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Posted on 23 June 2011 at 14:21 GMT

Unite rules conference - steps forward for members

Andy Ford, health sector Unite rep

The Unite rules conference on 13-15 June saw a definite shift to the left by Britain's largest trade union. Following the election of Len McCluskey as general secretary and the ignominious third place for the candidate of the right wing, the conference also showed the lack of influence of the traditional right in the union.

This is all the more remarkable as in the past our predecessor unions, EETPU, AEU and MSF were deliberately created as bulwarks of the right within the labour movement.

Socialist clause

On Day 1, a good step was taken when a rule went through "... to promote a socialist vision for:

a more equal society in which wealth is distributed from the rich to the poor, including by means of progressive taxation and other regulatory measures to restrict excessive wealth

a collective society in which public services are directly provided on the basis of public need and not private greed, and a fair system of welfare and benefits to support those in need

public ownership of important areas of economic activity and services, including health, education, water, post, rail and local passenger transport."

At their founding most of the unions had a socialist clause in their rule book, but these were gradually weeded out by the right wings, usually at merger with other unions.

The formal adoption of socialism by Unite is an important step forward in re-equipping the union movement with the ideas necessary to fight a way out of the devastating economic crisis caused by capitalism.

It is also a testament to the job done by the left in Unite, of defeating what had been a right-wing monolith in the predecessor unions - AEU, EETPU and Amicus.

Election to committees

There was a passionate debate on the Unite rule which restricts election to lay member committees of the union to members who are in work. Intended to base the union structures on working reps rather than retired members, this rule has had the consequence of barring not only the retired, but also redundant, victimised, or blacklisted members.

It means that an employer can not only take away a rep's job, but also indirectly, their trade union positions as well!

On the day, all the rule changes deleting the requirement to be "in employment" fell, but Len McCluskey did give a serious undertaking to treat redundant and blacklisted reps properly in the future.

Unite's officers

On Day 2, the big debate was over the election of full-time officers. The motions to elect all the officers of the union fell, but the vote on a motion calling for election of the senior officers - the deputy general secretary and the assistant general secretaries (we have three), was close, though still not close enough to require a recorded vote.

It is obviously a live topic in the union as about a dozen motions on the election of officers were submitted.

The Socialist Party calls for the election of officers. One step forward was that the appointment of senior national officers and regional secretaries will be by a panel that includes lay members, which will limit the patronage of the general secretary in future.

This was a motion from the executive committee, showing that Len McCluskey is sticking with his election pledge to restrict the powers of the general secretary.

On Day 3, there was an interesting rule change, reflecting problems we have had in the past with senior officials' expenses. In future, all pay, benefits and expenses of senior officers will be published by the union.

This is welcome as a measure of accountability, but the Socialist Party calls for officials to receive no more than the members they represent.

Political work

There was also debate on the union's political work. Again this was a live topic, with eight submitted rule changes.

At present about 1 million of Unite's members pay the political levy. But control of political work and political spending is restricted to members who are also members of the Labour Party - maybe 1-2% of the members.

The Socialist Party calls for opening up the political committees of the union to all who pay the political levy, but all the relevant rule changes fell.

However, another rule change which would have achieved the same result - by transferring the responsibility for political spending and work to the regional and industrial committees (which are open to non-Labour Party members) was exactly tied, and therefore not carried.

This shows the discontent with the union's illogical and unfair political structure, which was really designed to allow the union leaders to cast their votes at Labour and TUC conferences in accordance with the wishes of the Labour Party leadership, rather than in accordance with the union members' needs and wishes.

What has happened is that the members pass a lot of very good motions at conference, but the political committees have not pursued them.

The worst examples are the failures over 13 years to get Labour to conduct a major campaign to withdraw the anti-trade union laws, and to stop Labour privatising the NHS - when Unite was virtually paying the Labour Party's running costs!

The latest example has been councillors who are members of Unite not voting against devastating cuts, job losses and attacks on terms and conditions affecting our members in local government.

The United Left gaining a majority on the national political committee should help bring the policy of Unite constituency Labour Party delegates in line with the union's recent 'no cuts' statement.

All in all there have been some positive changes to Unite at this conference. And the members have definitely put down a marker on election of officers and the political effectiveness of our union.

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