Trouble at Unite – Part I

Derek Simpson, joint general secretary of Unite (Amicus section)

Derek Simpson, joint general secretary of Unite (Amicus section)

Hello, I’m back. Sorry I haven’t been blogging for, well, ages – there’s no particular reason (it’s not because I’m tearing my hair out over Tribune’s financial problems, frinstance), I’ve just been crap and lazy. On we go.

I resume this blog with an ambitious two- or even three-part series on the problems facing Unite, Britain’s biggest trade union and biggest single donor to the Labour Party. Those of you who aren’t trade union officials, or political or industrial hacks, may not yet be aware that cracks are emerging in the two-million-person union founded last year – cracks so wide that it might yet split apart; and even if it doesn’t, the result could affect national politics. And it’s not just because of the well-rehearsed stories that joint general secretaries Derek Simpson (Amicus) and Tony Woodley (T&G) hate each other. This blog is for the less well-informed, but hopefully there’ll be something for the hacks.

I’ve done an article for tomorrow’s Tribune, but couldn’t fit it all in. Read more below…

In my last post but one, I told you of exciting news: the T&G section of Unite was putting out a DVD to celebrate/commemorate its final disappearance into history, scheduled to take place on 1 November this year with the adoption of a joint rule book for both sections. A launch party was announced and invitations sent out.

Then what happened? The party, and the DVD release, was cancelled. The excuse privately given was that Andrew Murray (see below), a Unite official and one of Woodley’s right-hand men, had a funeral to go to. People in the know do not give that much credence. They don’t have to look far for an alternative theory.

The day before, on 9 October, Unite’s joint executive council held a meeting. Officials had drafted some resolutions, which were considered and voted on as a whole. The meeting voted to postpone the adoption of the new rule book until May 2009, and to hold an election for Derek Simpson’s job, while suspending the part of the current Amicus rule book under which he would be too old (64) to stand for election.

Why did they do this? Because Simpson had been challenged by Unite member Jerry Hicks (see below)over his plans – enshrined in that new rule book – to stay in office until the end of next year, by which time he’ll be 66 and over retirement age. In fact, Hicks wants to run against Simpson in the lection, and promises to be radically different if elected.As they admitted to me, Unite officials knew that Hicks’ complaint to the certification officer, a government ombudsman, was likely to be upheld, so they sidestepped it with a new election.

Still with me? Because this is where it starts to get personal.

In the election campaign, which gets underway next week with the release of nomintion forms, Hicks is likely to point out that what he is doing – challenging the GS and using the technicality of his age – is exactly what Simpson did in 2002 when he challenged then Amicus joint general secretary Sir Ken Jackson, and won. He’s also likely to point out that Simpson was only elected by the AEEU half of Amicus, taking over the whole union when the other JGS, Roger Lyons, stepped down. (Unions are always merging).

Then there’s the costs Simpson has run up: perfect ammunition for an underdog candidate. Simpson earned £127,000 last year in salaries and benefits, and has the use of a car and mobile phone. He also is said to have the use of a house on which he pays a “peppercorn rent”. “The lifestyle of he general secretary,” Hicks told me this week, “is not remotely like the lifestyle of his members… That would end if I were elected. I would take an average wage.” We’ll see – though as an outsider with no resources check out his website), I can’t honestly pretend he’s likely to win.

None of this would have to be a problem… if this weren’t a trade union. Challenging a trade union general secretary generally goes down badly among the senior officers at the union, who are expected to be loyal to their man (it always is a man). Simpson himself was threatened with disciplinary action when he challenged Sir Ken. In the next few weeks and months, the Unite machine will be deployed against Hicks. And fur will fly.

…And I still haven’t got on to Simpson v Woodley! Watch this space for Part II…

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