Britain: Amicus left on the march

A process of radicalisation is taking place among the British engineering workers (or metal workers). This is reflected in the main union of the sector, Amicus. The old rightwing lost the position of General Secretary recently. Now the left of the union is preparing to take a majority on the union's national executive committee. Militancy is on the march in Britain and heading for a showdown with the Labour government. As reported by this website there have been a string of leftwing victories in the unions over the last period, beginning with growing discontent on the shopfloor and culminating in the election of a whole series of leftwing national leaderships. The movement is cutting out the dead wood - after 20 years of attacks and no fightback from the union leaders or Labour government, workers' patience is beginning to break. This unstoppable process is revitalising the movement, reactivating older activists and bringing a whole layer of new young activists to the fore, and breathing new life into the old broad left organisations.

In no union has the change been so quick and as noticeable as in Amicus, the one million strong union, newly formed through last year's merger of the AEEU, engineering and electrical union, and the MSF which organises financial and clerical workers. The old AEEU was a bastion of the rightwing under successive leaders, and most recently Sir Ken Jackson; 'Blair's favourite' union leader. The rightwing 'mafia regime' of Sir Ken was decimated by the election of Derek Simpson to the post of general secretary. Jackson and his cohorts got what they deserved, after years of social partnership and 'sweetheart' (no strike) deals with the employers, which undermined the union's ability to fight. With the end of the regime of fear and favour, and a massive symbolic defeat, the rightwing, who naturally hate and are suspicious of each other, have splintered into many rival factions. The task ahead of the left union activists is to pursue and smash the rightwing for good, in the Executive Committee elections in September, and win the union back for the members.

Last Sunday (May 18), Amicus Unity Gazette, the broad left of the new union, met to discuss the plans for the forthcoming conference and the EC elections. The meeting was attended by approximately 150 activists from around Britain, and there was a good balance between AEEU and MSF members. There is a very good mood among the activists who feel that after many years fighting against the stream and holding their forces together, that now their time has come.

The main items for discussion were the progress in the merger between the two unions: i) what position the left should take on the new draft rulebook which will be either approved or rejected at the joint rules conference in June. ii) The selection of a full slate to stand in the joint EC election that will be in September of this year.

The draft rulebook that is currently under discussion is a step back for democracy in the MSF section. The MSF currently enjoys lay control of their union at branch and regional level in both finances and election of officers. The draft rulebook replaces elected lay Regional Secretaries with un-elected full time officers. It also restricts the amount of money branches and regional councils can spend and stops them from making donations to individuals or political campaigns and prevents branches from supporting industrial disputes. The union conference is reduced from an annual to a biennial conference and is no longer the sovereign body of the union, losing control over the financial affairs and management of the union to the Executive. The rules conference is altered from every four to every six years.

For the AEEU the draft rulebook is a step forward in that it restores the election of lay branch officers and some level of financial independence for branches as well as creating a regional council structure that matches the previous Divisional Councils under the old AEU rules. It falls far short, however, of the accountability and control by the members called for by the left in the General Secretary election campaign, prominent amongst which was the restoration of election of full time officials.

The main task ahead is the democratisation of the union to give the power back to the members and secure democratic structures that will faithfully represent the members' interests. The Rulebook is a very important part of that fight, and we must have the most democratic rulebook possible. However despite the shortcomings of the draft rulebook the decision was taken to give it tactical support, because without a rulebook the EC elections could not go ahead. The main priority at the current time is to get a left majority on the EC, which could then immediately take up the issue of a democratic rulebook.

The Gazette fought a hard campaign to secure the victory of Simpson in the General Secretary election. One of the lessons of that campaign is that when the ideas are put forward in a clear and bold way the membership will vote for them, therefore it was decided to put up a full slate in the EC elections, and fight tooth and nail to win every seat, and this has now been drawn up.

At stake is the control of the union. A victory of the rightwing would mean a continuation of the discredited ideas that the membership rejected in the election of Derek Simpson. A left EC will mean the return of the union to the best democratic traditions of the past, an end to the policies of class-collaboration, and the beginning of a serious fight to win back all that has been taken away from workers over the last period, and more on top.

But the Amicus EC elections have a great significance for the whole movement. The philosophy of New Realism (Blairism) was introduced into the labour movement by the rightwing trade union leaders in the 1980s and 90s. Blairism has been maintained through the support and collaboration of the big union leaderships; but all that is beginning to change. The rightwing leaderships of the AEU, and EETPU (who merged into the AEEU) were are the forefront of this, and their current disarray and imminent demise are very significant for the movement.

At last year's Labour Party conference, Blair's motion in favour of the war in Iraq was won on the basis of the block votes of the 'big four' unions which dominate the British labour movement. The election of left-wingers to these union leaderships represents a shift away from the discredited ideas of social partnership, 'sweetheart deals' and in the last analysis Blairism. The swing to the left that is taking place throughout the whole labour movement will cut the ground from under Blair's feet. Slowly but surely the sleeping giant of the British labour movement is awakening and the shift of mood among the rank and file is gaining greater expression and momentum.

A left EC will mean a leftwing Amicus delegation at the TUC, and the Labour Party Conferences, which in turn will mean certain defeat for the party leadership on issues from 'War on Terror', to the reform of public services. This would cause a crisis in the labour movement, send the right into retreat and greatly accelerate the shift to the left. Over the next period the movement will continue to cleanse itself returning the best, most able militants into key positions of leadership. The Blairites have watched in horror as their allies in the unions have been thrown out by the left-moving membership - and so they should because the unions are coming more and more into conflict with the Labour government, and having cleansed themselves they will take up the task of reclaiming the Labour Party.

The immediate task is to campaign hard to win the EC elections, and return the union to its democratic traditions. For many years the AEEU was the bastion of the rightwing in the TUC, in the future Amicus will become the rallying point for the working class to reclaim the Labour Party, and begin a fightback to improve our wages and standards of living across the board.

The full Unity Gazette slate has not yet been announced, but at least three well-known Socialist Appeal supporters are standing in the elections. Mike Gaskell in the energy sector; Phil Willis for the construction sector; and Peter Currall in the Metals sector.

May 20, 2003.

See Amicus left candidates speak (May 2003)

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