Oppose Toxic Partnership

Ian Allinson, the grassroots socialist candidate for Unite General Secretary, argues that more must be done to counter partnership, an approach to trade unionism that accepts that “we are all in it together” with our employers, and the damage that does to effective union organisation.

Ian on picket at Fujitsu Manchester

I’ve raised the problems of the toxic alliance of Unite with employers and government to support nuclear

weapons and nuclear power. This sacrifices good, sustainable, jobs for the sake of a much smaller number of jobs at any price.

However, the problem of partnership is much more widespread. It is a barrier to building effective, independent, workplace organisation. This issue must be tackled now. If we continue tying our futures to our employers’ short-term business plans we will be unable to defend jobs in the face of the massive changes that are coming in many industries due to climate change.

Employers have always understood that independent workplace organisation is workers’ best protection against increasingly unreasonable demands at work. Employers put significant resources into indoctrinating workers to see our interests as the same as theirs. They try to persuade workers and their unions to see raising productivity as a shared goal. A glance at the news should be enough to show that a profitable employer doesn’t necessarily mean good news for workers – often the profits are at the expense of the workers. Few workers want their employer to go bust, but our interests are clearly not the same as our employers’. The attempt to promote partnership thinking also takes organisational forms. Team-working, joint working, intensified work, invasive monitoring and joint working undermine independent workplace organisation and drive through higher productivity through intensified work. These approaches have moved beyond manufacturing. The partnership culture and management techniques are a growing threat to independent workplace organisation in every sector.

For some reps partnership is how they’ve always done things. But partnership ties our hands when it comes to defending our jobs or fighting for decent wages, pensions, terms and conditions. We can only extract concessions by organising independently, building power to hurt our employer with effective action if they act against members’ interests. If you accept that your goal is your employer’s profitability then you can’t do this and you are helpless.

Big changes are afoot in the workplace from climate change, automation, digitalisation and the threat of a Tory Brexit. Employers, as always, will look after their own interests. If Unite doesn’t stand clearly for workers’ interests, even when these conflict with employers and government, who will?

Last year’s Unite policy conference unanimously agreed to oppose partnership and made it union policy to develop effective education material and training tailored for reps in each sector with the following aims:

  1. To explain the dangers of ‘partnership’ to building effective independent organisation in the workplace.

  2. To tackle management ideologies and educate workplace reps about management strategies that seek to undermine independent workplace organisation.

  3. Equip workplace reps with a toolkit to deal with management techniques aimed at ‘improving efficiencies’ such as teamworking, performance management, performance related pay, and absence management.

  4. Integrate our opposition to ‘partnership’, ’employee participation’ and management techniques into our existing and evolving organising strategy.

Neither McCluskey nor Coyne see tackling partnership as a priority, and this policy has not been implemented. If I’m elected Unite General Secretary, I’ll allocate the necessary resources to put this important policy into practice. We need to shift the Unite culture and equip activists to resist employers’ efforts to suck us into partnership. We still have too many shoddy partnership agreements, often foisted upon members by unaccountable officers. Not only must this stop, but I will support any group of members seeking to scrap any partnership agreement. Members fighting to establish independent and effective trade unionism that can adequately defend and promote their interests deserve the full support of the union.