There are a number of serious problems with the ‘merger’ between the United Steel Workers of America and UNITE. To say that the process was somewhat lacking would be an understatement. The members have had no say on the decision, and to my knowledge there has not been any serious discussion on the union Executive Committee.
You might have imagined that the leadership would recognise that this was a big and unprecedented step for the union, which required a discussion amongst the membership, to convince them that it was a good idea. But the decision has been taken at the top with absolutely no involvement of the membership. This is a bad precedent for the democracy of the union, treating the members as foot soldiers rather than seeking to enshrine membership involvement and control.
Derek Simpson is certainly right when he says:
“The political and economic power of multi-nationals is formidable. They are able to play one nation’s workers off against another to maximise profits.”
Yet it is difficult to take seriously the assertion of Leo Gerrard of the USW when he says “the union is crucial for challenging the growing power of global capital” when he also says:
“In today’s competitive marketplace, USW recognises that the labour-management cooperation is vital to achieving productivity, profitability, and good pay and benefits for workers.”
Is this the ‘partnership’ which Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley spoke out against when they were elected in the two wings of the union? Certainly, Gerrard’s comments reflect an attitude which seems to accept that in order to ‘win’ in this “competitive marketplace” workers have to compete with each other. We know what productivity means for the employers – more work out of less workers.
It is also difficult to take seriously the talk of challenging the power of global capital when the Amicus wing of UNITE has left in place the AEEU’s sweetheart deal in the North Sea, signed just before the Blair government’s Fairness at Work legislation; an agreement signed in order to prevent the workforce deciding for themselves which union or unions would represent them.
If you are looking for an alliance, never mind a union merger, you have to make an assessment of your potential allies. The USW, whilst not the worst of the US unions, sits within the ‘business union’ tradition which dominates it. It has an alliance with US Steel companies aimed at stopping Chinese imports, rather than seeking to support Chinese workers and their struggle for independent and genuine unions.
Aside from these issues there are questions about the relationship between the two wings of this beast and how the relationship would function. All we are told is that it is a precursor to “a full merger”.
It does makes sense to have unions collaborate across national boundaries, especially (though not only) in the same companies that have plants in different countries. But you do not need a single union to do that. The building of global solidarity requires action across national boundaries. But this cannot develop fully without the abandonment of ‘business unionism’ (such as exists in the USA) and ‘partnership’ (in the UK). Working class internationalism recognises the common interests of workers irrespective of their nationality. But you cannot create this with the “labour-management cooperation” which Gerrard speaks of.