by Chris Ford
There is a long history of British trade union leaders becoming Members of Parliament. This has often represented the next step by individuals whose primary concern is the advancement of a cause very dear to their hearts – their own self-interest.
In some cases however there are those who have genuinely sought to take the workers’ struggle in the industrial front into the political arena: individuals with principle who have sought to maintain a loyalty and commitment to the labour movement, such as John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn. The coming general election should see a new recruit from union ranks – Jack Dromey, the Deputy General Secretary of UNITE.
Jack Dromey is a leading figure in the UNITE organising department, spearheading a strategy for growth and revitalisation. The organising department has some connection to recruitment and organising of migrant workers. Dromey himself holds the cause of migrant labour dear to his heart. But we should not get our hopes up. Dromey provides a case study of just what is wrong with the established labour movement. It is the story of how a ‘red’ became a rat!
Dromey came to prominence in the Grunwick dispute in Brent, North London in 1976-1977. It involved migrant workers who protested their dire wages and working conditions. They organized into the union APEX and were sacked by the anti-union bigot George Ward. Dromey was a leader of the Brent Trades Union Council. At Grunwick these heroic, mainly Asian women took on the force of the employers, the state and the union bureaucrats. They received solidarity from across our movement, with the miners providing the muscle of mass pickets and Cricklewood Postal workers taking wildcat action.
Dromey was in the thick of it – he recalled with pride how these other unions “to their credit, were prepared to put themselves on the line unashamedly in solidarity with fellow workers”. The right wing union bureaucrats, the Labour Party and the TUC betrayed the Grunwick struggle: the postal workers were disciplined by their own union as were the strikers themselves for going on hunger strike outside TUC Congress House. Their main concern was maintaining the Labour government in office, not these migrant workers. The defeat at Grunwick was a turning point, setting the scene for the capitalist counter-offensive under Thatcher’s leadership.
Dromey co-authored, Grunwick: the Workers ‘Story published by the Communist Party in 1978. But whilst everyone else suffered from blacklisting, victimisation and struggled to get their life back together, Dromey, as a Labour MP once told me, was the ‘only one who made a career out of Grunwick’. It is a career in the trade union movement in which Dromey has continued to be associated with migrant workers. But according to Dromey ‘unreconstructed trade unionism’ played into the hands of the Tories – so he reconstructed himself into the New Labour project of neo-liberalised social-democracy and social-partnership trade unionism.
Dromey complained that “rich men are too influential at Downing Street”, but was not himself so observant as Labour Party Treasurer when he failed to notice in 2006 that £3.5 million in loans were made by donors who were then given life peerages. One can’t help but feel, despite his denials, that his conclusion was – if you can’t beat them, join them!
In his quest to become an MP Dromey failed to be even short listed in Pontefract Labour Party in 1997, so in 2007 he tried again. Not being a rich man himself, Dromey used someone else’s money – that of UNITE members. According to Labour’s own General Secretary, £1 million was donated on the assumption Dromey would be given the safe seat in Wolverhampton North East in the event of an election. Three years later, another seat has been found for Jack, this time in Birmingham Erdington where he has been a parachuted in. Just to make things easier for the ‘preferred candidate’, all-women short listing was abandoned for an ‘open contest’.
What about the cause of the migrant workers, who after all helped propel Dromey to prominence? In 2009 cleaners, all migrant workers working for the company Mitie at the Willis insurance building, were victimised by the company. They fought back and called on their union to support them just as the Grunwick workers had before them. Dromey responded with a letter declaring the withdrawal of official union support, stating he felt that the company and UNITE had done all it could for them.
Even when immigration police brutally arrested UNITE members and deported them, Dromey was silent. After disputes at Willis, Schroders, and UBS it is clear migrant workers have provided nothing but an advertising opportunity for bureaucrats like Dromey in UNITE. Dromey boasts of the Grunwick strikers that whilst they were loyal to their union they were not necessarily respectful of the union bureaucracy. When it has happened in UNITE we see the Latin American Workers’ Association having their office closed at UNITE HQ and elected reps disciplined.
Next month Jack Dromey will cease to be Assistant General Secretary of UNITE, and will then become a Member of Parliament. He will then complete his journey from red to rat.