Unite the Union, commonly known as Unite, is a British and Irish trade union which was formed on 1 May 2007 by the merger of Amicus and the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU). Unite is the second largest trade union in the UK, after Unison, with almost 1.3 million members across construction, manufacturing, transport, logistics, and other sectors. The general secretary of Unite is Len McCluskey.
On 2 July 2008, Unite signed an agreement to merge with the United Steelworkers to form a new global union entity called Workers Uniting which represents over 3 million members in the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland and North America. Unite retains its separate identity in the United Kingdom.
Merger and early years (2007–2010)
Unite the Union was formed on 1 May 2007 by the merger of Amicus, a general private sector union, and the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU). The general secretaries of the previous unions, Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley respectively, served as joint general secretaries of the new union. The executive councils of the predecessor unions became a joint executive council which served until elections could be held for an executive council of Unite. The new council took office on 1 May 2008. They put a new rulebook for the union to a postal ballot of members during July 2008, which was accepted.
In 2008, there was a rooftop hunger strike at Unite's Transport House building in Belfast. The participants were formerly shop stewards of the Transport and General Workers Union, now a section of Unite. The dispute was over legal fees and compensation for an unfair dismissal action against the workers' employer, arising from a 2002 strike at Belfast International Airport, and the related actions of a full-time union official employee.
In October 2009, British Airways announced that it would cut 1,700 cabin crew jobs. Unite, which represented 12,000 of the company's cabin crew, said that it had been in talks with British Airways about the company's plans to reduce costs, but that the announcement had not been shared with them in advance. British Airways suspended staff for sharing lists of pilots who had agreed to break a potential strike. Unite's assistant general secretary, Len McCluskey, said that some members had been suspended for being friends on Facebook with other attendants being investigated. In a strike ballot, more than 80% of cabin crew members of Unite voted to strike. The High Court of Justice granted an injunction against the strike on the basis that Unite had not informed its members about the number of spoilt ballots in a previous dispute. In total, there were twenty-two days of strike during the dispute.
In November 2009, Kraft Foods Inc. bid to purchase the confectionary company Cadbury. Unite represented its staff, and sought assurance about the status of jobs in the event of the purchase. Kraft went on to purchase Cadbury. In a Parliamentary committee, Unite representatives including deputy general secretary Jack Dromey and national food and drink officer Jennie Formby gave evidence to an inquiry about the takeover, saying that Kraft had delayed meeting union representatives. Formby later criticised the company for its compensation of £40 million to its outgoing chief executive Todd Stitzer. The Labour Party later announced an election proposal to raise the shareholder majority required to approve a takeover to two-thirds, which Unite had lobbied for.
During the 2010 United Kingdom general election, Unite were the largest donor to the Labour Party, giving them £1 million.
McCluskey era (2010–present)
The first election for a single general secretary of the union was held in 2010, with McCluskey, an assistant general secretary considered on the left-wing of the union, being elected. Former joint general secretary Derek Simpson received a payment of over £500,000. Due to the controversy this caused within the union, members voted in favour of new measures designed to limit future payments on departure in a policy conference in 2012.
The union began offering lower price membership to students, the unemployed and single parents in 2011. In the same year, the dispute with British Airways was resolved. In the wake of cuts to public spending made by the Cameron–Clegg coalition, McCluskey threatened strike action to disrupt the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Also in protest against cuts, Unite supported a successful motion at the Trades Union Congress in 2012 to consider holding a general strike.
In 2013, leaked documents alleged that Unite was running a covert campaign to ensure its candidates were selected to represent the Labour Party in the 2015 general election. Steve Hart, the union's political director, stated that Unite was supporting 41 candidates. There was particular controversy over the 2013 Labour Party Falkirk candidate selection. Unite claimed that it had not broken any Labour Party rules or the law with its selection campaign. Ed Miliband, then Leader of the Labour Party, referred the matter for police investigation, however Police Scotland found there was 'insufficient evidence' to launch an investigation. An Information Commissioner's Office investigation took place, as did internal Labour disciplinary proceedings.
McCluskey was re-elected in an early general secretary election in 2013, defeating Hicks. In 2014, the union achieved a legal ruling by the Employment Appeal Tribunal that employers need to account for overtime when calculating holiday pay. In April 2014, McCluskey threatened to disaffiliate Unite from Labour and launch a new workers' party if Labour lost the 2015 general election. In July 2015, Unite endorsed Jeremy Corbyn's campaign in the 2015 Labour Party leadership election.
In December 2016, McCluskey announced his resignation in order to contest an election for the post, which was held in April 2017. He was challenged by Unite's West Midlands Regional Secretary Gerard Coyne, who accused him of "putting the Labour leadership before the interests of Unite members". McCluskey won the election, and Coyne was suspended from his position in the union.
During 2012, despite wider falling trade union membership and the tough economic climate, Unite increased its membership by more than 50,000 members. The union claimed 1.4 million members in July 2020, an increase of 200,000 over 2 years.
There are a number of factions within Unite.
Unite Now is a movement established in 2011 which is "moderate left" It presents itself as an independent movement for lay members, activists and officers. Supported McCluskey in his first election but they opposed the calling of an early general secretary election in 2013. Unite Now campaigns for greater transparency in the union and are critical of the unions centralised hierarchical decision making structures. They campaign for greater financial transparency, a move away from the current centralised executive powers with a more independent Executive Council which has set term limits. Not aligned to any political section of the union it has grown in influence within lay activist ranks, officers and key manufacturing sectors of Unite.
United Left, the main left-wing grouping which includes supporters of the Labour Party, Socialist Party and the Communist Party of Britain, supported Len McCluskey in his elections. The faction is considered dominant within the union.