There are those within Unite the Union who view the rank and file as upstarts, a renegade group led by former EPIU members, who can be wheeled out in times of industrial strife at sites up and down the country, but ‘we’ don’t really want much to do with them.
It’s true that the rank and file are involved in disputes within the construction industry. It grew out of the Besna dispute where we led the fightback against the rogue employer threatening to tear up our national agreements. Our ability to call for unofficial action was not only crucial and effective, it was also seen as an asset for this type of campaign, and we were also involved in the implementation of the leverage strategy that led to an outstanding victory. We were held up as heroes of the labour movement and our views were sought in various platforms up and down the country. Since then, we have been involved in the anti blacklisting campaign, the Crossrail dispute and also at Ineos.
So why are we still met with suspicion and loathing? Could it be that we succeed where the constitutional bodies of Unite fail? We have been involved in three major campaigns. Result – 2 victories and 1 making significant progress. Could it be that we are listened to by the General Secretary and the Assistant General Secretary and some noses are out of joint as a result? Could it be that certain regional officers don’t like it when they don’t get their own way, as we have seen in the North West? Some are still operating as EETPU officers rather than Unite, usurping the lay democracy in which this new union is built.
The truth is that many of the members of the rank and file take part in the constitutional democratic structures of Unite, whether in Branches, Riscs, Niscs and other constitutional committees. We are members of JIB Boards, National Construction Combine and are shop stewards, safety reps, equality officers etc. In other words, we play a full and active role within the life of our Union. However, we are also able to operate outside it. The best of both worlds.
So what is the role of the rank and file? Well we can still call for and take unofficial action when necessary. We provide checks and balances against rogue officers who are intent in living in the past. But more importantly, we can set the agenda for how we shape our industry. We do not have an industrial strategy for the construction industry within our union. In Scotland, we have a very capable regional officer who is the lead officer for construction, yet his line manager won’t let him out of Dundee. Officers work in a number of sectors and are being pulled from pillar to post. Organisation is fragmented and there is no real structure. We have a National Officer for construction who has no control over officers in the regions. Even if we had a strategy, there is no way it could be implemented in this current environment. The rank and file could fill that vacuum. We need early intervention on sites, access agreements in place. We need more recruitment and retention of members. We need proper adherence to national agreements and proper organised workforce.
We have a mixture of youth and experience to make that difference. The rank and file is not to be feared or loathed. We should be embraced as a breath of fresh air and our talents put to good use.