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Interview 'Under my leadership Unite could look confidently to the future'

STEVE TURNER Unite assistant general secretary and candidate in Unite leadership elections talks to Chris Kaufman

STEVE TURNER’S first few days as a 19-year-old London bus conductor proved a baptism of fire. Having been signed up for the Transport and General Workers Union (T&GWU) on day one, he found himself charged with “riotous affray” within the first week.

His garage had walked out as part of a TUC campaign in 1982 in support of a nurses’ pay claim. The judge found him not guilty when police allegations that union members had intimidated a scab bus driver were found to have been inventions.

“That was the last bit of solidarity action before Thatcher’s government outlawed secondary action,” said Steve. “It was the way that dockers, drivers, electricians and printworkers could support groups with less industrial muscle.

“But my message for any government is that you can’t outlaw solidarity. It is the basis on which the labour movement is founded. Workers supporting other workers to protect and improve their conditions. We need the law changed but we will always find ways of showing that Solidarity Forever is our watchword.”

“And solidarity works,” he went on. “Just look at the powerful alliance of fans, unions, players and managers who saw off the European Super League, stopping the big corporates from stealing our game,” he said, neatly sidestepping my query about whether his team, Millwall, had ambitions in the ESL.

“It also works internationally,” says Steve, who cites co-operation between the US Teamsters Union and Unite as a key to winning the release of the imprisoned Cuban Miami Five.  

“Our solidarity with pensioners and claimants scraping by on universal credit strives to protect their entitlements.”

Steve is talking from the sofa in the south London home, festooned with union publications, a painting of Jack Jones behind him, which has become his office during the pandemic.

As Unite assistant general secretary who has secured the nomination of the union’s United Left, he is considered frontrunner in the coming election to succeed Len McCluskey as general secretary.

A Londoner brought up with four brothers and sisters, Turner recalls his father taking up painting and decorating after leaving the merchant navy. Young Turner would get work helping him on jobs, between spells of unemployment.

Turner has a formidable track record. From union member to shop steward, T&G London regional officer, rising to national officer for docks and road transport and later as civil aviation officer playing a leading role in the successful dispute with BA.

After the 2007 merger of the T&G and Amicus unions to form Unite, he became assistant general secretary. 

He  led negotiations to win disputes involving oil tanker drivers, London bus workers and Northampton Hospital workers. Now he’s responsible for Unite’s manufacturing sector, along with its community membership and retired members.

Turner played a key role in defending Bombardier jobs in Belfast and battling to save Harland and Wolff shipyard,  recently fending off the threat to close Rolls Royce at Barnoldswick after a great collective campaign.

“I’m proud to chair the People’s Assembly Against Austerity,” he told me. He represents the union on the International Transport Federation (ITF), and the TUC general council.  

Alongside TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady, Turner fought for sufficient PPE and ventilators and with Chancellor Rishi Sunak for the extension of the furlough scheme.

“We had to protect pay and millions of jobs. These hard-won victories should be celebrated. They are not won by soundbite politics, shouting slogans from the sidelines. You have to be at the bargaining table fighting for your members’ rights,” he said.

“I’m a socialist,” says Turner, “I want Keir Starmer to stick to the 10 pledges he made to Labour Party members like me, when he was elected leader. Labour can’t win without the activist core at work and in the community. Our voice must be listened to keep Labour real.

“My experience of the union was first and foremost as a member. That’s why I appreciate the frustrations of having to cut through the union’s bureaucracy to get support and advice quickly,” he says, “hence the ‘One Call That’s All’ pledge in my manifesto.” (His full Charter for Change can be found on: www.steveturner4gs.org).

If solidarity is a key word in the Turner lexicon, so is “investment.”

Investment in education and training of shop stewards to give them confidence and power at the workplace. And investment in industry and services to face and overcome the enormous challenges: 

  • to reverse the chronic underfunding of our public services magnified by the pandemic 
  • to handle our post-Brexit strategy in every region and sector of England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Gibraltar
  • to green our economy and jobs to fight climate change
  • to develop new forms of union organisation reflecting changing work patterns and new technologies
  • to end casualisation of work,  zero-hours contracts and the outrageous “fire  and rehire” policies of profit hungry bosses 
  • to beef up UK manufacturing capacity of products like semi-conductors and wind turbines 

“My vision is of good unionised jobs, high pay and high skilled, with safety reps imposing healthy standards. I know how difficult it is to organise in the gig economy.

“But there have been notable successes and we will encourage innovative forms of local organisation which are not tethered to the traditional Unite representational structures.

“However, recruitment built on existing memberships remains vital. To better represent our members we will need to decentralise more and develop a diverse leadership team ensuring that more officers are women and from under-represented groups in our union.

“Unite must step up investment in training and education for our shop stewards,” Turner said. “We must boost their ability to win over workmates and, especially where national combine committees are operating, have the confidence to stand up to bad bosses both locally and nationally. That’s how our union and its predecessor unions came to play a leading role in the labour movement.

“Jack Jones built up our membership with strategic thinking about the future shape of industry and empowering working people to organise within it. Our world is very different now, and the pace of change is accelerating. As we stand on the threshold of Unite’s celebration of the T&G centenary next year, I am pledged to maintain our traditional values and meet those future challenges with strength and confidence.”

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