Bristol's Jerry Hicks faces "biggest job interview panel" as he stands for top job at Unite
David Clensy meets Jerry Hicks – the Bristolian union activist who hopes it will be a case of third time lucky, as he stands once again for general secretary of the Unite union
There is a touch of pride in Jerry Hicks' piercing eyes as he tells me that with 1.5m union members voting on April 12 in the elections for the general secretary of Unite – the UK's largest trades union – it is "the biggest job interview panel" in the country.
"Nobody votes for the Prime Minister – they vote for their MP, and the MPs choose a leader who will be Prime Minister," he says. "So actually, with 1.5 million members voting for the election of one individual, this is the biggest election in the country.
"Unite's membership includes everyone from hospital workers to bus drivers, from men at my former employer Rolls-Royce to bank clerks."
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But the 54-year-old believes that had it not been for him, the election would not be taking place at all.
"It's an election that I don't think should be happening," the former Rolls-Royce union convener tells me, as he leads the way through his Montpelier home.
"The election was scheduled for 2015, but the current general secretary Len McCluskey brought it forward under the premise that having the country's largest union electing a new general secretary would prove to be a distraction for the Labour party in what is likely to be a general election year.
"But rather than bringing the election forward by a year, he inexplicably brought it forward by two years. That meant that nobody at a high level in the union was prepared for standing against him.
"As an ordinary union member, I was infuriated by this – the idea that the current general secretary would be unopposed struck me as not only unprecedented in the union's history, but essentially undemocratic.
"That's why I decided to stand for a third time. I'd certainly had no intention of standing in a 2015 ballot – I've done this twice before, in 2008 and 2010, and it means you're on the road for six months – the grandchildren look a lot older by the time you get back. I'd planned to take things more easily, as I'm getting older now – but I couldn't stand by and see the election unable to go ahead because nobody was prepared to oppose Len McCluskey.
"If he had been re-elected in a 2015 election, Len McCluskey would have been 69 by the end of his term of office. Given that the unions' argued against putting up the age of retirement with the slogan 'sixty-eight is too late', this would have been politically embarrassing for him. I it's wrong if this election has been brought forward because of one man's union career."
Jerry's own career began when he joined the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union (which would later get swallowed up by Amicus, and in turn, later become part of Unite) when he began with Rolls-Royce as an apprentice in 1975. He was elected shop steward in 1984. In 2005 a 48 hour occupation of the test areas at Rolls-Royce saved the jobs of two fitters who were facing dismissal, but six weeks later the company sacked the union leader.
A strike in support of Jerry lasted three weeks before he won an interim employment tribunal ruling against his dismissal, and he accepted a £100,000 payoff after being told he could not have his job back.
Claiming to have been "black-listed" by employers, Jerry has not worked since, but went on to become a prominent member of the Respect party locally –standing as a prospective city councillor for George Galloway's fledgling left-wing party in 2009, as well as standing for the top job at Unite in 2008 and 2010.
"When I was unfairly sacked from Rolls-Royce I used the pay-off to get rid of my mortgage, and I decided to focus on politics," he says. "I live frugally. I don't drink or smoke, and my only income is £500 a month from my Rolls-Royce pension.
"I believe in these difficult economic times that the current salary for general secretary of Unite is not commensurate with the wages earned by the union's members. So if I am elected, I won't be taking the current salary, of £122,000, excluding pensions, I would simply ask for the average British wage, which I believe is £26,500 – that would still be a £26,000 a year pay rise for me." (sic)
Jerry tells me that he believes the union's relationship with the Labour party has become a "one-way affair".
"I think we should stop giving the Labour party money if they are not going to support our principles in their policies. We should keep our members' hard-earned money tightly in our grasp, and use that to negotiate with the party – we should only give the party money as a reward, because giving it as an incentive doesn't work."
Jerry is also campaigning on issues as diverse as the legalisation of secondary action and lobbying Government to not only not raise the retirement age, but actually to lower it to 60 to "open up more jobs for young people".
He believes rather than austerity cut-backs, the Government should raise three different types of taxes to meet the short fall caused by the recession – a financial transactions tax on share deals, a higher rate of income tax and a mansion tax.
"I believe the union has not been effective enough when it comes to taking action to try to force the hand of Government on these sorts of issues," he says.
"Unions have to be there to take action, not just to talk. If I'm elected as general secretary I'll be much more proactive about finding the opportunities where we can make a difference for the lives of our 1.5 million members," he adds. "After all, I'm simply one of them."