Victimised former union convenor at Rolls-Royce in Bristol, Jerry Hicks, has put himself forward for Unite union’s general secretary election.
The election has been designed to make it as difficult as possible for any other candidate than Len McCluskey, the current general secretary, to run an effective campaign.
The union executive called the snap election three years early. Challengers have been given the first six weeks of the year to get nominations. The election will be over by the middle of April.
But Unite members have a lot to debate. The union of both private and public sector workers has a vital role to play in shaping the resistance to the Tories’ austerity.
McCluskey has become well-known for his fiery rhetoric against the government and the bosses—and in support of a general strike.
Strike pay has increased, there have been fewer blocks to calling action, and a clear break from the old practice of repudiating—distancing the union from—unofficial action.
But in terms of action, McCluskey’s role has been contradictory at best. In the public sector pensions dispute Unite members responded brilliantly to the call for action on 30?November 2011.
But when Unison began to demobilise the fight from December 2011, Unite failed to avert the retreat. Len McCluskey followed Unison general secretary Dave Prentis’ lead.
Unite organises 100,000 health workers, and is the biggest union in the TUC. Its members could have made a huge impact in taking the pensions fight forward, alongside smaller unions such as NUT and PCS.
In the private sector the record is uneven. Unite members have taken action and made a big impact and forced concessions from bosses.
But too often the union has settled far short of victories that could have been won. At MMP in Bootle workers went into occupation, and at Tesco in Doncaster militant picketing caused massive disruption. On both occasions Unite got results—but the strength of the action could have saved jobs.
Coryton oil refinery was allowed to close, despite workers looking for ways to take effective action. There has also been no campaign to build the confidence of members to take action that could save jobs at Ford.
Tragically the union also backed off from the kind of sustained action that could have saved jobs at Remploy.
One spectacular victory came out of the electricians’ fight against the Besna agreement. The initiative in the dispute came from the organisation of rank and file electricians and their willingness to spread unofficial action.
Since McCluskey’s election the culture inside the union is more tolerant. It has more bite and aggression against employers.
But McCluskey’s leadership must take some responsibility for these setbacks, and it is right to demand nothing less than a strategy that can win.
The “leverage” policy that has become central to the union’s strategy under McCluskey has helped put pressure on companies.
But it is no substitute for industrial strength—and that is what will be needed to win real gains from the bosses and the government.
McCluskey is focused on “reclaiming” the Labour Party. He has spoken out against previous general secretaries’ policy of giving Labour a “blank cheque”.
But in reality what has changed? Unite still gives millions to Labour—despite its attacks on benefit claimants, public sector pay, and the pensions strikes. There is also evidence of pressure from inside the union on councillors to vote for cuts in the name of party unity.
The Socialist Workers Party decided to support Jerry Hicks at its annual conference last weekend. Jerry was elected onto the first rank and file committee by a mass meeting of Besna electricians. He helped build the action throughout the dispute that led to victory.
This happened at a time when key rank and file activists were being called a “cancer”. He is calling for the same kind of leadership to be shown across the union.
As Jerry says, “It’s not too late to start a serious campaign of opposition to the government cuts and attacks—but it will take more than hot air at demonstrations.”
Five things you can do for Jerry
Jerry Hicks has a proven track record—winning over 50,000 votes when he stood in 2010. But he needs your help.
1. If you are in Unite, get your branch or workplace to nominate Jerry by 15 February. You will need the following details:
Name: Mr J R Hicks
Membership number: 31247909
Branch: Bristol Area Community Branch SW/ 001500
2. Invite Jerry or a representative of his campaign to speak in your Unite workplace.
3. If you are not a member of Unite yourself, you can still go to any workplace organised by Unite and ask to speak to the rep. Ask them if they will nominate Jerry or allow someone from his campaign to address their next meeting.
4. Give out leaflets for Jerry at any Unite-organised workplace.
5. Make a donation to the campaign. Make cheques payable to JerryHicks4GS and send to 10 York Rd, Montpelier, Bristol BS6 5QE