Unite shifts left over Trident, opposes war on Syria and launches its industrial strategy

The Unite sector conferences were organised over three days this week. They give reps an opportunity to debate industrial issues relating to each sector with a view to developing industrial strategy for the next 2 years. This year the conferences took place against the backdrop of the Tories’ anti Trade Union Bill, the recent victory by Jeremy Corbyn, growing battles about the direction of the Labour Party, the threat of war and Unite’s stance over Trident. rs21 supporters distributed this leaflet at the conferences. This report by Ray M is from Tuesday’s plenary for manufacturing sectors and the Aerospace and Shipbuilding conference, which was the focus of the Trident debate.

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At the plenary session involving all manufacturing sectors, Len McCluskey described how media coverage of Unite focuses on the relationship with Labour, rather than the union’s primary role as an industrial organisation. He announced that Unite was launching a new campaign on the themes “work, voice, pay” to give the union a more coherent industrial focus. He talked about the injustice of the Trade Union Bill and in reference to the debates about Trident, he argued that “above all” the union had to defend jobs and conditions.

In response to a question about whether Unite would support deselecting Labour MPs who rebelled to support bombing Syria, he said that Unite’s strategy of encouraging members to get involved in the Labour Party to try and select working class MPs continues. He described how Corbyn had appealed to people sick of the idea that “There Is No Alternative”. He thought that there was a learning curve in the Labour Party, as they adjusted to the new situation, and that this included Corbyn himself. He was having to get used to being a leader rather than a backbencher free to say what he liked. The Parliamentary Labour Party was also on a learning curve. The Labour conference had recently voted to oppose bombing Syria. MP’s had to realise that the vast majority of Labour members had rejected the old style of politics. Len argued that he was not in favour of mandatory annual reselection, but he did support accountability and went on to suggest that those who rebelled against democratic positions should face the consequences back in their constituencies. He said that some MPs are behaving despicably, and they should give the new leader a chance. Len condemned the Paris attacks, which he described as “fascist”, but argued that it was important to keep a calm head. He said Syria was already being bombed daily and UK bombs would not make any positive difference, pointing out that hundreds or thousands are being killed daily. Len said that some MPs want to vote for war merely to embarrass Corbyn adding that he personally would vote to deselect them. He saw it as encouraging that young people were more engaged in politics thanks to Corbyn.

Len’s comments about the disgraceful role of some Labour MPs are welcome and should encourage activists inside the Labour Party to deal with the MP’s who feel they can continue to pursue their own personal right wing agendas without any accountability.

A delegate from aerospace & shipbuilding asked about the prospects for diversification from Trident and working with Jeremy Corbyn’s Defence Diversification Agency (DDA). The delegate also asked Len to clarify how the press had reported Len making disparaging comments about diversification at the Labour Party conference. Len argued that there are tens of thousands of jobs in the defence sector, it would be devastating if they were lost, and that it was Unite’s job to oppose such devastation. If it was feasible Unite should engage in debate on diversification to guarantee the same type of jobs and skills. He pointed out that the National Officer for the Aerospace and Shipbuilding sector, Ian Waddell, is preparing a report highlighting proposals for diversification produced by the sector. Len pointed out that we’ve never had a government that was interested in diversification, which has led to negative responses. In 2001 the Labour government scrapped the body looking at diversification, so members in the sector felt nobody was listening. As general secretary, he said it was his job to defend all members’ jobs and communities and that he would be guided by conference policy. He finished his response by saying that Unite would talk to anyone about diversification.

With growing opposition to Trident renewal and a projected spend of up to £167 billion, Len’s comments were disappointing and confirm a caution about diversification and a narrow view that the union should defend some jobs first regardless of the impact on spending for other purposes, which could create more good jobs that could be socially useful.

In response to a question about the junior doctors’ dispute, Len ridiculed the attempts of the right to pretend that it would jeopardise people if there was an incident like the Paris killings. In such circumstances, he said that everyone knew where the doctors would be, adding that we should support their fight.

On the back of these positive comments activists should be able to invite junior doctors into Unite meetings and help build solidarity on their picket lines.

Len was asked how to respond to companies which wanted to cut costs by moving jobs offshore, threatening good jobs in the UK. He argued that multinational companies have no loyalty and would leave tomorrow if it could make them more money. The pro- free market government sees no issue with this, which is why he saw the union’s political work as important. He argued that this kind of thing doesn’t happen in Germany. Siemens have an objective of protecting their “core workforce” in Germany, and when they make cuts they move work from the UK to Germany to do that. He asked who is protecting “British workers”? It is better for businesses to have local supply chains, who can fix issues that arise promptly. He stressed that the UK needs an industrial strategy. Len highlighted the case of Ford, for whom the UK is their most profitable market, despite not making a single car here, having moved jobs elsewhere, but they are still allowed access to the UK market. Len was excited to see Corbyn and McDonnell looking at an industrial strategy.

The amount of Unite material talking about “British workers” is a real problem. Our members come from all over the world and we all need to unite if we are to successfully resist the employers and develop a winning strategy. Talk of “British workers” is divisive and weakens us, as it did during the disgraceful period when Derek Simpson followed Gordon Brown in arguing for “British Jobs for British Workers”.

Assistant General Secretary for manufacturing Tony Burke claimed in his remarks that “we will do what it takes to save our steel industry”, however, there was no explanation of how this might be achieved.

Sharon Graham, who heads Unite’s organising and leverage work, introduced the new Unite “work, voice, pay” industrial strategy, aimed at tackling declining living standards by extending collective bargaining and improving bargaining outcomes. She argued that an intensified focus on the union’s core industrial work would also regenerate its industrial focus against media misrepresentation.

The idea behind the strategy is to establish core themes that are relevant across all sectors. Every worker can understand what Unite stands for, and we can establish standards for negotiating issues. The themes can be expanded and adapted as appropriate, for example:

  • Work: secure, permanent jobs, without zero hours contracts. No compulsory redundancies. Apprenticeships. “Rate for the job” to stop undercutting. A safe environment without discrimination.
  • Voice: Union voice for non-recognised workers. Extending the scope of bargaining (e.g. agency workers, job security). National and sectoral bargaining that covers everyone, looking beyond individual workplaces. Negotiations on service/product to shape the future.
  • Pay: RPI means a falling share when productivity goes up – focus on the ability to pay. Life/work balance. Training. Pensions.

Unite has begun building a database of workplaces showing the anniversary date for pay deals, agreements etc. Preliminary analysis of pay deals against data from the Office of National Statistics shows 18 out of 20 sectors have a “Unite premium” on pay. The information about the strategy and database will be disseminated and discussed throughout the sectors. They can develop plans for coordinated bargaining by aligning anniversary dates, or targeting particular companies or sub-sectors. “Best in sector” agreements and clauses can be established and identified. Combines and networks can be developed across sites, companies and sectors. Activists will be able to access the database of collective agreements as well as various templates and model agreements.

The focus on developing a coherent industrial strategy is a really welcome development. It can provide effective tools for activists to help them develop more powerful campaigns and build workplace strength.

At the Aerospace and Shipbuilding conference the issue of Trident and defence diversification was the main issue for debate. Three motions representing different shades of opinion were debated in common. One of them, from the North West, was opposed to diversification, arguing that it has never and won’t be able to deliver skilled jobs on decent salaries. These views have represented the ‘common sense’ within the sector for many years, but no evidence was provided to support them.

Delegates voted to reaffirm the current position that the cancellation of Trident could only be supported by Unite when jobs with comparable pay, conditions, highly skilled work and job security are available in the areas where Trident related work exists. This motion from the South West did encourage positive engagement with diversification but set conditions that make any jobs diversification program almost impossible.

The motion from London and Eastern region argued for support for Jeremy Corbyn’s new Defence Diversification Agency (DDA), to invite him to the next national industrial sector committee and for the committee to elect a team to work with the DDA to develop plans for high skilled, socially useful jobs to replace current Trident related jobs. Examples were given of successful jobs diversification in Finland.

In the early 1990s Finland had many jobs dependent on wood and paper products, and these jobs collapsed when the country faced recession. The government and industry consciously decided to transform the economy into a high technology exporter, developing innovation, particularly in telecommunications. Through co-production (the government working with the private sector) major employers shifted entirely to become world leaders in telecommunications. Freiberg, also in Finland, was to be the site of a new nuclear power station but opposition and protests led to the government reversing the decision to build the nuclear power station and to invest in renewables, in particular, solar energy. This one solar plant now produces more solar power than the whole of the UK in a country that has near arctic conditions. These positive examples were contrasted with attempts in 1989 by union reps in Barrow, the site responsible for manufacturing the submarines that carry Trident, who submitted significant diversification proposals for R&D in marine and wind technologies. None of the proposals were taken up by either the employer or the Tory government. Had these proposals been implemented the site would have been alongside world leaders in Denmark and Germany.

The motion argued that the sector support the ‘aims’ of the DDA. Delegates rightly pointed that these were not yet defined as the body has not yet been set up. The conference agreed to remit the motion on the basis of a statement that the aerospace and shipbuilding national industrial sector committee would elect a team to work on the Defence Diversification Agency and Jeremy Corbyn would be invited to its next meeting. The National Officer confirmed the intention to invite Corbyn to the next meeting and that the committee had to engage with the DDA and elect a team of reps to sit on the new body.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of this development. For decades the idea that building weapons of mass destruction is the acceptable price we pay for ‘good jobs’ has been the dominant view in the sector. One of the pro-Trident delegates argued in the debate that diversification is a joke and patronised delegates for taking it seriously. Aware of the shift taking place at the conference he concluded with these remarks – “if you think Corbyn will be Labour leader in 2020 you’ve got another thing coming. If you think Labour will bridge the gap between the Tories you’re a dreamer. It looks like the Tories are our only friends now!” These comments sum up the view of those who have dominated the sector for years. They are the voice of defeat and despair. They reflect the views of the employers and the Tories – “There Is No Alternative” (TINA). They have blackmailed the Unite leadership with threats of the shipbuilding membership leaving Unite to join the GMB if a strong pro-Trident position isn’t maintained. Recently, the right in the sector led a public split against the decision to back Corbyn. They went to the press and actively promoted Burnham in the sector. The Corbyn victory has had a transformative impact in the union and this has also affected the sector. Many now have the confidence to challenge the right and to embrace the new direction Labour are taking, which boosts the potential for diversification. Developing a strategy for alternative jobs can, if successful, provide the basis for breaking the right’s grip on the sector and challenging the toxic partnership with the employers and the politically backward idea of the Tories being good for jobs.

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