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Rank and file trade unionism: looking back at the Gerry Hicks campaign

John McAnulty

10 January 2011

The UNITE election for general secretary ended in November, with the election of the broad left candidate Len McCluskey and with the rank and file candidate, Jerry Hicks, mounting a significant challenge and coming second. The election divided the socialist movement in both Ireland and Britain and was a sharp test of two alternative approaches. One approach, McCluskey's, was based on uniting as wide a range of people as possible, with a special concentration on capturing control of the trade union apparatus. The alternative approach by Jerry Hicks called for rank and file organization across union boundaries and in opposition to the collaboration of the trade union leaderships, so it is worthwhile to review the campaigns and the result.

At first sight the conclusion seems uncontentious.  McCluskey had the majority support within the structures of the union. Much of Jerry Hicks support was based on a loose network of activists. The majority of the socialist movement supported McCluskey. On election he issued a call for a united movement of resistance against the cuts while Jerry Hicks is involved in a process of consultation with his supporters.

Yet when one reads McCluskey's call for resistance one quickly has reason to doubt. It is in fact not a declaration of action but a call for others to act - the students, the right of the trade union bureaucracy, community groups. It is full of the usual bushwah of the left bureaucrat, with daft appeals to the Labour party to stay left and attempts to justify his support for Ed Milliband, even though he has already kicked the unions in the teeth.

McCluskey has announced that Tony Woodley is stepping down as joint general secretary and will become special official with the task of resolving the British Airways dispute. Anyone with knowledge of Woodley's role to date in that dispute will be aware of the slap in the face this represents for the BA workers and the way in which it takes McCluskey out of the line of fire in further sellouts.

Part of the consecration of McCluskey is his blindness to the role of senior officers in the union, despite claims of the most outrageous corruption. Those who support the left bureaucrats find it is a short step to silence about the crimes of the right.

If it is unclear what McCluskey will do, it is crystal clear what he will not do. He declares that he will not move ahead of his members and that he would not put the resources of the union at risk. So we are being presented with a typical bureaucratic campaign. There will be no industrial action and responsibility for the campaign will shift to the community and to lobbying groups with the bureaucrats striking left poses and bemoaning the weakness of the movement. The British government are well aware of the falsity of this position and responded to the UNITE statement by indicating that they would further attack the right to strike and the legal responsibilities of the bureaucracy at the first sign of any serious opposition.

On the other hand the Jerry Hicks campaign was firmly based on the self organization of the workers across different unions. His power base rested in factory committees, branches, some left groups and ad-hoc groups of individuals. This gave the campaign vitality and an early lead in the vote - a lead extinguished when the union machine swung into action.

During his Irish tour Jerry was active in three environments. 

He was able, on the basis of his candidacy, to enter directly into workplaces, where he was met enthusiastically by the workers and given a mixed reception by conveners.

Public meetings attracted a mixture of trade unionists and socialists. The socialist groups were quite confused. Some gave all-out support for Len McCluskey. Others said they supported Jerry, while advancing the arguments of the McCluskey camp.

By far the most significant meetings were with organised groups of workers in the workplace. The main example of this was among UNITE bus workers, who gave overwhelming support for Jerry and roundly condemned what they described as routine corruption of the union officers who were self-styled lefts. The majority of the socialist movement came out badly, tied tightly to sections of the trade union bureaucracy.

The fundamental argument for the broad left approach is a fundamental pessimism about the working class. It is impossible to mobilize the working class, so the centre of action moves to trade union structures, to community groups and to electoral campaigns.  The UNITE election shows that victory a la McCluskey is not worth having. It leaves you linked to the union right, to Social Democracy and to a policy of posturing and collaboration.

The triumph of the Hicks campaign was that it demonstrated that it is possible to mobilise workers and win support for rank and file fightback. There are many weaknesses. Workers agreed with Jerry, were willing to vote for him and willing to organise an election campaign. The necessity for a more general mobilisation or to organize across union boundaries was not so clearly understood and indicates how much work still needs to be done.  In any case, enough has been already achieved for Jerry Hicks to announce a rank and file slate for UNITE National Executive Committee elections.

Above all, the difference between the McCluskey and Hicks campaign is a political difference. When Len McCluskey says that there is an alternative to austerity he means there is a better, fairer way. The workers should pay for the banks, but take longer with some Keynesian measures that appear to lessen the pain. By an alternative Jerry Hicks means that workers should repudiate bank debt and fight tooth and nail against all the steps to make them pay in jobs, wages and services. 

That requires the self-organization of the workers, acting on their own behalf. It is to Jerry Hicks credit that he has demonstrated that this possibility can be made a reality, and that changes the whole equation in the interest of the workers.


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