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From The Socialist newspaper, 19 January 2006

Are 'super unions' the solution?

DURING THE course of 2005, talks took place between the TGWU, Amicus and the GMB trade unions on the proposal to create a new merged 'super union'.
This is the biggest trade union merger being proposed so far. Jim Horton, a member of TGWU branch 1/785 opens up the discussion on trade union mergers and what attitude trade union members should take to them.

EXPLORATORY DISCUSSIONS between the tops of the TGWU, Amicus and GMB were due to have been completed by the end of 2005, but have stalled because of the hesitancy of the GMB. It is not certain that the merger will proceed. At the very least the creation of the new union planned for January 2007 could be set back.

If the merger goes ahead it will be the biggest union in Britain, with 2.5 million members, making it overwhelmingly the largest trade union in the private sector and a powerful force within public services.

The leaders of the TGWU and Amicus have been particularly enthusiastic about the proposed merger. TGWU general secretary Tony Woodley has talked about creating "a progressive giant that could dominate the 21st century". Amicus general secretary Derek Simpson has warned employers that they will be: "confronted by a more powerful body in terms of negotiation, and if push comes to shove in terms of disputes."

There is no doubt the merger could create a formidable union. But the old adage 'never mind the quality, feel the width' comes to mind. Big may be beautiful in terms of the latent strength and power of any new merged union, but many members in all three unions will want to know whether this will translate into improved representation and more effective trade unionism.

The need for the maximum unity of the working class forms the very bedrock of our movement, but unity by itself offers no guarantee that the bosses' offensive against our pay and conditions and the government's assault on our public services can be repelled. What is key is the correct programme, polices and a determined leadership willing to fight with and on behalf of its members. At the heart of this lies lay democracy.

In December, the college and university lecturers' union NATFHE and the Association of University Teachers (AUT) amalgamated to form the new University and College Union (UCU), representing 118,000 teaching, research and admin staff.

This will be seen as a sensible move in the universities, where staff were previously represented by the two old unions who did not always coordinate action. But both NATFHE and the AUT failed to stop, for example, New Labour's marketisation of further and higher education, with the resultant deterioration in staff working conditions. Without a change in policy and leadership it is difficult to see how the new UCU will turn things around.

In the public sector, where currently members are divided into many unions, a new merged union could make a big difference, cutting across inter-union barriers and rivalries. In the private sector, such as the car industry, aerospace, civil aviation and retail, more than one union representing the workforce has complicated bringing workers together in struggle.

In general though this is not due to a lack of desire for unity by union members but, unfortunately, many national and local officers lacking the ability or willingness to properly represent them.

However, the two retreats by the government last year on public sector pension cuts, when faced with the threat of united industrial action, shows what can be achieved even when workers remain in separate unions but work closely together. Key in this was the left leadership of the civil servants' union PCS, in which Socialist Party members play a prominent role.

Gate Gourmet

The converse experience of the Gate Gourmet workers who, along with the baggage handlers who instinctively struck in solidarity with them, are all TGWU members, is also instructive. It is difficult to see how a new merged union, under current policies, would have made any difference to the outcome of that dispute.

More important was the need for the TGWU leaders to show the same determination defending their members as the Gate Gourmet management revealed in their ruthless pursuit to increase profits. For members of all three unions this is the nub of the question.

The aim this year is to open up democratic debate within the three unions on the merger proposals. As socialists we do not have a fixed position on mergers. We judge each proposal by its merits, taking account of issues such as democracy, accountability and whether the merger has the potential to advance the union members' interests. We would not generally endorse a merger that retreats on the democratic gains won by members in any of the unions seeking to merge.

In Amicus, members are still fighting for the right to elect full time officials. Yet, while Simpson hopes that this important question does not prevent a merger, it is undoubtedly a factor with the other unions.

The TGWU has come out clearly in favour of lay democracy and correctly agreed at its last biennial delegate conference (BDC) that there would be a recall BDC to consider any merger proposals before there is a ballot of the full membership. At any recall BDC members will want to consider detailed merger proposals, including a suggested constitution and rule book. Members in Amicus and the GMB will expect the same thing.

Socialists will also take the opportunity to discuss what type of union we need. Without a correct policy to confront New Labour's big business agenda and a leadership able to inspire the confidence and match the combativity of its members, any new merged union will falter at its first big challenge.

Woodley says the new merged union will be about better pay, safe workplaces, secure pensions and resisting job losses. Most members of our union will not doubt Woodley's sincerity but this involves not just the flexing of industrial muscle against the bosses, but going head to head with a government that backs big business to the hilt.

Unfortunately, Woodley, Simpson and Paul Kenny, acting GMB general secretary, are still very much wedded to the Labour Party. This fundamental flaw, if carried over to the new merged union, would severely hamper effective representation. Last year this meant, for example, Woodley putting the re-election of New Labour before the task of resisting job losses of TGWU members at Rover.

Woodley once remarked that some trade union leaders were perceived as being: "too close to the gaffer". The election of leaders like Bob Crow (RMT), Mark Serwotka (PCS) and others termed the awkward squad, including Woodley himself, represented a desire by ordinary trade unionists to break class collaboration in the workplace.

Many trade unionists now perceive the trade union leaders, with the notable exception of Serwotka, Crow and Matt Wrack (FBU), as being too close to the gaffer's mate, in the guise of New Labour.

A new merged union has an opportunity to break the tie and head a new initiative, along with other unions, to set up a new party to represent the political interests of trade unionists.

During the course of the merger debate, Socialist Party members will be campaigning for any new union to commit itself to: An annual lay member conference, regular election and accountability of all officials, who should have a salary no higher than the skilled members of the union, the retention of all industrial trade groups, lay member control at all levels, the democratic right to organise within the union, except for fascists. And a political fund - members to decide where the money should go, to use the union as a fighting body on behalf of the members.

If you would like to write a contribution to this discussion, please ring 020 8988 8782 or send your article to:

Why not click here to join the Socialist Party, or click here to donate to the Socialist Party.

In The Socialist 19 January 2006:

Unite to save our NHS

1,500 March in Huddersfield

Growing anger at academies

Crime and anti-social behaviour

Build a political alternative to New Labour

Time for a new mass workers' party

Time for a political alternative

Are 'super unions' the solution?

Build for action

Visteon workers braced for attacks

Walk out prompts ASLEF ballot

Iran: Nuclear row raises fears internationally

One year on... where is the relief?


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