Where is Unite going?

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Unite is Britain's biggest union. The approach it takes to combating austerity and job losses makes a big difference to workers in all sectors. Eddie Cimorelli asks whether Unite is living up to its militant image

Unite has been derided in the right wing press as a union pushing a backward looking confrontational agenda apparently belonging to a bygone age. Len McCluskey, Unite's general secretary, was condemned before the Olympics when he declared that "the unions, and the general community, have got every right to be out protesting.

If the Olympics provide us with an opportunity, then that's exactly one that we should be looking at." These are welcome statements and they haven't been the only ones. McCluskey also openly supported the student rebellion in 2010-11 and has allied the union with UK Uncut as it seeks to be identified with the most high profile and audacious section of the anti-cuts movement.

But how far does Unite's militant image match up to the challenge it faces from a government seeking to drive through unprecedented cuts and private sector employers using the recession to boost profitability at the expense of ordinary workers?

What Unite does certainly matters. It is a mainly private sector union, but is also well represented in the health service, local government, the Ministry of Defence and other government departments. It is Britain's largest union, officially claiming around 1.5 million members. At this summer's Unite policy conference McCluskey outlined the union's strategy which combines industrial, political and community strands to combat both the government's and the employers' offensive. What assessment can we make of this strategy?

Moving Labour to the left?
McCluskey has been critical of some Labour policies - including the Iraq war, the failure to repeal the anti trade union laws and Ed Miliband's support for the public sector pay freeze. But McCluskey's alternative isn't to stop funding Labour. Unite remains the largest contributor to the Labour Party and last year gave £3.4 million in affiliation fees alone. Trade union votes were decisive in electing Ed Miliband as leader of the Labour Party, but there is little evidence of Unite's influence over Labour policy in return.

To win the ideological battle in Labour and rebuild the left within it, Unite is backing a new think-tank, CLASS (Centre for Labour and Social Studies), fronted by author Owen Jones, to give a media platform for social democratic ideas.

Unite's aim is to reclaim Labour by convincing its reps and activists to join the party to fight for Unite's policies inside the party and to get more union members selected as election candidates. There has been some success with getting Unite reps elected as councillors.

But as Labour councils have implemented cuts, Unite's Labour councillors have mounted little opposition. Where they have, suspension from the Labour group has followed - and with little support from the union.

Fighting inside the Labour Party will involve mounting a real challenge to Miliband and Balls over a whole range of issues, from taxing the rich, to reversing Tory and Labour attacks on the NHS, defending welfare benefits and migrant labour, renationalising the railways and the energy companies, demanding the ending of the anti-union laws and so on. Will this happen, especially when the countdown to the next election starts and the pressure to "keep quiet" to get Labour elected grows? McCluskey is gambling on shifting Labour to the left. The danger is that, instead, the union will tie itself to a Labour Party that won't deliver.

On 30 November (N30) last year Unite members joined the biggest mass strike in generations in huge numbers. Yet despite the enthusiastic response to the strike and continued votes to reject the pension deal, Unite members in the public sector have never been called out on strike together again.

In local government Unite recently recommended the same deal members struck against on N30. It's no wonder members have accepted this offer after months of procrastination at the top.

In health, where the union has opposed the pension deal, Unite did strike again on 10 May, alongside the PCS union and others. Yet Unite officials put considerably less effort into building this strike than they had for N30 with the result that the action was patchy. This is a dangerous and unnecessary approach, particularly as it came at a moment when the government was facing a wave of popular hostility to its NHS bill. No real attempt was made to connect the anger over the dismantling of the NHS with the 10 May strike - something that could have provided the government with a major headache.

The conduct of the pensions dispute points to a gap between the militant language McCluskey is prepared to adopt at times and the reality too often on the ground when it comes to following this through.

Leverage
Unite is developing a strategy for fighting industrial disputes through "external leverage", especially in the private sector. The electricians' dispute is presented as a model, with high profile protests at the bosses' dinner in Park Lane and pickets at Morrisons stores seen as the key to the dispute's success. What's missing from this account are the unofficial walkouts, site blockades and the fact that Balfour Beatty caved in hours after Unite announced plans for continuous strikes across key sites.

Leverage initiatives can be useful if it means getting activists involved in disputes and building their confidence.

However, that enthusiasm needs to be transmitted back into the workplace to build effective industrial action. The dispute at the packagers MMP is another example. Unite members were locked out while taking strike action and the union then launched a campaign involving international protests and targeted the customer and supply chain to put pressure on customers and shareholders. These tactics won better redundancy terms but couldn't stop the site's closure.

The danger is that "leverage" can become a substitute for effective industrial action, not a tactic to build up our side's forces to complement and build effective industrial action. In this case, where striking workers had been locked out, solidarity action at the sister site in Deeside and an occupation at the threatened plant were the kind of tactics that could have won. The third part of Unite's strategy is its new "Community membership" aimed at recruiting those who are not in paid employment, people unfit to work, carers and pensioners, and so on. At the moment Community membership focuses heavily on the "benefits" package for those joining Unite. However, there is an opportunity for it to develop into a useful campaigning section of the union that could link up wider anti-cuts battles with industrial action, especially activists, fight for the union to take this direction and seek to organise the million young people who are without jobs or college places, and launch a militant campaign against workfare.

Unite has faced membership decline since it was formed in 2007.

Each year has seen an apparent decline in members as the combined impact of inflated membership figures prior to the merger that formed Unite, an ageing membership and job losses all take their toll. Trade union membership declined in Britain from 7,328,905 to 7,261,210 in the year to March 2012. Unite saw a decline from 1,573,000 to 1,515,000 over the same period. Devising a strategy to reverse this decline is of paramount importance. However, the common sense view that trade unions are in terminal decline is wide of the mark and the picture within Unite is more complex. Unite's membership is declining in some traditional manufacturing areas, but growth is taking place elsewhere.

Unite has relaunched its organising strategy with former joint general secretary Tony Woodley in charge. The union's approach combines membership recruitment with an emphasis on rebuilding shop stewards' organisation.

There have been notable successes in sectors such as finance, aviation and the meat processing industry, where a lay member led meat industry combine committee now represents more than 18,000 workers. In the health sector Unite has also seen its membership increase and it is now the second biggest sector behind finance - a process that ran parallel to building for N30.

Passenger services, dominated by bus workers, have also seen significant growth. This follows a number of disputes against private operators across the country and above all in London, where the largely successful fight for an Olympics bonus for bus workers after a one-day strike and moves to re-establish city wide bargaining have boosted Unite's membership across garages. This example offers a glimpse of what is possible when Unite follows through with a strategy to fight and win. An opportunity now exists to for the union to take the initiative in the bus garages.

Historically, unions have always grown in periods marked by militancy, rather than partnership and compromise with employers. Where Unite has had a serious organising strategy, and especially where this is linked to struggle, the membership has grown. But we have some way to go if we are to roll back the damage done over the last three decades.

The restructuring of British capitalism over those decades has seen unionised jobs being lost, a process that is continuing in the current recession, and this is where Unite has suffered significant membership decline. But from MMP to Remploy and the Coryton oil refinery, Unite and other trade unions haven't been prepared to employ or encourage tactics that can stop this process.

Tackling anti-union laws
Union leaders have too often accepted the argument that global forces make labour weak and consequently accept that nothing can be done to stop restructuring and closures. We need to move beyond a strategy limited to trying to extract improved terms for workers facing such restructuring. This will mean challenging the anti trade union legislation and adopting militant tactics such as plant occupations and solidarity action. Such an approach would, of course, also involve a serious clash with the Labour Party leadership.

In the public sector Unite's policy is to organise coordinated action across the public sector to defend pay, pensions, terms and conditions and oppose privatisation. Unite could play a pivotal role in building coordinated action with other unions if this policy was pursued with some vigour. But too often the radical posture of the Unite leadership has not been translated into effective action on the ground. This means that socialists and militants in Unite can't rely on the leadership to deliver.

The left in Unite will need to work with McCluskey where he challenges the bosses, the government and the Labour leadership, but it will also need to be prepared to act independently of him when he pulls back from doing so. Building a huge Unite presence on the TUC demo on 20 October and campaigning for strikes in the autumn will be a critical part of this process.

Eddie Cimorelli is a senior Unite rep in engineering