Defend Free Speech on Palestine

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).

Nelson Mandela quote "We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of Palestinians"
Image: Palestine Solidarity Campaign

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.

We encourage:

  1. Activists to sign and circulate a new statement being used across all trade unions: https://goo.gl/forms/vKVaHdnDi4jdVId12
  2. Unite branches to send motions in through their Areas and Regions, to the Executive Council, demanding that our union stands firm in support of Palestinian freedom and does not give an inch to those who would claim that doing so is antisemitic. A model motion you can adapt is below.
  3. Those in the Unite delegation to Labour Party conference to argue for the delegation to oppose adoption of the problematic IHRA examples

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:

  • That the foundation of a state based on the exclusion of much of the existing population on grounds of race or religion is a racist endeavour
  • That Israel is a colonial settler state founded on the oppression and exclusion of the majority of the existing population, and that no people has the right to “self determination” on this basis, no matter how appalling their own suffering
  • That a state which allows Jews who have never lived there a “right of return” but does not extend the same right to non-Jewish Palestinian residents who were expelled or left is inherently racist
  • That Israel’s systematically discriminatory policies, including its recently passed “nation state” law make it an “apartheid state” and its claims to be a democratic nation empty
  • That aspects of the behaviour of the Israeli state are comparable with aspects of Nazi policy, particularly in the earlier years of Nazi rule
  • That it is legitimate to focus solidarity on oppressed people who resist, even if others are suffering just as much

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 week’s Unite Policy Conference

Image of UPC2018 leaflet

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.

Image of UPC2018 leafletAnd if you haven’t yet signed up for Unite Rank & File, please do.

Union officer collusion in blacklisting construction members

Blacklisted

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.

BlacklistedThe 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.

Should Unite seek immunity for discrimination by lay union officials against members and employees?

The fight against discrimination and for equality is a core part of what any decent union activist does. So it might come as a surprise to many who haven’t been following the case that Unite went to the Court of Appeal (and may go to the Supreme Court) making an argument that would reduce members’ protection from discrimination.

Scales of justice

The case centres on Sally Nailard, who was a Regional Officer employed by the union. She was subject to what her Regional Secretary acknowledged was

“a sickening and orchestrated campaign of harassment … [including] bullying and even sexual harassment”

by two branch officers. The courts supported Sally Nailard’s view that the union

“failed to deal with it firmly or decisively”.

In an organisation with over a million members, thousands of lay activists and hundreds of employees there will, from time to time, be cases where people behave wrongly. While the union can and should take steps to minimise this, for example through education and clear policy statements, this cannot prevent cases arising entirely when our union exists within a society riddled with power inequalities, prejudice and discrimination. What everyone should be entitled to expect is that our union responds supportively and effectively when such incidents occur.

When someone has been treated as badly as Unite and the courts accept that Sally Nailard was, you would expect the union to do what it can to make amends to the individual and try to learn lessons to reduce the risk of recurrence. An absolutely compelling reason would be needed to drag the survivor of bullying and harassment through a gruelling series of appeals. Yet that is what has happened.

You can read the Court of Appeal judgement here, and some legal commentary on it here.

In the appeal, Unite wasn’t contesting that Sally Nailard had been treated very badly by two branch officers, or that they had responded inadequately to her complaint. The appeal unsuccessfully sought to use a legal technicality to deny liability under the Equality Act 2010.

We all understand that an employer has liability for discrimination carried out by its employees. The law has jargon for when someone who is not an employee can act on behalf of another person or organisation, with the power to change their legal relationship with third parties, without being an employee. The “agent” acts on behalf of the “principal”. The law treats lay reps and branch officers as “agents” acting on behalf of the union (the “principal”). Lay reps can enter into agreements with employers that have legal standing.

This view of lay reps as agents of the union is not new law, being well established in Heatons Transport (St Helens) Ltd v Transport and General Workers’ Union [1973]. But it certainly isn’t how union activists see the relationship – we see ourselves as acting on behalf of, and accountable to, members, not on behalf of the union as a top-down legal entity.

Section 109 of the Equality Act 2010 makes clear that principals are liable for discrimination by their agents in broadly the same way that employers are liable for discrimination by their employees.

The waters in the case were slightly muddied by Unite highlighting an anomaly in the Equality Act which does not provide “principals” with the same defence as “employers” that they “took all reasonable steps to prevent” the discriminatory Act. However, this is far less significant than it appears. A “learned friend” explains that the courts don’t in practice allow this defence for employers either, because if it was given its literal meaning the effect would be that no large employer with an HR function and policies would ever be found liable for discrimination – an outcome so unjust that even our courts wouldn’t accept it.

But even if this inconsistency in the legislation had been material, it still wouldn’t justify the appeal, which was primarily on the obscure point of whether the liability of the union for discrimination carried out by lay officials should protect employees, other activists, and members; or be restricted to only protect third parties such as employers!

This blog from Devereaux Chambers explains their view of the judgement:

“The Court of Appeal undoubtedly came to the correct conclusion on this issue: the logical extension of Unite’s argument is that a union would not be liable if its lay officials discriminated against its members they may be representing. However, a union would certainly be liable for such conduct under s.57 EqA if the lay officials had been its employees. Parliament cannot have intended such a different result, particularly as most trade union members deal primarily with lay officials, rather than employed officials.”

It can’t be right that Unite continues to seek a blanket immunity for lay officials who discriminate against Unite members, activists and employees, denying them protection available to employer representatives or reps from other unions.

It is well known that there have been significant issues in relation to treatment of female Unite officers, and that the report into this showed that a large proportion of their experiences of sexism was from lay members rather than union employees.

Unite should not drag Sally Nailard, who the union accepts was treated appallingly, through yet another appeal in an attempt to deny Unite members, activists and employees legal protection from discrimination by lay officials. Unite should apologise, try to agree a resolution with Sally Nailard and step up equality education for all activists. Not only would this help us reduce the incidence of sexual harassment within the union, it would help our activists support the huge number of women members who suffer sexual harassment in their workplaces.

Act now to avoid exclusion from Unite structures for three years

Most of Unite’s structures run on a three-year cycle. Elections for workplace reps and branch officers should now be complete. But unless you act now you could be excluded from the rest of the union’s structures for the next three years.

No Entry sign on a door
Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ell-r-brown

Between 14 May and 1 June 2018 conferences will be taking place in every region to elect Regional Industrial Sector Committees (RISCs), Regional Equality Committees (REqCs), Area Activists Committees (AACs) and Regional Labour Party Liaison Committees (RLPLCs). This is a crucial step – these committees then elect people onto nearly all the other structures including National Industrial Sector Committees (NISCs), National Equality Committees (NEqCs), Regional Committees (RCs) and the National Labour Party Liaison Committee (NLPLC). They are also part of the route for election to industrial sector, policy and rules conferences, TUC conference and Labour Party conferences.

So if you don’t get on one of these committees (the RISC is particularly important for working members) you are likely to be excluded from most of Unite’s structures for three years, which can be a significant barrier to finding out what’s going on and having your say.

If you haven’t had an invitation to the conferences you are entitled to attend, you should urgently contact your Unite Regional Office. Note that to attend most of the conferences you must be an “accountable representative of workers” under Rule 6. If you want to stand for any of the committees, you should submit a nomination in advance from a branch of workplace – the relevant form should be provided with your invitation. If you don’t manage to do this, there’s still a significant chance you could stand for election at the conference itself, if (as is all too common) insufficient nominations have been received by the deadline.

It is important that you elect people who are actually going to turn up most of the time. The March 2018 Executive Council (EC) meeting clarified that the quorum for RISCs and AACs is 50% + 1 of those elected, so vacant seats don’t count against you as much as people elected who don’t show up. Vacancies can be filled during the three-year term but you often have to push for this. The EC also decided that if membership of a RISC or AAC should fall below five people, it will be linked with another Committee so that it can continue to function.

It’s normal for the relevant Committee to meet immediately after the Conference that elected it, and to elect its chair and delegates to other parts of the union structure.

More information about Unite Rules and a list of the Conferences and the Constitutional Timetable is available via the links.

 

Amendments for Unite Policy Conference

Delegates at Unite Policy conference 2016

The preliminary agenda for Unite’s Policy Conference 2018 is out, listing all the motions submitted by branches and constitutional committees.

Each branch and committee now has the opportunity to submit one amendment to a motion. Your amendment has to be in by Friday 11 May 2018.

Amendments can’t change the overall thrust of a motion or be on an unrelated topic. They are useful to improve or correct problems in otherwise good motions, or to add points that may have been missed or which arose after the original motion was submitted.

The motion numbers may change in the final agenda, and many related motions and amendments are likely to be “composited” (merged) before they are debated.

The conference itself will take place 2-6 July in Brighton.

Get your motions in for Unite Policy Conference 2018

Unite will be holding its next Policy Conference in Brighton 2-6 July 2018. This is the opportunity for every member to shape our union’s policy. The process is already under way, with branches and committees sending in motions for the conference agenda. If you want to get a motion onto the agenda, you need to act now. Motions have to be agreed by a branch or committee and sent in to Unite HQ no later than 9 February 2018.

Delegates at Unite Policy conference 2016
Photo: @bluegreen_cathy on Twitter

Step one is to draft your motion. There are full guidelines here. If you’ve never done it before, don’t be put off, but do ask for help if you need it.

Each branch and each constitutional committee (i.e. Regional & National Industrial Sector Committee; Regional & National Equality Committee, Regional Committee, Area Activist Committee) can submit one motion on any general policy topic (i.e. not about a particular sector and not requiring a change to Unite’s rules). The National Retired Members’ Committee and each Regional Retired Members’ Co-ordinating Committees can also submit one motion each, but these can only be on about matters solely pertaining to members in retirement.

The meetings held round the country before Unite Rank & File launched came up with lots of ideas, including areas where we can campaign to improve union policy. Note that there’s no need to submit motions to restate existing policy – motions should change existing policy or add to it.

Here are some suggestions to get you thinking – feel free to comment with your own ideas or what you’ve already submitted:

Organising / industrial action:

  • Disputes unit support, focused on winning, not just legal compliance, for all disputes from an early stage
  • Improve support for company and sub-sector combines
  • Increasing lay member involvement in organising
  • Response to the Trade Union Act 2016
  • Review / overhaul Unite education in the light of government funding cuts
  • Facility for levies (e.g. for strike funds) by workplace / employer, not just branch – for many members branch doesn’t directly match employer / workplace
  • Recruitment and organising of migrant workers and refugees

Democracy / accountability:

  • Review of Unite structures to better support members in multi-region employers
  • Investigate the role of union officials in blacklisting, and support the Blacklist Support Group
  • Policy against officers approaching employers over the heads of reps / branch officers
  • Tackle non-functioning branches so members aren’t left without a functioning branch for long periods
  • Improve Unite grievance and complaint procedures
  • Change General Secretary elections to Single Transferable Vote
  • Ban branches passing member data to campaigns or third parties during Unite elections
  • Ban Unite employees (other than candidates) from campaigning in Unite elections
  • Official videoed hustings for Unite elections
  • Limit the General Secretary’s wage
  • Facilitation and control of communication with members during union elections
  • Require disclosure / control over fundraising and expenditure during union elections

Equality:

  • Put equality on the agenda of all branch and constitutional committee meetings
  • Make regional women’s and equality officer roles full time (or job share)
  • Review equality structures to ensure they are effective in representing each equality group, championing its issues, and promoting participation
  • Extend the recommendations from the report on women officers in Unite to all employees
  • Improve equality training for lay and full-time officers, reps and members
  • Including impact on members without UK citizenship and members working overseas in materials about impact of Brexit on workers’ rights
  • Workers’ rights to live and work where they want
  • Trans rights and Gender Recognition

Miscellaneous:

  • Cuts and privatisation
  • Councils implementing cuts
  • Diversification from destructive projects to good, socially useful, jobs
  • Trump visiting the UK
  • Housing after Grenfell
  • Automation and Artificial Intelligence
  • Brexit
  • Labour Party
  • Universal Credit

Leaflet for Unite Sector Conferences

Leaflet headed "Solidarity Needed" highlighting various strikesThis week Unite members will be meeting in Brighton for our 2017 sector conferences. Unite Rank and File has produced a leaflet explaining what we are and encouraging solidarity with various disputes. If you can, please lend a hand distributing it to delegates and encourage them to sign up for Unite Rank and File.

The timetable for the conferences is as follows:

  • Sunday 12 Nov: Retired Members. Docks, Rail, Ferries & Waterways
  • Monday 13 Nov: Civil Air Transport. Passenger Transport. Road Transport Commercial, Logistics & Retail Distribution. Food, Drink & Agriculture. Service Industries. Government, Defence, Prisons & Contractors
  • Tuesday 14 Nov: Local Authorities. Energy & Utilities. Education. Health. Community, Youth Workers & Not for Profit. Unite Construction, Allied Trades & Technicians. Finance & Legal.
  • Wednesday 15 Nov: Aerospace & Shipbuilding. Chemicals, Pharmaceuticals, Process & Textiles. Automotive Industry. Graphical, Paper, Media & Information Technology. Metals (including Foundry). General Engineering, Manufacturing & Servicing.

Delegates normally arrive the day before the conference to register, and delegates normally stay over after the conference to travel home the next day.

Launch: Unite Rank & File – building solidarity across the union

“Unite Rank and File” launchedUnite rank and file icon

Working class people face huge challenges at work and in our communities. We have endured decades of high unemployment, deregulation, anti-union legislation, privatisation, cuts and outsourcing, alongside an inadequate response from our unions. Many have felt powerless and vulnerable as our jobs, pay and conditions, services and rights are attacked.

Yet workers continue to resist, and when we do, we usually achieve some measure of success. Workers create all the profits, and we have enormous power – if we have the consciousness and organisation to use it.

The low turnout and lacklustre results of the senior officials standing in the Unite elections earlier this year showed that there is a large and growing disconnect between our union’s leadership, structures, and members. They also showed that a significant minority of members want to see a more radical, robust and bottom-up response to the challenges facing us – just as the response to Jeremy Corbyn shows that millions want something more than a fresh gloss on the same old free-market fundamentalism. There is a widespread desire for a more democratic culture, where discrimination is not tolerated. This is essential if we are to maximise involvement in building a strong union.

“Unite Rank and File: solidarity across the union” is a new network of Unite members which aims to:

  • Build solidarity
  • Encourage resistance and make our union do more to encourage it
  • Put activists in touch with each other, share information and ideas
  • Champion independent workers’ organisation and challenge the toxic “in partnership with management” culture so widespread in Unite
  • Supporting the development of rank and file networks and campaigning initiatives throughout our union
  • Campaign to reform and reinvigorate Unite’s democratic structures to promote a bottom-up culture where members participate, challenge discrimination and are in control
  • Campaign to change Unite policies e.g. against Trident and for workers’ rights to move freely and be treated equally

While the impetus for the new grouping came out of the campaign to elect Ian Allinson as General Secretary, we are not seeking to create yet another electoral faction within Unite. We welcome your participation irrespective of your views on the recent elections or whether or not you are affiliated with any of the electoral groupings such as United Left.

Please leave your details if you want to get involved. As well as our web site www.uniterankandfile.org you can also follow us on Twitter @UniteRankNFile and like our Facebook page @UniteRankAndFile.