Jerry Hicks - a rank and file challenge: now organise!

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(380)

Jerry Hicks stood as a rank and file candidate in the recent elections for the general secretary of Unite, the biggest union in Britain. He received 79,819 votes, 36 percent of the vote. Socialist Review spoke to Jerry about why he stood and the lessons of the campaign


Firstly, congratulations on the fantastic vote you received. Many people would see Len McCluskey as one of the most left wing trade union leaders in Britain at the moment, so why did you decide to stand against him?

The election was heading to be unopposed, not because everyone was in agreement with McCluskey, but because it had been manoeuvered to orchestrate this. The reason that it was pulled forward three years from the scheduled date was to spring it on people.

I had no intention of standing. But when it looked like no-one else would, I put myself forward to force an election, so 1.5 million members would be at least given access to another side of the tale that had to be told. I had rather it had been a convenor from a big combine or a leading comrade from a left party. But no one came forward - and that in itself is worthy of some thought. How come it was only me that felt that way? Yet clearly, as the vote shows, we were so right to stand.

As a candidate I was given access to branch secretaries' details. Although I asked for emails and then mobile telephone numbers for the branch secretaries, this was denied me. Postal addresses were given to me, which is costly, and it takes a great deal of time to send out 2,880 letters through the post! But we were able to use the branch secretaries' surnames to get over 800 landline numbers. So I was talking to branch secretaries in all sectors and all regions throughout the UK and Ireland, and they were telling me a completely different story than I had heard from all the pundits who were saying that Unite is heading the right direction - McCluskey is the best thing since sliced bread and so on.

I quickly discovered that there was a huge discontent and disconnection within the union. And as we discussed particular issues - the election of officials as against their appointment, our relationship with Labour with millions of pounds given by the union with precious little in return - there was a very political discontent combined with a disconnection inside the union itself.

It wasn't a simple decision to stand, but for there not to be an election would have been a huge mistake and a big problem for the class in how it carried things forward.

So during the campaign I went from mad to bad to right. I was mad for even thinking about standing against this left wing union leader. Then I went to bad. Lies and innuendo went out to probably half a million members across the branches that nominated McCluskey, saying, "We've nominated Len, he's brilliant; Jerry Hicks has done nothing for years; he's a political opportunist; he relies on the discredited Socialist Workers Party."

McCluskey used the tricks of the trade and the worst traits of union leaders from the 1970s and 80s and courted the right wing vote to defeat us. So I went from mad to bad to right - it was the right thing to do, we got 80,000 votes, 36 percent.

The SWP, to its great credit, and one or two other groups supported us. They made the right political decision. It took some time to get there, and that lost a little bit of impetus - and in these times we need to move and come to the right decision quicker.

McCluskey has adopted a very different approach to Dave Prentis, Unison's leader. McCluskey's language has been much more radical, embracing street protests and attempting to revive the Labour left. How do you assess his overall strategy?

McCluskey is certainly not a Prentis figure, and he's absolutely not a Derek Simpson type - but nor is he Che Guevara or Hugo Chavez! My assessment is that these things were progressive and they were more than rhetoric (though in my view to reclaim the Labour Party is impossible). But the urgency hasn't been there.

Community branches are a good thing, absolutely, an orientation to the workplace, yes ok, but by agreement rather than diktat - talk of civil disobedience and a general strike, coordinated strikes, fine - but there was a huge gap between the rhetoric and reality. Weeks and months would go by between speeches with nothing happening on the ground.

Certainly with civil disobedience our physical presence didn't match the rhetoric. For example, the very week that the TUC and Len McCluskey were talking about civil disobedience, a stone's thrown away at the Olympic project construction workers were blocking the streets - but they never joined us.

That's the frustration. If we were in a halcyon period, then you'd have a feeling that you've got time on your side, with the employer or the state making concessions because there are profits in abundance. But in times of constriction, such as now, with cuts raining down on us, the eyes and ears of the employers and the government are on us. And they hear us say one thing and then see that we are not doing it. It gives succour to Osborne to say faster with the cuts.

30 November 2011, when we saw a one-day public sector general strike, was a high point that showed the potential for a fightback. What went wrong?

It wasn't built on and it wasn't developed. It was a high point and it was downhill after that. It should have marked the first step with a proper strategy already thought out to take it forward. In any dispute you have to go for victory, and then if there's a part victory in between, then it's not a defeat. November 2011 went beyond tokenism but not much more. Then what it does is dispirit, and that's what's happened.

You were involved in supporting the electricians' dispute in 2011 - an important victory - from the beginning. The union officially seemed very unresponsive at the beginning. What do you think are the lessons of that dispute?

The union's response initially was worse than lacklustre. It was condemnatory. An email went out from the appointed national construction officer which attacked Newcastle branch - a general branch which had taken a brilliant initiative to open its doors to all construction workers for its branch meeting, which meant you had 80 people packed into a room discussing which way to take the rank and file struggle across north east England. It also attacked me and attacked London branch, which was key to initiating those first rank and file meetings. The email called us a cancerous group, poisonous individuals and mindless.

The position seemed to be, "Let's wait; let's gather an army, there's nothing that can be done because we haven't got sufficient members in the industry."

Now we knew who the enemy was: it was the Besna agreement, initiated by eight of the biggest employers trying to smash national terms and conditions. Ordinary members got together to discuss the problem, decide a course of action and to get on and do it, in the best traditions of the rank and file.

But instead of the union placing itself alongside the rank and file and saying, "What is it you want, when do you want it," and putting in place the leverage strategy - which took almost 12 months to formulate - it denigrated the rank and file.

The union did catch up and initiate a ballot - and the eight became seven, became six and then Balfour, the biggest of the lot, caved in and the thing was over. But the union should have gone on from that - similar to what we said about the November 2011 strike.

Construction is plagued by agency labour, where they should be on permanent contracts which would make everybody stronger. But it didn't push on. In fact I think Unite has become almost a concrete glove around parts of the rank and file and it's holding it back rather than pushing it forward. I know it's doing stuff around Crossrail, but again there's no sense of urgency.

So I think the lesson is that instead of the union getting its feet under the table and kicking activists aside, the union's role in this should be to blow more wind into the sails of the rank and file, because the people most affected by the employers' attacks know precisely the problems and the way to deal with them. The union should be an extension to their own decisions, not supplant them.

What's your view of the wider state of the trade union movement and the prospects for the emergence of serious resistance to the Tories and the employers?

The Con Dems are very weak. You almost feel that if everyone inhaled at the same time and then exhaled simultaneously we'd blow them over. But you don't get that sense at all from the trade union movement. The TUC drive me to distraction - the gaps between meetings, decisions and pronouncements seem to go on forever, and that of course, gives the Con Dems time and confidence to make decisions each week on cuts, the bedroom tax and all these other things.

The problem is that the closer we get to 2015, most trade union leaders, not all by any stretch, only believe in getting Labour re-elected. And those calls will become like a cacophony as we get closer to it. And that brings us back to Unite's election. Our election timetable was to avoid a clash with a general election. It's inevitable that most unions will wind down their rhetoric and deeds to match the next phone call that comes from the Labour hierarchy that will say we don't want trade unionists marching on the streets of London so close to an election.

I don't think most trade union leaders or officials are bad. But they don't live our lives; they are cushioned from the full effects of the cuts, from unemployment and the ravages of those things that workers suffer. I think that creates a mindset that you can ride it out, you can wait your time, and that's what builds in the inertia.

I don't look at this from a jaundiced point of view. I think all things are possible. But I worry in the main that the trade union movement will become less vociferous and will simply wait for 2015 and Ed Miliband, only for him not to reverse any of the cuts.

How do you hope to build on your nearly 80,000 votes in the union?

Well, what a wonderful bridge to cross, because had we done abysmally, the question would not have been relevant. And especially when you take into account that McCluskey's campaign spent a hundred times more than we did, got a thousand branch nominations to our 136, and had hundreds of full time officers, paid for by members' money, campaigning for McCluskey.

What I would like to see is a grassroots network, in the first instance bringing everyone together so there can be solidarity across all sectors - but also for us to try and develop, however big or small, in any sector that we can, rank and file organisations free from the involvement of full-time officials - although, of course, within the union structures we would still request their support, but on our terms. So we are going to have a series of regional meetings to bring people together and on 25 May a national meeting in London.

We have to consider the 85 percent who didn't vote - it's one thing to talk about McCluskey getting 64 percent of the vote, but 85 percent did not vote. That's not because they didn't care, but because they didn't feel it meant anything to them. My feeling is that most of those didn't open up the ballot paper, because if they had done so and read the election address, my feeling is that we would have won.

And that's the point - I think we could have won and if we had all the revolutionary left behind the campign we could have won. But we want to build a grassroots network in as many places as we can.

Is there anything else you want to say?

I'll make three predictions. Sadly, Unite will donate £10 million, unconditionally, throughout 2014, of our members' money to Labour and we won't be consulted.

The appointed officials will continue throughout the union - members won't decide who represents them.

And the rhetoric will wind down as will the instances of industrial struggle - unless our 80,000 connect with the 85 percent because the union isn't going to, and we produce some rank and file organisation beyond construction. And then I think all things are possible.