Socialist Worker

The unthinkable has happened

Amicus members kick New Labour in the teeth as they vote out Blair's favourite union leader, Sir Ken Jackson... Left winger Derek Simpson wins against all the odds

Issue No. 1810

SIR KEN Jackson's humiliation at the hands of little known left winger Derek Simpson has sent shockwaves through the political establishment. Simpson beat Jackson, the present general secretary, in the Amicus-AEEU union election.

Jackson was gutted. 'It makes me weep to think our union is now in the hands of the hard left,' he moaned. Jackson tried to complain that the election was not fair. It was not-the odds were overwhelmingly stacked in Jackson's favour.

He could rely on an executive and an army of full time officials who owed their privileges to him. Simpson had to give up his job as a union official and face down threats of disciplinary action against him. He was starved of any publicity. Simpson's victory is a kick in the teeth for Blair and New Labour. Jackson was called 'Blair's representative on earth'.

He was the fixer who could deliver precious union funds and conference block votes for New Labour. The Blairite spin doctors say Jackson's defeat is not a verdict on New Labour, but a rejection of an old man trying to cling on to power for too long. But Tony Blair was reportedly 'appalled' by the defeat of its strongest ally in the unions.

As Ken Cameron, the former general secretary of the firefighters' union, said, 'It is an anti-Blair vote. Grassroots members and activists are fed up with the way they feel they are being treated.'

Simpson's victory shows that the project of building a pro New Labour block at the heart of the union movement is crumbling. This was the whole point behind merging the AEEU and MSF unions to create the new super-union, Amicus. The AEEU's track record suggested that it could be relied on to deliver for New Labour.

The AEEU was created out of two other unions, the electricians' EETPU and the engineers' AEU union.

Communist Party supporters dominated the electricians' union after the Second World War. Their control was broken by anti-Communist witch-hunts, ballot rigging scandals and a High Court ruling which handed control to right winger Frank Chapple. Chapple and his backers closed down local union branches, imposed union officers and disciplined any members who protested.

Ken Jackson made his name as a McCarthyite witch-hunter of the left in the 1970s and 1980s. Jackson and new right wing electricians' leader Eric Hammond sneered at pleas to deliver solidarity with the miners' strike of 1984-5. Instead they met with the scab breakaway outfit, the UDM.

The union became notorious for supplying scab workers during the print workers' strike at Wapping in 1986. Union officials met with Rupert Murdoch's men to plan how they would smash the strike in return for becoming the only union recognised in the plant. The electricians' leaders were determined to overcome the problem of a declining membership by signing single-union 'sweetheart deals' with the bosses. The union was expelled from the TUC because these deals meant bitter inter-union recruitment wars.

Hammond bragged that his members 'reveal an enthusiasm for the market system and its values' and threatened to set up a rival to the TUC. Despite this, the powerful engineering union, the AEU, sought to merge with the electricians.

The engineers' union was a traditionally left wing union with strong rank and file organisation. Its president during the 1970s was Hugh Scanlon. The press dubbed him a radical militant when he led a fight against Tory anti-union laws. But declining membership after the recessions of the 1970s and the 1980s pushed the leaders of the AEU to seek allies among other unions.

The merger of the AEU and the EETPU allowed the electricians' union back in the TUC and created a powerful block that would consolidate the union leaders' own positions.

Iron grip on union

KEN JACKSON was elected leader of the electricians' union when no other well known figure stood. Under the rules of the union's merger with the AEU, he became general secretary of the merged engineers' and electricians' union, even though the AEU was much larger. Jackson had never faced election by the whole membership until his contest with Simpson.

The merger allowed the authoritarian structures of the EETPU to swallow up the more democratic procedures in the engineers' union. Ger Hicks, union convenor at Rolls-Royce Test Areas in Bristol, explained, 'In the old engineering union we had lots of forums for debate where we could influence policy, put questions to officials and just meet each other.

'It all ended with the merger. All the democratic structures were closed down. They brought in a new rule book. The old one was like War and Peace-the new one was just a pamphlet. I think it was rule three that said, 'In the interests of good governance, all power to the executive'-so you didn't really need any other rules. Partnership meant getting 'leaner and meaner'-the bosses got meaner and we just got leaner.'

Jackson's cronies resorted to ever more undemocratic strategies to consolidate their domination. Bob Murdoch, who worked in an engineering factory in the north east of England for many years, explained, 'There is a feeling that there has been an abuse of power at the highest level of the union. For about the last three years they have forced smaller branches to merge-to make it harder for people to take part, so full time officials can take over as branch secretaries and tighten their control. There is still a lot of patronage in the union. If you get to be a convenor, you get to go on various committees. A career structure still exists. There is pressure to go with the side that's heading for power. But a sense of dissatisfaction has been creeping in. This is a tremendous vote. The AEEU has not had a left wing leader since Hugh Scanlon, and that was 25 years ago.'

'The rank and file have to get rid of all the right'

ACTIVISTS from across every section of the union threw themselves into campaigning for Derek Simpson. Gill George, a member of the MSF section of Amicus, told Socialist Worker, 'People on the left in the MSF are genuinely really enthused and excited. Derek will face a hostile executive that will block him at every turn. Derek was elected by a groundswell from the rank and file, and only the active involvement of those people can make him a credible general secretary.'

There is a sense that Simpson's victory is a chance to turn the union away from the rotten, pro-business policies and betrayals of the past. But the election is only the beginning.

'It is not just about who gets elected,' says Willie Black, a senior Amicus-AEEU shop steward. 'It's about winning control for the membership over the union machine. The right wing officials will never really accept this result. They don't think unions should be run by their members-they just want to stay on their gravy train, with their conferences, smart hotels and drinks.

We can't wait. We have to push ahead and make more changes or Derek will be a prisoner of the right. The executive is trying to prolong its life-to hold on for better days. We have to get rid of them now. We must start to introduce the idea of rank and file control over the union and breaking the hold of officials.

Our success should encourage those in other unions, especially the civil service where people are still fighting for democracy.'

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Article information

Sat 27 Jul 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1810
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