Report from Unite Rank & File national meeting

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.

Unite rank and file iconProgress so far

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:

  • Produced a leaflet for Unite Sector Conferences November 2017 highlighting solidarity with disputes at Mears/Manchester Working Limited, Arriva North West, Fujitsu and Capita
  • Encouraged motions and amendments to Policy conference 2018, explaining a process left opaque by Unite
  • Organised solidarity with Mears / MWL outsourced housing maintenance workers, who won 20% pay rises
  • Encouraged people to stand for workplace and branch positions, explaining a process left opaque by Unite
  • Opposed the NHS pay deal (a deal which, in the RCN, led to no confidence in the leadership)
  • Argued against Unite seeking immunity for discrimination by lay officials against members and employees
  • Highlighted officer collusion in blacklisting and the failure to act on evidence
  • Produced a leaflet for Unite Policy Conference in July 2018 which: opposed popular and state racism, including the FLA and Windrush; championed migrant rights and free movement; built solidarity with Wigan NHS and TGI Fridays; backed diversification and renewable energy; opposed climate change; opposed partnership; pushed for sectors to have fewer more focussed officers; argued for activists to be able to communicate with members (against EC pretence that GDPR prevented this); backed direct action training and strike funds; backed dignity at work, opposed sexual harassment and domestic abuse; backed trans rights; supported equality processes for recruitment to Unite jobs – including stand down officers; challenged low pay for young workers; demanded action on disability and sickness policies; supported work on mental health and workload; sought opposition to cuts and privatisation from local authorities; supported a shorter working week
  • Inside the conference, Unite Rank & File supporters played a key role in debates on free movement; opposing Tommy Robinson and the (D)FLA; overturning the EC on lay member communication; pushing improvements to Unite policy on defence diversification
  • Defended free speech on Palestine and opposed use of the IHRA definition of antisemitism
  • Promoted solidarity and publicised wins with numerous disputes and campaigns including Cammel Laird, Vauxhall Ellesmere Port, Street Crane Chapel En Le Frith, for trans rights, archaeologists in Ireland, NHS pay in Northern Ireland, against Universal Credit, Prysmian Cables, TGI Fridays, anti-racist demonstrations, climate change, Google, fracking, Appledore shipyard, Glen Dimplex Northern Ireland, saving libraries, Fast Food Shutdown, Luton airport, Kent NHS, period dignity, cladding on tower blocks, York NHS, Communisis, Hillingdon Dave Guilfoyle victimisation, free speech on Palestine, East Midlands buses, Total north sea oil, Birmingham home care, blacklisting, Wigan NHS, NHS, Ryanair, East Dunbartonshire Council, Gaza, Fujitsu, Bentley Crewe, First Bus Aberdeen, Bromley libraries, Mariner north sea oil, Leeds NHS, Hinkley C, Workers’ Memorial Day, Sutton tankers, reinstate Ian Allinson, Cummins Stamford, First Bus Manchester, Sellafield, Crossrail electricians, Glasgow Life / Emirates, Hanafi / Tower Transit, Mears Manchester, Canute Haulage Suffolk, harassment in hospitality, Birmingham bins, BiFab occupation, anti Trident replacement, Arriva bus Liverpool, bus pay and safety, employment rights, Swansea Bay tidal lagoon, National Grid US lockout, union rights, abortion rights in Northern Ireland, HE pay campaign, Deeside Clugston, working time, BA Mixed Fleet, Manchester airport, Bank of England, benefit sanctions, Chivas, Barts hospital, BSL interpreters

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.

The future of Unite Rank & File

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.

Rules Conference 2019

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:

  • Stop full time officers dealing with employers over the heads of lay representatives outside specific circumstances set out in a protocol
  • Define routes for remits to be sent through the structure
  • Address lack of democratic rights for community and retired members
  • Enable equality committees to vote annually on whether to fill vacancies with activists who haven’t yet been elected as reps or branch officers, to provide a route for people who face barriers to getting elected to build up their knowledge and experience
  • Help officer accountability by stopping the buck being passed between regions and sectors
  • Any proposal to close a branch should be voted on by its members
  • Ban union employees (other than candidates) campaigning in internal Unite elections
  • Change General Secretary elections from First Past The Post to Single Transferable Vote to encourage more candidates and more diverse candidates and help ensure debates are on the issues affecting members not speculation about splitting the vote
  • Accountability of officers at TUC and Labour Party conferences
  • Extend equality proportionality to Labour Party Liaison Committeees

Equal Pay, the Gender Pay Gap and the Glasgow council strike

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:

  • To call a 2.5 hour strike on the 8th of March 2019 symbolising the two and a half times more social reproductive labour women undertake than men highlighted in the International Labour Organisation report.
  • The demands of the strike will be extended access to free childcare, the reversal of all austerity cuts to women’s services and the creation of a National Care Service which is free at the point of delivery, has equal standing to the NHS and is funded from progressive taxation at the national level to avoid the entrenchment of regional inequalities.
  • To call a national demonstration working alongside women’s charities and campaigns.
  • For the EC to contact the TUC and other unions encouraging wider participation in the strike.
  • For National Officers, Equalities Officers and all union structures and committees to promote and encourage active participation in the strike and demonstration.

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.

Disputes and campaigns

Keep an eye on our Facebook page in particular for updates about disputes and campaigns.

Organisation

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.

Get involved

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.

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.

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