Unite challenger: ‘We have to focus on how to grow unions, not influence in Westminster

18 Dec 2016 Ferado

UNITED KINGDOM: Gerard Coyne fought his first battle on behalf of working people at the age of 17, when he was stacking shelves at Sainsbury’s supermarket in West Bromwich.
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“Bad employers always make good recruiters for trades unions,” he says. “We had one particular manager who decided he didn’t want people talking on the checkouts. So I started organising. When we ended, I had the whole store unionised.”

Thirty-two years on, Coyne, 49, is embarking on a quest to become the most powerful figure in the British trade union movement. If he succeeds, it will have far-reaching implications for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party.

When we meet in a coffee shop next to King’s Cross station in London for his first newspaper interview since launching a challenge to topple Len McCluskey, 66, from the leadership of the super-union Unite, it is McCluskey who he now casts as the bad boss who does not have the interests of working people sufficiently at heart. The current Unite leader, he says at the outset, spends far too much time playing power politics and trying to “pull strings” at Westminster and not enough on the vital issues that affect his 1.4 million members.

He says he cannot remember an occasion in the past three years on which McCluskey actually appeared on site to back Unite members in an industrial dispute. By contrast, his general secretary’s numerous appearances on the media in support of Corbyn and his predecessor Ed Miliband are all too fresh in the mind. “Of course we want to see the election of a Labour government in 2020, but what I want is to get away from this pulling of the strings of the Labour party.”

It is not that Coyne thinks influence with Labour leaders does not matter. He knows it does. But he says the union will exercise even more if it can give better value for money to members and help them face the challenges of mechanisation and technological advance that are threatening their jobs. That, says Coyne, is the route to increasing Unite’s membership and enhancing its reputation.

“If we can grow and show we are playing a real, constructive role in the lives of working people, Labour would be mad not to listen to us. Every morning we have to wake up and think, what is it I do to grow the movement? Not – what is it I do to grow influence [at Westminster]?”
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Mechanisation is a “massive issue”, he says. “We have not really grappled with the technological change that most of the world of work is going to be faced with, around manufacturing, food processing, transport. In the next 20 years we are going to be seeing such change … we need to explain it to our members and upskill them to be ready for it.”

The union also needs to “up its game” in promoting the interests of women in the workplace, doing more to push pay equality and flexible working. “We have to make sure we are relevant to women. At the moment these issues are on the back burner.”

Coyne is Unite’s regional secretary in the West Midlands, with more than 25 years of experience at senior levels in the movement. He is one of six brothers from a family of trade unionists and Labour activists. In 2005, he brokered agreements to get 6,500 Rover workers into new jobs after the company went into receivership.

The fast-changing world of work, he says, not only threatens traditional jobs but also the very future of unions. “We have so many challenges that apply to the whole of the British trade union movement. I fundamentally believe in trade unions absolutely to my core. But if we don’t get this right in this generation I fear for the future of the movement.”

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