Dale Street (Solidarity 601) is right to take issue with the entirely uncritical hagiography to newly-elected GMB union general secretary Gary Smith offered by a group of “GMB comrades” in their article of the previous week (Solidarity 600).
Reading the comrades’ paean would give readers the impression that Smith was a radical class fighter, if not quite a revolutionary socialist then very near to one, and someone who has dedicated himself to an unambiguous one-man mission to turn the GMB into a militant, class-struggle union.
Smith is exactly what Dale Street has, in previous articles, characterised him as: a bureaucrat through-and-through, with frankly reactionary positions on some key issues, such as worker-led transitions away from destructive work. Smith opposes that approach, and enthusiastically supports the continuation and expansion of work in fossil fuels, aviation, defence in general and nuclear weapons specifically. Given that the literal future of life on the planet is at stake, these can hardly be dismissed as secondary concerns that can be relegated to the category of the “political”, seen as perhaps regrettable but offset by Smith’s apparently unimpeachable industrial record.
Smith has also been a factional operator on the right wing of the Scottish Labour Party, having been central to the effort to oust left-wing leader Richard Leonard. But, following his election, he pushed an anti-political narrative, blaming the GMB’s troubles in part on too much focus on the Labour Party. No attempt was made in the Solidarity 600 article to respond to these criticisms. Instead, the writers attempted to drown them in effusive praise. As Street pointed out, if the comrades wish us to consider the “bigger picture”, they too need to assess the picture in its totality, rather than cherry-picking the elements in Smith’s record – or, sometimes, his presentation – that they prefer.
Nevertheless, Street, in my view, has committed the opposite error. As far as I can judge from the outside, the 14 July article’s claims are accurate about Smith’s campaign cohering many of the best officials and rank-and-file reps, who saw it as part of an effort to open the union up and make it more responsive to members’ struggles, whilst challenging the worst excesses of bureaucratic corruption. Undoubtedly many with less admirable motivations also hitched themselves to Smith’s wagon, but there was surely at least a case for backing Smith critically.
Smith’s industrial record is mixed, but it is a matter of fact that he empowered, rather than obstructed, the reps and officials who led the Glasgow women workers’ equal pay strike. Disputes like that will not become the norm, rather than an exception, merely by the election of Gary Smith, but a general secretary committed to supporting such action is a step forward.
Workers’ Liberty has recently voted – rightly, in my view – to support a critical vote for Sharon Graham in the general secretary election in Unite. Despite our many criticisms of her platform, we recognise that her campaign has cohered a number of militant rank-and-file reps and could therefore open up space in the union for ongoing efforts of reform. Her election would also be an important break from the worst elements of the existing regime.
Much of the same assessment holds for Gary Smith. Like Graham, Smith is a candidate entirely embedded in the bureaucracy. Disrupting the rule of one faction of the bureaucracy and replacing it with slightly more progressive bureaucrats is a long way from a thoroughgoing programme of democratic reform.
But sometimes, especially in unions as bureaucratic and cumbersome as Unite and GMB, with little to no independent rank-and-file life, it can help open things up.