Unite general secretary Len McCluskey opened the union’s policy conference today (July 2) as he highlighted how Unite was fighting and winning for its members, for social justice and for change.
He said the union’s robust resources — among them a £35m strike fund — has enabled Unite to stand up for its members even in the face of new draconian anti-union laws.
“What the politicians who drafted those [anti-union] 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,” he said.
Unite is an emphatically modern union, McCluskey noted — one that uses every possible avenue to win for its members. The union’s legal department has secured victories when traditional industrial action alone couldn’t quite — as in the case of the recent Birmingham bins dispute.
“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,” he said. “Fighting and winning.”
He highlighted too Unite’s innovative Work, Voice Pay strategy led by Unite executive officer Sharon Graham as well as its “imaginative and sophisticated” leverage strategy that has won ten straight victories for members. Unite is also at the forefront of political lobbying — Bombardier being one of the more recent examples of union campaigning wins.
Still, even as the union embraces innovation, McCluskey said that industrial action will always play a central role in winning for its members.
“Over the last two years we have held more than three hundred industrial action ballots, with over 90 per cent resulting in significant successes for our members, often without needing to activate the mandate,” he said.
“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.”
TGI Fridays – unprecedented action
He pointed to the unprecedented strike action TGI Fridays workers are now taking — the very first strikes in casual dining in history.
“A win at TGI Fridays will fire a shot that will be heard around the whole huge restaurant and hospitality sector,” McCluskey said to rousing cheers as he paid tribute to the striking workers and pledged to stand with them “all of the way”.
He paid tribute too to Unite’s success in gaining union recognition in Ryanair.
“Even the most entrenched anti-union employer can be brought to see sense and understand that cooperation with unions is better than confrontation,” he said.
Turning to the Grenfell Tower disaster, he honoured the 16 Unite members who were trapped in the blaze, three of whom perished. He applauded the work of Unite Community, which has been central in organising and supporting Grenfell residents both long before and after the fire.
Grenfell – tale of inequality
“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,” McCluskey said.
“It tells us a story of the folly of relying on deregulation and competition for something as vital as safety standards and building inspections.
“And it tells us a story about austerity, and the cuts to fire service provision in London.”
The way Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn met Grenfell residents soon 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” — embodies the values of Unite and underscores its support for a Corbyn-led Labour party, McCluskey argued.
Pointing to last year’s general election, McCluskey said that when Labour adopts policies that support working people — such as ending austerity, funding the NHS and abolishing zero hours contracts — that is when the party “moves to the threshold of power”.
Still he warned that Labour had work to do to win a future election, to reconnect with people in areas outside of London and large cities who feel disaffected and disenfranchised by a political and economic system that’s effectively abandoned them.
McCluskey also sent a strong warning to the Football Lads Alliance, a group which has been building links with neo-fascist groups in order to spread instability and division across working class communities.
“The message from this conference is this — get off our terraces and out of our communities,” he said.
Turning to international solidarity with workers across the globe, McCluskey congratulated the new progressive president of Mexico Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who last night won a landslide victory against the Mexican political establishment in an historic election.
To rousing applause, he sent greetings to “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.”
‘Challenge before us’
Now, McCluskey said, all eyes both in Britain and around the world would be on Unite and the movement it is building with Labour and other fellow progressives.
“That is the challenge before us,” he said. “To deliver on the hopes we have sparked, the expectations we have aroused.
“Our strength and our unity has helped our movement turn a corner,” he added. “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,” McCluskey concluded to a standing ovation. “And we can hold in our hearts the pride and knowledge that we laid the foundation of a more just world for tomorrow’s children.”
Pic: Mark Thomas