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‘Today is the beginning of a new and challenging road’

GARY SMITH writes on the GMB’s new direction, how the union will begin to right its past wrongs and seek to be the ‘light upon the hill’ once more

THE trade union movement is not about individual leadership, superheroes, or career paths. Ambition and calculation have no place within its ranks.

It is a calling: a gut instinct that tells you what is right and what is wrong. It is a collective cause whose watchwords are fairness, decency, and solidarity.

I joined the GMB as an apprentice at Scottish Gas. I knew, instinctively, that this was my union. So, I got involved and became a young members’ activist and a shop steward.

At 26, I won a scholarship from the union to study at Ruskin College and, later, took an MA in industrial relations at Warwick University.

In between studying, I was back in the workplace as a grassroots activist. A temporary contract as a recruitment officer led to a full-time job in GMB as an organiser and then senior organiser, national officer, and national secretary. In 2015, I was promoted to be GMB Scotland Secretary.

Last week’s election result has seen me become the general secretary of the GMB – the union that has been my life and the source of my enduring passion.

It was a good and constructive campaign, where ideas and differing views of the role and purpose of the union contended: and where the voice of the membership was decisive. I would, therefore, like to take this opportunity to thank my opponents.

Giovanna Holt spoke from the heart, as a good comrade, and set the hustings ablaze with her view on the disgraceful treatment of women within the union and the culture of bureaucratic malaise that permitted this to take place.

Rehanna Azam reminded us of Tony Benn’s maxim that a bird needs a right, as well as a left wing, in order to fly; and that the centre-right of our movement still has a constructive place within it. I look forward to working with both candidates in order to build and grow the union that we all serve and love.

And grow the union we must. These are not times of harvest. We face the reimposition of economic austerity that threatens our public services, further ideologically driven privatisation of our NHS and the creeping shadow of precarious work across all aspects of the private sector.

Over the last five years, the GMB’s membership has been allowed to decline as we paid more attention to faction fights within the Labour Party than the industrial landscape that defined the lives of those we are supposed to organise, represent and champion. This will change.

Our union needs, once more, to become the “light upon the hill.” There is no room for the self-interested, those grown smug – like a worm in the bud – on the use of members’ money to pay hospitality bills.

There is no room for racism of any kind. GMB has not been immune from the poison of anti-semitism, and it will be rooted out. This will be a union that genuinely embraces diversity and the talents of all who want to make a contribution to it.

And – it pains me that this even needs saying – there is no room for misogyny, ill-treatment, and intimidation of women within the GMB.

Difficult as it is, we will need to face up to dealing with inappropriate sexual relationships, too. We need to take a long, hard look at ourselves and clean our union up.

Our members expect us to work for them and not, as has sometimes been the case, to expect them to work to support us.

This union is not about “socialism for ourselves” and capitalism for the members. This means going back to basics. Too often we have namechecked our past, without understanding just what it signified.

In so doing, we declawed figures such as Will Thorne and Eleanor Marx, ignored their socialist and revolutionary politics, and set them up as pale, plaster saints to be worshipped.

Their legacy of principled action, of industrial militancy, and of syndicalism as opposed to auto-Labourism is that which we now need to channel and celebrate.

The politics of the present call upon us to become far more agile, to hone effective organising responses to both devolution, ongoing discrimination against women in the workplace, and the expanding gig economy.

As a consequence, the GMB’s pay bargaining and organising strategy will focus upon the most exploitative parts of the economy, invariably involving work done by women.

We will fight for £15-an-hour in care and to end the scandal of discrimination over equal pay once and for all. We will campaign to onshore manufacturing work and to ensure the talk of just transitions means real jobs for working-class communities.

And we will do this without getting caught up in political “group think,” while defending vital skilled jobs in the real world, such as in energy and engineering construction.

We no longer have the luxury of Labour governments, a national pay bargaining machinery, and seductive partnership schemes with employers, combining to present the lazy alternative to doing our own hard and unglamorous work of building – by and for ourselves – a stronger and more effective union through workplace organising.

This means an end to the servicing culture and the use of bureaucratic means to achieve political ends. It means ensuring that freedom of association no longer ends at the door of the workplace.

It means campaigning for real jobs, decent work and apprenticeships. It means organising collectively around equal pay, sick pay, and the employer’s fire and rehire tactics.

It means listening to all those struggling to achieve individual – let alone collective – bargaining over hours, wages, and shift patterns in the gig economy. And it means growing our union from the bottom up, supporting GMB members – and potential members – in order that they can equalise the odds through winning justice, self-respect and a better deal in the world of work for themselves, their fellow workers, and their families.

Today is the beginning of that new and challenging road. It won’t be easy but it is a road that we must take in order to ensure the survival of the GMB and the all-round strengthening of our movement.

Traitors will always sneer, the already compromised who think that they have more in common with the bosses than rank-and-file union members will flinch and spin to their hearts content. But GMB is slowly but surely regaining its dignity, its purpose, and its will to win.

We claim no special favours and will judge our successes or failures not through column inches of newsprint, numbers of retweets or the condescending applause of politicians, but by the improvements to the working lives of our members that translates – through our winning of improved pay, conditions, and health and safety – into the material gain in health, security, and happiness for themselves and their families.

Such gains allow us the right to speak on behalf of those who, currently, lack a voice and to amplify their collective calls into a roar that through its clarity and moral force has the potential to transform the very basis upon which our society is currently run. 

Gary Smith is GMB general secretary-elect.

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