SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 119 - June 2008

Purge of the left under way in UNISON

FOUR SOCIALIST Party members are facing disciplinary charges from the UNISON leadership which could result in their expulsion from the union.

UNISON is the second largest union in Britain and the biggest public-sector union in Britain and Europe, representing hundreds of thousands of workers in local government and the health service. The four being witch-hunted are Glenn Kelly, a member of the union’s National Executive Council representing 800,000 local government workers and secretary of Bromley council UNISON branch; Onay Kasab, secretary of Greenwich council branch; Brian Debus, chair of Hackney council branch; and Suzanne Muna, secretary of the Housing Corporation branch. Suzanne is also facing severe disciplinary action from her employer. All are seen as bold and dedicated fighters by their members.

These attacks were instigated at UNISON’s national delegate conference in June 2007, when the four UNISON branches were accused of producing and distributing a racist leaflet. Accusing these members of racism at the start of the conference aroused shock from delegates, naturally, as racism is an extremely serious accusation within the trade union movement.

The accused were not allowed to respond to this trumped up charge at the conference and had to produce leaflets and speak at fringe meetings in order to answer the allegations.

The four UNISON branches had distributed leaflets to delegates calling on them to vote in favour of allowing the conference to debate motions that the standing orders committee – which is supposed to ensure that conference is run according to union rules – had rejected. The leaflet asked, ‘Were these motions rejected because they were controversial?’ The ruled-out motions dealt with the election of union officials, New Labour attacks on public services, and organising industrial action.

The rejection of motions which conflict with the leadership’s policies is not unusual. In fact, over 50 motions (nearly one third of those submitted) were ruled out of order last year, while this year nearly half the motions submitted by branches will not be allowed onto the agenda for debate.

The pretext for the attack was the fact that the leaflet contained a cartoon which depicted the standing orders committee as ‘the Three Wise Monkeys’ from the well-known Buddhist proverb, which has never been seen as having racist connotations.

Over 100 delegates and visitors packed a Socialist Party meeting to hear the truth about the leaflet and begin a campaign to stop this witch-hunt. One UNISON member expressed her outrage: the leadership "would not be allowed to use the colour of my skin to hide behind their undemocratic attempts to control the conference or the delegates", she said. Other black members had given out the leaflet in the first place and continue to back the campaign.

Explaining why the leaflet had been produced and apologising if any unintentional offence had been caused, the four gave written statements to the standing orders committee, members of the National Black Members Committee, and the union’s national officer. But the allegations were not withdrawn.

Following an investigation into five union officers in September 2007 disciplinary charges were laid in February 2008. However, the union decided to serve disciplinary charges only on the four who are Socialist Party members, a clear attack on our party.

The investigation also declared that there was ‘no racist intent’ in the production of the leaflet but that the four had not anticipated that one person out of the 3,000 attending the conference might be offended! The hearings began in May and have been adjourned, with no new dates as yet.

These attacks are a reflection of the current leadership’s determination to silence any voice that is able to articulate the members’ frustration at the union’s failure to stop cuts, privatisation and low pay, as well as the increasing anger that the union continues to hand over millions of pounds of members’ money to a political party, New Labour, that is attacking public-sector workers.

The UNISON leaders were worried by the NEC election results just before the 2007 conference, when several prominent right-wingers lost their seats to those committed to a fighting union. Even though this still left them with a large majority, they feared that this could be the beginning of the left getting stronger and challenging their positions in the near future. Desperate to hold onto power, they use undemocratic methods to keep controversial motions off the agenda, expel or suspend members who oppose or challenge the leadership, and put branches who are a ‘threat’ into regional administration. (The Leeds branch has been in this situation for two years for organising a meeting with other public-sector unions over pay.) In the last few weeks alone the union has been found guilty in court of unlawfully suspending a left activist and, in another case, of unlawfully banning a left activist from standing in an election.

Branches have been threatened with disciplinary action for daring to campaign against the union’s recommendations in ballots on pensions and pay. It is clear that the union leadership is attempting to create a climate of fear amongst activists.

This is not contradicted by the fact that the union is currently organising an official ballot for action against the government pay freeze, which is a product of the pressure UNISON feels from the anger of its own members. On the contrary, the leadership knows that it will be placed under even greater scrutiny by the union members once even limited action is organised and that the arguments of the left, in particular the Socialist Party, will gain a bigger echo.

The leadership also feels the pressure by the comparison being made by growing numbers of UNISON members with the fighting and left-led unions such as the PCS (civil service union), in which the Socialist Party plays a key role, and the RMT (rail workers’ union). Three public-sector unions went on strike on 24 April, including teachers for the first time in 21 years.

Not the least of the leadership’s motivation for the attempted purge is a realisation that UNISON could go the same way as the PCS, which was once firmly controlled by the right wing. The right in the PCS and its predecessor union, the CPSA, with close links to the state, used every conceivable witch-hunting tactic to stop the left, including securing a court ruling to reverse the result of the union’s 1986 general secretary election, which had been won by Militant supporter John Macreadie (Militant was the predecessor of the Socialist Party).

But this could not ultimately stop the move to the left in the PCS as members saw the undemocratic manoeuvrings of the union leadership and its unwillingness to struggle. The PCS is now rightly seen as a fighting left-led union.

Union leaders cannot keep the lid on members’ anger and frustration for ever. In fighting against these attacks on Socialist Party members in UNISON the campaign has been taken out to the members of all the four branches as well as the wider union. Lobbies, ‘Defend the Four’ meetings, protest letters and branch motions opposing the attacks have been organised with more action planned. This has revealed to many more members the undemocratic nature of their union.

A campaign to turn UNISON into a democratic fighting union will involve a serious battle against the current leadership and it is a credit to our party that the four are judged to be such a threat.

Jane James


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