Andy McSmith: A union in name only: why ballot blunders threaten Unite's resolve

Our writer finds members despondent at leaders' mistakes

Share
Related Topics

It has been a quiet few weeks in the offices of Britain's biggest union, Unite, while its abrasive political director, Charlie Whelan, has been away helping with Labour's election campaign. But that was a lull that could not last.

Unite must now decide whether or how to deploy its financial muscle in the Labour Party leadership election. It also has a leadership election of its own looming and, for the second time in five months, it has been told by a High Court that it does not know how to hold a strike ballot without breaching the law.

It has caused some bemusement that a union so closely tied to the Labour Party should want to hold a strike that will provoke so much outrage among air travellers. Twenty days' disruption by British Airways cabin crews – which could still happen despite the union's setbacks in court – will make the name of Unite so notorious that it could threaten to be the kiss of death to whichever Labour leadership candidate the union endorses. By the same token, last December's planned strike, which would have meant misery for anyone planning to fly away for Christmas, could have done untold damage to Labour's election prospects, had it not been barred by a High Court. And yet Unite is Labour's biggest financial backer.

The key to this apparent contradiction is that Unite is so large and fragmented that a more apt name for it would be Disunite. It is not a monolith but an amalgam of unions brought together in a two-headed monster run by competing general secretaries, Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson.

One of its many components is the British Airlines Stewards and Stewardesses Association (Bassa), to which 90 per cent of BA's cabin crew belong and whose members have twice voted overwhelmingly to strike because of their long running dispute with British Airways.

"The Bassa tail is wagging the Unite dog," BA's chief executive, Willie Walsh, complained in yesterday's Times. He added: "I urge Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson to assert their authority."

That assumes that the general secretaries have an authority to assert. Bassa is a self-contained unit within the conglomeration, with its own history and culture. BA's cabin crews see Unite as an outside body paid to give professional back up to Bassa's shop stewards, and since that advice had led to two unfavourable court judgements, some are wondering whether they are getting their money's worth.

"I feel totally let down by Unite," one of the contributors to a private internet forum for Bassa members wrote after Monday's court injunction. "You would think after the first injunction, they would scour every inch of the legalities of holding ballots and taking industrial action. My question is, can I/we sue Unite?"

Another commented: "It would be nice if just for once, a Unite boss actually apologised rather than passing the blame as always and getting indignant. I'd like Woodley to explain how with such an enormous salary and perks... he still manages to mess this up – again."

Although most contributors are fiercely loyal to Bassa, some are ready to give up in despair. "I can't take this anymore," one wrote. "This is the end for me. It's over. Can't you see it? We've lost, and we always will. Honest I cannot fight any longer. I give up. Sorry."

Another wrote: "I have been a big supporter of the industrial action, for which I have lost 12 days' pay and staff travel. I am not sure if I can carry on either. I feel very let down and have just about had enough. Can I be bothered to vote again? Can I trust Unite?"

But for many of Unite's full time officials, what really matters right now is not the BA dispute, nor the future of the Labour Party, but who will be their new general secretary when Mr Woodley, 62, and Mr Simpson, 65, retire and their posts are combined. The election is due this year.

Unite's assistant general secretary, Len McCluskey, a former Liverpool docker, is the best known of the potential runners. He is tough, articulate and left wing, and has 'Old Labour' written through him, and would be Tony Woodley's choice.

However, Mr McCluskey's background is in the TGWU, which amalgamated with the engineering union Amicus to form Unite. Amicus has the more efficient political machine and a huge section of retired members, who are eligible to vote in an election for general secretary. This may give the edge to Mr Simpson's protégé, Les Bayliss, another assistant general secretary, a duller character from the backroom who would probably trouble the Labour leadership less than Mr McCluskey.

With this election looming, there will not be much spare energy inside Unite to devote to the Labour's leadership but is is assumed that Charlie Whelan will be intent on delivering victory for Ed Balls, who was Gordon Brown's economic adviser when Mr Whelan was Brown's personal spin doctor, and is expected to announce his candidacy for the Labour leadership today.

It is sometimes assumed that Unite has a vast block vote to hand to its favoured candidate. This is not true. Union members vote individually, by post, and the support of a union boss does not automatically deliver any votes. In the 2007 deputy leadership, Unite backed Jon Cruddas, who came third. Even so, Unite's support guarantees that its chosen candidate will be able to fight a well-funded campaign, and that hundreds of thousand of Unite members will receive communications from their union in his support.

"When Charlie Whelan wants to deliver for Ed Balls, a lot of other people in Unite are going to be thinking that the most important thing in the world is the general secretary election. They won't be worrying about the Labour leadership election, so they'll probably just go along with Charlie," one insider said.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Hire Manager - Tool Hire

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is seeking someone w...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

I don't blame parents who move to get their child into a good school

Chris Blackhurst
William Hague, addresses delegates at the Conservative party conference for the last time in his political career in Birmingham  

It’s only natural for politicians like William Hague to end up as journalists

Simon Kelner
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent