Guide to Unite structures and participation here
Guide to Unite structures and participation here
Delegates meet in Brighton for Unite’s Rules Conference this week. The new Unite Rank & File leaflet covers the need for resistance to the jobs massacre and to link it to tackling the climate emergency, defending migrants’ rights, sexual harassment and bullying within Unite, some of the proposed rule changes, and the need for solidarity with the indefinite strike at Colloids for the reinstatement of George Gore.
The release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report last autumn was a game changer in laying bare how serious the climate crisis is and how little time we have to turn things around. In the wake of Extinction Rebellion and the massive global school strikes, a call has now been made for a global general strike on the week of the 20th September.
Lecturers’ union UCU and bakers’ union BFAWU have already announced their support. We believe its time for Unite to play a leading role in the campaign to stop runaway climate change. As the country’s largest union we should throw our weight behind this campaign and build for the biggest possible strike against the climate crisis in September. The Unite executive meets shortly and we hope they will issue a statement supporting members who want to join the global strike. Striking isn’t easy and every workplace needs support to take the maximum action they can – whatever that is.
Earlier this year, the UNITE Executive Council voted to significantly increase strike pay (Dispute Benefit). All members now engaged in strike action will receive Dispute Benefit of £50 per day from day one, an increase from £35 previously.
This is unrivalled in the trade union movement. It sends a strong message to those companies intent on exploiting their workforce, that UNITE members will be financially as well as industrially supported and should provide even more confidence and encouragement to members needing to take such action to achieve their objective.
The agenda for Rules Conference is now out. Delegates and other interested members can access it here:
Though not a subject of hot debate amongst most members, Unite’s rulebook has a big influence over how the union operates, including how decisions are taken, who takes them, and when. The rulebook shapes the democracy and participation which are vital to union strength. In 2019 a Rules Conference, which only happens every four years, gives you an opportunity to change the rules and strengthen our union. The conference is 24-28 June, but the deadline for proposals is 1 March.
Every Unite branch and constitutional committee (so that includes sector committees, equality committees, area activists and regional committees and retired members’ committees) can submit one rule amendment on this form by 1 March 2019 so you need to get proposals drafted and in to your branch or committee soon. Branches don’t send delegates to Rules Conference, they come from constitutional committees, who may elect them at the same meeting where rule amendments are decided. Conference itself takes place 24-28 June in Brighton.
Unite Rank & File campaigns to reform and reinvigorate Unite’s democratic structures to promote a bottom-up culture where members participate, challenge discrimination and are in control. Some ideas for rule amendments are in the report from our recent national meeting.
If you are thinking of putting in a rule amendment, or standing as a delegate to Rules Conference, why not get in touch so activists can work together?
On Saturday 24 November 2018 supporters of Unite Rank & File from around the country met in London to discuss our work so far and make plans.
Meetings in Glasgow, Manchester, London and Birmingham in May 2017 had agreed a volunteer team to get Unite Rank & File up and running. We launched on 31 October 2017 with this web site, a Facebook page and Twitter account. On a shoestring of human and financial resources the group has, in just over a year:
While an impressive start, the initial focus had been on getting central organisation and online presence up and running so there had been a lack of email bulletins and leaflets, local and sectoral organisation, too few reports from pickets and protests, and most of the people who support Unite Rank & File still haven’t actually signed up. In addition, we are still too widely seen as linked to a General Secretary candidacy, despite our launch statement and subsequent actions making clear that is not what we are about.
A genuine rank and file movement can only be built through workers struggle against their employers but we can contribute towards this process by, for example, pulling together people who see the need for such a movement, encouraging solidarity, publicising victories, encouraging resistance and pushing Unite to do more, putting activists in touch with each other, sharing information and ideas, challenging the “in partnership with management” approach, campaigning to reform and reinvigorate Unite’s democratic structures to promote a bottom-up culture where members participate, challenge discrimination and are in control, and championing radical policies even when Unite fudges on them.
We’d welcome more people involved in contributing to this web site and other publications. As well as more solidarity appeals and reports (videos are great!) there was discussion about the difficulty of finding relevant information on the Unite web site, and the way information rarely reaches out beyond those on constitutional committees. We want to gradually make this site a “go-to” place for activists by reporting or signposting relevant information. If you are on a constitutional committee, you could consider after each meeting sending in a few key pieces of information or news that activists more generally might value?
There was a lot of anger over the approach Unite had taken at Labour conference. While the left and most constituency Labour Parties had wanted to debate open selection (sitting MPs not being automatically reselected as candidates), Unite had voted to prevent this, despite it being our policy. Unite had also supported a mechanism for leadership elections which still gives MPs an effective veto over candidates but increases the ability of unions to block candidates.
Unite has a tendency to fudge key issues, for example it’s support for Palestinian rights while backing the use of the IHRA definition of antisemitism in the Labour Party, which will curtails non-racist free speech on Palestine. People felt that this example, like the ones on diversification and workers’ rights to live and work where we like, meant there was an important role for Unite Rank & File in speaking out clearly for left policies.
Unite’s industrial approach varies widely, but there were concerns about a focus on short-term “jobs at any price” rather than diversification, concession bargaining, and a willingness to trade union recognition for industrial peace. The need for diversification to good sustainable jobs was highlighted by the threats to jobs at Appledore shipyard, Cammell Laird, Rosyth and Vauxhall Ellesmere Port. Failure to take the initiative on diversification will leave hundreds of thousands of members vulnerable if action to tackle climate change happens on employers’ terms rather than based on our demands for a “just transition” to a low carbon or no carbon economy which can mean many new good jobs.
Members remain concerned about blacklisting and the lack of progress in tackling union officer collusion in it, particularly with the influx of officers from the former UCATT. In construction this is leading some members to “dual card” being members of other unions including the IWGB.
Some key barriers to democracy and accountability were discussed. Members have to get through many layers of Unite’s structure to get things decided or done – and it is often unclear what route through the structure to take. The timescales are very slow, especially if some of the meetings at different layers are inquorate or officers mislay paperwork or information which can cause three months’ delay each time. Community members are still excluded from most of the union’s structures, including having delegates to the Rules Conference which will decide whether to address this. Some workplace-based activists are afraid of losing control of the union to community activists, but it was pointed out that Unite already has facilities to ensure representation is proportionate to membership, so no section of members can dominate. For Rules Conference 2019 Unite Rank & File will encourage rule amendments to increase democracy, participation and accountability.
Concern was raised that the national Equalities Conferences due early in 2019 have been postponed a year.
We want to discuss ideas for rule change motions now. The timetable for branches and committees to submit motions is expected to be announced around the end of the year.
Ideas discussed were:
The inspiring strike by 8000 UNISON members had seen solidarity action by around 600 (mainly GMB) refuse workers. An NEU teacher had been suspended for refusing to cross a picket line but was now back at work following a campaign.
The Glasgow council strike was the biggest equal pay strike for many years and had done a lot to raise the profile of the issue. The solidarity action was important in proving this can be done – despite the anti-union legislation. The strike also helped inspire the tens of thousands of Scottish teachers who marched, and a four-day unofficial postal strike in Hamilton.
The strike came in the context of the #MeToo movement, the campaign for abortion rights in Ireland, the walkouts at Google over sexual harassment and discrimination, and the big role of sexual harassment in hospitality in stoking the fast food strikes.
Though many employers are treating the publication of the Gender Pay Gap data as a “tick in the box”, it provides valuable information about employers which can be used in campaigning and bargaining. In some cases, reps are finding out that their employers have been misleading them about pay. Gender Pay Gaps are often about job segregation, not just unequal pay for similar work or work of equal value.
There was frustration that a lot of union communication about equality is about committee composition or meetings. We want to do more to promote efforts to fight discrimination and oppression.
Last year’s Unite Policy Conference had seen Motion 65 on International Women’s Day remitted to the EC on the basis of assurances that the EC would act on it. The motion resolved:
In recent years there has been a small revival in strike activity on International Women’s Day. Inspired by Polish women’s strike against plans to criminalise abortion and miscarriage on 3 October 2016 and an international wave of protests, the International Women’s Strike now involves more than fifty countries. In most countries there is insufficient organisation to strike paid employment, though more than five million struck in Spain last year.
We agreed to push Unite for action over Motion 65. Even if we can’t deliver strikes in most workplaces, there will be plenty with live issues of sexual harassment and discrimination that could be balloted and provide a focal point to force attention and action on these key issues – just as the Glasgow strikers did.
Keep an eye on our Facebook page in particular for updates about disputes and campaigns.
We decided we will ask supporters to make a regular financial contribution of at least £2 (£1 unwaged) per month, more if you can afford it. This will both provide more stable finances for our activities and provide clarity for democratic processes. We elected a treasurer who will oversee setting up a suitable bank account. Unite Rank & File’s committee (see below) will appoint two auditors who are not committee members.
We elected an editor and four assistant editors who will oversee our web site, social media, email newsletters and leaflets on a day to day basis.
We elected two co-chairs (one female) and want up to two coordinators (at least one female) for each region, sector, equality strand, young members, community members and retired members. These will encourage people to sign up to Unite Rank & File in their bit of the union; feed in ideas, appeals for support, reports etc; circulate Unite Rank & File materials; and get people together where appropriate.
We elected people into some of these coordinator positions, plus an overall solidarity coordinator.
Unite Rank & File’s committee will comprise the various officers and coordinators, and it was charged with co-opting additional coordinators where needed.
Please sign up to Unite Rank & File if you haven’t already, like our Facebook page (and choose the “see first” option under “Following”), follow us on Twitter, and send in appeals for support, reports and your ideas.
Unite has good policy on Palestine, including support for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). It was a setback to see the Unite delegates going along with (and Len McCluskey welcoming) the the Labour NEC statement:
“We recommend that we adopt the IHRA in full with all examples. This does not in any way undermine the freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of Palestinians. We re-invite the organisations to re-engage in consultation on the Code of Conduct.”
The IHRA definition and its examples are intended to undermine freedom of expression on Israel and the rights of Palestinians by smearing the movement in support of Palestinians, and in particular the BDS movement, as antisemitic (more information here and here).
Hundreds of Unite activists had signed an open letter opposing the adoption of the most problematic IHRA examples in just three weeks. Those, like Len McCluskey, who argued that Labour should adopt the IHRA examples were wrong for two reasons. They were wrong to imagine that this would curtail the smears against the Labour leadership and all those who support the Palestinian cause; and they were wrong to think such an opportunistic approach justifies supporting a tool that is being used to strengthen these smears. This can only do long-term damage to the fight against the oppression of Palestinians. Giving in to bullies doesn’t work. Rather than giving in to those who want to silence criticism of Israel, we must speak out in defence of Palestinians and of free speech on the oppression they are resisting.
Model motion: Free Speech on Palestine
… branch is proud of Unite’s strong stance in support of the Palestinian struggle, including the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel.
Within the movement in support of Palestine there is a wide range of legitimate views held by Jews and non-Jews, including:
While not everybody holds these views, and this branch acknowledges that all these views can be held by racists, or can be expressed in racist, insensitive or unhelpful ways, these views are not in themselves racist or antisemitic.
This branch believes that there is a consistent attempt to unjustly smear supporters of Palestine as antisemitic in order to weaken the movement for Palestinian freedom. This branch notes that the IHRA working definition of antisemitism and examples have already been used (e.g. by Barnet Council and University of Central Lancashire) to falsely claim that legitimate views or debate on Palestine and Israel are antisemitic.
This branch resolves to oppose any definition of antisemitism which suggests that legitimate views or debate on Palestine and Israel are antisemitic, which not only undermines the fight for Palestinian freedom, but undermines the fight against genuine antisemitism.
This branch resolves to send this motion to the Executive Council via the Regional Committee and/or Area Activists Committee as required.
This weekend delegates from across the UK, Ireland and Gibraltar will gather in Brighton for Unite’s 5th Policy Conference. The final agenda suggests there should be some lively and important debates.
Unite Rank and File has produced a leaflet highlighting some of the key issues. If you’re at conference, please help distribute it.
And if you haven’t yet signed up for Unite Rank & File, please do.
Though Unite has been playing an increasingly positive role in challenging blacklisting, particularly in construction, more progress is needed to investigate the allegations that union officers colluded to put members on the blacklist and root out any responsible.
The problem of employers blacklisting workers who organise or who speak up about issues, including Health & Safety, has been growing in prominence for a number of years, thanks in particular to the work of the Blacklist Support Group (Facebook, blog).
Despite the exposure of one blacklist of several thousand workers, run by the Consulting Association, which mainly targeted electricians, nobody believes the practice has ended.
In recent years Unite has been playing an increasingly positive role in challenging the blacklist. The union has been more supportive and cooperative with the Blacklist Support Group. At present the union is taking action in the High Court against both key individuals involved in blacklisting, and some of the big companies that used the blacklist. Compensation isn’t enough for justice – the struggle continues to bring the practice into the open and stop it.
Blacklisting workers, so they can’t get employment, is a crime and a human rights abuse that ruins lives, breaks up families, and has led to suicides.
The Metropolitan Police has admitted that police officers are likely to have passed personal information to a covert blacklisting operation, and that police throughout the UK had contact with organisations including the Economic League, a previous major blacklister. It has also been confirmed that undercover police infiltrated unions to gather information.
But one issue that simply hasn’t been adequately addressed is the allegations that some union (Unite and former UCATT) officers colluded with employers to blacklist members.
In 2016 the Blacklist Support Group, the national Construction Rank And File, and a number of construction activists published an open letter which included:
“It is now in the public domain that officials in both unions were recorded as the source of information on Economic League and Consulting Association blacklist files. Some of those named, remain senior officials in UNITE and UCATT to this day. Every union activist in construction knows who the named officials are, as does every major employer.”
“We the undersigned call upon the new UNITE construction section to engage an independent legal expert to carry out a thorough investigation of the allegations relating to union collusion in blacklisting, with a remit drawn up in conjunction with the blacklisted workers. If the implicated officials are completely innocent, then this is their opportunity to clear their name once and for all. But if the independent investigation concludes that there is a case to answer, then the union should take the appropriate disciplinary action. We are not looking for a witch-hunt, we simply want answers into possible union collusion in order to avoid repeating mistakes of the past.”
During the recent General Secretary election, Len McCluskey was among those who backed the call for an inquiry, though he claimed that “While new evidence has unfolded in the High Court proceedings it is not the case that this evidence points towards present or previous union officials”. This is an extraordinary claim, given that a number of members’ Consulting Association files blacklisting members name union officers as the source of information about them. Some of these officers are named in the carefully researched book “Blacklisted: The Secret War between Big Business and Union Activists”.
In August 2017 Len McCluskey announced that he had appointed a barrister “to examine allegations that union officials colluded with a covert blacklisting operation financed by major firms to prevent certain workers from being employed” by scrutinising “documents that were disclosed in a high court lawsuit that led to construction firms apologising and paying compensation amounting to around £75m to 771 blacklisted workers.”
The remit of the inquiry was a worry. It wasn’t drawn up in conjunction with blacklisted workers and doesn’t seem to involve talking to the members who believe they have evidence of officer collusion.
Since then, things have gone awfully quiet. Members don’t even know which barrister is conducting the inquiry, and haven’t been asked for input.
Brian Higgins is one of the blacklisted workers who signed the open letter and whose blacklist file names two union officers as sources of information, one of whom is still serving. This does not prove that the officers knew how the information they provided about members would be used, but as the Blacklisted book puts it “The blacklist was an open secret in the building industry”. Brian has been repeatedly writing to chase progress on the inquiry. The following are extracts from that correspondence:
Len McCluskey to Brian Higgins, 23 November 2017:
“The barrister we are using has been advised to produce a report for me which will remain confidential whilst litigation is proceeding. I will, of course, share the outcome of that report with the Executive members from Construction, including Roy, as well as the Construction NISC at the appropriate time and any actions that are needed will be taken.”
Len McCluskey to Brian Higgins, 6 December 2017:
“I have responded to the calls for us to consider all documents that have been disclosed in the High Court litigation to see if there is any evidence of officer collusion in Blacklisting. As such I have given instructions that a Counsel from Doughty Street Chambers be instructed to review all of the disclosure documents from the litigation and this will look at the specific issue as to whether there is any evidence of officer collusion.”
Len McCluskey said he is not aware of evidence regarding the serving officer Brian named, and asks to be sent any evidence to forward to the barrister.
“if there is any evidence of any officer of Unite being involved in blacklisting then I will not hesitate to take action“
8 December 2017 Brian Higgins sends Len McCluskey copies of pages from his Consulting Association blacklisting file which name officers (including one still serving) as having provided information.
11 December 2017 Len McCluskey replies:
“I will pass this information over to the Counsel who is preparing the report that I have continually referred to and I will await that report before taking any action in line with the commitment I have given to the Executive Council and to the NISC”
This is very different from the promise of taking action without hesitation made before Brian sent the evidence.
Brian Higgins to Len McCluskey 30 May 2018:
“Nearly ten months have passed since this fanfare of publicity and you appointed an anonymous counsel to conduct this inquiry. Yet as far as I’m aware not one blacklisted union member has been contacted by anyone from Doughty Chambers and you have never sent out one letter by post or email updating us on whatever stage your inquiry has reached. Neither has there been any mention of your inquiry into union collusion in any of the union’s general publications for members in general or the one for construction members in particular.”
It’s well past time that the inquiry into officer collusion got some more impetus, actively seeking evidence from the members involved, and explaining to members what the process will be. And if Len McCluskey intends to take no action, even when evidence is supplied, until after the barrister’s report is made after the end of litigation, he needs to explain that rather than claiming he won’t hesitate to take action.
Many activists believe they are still being represented by officers who knowing colluded with employers to prevent members getting employment on the basis of their union activity. Brian and some others believe “there is a cover up going on”. Brian says he “was extremely upset and deeply offended and almost physically sick” when an officer was “promoted … in spite of senior construction officials knowing he was named in my file when this promotion took place”. Whether the evidence proves these beliefs to be true or not, a situation where members believe their evidence is not being acted upon is untenable and unsustainable.
There’s great potential for membership growth in construction. Cleaning out the shameful problems of the past can only help. Failing to do so would make the prospects of democratic site organisation in construction bleak.