Britain: Bureaucratic obstructions sabotage United Left meeting

In the recent period two of the most important trade unions in Britain, Amicus and the T&GWU, fused to form UNITE. Jerry Hicks, a left-wing rank and file candidate, challenged for the position of General Secretary within the former Amicus section of the new union, winning 40,000 votes. Now the fight is on to pose a challenge from the left within the new union, UNITE. There are big possibilities for the left, but there are also those who are manoeuvring to weaken such a challenge.

NOTE: The outcome of the vote inside the Amicus section, with Jerry Hicks gaining close to 40,000 votes was an important result for the left. Consider that Derek Simpson, the incumbent general secretary, received around 60,000. The vote for Jerry Hicks was a clear indication of a movement to the left within the union. The task now is for a credible militant candidate to be presented with the backing of all the lefts in the union.

However, from the report we publish here below, one can see that there are elements within the “left” who are trying to hold back the attempts to give a genuine expression to the mood of anger that is building up within the ranks of the union. Last week there was a meeting of the United Left, the left-wing within the new union, where unfortunately there were manoeuvres to exclude genuine rank and file militants which led to a division, which is outlined below. We will keep our readers updated as new developments emerge in this key union in the British labour movement.

Last Saturday’s special meeting of the United Left – the broad left grouping in the two-million strong UNITE union – ended in a split after supporters of left-winger Jerry Hicks were excluded on spurious reasons. The reason for the meeting was to choose the left’s candidate to run for General Secretary in 2010.

Before the meeting began, the proceedings were marred by heavy-handed tactics by stewards who had been instructed to refuse entry to anyone “not on the list”. Long-standing left-wingers were turned away on the door after being told they were not recognized. This included activists from Swansea and former employees from Rolls Royce in Bristol. One worker, who had been an active trade unionist for 39 years, was refused admittance on a range of spurious grounds. Instead of a welcome, people were treated with suspicion and contempt if their faces didn’t fit. While some were told they could not register as they had arrived late, others were told by organisers they would be denied access. In addition many had decided not to attend after they had been told in advance that they would not be welcome at the meeting.

Jerry Hicks speaking at meeting of Socialist Appeal supporters in March.Jerry Hicks speaking at meeting of Socialist Appeal supporters in March. This bureaucratic behaviour was challenged by Jerry Hicks who spoke at the start of the meeting. He stated that if these workers were being excluded through no fault of their own, then he would not want to participate in an undemocratic meeting and walked out. He was followed by about 30 supporters who, together with those who had been excluded, decided to organise a meeting of their own.

In the meantime, a row broke out in the main meeting which then narrowly voted to admit all those excluded into the meeting. This news was transmitted to those outside, who then proceeded jubilantly to enter the main hall. However, after some protests, the chair decided to rule that while everyone could attend the meeting, only those who had previously registered could vote. This decision reduced the meeting to a farce. This led to the second walk out by Jerry and supporters.

Those who had been excluded and those who had walked out in solidarity convened a meeting in one of the side rooms in the venue. Speaker after speaker, who gave their place of work and length of time in the union movement, recounted how they were denied access to the main hall on the flimsiest of excuses. Many were UNITE stewards and branch officials in engineering, construction, manufacturing and other sectors. A wide-ranging discussion was held about the problems of the union, how a genuine left should operate, and on which way forward for the left. While everyone was keen for Jerry to stand as a left rank-and-file candidate in the election for General Secretary, this question was left for further consideration and consultation. It became clear to those present that the real reason for the Manchester meeting was not to hold a democratic selection meeting, but to ensure a rigged meeting would simply rubber stamp McCluskey’s nomination.

In the meantime, the hustings for a candidate was taking place in the main hall between Len McCluskey, the favoured candidate of the old TGWU bureaucracy and full-time official, and Rob Williams, the rank-and-file convener at Linemar in Swansea. In the vote, McCluskey got 170 votes to 49 for Williams.

The bulk of those voting for Williams would have also supported Jerry Hicks. With Hicks refusing to participate in a conference where his supporters have been excluded and told not to attend, then, with sufficient support he could put himself forward as a credible rank-and-file left candidate, who had obtained 40% of the vote in his recent challenge for General Secretary for Amicus. He is certainly very well placed in the new election for General Secretary of UNITE next year.

The United Left has become not a broad left, but a narrow undemocratic left, seeking to exclude those who pose a challenge to their pre-conceived decisions. The fact that they regarded new participants with hostility is a real indication of where they stand and how they will never be able to build a genuine democratic left organisation, let alone build a fighting union based on the interests of the membership.

On this basis, Jerry Hicks should announce his nomination and start the campaign for a genuine left General Secretary of UNITE.