The scenes at GMB Congress last week in Dublin were electrifyingly emotional when General Secretary, Paul Kenny, announced that there would be an election for General Secretary, but that he could not commit to another five years. The affection that activists hold for PK meant that when the news that many of us were expecting became a reality, there was still shock, and a spontaneous standing ovation, with many delegates in tears.
In my opinion there are two aspects to PK’s popularity. A very important attribute is that he personally treats members and activists with respect, and the easy rapport that Paul has with president, Mary Turner, ensures that GMB Congresses have more of the atmosphere of a big family gathering.
But PK’s popularity is also based upon success. Membership has grown from 571000 in 2004 to 630000 today, including growth of 8500 members in the last twelve months; net asset values have grown from £25 million in 2003 to £69 million today, and each year under PK has seen an operating surplus, compared to regular annual losses in the preceding period. Both membership and the financial health of the union have grown year on year. To put this in perspective, the much vaunted membership growth of RMT under Bob Crow did see a boost from 57000 in 2002 until reaching 80041 in 2008, but then growth stopped and between that year and up to 2013 membership only reached 80105 (This is the last year for which a return has been made to the Certification Officer)
In addition, after one year of trading, the trade union owned law firm, Unionline, a joint enterprise between GMB and CWU now has a Work in Progress (WIP) sheet of £25 million, giving an estimated valuation of £150 million. Rule revision at this year’s Congress has embedded Unionline into the GMB’s rulebook, so that the asset could not be disposed of without reference to, and a vote by, GMB Congress delegates. In contrast, while Unionline’s profits are fed back into building the union, many traditional law firms associated with the union movement pay million pound bonuses to directors.
Participation and inclusivity has improved. Annual Congresses have been restored, and with more delegates, including measures to ensure the participation of underrepresented groups. GMB now has as many women as men in membership, and representation of delegates at Congess reflects the full diversity of the union’s membership. GMB has also undertaken a more critical engagement with the Labour Party, encouraging members to become involved and to promote candidates and policies in the interests of working people, but perhaps with less public gestures towards the gallery then other unions make.
A significant change has been the introduction of the GMB@Work organizing agenda, which recognizes that employers and their workforce have opposing interest, that it is the process of industrial relations which builds the union, and that every workplace needs to be organized so that an industrial action ballot could be run. Implementation of GMB@Work is uneven, but there are significant advances in membership density and results for members where it has been done well.
When Kenny first took over the union in 2005 as Acting General Secretary, (in the wake of a scandal surrounding the circumstances of former GS Kevin Curran’s 2003 election) the union looked in a bad way, and a shotgun wedding with TGWU on unfavourable terms looked inevitable. Kenny turned the situation around and it is therefore no exaggeration to say that the very existence today of GMB as a healthy, solvent, independent and combative union is his achievement. Kenny gave a new confidence to GMB, and swept away the old habits of industrial partnership; in his own words:
“I am sick of people trying to camouflage what we are about. We are a vested interest and proud to be one. Our vested interest is the working people of this country, the people who have no other voice than the trade union movement.……. I do not go to parties and introduce myself as an “industrial relations expert” or a “purveyor of partnerships”. I am proud of what we do, who we are, and where we have come from … The fact that there is decent pay, or a pension scheme, or proper health and safety, or respect from the management is down to union organisation”
There will now be an election for a new General Secretary, and we must choose wisely so that the union which Kenny returned to the combative traditions of its founders, Will Thorne and Eleanor Marx, and which has been returned to the control of its lay members, continues to build upon those acheivements.
picture credit : Rachel Harrison from Twitter