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Unite the Union should stop acting like Keir Starmer’s “backseat driver” and give him time to do his job, said a leading contender in the Len McCluskey race.
Gerard Coyne, who was narrowly defeated by McCluskey in 2017, said Unite has in recent years “focused more on messing around with Westminster politics” than delivering for its 1.2 million members.
In an interview with HuffPost UK, Coyne also said the union should “open the shutters” as it spends members’ money, not least on legal bills to tackle “political cases” and on a controversial £ 98 million hotel complex built in Birmingham.
Starmer faces increasing pressure ahead of the May 6 elections, with some opinion polls suggesting that the Hartlepool by-election may be lost.
Earlier this year, McCluskey warned the Labor leader that he risked “being thrown into the dustbin of history” if he continued to attack the party’s left and failed to reinstate Jeremy Corbyn.
But Coyne, the union’s former regional secretary in the West Midlands, said he wanted to dissuade Unite from the general secretary’s practice of regularly commenting on the Labor leadership.
“Keir is the leader of the Labor Party and deserves the time to present his positions. I would prefer to see a Labor government, so I support what the Labor Party leader is doing, ”he said.
“But I focus on what’s happening in Unite the union and I focus on our members. We’ve spent far too much time voicing our opinions and thoughts on the direction of work and being a backseat driver for the Labor Party.
“It has to go on with its day-to-day work and we have to go on with our day-to-day work. Your job is to win elections, and our job is to represent working people, improve their wages and conditions, and make sure they get support when they need it.
“I’ve been a dedicated Labor Party member all my life, but it’s not what I’m here for, I’m here to fight an election for Secretary General.”
The UK’s second largest union is Labor’s largest donor and has played a key role in the Labor leadership elections. She helped Ed Miliband narrowly beat his brother David in 2010 and defend Corbyn during his tenure. It also has important seats on the party’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC).
The race to succeed McCluskey started last month and the new general secretary will be in place in September. Other candidates in addition to Coyne include senior union officials Steve Turner, Howard Beckett and Sharon Graham.
Jane Barlow – PAUnite leadership candidate Gerard Coyne
Coyne said he was confident of getting the 174 nominations required for the ballot for the branch, but noted that the hurdle is much higher than Unison 25’s and GMB 50’s.
“That gives an indication of how determined they were to get me off the ballot, but I don’t think that’s going to work in any way,” he said.
Although the Covid pandemic is making it difficult to physically meet union members, Coyne said Zoom calling technology has made it easier to get in touch with hundreds of Unite representatives many miles apart.
“I think the union needs to work in a hybrid version of engagement with our labor representatives using modern technology like this. A more direct form of democracy is created. If and when I am elected, I will continue as general secretary because it means I got the pulse of the union. “
He urged the union to join the technology and hold a national online husting for the general secretary elections. Although some Unite workstations like Rolls Royce have distant problems, the format does not allow debate or interaction between candidates.
With a turnout of just 10% in union elections, Coyne wants Unite to do much more to promote the race of the secretary general, and when he was elected he pledged to set up an internal “democracy commission” to recruit regular members.
“It is really fundamental to the long term future of the union because if we want to be a democratic organization we have to increase the participation of our members. After all, we’re an organization with annual sales of £ 175 million that they are interested in directly because they pay the wages. “
The spending of members’ money is an issue that Coyne has made a centerpiece of his campaign calling for an independent review of the £ 98 million spent on the Unite Hotel and Conference Center complex in Birmingham.
“When you hear the estimated spending was £ 7 million, then £ 35 million, then £ 55 million, and finally £ 98 million, we absolutely need to do a trunk and branch check to learn the lessons,” he said.
“Did you know that there is a proposal for a ‘Birmingham 2’? Basically it is [union] The management has given the go-ahead for a multi-storey car park and another hotel. In my opinion we are not a real estate developer, we are a union and we should stick to that. “
Hollie Adams – PA Images via Getty ImagesLen McCluskey, General Secretary of Unite the Union
Coyne’s Financial Transparency Plan contains a list of interests and benefits for all union workers. “I just think we have to open the shutters and let the daylight in.”
Another area he believes money has been wasted is legal fees for lawsuits, including some against the Labor Party, which have little direct impact on union members.
Unite is set to appear in court again next week as ex-MP Anna Turley, who won a defamation suit against her and Skwawkbox blogger Stephen Walker, is called to pay damages and legal fees.
Coyne contrasts Unite’s record with that of unions like the GMB, which got rights for Uber drivers and Asda workers, and Unison, which questioned labor court fees.
“That is the foundation of what the union movement should focus on, its legal activities, which are driven from the bottom up, rather than spending money on high profile political cases. We should actually focus on those that benefit our members. Legal services should be driven by industrial needs. “
He also believes the McCluskey union has lost touch with its mainstream membership, not least over some issues that emerged with the pandemic.
“I’ve heard from truck drivers who complain bitterly that there are no toilets for them when they drop off their cargo. Members want the union to work on practical things that help them, real problems. “
While his three rivals are undoubtedly more to the left of him, Coyne is also frustrated that he is portrayed as the “right winger” in the secretary general’s race.
“I do not recognize this parody that I am the right candidate. I’ve been an employee of the union for 28 years and I’ve been a member for 35 years.
“In relation to the classic ‘do you reject strike actions? ‘Of course I am not against our members having a labor dispute. Have I ever signed a treasury contract? No never. Have I ever signed a no strike deal? I only fight for the interests of the members. Am I scared of anyone? No, I think I have proven that. “
Coyne wasn’t afraid of his first boss when he was 16 and had a part-time job on the supermarket shelf at Sainsbury’s. “We had a store manager who basically decided when you would work on the registers that you couldn’t speak to the people next to you,” he explained.
“That was before barcode scanning, you had to type it in, and it was the most nerve-wracking work. Not being able to speak to the person next to you has hit every shift, and a lot of my co-workers have been upset.
“So I went to the local office of the Secretary of Transportation and General [union, a forerunner of Unite]reached for a handful of shapes. I started by recruiting my friends first, and we recruited most of the business into the union. We discussed it with management and pretty soon after that this manager was moved on. “
Coyne’s activism was based on his deep family roots in the union movement. His staunch socialist father was the local Brigade Secretary of the Fire Brigade Union. His maternal grandfather came from WWI to start his local Labor Party in Birmingham. All five of his brothers were involved in the labor movement.
Like his closest rival in the general secretary’s race, his union movement has been shaped by his love of football. While Steve Turner supports Millwall, Coyne is a lifelong fan of West Bromwich Albion, another team that has faced adversity for years and is about to be relegated from the top division.
“The truth is, I’ve always supported an underdog team,” he said with a smile. “We are definitely doing better than Millwall whether we can stay in the Premier League or not.”