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Tuesday, 29 October, 2002, 15:30 GMT
Union boss Edmonds resigns early
GMB boss John Edmonds
John Edmonds is a strong supporter of euro membership

The boss of the GMB trade union, John Edmonds, is to step down early, BBC News Online has learned.

He told the union's executive on Tuesday that he will resign at the end of April, opening the way for a fierce battle between London region boss Paul Kenny and northern region boss Kevin Curran.

Both candidates describe themselves as "centre-left", but the contest is considered crucial if Tony Blair is to retain control of the trade union movement in Britain.

Two of the country's largest unions, Unison and Amicus, are now controlled by trade unionists with policies that at times sharply differ from those of the Labour government.

The other two large unions, the GMB and the T&G, now both face leadership battles in the coming months.

Open in new window : Trade unions guide
The big unions at TUC 2002

Mr Edmonds is a strong supporter of the UK joining Europe's single currency, and may want to leave early to devote more time to campaign on this issue.

The choice of his successor could also tip the scales in the Trades Union Congress, which is increasingly divided over euro membership.

The GMB leadership contest will formally begin in December, with a ballot likely by the end of March.

Praised by Prime Minister

Mr Curran is believed to have the tacit support of Prime Minister Tony Blair, who praised Mr Curran's region in his speech to the TUC conference last month. Mr Blair said that the GMB Northern region had shown the way to save jobs in the shipbuilding industry through a partnership approach to industry.

Kevin Curran, GMB Northern region leader
Kevin Curran, GMB Northern region leader
Mr Curran is also believed to have the backing of John Edmonds, who fell out with Mr Kenny over the treatment of staff at GMB head office in London.

However, a spokesman for Mr Curran has dismissed the suggestions that he has the backing of either man as "rubbish".

"Tony Blair is a T&G member," said the spokesman.

"He hasn't got a vote in this election."

Mr Kenny says that he has been assured by Mr Edmonds that he will stay neutral.

Mr Kenny and Mr Curran both say that they have told the Labour Party that it would be inappropriate for it to interfere in an internal union election.

The election of another left-wing boss, Derek Simpson of Amicus (the engineering workers union), was aided when he charged that a government minister worked directly for his rival, Sir Ken Jackson.

Rising from the grassroots

Both candidates say they have working class roots.

Paul Kenny, GMB London region boss
Paul Kenny began work as a park keeper in Hammersmith, rising to head park keeper at Ravenscourt Park and head of his branch. He became a full-time union official in 1979, and has worked in the London region ever since.

He points to the fact that under his leadership the London region has grown faster than any other union district, and promises members to put emphasis on growing the GMB's membership across the UK.

Both candidates say they are sceptical about the government's flagship policy, the private finance imitative - the plan to let the private sector borrow to build hospitals and schools for the public sector in exchange for an annual fee.

Mr Curran's spokesman said that since taking his post in 1997, Mr Curran has "actually refused to back Labour candidates who supported the privatisation of public services".

The unions defeated the government over this issue at the Labour Party conference.

Mr Kenny also says he supports Mr Edmonds' pro-euro policy.

But he says that GMB has not been as effective as it could have been in negotiating with the government on bread-and butter issues like the minimum wage, because it has been perceived as having become too negative under Mr Edmonds.

Mr Curran has said his priorities are employment rights, with a push for an increase in the minimum wage to 5.40 per hour, and "to ensure the union is more attractive to young people, women and ethnic minorities".

Mr Curran is running on a joint ticket with Debbie Coulter, a Yorkshire regional organiser, who wants to be Deputy General Secretary.

But the GMB's equality officer, Karen Constantine, is expected to challenge her for the post.

If either won, it would be the first time a woman had reached such a high position in the GMB - the majority of whose members are women.

Huge union

GMB - which describes itself as "Britain's general union" - represents a wide range of workers, but has its strength in manual workers in the public sector, service sector workers like airport security staff, hotel and catering workers, and the clothing textile industries in the north of England.

It is currently neck-and-neck with the T&G for the title of the third largest union in Britain, with around 700,000 members.

Mr Edmonds built his union by mergers during the period that general union membership was declining, and there has been widespread speculation that the GMB was likely to make further merger overtures, perhaps to the T&G, or the Communications Workers Union.

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See also:

10 Sep 02 | Politics
06 Sep 02 | Business
20 Jul 02 | Politics
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