The rules conference of the Unite union (13-16 June) took place against the backdrop of strikes planned for 30 June and with the newly elected “United Left” dominated Executive Council in place.
Tony Woodhouse, chair of the Unite Exec, opened the conference by saying it is time to fight, and for socialist principles.
General Secretary Len McCluskey followed in a similar vein, but added that we shouldn’t do anything to disrupt our good relations with the new Labour Party leader Ed Miliband.
Contradictory positions are coming from McCluskey. A statement passed at the last EC meeting said that Unite is against all the cuts, and calls on Labour councils not to implement them, but the General Secretary’s report to the EC is minuted as endorsing the Labour leaders’ criticism of the cuts only as “too far, too fast”.
The Unite leadership are talking about balloting in the autumn for action on pensions, and have called on Unite members not to cross picket lines on 30 June.
The conference reflected a change in mood among members. This conference is made up of delegates who are long time union committee members — not the most radical of people — however the feeling was that it is necessary to organise industrially and politically against the Tory attacks.
A motion originating with AWL members on the abolition of the political committee structures (at present the politics of the union and the relationship between Labour Party and union is decided by regional and national political committees — to be on those bodies you need to be Labour member and union delegate to a local Party.) Our motion proposed that those issues should be the business of the whole union.
The political fight against the Labour Party leadership should be the business of the whole union not just those who are Party delegates. This ideas was well supported.
But the EC organised speakers against, scaremongering about how it would allow small groups to influence the union’s politics and spoil the relationship with the Party. The vote went to a count. The result was exactly 50-50 and therefore the amendment fell.
The majority of people there were Labour Party members and they voted for the motion on the basis of the motivation made — that the union should fight for its policies against the Labour leadership.
The EC’s rule on membership which allowed a new category for the unemployed and students was passed but the proposals calling for retired members to get voting rights on various committees were defeated or withdrawn.
Motions on election of officials were also defeated, but on the ones calling for elections for regional officers and assistant and deputy general secretaries the votes were much closer.
At the United Left pre- meeting, the issue of the SWP being allowed to stay in membership of UL was discussed. The decision was that the SWP had been unhelpful in the BASSA dispute but (rightly) that SWPers could stay in membership of UL.
We are now hoping to push for the Unite motion to Labour Party conference to be the repeal of the anti-trade union laws. This issue will show if the leadership of Unite are seriously going to fight the Labour Party leadership on the basis of the union’s policies.