“Bad employers always make good recruiters for trades unions,” he says. “We had one particular manager who decided he didn’t want people talking on the checkouts. So I started organising. When we ended, I had the whole store unionised.”
Thirty-two years on, Coyne, 49, is embarking on a quest to become the most powerful figure in the British trade union movement. If he succeeds, it will have far-reaching implications for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party.
When we meet in a coffee shop next to King’s Cross station in London for his first newspaper interview since launching a challenge to topple Len McCluskey, 66, from the leadership of the super-union Unite, it is McCluskey who he now casts as the bad boss who does not have the interests of working people sufficiently at heart. The current Unite leader, he says at the outset, spends far too much time playing power politics and trying to “pull strings” at Westminster and not enough on the vital issues that affect his 1.4 million members.
He says he cannot remember an occasion in the past three years on which McCluskey actually appeared on site to back Unite members in an industrial dispute. By contrast, his general secretary’s numerous appearances on the media in support of Corbyn and his predecessor Ed Miliband are all too fresh in the mind. “Of course we want to see the election of a Labour government in 2020, but what I want is to get away from this pulling of the strings of the Labour party.”
It is not that Coyne thinks influence with Labour leaders does not matter. He knows it does. But he says the union will exercise even more if it can give better value for money to members and help them face the challenges of mechanisation and technological advance that are threatening their jobs. That, says Coyne, is the route to increasing Unite’s membership and enhancing its reputation.
“If we can grow and show we are playing a real, constructive role in the lives of working people, Labour would be mad not to listen to us. Every morning we have to wake up and think, what is it I do to grow the movement? Not – what is it I do to grow influence [at Westminster]?”
Mechanisation is a “massive issue”, he says. “We have not really grappled with the technological change that most of the world of work is going to be faced with, around manufacturing, food processing, transport. In the next 20 years we are going to be seeing such change … we need to explain it to our members and upskill them to be ready for it.”
The union also needs to “up its game” in promoting the interests of women in the workplace, doing more to push pay equality and flexible working. “We have to make sure we are relevant to women. At the moment these issues are on the back burner.”
Coyne is Unite’s regional secretary in the West Midlands, with more than 25 years of experience at senior levels in the movement. He is one of six brothers from a family of trade unionists and Labour activists. In 2005, he brokered agreements to get 6,500 Rover workers into new jobs after the company went into receivership.
The fast-changing world of work, he says, not only threatens traditional jobs but also the very future of unions. “We have so many challenges that apply to the whole of the British trade union movement. I fundamentally believe in trade unions absolutely to my core. But if we don’t get this right in this generation I fear for the future of the movement.”
Unite is the Labour party’s biggest donor, pumping millions of pounds a year into its coffers. It loans staff to Corbyn’s office. McCluskey appoints Unite members to Labour’s ruling national executive council. It threw hefty financial and other resources behind Corbyn’s two leadership campaigns this year and last. It has huge voting power at party conference. McCluskey is arguably Corbyn’s most important supporter inside or outside parliament.
Unite’s influence also extends into local Labour politics, where many MPs opposed to Corbyn fear local Unite officials are trying to pack their people on to key committees in constituencies, with the ultimate aim of bringing about mass deselections of the disloyal.
Labour MPs are watching this election more closely than any other for many years. One MP and former shadow cabinet member told the Observer it was “by far the most important union moment in our party’s recent history”. That is because if Coyne wins, he will pull it back from the politics and redirect the focus.
Coyne says: “Our members are suffering a tough time at the moment. Average earnings have gone down 10% since 2007; 1.6 million people are on temporary and agency contracts and zero-hours contracts are at nearly a million, having gone up 20% in the last year alone.”
He won’t be drawn on whether he thinks Unite gives too much money to Labour but he notes that the surge in party membership means it is now far less dependent on union cash. If he prevails, he will insist on greater transparency on how Unite spends money. The donations issue will be addressed anew.
There are concerns, he adds, about the £400,000 given by Unite to help McCluskey buy a £700,000 apartment in London. The union says the deal is an “equity share arrangement” which will deliver profits for members when the flat is sold.
Coyne has age on his side in the battle against McCluskey. “When a union has a policy, as Unite does, which is ‘68 is too late’ (to retire), having a general secretary who stays on until he is 71 sends completely the wrong message. We need to bring people who are younger into well paid, good employment.”
He accepts he is the underdog because McCluskey has the union machine at his disposal but says he would not have entered the race if he had not thought he could win. “There have been some elections recently where being the underdog has not been a bad place to be. There is an opportunity for change, for a fresh start, for members to get their union back.”