Unite the union Coventry Council bin workers protest. Photo: Paul Mattsson
Unite trade union Coventry City Council bin workers HGV drivers pay strike protest demonstration rally in Coventry city centre. Photo: Paul Mattsson

The Socialist Party is publishing a statement below by supporters of Unite general secretary Sharon Graham’s ‘Plan for Change’ manifesto, and who have just been elected on to the union’s Executive Council. It is an explanation of the manoeuvres by the ‘Members First’ (MF) bloc at this week’s first meeting of the new incoming EC.

The methods used by the MF group, which includes the misnamed United Left, is a further warning that conservative elements in Unite would want to row back on the militant industrial strategy that has been launched since Sharon Graham’s election in 2021. This has seen over 800 disputes across the private and public sectors, of which over 80% have been successful, with £350 million won for members.

In addition, MF is fully aware that the union has also been prepared to challenge Starmer’s Labour at national and local level. Just two weeks ago, Sharon demanded that Labour take the energy companies into democratic public ownership, and last year Coventry binworkers faced down the brutal strike-breaking tactics of the Labour council after a 7-month struggle. The first policy conference under Sharon’s leadership in 2021 passed a motion, initiated by Socialist Party members, that means that it is official Unite policy to call on Labour councils to refuse to implement Tory cuts but instead pass no-cuts needs budgets.

The events at this week’s Executive Council, just a month before the Unite rules and policy conferences, confirms the warning we made prior to the EC elections (‘Where now to consolidate Unite as a fighting union?’ – Socialism Today 3 April 2023), that these industrial and political advances are under threat from what constitute a new right-wing in the union. It is why the Socialist Party has long argued that a new rank-and-file led broad left needs to be built in Unite, to bring together those members determined to fight to maintain Unite as a fighting union.

This statement was read on behalf of a group of 27 members of the Executive Council so that our position is recorded in the minutes.

Every representative on this Council should be deeply concerned about the anti-democratic decisions taken yesterday.

The group of members who call themselves ‘Members First’ and ‘United Left’, who currently hold a tiny majority on the executive, took the shameful decision to press ahead with the election of a Chair and membership of the Finance & General Purposes Committee (F&GPC) against the wishes of an almost equal number of executive councillors. In fact, the Chair was elected by a minority of the Council.

The objection of the 27 was based on the fact that the Civil Air Transport (CAT) sector currently has no representation on the Council, and that one Passenger sector seat is empty pending the outcome of further elections.

An alternative, perfectly workable, interim arrangement was offered by concerned executive councillors in line with standard democratic practice, but was rejected.

The 55,000 strong CAT electorate is not only of significant size, but has one of the highest concentrations of women and LGBT+ members of any sector within the union. Passenger Transport has one of the highest concentrations of BAEM members found anywhere in the union.

Our fears in relation to the exclusion or reduction in representation from these highly diverse sectors were immediately given concrete expression in the election of just one BAEM representative onto a 16-seat F&GP Committee. This demonstrates a blatant disregard for our union’s proportionality rules.

The Chair also took an executive decision to disregard representations from two disabled members on the difficulties caused to them by the sudden change in order of business. This was never even put to the vote.

For a union that is campaigning to secure statutory recognition for equalities reps, and whose activists consistently challenge undemocratic and discriminatory practice, that is a shameful and regressive step.

It is one which will send completely the wrong message to our members, to our employers, to law makers, and to the wider public.

In the intensity of the moment, it is easy to see the executive council decisions solely within the narrow context of the council chamber. However, we all know that the shockwaves will echo far beyond these walls.

We urge this council to take a few minutes, rescind the controversial decisions on Chair and F&GPC, and agree to interim measures that will allow us to harmonise and regroup when our Council is whole. In accordance with rule, we will anyway revisit the position of Chair at that point.

Finally, whilst we have carried on with business as usual in the interests of the critical issues we need to discuss, this cooperation should not be taken as agreement to the conduct of business yesterday.