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Where to, Unite?

Unite the Union’s Rules Conference held in July 2023

By W Jarrett, WPB Trade Union Group

In July of 2023 Unite the Union held its Rules Conference in Brighton. The conference came in the wake of the historic leadership election success of Sharon Graham, a Unite full-time official and the union’s first woman General Secretary, who’s Back to the Workplace programme promised sweeping reforms to the manner in which Unite operated. Among these promised reforms which resonated so strongly with Unite members was a fundamental change to the nature of Unite’s approach to and relationship with the Labour Party, to which Unite and its predecessor unions had affiliated.

The dispute instigated by now-beleaguered, Labour-controlled Birmingham City Council against bin workers remained fresh in the memories of Unite members and activists last July. A demonstrably worker-hostile and Blairite Labour council launched an assault against Unite members, culminating in the suspension of Unite strike-leader Pete Randle. The entire cohort of Birmingham Labour group’s Unite members had been suspended during the dispute for violation of Unite Rule Book prohibition against hostility toward members. This was just the most recent exhibition in modern trade union history of Labour’s entrenched aggression toward Unite the Union, and trade unions generally, where it controls local authorities.

What about the longer-term view of Labour’s conduct toward Unite? In 2013 a Unite the Union official at what was then Grangemouth Chemicals, convenor and Falkirk CLP chair Stevie Deans, had been targeted by the Labour Party for campaigning in the Falkirk selection process for Unite’s preferred PPC, Karie Murphy. Grangemouth Chemicals, later to become Ineos following a financial intervention from billionaire mogul Jim Ratcliffe, suspended Stevie Deans when Labour called in the police to investigate because it was clear that Scottish Labour’s preferred candidate may not win the selection process! Labour was thus not only prepared to jeopardize the employment of a committed and popular trade union activist but also subsequently endanger the status of Unite and its ability to bargain collectively for members at a crucial petrochemical facility of strategic and international industrial significance. The message, despite the official position of Labour which promotes trade union involvement in selections and representation, was clear and stark: Interfere at your peril!

Amendments to Rule 22 (Labour Party affiliation) at the 2023 Unite Rules Conference varied in substance and tone, from outright severance of the link to Labour, to the more nuanced approach of opening Unite’s political fund to candidates supportive of Unite Policies other than Labour candidates, something Graham would rebuke in her summary of the bureaucratic EC statement manoeuvre as “ … effectively disaffiliating from Labour.”, a point which was not at all accurate, as Labour would have to choose to expel Unite if members endorsed the proposal to open the political fund to forces other than those offered by Labour.

From 1997 until 2010, when Labour last governed the United Kingdom, not a single piece of Thatcher-era anti-trade union legislation was rescinded. Labour MPs have crossed picket lines. Labour has destroyed communities through implementation of sweeping austerity budgets, hollowing out local authority workforces and decimating public sector employment, all in contravention of Unite the Union policy prohibiting cuts to public services. The Labour Party’s hostility and contempt for Unite the Union and the trade union movement is palpable.

This is why the Workers Party urges for Trade Unions to disaffiliate from the treacherous Labour Party and become politically independent, in order to work purely in the interests of their members rather than the compromise and capitulation we currently see in practice.