Unite bosses should be compromising with workers not criticising them

'With three left candidates vying for the top seat, unity within Unite is becoming fractured'.

Unite the Union flag

Jack Grant is a unite member and campaigner speaking on his own behalf.

It’s been a strange sensation as a left winger, to potentially have a ballot with multiple people I could happily vote for in the race for the Unite general secretary.

Four candidates have entered the race: assistant general secretaries Steve Turner and Howard Beckett, executive officer Sharon Graham and Gerard Coyne, who was narrowly defeated by Mr McCluskey in 2017 but was then fired by Unite for misusing data. Putting Coyne aside, it is testament to Unite’s strength that it can produce at least three well-qualified candidates of such experience.

However, such success could also prove to be a double edged sword, with three left candidates vying for the top seat, unity within Unite is becoming fractured, a situation that will be egged on by a hostile media. I was disappointed to read Steve Turner interview in the Huffington Post and his views towards the Labour party.

He criticised a ‘purist debate that’s taken place, pitting good Left comrades against good Left comrades, because they don’t sign up to a particular way of thinking on a particular issue’ and is worried that current divisions within Labour will find their way into Unite and made the focus of the general secretary election. 

However, in the same interview, Turner publicly criticizes Unite’s representative in a dispute with Labour and makes clear that if elected, the relationship would change in favour of one of the warring factions, Labour’s leadership. 

While Turner rightly points out that the ‘chatrooms of twitter’ aren’t where most of our members are, it should also be acknowledged that viewing Labour councillors and mayors as ‘ours’ is also unrelated from the real world where our members live. Barely a majority of Unite members voted for Labour. The part of Turners interview that merits the strongest criticism is;

“I want to see Labour councillors elected on May 6. I want to see Labour mayors. And it frustrates me, it angers me sometimes, that some of the union’s campaigning right now is pitched against our Mayors, against Sadiq and Andy Burnham. What’s that all about? I find that incredible that we would do that.”

Very simply these are active campaigns and for an assistant general secretary to publicly question their legitimacy is wrong both professionally and morally. What message would that send to the councillors and mayors being challenged by their workers? That they don’t have to worry, that these workers won’t be supported? Would striking workers not read this and lose faith? How would they be able to recruit in their workplace if their own general secretary was saying the union shouldn’t be active in those settings? Disagree with the tactic used as much as you want but to use the platform Unite members give you to publicly tear down your workers is not proper behaviour from someone wanting to lead a union.

Unite is an industrial trade union, people pay their dues to be protected at work and it should never be expected for a worker to put up with shoddy conditions or second rate treatment simply because their employer wears a red rosette on election days. I think this is something McCluskey should step in on and make clear to all Unite members currently campaigning against any employer or contract controller, including Labour councils, that they have the backing of their union to the hilt.

A large part of Turner’s position on Starmer and Labour is that he’s a negotiator, believing that a quiet word in the ear is better than a loudspeaker on a picket, it’s disappointing to see that same dignity not given to his own grassroots. Why don’t the 400 Unite workers in Manchester get friendly advice over coffee instead of being informed they are angering the leadership?

Which I think is the most vital question to be asked of any leader; who will you compromise with? Why is that a privilege not afforded to our due paying members but offered to people so hostile to Unite that they refused to back the unions concerns on the CHIS bill?

When Turner talks about Corbyn being suspended he correctly notes that ‘people don’t vote for a divided party’ and that ‘the longer it goes on, the more entrenched it becomes on both sides. It’s like a war of attrition going on, and it’s going on in public. It’s not helpful for anyone’ – an entirely correct sentiment that directly applies to Unite; who would join a union condemning its own campaigns in the papers? How will it help any of us to have a protracted and entrenched conflict between members? 

This is even more frustrating because I’ve struggled to distinguish between the three left candidates, too much of the conversation has been about the technicalities; who is Len backing? Who got what MPs? How many nominations do they need? Whether or not United Left actually will kick people out for backing Beckett or Graham? The membership needs to hear more of their ideas and the steps they would take to implement them.

Turner is correct that if Coyne does get on the ballot it would be disastrous for the left to field 3 candidates, which means there is a strong possibility that a compromise would need to be made and I would love to see more from candidates here. 

From the broad strokes, it seems Beckett wants to focus on ensuring the political and media landscape is more hospitable to unions and Turner wants to improve the internal structure of the union and position it better to exploit the changes that are coming to workplaces.

Both of these are vital pieces of work but they don’t seem to be in any way contradictory, areas ripe for a compromise to be reached if Coyne does make the ballot. Instead we see sniping at Unite campaigns the other candidates are involved in and further entrenchment of positions to the benefit of no-one even the eventually winner, who will have to put time and effort into mending the fractures being created.

One lesson we can learn from labour is its far easier to break bonds than it is to repair them.

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