Following the announcement of trade union merger talks in Britain early last year there has since been a silence surrounding the proposed creation of the so-called ‘superunion’. Members have been left wondering what is happening about the proposed merger of Amicus, the General, Municipal and Boilermakers (GMB) and the Transport & General Workers Union (TGWU).
At the Amicus conference held at Brighton in May last year a small team of three lay Executive members (Steve Davison, Allan Cameron and Jane Lewis) and three full time officers (including Derek Simpson) were appointed to engage in a joint working party with the two other unions. There has been virtually no report back from this working party since, either to Amicus members or the Executive.
The report from Derek Simpson in the Amicus member’s magazine was long on rhetoric and short on detail. The only information he gave on the progress of the talks was that, “We are working towards the completion of the merger by 2007 – but this is just the beginning,” with members left guessing what this remark actually meant.
Tony Woodley, General Secretary of the TGWU, reported to his Executive in December that there was reluctance from both Amicus and GMB to agree to detailed disclosure of the talks. There will now be a special TGWU Executive Council meeting on the 2nd February where a formal proposal for the consultation process, including a timetable, will be agreed.
At the TGWU Bi-annual Delegate Conference in Blackpool last year a motion, initially opposed by the TGWU Executive, was passed to hold a re-convened conference before any vote on the merger was put to the members. But a resolution to the December Executive from Region 6 of the TGWU to allow amendments from rank & file bodies to the framework agreement was defeated in a vote by 27 to 12. This means that the re-convened conference will have no opportunity to amend any proposals for the final rulebook and will be faced with a ‘take it or leave it’ choice.
But at least the TGWU have got a recall conference that can vote on the proposals. Paul Kenny, the acting General Secretary for the GMB, also promised GMB delegates at the unions conference in Newcastle last June that they would have the opportunity to vote on the proposals before any ballot of the members. So far no announcement of a recall conference for Amicus has been made.
At a recent officers meeting in Birmingham Derek Simpson told all officers that they should be advocating the merits of the merger to the members. It seems clear that a huge amount of propaganda from the union bureaucracy will soon be launched in a campaign to convince the members in a postal ballot of the need for the merger. But the discussion of a merger should be made not on the basis of what is good for the bureaucracy but on what is good for the members. That is why there should be an opportunity for full lay participation in any talks through the democratic structures of the union and an opportunity for a delegate conference to amend and vote on any proposals.
One of the arguments used in favour of creating a superunion is that it would help improve bargaining strength in the workplace by removing barriers to collective action. Tony Woodley has argued that co-ordinated action by all workers in the workplace is more effective than “inter-union squabbling”. But how will a union merger help improve co-ordinated action? Currently the biggest barrier to united action is the Anti-union laws that make secondary action illegal. The outsourcing of jobs to contractors and the segregation of workers into different companies, often with the same parent company but with different contracts of employment, within the same workplace mean that even with a merger of unions united action will still not be possible.
The best example of this was the Liverpool Dockers, where a group of workers who refused to cross a picket line in support of workers in the same dockyard were sacked and then repudiated by the TGWU for taking illegal action. The same anti-union laws led to the situation during the Wembley Stadium construction workers’ dispute where officials from Amicus were engaged in attempting to escort workers across the picket line against the threat of sequestration of Amicus assets. In this dispute it was the GMB that stood by its members and refused to issue a repudiation of the action and gave full support from the officials.
Another argument put in favour is that a new superunion would enable co-ordinated action to combat giant multinationals that play off one country’s workers against another. This assumes that there will be further mergers with international unions. The TGWU invited Andy Stern, President of the American trade union SEIU, to address their conference in Blackpool last year and have run joint campaigns on recruitment with SEIU. In Amicus there has been talk of a possible merger with the German union, IG Metall. But when IG Metall workers at the General Motors factory at Bocham in Germany took action to defend jobs they received no support from the Amicus leadership at the time. One of the arguments used as an excuse not to support was that it would be illegal to take supportive action with workers in Germany.
No union mergers will resolve this situation until a proper campaign is mounted to put pressure onto the Blair government to alter these laws. A further merger with international unions would also mean it is even more important to ensure proper democratic control and accountability over the union leadership and bureaucracy. That is why a democratic rulebook is the most important question in any union merger and it cannot be left to the leadership to decide what is best for the members. Most union mergers have in the past led to an increase in centralising control and a removal of democracy. That is the case with both the EETPU-AEU merger and the merger of AEEU and MSF that led to the formation of Amicus. It has taken a long time to restore some elements of democracy and accountability, such as the election of officers. But even before the rule change was passed Derek Simpson was announcing at a Gazette meeting held at the Amicus conference last May that election of officers may have to be abandoned in the event of a merger.
The new ‘superunion’ would cover an enormous number of workers in different industries. Already in Amicus there are 23 different sectors each with there own national officer. Some of the sectors are bigger than a lot of independent Trade Unions. For workers of all sectors to have a proper say over the actions of their representatives they must be able to have regular elections of their own officers and have lay representative bodies that have control over the decisions made on behalf of that sector. Without this and other essential lay democracy any ‘superunion’ would just become a giant monolithic structure that would be unaccountable and uncontrollable by the members. That is why Amicus Unity Gazette voted at a national meeting held in Preston last year to adopt the following motion as a prerequisite for any merger proposals.
This Gazette meeting resolves that any future mergers should contain assurances that the democratic positions of the Gazette will be furthered by the merger:
Any Instrument of Amalgamation shall require the agreement of a recall Conference before being submitted to a ballot of the membership.
The NEC of any merged Union shall be composed exclusively of lay members.
The Union should be based on Regions and Industrial Sectors with the Sectors having autonomy subject to overall Union policy.
The NEC should be based on 75% Industrial Sector representation, 25% Regional representation (with additional provision for representation from Women) with all NEC members elected by and from their constituencies.
Full time officers should be elected.
All full time officers should be responsible to the relevant lay committee.
The Rules Commission to draw up a new rule book should be elected by Conference.
Only if these essential democratic demands are in place can we support a merger. It will become clear over the next few months what the exact proposals are and whether they match up to these demands.