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13 October 2021

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Who runs Unison: lay members or the paid officials?

Unison conference, photo Paul Mattsson

Unison conference, photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge)

Socialist Party members in Unison

The victory of the left in Unison's national executive council (NEC) elections in June was a major breakthrough that could transform the largest public sector union in Britain and re-energise the whole working-class movement.

Public sector workers have faced the brunt of austerity. Rather than mobilise the membership in campaigns to defend members' jobs, pay, terms and conditions, under the previous right-wing leadership Unison adopted a risk-averse strategy that attempted to dampen down the aspirations of members to fight through using legalese.

It is now vital that the new NEC gets to grips with starting the fight to democratise Unison so that members can debate the key workplace and political issues facing them, including national action to beat the pay freeze.

On 6 October, battle lines were drawn between the new NEC on the one hand and the Starmerite right wing and unelected officials on the other. The elected lay leadership of the union presented six resolutions to make decision-making more transparent, make the general secretary and Head of Legal Services more accountable to the NEC, and begin to address the democratic rights of members facing disciplinary action.

Before the meeting started, however, legal advice was issued to all members of the NEC, asserting that the resolutions could not be discussed and that individuals who did support them would be responsible for any legal action taken, up to and including the High Court, against these new measures. However, this scare tactic to prevent the resolutions being debated failed, and they were subsequently all passed in the face of fierce opposition from the right-wing NEC members and the paid officials, including the general secretary.

The Socialist Party supported these measures to democratise the functioning of the NEC. However, this debate cannot be kept within the confines of the NEC and cannot be divorced from the key issues affecting members.

Blairite right-wing

When Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership of the Labour Party in 2015, the Blairite right wing, who had invested years into transforming Labour into a party safe for capitalism, embarked on a ferocious campaign to drive out Corbyn and the anti-austerity policies he stood for. The Blairite-Starmerite right wing at the top of Unison have made it clear that they will take the same approach to the new NEC.

Immediately following the meeting, an unsigned email was sent to some branches, stating that the NEC had adopted new rules which were unlawful. An emergency resolution condemning the NEC was presented to the Cymru/Wales Unison regional council the very next day (see article socialistparty.org.uk).

This is a battle about who runs the union and in whose interests: paid officials acting to keep the union on a right-wing, partnership track, leaning on the bosses and in alliance with the Starmerite leadership of the Labour Party; or the members, with the ability to debate and enact a fighting approach. The battle must be fought by the left with as much determination as the right.

That means taking the argument into the membership. It means striving to establish an open, democratic broad left in the union that encompasses all the organised forces that want to fight the right wing - including the Socialist Party - and aims to draw in as many members as possible who want to campaign for a fighting, democratic union. That cannot mean confining the discussion only to those who currently ally themselves with the majority grouping on the NEC, the Time for Real Change group.

And crucially, it means the left on the NEC have to fight on the concrete issues that affect members, otherwise members won't see why the democratic changes matter.

At the October meeting the NEC were not able to make decisions that could have a real impact on members. This was mainly a result of the threats, intimidation and filibustering tactics the right wing used to prevent the resolutions being debated or passed.

However, it was left to Socialist Party members to even try to get these issues discussed. Socialist Party members called for a referral to the Health Service Group Executive to reconsider the decision to go to a second consultative NHS pay ballot, and instead to move to a full strike ballot alongside local government. Again, it was Socialist Party members who raised criticism of the support given by the Unison delegates at Labour Party conference to Starmer's definitive break with Jeremy Corbyn's anti-austerity leadership, calling for the NEC to publish a statement opposing the general secretary's claim that the Labour Party was now moving in the 'right direction'.

But in all these vital issues, which reveal to a broader audience what the real agenda of the right wing is, Socialist Party members were unfortunately not backed up by the rest of the left. Such an approach will not win the battle now under way for the future of the union.

Unison right-wing bureaucracy attacks the left at Wales council

Unison's Wales council is the union's highest lay member decision-making body in Wales. The council met on 7 October, and as delegates entered we were greeted with an 'emergency motion' on our chairs that criticised Unison's national executive left majority for, among other things, making rule changes at the national executive that could only be made at national delegate conference.

The left had put forward six motions and these included having monthly national executive meetings. This was opposed by one right-wing delegate at the council who complained that it would cost the union 20,000 extra for these meetings. In a clearly orchestrated effort, a series of right-wing Labour Party speakers voiced their indignation at what they considered a power grab by the presidential team.

But if it is not the presidential team - president and two vice presidents, who are all elected executive members - running the union between executive meetings, who is? The answer is, unelected full-time officials.

Only Mark Evans, branch secretary of Carmarthenshire County Unison, spoke in defence of the motions the left majority of the executive had proposed, stating that the issue was about who controlled Unison, and that more frequent meetings of the executive would enable lay members more time to run the union, rather than full-time officials. And that 20,000 was a small price to pay if the executive could organise and win on pay and so on.

As with other speakers, Mark only had three minutes to answer the claims of the right wing, but even this time was interrupted when a clearly concocted point of order was allowed, claiming that Mark had said all full-time officials were right wing, which other delegates confirmed he had not said.

Socialist Party members on the executive supported the motions, as they represent a step in the right direction, and the elected left majority on the executive asserting itself. The motions are an attempt to wrestle control from the right wing and the union's unelected bureaucracy. We have said that the right wing and the union's bureaucracy will not go quietly into the night, and that they will use every trick in the book to oppose the left executive as their privileges and careers are on the line.

The right wing and the union's bureaucracy always repeat the mantra that we are a member-led union, but clearly that does not apply when the left is in a majority on the executive. The emergency motion was passed with only Carmarthenshire County Unison branch voting against. Delegates believed what they were repeatedly told, that the executive was making rule changes, when clearly this is not the case. There is also a lesson for other lefts; that the battle for who controls the union is not limited to the executive, and that they should make more effort to be delegates to Wales events.

The left majority on the executive needs to get out the message of why they have proposed these changes. Members need to understand that these changes and clarifications are not an abstract issue but about enabling the executive to have a fighting approach on pay, fighting cuts, and defending the NHS. The left majority on the executive needs to understand that there will not come a point when the right wing and bureaucracy give up the ghost, concede defeat and come to an accommodation with the left. Too much is at stake; their privileges, careers and control of Unison propping up New Labour and capitalism.

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