United Left Scotland invited the three left candidates standing in the General Secretary election to answer 17 questions.
Steve Turner, our United Left candidate, was the only one to do so.
See the questions and Steve’s full and frank answers below
- What would you do to rebuild the union at grassroots so that it can fight more effectively? Increase membership, increase the number of workplace reps?
This is covered in my ‘charter for change’ where I put forward ideas to bring about a renewed confidence in our reps and members. I will introduce a new ‘Workplace Development and Innovation Programme’ to rebuild our branch and workplace organisation and ensure that organising support is where we need it, when we need it. I understand that growing our union is key but so is being strategic about it. Positioning ourselves in a changing economy and being relevant to new groups of workers in digital, care, community and gig sectors and developing new organising models to reach out to ‘difficult groups to organise’ is central to my plan, as is examining opportunities to merge with industrially strategic allies and grow our membership in existing Unite workplaces.
I will invest in our education programme for reps and officers to develop their skills, knowledge and confidence to protect the jobs of today and ensure we win the battle to shape the future of work, meeting the challenges of automation and climate change head on. I’ll establish an ‘industrial strategy and green transition team’ to assist our reps, officers and sectors to develop the case and win the argument for investment and a workers transition to a greener economy. We will leave no worker, family or community behind on our journey.
2. Under what circumstances would you consider defying anti-union laws to protect the interests of Unite members?
We contest bad legislation politically, all anti-union legislation should be opposed, repealed and replaced with a positive programme. A good starting point for that is the manifesto of the Institute of Employment Rights. This however requires a positive programme from a sympathetic government and we have neither right now.
Industrial resistance is ultimately where trade union strength lies and ultimately this is a question of power, organisation and confidence. Our entire history is one of struggle to achieve political, social and economic justice, human and workers’ rights. At stages in our history we have had to take direct actions outside the law of the day in order to secure the changes to it we demand. Laws are rarely written in our interests, courts are not designed to rule in our favour and ultimately can be changed by the next incumbents.
We should never sit back and outsource our responsibilities to a third party to act on our behalf, whether politicians or lawyers, it’s our role to lead our members on this journey. Collective bargaining is our settlement of choice and industrial action our weapon. If prevented from taking that action, not on a whim or negligently walking into a trap, but with a plan and an alliance of powerful industrial groups, we’ll have to do what is necessary to win.
3. If elected, will you ensure UNITE conduct the promised investigation into blacklisting of UNITE members by employees of our predecessor unions?
Yes. My opposition to blacklisting is absolute and we need a thorough investigation, especially given the recent comments by Norman Tebbit that reveal a definite link between undercover police officers, the government, unions, employers, and the blacklisting of construction workers.
We also need to address procurement policies to ensure that contracts using public funds for public works are not handed to blacklisting firms. Contracts also need to be written in a manner that excludes those firms who restrict or prevent TU organisation on their sites. Their use of bogus self-employment also needs to be fought and exposed for what it is, lump labour by the back door, and public procurement contracts should ban this.
- If you were a UNITE member working in the NHS in Scotland, would you vote for or against the Scottish Government’s offer of a 4% pay rise, and why?
I’m not working in the NHS in Scotland and so the decision is not mine.
Personally however, while I know it compares well to the 1% offered in England health workers, like workers across our public services, have faced a decade of ideological austerity, real cuts to pay and the devastation of local services. The pay cut is nearer 14% so on that basis it’s not enough.
2. What should UNITE learn from the union recognition ballot defeat at Amazon in the USA?
US unions have fought a long battle over the course of their history against anti-union activity, union busting and state opposition, often violent. The Alabama campaign has again seen the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which led the struggle for recognition, accuse Amazon of interfering with the right of employees to vote in a “free and fair election”, of lying to staff about the implications of the vote in both mandatory meetings and one to one discussions, as well as insisting that the postal service install a mailbox on company grounds in an effort to monitor the vote.
Amazon will do here, as they do everywhere, whatever they can to remain anti-union. They will attempt to make union supporters feel insecure, workers believe their jobs are threatened, that promotions will be declined and maybe even sack anyone they believe is an organiser for the union.
So, we need to do the opposite. We’ve beaten union busters before and we can do it again. Our culture is very different here as is our legal framework. We need to tread carefully and work with the workers themselves to identify what’s really an issue for them that together we may be able to address. It’s standard organising methods, while using reputational damage as a threat. Although most of us are using amazon so this may be difficult.
On line shopping is destroying our High Streets so alliances can be built. We also have the other parcels companies in membership of course, TNT, FedEx, UPS and a good relationship with the CWU in the post office so a joint union approach (with the GMB that already have some members), identifying what union membership has actually delivered from a practical point of view, may assist in building workers confidence. That is what my ‘Charter for Change’ is all about – creating a confident and successful union as part of a bigger movement that workers will trust.
3. How do we improve trade union militancy in Local Government and the Health Service and more effective co-operation between Unite and other unions in these sectors?
The answer to this can also be found in the ‘Charter for Change’, to me militancy is all political awareness and effective, confident grass roots trade unionism. You can’t make people feel angry and expect them to act on that anger, unless they feel strong and confident in themselves and their union. When working people are confident and well organised, anything is possible, including working effectively with other unions. In joint union environments unions are too often played off against each other, there are often different priorities from competing groups and the politics of leaderships to contend with.
Securing a common claim or agreeing a course of action to win a claim, can be difficult. This is of course, the only way we are going to develop effective strategies to win. Building grass roots activism across the unions, with combines and joint stewards committees developing a common lay agenda is key to this. Without unity of purpose on the ground it’s difficult to bring leaderships into line.
- INEOS in Grangemouth is one of the most significant industrial plants in Scotland.
The UNITE members are the start of a series of supply chains affecting many industries that gives them considerable power. How could that power have been better utilised by the UNITE National Leadership to avoid the defeat in 2013 which has greatly reduced the union’s bargaining power elsewhere?
I never think it helpful to comment on disputes you weren’t involved in personally from the comfort of an armchair somewhere else, so I’ll politely decline to comment here.
I am sure that the workforce at the time had many challenges, fears and concerns going through their minds, as did their families and communities when the very future of the plant was threatened by Ratcliffe. This disgraceful act of vengeance, from the luxury of his boat in the Mediterranean was I’m sure, a critical point in the dispute. The only thing I will say is that there are many battles in a war, the trick I’ve always believed, is to maintain trust, motivation and confidence in your troops at each stage.
On the wider issue of supply chains you raise I agree, that’s why I worked at developing the industrial hub programme along with our colleagues in the International Transport Workers’ Federation. The programme brings together workers across sectors and unions in a geographical or industrial hub to develop a broader union organisation beyond the workplace. It enables workers to see their position in the supply chain and the vulnerabilities they can exploit as a result. This is a key programme that I want to develop further as general secretary.
RELATIONSHIP WITH THE LABOUR PARTY
- Given the apparent poor relationship between the current General Secretary and the Labour Party’s leader. What would you do to rebuild UNITE influence in the party at every level ensuring it properly reflects the interests of our members?
I have been open about my disappointment with the way the leader has led our party over his first year, both politically allowing the government a near free hand during the deepest crisis to face our nations in peacetime, and internally within the party. My opposition to the culture of censure and the closure of debate, rolling back of internal democracy and the suspension of activists is well documented. The way many activists have been treated is disgraceful as has been the treatment of Jeremy Corbyn, including his removal from the PLP. All of this needs to be sorted and put right very quickly if we’re to end a very damaging ‘war of attrition’ developing up in our party alongside a mass exodus of members. People don’t vote for parties at war with themselves.
I’ve been here before however, both in the 1980’s and 1990’s and have never left our party. Labour is about more than a leader, it’s a collective and union are at its heart. It’s our responsibility to organise with the CLP’s to protect and advance our interests, our values and policies at every level.
As I’ve said on numerous occasions, now’s not the time to hang up our gloves but to put them on and get in the ring, and that’s exactly what I intend to do.
I want our voice to be heard and respected, we rightly demand a seat at the table, it’s our movement that is Labour, it’s our voice, our life experiences, that keeps Labours feet on the ground.
Our political strategy is being reviewed and I support that, we need our party at every level to look, sound and feel like us but equally we can’t have the influence we demand unless we are active, and that means at constituency level as well as regionally and nationally. It’s a job for all of us.
2. Do you think the affiliation fee that UNITE pays to the Labour Party should be maintained at the current level, increased, or cut and if so why?
If Unite wants an effective Labour Party and a Party that leans on the organised working class, not rich donors, then we need to make sure it’s properly funded. The fee is set by the party itself so it’s really a question of how many members do we affiliate.
That’s a question for our executive council and my own view is that it’s not cuts to Labour’s funding that will help it recover or get us a seat at the table with influence. If the attacks on members and constituencies continue however, we will have to think about other ways of influencing the party and that will be a difficult conversation. In Scotland of course, recovery is absolutely essential, not just for the Scottish Party but the party as a whole.
3. What should the relationship between the union and Labour Party be and what if any changes would you make to the current arrangements.
I’ve answered that above but let me just add that I think closing the community organising section was a mistake. Now more than ever we need to be connecting with our communities, winning our programme for change and inspiring people with a distinct vision of a better, fairer society.
I want us to get out and campaign, from Westminster to Holyrood in every community, which is why I am so active in the People’s Assembly where I’ve been the national chair since we first established it. We’ve got to engage with ordinary people and win the argument with them, take them on our journey towards a fairer society.
Given the situation we’re in, Keir needs to step up to the plate, but in the end he’s the leader party members voted for and I’m a democrat – running to be general secretary of our union, not leader of the labour party – as well as being a socialist. Never forget that our party is a collective, leadership is important of course but it’s our collective endeavours that built our party and it’ll be us working together that will bring us back to victory.
INTERNAL DEMOCRACY WITHIN UNITE
- In the last three General Secretary elections participation has declined. Most recently it was only 12%. What would you do to increase members engagement and participation and raise the turnout in our elections?
There are many issues in this question from postal voting to the relationship between the centre and our members on the ground.
For the vast majority of our members their union is our shop steward in the workplace and the more distant you are the more irrelevant you are to them. That’s wrong of course, having worked under revious many general secretaries I know how important having a left, supportive, innovative and listening general secretary is.
So much of what we do at a local level; the services we offer, the education and resources we provide, the values and vision we share, are determined centrally. Not all by the general secretary of course, we have collective leadership, but the position is key to enabling that debate to take place, to bringing together a national leadership team, to decentralising what can and should be done at a local level.
Being open and available, visiting and listening to our members is something I look forward to doing and I think will go a long way towards opening up the role of general secretary.
2. Would you support calls for electronic voting?
Yes! The legal requirement to ballot by post is archaic and unjustified and goes a long way to answering the low turnout question below.
3. Should we have STV in elections and not the first past post?
I’m looking forward to an interesting discussion on this question. Right now its first past the post.
4. The UNITE Rules Conference increased the number of branch nominations required to stand for election as General Secretary from 50 to 5% of all branches (100+). Do you agree with this and do you think it helps or hinders debate and increased membership involvement?
Firstly, our members decided to change the criteria for GS nominations at the last rules conference and it’s their decision. For 39 years in our union I’ve been a very proud champion of lay member democracy and control of our union. From a personal point of view I support the change. I think if you want to stand for the position of general secretary you should be able to demonstrate broad support from across the union’s regions and sectors; an election will cost us over £1 million after all.
Every branch, and distinct workplace over 50 without a workplace branch, can meet to nominate a candidate and historically some 1500 have done so. A 5% target is 174 so not overly challenging if you have support for your vision. A mixture of online, hybrid and physical meetings will take place during the nominations and this will offer the opportunity to those who want to participate to do so.
An election is healthy for democracy, and I’m sure there will be an election on this occasion, that’s where the real discussion and debate will take place amongst our members with a real choice to make. Covid and the fear and anxiety stemming from it will impact on physical meetings but on-line rallies have opened up our democracy to many who would never have been able to attend a physical meeting. Participation has been greater in my experience during this election to-date than on previous occasions and that’s something we should both encourage and celebrate.
5. Do you think UNITE officers should have a role to play in the selection of lay members for election to lay office, and in any election campaigns in support of those members?
think where officers are members of our union they have a right to a say in their own branches just as any other member has, I have personally however, along with many officers, never voted in any of our UL meetings for candidates for any lay office, I think that’s wrong. Our union is a lay member democracy and lay members should determine who their candidates are for their sectors and regions as much as they do their stewards and branch officers. This is also the case for the executive council.
In the left we rightly in my view, encourage officer participation, not dominance. We are stronger as a team and as a left when we come together and we all bring ideas and experiences we can learn from. Leadership, accountability and decision making however should be for the members themselves to determine.
6. If FTO’s are to properly serve members does that mean they should not vote in factional meetings?
As above, I don’t believe that officers should vote in meetings for lay member elections to lay office, other than within their own branch meeting.
7. What lessons, if any, do you draw for Unite from the Monaghan Report on the GMB, which found a culture of cronyism, sexism, and top-down bureaucratic control?
The deep-rooted culture identified in your question and confirmed by the Monaghan Report was shocking and troubling to us all. I found the extent and nature of the findings and conclusions of the report deeply disturbing. My thoughts are with the victims.
It was right that the GMB sought outside assistance and I hope they put in place appropriate measures to fully address the issues identified. I’ve read the report carefully and if successful in becoming general secretary will continue to provide an open, respectful and safe environment for employees and members alike. I am very clear that there’s no place in our union for bullying, intimidation, discrimination, abuse or cronyism and neither is there a place in our union for anyone who may advocate such a culture.
CONSTITUTIONAL ISSUES RE SCOTLAND
a. If pro-independence parties win most seats in the elections in May, should UNITE regard that as a mandate for a second referendum, even in the absence of a Section 30 order by Westminster?
It’s my view that the future of Scotland can only be decided by the people of Scotland. I would be guided in my own comments by the view of our Scottish members and I’m aware of recent STUC congress decision that Holyrood should have the power to hold a referendum on Scotland’s future and should not need the consent of Boris Johnson and the UK Government. Neither should the UK Government resist a second vote if a majority of pro-independence MSPs are elected to Holyrood on 6th May.
My personal view is that as a socialist, I believe in self-determination but I don’t believe that nationalism benefits working class people. Our challenges are great and our priorities should be to create economic, social and political change in the interests of working people and our communities. Right now as we recover and rebuild from the pandemic looking after our people should take priority over constitutional issues. It is worth pointing out though, that the STUC also said that MSPs must prioritise recovery from the pandemic over constitutional issues.
I’ll be guided by our members in Scotland if a referendum becomes an actual proposition, including, the option for devo-max.
b. Should the power to call a referendum on Scottish independence be devolved from Westminster to Holyrood?
One of the interesting things that came out of the STUC was the comments of Roz Foyer, General Secretary, when she made it clear that any future referendum need not be confined to a binary choice. A third option could, in my opinion, include the power to hold referendums as well as a range of new powers, including much improved borrowing powers, as well as the ability to determine a Scottish approach to employment law. Whatever happens on 6th May however, I do believe that the reserved powers that came back from Brussels to be grabbed by Westminster that have been grabbed by this centralising Tory government, they should be restored immediately.
c. Do you think employment law should be devolved to Holyrood?
If we can obtain a better benchmark in law for us all via a decentralised legal system that could be an attractive proposition. However it predetermines that a Scottish Parliament would act differently from a Tory one at Westminster and I’m not convinced that that is the case.
We also have complications like national companies that operate across the UK and corporations that have a Scottish operation being free to relocate south to avoid any progressive legislation on employment rights. I’m sure we’d find solutions to the challenges that it may create but my overall approach is that the law is not enough on its own. Even if we get the positive changes to the law we want, those laws must be enforced through a system that does not act in the best interest of working people, in courts that aren’t designed to assist us and often long after the offence has been committed and a worker sacked or plant closed.
The IER manifesto is a good starting point for new collective employment rights but so are our collective agreements. Collective bargaining is our industrial tool in our armoury to secure justice at work, agreements that provide rights to our members can be negotiated and this, while we wait for the law to catch up, is our challenge.