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Len McCluskey speaks to The Socialist: Building workers' confidence
Interview with Len McCluskey, General secretary elect of Unite, Britian's biggest union
You've only just been elected and already David Cameron is condemning you in Parliament - for correctly pointing out there's no such thing as an 'irresponsible strike'. What are your priorities as the new leader of an important union?
As well as uniting Unite, which is my primary task from an internal point of view, the issue of our time is the current ideological attack by this government on the very social architecture, the welfare state, that we've built up over 60 years. It's imperative that we resist that.
We have to give the type of leadership that raises the confidence of our members and the general public.
We've been told for over 15 months now that there is no alternative to the cuts. At the last general election the three major parties put forward a cuts agenda. So at the moment ordinary working people feel that, although they don't want these cuts, they are being forced into believing that there's not really anything we can do about it, we've got to accept the cuts.
Our task is to reject the cuts - not only because they're morally wrong and economically dangerous, that's not good enough. We can't just sloganise against the cuts, we have to explain that there is an alternative.
What is that alternative?
When a nation is in debt there are only three ways to deal with that debt. One is a cuts agenda, the other two ways are economic growth and dealing with tax.
I'm in favour of attacking the huge amount of money, a minimum of £25 billion, that is lost to the treasury through tax avoidance. We should be forcing the government to tackle that. That alone would stop the cuts and give us enough money to start investing in public services. But more importantly to start to invest in our manufacturing base, which under successive governments for the past 30 years, has been decimated.
We have to put people before profit. The People's Charter has demands about a fairer tax system and spells out alternatives. We need to arm our members and members of the general public so that they understand that there is an alternative.
Young people are showing a real determination to fight for their future at the moment. How do you think the trade union movement should support them?
Not only support them but learn from them. There's 15 occupations as we sit here talking today and that might grow. It was fantastic that 50,000 plus people came out on the streets of London in a relatively short space of time. This shows the anger out there and what can be achieved through mobilisation.
Trade union leaders have got to see that. They have got to feel the pulse of the anger and not be left behind by it or try to restrict it.
That's why a number of people in the trade unions' leadership have called for an alliance of resistance with community groups. Today I've sent out a letter to our area activists committees, which we have throughout the UK, asking them to get involved in their local anti-cuts committees.
The coordination and the building of this resistance and the raising of the consciousness of our members and the general public as to what all this means is an essential pert of any strategy to make the government think again.
How can we tackle the anti-trade union laws in this era of a new cut and a new attack on workers every day?
I think the trade unions laws are a disgrace. They're no longer Thatcher's anti-union laws they're now Thatcher's, Major's, Blair's, Brown's and Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum's. As a leader of the largest union, I think first of all we have to make certain that they're not used an excuse for us to do nothing.
We have to continue to campaign to highlight the unfairness of these laws. We're the worst protected workers in the whole of Europe, which is scandalous. We have to make certain that Ed Miliband understands that changing these laws is a number one priority for trade unions.
We also need to become smarter when we're involved in industrial disputes - looking at community pickets a lot more than we have in the past for example.
What would you say to the many Unite members worrying about their jobs, their houses and the future for their children?
Resist! We need to build people's confidence. My experience tells me that when workers are confident anything is possible. What the media try to do is debilitate us, make people believe that they can't do anything about it. It's our job as leaders to try to build confidence and make people feel empowered.
That's why I'm pleased that the poll tax is being evoked once again. Margaret Thatcher was at the height of her power, yet she was brought down by people power. Look at the Iraq war, that was the beginning of the end for Tony Blair because people power came out and said "we're not having it".
My message to Unite members is I'm going to do everything I can to support them, to build resources to build confidence so that we can realise the potential of Unite and Unite can be seen as a powerful force for good within society.
In The Socialist 1 December 2010:
Youth Fight for Education
Socialist Party editorial
The Socialist Interview
Socialist Party workplace news
International socialist news and analysis