Monday, November 22, 2010

Unite steps to the Left

BRITAIN'S biggest and potentially most powerful trade union has a new general secretary who has said he will unite members to fight the Con-Dem government cuts. Ex-Liverpool docker Len McCluskey has passed the finishing post with 101,000 votes, way ahead of the other three contenders.

The official announcement won't be made till Wednesday, and Unite's existing twin general secretaries Derek Simpson (from the former Amicus union) and Tony Woodley (from the Transport and General) don't step down till next year. But Tory newspapers are already yelling that the Left has "grabbed control", and that this election heralds strikes against the government, and discomfort for Labour's Ed Milliband.

Allowing for the Mail 's twisted way of describing workers' organisations and democracy, and trying as per tradition to frighten the middle classes, this may not be far wrong. As the saying used to go, "This animal" (the working class) "is wicked. When you attack it, it defends itself!". This election is not the first sign that waking up, and seeing the bankers and Bullingden boys cheering attacks on our class, workers - like students -are ready to fight back.

"I am honoured and humbled at the confidence Unite members have shown in me," Len McCluskey said after the final count was announced. "My first task now will be to bring our union together and unite it in a campaign against the devastation the government is unleashing against working people and their communities throughout the land."

In second place came rank-and-file member Jerry Hicks, a former Rolls Royce convenor who began campaigning while Labour was still in office, warning that whoever won the general election, trade unionists would have to fight to defend their rights and services. Besides challenging the link with New Labour, Jerry Hicks pledged he would take back the union for the members, and only accept a worker's wage if elected to the top position.

Despite being regarded as an outsider, with the union's so-called United Left faction throwing its weight behind McCluskey, Jerry Hicks scored a respectable 52,000 votes. A tribute to his hard work and perseverance, showing the trust and support he has received from many ordinary members and activists, this could be a good start for a rank and file movement linking the fight for workers rights with chasing bureaucratism out of the union.

Behind Hicks, with only 46,000 votes, came assistant general secretary Les Bayliss, the right-wing candidate who had attacked Len McCluskey's leadership in the BA cabin crews' dispute, promising that he would "never call strikes at Christmas", and spoke at the TUC against workers taking industrial action to fight the cuts, saying this would make them the "bad guys". Evidently not enough members were impressed by his arguments, nor by the support he received in the Murdoch press and from Derek Simpson. We can only hope he and whoever helped him pay for full-page newspaper ads are satisfied they got their money's worth.

Gail Cartmail,another assistant general secretary, whose name I remember from the days of struggle in the printing industry, came fourth with 39,000 votes. She said she was "really pleased" with the level of support she achieved given that no organised group within the union had backed her. "I think this shows I ran a very strong campaign," she said. Perhaps she would have done better had she not left people unsure where she stood between camps in the union.

It would be foolish to exagerate the significance of this election. For one thing, fewer than 16 per cent of the union's membership actually voted, which I think suggests not complacency and apathy over what is happening, but workers uncertainty and lack of confidence that they and their union can do anything. That is the big one that anyone leading the union or championing its rank and file have to tackle.

Secondly, Len McCluskey, "Red Len" as the Tory press automatically calls him, is not some fiery left-winger taking over from nowhere. A member of the Labour Party for almost 40 years, he started work on the docks in the 1960s, becoming a senior shop steward, and then in 1979 he was made a full-time union officer, representing members in a broad range of industries. In 1990, he became national secretary for the general workers group, leading negotiations in various industries, and he also led the white-collar group for a three-year period. In 2004 he was promoted to become the union's national organiser for all the service industries, including public services, construction and the voluntary sector.

During this time, however critical, the TGWU remained loyal to Labour. Bro.McCluskey's former colleagues on the Liverpool docks were victimised and not re-instated. The Tory anti-union laws were never repealed. The Gate Gourmet workers at London airport went down the road, and fellow-TGWU members at the airport who stopped in sympathy were disciplined. At election time a huge banner on the side of Unite House said "Keep Britain working with Labour". We were not sure if this referred to raising the pension age, or resisting the European Union's directive on reducing working hours.

Nevertheless, Len McCluskey has a mandate for change. He comes in with support not only from the United Left but from members who felt he could be trusted as having a left-wing approach and a safe pair of hands; as well as many who feared -as we have seen, mistakenly - that voting for Jerry Hicks might let in the right-winger Bayliss. Taken with the fact that Jerry Hicks came in second, this result clearly marks a step to the Left by Unite, and it must encourage a strong two-pronged campaign now at both official and grass-roots levels, for workers rights and against the Con-Dem cuts, chasing the right-wing bureaucrats out in the process.



At 12:58 PM, Blogger Maju said...

The Mail's comment is great: I'm going to write something around it. Whoa! If you attack it defends itself! It's not a rock or a plastic dinosaur!

Those Capitalists have lost all sense of reality, it seems to me (probably that's why the mistake economy with accountancy). Yes: animals tend to defend themselves when attacked and not for that reason anyone goes around saying they are "wicked". Or do they?


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