In the 1970s there were 13 million trade union members. Today’s figure is half that. Nevertheless, 150,000 people marched to oppose the Government’s economic policies on the Trades Union Congress (TUC) demonstrations in London, Belfast and Glasgow on October 20. Then when Unite leader Len McCluskey asked in London for a show of hands in favour of a General Strike there was a roar of approval and a sea of upraised arms.
A General Strike is where a substantial proportion of the labour force withdraws their labour. It is 86 years since the only general strike in British history and the unions lost when the Government refused to act to prevent coal miners having their wages slashed. In the aftermath millions of workers had their pay cut and the trade union movement lost hundreds of thousands of members.
Following a positive vote at its Brighton Conference, the TUC is currently canvassing opinion with constituent unions over their attitudes towards organising a stoppage in which teachers, nurses, tanker drivers and housing staff would refuse to work.
There is no certainty that the government would alter its policies as a result and no-one can predict how the general public might react, although last year’s British Social Attitude survey did show a rise, to 36%, in the numbers of people who felt “the Government should increase taxes and spend more.’ Only a quarter of UK workers are union members.
So McCluskey, who heads Britain’s biggest union, admits it will be difficult to drum up support for a general strike.
“I do not have a magic wand,” says the 62-year-old Liverpudlian. “We first need to raise people’s consciousness. They have been battered for the last 3-4 years by the media who, combined with the political leaders of all three main parties, have been telling them the cuts are essential to prevent economic collapse.”
McCluskey insists though the tide is turning. He cites recent International Monetary Fund calls for a UK interest rate cut and more quantitative easing to kick start the economic recovery. He is also buoyed by the Sunday Times investigating “tax avoidance by the rich, highlighting that many do not pay tax. How can comedian Jimmy Carr get away with paying virtually nothing?”
McCluskey became general-secretary of Unite, which has 1.5 million members across public and private sectors. Unite was formed on 1 May 2007 by the merger of Amicus and the Transport and General Workers’ Union.
A former docker who became a shop steward in his teenage years, his involvement in Unite’s cabin crew dispute with British Airways in 2010 and 2011 saw him labelled “Red Len” by the Sun newspaper. A member of the Labour Party since 1970 he supported the Militant Tendency, a Trotskyite entrist group, during the 1980s, but was not a member. He names Tony Benn as his political hero and was “delighted” to accompany the former Bristol MP to the recent opening of Unite’s regional office named in honour of the former Labour Cabinet Minister.
But he will need to convince people right across the political spectrum if his campaign against austerity is to be successful
Speaking alongside actor Ricky Tomlinson at a Rebel Rants event organised by Liverpool community organisation Writing on the Wall, McCluskey said: “Austerity is not working and the government should change direction. Having millions of people out of work, including over a million young people, is not a price worth paying.
We need to invest the €215 (£150bn) Government public procurement annual budget to rebuild the manufacturing base. Otherwise we have an economy too reliant on the banking sector that sparked the recession now being made worse by the government’s austerity package.
We need an investment bank to invest in green industries and to put hundreds of thousands of unemployed building workers back to work constructing hundreds of thousands of new homes for sale and rent. “
McCluskey backed Tomlinson’s campaign to have his 1973 conviction for ‘conspiracy to intimidate’ overturned. As a building worker, Tomlinson participated in the first ever-national building workers’ strike in 1972, only to be jailed a year later as one of the Shrewsbury Two. The former Brookside star has protested his innocence ever since. Earlier this month new evidence emerged that Edward Heath’s Conservative government ignored evidence from the attorney general, Sir Peter Rawlinson, not to prosecute as “the intimidation consisted of threatening words.” The Criminal Cases Review Commission is now expected to back calls to overturn Tomlinson’s conviction.
McCluskey would “be delighted” if that happened and also calls for an inquiry “into continued blacklisting on Britain’s building sites.” A GMB trade union report has revealed that 3,213 building workers had their names recorded by the Consulting Association, which supplied construction giants such as Carillion with information on workers they variously described as “extreme troublemaker.” Many of those listed were union representatives with a strong interest in health and safety.
McCluskey believes construction companies would do well to “take note of the recent success by the Hillsborough Justice Campaign (HJC) in finally getting what has been known for years out into the public domain. Eventually they, and companies we suspect are operating blacklists in other areas of the economy, will be exposed.”
But it is to future membership that he must pay the greatest attention. Unite has introduced community membership costing 50 pence a week, giving anyone not in work a chance to join the union. McCluskey says its intended to “to ensure we look after people from cradle to grave and make sure we are the big society.”
Community members get access to a variety of individual benefits and services and are also given the chance to join local branches and combine with their working colleagues on campaigns. In Leeds the branch is campaigning against workfare. Many young people are involved. In Hull the members include pensioners who are focusing on the proposed NHS changes.
These campaigns are all directed against a government led by a cabinet, says McCluskey, of 31 ministers, 18 of whom are millionaires. “They have no concept of ordinary people’s lives. Consequently for the first time ever we have Save the Children putting some of their resources aside for UK children. Yet the government are content for Top Shop owner Sir Philip Green to give them advice on how to make cuts even though he has escaped paying £285 million tax by registering the company in his wife’s name in Monaco.”
McCluskey accuses the government of trying to piece back together “the neo-Liberal project that so spectacularly failed under the Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher axis of the 1980s by using the crisis to draw back the gains made by our relatives who returned from the Second World War and created the welfare state, NHS and universal education. We face a different battle, but make no mistake we are going to fight as the future is too bleak if we fail to do so.”
Whether that will include leading Unite members into a General Strike has yet to be decided.
FRUITS OF HIS LABOUR
A fervent Liverpool fan, McCluskey was at Hillsborough on the fateful day when 96 supporters lost their lives. His favourite sporting hero is Bill Shankly, the manager who hauled Liverpool out of the Second Division in 1962 and then helped build the foundations for a club that has won more Trophies than any other English club. Shankly once said: "The socialism I believe in is everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards. It's the way I see football, the way I see life." McCluskey says, “Shankly was a genuine man of the people who never lost touch with his roots and he was adored and loved because he was one of us.”
Although he doesn’t have a lot of time, when McCluskey dies get home to Liverpool he likes to play chess against the computer and read.
His favourite book is Jack London’s 1908 dystopian novel The Iron Heel, about the rise of a small politically powerful grouping in the US. For McCluskey it “demonstrated the stark reality that the ruling elite will not give up power through the ballot box, and that there is an inherent conflict under capitalism between labour and capital.”
As a film buff, McCluskey had some difficulty choosing his favourite. He eventually selected the 1942 film Casablanca. “It embraced romance, courage and a commitment to stand against evil.”