Growing the grassroots in Unite

In April 2017, Ian Allinson stood in the Unite General Secretary election as a grassroots candidate. Recently, warnings have been raised about the long-term decline in trade union membership. At the same time, trade unions continue to show their worth. For instance, the cleaners and support workers at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, represented by the UNISON union, have recently emerged victorious from a campaign to force the institution to bring its workers in-house. And, in July, cleaners at Barts NHS trust took on their employer SERCO with strikes throughout the month. Engaging with this contradictory picture of contemporary trade unions is essential for understanding an uncertain political landscape. With this in mind, rs21 is republishing an interview with Ian Allinson, in which he talks about the project of building a fighting rank and file in Unite. This interview was originally published in the Summer 2017 edition of the rs21 magazine, available here.

Ian Allinson stood as a grassroots candidate in the Unite General Secretary election.

Photo: Steve Eason

The scale of the collapse in McCluskey’s vote came as a surprise to us and most of his supporters. What do you think his vote collapsing so dramatically tells us about the political situation in Unite?

McCluskey’s had the advantage of incumbency and most backing from activists, the United Left (the biggest faction in Unite), and nearly all the union apparatus. His campaign used every channel of communication, from mail shots, emails, texts, social media and even robocalls. Despite there being an Acting General Secretary for the duration of the election, McCluskey had the opportunity to speak at numerous gatherings of members and activists which were officially organised during the election period. Yet McCluskey’s campaign struggled to motivate members to vote for him.

There’s no doubt that Coyne’s relentlessly negative campaign against McCluskey, amplified by an anti-union media, played a part in putting members off. Similarly, McCluskey’s identification with Corbyn, though popular within the left, was a negative for some others. The general disengagement of members from their union meant that many members felt that the choice of national leadership was of little relevance to them.

McCluskey’s weak vote also reflected problems in his own camp. Offering no new ideas for strengthening the union, his campaign came across as complacent at a time when many members’ experience is still of a dysfunctional union. The declining vote echoes low participation in union structures and weak engagement between those structures and members in workplaces, problems which McCluskey has done little to address.

It’s been said that workers’ confidence to challenge the leadership of their union is a reflection of their confidence to challenge their employer. What can we take from the vote about the political confidence in Unite-organised workplaces?

We didn’t need a leadership election to tell us that workers’ combativity is low – this is shown by the appallingly low strike figures in recent decades. This doesn’t mean that struggle is going on – it takes many forms and union members make gains or stop attacks week in and week out in thousands of unionised workplaces. But much of that good work doesn’t involve sustained collective participation by members so has limited impact on their ideas or their relationship to the union. In many cases successes are achieved by reps within minimal member involvement. So most members aren’t involved in challenging their employers, aren’t rubbing up against the obstacles the bureaucracy puts in the way of effective resistance (“those who do not move, do not notice their chains”), and so feel neither the need nor the confidence to challenge the leadership. So frustration with the inadequacies of union organisation is often expressed passively and negatively.

One of the difficulties of running a grassroots campaign is the lack of rank and file organisation inside Unite. To what extent did the existing rank and file organisations have a bearing on the General Election campaign?

Rank and file organisation within Unite is very limited. The most important group is the Construction Rank and File, which has some reach beyond the construction industry itself (e.g. influencing offshore workers). The Construction Rank and File played a vital role in the electricians’ fight against BESNA [a national agreement that threatened pay cuts of up to a third] in 2012, but its recent meetings have been smaller and drawn in fewer people still working in the industry. Several key activists have also become dependent on Unite for their livelihoods for periods of time, while Unite has been more supportive of campaigns such as the Blacklist Support Group. The effect is that the Construction R&F is currently less independent of the Unite machine than at its height, and voted to back McCluskey. Despite the weaknesses, the power of rank and file organisation was shown in the Executive Council elections, where their candidates were all elected, unlike those from the United Left who weren’t backed by the rank and file.

Your campaign took you and your supporters to workplaces around the country. Did you gain any particular insight into how work, and workplace organisation, has changed in different sectors?

I didn’t learn a huge amount about how work has changed, but I learned a lot about the state of workplace organisation. Many activists, never mind members, are disengaged from the union structures and officers, and feel pretty isolated and beleaguered. But there’s a huge range. One illustration of that was the confidence of reps to engage with the campaign. In some workplaces, reps felt confident to give me a tour and to speak to members in the canteen. In one workplace, the convenor was rattled because the manager had complained when we leafleted outside! One large manufacturing workplace had had a successful sit-in the week before I visited – a struggle that never made the strike statistics or the news. When leafleting outside workplaces I took membership forms with me and it was striking how many people were interested in joining – in many cases union visibility within the workplace was too low to enable recruitment.

One focus of your campaign was around bus garages. What’s your sense of the current situation and potential for organisation in the garages?

Bus garages often have large numbers of Unite members, so are great places to visit during a campaign. I saw a marked difference between garages in London and elsewhere. In London I met far more people who weren’t in the union, some of whom had major gripes with the union. Many London bus drivers were paid less than colleagues elsewhere in the country where the cost of living was far less. There was a lot of anger about managers putting spies on the bus and disciplining workers for trivial mistakes. In one garage members were refusing overtime in protest, despite their rep supporting management on the issue. The failure to follow through on the London-wide pay campaign to avoid embarrassing Sadiq Khan was another hot topic.

London bus drivers were undermined by the Unite bureaucracy when they went on strike in 2015.

Unite members braving the snow on a picket in Westbourne Park during the 2015 London bus drivers’ strike. Photo: Steve Eason.

Lots of unions are looking at mergers at the moment, just as smaller alternative unions are starting to gain some wins in the service sector. What has been the impact of the formation of Unite in pushing a rank and file organising agenda (compared to your experience in Amicus)?

There’s no question that the approach to organising in Unite is far superior to that in Amicus, and far more resources are directed to organising. Unite’s organising training really encourages the building of workplace power and collective action. However, the direction of it is very top-down and the approach quite inflexible, so I wouldn’t say it has achieved much in promoting a rank and file organising agenda.

How effective was the tactic of standing for General Secretary in getting the core political arguments of the campaign a greater hearing in Unite?

This was clearly one of the big successes of our campaign. Both Coyne and McCluskey started the campaign pandering to anti-migrant sentiment, which we challenged from the start. Not only did we include workers’ rights to move freely and be treated equally in leaflets, online articles and my election address, I was able to put the argument into meetings, hustings and even the mainstream media, including the Guardian and Daily Politics. Given how rarely such arguments are heard, the profile given to UKIP and their ideas, and the dangerous backsliding by McCluskey, I thought this was incredibly valuable.

Other key political arguments include diversification/Trident, partnership, and sexism, but I thought the second area where we had a real impact was in relation to Jeremy Corbyn. Coyne’s campaign tried to paint McCluskey as so keen on Corbyn that he was neglecting Unite. McCluskey, who has been a far from consistent Corbyn supporter, responded by ducking the issue, which was particularly damaging after the Copeland by-election defeat. It was really important that our campaign made support for Corbyn a positive, and argued that the attacks on him were primarily because of the break he was making from the establishment, including the Labour Party establishment.

To what extent has the union’s relationship to Labour influenced the direction of Unite?

I think the relationship has had a huge influence, often a greater influence than Unite had over Labour.

Before Corbyn, Unite’s leadership often soft-pedalled on issues to avoid exposing the gap with Labour. A good example was over the TTIP free-trade deal. Labour’s position was to support TTIP but seek protections for the NHS. Within Unite we won outright opposition to TTIP, despite our own leadership initially wanting the same policy as Labour. But when it came to campaigning, the entire focus was on the NHS rather than breaking from the partnership approach that sees free trade as good for employers, therefore good for jobs and good for us.

Since Corbyn, the picture has changed. McCluskey is significantly to the right of Corbyn on many issues, and Unite has put pressure on Corbyn to accommodate to the right of the Labour Party, such as over free movement and Trident. The other huge change is in Labour membership. Before Corbyn, Labour membership was concentrated at the top of the union – you’d find a majority of delegates to Unite conferences were Labour Party members, but few of the activists in workplaces or the lower rungs of the committee structure. Now the number of members and activists who are Labour Party members has skyrocketed – and these are mostly people who broadly support Corbyn’s policies. I think this change has yet to fully work its way through the union structures, and this will be happening at a time when the internal struggle between left and right in Labour is not going away.

The wider political landscape, specifically Unite’s support for Corbyn, made the Unite election a real media focus. How did the ian4unite campaign resonate beyond Unite?

The media presented the campaign as being primarily about Corbyn, with McCluskey as the pro-Corbyn candidate and Coyne as the anti-Corbyn candidate. Our coverage was a tiny proportion of what the establishment candidates got and most people beyond Unite were either unware there was a third candidate, or saw me as splitting “the pro-Corbyn vote”, ignoring the fact that this was a union election in which members’ weren’t generally voting for or against a Labour leader.

The main areas where we got resonance beyond Unite were in relation to free movement and the argument around diversification and Trident. The diversification argument is going to be increasingly important because many current jobs are not sustainable in the face of climate change and automation. Unless unions break from the partnership model of backing each employer’s current business plan “because jobs” and start proactively arguing for the jobs we need, we will be unable to respond to that. Many people beyond Unite appreciated us putting a clear diversification argument forward.

Whilst it is very early in the process, how is the attempt to build a level of organisation out of the campaign looking?

A genuine rank and file movement can only come out of widespread struggles with employers, not out of an election campaign. But it should be possible to connect up people who have a rank and file orientation and who want to see more effective and radical resistance. It is important to recognise that this would include people who didn’t support me in the election. The post-election meetings I’ve been holding have not been huge, but people have volunteered to get involved in various ways. I think that if we can start doing something modest but useful we have the potential to build.

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