Friday, July 04, 2008

Unite with open minds, not closed doors

FLURRY of flags announced new merged union.
JERRY HICKS, with megaphone, and supporters, during ant-deportations campaign. The ex-convener is challenging leadership.

THERE were a couple of surprises at London's May Day march a year ago. First, as we gathered at Clerkenwell Green, a bevy of persons turned up outside the Marx Memorial Library waving white flags with a flowing ribbony logo, and the word 'Unite the Unon'. I was wondering who they were, and what it was about, when two friends came up and asked me the same question. The three of us, members of different branches of the Transport and General Workers Union(TGWU), were unaware that 'Unite - the union' was to be the name for the new giant union being formed by our union's merger with the engineering union Amicus.

The union executive member who enlightened me on this wasn't too happy, feeling the name and logo had been announced from on high, without waiting for discussion, so those flags and what-not could be ready as a fait accompli. Ah well, a rose by any other name...

The next surprise was in Trafalgar Square, when the chair welcomed our new big union, which was nice, but it was also announced that we were to be part of an even bigger union, a trans-Atlantic link-up with the United Steel Workers of America (USWA).

This was something new. We had voted in a ballot on whether to merge with Amicus. It had been discussed in branches. Members of both unions are concerned as to how it will affect the structures and rule book, but hopeful we will be strengthened by co-operation rather than competition in the workplace. I don't recall any discussion, or prior information, let alone the opportunity to decide democratically about relations with the American union.

May Day is about international solidarity, and it all began with workers demonstrating in Chicago. The USWA once had a militant, heroic stature, albeit in the past. All the same, I thought, Britain has a steel union too (even if it has rebranded itself Community in the aftermath of steel plant closures), so why would the US steel union be linking with our union?
Apart from such formality, if it's solidarity we're talking about, the obvious partner that sprung to mind for us was the West Coast longshoremen's union ILWU, who took action in support of the Liverpool dockers, TGWU members, something our own union felt it couldn't do (because of Tory anti-union laws). Or is that still too embarrassing for some?

There was a delegation from the West Coast union in Britain last weekend. They attended the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) conference, where Jack Hayman from San Francisco spoke about the action workers there took to oppose the Iraq war, something else on which they have given a lead. The ILWU members also called in at RMT headquarters to meet members of that union. As was mentioned at conference, it was rail workers in Scotland who refused to move munitions at the start of the Iraq war.

While i was at the conference I bought a copy of Solidarity, the trade union magazine, which is edited by Martin Wicks and supported by his Swindon trades union council, and several others. In the Summer issue Kim Moody, who has a background in the American unions, discusses some of the flaws in a likely top-heavy super-union. Some people are arguing that merger with an American union is necessary to take on multi-nationals. Bro.Moody points out that, in terms of industries and jobs, "UNITE has more overlap with the United Auto Workers.
But just as the T&G leadership developed a 'special relationship' with the Service Employees International Union in the US, so Amicus leader Derek Simpson partnered with the Steelworkers".

From what I have been belatedly learning about the Service Employees International Union(SEIU), workers' internationalism could be the last thing on the agenda, or more likely missing altogether from all these "unity" moves. "Partnership" with American big business might figure more prominently in the American union's thinking. SEIU leader Andy Stern, whom Tony Woodley welcomed to TGWU conference in 2005 as a "visionary" has praised Solidarity - the Polish one that is - leader Lech Walesa, for "winning the cold war", and "destroying all obstacles to market capitalism". But the SEIU leader also likes China's official Stalinist ACFTU unions for adapting to their country's penetration by US companies.

Contrary to the impression given in Trafalgar Square last year, the unification with the USWA has still to get the go-ahead, and Kim Moody thinks there might be just a looser federation.
But as he says, "It's hard to know because whatever the progress or lack of it, it is going on behind closed doors".

Hasty as they were in getting out logos and flags, the merger managers haven't managed to get a smooth run so far. Solidarity reports that Amicus members on the new executive have been given a right telling off by Derek Simpson, even accused of "treachery", for showing too much enthusiasm for unity by voting for a TGWU member as union president. Meanwhile Simpson is facing a legal challenge from former Rolls Royce Bristol convener Jerry Hicks, who says the Unite general secretary was only ever elected by the old Amalgamated Electrical and Engineering Union before it merged with smaller unions to form Amicus, that he is past retirement age, and it is time for a new election for the joint general secretary. Back in 2002 Jerry Hicks was one of the people who helped Derek Simpson wrest the leadership of the engineering union from right-winger Sir Ken Jackson. Now if his challenge succeeds, Tony Woodley may also have to stand down, and Bro.Hicks has said he will stand for general secretary.

Reporting on Unite's first joint executive committee in Solidarity, Gill George believes TGWU members reflected more of a tradition of membership participation and democracy, but both joint general secretaries argued for limits on lay members involvement in the executive. Both also want to insist that the union's political work remains under the exclusive control of card-carrying Labour Party members.

With members soon to be asked to vote on a new rule book which some say severely curtails the independence of branches, it looks like the fight is on for democracy in Britain's biggest union and biggest contributor to the Labour Party. It may also be a fight with international ramifications.

Solidarity the trade union magazine (not to be confused with other organisations or papers using that name) has a website at

Gill George has a blog at



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