Unite the Union

Unite the Union, commonly known as Unite, is a British and Irish trade union, formed on 1 May 2007, by the merger of Amicus and the Transport and General Workers' Union. With just over 1.2 million members, it is the second largest trade union in the UK.[3] The General Secretary of Unite is Len McCluskey.[4]

Unite the Union
Members1,271,313 (2018)[1]
AffiliationTUC, ICTU, AfF, CSEU, Labour (Britain),[2] Labour (Ireland)
Key peopleLen McCluskey (general secretary), Mike Hawk (Northern Ireland secretary)
Office locationLondon, WC1
United Kingdom
CountryUnited Kingdom & Ireland

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.

Executive Council

As part of the merger process, a Joint Executive Council (formed of the executives of both the predecessor unions) took office on the vesting day. In March 2008, a new Executive Council for the expanded Union was elected, taking office on 1 May 2008 and having a three-year term. The Executive Council was tasked with putting a new Unite rulebook to a postal ballot of members during July 2008. The rule book was accepted by a majority of members and will not be subject to amendment until a Rules Conference is held.

The first reduced unified Unite Executive Council was elected in 2011

The first single General secretary of Unite Len McCluskey was elected in December 2010 on a platform of unification and standing for one term of office only.

The Unite special Rules Conference in 2010 agreed a rule change including a formula for how seats will be allocated on the UNITE Executive Council which takes office in 2011. There are a number of factions within Unite.

  • Unite Now, A growing active movement established in 2011 which is "moderate left" It presents itself as an independent movement for lay members, activists and officers. Supported Len 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 grouping, which includes supporters of the Labour Party, the Socialist Workers Party and the Communist Party of Britain. Supported Len McCluskey in his election.


Joint General Secretary election and merger suspension

On the 9 October 2008 the executive council of Unite announced that there would be an election for the General Secretary (Amicus section), with a timetable of January/February 2009 for the election, the results being announced in March 2009. This election was for a fixed term until December 2010.

The Executive council also postponed the adoption of the new rule book and integration until May 2009.

This action was taken in light of the potential success of a legal challenge to Simpson's extension of tenure by a "single member" of the union.[5] Jerry Hicks, a former member of the union's Executive and its General Purposes and Finance Committee and unfairly dismissed convenor of Rolls Royce at Bristol, disclosed at the outset that he was the person behind the challenge. He made the same legal challenge that Simpson deployed successfully on his predecessor Ken Jackson.[6]

These candidates seeking nomination for the election, with their main union positions at the beginning of March 2009:[7]

  • Derek Simpson (incumbent)
  • Jerry Hicks (former convenor, Rolls Royce, Bristol)
  • Laurence Faircloth (Regional Secretary, South West Region)
  • Kevin Coyne (Regional Secretary, North West Region)
  • Paul K. Reuter (National Officer)

All candidates received sufficient nominations, but Laurence Faircloth stood down after nominations closed, recommending that his supporters to support Derek Simpson.[8]

Candidate Votes
Votes %
Derek Simpson Y 60,048
Jerry Hicks 39,307
Kevin Coyne 30,603
Paul Reuter 28,283
Invalid Votes 1,031 0.6%
Turnout 159,272 14.5%
Derek Simpson elected General Secretary

A total of 159,272 voting slips were returned, out of a possible 1,096,511 voters, a turnout of 14.5%. Simpson won the election with 37.7% of the total votes cast,[9] and remained in the post of Joint General Secretary until December 2010.

General Secretary election 2010

Following Derek Simpson & Tony Woodley's announcements that they were to retire, Len McCluskey announced his intention to seek the position of General Secretary of Unite. He secured 42.4% of the vote with 101,000 votes and was duly elected as General Secretary of Unite for a 5-year term starting 1 January 2011.[4]

Candidate Votes
Votes %
Len McCluskey Y 101,000
Jerry Hicks 53,000
Les Bayliss 47,000
Gail Cartmail 39,000
Turnout 240,000 15.8%
Len McCluskey elected General Secretary
Source: The Guardian

The overall turnout was 15.8% [10]

General Secretary election 2013

In late 2012, Len McCluskey unexpectedly called an early General Secretary election saying that "Our current timescale would mean holding an election for GS just before the next General Election which would not be good for either Unite or the Labour Party, and is liable to cause divisions in the union, sufficiently divisive to, at best, threaten, and at worst, shatter the unity that we are creating".[11] On 4 March 2013, it was declared that two candidates had declared themselves to be standing in the election: Len McCluskey, who had won 1089 workplace/branch nominations, and Jerry Hicks, who had won 136 nominations.[12] This was Jerry Hicks' third successive attempt at becoming Unite's General Secretary. On 14 April 2013 it was announced that Len McCluskey had been successfully re-elected as Unite General Secretary, whose term will now expire in 2018. The full election results were:

Candidate Votes
Votes %
Len McCluskey Y 144,570
Jerry Hicks 79,819
Invalid Votes 1,412
Turnout 225,801 15.2%
Len McCluskey re-elected General Secretary
Source: Unite the Union,[13] BBC News[14]

General Secretary election 2017

In December 2016, incumbent General Secretary Len McCluskey announced his resignation in order to contest an election for the post, which was held in April 2017. McCluskey 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". Coyne, a member of the Unite Now faction, is widely viewed as a centre-left figure within the union, has a close relationship with the Labour Party and has the backing of the Deputy Leader Tom Watson.[15] Ian Allinson later announced that he would stand as a "grass-roots socialist" candidate.[16] Concerns were expressed about breaches of data protection law during the campaign, leading to Unite's assistant general secretary for legal affairs producing a report on the allegations.[15][17][18]

Coyne was suspended from his position as West Midlands General Secretary by Unite on 20 April, after voting had finished, the day ballot counting began. It was claimed that Coyne had brought the union into disrepute.[19][20] The following day it was announced that Len McCluskey had won the election.[21] However, on 2 June Coyne announced a legal challenge against the result.[22] In December 2017 it was revealed that Jeffrey Burke, an employment law specialist and a retired high court judge, has been appointed to examine both sides of the case by the Trades Union Certification Officer.[23] The certification officer rejected Coyne's claim that the election should be declared null and void.[24] After detailed investigations, Coyne's further complaint to the certification officer was dismissed in October 2018 on all ten counts, and the officer found that Coyne had included misleading information in some of his election literature.[25]

Candidate Votes
Votes %
Len McCluskey Y 59,067
Gerard Coyne 53,544
Ian Allinson 17,143
Invalid Votes 317
Turnout 130,071 12.2%
Len McCluskey re-elected General Secretary
Source: Unite the Union PoliticsHome.com

Membership levels

Unite membership since 2007

A private presentation given by Unite's former joint general secretary Tony Woodley showed that membership of the union had stood at 1.44 million in 2007 but declined by 262,740 between 2007 and 2010.[26] 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 1.5 million members in January 2013,[27] and was claiming 1.42 million by April 2017.[28]

Unite represents many BAE Systems employees.[29]


Hunger strike

There was a 2008 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 the T&G section of Unite the Union.[30] The dispute is 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.[31][32][33]

Payment to outgoing leader

Former leader Derek Simpson received a payment of over £500,000 when he left his post in 2010.[34] Due to the controversy this caused within the union, the issue was addressed at Unite's Policy Conference in 2012 and resulted in members voting in favour of new measures designed to limit future payments on departure.[35]

Selection of Labour candidates

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.[36] 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.[37] An Information Commissioner's Office investigation took place, as did internal Labour disciplinary proceedings.

Political views

McCluskey era

Criticism of UK government austerity measures

In June 2011, Unite publicly criticised the serving coalition government for a number of cuts in public services which caused a result of the reduction of public funding, in particular cuts to the National Health Service (NHS). Ron Singer, a retired GP of 30 years and Unite member, claimed that there were "serious concerns" over the future of the NHS.[38]

In February 2013, Unite was among other organisations and individuals who gave their support to the People's Assembly in a letter published by The Guardian newspaper.[39] Representing Unite, Len McCluskey also gave a speech at the People's Assembly Conference held at Westminster Central Hall on 22 June 2013, at which many Unite delegates and representatives were in attendance.

Threat to split from Labour and launch a new workers' party

In April 2014, McCluskey threatened to disaffiliate Unite from Labour and launch a new workers' party if Labour lost the 2015 General Election.[40] Labour subsequently lost the election.

In July 2015, Unite endorsed Jeremy Corbyn's campaign in the Labour Party leadership election.[41]

Criticism of Israel

In July 2014, Unite described Israel as "an apartheid state" and called for "sanctions against Israel for its continued illegal occupation, flouting of international law, and construction of an apartheid regime."[42]


Unite supports Abortion Rights[43] which campaigns "to defend and extend women's rights and access to safe, legal abortion"; among its statements it opposes the criminalisaton of sex-selective abortion.[44]

UK's Membership of the EU

In July 2018 McCluskey said he would fight for another EU referendum if his members wanted it.[45]


  1. "Unite the Union: annual returns". GOV.UK.
  2. "TULO's member unions". Unions Together. Archived from the original on 11 March 2012. Retrieved 31 March 2012.
  3. "Unite the Union: 2017 Annual Return" (PDF). Retrieved 26 August 2018.
  4. "Len McCluskey chosen as new Unite leader". BBC News. 21 November 2010.
  5. "Unite to hold election for Joint General Secretary". Unitetheunion.org. Archived from the original on 20 July 2011. Retrieved 31 March 2012.
  6. "Jerry Hicks For General Secretary". Jerryhicks.wordpress.com. Retrieved 17 December 2009.
  7. Pickard, Jim (2 January 2009). "Union election threatens Labour funds". Financial Times. Retrieved 29 July 2019. (subscription required)
  8. Unity Gazette statement on Laurence Faircloth's withdrawal Archived 26 April 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  9. Unite Amicus Section - Election of Joint General Secretary Independent Scrutineers report Archived 20 April 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  10. "Unite's union general secretary results".
  11. http://www.powerinaunion.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/Statement-by-the-General-Secretary-to-the-Executive-Council.pdf
  12. "Two candidates to stand in Unite general secretary election".
  13. "Len McCluskey re-elected as Unite general secretary".
  14. "Len McCluskey re-elected as Unite general secretary". BBC News. 14 April 2013.
  15. Hope, Christopher (31 March 2017). "Labour wars: Unite election explodes into civil war as Tom Watson accused of 'dirty tricks' to bring down Jeremy Corbyn ally Len McCluskey". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 2 May 2017.
  16. "Unite: Ian Allinson is third candidate to enter leadership contest". BBC News. 16 December 2016. Retrieved 3 January 2017.
  17. "Unite statement in response to comments made by Gerard Coyne". Unite. 4 March 2017. Retrieved 2 May 2017.
  18. "John Spellar MP must explain how he came to be in receipt of Unite's member data". Unite. 27 March 2017. Retrieved 2 May 2017.
  19. Eaton, George (20 April 2017). "Len McCluskey's rival for Unite general secretary, Gerard Coyne, suspended". New Statesman.
  20. "Unite suspends Len McCluskey challenger Gerard Coyne". BBC News. 20 April 2017.
  21. "Len McCluskey re-elected as Unite general secretary". BBC News. 21 April 2017.
  22. "Unite union faces legal challenge as McCluskey rival calls for poll rerun". The Guardian. 2 June 2017.
  23. Rajeev Syal, Unite to face retired high court judge over Len McCluskey election, The Guardian December 19, 2017.
  24. Syal, Rajeev (4 May 2018). "McCluskey and Unite cleared of breaching election rules". The Guardian. Retrieved 8 May 2018.
  25. Busby, Mattha (6 October 2018). "Len McCluskey complaints dismissed by union watchdog". The Guardian. Retrieved 8 October 2018.
  26. Harding, Eleanor (24 June 2011). "As biggest union is hit by plunging membership, outgoing leader says it must 'stop the rot'". London: Daily Mail.
  27. "Unite boosted membership by 50,000 in 2012". Unite the Union. 30 January 2013.
  28. "About us: Unite is Britain's biggest union with 1.42 million members across every type of workplace". Unite the Union. Retrieved 21 April 2017.
  29. "BAE Systems sheds 2,000 jobs in Britain". The Economist. 12 October 2017.
  30. "Hunger strikers in bad shape". libcom.org. libcom collective of libertarian communists.
  31. "Belfast airport workers: Union leaders' broken promises". Socialist Party<!. 11 September 2001. Retrieved 17 December 2009.
  32. Gordon McNeill (18 June 2008). "Press release: Sacked airport shop steward rejects union compensation "offer"". Retrieved 25 June 2008.
  33. "Belfast Airport Shop Stewards - The Truth and Nothing but the Truth". Transport and General Workers' Union. 20 June 2008. Archived from the original on 15 September 2008. Retrieved 25 June 2008.
  34. "Union boss Derek Simpson received £500,000 golden goodbye". Daily Telegraph. London. 19 July 2011.
  35. http://www.unitetheunion.org/uploaded/documents/PolicyConf2012Decisions11-6662.pdf - Page 57
  36. Wintour, Patrick (3 July 2013). "Ed Miliband urged to confront Unite over general election candidates". The Guardian. London.
  37. "Police rule out Falkirk vote rigging inquiry". BBC News. 25 July 2013.
  38. "Trade Union Unite voices 'serious concerns' over the future of NHS care". Smart Injury Assist. 28 June 2011. Archived from the original on 5 May 2013. Retrieved 29 July 2019.
  39. "People's Assembly opening letter". The Guardian. 5 February 2013.
  40. McSmith, Andy (1 April 2014). "Unite union boss Len McCluskey threatens to launch party to rival Labour". The Independent. London. Retrieved 2 April 2014.
  41. Syal, Rajeev (5 July 2015). "Jeremy Corbyn gets backing of Unite in Labour leadership race". The Guardian. Retrieved 17 July 2017.
  42. "Statement of solidarity with the Palestinian people".
  43. "Abortion - A trade union issue" (PDF). Abortion Rights. Retrieved 15 December 2014. Unite listed as a supporter
  44. "Statement on sex-selective abortion". Abortion Rights. 18 September 2014. Archived from the original on 9 December 2014. Retrieved 15 December 2014.
  45. Staff writer (2 July 2018). "Len McCluskey: Unite will back new EU referendum if members want one". BBC News. Retrieved 7 July 2018.

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