Len McCluskey, general secretary of the Unite union, has announced a plan for reinvigorating the trade union movement—and the Labour Party.
At the union’s national policy conference in Brighton last week, McCluskey set out his three-pronged strategy. First comes recruitment, with a target of 100 percent union membership in the workplaces that Unite organises.
As McCluskey said in his keynote speech, “Our focus is always on the workplace. That’s what trade unionism is all about—neglect that and we are out of business.”
The strategy has shown some results, including 25,000 new members in targeted companies.
But it is through its struggles that the union has recruited best. And these new members have had to argue hard inside the union to keep up those fights—from rank and file electricians in the construction dispute to public sector workers after 30 November.
Unite is setting aside a disputes fund of £25 million to bankroll strikes. And officials are becoming less anxious to issue “repudiation” notices when there is a possibility of unofficial action. Policy passed at conference affirms that official and unofficial action can complement each other.
Second is expanding the union’s activities beyond the shopfloor. This includes “community membership”, which lets students, unemployed people and workers not in organised workplaces join, to campaign together.
It also includes a focus on winning industrial disputes through “external leverage”—putting pressure on employers through stunts and protests at their sites and those of their clients.
Phil Potter, Unite rep at Mayr Melnhof Packaging (MMP) in Bootle, told the conference how they had “unleashed hell” on the company to get a fairer deal after it made them redundant. He said, “Chief executives of other companies will have got the message—don’t take on Unite.”
The other element is a focus on the political debate. Unite is backing a new thinktank, Class, fronted by author Owen Jones, to give a media platform to left wing ideas.
But the main emphasis is on the Labour Party, which receives more money from Unite than from any other source.
McCluskey has been critical of some Labour policies, such as the Iraq war, the failure to repeal anti-trade union laws and Ed Miliband’s comments on public sector pay.
“We must take some responsibility for that,” he said. “We just kept signing the cheques as the party drifted further and further away from working people.”
But McCluskey’s alternative isn’t to stop signing the cheques. It is to step up the union’s engagement in Labour.
He wants to see branches sending activists to constituency Labour Party branches, to fight for Unite’s policies inside the party and to get union members selected as election candidates.
Not all Unite members agree. Around a quarter of delegates at conference voted to make some of Labour’s funding conditional on opposition to the anti-union laws and support for strikes against austerity.
“Tanker drivers don’t see why they should have to pay a political levy to a party that does nothing for them,” said Ian Neville, a driver from Purfleet.
The other aspects of the Unite strategy contain much that is positive. But the most effective thing Unite could do is be at the forefront of the industrial fight against austerity.
Activists need to make sure opportunities are not wasted in the stop-start rhythm that has characterised the pensions dispute.
Leverage stunts and recruitment techniques can help, but it is the collective action of workers that wins disputes and builds unions.