The first, strongest and best line of defence

The first, strongest and best line of defence

11 November 2013

Len McCluskey’s address to the Unite national industrial sector conferences

Unite is holding its national industrial sector conferences, the third since the union was founded six years ago. The following is the keynote address given by Unite general secretary Len McCluskey to delegates.

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Sisters and brothers

This is the third time Unite has convened our industrial sector conferences since the merger, which created our union. In 2009, we were barely integrated as one union. The critical decisions about our future direction still lay ahead. In 2011, Unite was beginning to come together and map out the initiatives which could make a difference for our members, and set trade unionism on the road to recovery. Today, we meet in the middle of a vast media witch-hunt against our union, reminiscent of the 1970s and 1980s.

We are facing unscrupulous smears from both media and politicians. Every day we read statements and press articles about Unite which do not come anywhere near the truth. I mention this straight away – and I will have more to say about it later – because it shows one thing above all. Unite is making a difference. We have served notice on the establishment, that fighting back trade unionism is here to stay.

And our lords and masters don’t like it. They see Unite as too big for its boots. A union not prepared to play by the cosy consensus rules which sapped the life out of our movement for so long. A union that is about action, and not just rhetoric.

Of course, there is another agenda behind these attacks. We are a proxy for smearing the Labour party and Ed Miliband, since the same ruling elite is now getting worried that the coalition may not last and that a Labour government, which may itself not play by the old rules, is a possibility.

Now these are not political or policy conferences here this week, so I'm not going to dwell on politics a minute more than necessary. But I mention this because we must assume that the attacks we have seen over the last few weeks on our union will continue at least up until the 2015 general election. 

The Lynton Crosby agenda
They will continue because that is the Lynton Crosby agenda – the genius behind the racist “go home” vans touring our cities; the man who believes the Tory path back to power lies in demonising the poor, the disabled, the vulnerable; the man imported by David Cameron to poison our national life so he can get a new stint in Downing Street

I have confidence that the British people will not fall for the ugly Toryism that Crosby is peddling – at least when he’s not peddling his own personal business interests - that is. And I am absolutely certain of one thing – Crosby, Cameron and their kind will never break or browbeat this trade union into submission.

Unite’s industrial agenda
Colleagues, what is Unite’s industrial agenda?  Let me start with a couple of key economic facts. The first is that according to the OECD over the last thirty years in Britain, as around the world, the share of wealth taken by capital has risen, and the share going to labour has fallen. In a nutshell, that is what neo-liberalism has been all about.  Weakening labour – which means attacking trade unions – so capital can take still more of the wealth which labour itself produces.

The second fact is that real wages for people in work are falling in a way not seen since the 1870s. That's why I said to the Tories recently, when they accused our union of wanting to take Britain “back to the 70s” – yes, but only the 1970s. Their ideology is taking us back to the 1870s, and the days of pure free-market liberalism, with no role for the state, no social safety net, no curb on the bosses’ power and little or no trade unionism.

Behind these two facts you can learn all you need to know about the central driver of today’s economy – make the rich richer – and the consequences of its present slump – making workers poorer.

The living standards crisis
This in turn gives rise to the living standards crisis, affecting most families across the country. It bears hardest of course on the poorest, and those on benefits, but its effects are felt in trade union households too.

And that is the challenge to Unite.  We exist to help our members maintain and improve their living standards, to ensure for them a bigger slice of the wealth their work creates. Yes, it's true, we urge the politicians to address this squeeze on living standards.  But we cannot leave it to them, or simply wait for a general election. 

This is a test of our organising, bargaining and campaigning strength too.

Our members in the public services are in the front line – the coalition’s pay cuts and mass redundancies have fallen heavily on them. Unite was proud to fight for pensions justice, alongside our sister unions, in the great strike day which fell during our sector conferences two years ago. Every step of the way since, we've been guided by the national committees from the public service sectors in determining how to protect our members from the coalition onslaught. 

I think we can say that Unite has punched above its weight in the public sector, and we will be looking to strengthen our position there still further in the months and years to come. At this year’s sector conferences we want to bring a renewed focus to developing and sharpening our collective bargaining strategies. Collective bargaining has been systematically attacked by successive governments with coverage diminishing from around 75 per cent of UK workers in 1979 to only 29 per cent today - the lowest level in western Europe.

National agreements that used to exist in virtually every sector have all but disappeared and bargaining has fragmented to company and often plant level. We shouldn’t forget that in most European countries the coverage of collective bargaining is much, much higher.  In France, Belgium, Austria, Sweden and Finland it is 90 per cent and over, in Italy, Denmark and The Netherlands it is over 80 per cent, while in Germany, Spain and Norway it is close to 70 per cent or over.

It's no wonder that we have become one of the most unequal countries in Europe. We will be engaging with the Labour Party pushing for them to support the re-establishment of sector bargaining structures if they come back to power, but we must not rely on the political process alone.

We have to start from the grassroots as well and we have a great opportunity to try and start that process at these conferences.

Kickstarting discussion - A manifesto for collective bargaining
So, we have arranged for a presentation to kick start discussion in each sector, and we’ve got two of the best known experts in this area – Keith Ewing and John Hendy – joining us for part of the conference.

Each of you will also get a copy of their new booklet on the issue called “Reconstruction After the Crisis: A Manifesto for Collective Bargaining”.

Colleagues, if we turn to private sector trade unionism, it's not an idle boast to say that its future in this country depends to a very large extent on Unite. What we do and how we do it will determine the future of the labour movement in the majority of the economy. How do we make trade unionism work in the private capitalist economy?  There is no one answer to that question.  All we can do here is set out some principles.

First of all, organise.  The days when workers could automatically be drawn to trade unions almost without noticing are, for the most part, over.

That's why the success of our 100 per cent campaign has been so important. More than 70,000 new members – some of them in our public service sectors, of course; but most in private industries. Not just numbers – but sinews of growing strength.  New representatives, new capacity in the workplace.

That's been the work of our Organising Department, our officers, and of course Tony Woodley. Tony’s dynamism has been critical in making the 100 per cent initiative work, and I am now looking for ways to bottle that spirit, so we can still have it to hand when Tony leaves us at the end of the year. But it has also been your success.  Because make no mistake – 100 per cent trade unionism cannot be maintained through external pressure and organisation.  That plays its part, but it can only be sustained from within, by our activists like yourselves. And it is here to stay.  There will be no let up after Tony leaves. 100 per cent trade unionism is basic common sense, and it has to become part of the culture of every officer and every activist in our union.

Second, we work with employers. You know that among the many caricatures of Unite painted in recent weeks is the one that we have no strings to our bow except confrontation. That's not the reality of course.  We have good strong relations with thousands of employers, working with them to build successful businesses while protecting employees’ pay and conditions.

Look at the motor industry – at JLR, Vauxhall, Toyota, Nissan, BMW, Bentley and elsewhere.  We have had difficult negotiations, but collaborated with responsible employers not just to protect existing jobs but to secure additional investment which can guarantee skilled manufacturing jobs into the future.

It is ironic that when David Cameron praises the work of the Automotive Council in reviving the motor industry, he is also praising the work of Unite members, Unite shop stewards. I guess Lynton Crosby hasn’t explained that to him yet. And what is true in motors is true across industry.  We are not toytown revolutionaries. 

We know, that most of the time workers want a decent relationship with their employer, based on mutual respect, and that they expect their union to work in that spirit. And these are difficult times.  Many businesses are facing real problems as a result of the bankers’ crash, which was no more their fault than it was the fault of working people.

Now, they often face a cash squeeze as banks refuse to lend, as well as all the problems caused by falling demand as a result of austerity and the government’s economic mismanagement. Under those conditions, Unite’s door is always open to any decent employer who wants to come to us and say: Here is our problem, how do we work together to overcome it?

And that is what we do, up and down this country, in one company after another, every day of the week – work to secure our members’ jobs in the midst of an economic storm, while also working to protect their living standards and hard-won conditions. It is ABC trade unionism, and Unite does it well. And when we do it well, we help save communities from devastation; we help put food on workers’ tables, presents under the Christmas tree and hope in people’s lives.

What our members want
We do it because that is what our members want. And that is the first and last consideration for me, and for Unite. But there are times when our members want something else.  When they are being short-changed by an employer who regards workers as simply an expense to be reduced as much as possible, who hate having to deal with trade unions, who can only see profit but never people.

That is when we build trade unionism by fighting back. A trade unionism that does not stand up for its members when they are calling for support is, not a trade unionism worth having.

Fighting back of course starts in the workplace. Its basis will always be what you might call conventional industrial action. But we know how that basic right has been tied in legal knots by the Tory government and the judges. 

So sometimes it's difficult to resort to. Sometimes our organisation is too weak in a particular industrial setting.  Sometimes something different is needed. We don't want to be a union that celebrates endless heroic defeats.  That sort of union, the establishment can live with.  In the 21st century, we need new ways to win.

Leverage works
That is where leverage – a word everyone is now familiar with – comes in. The most important thing to say about Unite’s leverage strategy is this:

•    Leverage has worked. 
•    Leverage has won.

It won at Besna, stopping the bosses breaking up a national agreement. It won at Honda, halting trade union derecognition and saving the convenor’s job. It won at London Buses, alongside strike action, in securing an Olympic bonus. It won at MPH in Bootle, securing vastly better redundancy terms. It won at Crossrail, challenging the crime of blacklisting and getting Frank Morris his job back

And that's why it's now being attacked. Because it's working.

Leverage is about telling the bad bosses that they have nowhere to hide. Challenging their conduct with shareholders, with clients and customers. The protests which the Daily Mail has targeted are something different.  They are as old as democracy – free speech and the right to peacefully demonstrate. For that, our members have been described as “thugs”. We'll see what the law makes of that phrase because we are suing. It is, in any event, a lie. 

These protests were peaceful, silent, and of course had nothing to do with intimidating families, children, or anyone.  In more than two years, we have not had a single complaint about our members’ conduct on such protests, nor a single police charge.

They are about letting directors know, that if they think they can condemn our communities to the scrapheap at the stroke of a pen, and then retreat to their communities, their clubs and their fancy restaurants undetected, they have another thing coming. So let me send one clear message to the Daily Mail: This union is not retreating from leverage, or from the right to peaceful protest.

And we are not taking lessons in proper conduct from a paper which gave its support to Hitler and fascism before the war to its smearing of Ralph Miliband today, it represents a stream of poison in British society. You may be able to cow some politicians, but you will not cow this union or its leadership. And if you think Unite’s campaigning is too strident, just be thankful you’re not in France, where even a routine dispute can lead to railway lines being blocked. And bosses being held hostage in their offices.

Now that’s what I call real leverage... for any media listening, only joking.

Ineos and Grangemouth
Now colleagues, I must say a word about Ineos. I have no difficulty at all in defending what our union did at Grangemouth. Unite reached an agreement which will guarantee the future of skilled and well-paid work at Grangemouth well into the future. 

In essence, that's no different from the difficult discussions we have had with many employers during the current slump, as I indicated earlier - working to keep jobs alive while adapting to the position some companies find themselves in.

What was different about Grangemouth was the poor relations with the employer. 

I don't want to say anything here today that will inflame a difficult situation with Ineos. 
Unite remains recognised at Grangemouth, and we will keep it that way, representing our members there to the best of our ability.

And I am delighted that even after the end of the dispute, at a mass meeting at the plant, 100 per cent support was voiced for the union, for our shop stewards and our officials by the members there. That's what matters to me, not criticism from the right or the ultra-left.

Some will say this was a defeat in that, in order to save those jobs from the real threat of imminent disappearance, we accepted the changes the company wanted to impose.  Of course, consultation on those changes is still taking place.

But let me make one thing clear - I applaud our team on the spot for fighting to maintain the pay and conditions of the people who pay their membership subscriptions. They were doing what any proper trade unionist would have done in that situation. But I also acknowledge their right and even bravery in responding to the clear wishes of our members to keep the plant open (almost at any cost).

Naturally, we will try to learn lessons from what happened at Grangemouth, just as we analyse our victories elsewhere. And there are brutal lessons to learn, not least for the Scottish parliament and British government who lay helpless before a company who were deciding to close down a national asset vital to the Scottish economy. 

For us - how do we gain a better understanding of the plans and intentions of major employers? How do we integrate leverage and campaigning with traditional industrial methods? How do we grapple with the problems caused by the anti-union laws?

All valid questions, and I am sure there are many more. But what we are not going to do is form a circular firing squad, or sink into a depression which does no service to our members. I flew up to Grangemouth to support our members in the critical fight to keep the plant open, because a general secretary who is only there for the victories is no general secretary at all. I am just as proud to lead this union when we have to make difficult decisions, as I am when all is plain sailing. And our greatest strength in hard times, even more than in good, is our unity, and I am sure that this conference will stand solid in support of our members in Grangemouth and our union.

Stevie Deans
There is a further thing that I need to say before leaving the subject of Ineos. 
That is to express our absolute and unconditional solidarity with Stevie Deans. Stevie, you have stood up for your union – at work and in the community. Your union will stand by you. So conference, that is the Unite way - Working together with employers wherever possible, fighting for our members wherever necessary - and fighting to win.

For the fifth year in a row, we are doing that in the context of a deep economic crisis. It has been a test of our newly-created union.  And it is one that we are passing. Our membership is starting to grow. Our democratic structures are solid. We have put factionalism and division behind us. We have a clear industrial, political and social agenda which, it's fair to say, has caught everyone’s attention.

And, as I said at the start, we are attracting the antagonism of those forces in society which are the enemies of workers’ rights, of trade unionism and indeed of democracy itself. So we are under fire. That may impact on you in your workplaces from time to time. There may be members with questions based on what they’ve heard, and there may be employers looking to take advantage.

Our resources are here to help you
We exist to support YOU in dealing with those problems. All our resources are here to help you, the people at the sharp end. That is not just a conference slogan; it is our practice seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.

But there is just one thing I want to leave you with. It is this: Be proud of your union. Don’t believe the smears and the attacks of our enemies. Take pride in the work we do – YOU do – to help ordinary people through the worst economic circumstances of our lifetimes. Take pride in the jobs saved, the pay increases won, the improvements secured, the workmates assisted.

Our vision stands on those ordinary achievements.  And it is your efforts that deliver them. And with that record of daily service it is the basis for a better future.

So be proud. 

And remember that your union, Unite, is the first, strongest and best line of defence for millions of families in Britain and Ireland today. And together we will face the future with confidence and courage and a vision of hope for a just society.

Find out more details on the 2013 Unite national industrial sector conferences