Unite's general secretary has resigned to trigger an election, but hopes to continue as head of UK's biggest union
In a surprise announcement to Unite’s Executive Council (EC) on 6 December, Len McCluskey offered his resignation to Unite’s senior lay committee, the Executive Council. The EC accepted.
What lies behind this somewhat unexpected situation? Nothing quite as sensational as it may appear. Faced with an increasingly stringent erosion of its finances, through continual government attacks on its income stream, McCluskey told the EC that he could not justify running two major elections in a twelvemonth. By rule, the current EC’s term of office expires in Spring 2017, and nominations open in January. By law, the office of General Secretary must be subject to election within a year.
As McCluskey explained, the savings to the union of running both sets of elections simultaneously would amount to around £1Million (confirmed by the Electoral Reform Society, the body which oversees Unite’s electoral process). Given the cost implications, he argued that it would be irresponsible for him not to put the facts before the EC, with his proposal to stand down. He has confirmed that he would seek re-election, and the reaffirmation of his mandate to finish the job of making Unite a member-led union, ready and able to defend its members’ pay and conditions.
He is aware that the right-wing press will have a field day, declaring open season on Unite, its reps and activists, and Len himself. We have already witnessed the smears and innuendos (around his finances, his personal life and his politics) which formed part of the attempt to undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party (Unite, and McCluskey were staunch supporters of Corbyn’s election campaign, and the new politics he has brought to the Labour Party).
We can only expect this to intensify. But as McCluskey points out “This will happen anyway, whenever the election happens. They hate us because we stand for our members”. So please remember, when the smears start: under McCluskey, Unite has rejected every attempt by employers to force the union to repudiate members’ industrial action.
Whether it was the striking sparks seeing off the contract-busting attempts of the BESNA employers; the (failed) attempt by Crossrail to victimize, then blacklist, Unite health and safety reps; the London bus drivers’ fair pay campaign, or currently the Fujitsu strikers, or BA’s Mixed Fleet, whenever our members have demonstrated their wish to oppose the predatory elite that lives off their labour, Unite and McCluskey have backed them.
No wonder the Tory press hate him. And hate him even more because he supports the political alternative posed by Corbyn and McDonnell. Whether it's Sports Direct, the backdoor attempt to privatise the NHS through TTIP, the disgrace that is zero-hours contracts, or the devious theft of tips from catering staff, Unite has been at the forefront of campaigns for social justice.
The Tories will root for any candidate other than McCluskey, and will tell whatever lies are necessary to achieve it. So be prepared, and do not fall for the Tory lies. For them, McCluskey represents their worst nightmare – not just the disillusionment and disgust for the ‘1%’ that largely motivated the Brexit vote, but an organized, optimistic effective belief that another world is possible, that our class, if it stands together, can transform the world we live in.
Of course there are grounds for criticism - his preference to avoid what he sees as unnecessary tensions in Unite, while understandable in the General Secretary of Britain and Ireland's largest union, nevertheless can leave many of his supporters feeling frustrated. In particular, Unite's fudge and smudge on Trident, and nuclear weapons, means some activists feel Unite faces in two directions at once.
But weigh this in the balance of his overall stance – his, and Unite's, unwavering support for the Stop the War Coalition, or the leading role the union has played in the Peoples' Assembly – and you are left with the (for us, uncomfortable) conclusion that if we cannot win enough members to support our view at Conference (which would then be the policy of the union) then why should we expect him to pick our chestnuts out of the fire.
And this is important, because without McCluskey it is by no means certain that the social movements (above all, StW and the PA) which provided the social momentum which propelled Jeremy Corbyn to electoral victory, would have had the traction that they possess. This (probably above all else) is why the establishment loathe McCluskey.
A vote for McCluskey will be a vote to save the NHS, to end precarious employment and casual labour, to defend our public services and the workers who keep them going, to defend decent, secure employment in private industry; above all, a vote for hope.
Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage. A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.