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Power in a union—Unite’s warring bureaucrats and their rank and file challenger

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As the Unite general secretary election gets underway, Dave Sewell looks at the politics behind the battle for Britain’s biggest union
Issue 2547
Unite union members march for jobs. But which leadership candidate will lead the fight thats needed?
Unite union members march for jobs. But which leadership candidate will lead the fight that’s needed? (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Right wing rag The Sun doesn’t often give its pages over to senior trade unionists. Yet last week it ran a column by Gerard Coyne, West Midlands regional secretary of the Unite union, attacking current general secretary Len McCluskey.

Meanwhile a fake newspaper called “Unite Herald” was distributed to Unite workplaces across Britain. Its “stories” urged members to give “the two fingered salute” to “Red Len”.

This followed an attack on McCluskey in the Observer newspaper, seized on by right wing Labour MPs including his former flatmate, deputy leader Tom Watson. It accused McCluskey of plotting to affiliate Unite to Labour left group Momentum—something a general secretary can’t actually do.

Voting in Unite’s general secretary election began on Monday of this week. It should be an opportunity for workers to debate their union’s response to grinding economic crisis and austerity.

A low level of strikes has given bosses and the Tories too easy a ride. As Britain’s biggest union, Unite could break that logjam.

Instead some see it as a chance to kick the boot into Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Backing from union leaders such as McCluskey helped Corbyn face down the shadow cabinet “coup” last year. That made them a target of the Labour right, with Coyne as its stalking horse.

Coyne is attacking McCluskey’s support for Corbyn because he wants to drag Unite to the right.

For many on the left—including some who supported rank and file challenger Jerry Hicks against McCluskey in 2013—that is reason enough to back McCluskey.

Yet for Ian Allinson, a rank and file worker standing as an alternative to both senior officials, more is needed.


“Gerard Coyne is a truly rotten candidate supported by everyone who is against trade unionists and our interests,” he told Socialist Worker. “But we cannot respond to that by simply voting for more of the same, when more of the same is not defending workers’ rights, jobs, pay and conditions.”

Len McCluskey embarrassed in campaign email ‘error’
Len McCluskey embarrassed in campaign email ‘error’
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He argued, “If I had not stood Gerard Coyne would be in a position to mop up all the discontent with Len McCluskey, all the anger at things that people aren’t happy with in the union. As it is Coyne’s campaign is incredibly negative.

“And when people open the ballot paper, if they’re not happy with what Len McCluskey’s done, they’ve got the opportunity to vote for something better rather than for something worse.”

Ian, who Socialist Worker supports in the election, pledges to keep his current salary if elected. He is campaigning for a shake-up of Unite’s strategy that goes well beyond its relationship with Labour. And it’s clear that change is needed.

McCluskey made big improvements on his predecessors. Yet after seven years in office none came close to making Unite the “fightback union” of his rhetoric. Meanwhile hammer blows have fallen on Unite members almost unopposed.

McCluskey kept his promise to stop the union disowning unofficial strikes, a disgraceful tactic of officials afraid of Tory anti-union laws. But Bernard Mcauley, who in 2011 smeared striking rank and file electricians as a “cancer”, remains his national officer for construction.


A year before McCluskey took office, then joint general secretary Derek Simpson posed with glamour models and signs saying “British Jobs For British Workers”. McCluskey in contrast has put Unite’s backing behind anti-racist and anti-fascist protests.

Yet his claims that migrants lower wages were also instrumental in pushing Corbyn to weaken his defence of free movement for European Union (EU) migrants. Before that he blocked Corbyn’s opposition to Trident weapons of mass destruction.

McCluskey’s support for Corbyn is conditional. Like many union leaders, he may have backed Andy Burnham for Labour leader if members’ support for Corbyn hadn’t forced his hand. And he has hinted at ditching Corbyn if the polls don’t improve.

Crucially, McCluskey has presided over several industrial defeats, damaging workers’ lives.

McCluskey is far from the worst of union leaders—and his Labour critics want to take Unite backwards.

But workers’ position won’t be improved without challenging those who fail to defend them.

‘Unite must fight against our bosses, not for them’

Ian Allinson (centre) with fellow Fujitsu strikers on a picket line earlier this year
Ian Allinson (centre) with fellow Fujitsu strikers on a picket line earlier this year (Pic: Socialist Worker)

Ian Allinson spoke to Socialist Worker about his vision for a stronger union that can fight the Tories and employers—and win

“Workers face an increasing level of attacks from employers and the government. And the gap is growing between the union we’ve got and the union we need to respond to those attacks.

Part of the problem is a deeply ingrained culture in the union of “partnership”, almost going along with David Cameron’s nonsense that we’re “all in it together”.

It’s the idea that the way to defend jobs and workers’ rights is to look at their common interest with employers.

Of course, few workers want to see their employer go bust. But there’s a huge divergence of interests between workers and bosses.

If we lose sight of that we lose sight of effective trade unionism. The reality is if we want to save jobs we’re going to have to fight the employers who are going to try and sack us.


Unite produced a “Brexit on our terms” booklet after the referendum, and it took until page 28 to mention workers’ rights. The first 27 pages were all about the interests of employers.

‘We support the free movement of labour’ – trade unionists speak out
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It’s the same with Trident. Len McCluskey and Gerard Coyne say we have to defend Trident to save jobs. That’s the employers’ current business model.

But you’d create far more jobs by spending that £205 billion on almost anything else—tackling climate change, building council housing, properly funding public services.

We’ve had such a long period with a low level of strikes that the habit of striking has gone from most workplaces and most industries.

Reversing that isn’t easy. But the key is to take up opportunities when they arise—and Unite has just been missing too many opportunities.

The campaign against the Trade Union Act was completely inadequate.

We’ve just had a magnificent demonstration in defence of the NHS—but imagine if we’d done that in the middle of the junior doctors’ strikes last year.

The Tories were on the ropes over their cuts and privatisation.


We keep letting them get up off the floor instead of giving them a kicking when they’re down. Then they start kicking us again.

That’s not the way to win a fight.

When action has taken place it’s been incredibly well supported. Look at the public sector pension strikes in 2011—magnificent support was squandered by failing to follow through on it.

And I don’t think it’s impossible. In my workplace, Fujitsu, we’ve been on strike recently over job cuts, over trying to extend union recognition and over pay and pensions. We’ll continue that action until we get a result.

You’ve got to have a vision that when something bad happens, you respond robustly.

You argue with workers that if we don’t fight it will keep getting worse and you paint a picture of how we might win.

You’re never certain to win. But if we don’t fight we keep on losing—and we’ve got to stop that.”

Socialist Worker supports Ian, and his campaign needs your support too. To donate, download leaflets or invite him to your workplace, go to

The flipside of Coyne

Gerard Coyne says Unite should stop being “obsessed with Westminster power games”—but he lives by them.

Failing campaign in data buying scandal
Gerard Coyne campaign in data buying scandal
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Unite recently blocked a £10,000 donation authorised by Coyne to Labour’s West Midlands mayoral candidate Sion Simons.

It accused them of “a mutual support arrangement” and said the donation would allow Coyne access to Labour Party members’ details.

Last year Coyne spoke alongside Labour right wingers Tristram Hunt and Chuka Umunna.

Unite’s policy, democratically decided at its conference, was to defend Corbyn from their attacks.

Coyne’s other obsession is with McCluskey’s generous perks. McCluskey’s £140,000 salary certainly doesn’t seem the best use of workers’ subs.

Nor does the luxury flat he bought with a £400,000 “equity share arrangement” from the union.

But Coyne too has spent his life at the top of the union—not exactly for poverty pay.

Indeed, his bureaucratic pedigree is part of his appeal as far as Labour right wingers are concerned.

They hope he’ll follow in the footsteps of his father-in-law Baron Bill Jordan, the right wing official who rose to the top of the AEEU union.

Jordan was made a life peer by Tony Blair’s government in 2000—his reward for decades spent hounding the left.

The cost of giving ground

Members of Unite and other unions march in Scunthorpe after Steel bosses threatened job cuts
Members of Unite and other unions march in Scunthorpe after Steel bosses threatened job cuts (Pic: Neil Terry)

Too often Unite members have paid the price of their union ducking a fight.

When steel bosses threatened mass layoffs last year, Unite lobbied for import tariffs and tax cuts to protect their profits.

When that didn’t work it told workers to vote for a much worse pension scheme—with no real guarantees about jobs in return.

Billionaire Jim Ratcliffe pulled off similar blackmail at the Grangemouth oil refinery in 2013.

McCluskey rushed up to Scotland to personally agree a “survival plan” rolling back pensions, pay, contracts, jobs and union organisation.

Unite “saved jobs” at Vauxhall in Ellesmere Port in 2012—by agreeing to contracts that so cheapened workers’ labour that colleagues in Germany were sacked instead.

It didn’t stop bosses making threats again this year.

So Unite called on the government to give them a sweetheart deal—and try extra hard to stay in the European Single Market after Brexit.

Bus drivers began a powerful campaign of strikes for equal pay across London’s bus companies.

Unite wound down the dispute to help Sadiq Khan’s London mayoral campaign, in return for a weaker policy of a minimum wage for bus drivers.

Drivers had the power to win a much better deal.

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