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New life in the unions?

Red Pepper interviews union leaders Len McCluskey of Unite and Mark Serwotka of PCS

September 8, 2011
21 min read

The Unite and PCS unions represent ‘a particular kind of trade unionism’, Unite leader Len McCluskey said when he addressed the PCS’s conference. Nina Power, Hilary Wainwright and Michael Calderbank interview McCluskey and, below, PCS leader Mark Serwotka about the fight against the cuts and what this new trade unionism means in practice

Len McCluskey

Hilary Wainwright  There seems to be a new self-confidence in the unions. What do you think lies behind it?

Len McCluskey  There is a sense of urgency. I’ve never been involved in a period like this before where they are effectively challenging everything that we’ve known, everything I’ve grown up with as a kid and way into adulthood. Whether it’s a new-found confidence I’m not sure. But certainly this is not the time to cower in a corner and hope that things pass you by.

I have a deliberate strategy to shout about our values and what we stand for. Our beliefs are the core values of working people and we’re their voice.

We have to raise the consciousness of people and their confidence, and the only way we raise the confidence of people is being confident yourselves and trying to explain about an alternative and a different way.

We’re going through uncharted waters. And the reason we don’t know what is going to happen is because of the vagaries of the global financial markets.

So in those circumstances, it’s vitally important for the trade unions to be focused, to be clear, to be unequivocal, to be strong. So maybe that’s what we’re seeing.

I became an officer of the then T&G [a forerunner union of Unite] in 1979 and they had 2.1 million members amid 13.5 million trade unionists. Today there are just 6.5 million in total, and yet on March 26 we organised the biggest demonstration in the history of the labour movement. That’s an indication of the anger out there.

And you look at the students last November – while the rest of us were still pondering strategies, they had 50–60,000 people on the streets. Fantastic!

Hilary Wainwright  Nina was there…

Len McCluskey  Well, congratulations. You did more on that single day than a hundred general secretaries sitting in meetings for a month.

Look at direct action groups like UK Uncut, a fantastic group of young people – we’re already linking up with them. So these are interesting times and for me it really is about us trying to keep pace with the time, not lagging behind the anger and confusion that’s being felt out there, and being seen as an alternative.

Nina Power  To follow up on what you are saying about how unions can learn from new forms of organisation and protest: how can the unions link up with people who aren’t in work?

Len McCluskey  This new period that we’re entering necessitates us being smarter, cleverer, streetwise. Just a couple of weeks ago at our rules conference we agreed a new ‘community membership’, which will be launched probably on 1 September.

The likelihood is that this will be 50p a week, and it is for ‘non‑working people’: not just unemployed, but non-working people. It’s to demonstrate that we want to reach out, we want to engage not just in our workplaces but with our communities in which we live.

Unite should be identified with everything that’s going on in the community: a protest of parents or tenants who feel a road is too dangerous, or the closure of the library – whatever, Unite should be there.

And the reason why I want that is that whenever we have an industrial struggle I want the community to be there for us, so the community wants to assist us. I want to look at the concept of community picketing and all of that. And that includes the students.

Nina Power  So how can community members and students play an active part in the union?

Len McCluskey  In community branches and in what we call ‘area activist committees’ – but it’s a question of ‘why would they want to?’ and ‘what could we offer them?’ We’re going to develop a whole series of things.

For example, at the moment unfortunately Citizens Advice Bureaux and welfare rights organisations will be getting decimated all over the place, and ordinary people will look to someone for help. Now we are developing an approach where we can give that type of help and assistance.

But we’ve got to be careful, and it is a fine line – we’re a trade union. And a trade union is about organising workers in work. So we have to be careful that we don’t distort the nature of the beast that we are.

Now, we can open up like this because we’re not only defending jobs, conditions and pay within the public sector, we’re trying to defend services that affect all of us – the private sector, all of us. Our ‘area activist committees’ are supposed to be what the name says on the tin. They’re supposed to draw people together within a geographical confine to develop common issues about what’s going on in their locality.

Community members will be able not only to participate, but also to be elected onto those committees. I believe that this will generate an image of Unite being interested in all levels of life for ordinary working people.

Michael Calderbank  Unite now are overwhelmingly one of the leading funders of the Labour party. What is the strategy for Unite influencing the party?

Len McCluskey  That’s the big question of the day for us. One of the core pillars of Unite is to use our power to have a progressive influence on society, and to punch our weight in the political arena – to have a powerful voice in the political arena.

There’s a huge question mark over whether we have that voice, after 13 years of a Labour government. We are now the worst protected workforce in the whole of Europe. It’s an absolute disgrace what happened in those 13 years.

Wherever I went in the general secretary election, I was consistently asked ‘Why are we giving these huge amounts of money to Labour and what do we get out of it?’ So I have no intention of giving a blank cheque to Labour.

I am committed to trying to reassert the values that we stand for in our party. I want to do that by creating an alliance with other trade unions and MPs specifically to develop a common narrative and programme to reclaim the party for our values. To make Labour – and I’d get into bother with some of my left comrades for saying this but there you go – a radical reformist party again, to give it a radical edge.

Just look at what’s happened up in Scotland. The SNP had the radical edge. The SNP appealed to ordinary working people. The Labour Party up in Scotland was pathetic, the campaign we ran was pathetic, with no radical edge, with disregard for the fantastic heritage that Scotland has shown in the past.

So it’s about trying. Is that going to be easy? Absolutely not.

The jury is still very much out but I think it’s possible, for one reason: because Ed Miliband won the leadership of the party. Had David won the leadership, I think people like myself would have been giving real serious thought to where we go, and I mean that in the historical context.

A wise old Labour MP said to me: ‘Lennie, I’m sick of telling these clowns here’ – he was pointing at New Labour MPs – ‘the Labour Party has no god-given right to exist’.

The Labour Party can only exist if it speaks on behalf of ordinary working people and organised labour. If it stops doing that then its very existence comes into question. Now, David didn’t win – Ed won. He said that he wanted to re-connect with ordinary people, he wanted to get a blank sheet of paper and start to talk to people. In that context, we have an opportunity, that’s all, to talk to him and try to influence him as he constructs his vision for what Labour can offer at the next general election, and he’s still in the process of doing that.

Obviously all kinds of people will criticise him – so I won’t. He’s 41 years of age, comes from a middle-class background, out of university straight into politics. He doesn’t fully understand who we are, the function of trade unions, and perhaps he doesn’t understand our values. He wants to learn.

In Ed’s acceptance speech at conference I shouted ‘Rubbish!’ at him, which was an inappropriate thing for me to do. The emotions just got the better of me – and I’ve spoken to him about it since then.

I told him ‘The rest of your speech was great.’ But it was when he spoke about irresponsible strikes. This is the problem that we have, and the opportunity, because he doesn’t understand, but he wants to, he wants to listen.

I told him he was ill-advised to put that in, because here’s the truth: there is no such thing as an irresponsible strike. I’ve never known any worker who wants to go out on strike. I said ‘I don’t expect you to support strikes but you need to understand that when workers go out on strike it’s because they have a deep sense of grievance and they fear there’s nothing else they can do.’

People understand that workers take strike action when they feel pushed into a corner. And they’re being pushed into a corner by this government, so all fire must be at the government.

Michael Calderbank  Will he learn, and what if he doesn’t?

Len McCluskey  We’ll see. If Labour don’t win the next election then Ed Miliband will be eaten up by the Blairite sharks that have been circling. And then who will become leader? Will Bonnie Prince Charlie return from overseas and David take up the mantle? Because one thing is for certain: as the leader of Unite, I won’t be looking to continue to support a Blairite Mark II Labour Party that’s going to run us into the sand again.

I’m an eternal optimist, and I think we can persuade Ed Miliband what our values are, and we can help him to construct his radical alternative.

Hilary Wainwright  Can you move outside the box, while still remaining affiliated to the party, by putting resources into developing a radical alternative, so you’re trying to change the public climate? Ed’s trapped, but its up to us to create the space into which he can move…

Len McCluskey  Spot on! For example, there is going to be the creation of a new left think-tank – and this is hot off the press – which we suspect will be funded by the unions, and it will be about developing alternative arguments and seeking to establish that our alternatives have intellectual value.

Rather than talking about repeal of the anti-trade union laws, which is the kind of slogan that we’ve been coming out with for thirty years, we need to freshen up our language. I’m interested in talking about fairness in the 21st century.

There’s going to be a new group of Labour MPs formed, which I think will be called ‘Labour Working’ – a group of MPs based on trade union values.

Hilary Wainwright  And the issue of disaffiliation would only arise in the nightmare scenario of the Blairites coming back?

Len McCluskey  I’m still concentrating on taking the party back. When I was travelling round in the general secretary election, I’d put forward my vision and I’d always be met with the same question: ‘That all sounds very well Len, that all sounds great and you obviously feel it has a chance of succeeding, but what happens if it doesn’t?’

And I gave the same answer. Our activists within the union will be the ones who determine whether it has failed, and if it does fail then we might just have to do what our forefathers and foremothers did at the beginning of the last century, which is to sit round the table and discuss where we go next.

I think that’s exactly what will happen – not just in Unite. I don’t want this to be seen as Unite as the ones with all the answers because we haven’t. That’s why I’m speaking to others about setting up an alliance. And if we are going to try to re-influence the Labour party from the grassroots then we have to put resources into that.

Some argue that New Labour cut the arteries and the heart of the Labour Party is no longer there. I’m saying that the resuscitation team has arrived and we’re going to pump something back into it. Is there a guarantee of success? Of course not. But I want to be able to say at the end of my tenure of office that I gave it my best.

Mark Serwotka

Hilary Wainwright  What’s your assessment of 30 June?

Mark Serwotka  It surpassed all of our expectations. Turnouts were the best that we have had, despite the government’s propaganda. Clearly the fact that it was more than one union caught people’s imagination.

I think it has strengthened our hand. It completely wrong-footed the government in terms of the public debate, particularly by putting private sector pensions on the agenda – we want to drive them up, as they’ve been a big scandal for the past 15 years.

At the TUC meeting the following day, all the unions who spoke felt the day of action and what it achieved had put us in a different place. We’re meeting next week to talk about the next wave of action.

Nina Power  In terms of this next wave of action, there has been the student movement, which Len McCluskey and yourself have been very vocal about. Len said that students had put the trade unions on the spot. Now there’s the discussion about a general strike or coordinated action. How do you see things developing?

Mark Serwotka  If any of our public sector counterparts are currently planning a general strike, I’d be overjoyed but I’d be very surprised. But what we are on the verge of is coordinated strike action that will give us the largest strikes that we have seen.

I am pretty optimistic that we will see in the early autumn a strike that was a lot bigger than the one we just had. I’d be very shocked if we got to autumn and we didn’t have a bigger strike than this one. The scale of it is up for discussion though, and a lot of that depends on what happens in the talks in the next few weeks.

The Unite stuff in Southampton is very interesting for the potential that throws up. [You can have] set-piece, periodic national strikes that run to hundreds of thousands or millions, creating political pressure, and rolling targeted action of a sustained level that starts creating real industrial grief. I think the trick is to combine them both.

Hilary Wainwright  So going on to this autumn offensive: what’s your strategy for maintaining the momentum from June 30 for building up towards the autumn?

Mark Serwotka  Our ballot gives us a legal mandate to not just have national strikes but also employer-based actions against cuts without the need for a further ballot. So for us over the summer, I think you will see a quite significant amount of strikes in different departments.

Clearly the big thing is the TUC congress at the start of September. We’ve got an eve-of-TUC event planned in the theatres in the West End, with comedians and political speeches. And we envisage going to the TUC with a resolution, hopefully agreed with other unions, that talks about another wave of coordinated strikes.

Nina Power  You don’t have the same relationship with the Labour party as Unite, but how do you see the Labour leadership and what they have been doing?

Mark Serwotka  I think Miliband was a disgrace. He was so badly advised. If there were negotiations going on, of any merit, I doubt there would have been a strike.

We believe that if he was prepared to put himself in the forefront of campaigning against cuts, it would increase his popularity enormously.

When we talk to Unite and others we understand the affiliated unions are in a different place, and I hope they all start exerting some influence.

We’re going to be doing something very interesting later this year. We are going to ballot our members on the potential for standing candidates ourselves in elections. We reached the conclusion at our conference that after three years of debate, now is the time to consider standing candidates in certain circumstances.

Obviously our aim is not to stand 600 in a general election but to target by-elections or elections where it is clear that all candidates are pro-austerity, privatisation and cuts.

Hilary Wainwright  On what sort of platform? Anti-cuts, pro-alternative?

Mark Serwotka  We would talk to see whether there is anyone in the field, which might take the form of us supporting a local anti-cuts candidate, for example, but we are considering whether we would stand a trade union candidate.

It wouldn’t be under any existing umbrellas, it would be something very different.

Hilary Wainwright  And quite local in a way?

Mark Serwotka  It would be localised, so say if it was in Brighton you wouldn’t be standing against Caroline Lucas, and if it was in Hayes you wouldn’t be standing against John McDonnell.

An example that I used to use was when Pat McFadden was putting the privatisation of the post office through parliament, and in Wolverhampton the likelihood was that all the candidates would have been pro post office privatisation.

But that was under Labour. Now it’s under the Tories, so you have to be a little more careful, a bit more selective in what you do.

Hilary Wainwright  Following the loss of the AV referendum, what do you feel about the fact that PR probably isn’t on the agenda now for some time? Does it make the whole issue of Scotland and Wales more important as the wedge that will lead to a constitutional shake-up?

Mark Serwotka  We supported AV, we put out a yes position. I have to say it was very hard to get enthusiastic about it.

I thought the campaign was appalling. It seemed to be all about Nick Clegg to me. It was a bit of a missed opportunity. We’re for PR, we want PR. When we campaign in Scotland and Wales, it’s very different to the first-past-the-post stuff here.

I think the Scottish situation is fascinating to see what the SNP will do with its majority. And the Welsh Labour government has been at odds with the members in Westminster, so I think there will be lots of ebbs and flows. We had a much more progressive, cooperative approach from the Welsh government when it was Labour/Plaid than we ever had off Gordon Brown.

Nina Power  Do you have a general sense of what on earth you think the government is doing? They’re going for this full-on attack on the welfare state and the public sector, making cuts Thatcher didn’t dare to…

Mark Serwotka  My own take is that there are two things going on. On the one level I think there is a surprising degree of incompetence from the government. They have been forced backwards on issues as variable as the forestry sell off, coastguard station closures and the ‘pause’ on the NHS.

As radical as Thatcher was, you look at what they’re doing now and arguably it’s more radical in terms of shrinking the state, the attack on welfare, the way they’re dealing with education. If you put the whole picture together, it’s extraordinary and they’re doing it all at the same time.

I think their real ideological objective is to have a mass transfer from state to private. That’s what I think the pensions thing is about ultimately.

While the Tories have clearly had to stomach some u-turns, all the right-wing ideologues are coming out to say whatever you do, don’t give anything to the unions. I think that’s because they understand that if you concede to the unions, it’s a whole different kettle of fish than conceding to people who don’t want to sell off forests. That’s why this pensions thing isn’t going to be easy – it’s going to be a huge scrap.

Michael Calderbank  One of the things that PCS has been impressively trying to do is create the mood and the idea that there is an alternative. Where’s your sense of where the public mood is on that big question?

Mark Serwotka  We recognised early on that if you can’t convince people that there’s an alternative, you won’t convince them to fight, because if you think it has got to happen, what’s the point in fighting really?

I think the mood is shifting. For example, I did Question Time. You say ‘no cuts at all’ and everybody there, from Dimbleby to Diane Abbott, is looking at you like you’ve gone off your head. But the audience loved it. I think it’s the unions who are leading the debate.

Michael Calderbank  What about groups like UK Uncut, which have left aside the traditional media and physically occupied spaces?

Mark Serwotka  We work very closely with UK Uncut. We campaigned on tax for three years but it was only when young people went to Topshop and shouted ‘pay your taxes’ that it made front page news.

So it’s a classic example of having to do the graft in terms of research to develop the opportunities, then having the means to turn that into something public. I think there’s lots of scope to do more of that.

Hilary Wainwright  Is there one key lesson in how to challenge the Tory argument?

Mark Serwotka  I think it’s about being very clear that you stand for something different and making what you stand for relevant to a whole range of people.

You can campaign for all sorts – you should be there to defend the forests and the libraries, and then hopefully they will come and join your march when you strike for pensions. It’s creating that real big picture of alliances, and I think we can do that because of the scale of what they’re planning.

To get opinion polls that even went 50-50 on the strike is incredible. The majority of people supported the unions against the government and I think that has got to tell us something.

It comes back to the student point that you made earlier on, because the students lit the touchpaper as far as I’m concerned. We’re carrying on campaigning with youth groups and student groups, UK Uncut and others to try and keep that big alliance together as much as we can. n

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