weight of the union behind Corbyn, to guarantee his victory, and to prepare for potential future battles inside the party if Corbyn wins and the right-wing attempt a coup to remove him.
Aside from these political issues, a number of rule-changes were debated. Conference passed a motion fixing the general secretary’s term at five years, thus preventing a repeat of the controversy around Len McCluskey calling an early election last time. In addition, motions were put forward calling for election of some union officials, but these were defeated. Socialist Appeal supports the call for the election of all officials, making them accountable to the members they serve. Whilst Len McCluskey’s leadership has undoubtedly moved the union to the left, there still exists a layer of officials from the previous period, with no democratic way of holding them to account or getting rid of them.
A certain lack of democracy does exist within the union, and it was interesting to see attempts by the NEC to enable them to avoid debating troublesome motions being defeated. The union will face much tougher challenges over the next few years, as the Tory cuts begin to bite and the working class looks to Unite for leadership. At the same time, the leadership will come under serious pressure from the capitalist class to cave in and accept what’s coming. Events in Greece demonstrate what enormous pressure will be exerted by the entire ruling class on the leaders of the labour movement. In response, the working class needs its own counter pressure, with unions that are democratic from top-to-bottom, giving no room for officials to make deals behind the members’ backs.
All in all, the outcome of this conference is a positive and welcome step forward, in particular the move to support breaking the law when necessary. However, the union leadership will have to back up words with actions, supporting workers when they take unofficial action (as McCluskey eventually did during the sparks’ dispute), and calling national co-ordinated action to confront the bosses. For big disputes, Unite must organise flying pickets, so successful during the miners’ strike of 1984-5, and physically occupy workplaces when necessary. All this must be in preparation for a one-day general strike, itself a precursor to a wave of more radical action.
As for the Labour Party, Jeremy’s campaign has pushed disaffiliation off the agenda for now; but if he fails to win, or to build a credible left-wing within the Party, then the question will return. Unite needs to prepare itself for the political battles ahead, building up its Community section into a political force encompassing housing campaigns, anti-cuts groups, the unemployed and the youth: those sections cut off from ‘traditional’ industrial organising. This political force – a mass social movement – should be mobilised to support Jeremy Corbyn against Blairite sabotage should he win, and to help rebuild the Left of the party.
Never before has the need for a socialist alternative to Tory rule been so clear. It’s not enough for the labour movement to oppose the Tories – we need to put forward a real alternative to their cuts and misery. If you agree, join us in the struggle!