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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

Unite: A new broom at the helm

by New Worker North West correspondent

UNITE’S supreme policy making conference, which normally takes place every two years, was delayed by several months because of coronavirus and the pandemic.

But last month the conference for Britain’s second largest union was held at the huge ACC Convention Centre, Kings Dock, Liverpool. Before conference all delegates, observers, guests, the press and media, were required to be self-tested at home for COVID‑19 using postal NHS kits from the National Test and Trace Service.

The simple COVID‑19 lateral flow test produces a positive or negative result, which is then self-reported via computer or mobile telephone. Those with positive test results were advised to stay at home.

People with negative test results were not checked at the ACC venue by security however, making a mockery of the whole process. Unite’s Policy Conference kicked off at 1pm on Monday 18th October. It was attended by over 700

Unite delegates and dozens of observers, guests, Unite full-time officials and staff, fringe-events organisers, and the press and media.

It was competently chaired throughout by Tony Woodhouse from the Union’s Executive Committee and the new General Secretary, Sharon Graham, served as Secretary to Conference.

In her keynote address, Sharon Graham set out her programme of change to transform the way the union operates. “Unite is going to be in the vanguard that can change what is happening to workers. Their voice must be heard. We have to concentrate on defending jobs, pay and conditions. We will not accept further attacks on workers’ living standards. It’s time we put a stake in the ground on that.”

In her first speech to annual conference since being elected general secretary, the Unite leader warned that workers should not “pay the price for the pandemic” and compared the current economic situation with the 2008 economic collapse.

“The post-Covid crisis is 2008 on steroids. The politicians have failed us during the Covid crisis; they were nowhere to be seen. There is no political saviour on a white horse coming over the hill to save us. We have to organise and fight for ourselves. That’s what the trade unions are for.”

She focused on the many unscrupulous employers who have used the cover of the pandemic to fire-and-rehire workers to force wage cuts and attacks on their conditions. She said: “Employer after employer has used fire-and-rehire to make workers pay for Covid. One in 10 workers has suffered this fate to-date.”

The new general secretary singled out one particular employer to point the finger at – British Airways (BA). She said: “BA’s actions on fire-and-rehire set a chain reaction which emboldened other employers to fire-and-rehire their workers. They became pace-setters for a drive to the bottom on wages and conditions.”

Now it was time to build Unite’s power to change things by ushering in a new era of ‘Combine’ organisation, “deepening the union’s industrial focus”. She pledged to use the creation of ‘combines’ – “where we bring all our reps together by industry or sector to create collective bargaining at the level of whole industries or sectors”. The new combines would be fit for the 21st Century to tackle multinational employers.

Sharon Graham highlighted Unite’s creation of a home-working agreement for bank workers as an example. This meant that instead of the agreement being put piecemeal to the Big Four high street banks, it should be put forward to all the bank chief executive officers for an industry collective agreement. She said: “The reality is if we don’t strike good agreements, we will pay the price of bad agreements taking hold.”

worker politics

Finally she spoke about what she termed “worker politics”. Her position on Unite and the Labour Party had been misconstrued by the media during her election campaign.

She said her commitment to “getting back to the workplace” did not mean that Unite was abandoning politics.

“Time to slay this particular dragon,” she said. “The idea that Unite is standing down from the political arena is totally wrong. Rather, we want to build a different politics, not top down but from the shop floor and the fabric of local communities up, in order to drive through the political process in an entirely different way.”

On Wednesday afternoon, outgoing General Secretary Len McCluskey gave a stirring farewell speech to delegates. After a decade at the helm, assisting the merger of several unions including the old TGWU, engineers, electricians, printers, construction workers, banking staff, Amicus, MSF and others, he wished the incoming general secretary all the best for the future.

It was a successful, uplifting, well attended delegate conference at the ACC Centre in Liverpool. There were many fringe stalls and meetings. The Liverpool Centre enjoys modern communications and state of the art technology, the Centre staff being helpful and professional. Disabled access outside the Centre to the entrance was poor, however, and complaints have been made about this to the General Secretary and the Centre management.Unite is facing the future as a massive, growing and strong union. It is democratically run by its Lay members and its Executive Committee – it is not controlled by its appointed full-time officials.

Unite’s education service nationally and regionally is second to none. Workers can obtain time off from work with pay to attend short courses on health and safety, shop stewards organising and specialist trade courses. Unite should however, organise more courses on the workers history of struggle, and the scientific philosophy of the working class: dialectical and historical materialism.

Turn-out in the recent election postal ballot for a new General Secretary was too low. Unite needs to find ways to increase membership voting in such important elections.

Unite is determined to remain membership-led in its campaigns for better wages and conditions, for equality at work, to embrace new technology, for a shorter working week without wage cuts, to rebuff the employers, particularly global companies, and to work constructively with a progressive, socialist-oriented Labour Party without allowing Labour to dominate Unite.