Len McCluskey: ‘Employers Will Exploit Weakness, Unions Have to Show Strength’

Decades of employer offensive have left workers and trade unions on the backfoot, but now they are developing new techniques to fight back in the workplace – and win.

Len McCluskey addresses delegates on the third day of the 2019 Labour Party conference in Brighton. Credit: Leon Neal / Getty Images

After more than a decade as general secretary of Unite, I take greatest pride in the fact we have built a union with a distinct philosophy and culture—a ‘fighting back’ union, regarded as the most formidable in our country. Being a ‘fighting back’ union has implications. If you’re going to step into the ring, you need to be prepared. Employers will exploit weakness. The only response is to show them you are strong. That has led Unite to develop a number of innovations in the way we operate that are already being copied by trade unions around the world and which I hope will be taken up by many more. I believe they are essential to the future of trade unionism.

We hear a lot about how the changing world of work means trade unions will become less powerful and less relevant, but I am not fatalistic. Unite has shown that it doesn’t have to be that way, that a strong union makes for confident workers and vice versa. There’s a truism that Bob Crow, Tony Woodley and I have often repeated, and which serves as my guiding star: “If you fight you may not always win, but if you don’t fight you will surely lose.”

Three of Unite’s innovations are worth particular mention. The first is a very large strike fund. Throughout the history of the trade union movement, many a dispute has been lost because bosses were able to hold firm and starve workers back to work. Trade unions responded by providing financial support to their members, but too often this was paltry or soon dried up. This has been a persistent failing in our movement that I was determined to fix.

Before I became general secretary, Unite didn’t have a strike fund. There was strike pay, set at a low rate, but it came out of the general fund and involved a lot of bureaucracy. Early on in my tenure, I established our dedicated strike fund with a hefty lump sum to kick it off. While previously 10 per cent of members’ dues were allocated to the union’s branches, I persuaded the executive council to require 2.5 per cent to be returned for the strike fund. That alone brought in £1 million a month. With more coming in than going out, the fund soon built up. I’m particularly proud that it has become the largest strike fund in Europe, standing, at the time of writing, at £45 million.

The rate of strike pay for Unite members was initially set at £30 a day, or £150 a week—which was not too bad. It was substantial enough for striking workers to be able to feed themselves and pay bills. But, as general secretary, I had the discretionary power to double it to £60 a day if certain criteria were met—for example, if the strike was to defend a sacked shop steward.

An early test for this system came when our members at Argos went on strike. I had looked after Argos workers as a national officer and had negotiated the agreement they operated under. I wanted to see them win and, as the dispute met the criteria, I doubled the strike pay to £60. A while later, I picked up an email from a shop steward who I knew wasn’t keen on the industrial action, complaining about the strike pay. I gave him a call. “Why are you moaning?” I demanded. “Don’t you remember the days when we got nothing? I hear the company has made an offer. Is everyone going to accept it?”

He said: “They might, if you keep your nose out, Len.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Lennie, you’ve doubled the strike pay. Our people are getting £300 a week.”


“Len, we only take home £270 a week when we’re working. They’ll stay out until Christmas.”

The Argos workers won, of course, but we later had to make a rule that strikers couldn’t get more than full pay. Still, it was very powerful. During a dispute at St Mungo’s, a homelessness charity in London, I told a mass meeting that I was doubling their strike pay, which by then meant they would get £70 a day. A manager reported back to one of our stewards: “As soon as we heard that, we knew we were never going to beat you.” The dispute was settled immediately.

The discretionary arrangement to double strike pay eventually ran into difficulties, with members whose pay wasn’t doubled regarding it as unfair, so at my suggestion the executive replaced the system with a single rate of £50 a day, or £250 a week. We also developed other tactics, such as taking out a limited number of strategically important workers on full pay, rather than an entire workforce on strike pay, leading to quick victories. I encouraged union branches to create their own strike funds. When Rolls Royce workers were in dispute over job cuts at the Barnoldswick factory in 2020-21, they won a fantastic victory in part because their own strike fund allowed them to take action on virtually full pay. What tremendous power that gives workers.

Throughout my stewardship, Unite was involved in four times as many industrial action ballots as every other British trade union combined and we were successful in almost every one. We frequently heard anecdotal evidence of employers conceding before any action was taken because of the power of the financial support on offer to our members.

The second innovation developed in Unite is the most exciting: leverage. The idea of leverage is to show a hostile employer that we can impose consequences on them that will cost more than whatever they’re hoping to gain by screwing their workforce.

Our leverage uses highly sophisticated methods to identify a company’s weak spots and press on them. We ask three questions about the employer: who is the real decision maker? How does the company make money? What consequences can we inflict? A vast amount of information is gathered to answer these questions and plan a campaign that may last up to a year.

Leverage is an explosive tactic that is not to be used lightly. It’s for when an employer is already in an aggressive posture. It isn’t a replacement for strikes— nothing can be more powerful than collective action by the workers. But in some cases strikes are impossible or unsuitable. That’s when leverage comes in. These are muscular campaigns, very different to usual industrial relations. They are not negotiations; we make demands—reinstate a sacked shop steward, recognise the union, stick to a national agreement. The company needs to know we’re serious and that our campaign will escalate, making each day worse for it than the one before.

Leverage was pioneered by Unite’s organising department, headed by Sharon Graham, now the union’s general secretary, who is regarded as the best organiser in the whole of Europe. It developed out of our organisers’ experience of fighting companies for union recognition when, of course, strike action isn’t yet possible. From these conflicts different ways to pressure employers were developed and leverage was born.

We first used leverage in a concerted way in a dispute with Honda in Swindon in 2011, soon after I became general secretary. The company wanted to rip up our recognition agreement and suspended our senior shop steward. Taking out a steward crosses a line—if we can’t defend our stewards, we’re nothing. But there was too much fear among the workforce to strike, so we decided to try leverage. Before long, Honda executives were flying over from Japan to meet me. The result of the dispute was that our steward was reinstated and the managing director of the plant was sacked. Along the way, we gained 1,200 new members who were attracted by a union fighting for them.

The actions we take as part of a leverage campaign range from, at the lighter end of the scale, stunts to get the decision maker’s attention—such as showing up at a CEO’s golf club or protesting outside a company’s HQ—through to heavier financial initiatives—such as pressuring a company’s contractors or speaking to industry analysts and credit ratings agencies about our plans. In the early days of leverage it was difficult to get such analysts in the room. Now they queue up for information because they know our actions will affect the industry they monitor. The information they put in their reports is then read by investors and can impact the value of the company. During a dispute with British Airways in 2020, 48 industry analysts and two of the big credit rating agencies joined a conference call with Sharon to hear what we were planning to do.

Often, the best way to make an employer reverse course will not be to hit the company itself, or its biggest shareholders—because they are the hardest to move—but the clients from whom it generates its income. One of the best wins we’ve ever had came after seven construction companies, led by Balfour Beatty, announced in 2012 their intention to withdraw from a long-standing national agreement between employers and unions and create their own agreement known as BESNA. In response, we launched a leverage campaign that shook them to the core. We spoke to potential clients of Balfour Beatty and told them that if they went with the company they would have us in their hair all day long; if they didn’t, we would go away.

We also called in the help of the Teamsters union in North America to send dozens of their members to occupy Balfour Beatty’s US offices. I like to imagine their American CEO exclaiming, “Goddamn it, what the hell’s happening here?” It was reported to me that he really did say he wasn’t having some poxy dispute in the UK disrupting his life. That led to a memorable moment when Balfour Beatty’s UK managing director rang me in my office at about 8 p.m. one evening. His words were reminiscent of a scene from a favourite film of mine, ‘The Godfather’: “Len, how did we get this far? We didn’t want this. How can we put it right?” I replied that it was easy: simply email straight away to confirm that Balfour Beatty would stick with the national agreement. Ten minutes later the email arrived and the following morning the other six companies capitulated.

The following year, we won another big construction industry dispute after one of our stewards working on the Crossrail project in London was sacked having raised safety concerns (more than half our leverage campaigns have been in response to the sacking of stewards). We launched a fantastic campaign that included occupations of the offices of major corporate investors, the rail regulator, and even Google; the blocking of Oxford Street, Park Lane and Earls Court; and international solidarity protests in Holland, France, Spain, the US and Canada to pressure clients not to do deals with blacklisting companies. That led to a funny episode when I was in Toronto for a meeting with the United Steelworkers. One of the Crossrail contractors, a Spanish company called Ferrovial, operated a toll bridge in the city. Someone at the meeting said to me, “Hey Len, what’s this about your people shutting down the bridge?” It was news to me. It turned out Sharon had somehow managed to close a bridge in Toronto over a dispute in London.

When the passenger transport company Go Ahead sacked a steward working on the buses in Manchester, we discovered its growth plan was to move into the Norwegian rail market by winning a contract worth £3.8 billion. We dispatched a team to speak to Norwegian politicians and the press, armed with a dossier detailing how this company dealt with rail contracts in the UK. The company was forced to weigh the benefit of getting rid of the steward against the threat to a multi-billion-pound contract. Soon enough, the steward was back at work.

Companies that sack our stewards always seem surprised when we don’t play by the Queensberry rules. Of course, they make threats. If we haven’t received a legal letter promising hell and damnation after two weeks of a leverage campaign, we start wondering if we’re doing something wrong. The greatest compliment our techniques have ever received came in the form of a summit of CEOs in Paris in the aftermath of the big construction disputes. The meeting had just one item on the agenda: “Is Unite’s leverage legal?” Unfortunately for the attendees, the answer, delivered by two QCs, was “Yes.” Inevitably, the employers’ next move was to try to make it illegal. There was talk of the Cameron government classifying leverage as secondary picketing, but nothing came of it.

So far, Unite has used leverage defensively. An exciting prospect for the future is to use it to advance as part of a strategic push to gain union recognition from the biggest players in each sector of the economy, especially from fiercely anti-union companies like Amazon.

Leverage is not easy to do. I don’t know of any trade union in Europe that operates leverage in the focused and sophisticated manner that Unite does. For it to be effective, a trade union has to be prepared to make a big investment—we can have 40-50 staff on a single leverage campaign. It takes a lot of resources and a lot of guts. But I have no doubt that leverage is going to be a vital part of the trade union movement’s armoury in the future. That’s why unions from across the world, as well as here at home, have come to Unite to learn the methods Sharon uses. Leverage is not a silver bullet, but all I can say is that every time Unite has used it, we’ve won.

The third innovation is the creation of Unite Community—a section of the union for people not in work, whether for reasons of health, unemployment, education or retirement. Established in 2014, this is one of my proudest achievements as general secretary. It is unique—no other union has anything similar. While all trade unions give a voice to workers in work, I wanted to give a voice to ordinary people in their communities who don’t work. As well as running political campaigns on austerity, universal credit, the bedroom tax and other issues, I saw an opportunity for Community members to assist us in industrial disputes. Tory trade union laws severely restrict the ways in which workers can stand up for themselves, but they say nothing about non-workers.

The idea of Unite Community sprang from trying to organise contract cleaners as a regional officer in Liverpool in 1980. It was difficult—they were in a precarious position. But they had a brilliant union officer helping them, a friend called John Farrell. He set a Merseyside-wide minimum rate of pay and demanded the contractors meet it. They would tell him to get lost, so he would organise demonstrations outside the offices cleaned by the women (they were all women) and get everybody and anybody to come and assist in their struggle—a rudimentary version of leverage. Soon the companies in the offices would be onto the contractor asking, “What’s going on?”

The contractor would say, “Well they want an extra 50p an hour, are you willing to pay it?”

“Yes, yes, we’ll give it to you.”

On more than one occasion, including when we occupied a hotel, the police would turn up saying, “Hang on, how come you’ve got all these people here? They don’t work here.”

John would reply, “No, that’s so-and-so’s husband, that’s her brother, his uncle. They’re nothing to do with the union, they’re family members, don’t be asking me about them.”

John handled 54 disputes in a 12-month period and won every one, establishing an unofficial minimum wage for cleaners on Merseyside. I learned then that linking community activity with industrial organisation could be a powerful strategy for a trade union.

Years later, Unite Community would prove me right by leading the brilliant campaign to force Mike Ashley to scrap zero-hours contracts at Sports Direct. It was Unite Community members who did banner drops from bridges, protested outside Sports Direct shops and unfurled banners at Newcastle United football matches (the club then owned by Ashley). The workers themselves couldn’t take action because the vast majority were precarious zero-hour or agency workers who weren’t in the union. Unite Community stepped in to expose an injustice.

Having Unite Community members supporting workers in industrial disputes adds another layer of pressure on the bosses. Whether Community members are taking direct action, protesting, collecting petitions, leafleting, supporting pickets or spreading the word on social media, their efforts help open up workplace struggles to the wider public and strengthen the workers’ hand.

Trade unions should always be embedded in our communities because we remain a vital part of society. As long as bosses can make more money by paying their employees less, or by sacking easily and then hiring cheaply, or by cutting corners on safety, then trade unions will need to exist. No one has come up with a better method of levelling the playing field at work. The obstacles facing us today may seem formidable, but they are far less imposing than those overcome by the first workers to band together more than two centuries ago. Our forerunners had to fight and sometimes die for the right to form unions. They did so because no one is going to protect workers but workers themselves. I believe the ‘fighting back’ culture of Unite is true to that history, and I hope it will stand as an example for the trade unionism of the future.