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UNITE’S policy conference is the most important single week in our union’s calendar. It’s the moment when we come together from all parts of our union to shape policy and chart our course for the future.
We come to Brighton in good heart. Yes, we’re vilified in the mass media, particularly me as general secretary, but that’s because the elite in this country are worried. They have good cause to be.
Whether in the workplace, in the wider community and the world, in the political setting Unite embodies the spirit of resistance to the status quo and the gleam of an alternative.
Our members, the beating heart of our union, lead our debates this week. These discussions will not only reflect concerns from the shop floor, they will be an expression of what is worrying our communities. But they are also a declaration of the solutions and change we seek.
From the future of an NHS stretched to breaking point, to the dangers of a Tory Brexit, we will bring the voice of Unite’s members to the major issues of our times.
But this is also a week for our members to reflect on the strength of the Unite family.
Over the last two years we have held more than 300 industrial action ballots, with the majority resulting in significant wins for our members, often without needing to activate the mandate.
Since our last policy conference two years ago, we have grown through our merger with Ucatt to become the union for workers in the construction sector.
Only last month — and I sometimes have to pinch myself to believe this — we brought another new face to our family, with a long-sought recognition deal at that historically anti-union employer Ryanair, ensuring that the workforce there will get the same support, should they ever need it, as our BA cabin crew members did last year in their fight for a living wage.
As a fighting force for working people, I am immensely proud of the determination of our members and the support we give them to find their voice.
Thousands of jobs in Bombardier were saved because we never, ever gave up. We took on Donald Trump’s protectionism and his assault on our working class and we won.
The bosses at TGI Friday’s should take note. Our members, inspirational young people, are calling out the boardroom greed that is pushing them onto the breadline.
They’re blazing a trail in the hospitality sector, the fifth-biggest employer in the country, and sending a signal to others that, with Unite on your side, you can stand and fight.
Our strike fund, standing at £36 million strong, speaks of our dedication to winning for our members. To hostile employers, this money talks. It says loud and clear that we will never ever allow even one single Unite member to be starved back to work.
Alongside that fund we are constantly looking at new ways to win from members. Our leverage strategy, which has a 10 out of 10 record of achievement so far, is watched with trepidation by employers and now emulated by unions around the globe.
We’ve integrated legal action into our industrial strategy like never before, for the simple reason that we can win for workers in the courtroom, as resoundingly as we can on the picket line. Just ask the Birmingham refuse workers about that one.
We have also won over £10 million for blacklisted workers in the building industry. Of course no amount of money can overcome the injustice done to those workers whose lives were wrecked by the blacklisters, but this is a big step towards righting the wrong.
The bigger picture is, undoubtedly, that the world of work is changing. Automation threatens to change the work that we do and indeed our entire relationship to work.
When Facebook can power 20,000 computers using only one human technician, then it is correct that this union does not stand still in the face of the fourth industrial revolution. Instead we get busy, pioneering agreements aimed at safeguarding jobs.
One in five workers in this country are now in some form of insecure work. Zero-hours contracts, casual working, the so-called gig economy. All these are expressions of the deregulated labour market, introduced by the Tories under Thatcher and scandalously celebrated by new Labour under Tony Blair.
Yes, we need a change of government if we are to tackle the root causes of business exploitation, but we can’t leave it all to Jeremy Corbyn.
It is going to take hard work and every ounce of our collective endeavour, but, if we want a fairer UK and Ireland, then, as ever, it will be down to the working class to deliver it. No boss and certainly no minister ever gave us anything without us having to fight for it.
For a long time we in Britain have looked for inspiration to the industrial and political struggles of brothers and sisters around the world.
Today, colleagues, trade unionists and progressives in other lands are looking to Britain. They want to see if our movement can make a breakthrough, develop a real alternative to austerity and show the path to a better tomorrow.
That too is why I took the opportunity of this conference to send a message to the far-right Football Lads Alliance, which has been building links with neofascist groups in order to spread instability and division across working-class communities, and that message is this — get off our terraces and out of our communities.
The challenge before us is clear — to deliver on the hopes we have sparked, the expectations we have aroused.
As Unite we must pledge to always stand strong. We face an enormous task to ensure that this country does take a better course.
Our strength is our unity. It means we win for working people every day. It now must power us on to ensure that our movement leads our country to a fairer future.
Len McCluskey is general secretary of Unite the Union.
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