Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/491/2520
Merger with GMB?
Eyebrows were raised at the NEC when General Secretary Dave Prentis announced that he had agreed a policy of close and joint working between UNISON and GMB.
Widely seen as a pre-merger move, the announcement provoked a discussion which tended to assume that the merger was actually happening.
The surprise amongst NEC members reflected the animosity between the two unions at local level, where GMB is often seen as engaging in little more than poaching exercises, often disrupting unity in the face of the employer.
Whilst not ignoring the negative side of any union in a merger situation, it is important to distinguish between the rank and file members of unions, who have much more to unite them than to divide them, and the culture of the union for which the leadership, usually the paid bureaucracy, are responsible.
Prentis' position has some logic to it. The merger between TGWU and Amicus to form UNITE-the Union has left GMB as a smaller , (just over 600,000 members) union squeezed between two "Big Boys" UNISON and UNITE, an irony given that GMB were at an earlier stage involved in the merger talks, but decided to pull out.
As with all unions with a large private sector membership GMB have been losing members, and their ferocious poaching in parts of the public sector has not enabled them to keep their membership up.
Prentis is therefore concerned that left to their own devices GMB will gravitate to UNITE, relegating UNISON to permanent "also ran" status in the "Biggest Union" race.
He is therefore making an early pitch to pull GMB into UNISON's orbit, undoubtedly with a view to a possible future merger.
Many also suspect a deeper political logic to Prentis' actions. His right-wing leadership is based on clique of senior officers, key lay activists from both the union's Labour Link group plus the Communist Party of Britain, (Morning Star supporters), resting on an often embarrassingly uncritical and compliant NEC.
Whilst this clique dominates many of the union's structures, its base amongst the broader membership is gradually eroding.
Individual membership of the Labour Link is now down to 37% of the total, its lowest ever proportion as former NUPE and COHSE members retire, and are replaced by new members who overwhelmingly opt for the General Political Fund.
The Labour Link itself is increasingly resented by thousands of members.
Collective bargaining disasters like Single Status/Equal Pay and the Local Government Pension Dispute are creating the conditions where thousands more members are beginning to question the competency of the national leadership.
In the Health Service Group, long regarded as the leadership's most loyal base, the Service Group Executive has at last been forced to back the long-voiced demands for a national demonstration to defend the NHS, and when NHS members have to pay more for their pensions under the provisions of the deal which the leadership sold to them as a victory they too will have reason to question the leadership's competence.
Seeing these developments on the horizon, the GMB must seem like the US cavalry to Prentis, 600,000 additional members into the Labour Link, plus the addition of a bureaucracy with far more power even than UNISON's has, with far fewer opportunities for lay members to influence events.
It is no accident that the first national initiative announced under the joint working arrangement was a meeting to discuss a joint approach to the Labour Leadership contest!
Bigger Not Always Better
Marxists approach the question of union mergers from the point of view of the rank and file, and whether the merger will or will not lead to greater strength and combativity.
On this basis, a smaller, democratic union can prove more effective than a larger, bureaucratic union, whose leaders are anxious to avoid struggle whilst they look after their own interests at the expense of the rank and file.
In the run-up to the formation of UNISON activists fought long and hard to ensure that the new union would be democratic, with branch autonomy, a branch-based annual conference and checks on the powers of full time officials.
Concern at the nature of the GMB, where members do not have the right to elect their own Branch Secretaries, conference is a small affair, largely controlled by the union bureaucracy.
Moreover in local government, where many UNISON members work alongside GMB members, the union's reluctance to join in industrial action, including national industrial action on occasions, is often a problem.
Incidentally problems of joint working between the two unions are not limited to local level.
Prentis told the NEC that he had been assured by his opposite number that the GMB would not take the breakaway Ambulance Service Union into membership, and did exactly the opposite two weeks later.
At this stage it is important to avoid knee jerk responses to the idea of a merger; we should use the joint working project to forge closer links with the GMB at local level.
If this does lead to merger talks we will insist on no diminution of democracy as the price of merger, with democratic branches, a branch based annual conference, the right of former GMB members to opt for the GPF from day one, and lay member control over the officers of the union.
In The Socialist 14 June 2007:
Unison national conference
What we think
Socialist Party NHS campaign
War and terrorism
G8 Summit protests
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party news and analysis