Unions must refocus on real needs and face the future — why I voted for Gerard Coyne
On Wednesday, voting comes to a close in the general secretary election for Unite, Britain’s largest trade union. As a practical matter this means those of Unite’s 1.4m members who have not yet voted must get their ballot in the post by Monday latest for it to arrive on time, if they are to have a say in the future of their union. All voting is by post, as the government still cynically restricts internal electronic ballots by trade unions even as hundreds of other civil society organisations — including the Conservative Party — use it as standard, overseen by the reputable ERS just as Unite’s elections are. Between this and the general failure of the present Unite leadership to engage ordinary members, only 16% voted last time when Len McCluskey was last elected general secretary. But Gerard Coyne’s insurgent campaign has focused on raising turnout, and this alone is giving him a real chance at an upset victory.
I voted this week for Gerard. He has 30 years of real experience of fighting for working people, having begun organising for Unite in the industrial heartland of the West Midlands when he was just 17 and working on a checkout. In 2005, he secured 6,500 Rover workers new jobs after the company went into receivership. His campaign has been built around bread and butter issues that affect all trade union members in a tough and changing economy. He wants to freeze membership subs and spend member’s money more wisely and transparently. If there has been union money for a sweetheart deal on a central London flat and loan write-offs, its just not good enough to claim more couldn’t have been spent on skills, training and workplace protections.
An eye-catching idea of his, and one that I’ve found has gone over well in conversations with members in the course of phonebanking for him, has been Family Membership. This is essentially extending membership benefits to the immediate dependants of paid-up members, giving them more protection for their money. But it is hoped that it will also have a knock-on effect of introducing the next generation to trade unionism, showing them it is something relevant to them that they too can call upon when times are hard. Union membership is declining, especially outside the public sector, and it has an ageing demographic. This is despite young people facing much greater economic uncertainty than their parents did — an economy defined by stagnating wages, zero-hours contracts and casual exploitation in the ‘gig economy’. As membership falls, the collective bargaining clout unions depend upon to be effective for those that remain weakens, and so the vicious spiral deepens. Trade unionism must reassert its relevance to potential future joiners if it is to sustain itself and continue to protect working people.
Contrary to the tabloid tropes about ‘union barons’ and the like, Unite is not however some kind of elective dictatorship — if Gerard does win, this and all other ideas will also need to pass muster with Unite’s elected Executive Council. Elections for this are occurring concurrently and I backed the Unite Alliance slate. But if Family Membership can help to reanchor trade unionism in the lives of young working people, it is well worth doing and I would hope that the new EC will work with Gerard on it if members do choose him as their next general secretary.
Gerard is also speaking about mechanisation and the technological upheavals that are threatening members’ jobs — these are the threats of the future and facing up to them is key to growing Unite’s membership. “Every morning we have to wake up and think, what is it I do to grow the movement?” he has said. He has fought perhaps the most digitally advanced internal trade union campaign Britain has seen, a statement of intent for how he hopes to bring Unite to terms with technological change and harness it to organise people in the face of tectonic shifts in the labour market.
Though like myself Gerard is a Labour man, I also admire how his campaign has sought to be less partisan and reach beyond the bubble of left-wing politics. Under half of Unite members actually vote Labour and looking at unions as a whole, only 100,000 affiliated supporter ballots were cast in the 2016 Labour leadership election. A significant minority of trade unionists have always been working-class Tories and there have been reports within the Labour movement of the same kind of seepage to UKIP from traditional Labour voters that we see in polls of the public at large. Union leaders are all too often easy for the Tories and the press to ignore because when they intervene in politics, they are sometimes only speaking for a fraction of their own membership, and so a broader mandate would help. This is why I believe Gerard’s stance on free movement and his controversial decision to write for The Sun are notable, even though they are things I don’t completely agree with myself — real trade unionism must include all working people, not only those that inhabit our comfort zone. And Gerard’s effective use of the media in this election has far raised its profile beyond that of an average union election, hopefully prompting more rank-and-file members to vote.
Finally, battling discrimination has been a cornerstone of Gerard’s campaign. He has asserted that Unite is not doing enough on pay equality and flexible working for women, or to combat bullying. And he has spoken out about the rising tide of anti-Semitism we sadly see too much of today in the Labour movement and Britain as a whole, even when this has resulted in online abuse being thrown at him. This takes guts, and shows his dedication to inclusion.
For all these reasons and more, I am very much hoping for a good turnout and a Coyne win when the results are declared on April 28th. British trade unionism badly needs it.