A retirement triggers civil war

Observations on union rows

The traditionally fractious building trade union Ucatt looks as though it is shaping up for 18 months of fratricidal strife.

It has been triggered by the impending retirement of the top man. George Brum-well, Ucatt general secretary, reaches 65 in October 2004, and John Cunningham, a Midlands regional official, is well placed to be the left-wing candidate for the job - except that earlier this month the national executive fired Cunningham for "conduct detrimental to the union". His offence was to issue public statements highly critical of Brumwell's negotiating methods and his management style, and to call on him to resign at once.

It has been a difficult few weeks for Cunningham. Suspended from duty before Christmas, he has spent the time writing a 160-page document intended both to defend himself and to substantiate his case against Brumwell. One of his principal witnesses for the national executive's disciplinary hearing was to have been a junior official called Seamus Milligan, but Milligan withdrew at the last minute, telling Cunningham that his own dispute with Brumwell had now been resolved.

Meanwhile, Cunningham has to consolidate his position as the left's candidate, since Ucatt's Scargillite faction wants to field someone more ideologically pure. Cunningham, 49, was an active member of the Labour Party until last year, when he resigned over privatisation.

Brumwell is likely to support someone rather more in tune with new Labour. Trade union elections in recent years have shown that if you can attach the label Blairite to anyone, you kill his candidature.

Those around Cunningham think this is a plot to sabotage his chances. They even speculate that his opponent may be Brumwell himself, who they think hopes to make use of the government's intention to lift the retirement age.

This, however, seems to be one of those conspiracy theories that flourish in unions: Brumwell says that, having worked in one way or another for the union since 1969, he is ready to go.

Cunningham says the executive's investigation into the complaints against him was biased, and has appealed to the union's appeals tribunal. Relations between him and Brumwell are clearly terrible: Cunningham labels Brumwell a Blairite, and Brumwell accuses Cunningham of taking the dispute outside the union. He claims to have received letters taking Cunningham's part from the general secretaries of the lecturers' union and the journalists' union.

Ucatt has a history of bitter disputes: in the 1980s, things got so bad that some members decamped to the GMB general union. But that is all history, says Brumwell, and recently "we've been getting on like a house on fire". He leaves no doubt whom he will blame if internecine warfare flourishes again.