New Unite general secretary Sharon Graham was elected on a pledge to democratise the union – including a promise to investigate potential collusion between officials and blacklisting bosses. Grassroots members must fight for democratic control.

New Unite general secretary Sharon Graham was elected on a pledge to democratise the union – including a promise to investigate potential collusion between officials and blacklisting bosses. Grassroots members must fight for democratic control.

Unite members now have a new general secretary. As part of her campaign, Sharon Graham gave commitments in her manifesto to get back to the workplace and to put the membership first. Part of this was a pledge to hold a democracy review, focussing on the union’s internal structures.

These commitments were backed by large swathes of the rank-and-file membership across all sectors in Unite, especially the construction sector.

By contrast, these promises will not sit comfortably with some of the well-paid careerists amongst the union’s unelected full-time officials. Having a light shone on their past, recent, and present activities is most definitely not in their interest.

Lifting the lid

NoRoomforBlacklistersJust before the result of the general secretary’s election result, Unite announced an official blacklisting investigation. This would look into the alleged involvement of past or present union officers, who may have colluded with employers to blacklist union members working in the construction industry.

This independent investigation could prove to be a can of worms for these layers of the union. 

This will particularly be the case in the construction sector of Unite, which is an amalgamation of previous unions’ construction sectors (AEEU, Amicus, MSF, T&G, UCATT); and which has had some notoriously scabby officials over the years – many of whom are still employed by the current union to this day.

Class collaboration

In order to keep themselves insulated from the membership, these class-collaborating union officers will usually surround themselves with a buffer of members on regional and national committees, with these members holding positions such as ‘convenors’ to give them the sheen of legitimacy. 

This is especially the case in the construction sector. There, these so-called ‘convenors’ are employed on very nice terms by either the construction project’s client, such as EDF; or by the main contractors – most usually proven blacklisters such as Skanska UK, Costain, Kier etc. This ensures they are tied to the bosses, hand-and-foot.

These so-called workers’ representatives are almost never elected by the rank-and-file membership on sites – so there is no way for ordinary members to remove them once they’ve been appointed.

For their services, they are paid a nice, juicy wage – one that resembles nothing in the union construction national agreement on that site; and far in excess of what lay members might ever earn.

Sinister setup

Unite PlacardThe situation gets even more sinister. For years, there have been numerous allegations of full-time union officers of this kind transferring sensitive information about the membership – including members’ emails – from the union data server to private servers. 

Given the amount of former full-time union officers now raking in fat salaries in the offices of the big construction companies, including firms that have been proven to be blacklisters, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why they might take such data and for what purpose.

Such a situation is a complete disgrace. It makes a mockery out of the union’s claim to represent workers, and leaves good class fighters at the mercy of blacklisting bosses and greedy officials. 

Sharon Graham’s commitment to both the democracy review and the blacklisting inquiry are therefore very welcome indeed.

Fight for control

We must make the most of this chance, however, to clean out our union ourselves. 

Rank-and-file members must prepare for a struggle, as the people who stand to lose from their activities coming to light will do everything in their power to prevent exactly this from happening. 

Front and centre of the new Unite democracy review, therefore, must be the following demands:

  • All full-time officers and officials must be elected – accountable to the members, not the bosses.
  • All union officers and officials to be paid the average skilled wage of the membership they represent.
  • The membership to have the right of recall and dismissal over officials, to guard against corruption.

These demands – putting rank-and-file members in control of the union – are the minimum required to put an end to collaboration with the bosses and the establishment, and to ensure that we have militant class fighters representing the Unite membership.

This must be linked to the struggle for workers’ control in construction and industry, to end the scourge of blacklisting once and for all.