Jerry Hicks has gone too far
BEFORE the dust has settled on Ed Miliband's misguided -or Tory press-guided - moves against my union, Unite, with the admission it did nothing wrong in the Falkirk constituency, than another case is being got up, and though unlike the previous fiasco it does not go so far as wasting police time, it does invite the law into the union's affairs.
The odd thing is, that though it may also be picked up by the right-wing anti-union press, anxious for fresh "scandal", this affair is being stirred up by someone on the "left". The so-called "Grassroots Left" to be precise.
A press release headed "Len McCluskey's rival calls for Unite leadership election result to be annulled" announces that "Jerry Hicks, Len McCluskeys only rival in this year's election for Unite General Secretary has lodged a complaint calling for the result to be annulled after it emerged that 158,000 ballot papers were sent to members no longer paying fees. And it may result in the election having to be re-run."
Len McCluskey, 63, won the election in April with a margin of 60,000 more votes than Jerry Hicks. Bro.McCluskey evidently called the election to consolidate and prolong his leadership of the union, as it takes on the Con Dem coalition and its cuts, and he pursues his agenda of reclaiming the Labour Party. He called it early so as to avoid hustings falling during the next general election campaign. A Labour Party member himself, Bro. McCluskey said earlier this year that if Labour did not serve the interests and hopes of the working class the unions might have to find another way. (Mind you, this was while sharing a platform with Bob Crow of the RMT who says reclaiming Labour is a lost cause and we need a new party now).
A former Rolls Royce convenor who was victimised, and a former SWP member, Jerry Hicks got quite a good vote when standing for Respect in his home town, Bristol, but since then he has become better known as a challenger to union leaders, first against Derek Simpson in Amicus before it fully merged into Unite, and then coming a surprise second out of four to Len McCluskey after a vigorous campaign in Unite. Promising to only accept a worker's wage if elected, and demanding that union posts be filled by elected rather than appointed officials, Jerry Hicks has been seen as a champion of the rank and file in the union, and workers' democracy, against the bureaucrats.
In his second stand against Len McCluskey, he objected that the Unite leader's was attempting to prolong his stay in office beyond retirement age, something previously tried by his predecessor Simpson, and arguably against union rules or at any rate, policy.
Besides the support of militant members, and particularly the faction called Grass Roots Left which had come into being around his campaign (and in opposition to the more traditional United Left,seen as "fixers" and backing McCluskey), Jerry Hicks won votes more widely among those who admired his independence and commitment, and liked the idea of leaders not taking six-figure sums; but also among the disgruntled - some who feel the union did not give them enough support, but others, possibly, who blame changes in the union for taking away privileges and security they had enjoyed. Some Unite members feel Len McCluskey is too close to Labour, others think the union should not criticise or intervene in Labour politics at all. Ironically, with no right-wing candidate standing, Jerry Hicks might have attracted support from both, the latter, obviously, not intending he should win, nor supporting his stated aims, but wanting to undermine McCluskey's leadership by whatever means.
Jerry Hicks can not be blamed for such a possibility, but he and the Grass Roots Left do need to relate their case for union democracy, however justified, and their campaigning, to the wider economic and political struggle in which the union, and like it or not, the working class, are engaged. It was because I feared they'd lost this perspective, as well as my having been pleasantly surprised by some of McCluskey's actions since he was elected, that I voted for McCluskey the second time he stood, having given my vote to Jerry Hicks the first time around.
Now Jerry Hicks is complaining that between the end of December last year and January this year the union increased the number of potential voters in the leadership race by about 158,000. He has written to the trade union watchdog the Certification Officer - to ask how "former trade union members" could be allowed to vote in the leadership election.
He has also complained that slurs were made against his name. That's a reasonable complaint to make, and having referred to it before I won't comment now, except to say that if Jerry had made a complaint under union procedure he'd have my support.
As to the legal complaint, Jerry Hicks' press statement notes that "The certification officer has wide-ranging powers and in 2011 forced construction union UCATT to re-run a leadership election, declaring the vote invalid. The barrister acting against UCATT on that occasion was Jody Atkinson, and he is now representing Jerry Hicks on a pro bono basis [free of charge]. " He says "it appeared that Unite had been balloting people who had left the union, most likely because they had not paid their subscriptions. And it seems that ballot papers have been sent to people who have not been members for years."
In an interview with The Guardian's Randeep Ramesh, Jerry Hicks said that he was told by Electoral Reform Services, which oversaw the union ballot, that Unite had identified "there was a group of 'members' who the Union had considered no longer to be members of the union" but "it was decided that they should be treated as continuing members and therefore for the purpose of the election eligible to vote" He adds that possibly as many as 77,000 of the 158,000 ballot papers had no postal address at all, and asks "what on earth happened to them?".
Allow me to declare an interest. Like other retired members of Unite I received a letter some while back from the union, suggesting that having ceased paying subs, I might like to become a "Retired Member Plus", participating as such in some union affairs and enjoying some benefits and rights in return for an appropriate subscription. My first response was indignation, how dare they say I was no longer paying subs when I was still paying full whack? I'd not even registered as a retired member,having been advised by my branch secretary that I'd lose rights. It was only when I checked my bank statements that I discovered the union had ceased debiting my account some months back. There was also the word "Amicus" beside the note, though I had not been a member of Amicus but of the Transport and General Workers Union. I assume this means that Amicus was nominally handling the merged unions' joint accounts. It has not been so easy merging two different rule books or ways that members are used to working.
I signed up for Retired Members Plus, though I've had mixed feelings since about the way me and others have been coralled into a retired members' branch like an old horses' home. (Amusing though it is to encounter some brothers I've not seen since we were Young Socialists, having travelled via different unions), But that is by the way. The point is that I can imagine a lot of people ignored the letter (perhaps thinking it was yet another offer of car insurance), or decided not to bother keeping up their subs, when money is short; or put the letter to one side and then forgot about it. Couple this with a degree of chaos at headquarters and it is easy to see that someone unsure whether people were no longer members or simply in arrears might have sent them out voting papers anyway.
Does this matter? Would people who are really no longer members and not interested in the union have bothered to vote anyway? And if anyone voted who was not entitled to, because they had not paid their subs, does Jerry have any reason to think they must have voted for Len McCluskey and not for Jerry Hicks? (Incidentally, I was going to vote for one of Jerry's allies from Grass Roots Left in a more recent regional by-election, my old branch had nominated him, but those - and there are some - who disapprove of retired members voting, will be pleased to hear that I did not get a vote in that one). Since the election for general secretary was supervised by the Electoral Reform Society, there is surely no suggestion that one of McCluskey's minions was caught stuffing ballot boxes?
If not, what we are left with is a technical irregularity, and it reminds me of the kind of objection we have seen the employers and their lawyers coming up with to challenge strike ballots. Remember that jackanory about the RMT supposedly sending ballot papers to non-existent members in long-closed and empty signal boxes? (The union pointed out that these were sent to members' homes). Or the way Balfour Beatty thought it was clever taking Unite to court challenging a ballot, rather than facing the need to negotiate with its electricians?
It is obvious that the class enemy has an interest in challenging union votes, on any excuse, bringing the law in, feeding stories to the media, and if nothing else saddling the union with the expense and nuisance of rerun ballots, so members get fed up, and campaigns are undermined.
It is hard to see how this tactic serves the common struggle in which, whatever our differences, trade unionists and socialists are engaged.