Letter: Courts not answer to undemocratic unions

Submitted by Matthew on 26 April, 2017 - 12:18 Author: Daniel Randall

Anyone who has had to confront the bureaucratic officialdom of any trade union will have some sympathy with the GMB activist who wrote in Solidarity of "unelected, barely elected and crookedly elected bureaucrats".

Their letter promotes the new "GMB Grassroots Left" network; prominently involved is Keith Henderson, a former GMB official who has twice taken his former union, and employer to court.

Keith Henderson clearly rubbed the GMB bureaucracy up the wrong way; and probably for the right reasons. Keith is a socialist, a support for the Labour left group LRC, and close to John McDonnell. He may well have a case, in procedural terms. But, bluntly, the bosses' courts are not any kind of instrument for reforming the labour movement.

Moreover, the basis of Keith's first case against the GMB — which used equalities law to argue that he had been discriminated against on the basis of his socialist beliefs - was spurious to say the least; he may very well have been victimised by a right-wing bureaucracy for being a left-winger, but this is a matter of political conflict, which cannot and should not be regulated by the same laws designed to protect against racist and sexist discrimination.

Much of what the GMB activist in their letter sets out as the aims for the GMB Grassroots Left are laudable. But setting up this network on the basis not of any authentic rank-and-file groundswell, however small, but rather on the basis of frustration on the part of a few activists whose original focus was on taking the union through the courts is not an auspicious beginning.

Keith could have used his position in the union, even as an unelected official (which is what he was), to identify well-organised, militant branches, rooted in workplaces, with combative stewards who shared his perspective for democratic reform of the union, and attempted to work with them to build a rank-and-file network. Instead, he chose to take the union to court, twice, and now, several years after the first case, to attempt to set up a network off the back of his court challenges.

While there is a strong temptation to applaud anything that might needle the bureaucracy of the GMB, this attempt is at best quixotic and at worst a total distraction.

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