The UK’s richest union is fighting in the courts, but not for the low paid | Nick Cohen

Capital will stage a brutal demonstration of its power over labour when the furloughs and state protections of the Covid pandemic end. Across the west, but most particularly in the UK, employees’ ability to defend themselves will depend on whether they are in a trade union.

The new working class of young, female and ethnic minority workers in hotels, gyms, security guard huts, supermarkets, call centres, restaurants, shops and bars needs unions. Whatever pain is coming, precarious private sector workers will feel it the most. The labour movement must surely be concentrating its energies on helping radically insecure workers as the crisis approaches.

How’s it doing?

Last week, solicitors representing Anna Turley threatened to send bailiffs to the head office of Unite in Holborn, central London, with instructions to carry off everything that wasn’t nailed down. Faced with the threat that Len McCluskey, Howard Beckett and the union’s other post-Leninist apparatchiks would have nothing to sit on but overturned crates, Unite handed over its members’ money. Turley received the final part of legal costs of £1.3m and damages of £75,000, compensation for a libel claim that has cost the union between £2m and £2.5m in total.

Turley is not a traditional enemy of organised labour. Until 2019, she was the Labour MP for Redcar. Because she was a “centrist” or “Blairite” or whatever the far left was calling politicians like her at the time, the union falsely claimed, through the Skwawkbox website, that Turley was a cheat who had tried to join a section of the union reserved for the unemployed on “a fraudulent basis”. If it had corrected the mistake and apologised, it would have likely cost union members a few hundred pounds, if that. As it was, Unite wasted several million hiring a ferocious QC, who said of Turley in open court and in the middle of the 2019 election campaign, “she is not fit to be an MP”. She lost her seat. With Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn, it would have gone anyway. But the sight of the most influential union on the left attacking Labour MPs at the moment when Johnson was about to sweep to power says all there is to say about its priorities.

Also last week, for it has been a busy time in the small but vicious world of militant trade unionism, the Labour MP Neil Coyle alleged to the parliamentary commissioner for standards and the certification officer, who regulates trade unions, that Unite was using members’ money to subsidise a string of legal cases. The media picked up his claim that Corbyn had not properly declared financial support from Unite for legal disputes involving antisemitism.

The high quantity and abysmal quality of the cases Coyle claims the union is fighting struck me. Coyle alleges Unite has become a bank, funding a dozen or more legal actions, nearly all involving accusations of antisemitism, with potential costs running into the millions. A few are on the public record. Unite told the judge in the Turley case that it would cover all the costs of the Skwawkbox site’s libels. Barristers said in open court that Unite was picking up the bills for five people accused of leaking a Corbyn-era report that purported to clear him and his supporters of antisemitism, while blaming Labour employees for all that went wrong. The result is dozens of suits for libel and breach of privacy from ex-Labour staffers.

When I asked Unite if it was funding the remaining cases Coyle raised, its PR person said: “The information you have ranges from being false to widely inaccurate. It is, of course, a matter for you as to whether you print false or widely inaccurate information.”

“OK,” I replied, “which information is false and wildly inaccurate? All, some?” Answer came there none.

Once, a Marxist might have defended Unite’s obsession with far-left factionalism. Unions were “schools of war”, wrote Friedrich Engels in his Condition of the Working Class in England in 1845, where members learned to fight “the supremacy of the bourgeoisie”. Andrew Murray, Unite’s chief of staff, is descended from the Earls of Perth and the royal house of Navarre. He was born into a family that sells a Picasso when it is short of money. He is possibly the poshest man in England after Prince Charles. But he is also a committed communist, who presumably sees Unite as a tool to overthrow the power of his fellow aristos, although how the union defaming a woman such as Anna Turley brings the revolution closer is beyond me.

The alternative conception of trade unionism holds that Labour party or Leninist revolutionary politics are as nothing when set against the overriding need to protect employees’ interests. It recognises that trade union membership does not guarantee support for the left – at the last election almost as many Unite members voted Tory as Labour – and does not care. What matters is supporting millions of unprotected employees.

By this measure– the only measure that matters in my view – the trade union movement is failing. The Resolution Foundation said last week that trade union membership stood at just 12.9% of private sector workers in 2020. In the hospitality industry, where long hours and low pay are standard, only 3% of workers are in a union.

There are flickers of hope. The GMB union fights to defend the workers in Amazon warehouses, and has forced Uber to recognise its right to help and support its drivers. There are other examples I could cite, most notably in retail, but they cannot disguise that trade unionists are today far more likely to work in the public rather than the private sector, to be old rather than young and, for all Engels’s talk about fighting bourgeois supremacy, to be middle rather than working class.

Meanwhile, Unite uses its money and platform to pursue expensive and pointless courtroom dramas.

Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist


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