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The Unite General Secretary election gave us a chance to talk about what our union, and wider movement, should look like. As a movement, we are failing. Union density in 2020 was 23.7% of the workforce, down from well over 50% in 1979. There has been some levelling off in this decline over recent years, even some small increases in density. However, almost all of the increase has been in the public sector, which is now the majority of our movement, at 3.77 million workers compared to 2.67 million in 2019. Only 16.5% of all workers work in the public sector, but public sector workers represent over 50% of the organised labour movement.
Beyond this, there has been a decline in the number of workers covered by collective bargaining agreements, with the figure falling from over 80% in 1979 to 26% in 2019. Unite and our predecessor unions have been at the centre of this decline. At the turn of the 21st century, the unions that now make up Unite organised over one million more workers than Unite does today.
In terms of workplace organisation, figures for the number of shop stewards and workplace reps are harder to find, but there appears to have been a decline both in absolute numbers and coverage. Judging by other metrics, such as turnout in union elections, there appears to be a significant decline in member engagement with the union. The turnout in the joint General Secretary election in 2009 was 15.8%, still incredibly low, but higher than the 12.2 per cent turnout fell to in 2017. Turnout for Executive Committee elections is even lower.
There is a sense of malaise in Unite. The symptoms of this include everything from how many of our branch and committee meetings are inquorate, to how many elected posts are uncontested, to how little fight there has been in Unite over NHS pay. Of course, there are bright spots too, and Unite members across the country still organise and fight back. Significant recent and ongoing disputes include the strikes at Rolls Royce in Barnoldswick and the Bexley refuse workers' strikes. But in general, our situation is of a union in decline, as part of a stagnating or declining movement. That is not a pleasant reality to face, but facing it is necessary if we are to rebuild class power.
As part of efforts to respond to this situation, Workers' Liberty members and supporters active in Unite have written this document, setting out some of our vision for transforming the union. This is not a detailed programme for reform, but a broad charter for how our union could be better. We invite others interested in transforming Unite to critique and discuss it with us.
1. We need a more democratic union
There is a lot that is good in the Unite rule book: the autonomous equalities committees and conferences - for women members, disabled members, BAME members, young members, and LGBT members - which can discuss and vote on union policy and rules. Rule Six, which states only the elected representatives of workers can stand for certain roles, is also an important expression of rank-and-file democracy. We need to defend these principles and fight to make them real. But there are many, many ways in which Unite could be more democratic. We suggest five of them here:
Election of full-time officials
Currently, the only full-time union official to be elected is the General Secretary. All officials with significant responsibility should be elected, and recallable. As a minimum, this would mean direct election of Assistant General Secretaries and National Officers for industrial sectors. Branches and Industrial Sector Committees should be able to determine who the officials who serve these sectors are.
More power to lay bodies
In general, the degree of power and control held by full-time officials should be reduced as far as possible, and transferred to elected committees made up of rank-and-file members. The overarching aim should be to put the maximum degree of decision-making power as close as possible to the base – branches organising in the workplaces, and other directly-elected rank-and-file bodies.
This could involve giving ISCs much more power over organising, giving equalities committees more say over national campaigns, and giving branches power over candidate selection for local Labour Party positions. To facilitate this, branch general meetings, RISC conferences, and regional equalities conferences should be held annually, not once every three years as at present. Power currently held by Regional Secretaries should be transferred to elected committees.
All this requires a fundamental cultural change in the way our constitutional committees operate (or fail to operate). At the moment the core of constitutional committee meetings at both regional and national level is provided by the reports of the relevant full-timers: They provide a report; they answer some questions (if anyone has any); and then the meeting moves on to the next report; motions from branches are taken at the end of the meeting (although the motion may be well out-of-date by the time it gets to, for example, a Regional Committee).
Instead, reports to constitutional committee meetings should be provided by the relevant lay representative(s). Branches should be able to send relevant motions direct to Regional Committees, without having to go through Area Activists' Committees or RISCs. Constitutional committees should meet more frequently than the current three-monthly cycle. And the role of Regional Secretaries, unless scrapped, outside of Ireland and the devolved nations, should be reduced to an administrative one.
A more democratic electoral system
It is a scandal that over a decade of would-be “left” leadership in Unite has failed to bring before the membership even moderate proposals for basic democratic reform to our election procedures, meaning we still elect the GS via “First Past the Post”, perhaps the least democratic of all voting systems, which has an inbuilt risk of “split votes”. In fact, the trajectory has been in the opposite direction: the increase to the nomination threshold required to get onto the ballot paper was specifically designed to prevent rank-and-file candidates from standing. That nomination threshold should be significantly lowered, and any election with more than two candidates should be conducted via alternative vote (i.e., ranked voting).
Officials on a worker’s wage
The salaries paid to some officials, especially the GS, give them access to lifestyles closer to those of senior managers in many companies than to the majority of the workers they represent. Officials' pay should be pegged to an average workers' wage in some way; the exact formula for establishing this is a matter for discussion, but the current situation – where there is a significant material and financial gulf between our officials and many of our members – is unacceptable. Officials responsible for particular sectors should have their pay pegged to collectively-negotiated pay settlements in those sectors, rising or falling at members' pay does. This would ensure officials have a personal interest in supporting members to resist pay cuts, and win decent pay increases.
Maximum transparency and accountability, including in negotiations
The union needs to be much more transparent and accountable across the board. Rank-and-file members should be kept fully informed about the progress of negotiations led by officers, with opportunities to input directly into such negotiations and hold officers to account. Wherever possible, negotiations should be open to members to attend, along the lines of the public contract bargaining common in much of the US labour movement. Where this is not possible, officers must regularly report back to members. Transparency and accountability should also apply to Unite's relationships with other organisations to which it is affiliated, such as the Labour Party, the TUC, or the People's Assembly. Unite's affiliations should be subject to democratic control, not a matter of back-room machine-politicking, horse-trading, and undemocratic patronage. We also need much more transparency about the union's finances and contracts.
Community and Retired Members Branches
Community and Retired Members' branches are often the most active Unite branches, especially when it comes to on-the-streets campaigning. But a trade union and its policies are, by definition, based in the workplace and must be decided by members in those workplaces. Without detracting from the active role played by Community and Retired Members branches, the rights which they are accorded in Unite's constitutional structures must reflect this.
2. An industrial unionist approach: building workplace power, fighting to win
The principle of industrial unionism – as distinct from craft unionism, or general unionism – is that workers are strongest when organised along industrial lines, so all workers in a given workplace or industrial sector, regardless of what job role they do, are in the same union. A single “National Union of Health Workers” would give health workers significantly more power than in the current situation, with workers divided across Unite, Unison, GMB, and myriad professional associations such as BMA, RCN, RCM, CSP, CSR, and others.
Although some of Unite's predecessor unions have elements of an industrial unionist tradition, the all-encompassing general unionism of Unite today is very far from industrial unionism. A serious industrial reorganisation of the union might only be possible in the context of a much wider upheaval that recomposes large sections of existing unions; but even short of this, we should aim to apply industrial unionist principles.
In some sectors, Unite organises as a minority union and even undermines the strength of workers in the main, majority union. This was clearly shown in British Gas recently, where a minority of Unite members, against their reps' initial wishes and effectively on the instructions of senior national officers, accepted the employer's “fire and rehire” deal and scabbed on GMB members' strikes. There are some sectors where Unite should actively encourage members to dual-card in a majority industrial union, seeking reciprocal dues arrangements where possible. For example, there is no industrial logic to Unite retaining a tiny membership in a handful of London Underground engineering depots. These workers would be more effective if they joined the RMT.
Industrial Sector Committees could be at the core of a strengthening of Unite's organisation along industrial lines. Currently, these committees are moribund, presiding over sectoral structures made up of branches that don't talk to each other. The first step to addressing this is building combine committees based on shop stewards, elected at workplace level. These combines should share a key purpose of drawing up charters of demands that we then fight to force employers to sign up to as sectoral framework agreements, via national collective bargaining. This combative approach should replace attempts to work in partnership with employers and trade bodies. Where national agreements do exist, we should defend them against any attempt to water them down, whilst continually seeking to identify potential improvements.
Striking to win
Unite must fight to reverse the more than a decade of falling pay across the public sector. Rank-and-file NHS workers' “Fight for £15” campaign should be taken up by the union as whole, with approaches made to other NHS unions for joint activity around the demand.
When Unite members take wildcat action, as they sometimes do in sectors such as engineering, construction, and elsewhere, the union must back them. Anti-union legislation limits the extent of support the union can official provide, but ultimately these unjust laws must be faced down and defied. Unite has good policy on paper about anti-union laws, but does little to actively campaign around it, and rarely even mentions the policy. Supporters of the Free Our Unions campaign in Unite have recently promoted a statement calling on Unite to actively campaign around its policy - see here for more.
When we strike, we must always strike to win. Too often, strikes are seen as mere expressions of protest, aimed at securing further negotiations rather than concrete concessions. All strikes should involve effective picketing, which aims to maximise the impact of the strike on production and prevent labour entering the workplace. Leverage campaigns aimed at damaging employers' brand image can be useful complements to industrial action, but they cannot replace it.
Strikes should always be lead by committees of reps and activists, drawn from the workers on strike. Decisions about the strike should not be made by those not involved in it, whether that's full-time officers or branch officials from different workplaces. No negotiations should take place without elected workplace reps in the room.
Organising the unorganised
Unite's organising strategy has had some success, but has inbuilt limitations due to the “top-down” approach to organising. Organising should be built into the day-to-day work of the union and led by rank-and-file reps, not seen as a professional specialism to be delivered by unelected union staff.
Unite must be central in organising millions of unorganised workers – including young and migrant workers - into our movement. Some good work has been done around this, in sectors like food and hospitality. This work needs to be generalised. The union should support semi-formal caucuses based on migrant worker communities where appropriate.
Unite should also seek partnerships with new radical unions that have developed in unorganised sectors. The partnership between the PCS and the United Voices of the World union in the Royal Parks provides a model for this. Unite should approach UVW and IWGB to explore similar partnerships in sectors where Unite and UVW/IWGB both have members, such as Higher Education. We should also explore as-close-as-possible joint working in other sectors, rather than “protecting turf” or seeking to poach workers from other unions.
For independent rank-and-file networks
To fight consistently for this approach across our union, and to organise activity based on its principles where possible, we need independent rank-and-file networks. At present, the only sector of Unite with anything like a genuine rank-and-file movement is construction, where the Unite Construction Rank-and-File and its bulletin Site Worker have been central to organising successful industrial action on a number of occasions. This is the kind of organisation we need to see in other industrial sectors. Workers' Liberty sees regular rank-and-file bulletins as a key tool for building rank-and-file organisation, along with regular meetings and conferences of reps and activists in industries, discussing industrial issues.
The current model of “left” organisation in Unite, essentially networks of left-minded individuals getting together to run campaigns in internal union elections, is woefully inadequate. This strategy leaves key industrial questions untouched, and sees the left/right divide in the union mainly as a matter of abstract policy issues, often over external or international questions, rather than focusing on organising against employers. In Unite, even those whose approach to industrial issues is profoundly conservative can be prominently “left-wing” as long as they are outspoken in support of Cuba.
Other characteristics of the prevailing model of "left" organisation in Unite, exemplified by the United Left, are that it allows full-time officials to have a say, and a vote, in its internal deliberations (including ones in which full-timers may have a vested interest), and that it functioned as a more or less uncritical fan club for Len McCluskey. This is the opposite of what a rank-and-file network should be: an organisation that works to make the union's officials, including the General Secretary, accountable to the membership, not vice versa.
We need to break decisively from that form and tradition of "left" organisation. A new "left" within Unite which simply opened its doors to a new layer of full-timers and functioned as cheerleaders for a new General Secretary would not be any advance at all. If rank-and-file organisation does not mean organisation of the rank and file, by the rank and file, then it is an empty slogan.
3. A union which advances working-class, socialist politics
Unite's involvement with “Corbynism” is often trumpeted by both its supporters and critics. However, the experience is rarely concretely analysed. There is no doubt that Unite's opposition to the coup against Corbyn in the summer of 2016 was vital for the continuation of his leadership, as was Unite's support of his initial campaign in 2015.
However, beyond this, Unite's political role has often been regressive, for example in opposing mandatory reselection of MPs, a basic democratic demand. Unite, often in the person of the outgoing general secretary, has also intervened for the worst in debates over issues like free movement and Brexit, arguing versions of a “migrants drive down wages” position. Unite also played its role in the mishandling of the response to antisemitism within Labour.
And, ultimately, Unite's support for Corbyn didn’t stop a large proportion of the union's membership voting Tory in 2019. We need to address both the question of what Unite's policies are, and how it “does” politics.
Democratise the Labour link
Unite needs to move away from a relationship with the Labour Party based on patronage and back-room deals. The existence of a mass political party linked to organised labour is a great advance on the previous historical arrangement, where unions sponsored candidates of ruling-class parties likely to be friendly to our interests. We should not replicate that transactional relationship with Labour today, but rather should use our affiliation to support efforts to transform the party.
We need to build on, democratise, and make concrete the Unite political strategy, which calls for “winning Labour for working people, winning working people for Labour”. This can be best achieved by rank-and-file Unite members getting directly involved in Labour at grassroots level, including in Labour left networks such as Momentum, working with members of other affiliated unions. Unite delegates to Labour Party bodies at every level should be accountable to union members, and recallable by them. Unite delegates should consistently promote union policies in Labour, not to increase Unite's influence in a territorial sense, but as part of coordinated efforts, along with delegates from other affiliated unions, to win working-class policies in the party.
An end to outsourcing politics
The union must also prioritise directly organising campaigning for its own policies, rather than “outsourcing” political and campaigning work to the People's Assembly, Hope Not Hate, or other groups. Often these groups have little internal democracy and no way for Unite members to influence them. The president of the People's Assembly is a Unite official, but Unite members have few accessible mechanisms for directing the work he conducts on behalf of the union in that capacity. On the anti-union laws, Unite should work with the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom, and with the more grassroots initiative Free Our Unions; it should also organise education and campaigning under its own banner. (For an initiative in Unite on the anti-union laws, see here.) Unite branches should also use their relationship to local Trades Councils to organise local political campaigns under a labour-movement banner.
In 2019, Unite called for a Labour vote; only half of our members acted on that call. Unite's existing political education programme tends to be a training ground for future union-sponsored Labour candidates, and little more. The education programme needs to be expanded, made accessible to all activists, and aim to give members a grounding in basic class-struggle, socialist politics.
On climate change, the central political question of our day, Unite pays lip-service to the idea of a worker-led transition away from carbon intensive production. This can only be made concrete if it is linked to workers' power in the workplace. Combines and branches must facilitate the development of workers' plans for conversion and transition. Socialist activists in the union must pursue the arguments for worker-led transitions especially with members in sectors such as aviation, energy and defence. Unite must end its support for airport expansion and its timidity on nuclear weapons, and take clear positions against both, whilst empowering our members in those sectors to fight for worker-led transition and conversion.
Real action on equality and international solidarity
Whilst Unite formally is anti-sexist, and structurally has reserved seats for women on all committees, it also has a very misogynistic culture. This cannot be beaten by top-down edicts, but by educational and campaigning work from below, led by women activists, to make Unite a central force in building a working-class feminist movement. Unite could finance publications, call conferences, and organise demos for equality in the workplace and society.
Unite also brags about its internationalist credentials. However, much of Unite's conception of “internationalism” is an inheritance from Stalinism. The international campaign that Unite is most associated with is the Cuba Solidarity Campaign. Whilst we should oppose sanctions and US sabre rattling towards Cuba, why are we sending young trade unionists to the only country in the Caribbean without free trade unions independent of the state? Why is the Cuban ambassador, a representative of a police-state dictatorship, routinely the guest at the Unite conference?
Our solidarity should be with independent workers' organisations and other democratic movements organising for the same demands we fight for in Britain – regardless of whether the state they are organising against drapes itself in the red flag or calls itself “anti-imperialist”. Given the increasingly significant global role of China, home to the world's largest working class, we should focus especially on solidarity with underground workers' movements and other democratic struggles in China. This can build on work already begun by some sections of Unite, such as BASSA, which has undertaken solidarity activity with Carole Ng, a cabin crew worker and union leader from Hong Kong victimised for supporting democracy protests.
Unite should end its substantial funding of the Morning Star, the paper linked to the Communist Party of Britain, which functions primarily as a mouthpiece for the CPB's Stalinist politics on international issues, and its conservatism on other questions, including trans rights, immigration, and nationalism.