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Just weeks after the general secretary election, Unison members are beginning the process of electing the union's national executive council (NEC), the lay members' leadership of the union. This is more important than ever, in order to challenge the new general secretary Christina McAnea. It is crucial that the left in the union stand a united slate of candidates on a fighting programme as members work on the front line in the pandemic.
McAnea takes office during a major economic crisis in which the government are already seeking to make public sector workers pay the price. Not only are they expected to take another pay freeze, but councils up and down the country, of every party stripe, will vote for another slaughter of jobs and services.
Despite denying that she was the continuity candidate of the previous right-wing incumbent, Dave Prentis, within hours of being elected McAnea revealed where she stood politically.
When asked what she thought of Sir Keir Starmer's leadership of the Labour Party, she replied: "He's done a good job so far." This comment came just a few days after Starmer had insisted that schools should remain open, which would have pushed 200,000 Unison school workers into unsafe workplaces.
However, mass opposition by members of Unison and the National Education Union put huge pressure on both unions' leaderships to ensure support for members who refused to go into schools, which forced the government into a U-turn.
In the same interview, McAnea was happy to take a swipe at unions calling for strike action but had not a single word to say of her plans to lead a fight to defend the union's 1.3 million members. That is why the forthcoming NEC elections are a chance for the union members to elect a fighting leadership that can force the union to fight on these issues.
McAnea and her supporters will make a grave mistake if they believe that she has an overwhelming mandate to continue the inaction and retreats of the Prentis years. Not only did just 5% of the total membership vote for her, she also failed to win a majority of the members who voted. The scale of the Covid crisis means that there will be no 'business as usual'.
It is vital that the left learns the lessons from the general secretary election, when Hugo Pierre approached the other two candidates, Roger McKenzie and Paul Holmes, to agree one candidate to take on McAnea. Unfortunately, they didn't engage in the discussion that was needed. But an agreed left slate is vital for the NEC election. We will therefore also be calling for a vote for the existing NEC members who were elected in 2019 on the Unison Action left slate as is the usual practice to try and secure the biggest left presence on the NEC.
Unfortunately, the supporters of the general secretary election campaign of Paul Holmes, (who attacked the Socialist Party for standing in the election, claiming they wanted to build UnisonAction) announced four weeks before the general secretary election result that they were leaving UnsionAction and were setting up a new organisation called 'The Members Team'.
In the same letter, they demanded that a meeting of the steering committee be called, not to agree an NEC election campaign but to vote to dissolve itself! They have not indicated that they will not stand even against existing left NEC members. In another development it appears that those who claimed to be on the left and backed Roger McKenzie campaign have also put up candidates against existing lefts on the NEC, which will only serve to strengthen McAnea.
With both these candidates having presented themselves as lefts in the general secretary election, with the backing respectively of John McDonnell (for Paul Holmes) and Jeremy Corbyn (for Roger McKenzie), this would indicate that they are not serious about building a clear left challenge to the Prentis-continuity leadership.
Never has it been more important for the Unison left to provide a political and industrial alternative to the leadership's acceptance of Starmer's programme, both on a national and local stage. The NEC election will be taking place just as Labour councils draw up cuts budgets. McAnea is speaking this week at an online rally as Croydon council, on the back of entering bankruptcy last November, unleashes a brutal cuts offensive.
Socialist Party candidates call for Unison to demand that Labour councils such as this refuse to pass on Tory cuts and build a mass movement of defiance with local authority unions and the community.
We believe that supporting anti-cuts candidates in the May elections is a vital step in building a new fighting political vehicle for workers. But, unfortunately, this is in contrast to the approach of the Holmes' Members Team.
This is why it is crucial that Socialist Party members remain a key element on the Unison NEC. But it is also vital that a unified left slate is put to Unison members in the NEC election.
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Article dated 27 January 2021
The Socialist, weekly newspaper of the Socialist Party
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