Socialist Worker

Unite: The battle to lead Britain’s biggest union

Socialist Worker is backing rank and file candidate Jerry Hicks in the election for general secretary of the Unite union. The result will have a big impact on the course of the resistance to the Tories, argues Matthew Cookson

Issue No. 2223

Jerry Hicks, the rank and file  candidate for general secretary of the Unite union (Pic: Smallman )

Jerry Hicks, the rank and file candidate for general secretary of the Unite union (Pic: Guy Smallman)

The starting pistol was fired this week for the Unite union general secretary election as its 1.5 million members received statements from the four candidates.

Unite has members in most major workplaces across Britain—including in construction, health, printing, local councils, manufacturing, the voluntary and charity sectors, IT and finance.

Rank and file organisation is fundamental, but it matters whether or not the union’s leadership is prepared to take on the government and employers.

That’s why Socialist Worker is backing Jerry Hicks in the contest, which opens on 25 October and runs until 19 November.

Jerry is a rank and file candidate, sacked after leading successive struggles at Rolls Royce in Bristol. He is standing against three Unite full-time paid officials—Gail Cartmail, right winger Les Bayliss, and another left wing candidate Len McCluskey.

Jerry and his supporters want Unite to move in a very different direction to the one travelled under the leadership of joint general secretaries Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson.

Jerry’s campaign believes that the cosy relationship between the union and Labour Party leaderships helped blunt opposition to the right wing policies pursued by the previous government.

Under Woodley and Simpson, Unite has been one of the party’s biggest financial backers.

And, even where Unite members have courageously fought their bosses, such as cabin crew at British Airways, the leadership has often been ineffective and failed to use the full weight of the union to win disputes.


Simpson, in particular, undermined the struggle at BA by openly criticising the length of time members wanted to strike for.

To greater and lesser degrees, the other candidates have followed the strategy of the current leadership.

Many activists want the union to change—and last year’s election for the general secretary of the old Amicus section of the union showed this.

Then almost 40,000 people voted for Jerry Hicks and he finished second to Simpson—sending a shockwave through Unite and beyond.

An even better vote for Jerry this time can show the mood at the base of the union and push those at the top to fight.

The election campaign can help create a network of activists for the major battles to come. Whatever the outcome of the election, bringing together rank and file members of the union who want to fight attacks by the government and employers will remain a crucial task.

Jerry’s call for a fighting and democratic union has won him wide support across the union, as has his rejection of the trappings of office.

If elected, Jerry is committed to accepting only an average worker’s wage—rather than the lavish salary currently offered.


Almost 150 workplaces and branches nominated him for general secretary. He and his supporters are taking their message across the country over the coming weeks.

“The election is nearing a conclusion,” Jerry told Socialist Worker. “But the next few weeks are going to be incredibly important.

“This is now a two horse race, between me and Len McCluskey, and I believe we can win it.

“That means it’s crucial that people get my campaign literature out to the members—to the bank and health workers, the bus drivers and all the other places with Unite members.

“If they see my material they will understand that I have a very different stance to the other candidates they will feel the need to take part in the ballot. I believe this will help increase the turnout and secure enough support to win.”

Jerry and his supporters are urging activists—from Unite and beyond—to get involved in his campaign.

To get leaflets and to get involved email [email protected]

For more information go to

The candidates

  • Jerry Hicks – Left wing activist and former convenor at Rolls Royce in Bristol. Sacked in 2005 despite a strike in his support. Won almost 40,000 votes when he stood for general secretary of the Amicus section last year.
  • Len McCluskey – Left wing assistant general secretary from the former T&G section of Unite. Calls for an “alliance of resistance” against the Tories. Won the most branch nominations. Supported by the United Left group
  • Gail Cartmail – Another Unite assistant general secretary. Her blog says she is the “independent, progressive candidate”. Has criticised Jerry Hicks for having “political party backing; his election bid is a constant feature of Socialist Worker”.
  • Les Bayliss – Candidate of Derek Simpson’s Workers Uniting group. He is also an assistant general secretary. Warns against strikes to beat the Tories, saying they will “turn the real victims, our members, into the villains”.

‘We need a fighting, democratic union–that’s why we back Jerry’

Ged Dempsey, Unite GPM secretary at the Polestar printing firm, Sheffield

“My chapel (branch) is backing Jerry because we want a fighting union. He is the candidate who best represents that.

Jerry has always supported people in struggle. People at work have been impressed by his passion, vision and commitment.

The union and the labour movement have to resist the cuts to our welfare state. We’re in the private sector, but like all workers we rely on the public sector to provide schools, hospitals, libraries and much more.

We are all in it together—working people that is, not the banks and the fat cats. We’ll be pulling out all the stops to ensure that our members continue their wholehearted support for Jerry in the next few weeks.”

Martin Gleason, senior Unite rep at Diodes Zetex Semiconductors in Oldham

“My union branch and workplace is looking for a more assertive union, one that is less inclined to talking about not rocking the boat.

We need a union that is prepared to fight. Jerry has come from the shopfloor and has more empathy with the rank and file than the other candidates. They are all a bit too bureaucratic.

The branches don’t get enough support from the leadership of the union. While Jerry can’t change that all on his own—it requires a transformation of the union machine—his election would be a major step forward.”

Kelly Roberts, a Unite rep in Bristol and a social care worker

“I’m backing Jerry as he’s always been there for activists who need help and advice.

He is for the people, not the wages. It’s a disgrace that some in our union take tens of thousands of pounds from the members—and then fail to represent them properly.

There are loads of brilliant people in Unite, but they can only do so much when all the rest aren’t doing their job properly.

Jerry is the candidate who will stop all the waste from the top down—those who watch the world go by while people at the bottom need their support.”

Brett Davis, Unite convenor DSG Donnington

“Stewards here are backing Jerry because he is a breath of fresh air. We need to take the union back for members.

The union should be building on the action we had here—a recent 1,000 strong protest against cuts to our redundancy payments—to mobilise across the country for the fights to come.

We need a union that backs us and takes the bosses on—if it did that the union would become stronger and recruit new members.”

Jerry Hicks: Our leaders are part of the problem

“This vote is taking place at a crucial time as the economic crisis deepens. Billions of pounds of our money has been thrown at the banks, and ordinary people are being told they have to pay the price for the failure of the free market.

Unite’s size brings potential strength, which could be used to bring the bosses to their knees. We can stop the cuts, especially if we combine with the others. We need to fight, not just use fighting talk.

We have to do the right thing, even if that means breaking the law. That means supporting workplace occupations to save jobs and strikes in solidarity with others who are fighting back.

So far, Unite has not shown the leadership needed. The union leadership is part of the problem, not the solution. At the TUC general council it goes along with the crowd or pulls the progressive unions back.

There also needs to be more democracy in the union. My principle is where members decide, the union provides. Workplaces, activist committees, branches and sectors should have that authority.

And, democratic accountability must be extended to all those who represent our members, at all levels.

The other candidates believe that the union should continue to appoint its full time officials. I think that Unite cannot be truly democratic until they are elected.”

Northampton campaign meeting

by a Unite member

Jerry Hicks addressed an enthusiastic Unite meeting Northampton last Saturday. Members from the health, manufacturing and finance sectors were present.

The meeting agreed to spread the word about the campaign into more workplaces by leafletting Unite members in Rugby and Kettering among other things.

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Article information

Tue 12 Oct 2010, 18:13 BST
Issue No. 2223
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