I left Unite the union this morning after 11 years membership. I made sure it was the first thing I did.
I was appalled and angry to read the Mail on Sunday’s revelations about Derek Simpson’s frequent stays at the Waldorf. Appalled that someone who lectures others on corporate greed and excess could tell the Mail that the Waldorf was an appropriate resting place for a man of his stature. And angry that the governance of the union is so broken that the excess was permitted.
I joined Unite (when it was just the TGWU) in 1997 because I believed in the values of trade unionism and because I saw membership of a trade union as an essential part of my commitment to the Labour party. I picked the T&G because I liked national officer Bob Purkiss, who lived in my constituency and because he was keen to push my involvement. At the time I was working for £1.80 in a pizza franchise where there was no prospect of trade union recognition and I was put in a branch of Barcardi staff in Southampton. However, I enjoyed being active on the regional and national structures although I was surprised when (despite being a 6th form student) was told to claim ‘loss of earnings’ expenses as well as full train costs, despite my young persons’ discount card.
I drifted away from active trade unionism whilst at university – even though I was working for my first and only employer which recognised a union – the House of Commons. In fact, during that time the union in parliament ran a successful campaign to increase salaries for MPs’ staff – and it’s not their fault I left before benefitting. I kept paying my £10 per month even when doing so sent me over my overdraft limit and cost me bank charges. I didn’t want to leave an organisation when I believed in its purpose just because I was poor at managing my finances.
When I moved house in 2004, I called the union to register my change of address. The membership centre couldn’t find any records of my membership, despite me giving the reference numbers which appeared on my monthly direct debit. In an act of petulance I suggested I should cancel my direct debit and the call centre operator agreed that union membership was of little use. However, my wife was a local councillor and I thought it was better to be in than out. Then Jack Dromey came calling and I stayed in the T&G because I supported his candidacies. I remained in the union despite not receiving a ballot paper to any of my former addresses and no other communication from the union.
I left today because I realised that being a member of a trade union is not the same as being committed to collective organising and standing up for working people. In fact, it feels incompatible. Some may think that it’s daft to leave whilst there’s an election up for grabs (even though I won’t get a vote). But it shouldn’t depend on one person to change the culture of an organisation which told a 16 year old that it was ok to lie about his expenses and fails to provide a check on a general secretary who has lost a sense of what he’s for. Besides, I always hoped that Jack Dromey’s election would leave to things changing. I haven’t seen that (not that the union has contacted me either).
There are two other things that have helped me make the decision. My wife is a member of Unite and, as a Labour councillor in a marginal ward, has asked on three occassions for help with election expenses. She’s never had a reply. And although she receives plenty of advertising for financial services products, there’s no regular communication (even something as basic and old fashioned as a newsletter).
So I’m leaving Unite the union and will not rejoin a trade union until I find one that tends to practice what it preaches. Even if the particulars of this story are not true, it comes after a series of embarrassing revelations of corporate greed at the union.
Instead, I will find a progressive organisation which stands up for working and vulnerable people and believes in collectivity and donate £10 a month to them instead. And if I get in trouble at work? Well, I wouldn’t fancy my chances with this bunch, even if I could convince them that I’m a member.
UPDATE: I’ve emailed Tony Woodley to explain why I’ve left. Not because I’m important, but because I want the leadership of the union to understand just how damaging these stories are.
I’ve no reason to doubt the integrity of Woodley, Dromey or lots of other hard working T&G activists and staff. But the failure of corporate governance to allow the union to give THAT quote to the Mail – and turned a blind eye to the payments suggests a rotten organisation. Moreover, it no longer has the credibility to speak for me in the Labour party, in Whitehall, to company bosses or the media.
UPDATE: Tony Woodley called me to discuss my email. As we agreed, the content of the call will remain private. However, I was impressed that he took the time to talk about my concerns.