Len McCluskey’s Officers Conference speech 2018
Good morning, colleagues,
Let me join the Chair in also welcoming you to Birmingham
A city many of you will be seeing a lot more of in the future, when we open our new education and conference centre – in 2019.
It will be a symbol of Unite investing in the future, a strong union in the heart of Britain
I’m going to talk to you today about how to make our union stronger still.
But before I do I want to remind you of just how well we are doing already.
You’ll know some of this – because YOU are the people who deliver it. And let me say straight away that I and our Executive Council thank you for that.
Our purpose as a union is preserving and improving living standards, winning job security, standing up against injustice and inequality at work. That’s what you do day-in, day-out for hundreds of thousands of our members. Without you, most of what we achieve would be left undone.
And we are getting results.
In one area after another, Unite is now leading the labour movement across Britain and Ireland. Everybody looks to Unite – to see what our position is on this or that.
Politically our role is central. We are the strongest voice for workers’ rights, both through the Labour Party and directly with Government
The part we have played in bringing a radical progressive Labour Party to the threshold of power, when most others doubted that this was possible, is a tribute to our political strategy and to the strength of purpose of your Executive Council.
Our influence is acknowledged by all, and feared by our enemies in government and the media. And let no-one say that our political work has nothing to do with our industrial mission.
Just count how many issues you face as negotiators which call for legislation, or demand that the government do something, or stop doing something else.
All of that is politics, and advancing our demands depends very often on having a parliamentary majority and ministers sympathetic to our cause.
It doesn’t mean ignoring the present government – I and senior colleagues can and do have a dialogue with Tory ministers where members’ needs demand it.
I’ve developed a working relationship with various Secretaries of State and will continue to do so.
We will never let partisan politics get in the way of fighting for jobs and investment.
But let me say clearly – Unite is going to be fighting all out for the early general election and Labour victory that can really transform our prospects as a country.
Unite is also leading on the Legal front. As never before are legal work is integrated with our industrial activity to win for our members.
Our legal department has continued to lead the way in defending and establishing rights for workers.
We built on our Holiday Pay success, winning vital litigation to establish that it should not only be compulsory overtime in pay packets for holiday time but also voluntary overtime.
We twice successfully defeated Argos’s High Court challenge to our industrial ballot to start the fight back against the restrictions of the Trade Union Act.
We are the only union to continue the fight for victims of Blacklisting, over 70 new cases being taken not just against the companies but against the individual decision makers in those companies.
In landmark litigation we have established the law that companies who offer pay rises to those who leave a union is unlawful.
In the British Airways dispute we successfully challenged attempts to financially punish those members who took strike action. And we have represented literally thousands of members recovering over £150m in the last year alone as compensation.
Our legal strategy is now integral to our industrial strategy and seen as part of our weaponry in our continued fight on behalf of our members.
And nowhere was that more visible than here in Birmingham when a court injunction prevented Birmingham City Council from reneging on the ACAS deal in our Bins dispute resulting in a deserving victory for public sector members.
Unite Leverage continues to lead the way.
Unite is the first trade union in Britain and Ireland and, probably, Europe to develop serious alternative strategies for crisis campaigns, showing how to win when conventional industrial action is either not possible or not appropriate.
And our leverage campaigns have a 100% success record.
We have put the employers on the back-foot. The CBI has engaged notorious law firm Eversheds to investigate our tactics after the Tories failed to outlaw leverage, as they had hoped for, through the fiasco of the Carr review.
Of course, leverage is not the way forward for every industrial crisis, nor is it an easy option we can turn to in order to avoid difficult struggles. I am the last General Secretary to ever say that strikes are a thing of the past.
Mobilising our members against injustice and employer actions is always our first priority.
But with our Leverage work we have given each and every one of you a new option for when the chips are down.
Unite is growing stronger through mergers too. This year we created for the first time a single union, to all intents and purposes, in the construction industry when UCATT, with its proud history, transferred into Unite.
There is only time to make the briefest reference to some our other achievements: putting Mike Ashley under pressure at Sports Direct – a battle we mean to win;
Our successful fair tips campaign in restaurants and bars,
Our fast-growing community membership initiative,
Our role sustaining the increasingly high-profile left think-tank CLASS,
Our Schools Programme explaining Trade Unions to 15 & 16 year olds, and so much more.
And, of course, our Strike Fund. £36m which has given confidence to so many of our members who have been forced to take strike action.
Many of you have been involved in those strikes and can bear testament to the success that this has brought.
Sending a clear message to companies that we will not let our members be starved back to work.
It has been reported back to me that employers have been induced to reach settlement when faced with a determined and financially supported workforce, sometimes even before action was taken.
So I am not exaggerating or boasting if I say that in Unite, all of us have built a remarkable democratic working-class organisation that you, as our officers, organisers and staff can take pride in.
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But – and there is always a but.
It would be a bit unreal to speak to you – my officer corps and organisers and staff representatives from across our countries – and not acknowledge the damage that was done to the union’s public standing by the General Secretary election last year.
You will appreciate that there is much that I cannot say about that episode at present – but I will in time, the quicker the better.
And I also appreciate that those of you here will have voted, in good faith and as is your absolute right, for any one of the candidates who stood in that election, including myself.
But ALL of us should be alarmed when the work of our union is traduced, when we are painted as a reactionary or useless organisation and when the tawdry techniques of tabloid journalism are imported into our democracy.
And ALL of us suffer when our essential unity of purpose, despite legitimate differences, is pushed to breaking point by tactics of fear and smear.
The Unite that was portrayed in the press during that campaign was not the Unite we all know and work for.
And it will be up to our Executive Council to find ways, consistent with our rules and the obligations of democracy and free speech, to ensure that in the future our elections are a credit to the union and not used as a political football by those who seek to use and abuse us for their own agenda.
We owe it to our members and each other to always act with respect and decency, never letting ambition prevail over the common interest.
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As I said, we are above all, an industrial organisation. Our agenda today is about how we become a larger, stronger industrial organisation.
That’s a familiar issue of course, beset with familiar problems.
But from today we have to re-focus our efforts on membership numbers.
We need to end the mind-set that a gentle slippage in membership is either inevitable or, at any event, acceptable.
And an end to the reasons for pressure on membership figures – and there are plenty, which I will come to – becoming excuses for a smaller Unite.
I know – we all know – the problems. Nobody knows them better than you. It’s time, past time, that we turned to solutions.
Our membership total is not just a matter for the Organising Department.
Not just a matter for our retention call centre.
Not just a matter for Regional Secretaries.
All have a part to play, of course.
But so does each and every one of you.
I want you all to embrace a sense of personal responsibility to grow Unite.
Yes, you will tell me of the problems, in your allocation, your sector, your region.
And I will tell you what we are going to do centrally to support you in your work.
But this can’t become a game of ping-pong or pass the parcel.
We all have to do our bit, take responsibility and commit ourselves to building a bigger Unite – not at some point in the indefinite future, but here and now in 2018.
There is a bottom line, and let me spell it out before going into some of the hows and whats.
That is, that I want Unite to be 5% larger – net, and I emphasise that word, net – by this time next year.
I can hear you ask where does the 5 per cent figure come from? Why not 10 per cent or 71/2 per cent or 21/2 per cent?
Colleagues, it’s about creating a mind-set so that all of the great work that you do, doesn’t obscure the essential need to keep our eyes fixated on our membership now.
It’s a difficult target. It is a stretch. But it is doable.
If you tell me that you are already giving 100 per cent – and I know that many of you are – then I am saying. Going forward, let’s make it 105 per cent.
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So let’s discuss the problems and how we overcome them, not just register the problems and go on as before.
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Seven years ago when I first became General Secretary, we were faced with a £50m deficit in our accounts and a £200m deficit in the pension fund.
If we hadn’t have done anything then none of us would be here now – we would have gone bust. I wasn’t going to allow that to happen, even though the challenges were huge.
We overcame those challenges despite a recession that we have all lived with since then.
And, of course, we are not going for growth now in a vacuum. We do so in an economic situation of great turbulence, pressing in on our union and our members at every turn.
In one sector after another, the threat of job cuts is a reality we’re having to deal with.
In the public services this is directly driven by the government, with its endless cuts affecting local authorities, the NHS and other vital provisions.
Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour has served notice on austerity. But there is yet little sign that the government has got the message.
And the jobs crisis spreads far wider – the steel industry, car plants like the Vauxhall factories sold to PSA, Bombardier and BAE Systems in aerospace, Monarch airlines, and across the financial services industry.
In all these areas, you are having to put the fight for jobs first, sometimes with some success in what is after all, the most difficult struggle we have to address.
So the fight for a bigger union starts there – in winning the arguments with employers and government to save the jobs of our existing membership.
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On Brexit, Unite’s position was clear. We supported Remain in the referendum. Not because we were starry-eyed about the EU or its workings, but because we believed – rightly – that access to the single market is vital to so many jobs.
Moreover, we acknowledged that some of the workers’ and social rights we depend on have come from EU legislation.
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Along with most of the labour movement we lost that argument, and we accept the democratic result.
But every anxiety we had has only been increased by the Tory conduct of the Brexit negotiations since.
It’s now clear that due to the government’s divisions and bungling, and under pressure from its extreme right elements, there remains a danger of Britain crashing out of the EU without any sort of continuing trade agreement.
This raises real danger for our members’ jobs and many more, with the manufacturing sectors and finance being probably the most vulnerable.
That is why we support Labour’s constructive approach, which includes staying within the single market and customs union for up to four years, allowing time for mature negotiations to yield an agreement which can give British-based industries the maximum possible tariff-free access to the single market.
And that’s why we have championed proper labour market regulation as the way to deal with concerns about the free movement of labour in many industrial areas.
And that way we can protect the right to work at decent rate of pay for all workers in Britain.
Changing the race to the bottom culture to a rate for the job society.
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The final industrial problem impacting on membership growth that I want to raise is the issue of automation.
In the hands of uncontrolled big business, the rapid development of automation is a threat to jobs and wages.
But in the right hands – put to work for the benefit of society as a whole – robots and robotics could be the gateway to a better work-life balance and a more fulfilling society for millions.
The pace of change is astonishing. Lives are increasingly conducted digitally, which is why we need to adapt to engage with our members not just in their workplaces where they find the face of their union reassuring, but online too, especially for workers who are not organised.
Here, Unite has taken the lead, looking to safeguard the future of your jobs and communities, and indeed our whole society.
We have delivered advice for negotiators and discussion with Shop Stewards, the first union in Britain or Ireland to do so, probably since 1979.
And, we have looked to develop a credible strategy, mapping out short and long term industrial and political responses.
This feeds into the need for the government to step up to the plate on the industrial strategy – there are areas where the UK can be world leaders, with political will and government investment (renewables, battery tech), are just a couple of examples.
The bottom line here – we can’t trust the people who crashed the banks with controlling robots.
Automation must be socially controlled and planned so its benefits can be reaped by society as a whole
So on Brexit and on automation, Unite is taking an integrated political and industrial approach to deal with the dangers, stretching from creative workplace bargaining on the problems up to lobbying politicians nationally for an enlightened, jobs-first approach.
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But I want to focus now on how we are going to not just protect against the head-winds of the future, but change the way we operate in the here-and-now.
In planning for growing our union, we are not starting from scratch of course. Unite has now a wealth of experience to draw on over the last ten years.
Organising workers is at the front and centre of what we all do. It lies at the very heart of delivering growth and power.
We should all be proud that unions from other countries want to learn from our strategy, from the giant IG Metall in Germany to the Brazilian Workers Party, our organising strategy has been the source of inspiration to many.
Over twenty countries have come to learn our methods from us.
But for very good reasons, our Organising Department was diverted onto other campaigns – including leverage – in recent times.
Now it’s refocussing on the Sector Organising which remains critical to our future.
The Organising Department is picking up once more on that, with new campaigns focussed on the economic infrastructure of the country.
And you will all be familiar with the 100 per cent campaign
You have proven already that 100% UNITE delivers:
Over 400,000 new joiners in 6 years – thousands of new members coming into our Union every year.
And data has shown that 100% campaigns retain members better and help sustain our Union.
So we’re not tearing up those methods which have been proven to work, but looking to extend and entrench them.
This began with the introduction of ‘Work, Voice and Pay’ our Union’s Broad Industrial Strategy.
We have advanced further with industrial guides and template agreements, offering bargaining advice and support to Officers and activists.
We have been collecting industrial data on pay and negotiations on a huge scale – a first for a major trade union in Europe.
Already a staggering 29,000 reps have accessed information.
And together, we’re going to take it forward again – a Broad Industrial Strategy encompassing the whole Union – every officer, every workplace, the entire allocation.
We have 28,000 recognised workplaces. We need to:
- Identify opportunities for growth;
- Build and develop our shop steward structures.
- And make them ready to fight, when necessary.
And unleash our growth potential everywhere
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Then there’s the huge potential for growth from workplaces where we have members but are as yet unrecognised.
Unite has over 21,000 workplaces where we have five or more members but have no recognition.
They will either remain as ‘under cutters’, a threat to our members’ pay and conditions, or become part of Unite as newly unionised workplaces – a big challenge but an important one to win.
As you have already been told by Sharon Graham in your regions, every Officer will now have a plan for growth, but this will be met by increased support for bargaining, including:
- A digital pay claim generator that will allow you to produce professional pay claims in minutes.
- Monthly bargaining updates for each Unite sector.
- Practical assistance on targeted pay campaigns and bitesize, online training for your shop stewards.
You will all be aware of the scourge of non-permanent employment, whether zero hours, Agency Labour, bogus self-employment and the so-called gig economy. We will be analysing and examining how we can sensibly invest in extending Trade Unionism into these areas.
All this adds up to an ambitious plan. And its delivery depends on YOU.
In the workplaces, in your allocations, of course, but also in the companies and industrial sectors you cover more generally – identifying targets, working out strategies to extend our membership in your own industries.
But we’re not just going to say ‘here you are, get on with it.’ Centrally, we are working on new ways to support all our officers in the vital work that you do, and new ways to grow membership.
The year or two ahead will see the digital renewal of Unite.
The key thing is finding out what you need, and how can it be delivered more swiftly, efficiently and accessibly with the aid of new technology.
We will reorganise some of our central departments, eliminating unproductive functions, re-training employees, re-focussing on the industrial sharp end, using the capacities of digital technology to the full.
We will be looking at how minutely-targeted advertising on social media can reach the workers we need to convince to join Unite.
We will respond to your concerns about individual representation by driving forward the need for Branches to take more responsibility for representing those individual members through the usage of Accredited Reps, in order to release the growing burden on Officers.
We will continue to invest in retention initiatives, including targeting members approaching retirement age. And we are giving the regions new authority over community membership in order to drive growth there too.
Community membership has won the union great kudos throughout the labour movement – never more than in their campaigning around the terrible Grenfell Tower tragedy
But now each region should aim – with central support – to double its number of community members this year, as part of the five percent target.
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Colleagues, I know that I ask you to do all of this on top of the many other requirements and challenges that emerge in your jobs.
Mental health becoming an increasing issue for members that you have to deal with.
Advancing our Equality Agenda and recognising the importance of issues such as Unconscious Bias.
And as you know we will be doing all this at a time of financial stringency. The Executive Council has agreed not to put up membership subscription rates this year, in order not to place any difficulties in the way of going for growth.
So we are not going to be in a position to fling money at this problem. It’s a matter of working smarter, even harder and more effectively to build our union
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I have told you what we have achieved in Unite already.
Just think what our union could be like with more members; 10, 20 per cent more.
Our influence would grow from the workplace to Westminster, from the grassroots to the boardrooms.
That’s not just desirable. It is vital. Vital for millions of working people to enjoy better lives. To end this decade-long pay slump. To tackle growing inequality in our society.
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We know great changes are on their way in our country. A progressive Labour Party is advancing, and a weak and incompetent Tory government is disintegrating.
People in Britain – and Ireland too – are sick of cuts in public services and stagnant wages while tax cheats go unpunished.
They want a different society, an end to the situation where a decent secure job and a place to live are unobtainable for millions.
But we know that those changes will never be achieved by government alone, even a progressive Labour one.
Society cannot be transformed solely from the top.
Stronger trade unions are vital.
Not as an add-on to government, but as the very foundation of a more equal country.
What we achieve in the workplace can do as much to make our countries better places to live in as almost any decree from Whitehall.
So, let’s do it, together! It’s time to grow!
I believe in you. I know what you’re capable of.
History teaches us that working people only prosper when trade unions are powerful.
So let’s go forward determined to play our full part in changing Britain and Ireland for the better.
By building a larger, stronger Unite ready to put its full weight in the scales on the side of justice.
For the many not the few.
Thanks for listening.
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