By International Socialist Alternative members in Unite the Union

Unite the Union is now at a crossroads. As Socialist Alternative said in its open letter to the Unite general secretary election candidates: 

“We have already seen the bosses using the pandemic as a cover for further attacks on workers’ pay and conditions. Unite members have been engaged in battles against scandalous fire and rehire tactics, in the case of Go Ahead in Manchester successfully. In retail and other sectors, a jobs cull is taking place as big business attempts to claw back some of the profits lost as a result of repeated lockdowns. Public sector workers have found themselves on the receiving end of yet another pay cut.

To compound matters, since his election as Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer has rapidly dragged the party to the right, meaning that Unite is funding an organisation which is not a vehicle for struggle. Throughout the pandemic he has more often than not simply acted as a faint echo of Johnson, turning to patriotic flag waving rather than campaigning for policies which would improve the lives of the working class. This has gone in tandem with a remorseless assault on the left, including the removal of the whip from Jeremy Corbyn. The fruits of his approach were seen with the recent local and devolved government elections.

When members cast their vote in this election we need to ensure we do so for the candidate that gives us the best chance of organising industrial and political opposition to the Covid onslaught.”

Threat from the right

We are at a crossroads because the outcome of this election will have a profound effect on the union and its ability to organise. A victory for right-wing candidate Gerard Coyne, which is possible given how close he came in the last election and the huge support he is getting from the right-wing of the Labour Party and the establishment, would represent a massive defeat for the union. Coyne is determined to smash the left within the union, taking to The Sun during the last general secretary election to attack Len McCluskey over his support for Jeremy Corbyn.

This is why Socialist Alternative, along with many other activists, have called for one left candidate as being the best way to stop a Coyne victory. Lessons need to be learned from recent elections in the RMT and Unison, where multiple left candidates have split the left vote and resulted in a right wing victory. 

It was known that Coyne would be seeking nomination and therefore it is disappointing that the three left candidates who originally announced they were standing allowed their campaigns to be built to such an extent that it was difficult for any of them to back down. Howard Beckett did eventually announce he was standing down and threw his weight behind Steve Turner. 

The fracturing of the United Left – the broad left within Unite – and the multiple left candidates in this election, highlight the urgent need to rebuild a broad left grouping based on the left wing activists, shop stewards and rank-and-file members of the union. Whichever candidate wins, the left will need to be well organised inside the union to either hold them to account or fight-back against any rightward drift. 

Support Sharon Graham

Socialist Alternative is calling for a vote for Sharon Graham. Her programme correctly focuses on giving more power to the reps. To be able to effectively hold the union’s leadership to account it is clear that the union’s structures must change to empower the branches. Organising in the workplaces and strong workplace rep structures will be key, as well as holding elections of regional and national officials and negotiating officers. All elected officials and full time officers must receive the average industrial wage and branches should elect delegates to conferences.

Some of the most active forces in Unite, including groups of workers involved in recent strike action, are supporting Sharon Graham. Defeating Coyne is the most important task, and we believe that more of the activists necessary to mounting the kind of campaign are involved in Graham’s campaign. Therefore we believe that the Turner campaign should step down to ensure that the strongest anti-Coyne candidate has a clear run.

Graham’s proposals for industrial strategy are also important. There needs to be a focus on strike action, protest and and lastly the leverage strategy. The scale of attacks on jobs and hard won conditions means that ‘pragmatism’ and a strategy with an emphasis on having the ear of Ministers or CEO’s just won’t cut it. Fire and rehire tactics are a big issue facing Unite members and the victory won by the Manchester bus drivers points to the type of movement needed. As well, there could be coordinated strike action across different employers using the same tactics, as well as coordinated action in the NHS over the 1% pay offer. Retail and hospitality can be decisive sectors in the class struggle in the next period and Unite should allocate resources for organising in these sectors in a serious way, as detailed in Graham’s manifesto. 

Unite removed ‘within the law’ from its rulebook to deal with the restrictions of the anti-trade union laws, meaning that it would potentially be willing to break these laws where necessary to organise effective action. However, this hasn’t been utilised. A starting point is for the union to challenge these laws by organising mass resistance to them, including organising mass picket lines. The biggest strength the union has is its members, and their potential power as workers should be used, including in the leverage strategy, which is sometimes separated from the workers in dispute themselves.

The issues facing Unite members also includes the question of political representation for the working class. There should be no more blank cheques given to the Labour politicians who are not standing on the side of the working class. Unite should only back candidates who back our members. Turner attacked the Manchester bus drivers for being critical of Andy Burnham, Labour mayor for Greater Manchester, but they were absolutely correct to raise demands on him.

However, it would also be a huge mistake to conclude that we should adopt an apolitical approach to trade unionism. Unite should not limit itself to the workplace, it must go beyond. We can also play a role in developing a political voice for emerging social movements such as Black Lives Matter, combating gendered violence and climate catastrophe. Those campaigning for Sharon Graham must call for a clear political strategy aligned with a fighting industrial approach, workers need both and we shouldn’t shy away from supporting accountable working class politics both in and outside the Labour Party. It is in this way Unite can play a role in developing a new left political voice for working class people, based on struggle. 

Build a mass campaign to get the vote out 

The task now is to win the biggest possible vote for Sharon Graham. It will require a mass campaign to win the votes to defeat Coyne and will also serve as a useful springboard for rebuilding an organised left within Unite. 

However, at the same time, the left must also discuss how it will respond in the event of a Coyne victory and take necessary steps to prepare for the type of battle which will be needed within the union – on the national and regional structures and in the branches. 

After the recent victory of the left in the Unison NEC elections, if there is a victory for the left in Unite too, there will be the potential for turning the tide in the trade union movement and opportunities for building a fighting, democratic worker’s movement.

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