Gurinder Singh Josan: Why Gerard Coyne should be Unite’s next general secretary

Gurinder Singh Josan
© Andrew Skudder/CC BY-SA 2.0

During the Unite general secretary election, LabourList has published comment pieces by Jack Dromey endorsing Steve Turner and by John Cooper backing Sharon Graham; this piece supporting Gerard Coyne is the third in the series.

“My commitment is to work day and night for Unite to give you the support and resources you need to build a better future for you and your family.” Gerard Coyne – Embracing Diversity Event, 2016

This promise by Gerard Coyne made at an event for Black, Asian and ethnic minority Unite members across the West Midlands has remained in my memory. I’ll be voting for Gerard Coyne to be the next general secretary of Unite because I believe he will change Unite for the better. If you are a member of Unite and you haven’t voted yet, I ask you to vote for Gerard too. 

I have known Gerard for many years. I’m the secretary of his local branch and I’ve seen his deep personal decency and his commitment to the members of Unite first-hand. I’ve seen him being attacked and vilified by his own union and still show incredible strength of character. He is the only candidate who has both the vision and the moral authority to change an organisation that has lost its way.

Trade unionism runs in Gerard’s blood. His mum was a school caretaker, his dad a firefighter – both trade union activists. He’s been a Labour Party member all his adult life, a councillor and election agent, a constant campaigner. As regional secretary of Unite in the West Midlands, he was instrumental in winning rights, increased pay and better conditions for low-paid workers, women, Black, Asian, ethnic minority and young members. I’ve seen Gerard empower our lay members, lead campaigns in workplaces, challenge employers and negotiate meaningful settlements. I’ve seen his work with HOPE not Hate and witnessed his passion and commitment to fighting racism and promoting equality. Gerard encapsulates the best of our movement!

Who leads Unite is crucial for two reasons. Firstly, Unite has over a million members, across almost every part of our economy and society. In the post-pandemic, rapidly changing world they need good, effective representation that responds quickly to their needs. Above all, they need a union that puts them and their jobs, pay and conditions first. Unite members simply haven’t had that in recent years, because their union has put other priorities before them.

Secondly, Unite is critical to the wider labour movement and to the Labour Party. As a member of Labour’s national executive committee, I see an organisation that has used its members’ money to fund court cases against the Labour Party, that promotes narrow factional interests and feels justified in interfering in any matter it chooses. None of this helps Labour win power and change our country for the better. None of it helps Unite members build a better future for themselves and their family.

Gerard’s view of the Labour Party is straightforward. He wants Labour to win power at local, city/region and national level, because he believes that is in the interests of union members. He’s not going to play student politics and threaten the historic link with Labour. He will push hard for policies and decisions – both from government and party – that are in the interests of Unite members. But he will not be Labour’s backseat driver.

Gerard’s view of industrial organisation is straightforward, too. He wants Unite to be a powerful and growing union, rather than shrinking as in recent years. For Gerard, this means giving prospective members a good reason to join. Better value for their subs, not more £98m luxury hotel/conference centres or a new Unite TV station. A union that uses its legal muscle to support them, not high-profile political cases. No sweetheart deals with employers, a laser focus on jobs, pay and conditions, and an understanding that you don’t just fight everyone all the time. You get a better deal for members that way.

The thing that really distinguishes Gerard from the other two candidates in this election is simple. Only he will really change Unite. The other candidates are both more of the same. Both senior serving officers of the union. Both backed by hard-left political factions including the Communist Party and Socialist Workers Party. Both backed Len McCluskey in 2017, and both were backed by him at the start of this contest. Neither said a word as Unite threw its members’ money away. Neither has delivered the change or growth the union needs despite their ten years at the top. Enough is enough!

Few elections will matter as much as this one, and yet turnout in 2017 was just 12%. This makes every vote so much more important, and it puts power in the hands of those who take part. If you are a Unite member, and you haven’t cast your vote yet, please go and find your ballot pack now. Open it and read the candidates’ statements. Think about the path Unite has taken, and the path it could take now with the right leadership. Make your own mind up. If you do that, I am confident that you will vote for real change.

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