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Unite stands up for working people

Unite | Unite

7 min read Partner content

Political Director of Unite Jennie Formby responds to Michael Dugher's claims that unions are not working for working people.

Timing is everything in politics.

So when Michael Dugher chose the eve of Labour party conference to raise questions in the pages of The House magazineover Len McCluskey's leadership of Unite, something was afoot.

The truth is that Ed Miliband and Len McCluskey represent different constituencies; Ed’s task is to win the next election; Len’s responsibility is to promote the interests of our 1.4m members.

But with lazy headlines in the Tory press guaranteed, Michael could congratulate himself that he was the `tough guy’, he was the one to take on the `enemy within’.

Come on, is this really what our party needs? Old style politics of the dividing lines where MPs define themselves against people and policies from within our movement? Didn’t Ed himself say that those days were long gone?

At the time we in Unite resisted the invitation to lock horns preferring to allow conference to proceed without confected debates cooked up to advance someone’s ambition.

However, with conference passed and Ed Miliband asserting a new tone for our politics, we need to return to Dugher’s outburst. We need to because his actions unpick the common agreement that divisive debates are unhelpful to the Party. And because he is wrong, stupendously wrong.

In claiming that our union members may consider Unite to be too political - straight from the Eric Pickles textbook where union membership should only be a workplace transaction - Dugher, those greedily-sought right wing headlines in the bag, exposed a seriously poor grasp of the drive, collectivism and democracy that serve our movement proudly.

Let’s say it again for it clearly needs it: the decision that unions would try to make life – and all aspects of life – better for their members was not taken one day by Len McCluskey.

That decision was taken over 100 years ago by our forefathers and foremothers. When trade unions first started out, gaining successes industrially, they soon came across opposition to their cause in parliament. That’s why trade unions got organised and that’s why we created the Labour Party.

Strangely Dugher was moved to ask “do I see my union campaigning for working people?” Our General Secretary has always been absolutely clear; he is leading a fighting back trade union that is always on the side of working people. Since Len became General Secretary, Unite has not repudiated strike action, and has always supported the democratic decision of our members.
In this last month alone, Unite has made serious progress industrially, securing a recognition agreement at BA, resolving an on-going dispute with Crossrail over blacklisting as well working constructively to bring aerospace and automotive jobs to Britain.

Michael must also have missed the wall-to-wall coverage of Unite’s campaign to defend workers on zero hours contracts – again shaping the national debate, not following it - only the week before his outburst. Or our work to save ambulance services in Yorkshire, or to stop the loan sharks that prey on the poor. I could go on.

Just when Ed Miliband is hoping hundreds of thousands of union members will individually commit to Labour, Michael Dugher – described as his “attack dog” – asserts that our members think there’s too much politics. Can he not see the contradiction in this?

Self-styled ‘humble member’ of our union, Michael Dugher used to work for Amicus before the merger that led to the creation of Unite. A loyal bag carrier to Ken Jackson in the AEEU, Blair’s favourite trade union leader, he has been developing an image as a political fixer in the union movement for decades, perhaps over-inflating his role. Certainly his career path explains why he now has a tin ear for our movement today. After leaving Amicus, he entered a succession of jobs first working as a special adviser to Stephen Byers, longtime plotter and avowed critic of the Labour/union link. After Byers left office, Dugher ended up working for Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, finally ending up as the replacement to Damian McBride as the spin doctor to Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Michael's eventual selection in Barnsley was no accident either, supported as it was by the Amicus “union machine”. We don’t remember him raising concerns over his union’s influence in politics at that time.

We’re also happy to talk about Cuba, Colombia and Nicaragua. In fact, we're determined to. You see, it matters to us that if Labour Party conference had taken place in Colombia this year, two-thirds of our delegates would have feared for their lives, just because of their trade union activity. It also matters to us that the injustice of the US blockade against Cuba remains in place defying international law, and that four innocent men remain locked up in American gaols.

Michael’s criticism of global involvement is distinctly selective. His constituents, I am sure, would much rather he was working on issues relating to Barnsley than spending his time on four trips to Israel or his trips to India, Washington and Paris - all since his election to Parliament three years ago. Perhaps Michael is more of an international socialist than he lets on - or maybe he just wants to support the British air travel industry.

Disappointingly for someone who purports to being that `humble member’, Michael talks about the last Labour government delivering the “biggest set of employment rights, trade union rights that any government has ever delivered in the whole of history”.

But Blair proudly boasted that his government kept in place the most restrictive anti-trade union laws in Europe. As Michael well knows the vast majority of the 42 laws he cites were forced onto the last Labour government by European legislation.

We refuse, too, to take any lessons from him about the “hard yards” of organising and recruiting. Our team of 90 dedicated organisers has spent six years working to spread trade unionism to new companies and workplaces, many hostile to organised labour. And forgive me while I gasp, because Michael's time at Amicus is not exactly marked out as one of him travelling the country to meet members in need unless they were residing in his home county of Yorkshire.

If Michael looked locally, he could see our community work in action. In his own constituency, Barnsley, our community centre is helping to organise the retired and the young alike, too often forgotten by party politics. We are in his community fighting on behalf of the vulnerable on issues like the bedroom tax and benefit changes. There is no way the Labour Party would have promised reversal of the bedroom tax if it wasn’t for campaigners in Unite and other unions working with campaigning newspapers like the Sunday People.
And as for being “well versed” in spotting potential PR nightmares, a “communications fixer” and in charge of “media strategy”, well these talents deserted him when it came to Falkirk.

On 9 July, Michael Dugher took to national television to say that in his 22 years in politics, he had never seen such abuses. Clearly, he had not seen anything because there was nothing to see - as Police Scotland and the Party itself have established. Michael needs to explain his motives for that intervention truthfully because from where Unite members are standing it looked that he was a man on the make, proving his virility to his leader in advance of a reshuffle.

His fabled `judgement’ allowed a situation to unfold which embarrassed and damaged the Leader of the party. Some fixing, some strategist.
Thanks to those who, like Michael, saw a chance to fray the relationship between the party and the unions as too good to resist, innocent people have had their lives destroyed and one man now faces losing his job. Those who fuelled media hysteria put personal ambition before the truth and certainly before the needs of our party.

Lastly, there was the tired, dismissive rejection of “the marches with banners flying around towns and cities”. We in Unite have to ask, on whose behalf does Michael speak? Certainly not the nurses, street cleaners, youth workers and young unemployed we have been proud to stand with in their fight for a better future.

Dugher says that history will judge unions “pretty badly”. If he represents what is now called a rising star in the Party, history will judge all of us badly.

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