Unite’s general secretary Len McCluskey described this week’s industrial sector conferences (November 13) as “a cornerstone of our union and our democracy” in his speech welcoming delegates to the conference.
McCluskey emphasised that industrial strategy has to be at the heartbeat of everything the union does. “If what we do in the workplace and at the bargaining table is not done right, then nothing else works either.”
McCluskey then set out how Unite is leading the way in many areas for example politically where Unite was key in ensuring that Labour performed much more strongly than predicted in this year’s general election and the party was “now on the threshold of power”.
He also reminded delegates how important political influence is for Unite to achieve its aims. “Let no-one say that our political work has nothing to do with our industrial mission. Just count how many resolutions you will debate in your conferences call for legislation, or demand that the government do something, or stop doing something else. All that is politics.”
He then highlighted how Unite’s legal work was delivering for members with strategic cases including the recent victory that voluntary overtime as well as compulsory overtime must be taken into account when calculating holiday pay.
Or how Unite is the only union fighting for blacklisted workers, as it has tabled over 70 new cases and was now not just pursuing the blacklisting companies but the individuals who were responsible for blacklisting workers as well.
In highlighting the campaigning work of the union McCluskey made special mention of the union’s Sport’s Direct work which has put “Mike Ashley on the back foot.”
Returning to the union’s core issues and that 95 per cent of Unite’s activity is workplace related. The general secretary told delegates of the success of Unite’s Work Voice Pay, Unites’s broad industrial strategy, which was launched two years ago at the previous industrial sector conferences.
Since then Unite has collected industrial data on a huge scale which has encompassed 28,000 workplaces and 15,000 shop stewards have accessed the website. The strategy will be further developed which will allow activists to information which will allow them to produce professional pay claims “in a matter of minutes”.
‘Savage job cuts’
Looking at the challenges faced by Unite the general secretary highlighted the current economic situation. “In one sector after another, the threat of savage job cuts is a reality we are having to deal with”.
He highlighted how the government’s continuing discredited austerity policies is causing job losses in the NHS and local authorities. While the current economic uncertainty has created many recent issues in the private sector.
“The jobs crisis spreads far wider – the steel industry, car plants like the Vauxhall factories sold to PSA, Bombardier and BAE Systems in aerospace, Monarch airlines, across the financial services industry.
“In all these areas, your union is having to put the fight for jobs first, sometimes with some success in what is after all, the most difficult struggle we have to address.”
On top of job losses McCluskey underlined the increasing pressure workers are facing to make ends meet – thanks to “the longest effective pay freeze – in many places an actual real pay decline – in the history of economic data.
“We have the situation where Britain is the only country in the developed world where the country as a whole is getting richer, but the workers are getting poorer. This is the result of 35 years of governments happy to see unions and workers get weaker, and employers ever-stronger. That is why we started Work Voice Pay – to secure for our members real improvements in the here-and-now.”
On turning to Brexit, McCluskey reaffirmed Unite’s decision to accept the democratic result of the referendum – but highlighted Unite’s increasing alarm of how the government’s stalled and failing negotiations could have disastrous consequences for members and the entire economy. He said, “Every anxiety we had has only been increased by the Tory conduct of the Brexit negotiations.
“Without going into too much detail, it is now clear that due to the government’s divisions and bungling, and under pressure from its extreme Right elements, there is a serious danger of Britain crashing out of the EU without any sort of continuing trade agreement.
“This raises the real danger of a jobs massacre for our members and many more. That is why we support Labour’s constructive approach, which includes staying within the single market and customs union for four years, allowing time for mature negotiations to yield an agreement which can give British-based industries the maximum possible tariff-free access to the single market.”
He also highlighted how Unite has been at the forefront of tackling one of the key concerns which led to people voting for Brexit, “the impact that the free movement of labour, so-called, has had on wage rates and conditions in certain sectors. We have called for labour market regulation and control to address the forcing down of wages through the use of migrant labour.
“We have said – and Labour has supported this – that employers should only recruit labour abroad if they are covered by trade union recognition or a collective bargaining agreement for their comp any or sector. That way this problem can start to evaporate, as it has done in these situations in the past. The abuse of migrant labour would start to be eliminated straight away.”
In closing McCluskey highlighted the importance of growth to the union and that in order to continue to keep delivering for members it was essential that the union keeps on growing in order to better meet the challenges workers experience in the economy and in society.
He said, “Society cannot be transformed solely from the top. Stronger trade unions are vital – not as an add-on to government, but as the very foundation of a more equal country. What we achieve in the workplace can do as much to make our countries better places. History teaches us that working people only prosper when trade unions are powerful.
“So let us go forward determined to play our full part in changing Britain and Ireland for the better, by building a larger, stronger Unite ready to put its full weight on the scales on the side of justice.”