The politics behind the merger

Reporter’s Guide in association with Unite the Union

Amicus was made up of the old MSF union run by right-winger Roger Lyons and the merged Engineers and Electricians who were so far to the right they were kicked out of the TUC.

The animosity between the unions was there even in the 1960s when the engineers and TGWU were run by left wingers, Hugh Scanlon and Jack Jones, ‘the terrible twins’as they were known in the right wing press. This was mainly due to the fact that the engineers were largely a union representing skilled workers while the TGWU spoke for manual workers.

Even into the Eighties the unions did not get on, famously falling out over a single union deal the engineers had signed for a new Ford plant in Dundee. Eventually Ford pulled out and there were bitter recriminations for many years.

For historical reasons the unions in the UK have grown up in an ad hoc fashion. Skilled workers formed the first associations and manual workers formed their own unions. Later these unions recruited any worker who wanted to join, and the result was that the TUC, to which nearly all unions affiliated, spent much of its time sorting out disputes between them.

Mergers between unions were often nothing to do with what made industrial sense and far more to do with politics. The electricians even merged with a small airline cabin crew union because they were a breakaway from the then-hated transport union.

The new merger to form Unite is different because the two unions are so big that the merger actually threatens the very existence of the TUC itself. What is the point of the TUC if most workers belong to the same union?

It is in the political world though that the new union will be most closely watched.

Apart from the obvious financial clout they will have in the Labour Party, the new union will want to ensure that the ‘Warwick II’ agreement sought with the government gives union members new rights. They will not be that bothered about changing existing strike legislation but will be interested in measures that make recruitment of members easier.

At conference time too all eyes will be on how the union votes. It is no accident that Gordon Brown has appointed ex-TGWU man Joe Irvine to run the Downing Street operation dealing with unions.

The man who used to do that very same job for Tony Blair was Jon Cruddas. As a candidate for the Labour deputy leadership he gained the support of Unite. With their backing an initial no-hoper came third and his votes were crucial in electing Harriet Harman. Unite showed that in any future leadership campaign the unions simply can’t be ignored.

The new union won’t be ignored when it comes to industrial action either. In the case of Peugeot’s Ryton closure it wasn’t strike action the unions used but a very effective advertising campaign against the background of the World Cup. These anti-Peugeot ads hit the company harder than any strike.

It would be fair to say that Unite is showing a sophistication in campaigning not seen by unions for many years. Visit its website and you can see a film of the union in action at the Glastonbury festival. Unite clearly sees youth as an important group to target.

As the comrades gather in Bournemouth later this month, the one social function the Prime Minister will not miss is the one organised by Unite. He will be a very welcome guest too.

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