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23 July 2021

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Tower Hamlets Unison members on strike in 2020

Tower Hamlets Unison members on strike in 2020   (Click to enlarge)

Unison's new left NEC meets -

Organise the fight back now

By a Socialist Party member in Unison

The government's recent announcement of a pay freeze for teachers and a below inflation pay rise for health workers shows that the Tories are intent on making public sector workers pay for the Covid crisis. It is vital now that steps are taken by the trade union leaders to organise a coordinated fightback on behalf of the 1.3 million union members affected.

While the attack on pay was entirely predictable following the government's public spending announcements back in November, for months the trade union leaders have sat back and done very little, or even opposed campaigns like the 3 July NHS anniversary pay protests.

That is why even before the government's formal announcement on pay, Socialist Party members proposed to the Unison national executive council (NEC) meeting held on 14 July that the union should immediately call a meeting of the leadership in each sector of Unison to prepare the fight necessary, including protests and a ballot for industrial action.

Disgracefully, general secretary Christina McAnea, the candidate of the union's right wing elected at the end of last year, simply said it was a matter for each sector in the union to discuss, abdicating any responsibility. This is why the new NEC, with a 41-27 left majority following the elections in June (including four Socialist Party members) and the newly elected left-wing presidential team, need to take control of the campaign.

The Unison presidents, and the union's newly elected TUC general council members, should also now call for an urgent meeting of the TUC public sector liaison committee to coordinate a cross-union campaign. The left now has a majority of Unison's TUC general council seats and they must use that position too to give a lead.

First post-election NEC meetings

The first two brief online meetings of the newly-elected NEC have shown that the big majority of the union's full-time officialdom, along with the supporters of the old right-wing regime who remain on the NEC, will not go quietly and that the left must maximise use of its majority at all times. It is unfortunate that already some of the 'Members Team' left (who backed Paul Holmes in the general secretary contest), who have the majority of NEC seats, have already made some unnecessary errors that we tried to persuade them not to.

The first meeting of a new NEC elects a 'presidential team' of three - a president and two vice-presidents - which are the key lay member posts in the union as they are on the frontline in the day-to-day handling of the officials at HQ.

However, instead of electing a full team of three, the Members Team NEC members chose Paul Holmes as union president, even though they knew he could not take up office because he is currently suspended, due to allegations, which he denies, relating to his conduct as a Unison branch secretary. At best this leaves the left presidential team one person light; at worst it opens a door to the right wing to shoe in their candidate.

Unfortunately, prior to the meeting the Members Team reps refused to discuss the matter with the Socialist Party members on the NEC and they were left guessing their tactics until the last minute. They had to ensure that the general secretary would not try to pull some stunt and allow the right to take up the vacant post. So they stood the longstanding Female Black members' NEC representative April Ashley, to ensure that there would have been a left candidate who could take office in that event.

Methods used by the right

The dirty methods that the right wing will use and the determination that will be needed to fight them was clearly shown at the first meeting. A proposal by a Members Team NEC member to bring the next meeting forward by two weeks was met by right-wing NEC members saying it was illegal - backed by an unelected officer in the meeting suggesting the union could be fined 20,000 if they did so!

The proceedings were deliberately disrupted by the right and, without the agreement of the meeting, the general secretary ordered an official to shut down the online event, despite the power to run the meeting in the rules lying with the president - a decision which Socialist Party member Hugo Pierre rightly challenged at the following NEC.

It is clear that the right are going to try to rely on the alleged powers of the general secretary to try to force their position over the left NEC - which is why it's also clear that the left must use its majority on each and every occasion to push matters to a vote to ensure they are not thwarted.

This includes taking all necessary steps to ensure that elected lay members gain control over the union. That is why Hugo Pierre proposed that the current vacancies for two assistant general secretary (AGS) positions are put on hold or only filled temporarily, so that the union can look at electing them. Again, Christina McAnea intervened to say this was not possible as it would mean sacking the other three, unelected, AGSs! This is ridiculous. It is entirely possible to have both elected and unelected AGSs as the National Education Union does, or even delete the vacant posts (who needs five unelected AGSs anyway?) and go back to having a deputy general secretary, only this time elected.

Under the regime of the previous right-wing general secretary, Dave Prentis, a lot of powers were stripped away from the NEC (which only meets four times a year, for a day each time) and handed over to various sub-committees, with the right holding all the chairs and vice chairs. These were also up for election at the 14 July NEC meeting and again the Socialist Party NEC members approached the Members Team about cooperating to ensure the left won these positions.

They proposed that, given the years of experience that three of our NEC members had in battling the right wing on the NEC, they should be supported for vice chairs of three of the committees, while the Socialist Party NEC members would give support to the Members Team candidates for all of the chairs and the other vice chairs. This was rejected, with the result being that the Members Team put forward some candidates who have little or no experience on the NEC, let alone in taking on the bureaucracy.

TUC general council reps

Another point of contention was the election of the union's representatives on the TUC general council, the highest trade union body in the UK. For decades the right have ensured that Unison's representatives have comprised of a majority of full-time officials, with three of them being unelected. Again the Members Team wasted an opportunity to fill a seat at a key time with a fighting lay member, by proposing Paul Holmes, knowing that he could not take up the seat.

Then there was the position of one of the current unelected officials on the TUC general council, Gloria Mills OBE. The Socialist Party members' proposal that this longstanding right-winger should be replaced by April Ashley for the Black women's seat was met with the claim that Gloria Mills had to have one of the seats as it was in her contract! This must not be allowed to stand.

But more generally, while it is crucial that the left on the NEC gains control of the union for the members, it must make sure that the members see the relevance of this in the difference that the new left leadership is making.

That is why - with a left majority in place - it is not acceptable that the general secretary was allowed to get away with ignoring the call from Socialist Party members on the NEC for a united fight on pay to be launched. The same thing happened to the proposal from the newly-elected health worker and Socialist Party member Naomi Bryon for the union to agree a campaign against the new health and social care bill that threatens an even greater role for the private sector in the NHS.

The left has a majority on the governing body of the biggest public sector trade union in Britain, a powerful lever in the events now opening up. It must use it to move decisively to organise the fightback now.

This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 23 July 2021 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.

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Article dated 23 July 2021

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