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
“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
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!
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
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'
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
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
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
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
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
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.