THIS IS A CRITICAL TIME for the trade union movement. Many unions have been grappling over the last few years with how best to adapt to the changing nature of the workplace. The lack of investment in industry and infrastructure, and the rise of the gig economy, have meant that there are fewer employees who work in large sites with fixed hours. This has made it harder to make contact with and organise people within their workplace, and also meant that union committee structures which rely on people working in the same industry for most of their working lives, are under strain.
Social media has opened up new opportunities to engage with people cheaply, bypassing mainstream media, but requires both fresh thinking within trade union structures and ways of engaging with people who may not come from a trade union tradition.
On top of these longer-term shifts, we have in the past couple of years seen major political shifts – the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party; Brexit; Trump. These have come as a shock to the political establishment, and illustrate a growing disconnect between the establishment and people’s lived experience. They make it hard to predict what will happen in the next few years, and many of the old ways of doing things may not work in the future.
It is increasingly clear that neoliberalism has failed, and that we need new solutions. But there are major attempts by the right to divide communities, and to pit people against each other. We are seeing this in the growing attacks on migrant workers and BAMER (Black and Minority Ethnic and Refugee) communities; the attempts to blame people for their own poverty via an increasingly vicious welfare system; and more recently the attempts to suggest that older people are responsible both for the pressures on the NHS and social care system, by ‘living too long’, and, where they have decent pensions, for the growing poverty of younger people.
Trade unions represent a major force for social change – bringing people together from diverse backgrounds and promoting solidarity. There are more than five million members across the country and in many sectors of the workforce, membership is starting to grow again. Unite the Union now has 1.4 million members, meaning that the question of its leadership is a crucial one. Len McCluskey is standing for re-election having won the support of the vast majority of the lay leadership of the union – 90% of lay chairs of both national and regional committees are supporting his campaign.
Under his term of office, Unite has had huge achievements:
- » Support for members involved in industrial struggles in all parts of the economy.
- » Leverage campaigns using a range of tactics to highlight bad employment practices and to help win improvements for workers, for example in the Sports Direct campaign, which took up issues which many said unions could not tackle.
- » The development of the Unite Community membership, making the union relevant to those not in regular paid employment, and building real links between those in and out of work. The Community membership is now thousands strong and they are very active in a range of campaigns. including highlighting the huge injustice of benefit sanctions.
- » Support for migrant workers - recognising the barriers to involvement and offering practical tools for organising such as ESOL classes.
Unite has invested in organising and is working hard to ensure that the paid officer team reflects more effectively the diversity of membership, with more officers who are younger, women and from BAMER communities. The union has also been solid in supporting Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party and in campaigning for services that members rely on, such as the NHS.
Unite members know that they need to be in a union to tackle the endemic low pay, high workloads and lack of job security that afflict much of the UK’s workforce, and can see that while wealth is concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people, we will not get a fair deal. Only Len is able to offer a real vision and hope to members, and the signs are that he is winning supporters every day.
We need a General Secretary who is able to bring us together – ensuring that Unite is a serious organised force for change, at the heart of alliances for our rights and futures. That's why I'm supporting Len McCluskey as the candidate who can ensure that we are a powerful, effective voice for members and their families.
- The LRC National Executive Committee voted overwhelmingly to support Len McCluskey for General Secretary and the United Left slate for Unite's NEC. It also agreed that Briefing should carry material in support of Ian Allinson.