Merger and multinationalism reach the union movement

Reporter’s Guide in association with Unite the Union

As a celebration, the May Day launch of the new super union Unite was marred when one of the two central figures failed to show up at the launch press conference.

Derek Simpson, general secretary of Amicus, left Tony Woodley, leader of the Transport and General Workers Union, to host the central London media call. He also held the fort in the evening at a reception in Ken Livingstone’s City Hall.

The two union leaders met shortly afterwards to continue preparations for the new union’s future, but the episode led to obvious jibes.

The road to merger has been smoother since, with much work and many meetings being held to cement the joining of two huge unions to create the biggest in the country, with more than two million members.

Unite is still to forge its own identity, partly because the merger will not be completed until late next year.

Amicus and the TGWU both held their own national conferences this summer and their names still appear in newspaper reports of disputes or political developments.

So what’s different? Well, size does matter in British industry, so Unite should be able to pull its considerable weight with employers as well as succeed in one of its main aims – recruiting more members, especially young ones.

Officials have promised to ‘pour’millions of pounds into organising, using a chunk of Unite’s £150m annual membership income to try to appeal to the majority of workers currently shunning trade unions.

Forging stronger links with unions in the United States and other countries, to build a promised ‘truly global union”, will also give Unite a different feel from its predecessors.

Unite is now the biggest affiliate to Labour and Messrs Woodley and Simpson will want to grab some of the spotlight from Gordon Brown at the annual conference in Bournemouth at the end of this month.

Leaders of both sections of Unite are loyal Labour campaigners and want to see the party remain in power, so they will have a difficult balancing act of criticising the Government for not doing enough for workers, while lavishing praise where they believe progress has been made.

The two leaders have spoken about the prospect of agreeing a ‘new positive agenda’under Mr Brown’s premiership, but Unite is still pressing ahead with a march and demonstration on the opening day of the Labour conference to demand further employment rights and more help for manufacturing.

Union criticism of government policies has eased since Tony Blair left office, and with continuing speculation about an early general election, Unite will not want to rock Mr Brown’s boat in the coming months. Some observers believe this will blunt Unite’s political attacks, but the reality is that life under Labour is far more fruitful for unions than it would be if the Conservatives return to power.

So Unite’s main thrust in the next year will be in the workplace, continuing to campaign on pensions, pay, jobs and conditions.

Amicus and the TGWU organised in similar industries such as manufacturing, but also had distinctive areas of membership in areas like finance and agriculture, and it is difficult to see big changes in the style of campaigning against banks or food companies.

Journalists have also seen little difference yet, with the two unions retaining their own press offices and vast majority of officials.

A high-profile, national industrial dispute would help promote the name Unite – and keep the small band of industrial correspondents happy – but the prospect of a season of discontent has already slipped from summer to autumn and looks unlikely to materialise at all.

The holiday months have passed with no travel chaos – at least none caused by wildcat strikes – and the threat of coordinated action among millions of council and health workers and civil servants is becoming a distant newspaper headline.

Unions are finding it difficult to break into the media’s obsession with celebrity-driven, lifestyle stories and are dropping down the list of preferred interviewees for radio and TV.

Unite will have to draw up a different agenda for how unions are portrayed in the media, away from being linked to strikes and strife. Tapping into the climate-change debate could open a rich vein of interest, while many workers are crying out for more help in finding decent jobs, new skills or even proper meal breaks.

Workers of the world can unite, but the new super union has a tough challenge in the next year to get its message across.

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