AN ELECTION begins on Monday whose result is important for every trade unionist in Britain. The vote is for the leader of one of Britain's key unions. And at stake is the fate of Tony Blair's key ally in the trade union movement. Over 700,000 members of the AEEU section of the Amicus union are voting for their general secretary.
These workers are mainly concentrated in the manufacturing and engineering industries. Sir Ken Jackson is standing for re-election. Jackson is New Labour's favourite union leader. He is being challenged from the left by Derek Simpson. The AEEU is not a dinosaur union inside a dying industry. Its membership dwarfs the 280,000 in the PCS union and the 57,000 in the RMT union which both recently elected left wing leaders.
Manufacturing is still a key part of the economy in Britain, despite the headlines about 450,000 manufacturing jobs gone in the industry over the last five years. Manufacturing makes up a fifth of the economy. It accounts for up to 29 percent of the economy in areas like the West Midlands and the north east and west of England.
One in seven of the workforce still works in manufacturing. AEEU members are based in aerospace companies, car plants, the energy industry, construction and utility firms. These workers have tremendous power. Electricians in the AEEU halted work on New Labour's prestige millennium projects-the Dome, the Jubilee tube line and the Royal Opera House-in an unofficial pay strike in September 1999. AEEU members in Scottish Power who repair and maintain the electricity network across Scotland, Merseyside and North Wales held solid strike actions last year.
But supporters of the right wing of the Labour Party have had a stranglehold over the AEEU union and its forerunners since the 1960s. Sir Ken Jackson's career in the union has followed that process. He was part of the crushing of the left inside the old ETU union in the 1960s.
He was responsible for the renamed EETPU's Merseyside and north west region in the 1980s during the Labour Party's witchhunts of the left. The EETPU became an outcast in the trade union movement in 1986. Rupert Murdoch took on the print unions that year by moving his operation to a new plant in Wapping, east London. EETPU leaders organised a scab workforce which was crucial in securing victory for him.
Jackson became EETPU president in 1992 when it merged with the AEU union. The merger meant the disgraced EETPU union could get back into the TUC after it had been expelled in 1988 for poaching union members. The last time Jackson faced an election was in 1995, when he narrowly won the general secretary election of the renamed AEEU.
He has since made himself into a lapdog for New Labour. 'When the going gets tough, the party hierarchy gets on to Sir Ken, who can usually be relied on to speak out and act in its favour,' commented the Guardian. Blair knighted Jackson in 1999 for 'services to industrial relations'. Jackson may be popular with New Labour, but he has built up resentment among his union members.
Jackson sits on top of a union that has savaged any form of democracy and driven through 'partnership' deals with big business. In many cases Jackson has been prepared to offer no-strike deals and to fit in with bosses' attacks on workers in order to secure single-union agreements. Jackson's arrogance means that he has already been shocked by the fact that he is facing a serious candidate in the election.
Activists are campaigning hard to win the confidence of union members to try and get rid of him altogether. If they were to succeed it would be a stinging blow to Tony Blair.
Jackson bags in Blackpool bins
'I HAVE had a 30-year span inside the AEEU union and its predecessors. Now I can feel the change inside it.' That comment came from Willie Black, an AEEU member who attended last week's union conference.
Derek Simpson's challenge has already provoked a crisis inside the union's right wing. The AEEU official for the London and south east region, Roger Maskell, suddenly resigned last week while being investigated for tampering with membership records.
Some seven members of the AEEU executive have also signed an open letter saying they support Simpson in the election. Simpson's campaigning at the AEEU conference had a massive impact. The conference is split into different industrial sectors where several hundred delegates meet on separate days.
Simpson held four fringe meetings that attracted 45 people from the car workers', sector conference, another 40 from the sector that includes motor components and pharmaceuticals, and two further meetings with over 20 delegates at each.
Willie Black described the mood at the conference: 'There is a feeling of resentment against the union officials and the trade union leadership not fighting.
'For years people said, 'If I say something I'll be out in the wilderness.' But things are beginning to change. The power workers' section that I was in would be the last to make the break. It is probably the most right wing of the conferences. But there was a discussion over how the repeal of the anti trade union laws should go. People wanted to get rid of the rule that you can be sacked after eight weeks if you go on strike. They also wanted to strengthen the right to picket, which was a major issue during our strike at Scottish Power. If there is a rebellion at that conference, the world must be on the move! I was sat at the back of the conference wearing stickers supporting Derek Simpson.
'As people filed out, a number of guys gave me the thumbs up. You have to ask why so many were not wearing stickers for Jackson, knowing the pressure every one of them was under. They were handing out goodie bags to delegates as they left, including a video supporting Jackson, badges and 100 leaflets. When you walked away from the conference the bins all over Blackpool were stuffed full of these bags.
'Remember, this is happening when the union machine is at its strongest-gathered together for the conference.'
Simpson supporters leafleted a rally held for Jackson on Tuesday of last week. Some 250 leaflets were handed out to the 300 people who went in. Jackson had to attack Simpson in his speech. He claimed Simpson would go back to the 1970s days of strikes, demonstrations and protests. Jackson urged people to vote for him as he had created a modern union with the ear of the chancellor and influence at Number Ten, and had negotiated with the bosses.
Simpson supporters noted that at the end of the rally piles of Jackson's election material had been left untouched.
Timetable for action
- Ballot papers for AEEU leadership election will arrive by post to members' homes next Monday. Voting ends on 12 July.
- Leaflet factories and workplaces in your area urging people to vote for Derek Simpson.
- To get campaign material phone 0114 236 1419 or 07803 922 096. E-mail derek.aeeu@ btinternet.com
- Send donations to the campaign: G Goddard, 199 Badger Road, Woodhouse, Sheffield S13 7TS.