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A Merger on whose terms?

Martin Wicks assesses the prospects for the  proposed creation of a ‘super-union’.



The proposed merger of the TGWU, Amicus and GMB, offers the prospect of a union of more than 2 million members. It could be a step forward, or a bureaucratic nightmare. What is the motivation behind the proposition? According to Tony Woodley:


“This is an historic opportunity for trade unionism to seize the industrial agenda of the twenty first century, and to win for today's workers on pay and conditions. We could now put behind us pointless inter-union competition and focus on fighting for our members in the workplace as one powerful union. Today's announcement is a message of hope for every worker who needs strong trade unionism, and a warning to employers that we intend to match the power of capital with the power of united labour.”


‘Organising’ at the heart of the new union?


According to Woodley, “organising” will be at the heart of the new union. It may not make any new trade unionists on its own, but “it will be a powerful springboard for carrying trade unionism to the millions of unorganised workers who need our protection in Britain and Ireland today.”

It is undoubtedly true that there is a need to organise the unorganised, but if officials concentrate on recruiting new members whilst neglecting the weak organisation of unionised workplaces there is unlikely to be an overall rise in membership.


Tony Woodley says that the new union will carry forward “the best traditions of all its components, developed over a century of struggle”. He does not say what these are. What about their worst traditions? Amicus incorporates the tradition of the EEPTU. As we reported in Issue 13 of SOLIDARITY there has been no real break from the 'partnership' agenda. The EEPTU and AEEU became the union of choice for employers wishing to keep out independent and militant trade unionism. The GMB has some appalling 'partnership' agreements in places such as ASDA-Walmart. Whilst Tony Woodley talks of lay member democracy, a fine thing, there is no history of lay member control in the GMB which does not elect its full-time officials, nor does it have direct election of its powerful Regional Secretaries.


So far as 'organising' is concerned Woodley says 10% of the new union's income would be devoted to it. However, this is not a panacea. Indeed, the 'organising' concept was borrowed from the US AFL-CIO. Having full-time recruiters is no solution, since recruitment can be a revolving door, through which members come and go, unless there is a combative organisation rooted in the workplaces. In the US unions membership has declined because all the organisers under the sun cannot compensate for the fact that the unions, for the most part tied to a 'business union' outlook, are not independent, nor do they challenge the subordination of their members to market dictates. Membership has continued to decline despite the organising strategy.


TGWU members should look very closely at the SEIU experience which is being touted by the TGWU. This is a union which has partnership deals with the vultures of the private health sector. In one case it even had its members on a bonus for cutting the number of people attending a hospital!


“Self-sustaining workplace organisation”


TGWU Assistant Secretary Jack Dromey (this must be the first time we have quoted him approvingly) is right when he says:


“Organisation is built on the simple truth  unless you build strong, fighting, self-confident and self-sustaining workplace organisation, you do not win, you do not grow and our hard-pressed officers run ragged servicing a fragmented and declining membership.


Organising, identifying lay leaders who will organise their workplace, factory of farm, for there is no other way for workers to gain control of their destiny.”


This is true. But you cannot build such organisation in alliance with the employers. The weakness of much workplace organisation is not only the result of the defeats suffered in the Thatcher period. The concentration on “individual services” has undermined collective organisation.


Mergers in Britain have tended to be a means of preserving union apparatuses in the face of a declining membership. The mere amalgamation of three unions will not create the conditions for a reversal of the big decline decline which took place from 1980.


Some of the work of the TGWU appears to be pushing in the right direction (see their “100% Union” campaign) though even the TGWU has not made a break from 'partnership' agreements.

Membership Control


The merger process has tended to be determined by the union apparatuses and over the heads of the members. It is therefore important that activists from the three unions meet to discuss what sort of merged union we would want. The question of membership control is obviously crucial. The debate over a rule book, therefore, is not just about structure, but about democratic control of a merged union. All full-time officials should be subject to election rather than appointment. Conference should be the ruling body and an executive committee obliged to carry out its policy.


The question of the relationship with the Labour Party may also be part of the debate. Whilst some of the leaders may see a merged union as a means of enhanced “influence”in the Labour Party, it could of course, be a means of holding the line against a break from New Labour. It should be remembered that the formerly loyalist GMB has taken the decision that it will no longer automatically support Labour candidates, only those who oppose privatisation and support GMB members. There were not many of those in the General Election! Extending this step to support candidates other than Labour ones, could be blocked in a ‘super-union’.

Whilst the GMB Regional Secretaries (elected by Regional Councils not by the membership) appeared to consider a merger as a potential threat to their power bases, the union CEC agreed to explore the possibility of a merger.


Since then Kevin Curran has departed and Paul Kenny has taken over as acting General Secretary. In response to talk from Amicus of the possibility of a merger ballot in the autumn of this year, Paul Kenny has issued a statement to staff clarifying the situation.

“Tentative” but “open minded”


He says that the working party which the CEC agreed to set up was to look at the prospect of a new union, not a “bolt-on old style merger”. The CEC was “tentative” but open-minded enough, he said, to realise it would be short-sighted to ignore what is “an exciting possibility”. But as yet no meeting of the working group has taken place. Kenny insists that the GMB will not be bounced into a merger.


“I have a personal view which is very much in tune with the Executive’s current thinking, I would like to try and establish the principles of a new union if that is possible and I would then like to submit those principles in a consultative way to our members and our employees.”


He expressed the hope that the preliminary discussions would be completed by the end of the summer, and if the Executive considered those discussions constructive then consideration would be given to “a much wider consultation process across the union.” Even if there was agreement on principles there would need to be a lengthy period of discussion on structure, Finance, Rule Book etc. The GMB would not be “breakfast” for any predator. “Frankly the idea that such a new union could even begin to be formed at the earliest before 2007 is ridiculous.”


These comments raise more questions than answers. There are those within the GMB apparatus opposed to merger. Others believe that the union could not compete with a merged Amicus-TGWU, so they feel the need to get on board.


However, the position adopted by Kenny will give those for whom a merger is dependent on the conditions and the democratic framework for the members to assert control, more time to develop discussion amongst the activists of the three unions.


Those who want a member controlled union need to organise to demand that the membership are involved in the debate and have the ability to affect the outcome, rather than being presented with conditions determined by union leaders; simply being given the choice of yes or no to an unalterable package.


One of the big organisational issues relates to the construction of branches. Should they be geographical, work place based, or industrial ones? This should be an issue for the membership to determine and not imposed by some head office dictat, or the result of a universal ‘model’ to be mecahnically applied.

At the local, regional and national level, cross union meetings need to take place directed at pushing a merger which creates a framework for the members to use to fight for their interests independent of the employers, and as democratic as we can achieve.


A merger between the TGWU and GMB would be more ‘natural’ given that they are both general unions. The structure of Amicus which has swallowed the GPMU and UNIFI makes the discussion more complicated. The Amicus apparatus has been giving out the message that a new union would be based on its structure. This is somewhat premature.


Perhaps the Amicus leaders’ vision of a modern union was reflected at their recent conference where delegates voted by pressing a button and asked to speak not by raising their hand but by pressing another button. How’s that for top table control? Nobody can even see if the chair is carving you out of discussion!


It remains too early to decide for a or against a merger. But the opening of a discussion provides an opportunity for left activists within the three unions to meet and discuss how the struggle for democratic control and a more militant trade unionism can be advanced in each of the unions.


June 2005


Martin Wicks edits the trade union magazine SOLIDARITY - issue 14 is being printed now and is available for £1.50 check link for details

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