Bigger, Stronger Unions Are Not Just Desirable - They Are Vital To Millions Of Working People's Lives

In one sector after another, the threat of savage job cuts is a reality

09/01/2018 15:37 GMT | Updated 09/01/2018 15:37 GMT
Neil Hall / Reuters

In one area after another, Unite is now leading the labour movement across Britain and Ireland. 

Politically our role is central.  The part we have played in bringing a radical progressive Labour Party to the threshold of power, when most others doubted that this was possible, is a tribute to our union’s strength of purpose.

This doesn’t mean ignoring the present government – we have dialogue with Tory ministers where members’ needs demand it. We will never let partisan politics get in the way of fighting for jobs and investment.

But let me say clearly – Unite is going to be fighting all out for the early general election and Labour victory that can really transform our prospects as a country.

Unite is also leading on the legal front, winning vital litigation to establish that holiday pay should not only be paid for compulsory overtime but for voluntary overtime, too.

We twice successfully defeated Argos’s High Court challenge to our industrial ballot to start the fight back against the restrictions of the Trade Union Act.

We are the only union to continue the fight for victims of blacklisting, over 70 new cases being taken not just against the companies but against the individual decision makers in those companies.

In landmark litigation we have established the law that companies who offer pay rises to those who leave a union is unlawful.

In the British Airways dispute we successfully challenged attempts to financially punish those members who took strike action. And we have represented literally thousands of members recovering over £150million in the last year alone as compensation for our members.

Ours is also the first trade union in Britain and Ireland and, probably, Europe to develop serious alternative strategies for crisis campaigns, showing how to win when conventional industrial action is either not possible or not appropriate with a 100% success record.

Of course, leverage is not the way forward for every industrial crisis, nor is it an easy option we can turn to in order to avoid difficult struggles. 

I am the last General Secretary to ever say that strikes are a thing of the past. Mobilising our members against injustice and employer actions is always our first priority.

But with our leverage work we have given each and every one of our members a new option for when the chips are down.

And, of course, our  £36million Strike Fund has given confidence to so many of our members who have been forced to take strike action, sending  a clear message to companies that we will not let our members be starved back to work.

In Unite, we have built a remarkable democratic working-class organisation that our members can take pride in.

But damage was done to our union’s public standing by the General Secretary election last year.

There is much that I cannot say about that episode at present – but I will in time.

We all should be alarmed when the work of our union is traduced, when we are painted as a reactionary or useless organisation and when the tawdry techniques of tabloid journalism are imported into our democracy.

And we all suffer when our essential unity of purpose, despite legitimate differences, is pushed to breaking point by tactics of fear and smear.

The Unite that was portrayed in the press during that campaign was not the Unite that our officers know and work for.

Above all, we are an industrial organisation which is why I am today focusing our union on becoming a larger, stronger industrial organisation.

Of course, we are not going for growth in a vacuum.  We do so in an economic situation of great turbulence, pressing in on our union and our members at every turn.

In one sector after another, the threat of savage job cuts is a reality.

In the public services this is directly driven by the government, with its endless cuts affecting local authorities, the NHS and other vital provisions.

The jobs crisis spreads far wider – the steel industry, the Vauxhall factories sold to PSA, jobs going at Ellesmere Port and at risk in Bombardier and BAE Systems and across the financial services industry.

In all these areas, we put the fight for jobs first.

It’s now clear that due to the government’s divisions and bungling, and under pressure from its extreme right elements, there remains a danger of Britain crashing out of the EU without any sort of continuing trade agreement.

This raises the real danger of a jobs massacre for our members and many more, with the manufacturing sectors and finance being probably the most vulnerable.

That is why we support Labour’s constructive approach, which includes staying within the single market and customs union for four years, allowing time for mature negotiations to yield an agreement which can give British-based industries the maximum possible tariff-free access to the single market.

The final industrial problem impacting on our members is the issue of automation.

In the hands of uncontrolled big business, the rapid development of automation is a threat to jobs and wages.

But in the right hands – put to work for the benefit of society as a whole – robots and robotics could be the gateway to a better work-life balance and a more fulfilling society for millions.

Here, Unite has taken the lead, looking to safeguard jobs and communities, and indeed our whole society.

The bottom line is we can’t trust the people who crashed the banks with controlling robots.

Automation must be socially controlled so its benefits can be reaped by society as a whole.

So a bigger, stronger Unite is not just desirable.  It is vital - vital for millions of working people to enjoy better lives, to end this decade-long pay slump, to tackle growing inequality in our society.

We know great changes are on their way for our country.  A progressive Labour Party is advancing, and a weak and incompetent Tory government is disintegrating.

People in Britain – and Ireland too – are sick of cuts in public services and stagnant wages while tax cheats go unpunished.

They want a different society, an end to the situation where a decent secure job and a place to live are unobtainable for millions.

But we know that those changes will never be achieved by government alone, even a progressive Labour one.

Society cannot be transformed solely from the top. Stronger trade unions are vital, not as an add-on to government, but as the very foundation of a more equal country.

What we achieve in the workplace can do as much to make our countries better places to live in as almost any decree from Whitehall.

So, let’s do it.   It’s time to grow!

Len McCluskey is general secretary of Unite