Len McCluskey’s keynote address to UPC2018

This is the full text of Len MCluskey's keynote address to the 2018 Unite Policy Conference in Brighton on Monday 2 July 2018

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Sisters and Brothers,

Let me first of all echo the chair in welcoming you to Brighton and wishing you a successful and enjoyable week.

This is the most important single week in the Unite calendar. The moment when we come together from all parts of our union to shape policy and chart our course for the future.

We come here in good condition. You can tell that because of the amount of attacks our union is being subjected to in the mass media.

The elite in this country have cause to be worried. And we are one of the names they fear most. They have reason to. Whether in the workplace, in the wider community and wider world, or in the political arena, Unite embodies the spirit of resistance to the status quo, and the chance of an alternative.

Our work day in and day out proves it. Let me share some highlights, and start with a big number. £35 million. That’s how much money is now sitting in our strike fund, ready and waiting. 

That fund has already won many victories for Unite members, often without a penny of it being spent. The mere fact that we are willing as a union to set aside so much money to win justice in the workplace is enough to bring employers to their senses.

Likewise, when we sensibly use our capacity to increase dispute pay – which even at its standard £35 a day is generous beyond the capacities of other unions – smart companies realise the game is up.

So Unite’s resources are not figures in an accounting ledger. 

Winning for members

They are an indication of our determination to win for our members, and it speaks to the bad bosses in the language they understand best – cash.  As Bob Dylan sang “money doesn’t talk – it swears”, so let’s say that our dispute fund, our strike pay, sends a message which I won’t repeat here but is well understood in the boardrooms.

Of course, our capacity to conduct industrial action is still complicated by the anti-union laws designed to stop trade unions seeking redress for working people. 

But we don’t let those laws stop us. 

I am still proud that in nearly eight years as your General Secretary I have never issued a single repudiation notice for members taking action. 


Not one. 

And that’s the way it will stay.

And the work of Howard Beckett  in navigating those treacherous legal waters cannot be overstated. Of course, there is more than one way to skin a cat.  What the politicians who drafted those laws designed to give the whip hand  to the employers don’t understand is that the struggle for justice is like a flowing river – if you block it in one place, it will find a way through in another.

That’s why we have developed new ways to win. One is exploiting the other opportunities of the law. Legal action is now integrated with our industrial work more closely than it has ever been in our history.

It doesn’t replace our traditional industrial strength, it complements it.

Now we are winning victories in the last place we as a movement have ever looked to for success – the courtroom. 

Take the Birmingham Bins dispute. Our members were taking action against pay cuts imposed by a council that too often resorted to bullying tactics and reneging on a settlement reached at Acas. We secured an injunction to stop the council making Unite members redundant. 

And that was key in forcing the council back to its senses and securing a victory for our members on all the key issues in dispute.

Of course, our members in Birmingham may have benefited from the fact that our Legal AGS is also our acting regional secretary up there at the moment!

But rest assured, the outstanding work of our legal service does not stop at the boundaries of the West Midlands. It has already won over £10 million for blacklisted workers in the building industry.

No sum of money can of course overcome the injustice done to those workers whose lives were wrecked by the blacklisters, but this is a big step towards righting the wrong, and certainly more than any other union could achieve.

And from air quality on airlines through to holiday pay, from Argos to INEOS our legal team has been on the front line for Unite members. 

Fighting and WINNING.

Likewise with our development of the Work, Voice and Pay Strategy, launched at the last Policy Conference - which Sharon Graham will update you on later - coupled with our imaginative and sophisticated Leverage strategy - we are blazing a trail for the trade union movement, not just in Britain and Ireland, but around the world.

Indeed, trade unions from 12 different countries have beaten a path to Sharon’s door to learn just how we have been able to deploy these new campaigning tactics to win for workers in situations where conventional industrial action is impossible or unlikely to be effective. If we could charge for a Sharon consultancy fee we would be even richer. 

But we don’t put a price on solidarity!

It is not surprising that other unions want to learn from Unite leverage, given it has led to 

ten straight victories, enough to panic the Tories into setting up the failed Carr Review to try to put a stop to it. 

In recent times it has been used to support Unite disputes in Bromley, Portsmouth and elsewhere and we will continue to build on it as a key part of our arsenal.

Your union has also developed as the most powerful lobbying and campaigning force 

in the trade union movement. Just ask our members at Bombardier, whose whole future was threatened by US protectionism. 

Transatlantic Unite campaigning, led brilliantly by Steve Turner, pushed even our government, fawning on Trump as it usually does, into pressing Washington into a U-turn, saving skilled jobs in Belfast. 

Campaigning and, once again, WINNING.

Taking action

Now we read in the press that strike action is going out of fashion. 

That may be true elsewhere, but not in our union. Over the last two years we have held more than three hundred industrial action ballots, with over 90% resulting in significant successes for our members, often without needing to activate the mandate.

We don’t seek confrontation. 

Most of the time we deal positively with our companies, but we are afraid of no one and will always take on bullying bosses.

Take a look at what is happening at TGI Fridays. The first ever strike by waiting staff in a restaurant for a generation. Fighting against a greedy chief executive who wants to take forty per cent of the tips away from them.

So they are taking strike action with the full support of their union Unite, and with growing public sympathy. A win at TGI Fridays will fire a shot that will be heard around the whole huge restaurant and hospitality sector. 

And I say to our members at TGI Fridays, and there are more of you each week, we are proud of you and we will stand with you all of the way.

Sisters and Brothers. The two words above me here express one idea. If we are winning, we can keep growing. And if we are growing we will find ourselves winning still more often. That is why our 100 per cent membership campaign has been so important. 

We are nearly 90,000 members bigger because of it. And it is why we are directing resources once more back to greenfield organising, focusing on the energy and construction sector. 

At the moment, ten thousand new members have already been organised as a result.

Organising in construction is of course one of the toughest challenges we face, given the nature of the industry and the labour force there. 

One construction union

It can only be made easier by our merger with UCATT last year. This is the first policy conference we have held since Unite became in effect the only union in construction. I would like conference to join me in welcoming our colleagues from UCATT to the Unite family. 

Together we have put an end to competitive trade unionism in construction, and a better deal for workers in this sector will be the pay-off down the line.

And on the subject of winning I can come to this conference and say the words which many of us feared we might never hear in our lifetimes.

Recognition at Ryanair

We have union recognition at Ryanair. Yes. Even the most entrenched anti-union employer can be brought to see sense and understand that cooperation with unions is better than confrontation.

So I welcome our Ryanair members some of them with us today to Unite for the first time. We all know that we need to become a bigger stronger union.

But we also need to become a smarter one. The labour market is changing around us. We discussed in detail the change posed by automation to jobs across the country at our industrial sector conferences last November. 

We are carrying forward that initiative through new and improved collective bargaining agreements aimed above all at protecting work. New forms of exploitation are also becoming rife. 

Zero hours contracts. Casual working. The so-called gig economy. Agency Labour. All these are expressions of the deregulated labour market, introduced by the Tories under Thatcher and scandalously celebrated by new Labour under Blair.

A change of government is critical to tackling these abuses, and to bringing back order and decency to the world of work, above all by ending the scandal of zero-hours contracts.

But we have never placed all our hopes in the political process. We have to try and organise workers in the here-and-now too. That is why our Organising Department has produced a detailed – indeed, massive – report on the Gig Economy/Precarious Work which was presented to our Executive Council last month.

It revealed that around one worker  in five in Britain is now working in insecure our outsourced employment. There is no easy way to organise in this environment. No magic wand. And we are not going to spend millions chasing will o’ the wisps. 


But part of the solution not just to these new problems, but to overcoming some older ones too, lies in digitalisation. We are now driving forward the technological modernisation of Unite with a new purpose. 

We are going to start using digital technology to reshape the way we work. The way we recruit. The way we engage with our members. And the way we support our reps and activists.

Take our online Pay Claim Generator, developed through our Organising Department and the first of its kind in the trade union movement. Since its launch in February it has been used by nearly 20,000 shop stewards and officers, and helped produce just under 4,000 pay claims. That’s an incredible number. 20,000 shop stewards. 

And we are going to build on this, offering a more comprehensive and faster service to our reps, doing one of the basic building blocks of trade unionism in a new way.

That’s just the start. 

We are looking to make online joining far easier. To upskill our officers and staff, eliminating dated ways of working as we do so. We are overhauling our communications function, with digital engagement with our members becoming key. Each region is going to develop its own digital capacity, driving websites, social media and member communication.

Pauline Doyle, our director of communications and her digital engagement team can tell you more in the foyer at lunch time.

Of course, none of this changes who we are or what we do. But it will change the “how”. And that is critical. We can invest in this transformation because we have managed Unite’s finances and administration prudently.

We have now restored our employees’ pension fund to full financial health several years earlier than anticipated, saving up to £50 million of members’ money. 

We have kept staff and officer numbers within our guidelines without allowing any fall-off in service to members. When we say our priority has been front-line support, that it not just words, it is what guides the Executive Council and myself every step of the way.

Sisters and Brothers, it would be very easy to just come here and tell a sunshine story. Easy because we have so much to be proud of. But we all know that is not the whole story. We have challenges unaddressed, problems unsolved. And our policy conference is the place to talk about this frankly.

We have too few activists relative to our overall membership. Activists – men and women like you here – are vital. Strong branches, engaged representatives, active committees are not just important to the union. They ARE the union. Without you there would be no union.

We need more of you

And we need more of you. We cannot allow apathy to grow like Japanese knotweed in our union garden. The level of involvement in our elections is far too low – something that archaic and undemocratic balloting laws have a lot to answer for, but not everything.

Too many of our committees are struggling to fill available places or, sometimes, give themselves a real sense of purpose. I know the pressures on facility time in many companies and in the public sector. We know the other demands on our members’ time. The difficulties generated by insecure work and the years of austerity.

But we must remain a members’ union and never allow Unite to become an organisation where an inflated bureaucracy treats the members as customers, rather than custodians of the union.

I am proud of our officers, staff and organisers, and thank them for their efforts once again. But it is our lay members above all who are our lifeblood – the activists who help out their fellow workers, who deal day-to-day with the employers, who give up spare time to serve on our committees, who join our demonstrations and other activities.

So we need more. 

I ask each and every delegate here to think about how you can encourage and enable more of our members in your workplace or branch to play a bigger part. What can we do to help? 

To encourage more young members to see the union as important to them, to break down the barriers to participation, for women and black members in particular?

And look at the agenda of every committee – does it really allow members to address the burning issues of the day, industrial and political? Do the relevant sections of the membership actually look to it for a lead? If not, don’t be afraid to tear up the formalities, to restructure the way to conduct the business. 

Don’t worry about protocol or precedence. Open up to activists. And let’s get more members – new people – engaged in our education programme. 

I’m not a businessman, but we need to get the best possible return on our considerable investment in education. Let’s focus on training more and more workplace and community leaders, equipped to win for the members at work and play their part in changing the wider world.

And let’s use those digital methods to have a continuing dialogue between all parts of our great family, so that every day you all FEEL the strength of being part of a 1.3 million strong democratic working class organisation.

But digitalisation without decency is nothing, and social media without solidarity is of no use either.

That is why it would be wrong to let this conference pass without saying a word about last year’s general secretary election.

There is still of course much that cannot be said, but will for sure be said in due time. But first of all I am proud, honoured and humbled to have been re-elected to serve this union for another term, which has been at the centre of my life for 50 years. 

And I will serve you all to the utmost of my strength. All our members, no matter which candidate they voted for.

But none of us can take any comfort from how our union was portrayed in that campaign, how the bonds that unite us despite all our differences, were frayed by the way some chose to conduct themselves. We have also heard last week, details of the vast extent of the interference in our union by organisations and individuals from outside – right-wing Labour politicians, a mysterious data company providing invidual Unite member's details worth in commercial terms huge amounts of money. And others – pouring money and resources into trying to change Unite’s leadership.

They saw their chance to take the labour movement and the Labour party back to the days of “New Labour”. They took aim at Unite but their real target was Jeremy Corbyn.

Our members rejected that path. But we have to learn the lessons. This is not about me, or today. It is about our union and our future. I hope and believe that out there, among you today, are men and women who will, one day, stand to be our general secretary. 

You will be grappling with new problems and new challenges. If you get the chance to serve, as I have done, it should be because you are the free choice of the members of our union. Not because you have been put there by a shadowy conspiracy of big money and Westminster intrigue.

So, let me say loud and clear to the tawdry tabloid lie specialists, and the shady machine politicians who sought to hijack Unite – get out of our union and stay out, we don’t need you and our solidarity will always be stronger than your smears.

Sisters and Brothers, Harold Wilson’s most lasting contribution to the book of political quotations was his observation that “a week is a long time in politics”. The last two years have been an eternity.

When we gathered here in 2016 it was in the immediate aftermath of the vote to leave the European Union and in the midst of the attempted coup against Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party, for which the words “ill-advised” and “dishonourable” are too mild.

I won't address the vital issue of Brexit in any detail here, because we are to have a full debate on it later this week. 

And I will say a little about Labour and Jeremy in a minute. But there is something at least 

as important that I want to address first, because it reminds me more powerfully than anything what we mean by politics, why we are engaged as a union in wider political and community life, and why it is so important.

The shadow of Grenfell

On 13 June 2017, Grenfell Tower in West London caught fire. 

Seventy-two people died in horrifying circumstances. Sixteen Unite members lived in Grenfell Tower. Three were among the dead.Let me recall their names to you

  • Amal Ahmedin, 
  • Nadia Chaucair and 
  • Dennis Murphy.

Brothers and sisters, those were our members. We remember them today. But we need to do more than remember them. And we are doing more.  

I am proud that our Legal department is offering support to 12 Grenfell families as they go through the trauma of the public inquiry into the catastrophe, and that we have offered considerable financial support to the 13 Unite members who survived, as well as the families of the deceased.

Grenfell also gives further proof, if proof were needed, of the importance of our Community membership. Our Community section had organised at Grenfell in earlier years and it was there when the people of Grenfell needed them.

Our Community section and our members in the Not For Profit industrial sector are not just an important part of our union, they are also, so often, the front line in the fight for decency and fair treatment for working people in society.

Now I know that we are always told it is wrong to make political points out of a tragedy. 

And of course no-one wants disasters to happen, everyone is genuinely upset when they do. Dreadful accidents have occurred in all forms of society, and probably they always will.

But Grenfell held up a mirror to our society, and what we saw looking back at us was not always pleasant. Yes, there was solidarity – and let me here pay tribute to the heroism of our fellow trade unionists in the Fire Brigades Union, who ran towards the inferno when everyone else was going the other way. 

And yes there was the ever-reliable generosity and mutual support of a working class community facing a severe trial.

But Grenfell also tells us a story of inequality, of corners being cut on public housing for working people in one of the richest boroughs in Europe. It tells us a story of the folly of relying on deregulation and competition for something as vital as safety standards and building inspections.

A story of the impact of austerity

And it tells us a story about austerity, and the cuts to fire service provision in London.

It even tells us a story about water privatisation with the water pressure being too low in that part of London – water supplied by the disastrous Thames Water, owned by greedy hedge funds and fined just a couple of weeks ago £120 million for its failure to fix leaks.

So I have no hesitation in saying that this was a disaster brewed and fermented in 30 years of neo-liberalism, privatisation, deregulation and austerity.

And we will serve best the memories of Amal, Dennis and Nadia if we pledge ourselves to banish those evils from our society and our world.

There is one further point to make about the Grenfell disaster. And it is the first thing I think of when anybody asks me – and they don’t do this as often as they used too – why do I support Jeremy Corbyn?

I think of Jeremy going to meet the Grenfell survivors and the community two days after the fire – the simple and unaffected way he hugged them, he listened, he didn’t pontificate, he just empathised like the decent and honourable man that he is.

I thought – THAT is why I support Jeremy Corbyn. That is why our union voted for the change he represented when he first stood. That is why we stood strong and unwavering when most of the PLP launched their coup; when many others ran for cover.

When the right wing media attacked him in the most despicable way day-in day-out. We did not duck below the parapet, our strength was there when a friend needed us.

Backing Labour

That’s why we did not stint in using our political fund to get behind Labour in the general election last year, when too many in our movement and beyond where predicting disaster. We even lent our Chief of Staff, Andrew Murray, to Labour to help run its campaign!

All that speaks to this union’s virtues of solidarity, loyalty and firmness. And we saw the result: Millions of people voting for a manifesto that reflected so much of what we have always argued for – public ownership, ending austerity, funding the NHS, a programme of industrial investment, building a million new homes. Abolition of zero hours, £10 per hour minimum wage, student loan abolished. Pensioners protected – and much more.

For years Unite and other unions were all but shut out of a Labour party ready to listen to the views of just about anyone else, and the rich above all.

As a result, the party lost votes hand over fist. But as soon as the party adopts the policies needed by working people and championed by their unions it makes its biggest post-war gain in share of the vote, and chooses a Leader who stands by those values and those policies, it moves to the threshold of power.

There is a lesson here – listen to the trade unions and you won’t go far wrong.

So in that constructive spirit let me say two things.

The first is in fact to repeat a point I have been making publicly recently, but I make no apology. It is addressed to the small but noisy group of backbench Labour malcontents.

Get behind our Leader and put a sock in it. Yes everyone has a right to their own views and opinions. But the only people being served by the constant disloyal sniping, their feral smearing of our own party and leader, are the Tories. 

If you disagree with a particular policy, just say so constructively. Otherwise, try saying nothing.

The next general election

My second message is to Jeremy and our comrades in the party leadership. We all know that the next election is far from in the bag. 

We know that we need to do more to expand our support, including among those who should have voted Labour last year. And it is plain that one problem is a weakness in some industrial areas outside the big cities, among older working-class voters in particular. It is vital that any drift away from Labour here is arrested and reversed. 

Part of the issue is surely Brexit, which as I said we shall discuss later and I will save my tuppence worth until then. But there is a broader sense of disconnect between London and the often run-down and ignored industrial areas.

We reproduce that disconnect in our own party at our peril. We have many fine London-based comrades in the shadow cabinet and beyond. But extra seats in London alone are not going to get Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street.

So I say, test every policy against how it is going to play in Walsall and Wakefield, Mansfield and Middlesbrough, Glasgow and Gateshead. In the Welsh valleys and the Yorkshire coal fields. Put the necessity of decent secure jobs, skilled work, at the heart of everything. 

If you’re talking about any policy which cuts against that, it is almost certainly a mistake.

Listen to the views of Unite members when we launch our 21st Century Workplace Manifesto. Go to the Midlands and the North and Scotland and Wales to explain how those communities can only recover under a Labour government. 

That approach overcame any reservations in the last election, and it must do the same and more next time around.

And talk the language of a progressive, inclusive patriotism that shows how Labour, and only Labour, can bring Britain together in prosperity and security.

Colleagues, We live in challenging and dangerous times. As the recent rise of the Far Right Football lads alliance linking with Neo-fascist groups shows, the message from this conference - Get off our terraces and get out of our communities.' 

There is no time today to do justice to the international situation, with all the problems flowing from Donald Trump in particular. But it would be wrong to let today pass without expressing our solidarity and support to our partners in Workers Uniting in the USA, Canada and Mexico, all of them having to deal with Trump at the sharp end.

And a special congratulations to our friend, Lopez Obrador who yesterday won a landslide victory to become President of Mexico. VIVA AMLO.

It would be wrong too, not to send greetings from this conference to our fellow trade unionists in Colombia and to the Palestinian people fighting for their freedom and to those Jewish Socialists in Israel fighting against the most right wing of governments – what heroes they are.

Our movement can make a breakthrough

For a long time we in Britain have looked for inspiration to the industrial and political struggles of brothers and sisters around the world. Today, trade unionists and progressives in other lands are looking to Britain to see if OUR movement can make a breakthrough, develop a real alternative to austerity and show the path to a better tomorrow. 

And that is the challenge before us. 

To deliver on the hopes we have sparked, the expectations we have aroused.

If – when – this country does take a better course, it will be in no small part thanks to Unite. Our strength and our unity has helped our movement turn a corner.

Now we need to build on that strength. Redouble our unity. If we do, we can open the door to a better Britain for all working people. And we can hold in our hearts the pride and knowledge that we laid the foundation of a more just world for the children of tomorrow.