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Issue 44, September 1999

UNISON's historic election

WITH NOMINATIONS now closed for the UNISON general secretary election and the candidates declared, it is clear that a serious battle is under way for the leadership of Britain's biggest union. UNISON has 1.3 million members, overwhelmingly in the public sector.

Roger Bannister, a Socialist Party member and the candidate of the Campaign for a Democratic and Fighting UNISON (CFDU), is winning wide support wherever he speaks at branch meetings or in the workplace. On the other hand Dave Prentis, the current deputy general secretary and the favourite of the union leadership, faces the hostility of the rank and file wherever he dares to appear.

Rodney Bickerstaffe, the retiring general secretary, had the undeserved record of being on the left when he was elected in 1995. Prentis, however, is largely unknown to the ranks, having spent all his trade union career as a backroom wheeler and dealer. In the 1995 election, Bickerstaffe got 12 out of the 13 regional councils to nominate him. This time, when they were asked to back Prentis, Wales, the South East, Eastern and the Southern regional councils refused point blank and London nominated Roger Bannister. This has come as an enormous shock to the right wing. If leading bodies of the union won't back him, and they are after all much more under the control of the full-time officials, then Prentis is in trouble.

What is the general situation in the unions in Britain today, the background against which this critical election in UNISON is being fought?


Never before in the long history of the British trade unions has there been such abysmal leadership. At September's TUC Ken Jackson, the right-wing leader of the engineering union, the AEEU, said that his ideal would be a strike-free Britain. Within 24 hours members of his union at Ford walked out over pay. Days later thousands of construction industry electricians took unofficial action against the pay deal negotiated by Jackson's own national officials.

For a long time TUC leaders like Jackson have indulged in an orgy of belly-crawling before the bosses to convince them that the 'bad old days of mass meetings in car parks' are over. At the TUC conference right-wing delegates made speeches about the new 'post-modern' approach to industrial relations. One said that what was needed was 'virtual unions', which wouldn't collect subs from members but instead would collect a fee every time someone 'hits' the union's web-site to access union services.

But what is the reality behind such rhetoric? It is true that, last year, 277,000 days were lost in strike action, a figure that had only crept up from 255,000 days lost in 1997. This compares, for example, to 1979, when 29 million days were lost. Generally speaking, in periods of economic growth workers are more inclined to take industrial action as they demand a share of the growing cake. This is what has happened recently in Southern Ireland, where 29,000 nurses took their first ever national action for better wages. In Britain, however, there exists a lack of confidence that seems to have held back a similar movement from developing at this stage.


This is not because workers accept the untrammelled rule of the boss in the workplace, however, but is a result of the lack of leadership and the anti-union laws. This is born out by events in the rail industry following the Paddington crash in early October. Prior to the disaster, train guards had voted 84% in favour of strike action over safety, with a 24-hour strike scheduled for 29 October. A week before the strike was due, and just two weeks after Paddington, the shameless rail bosses went to court claiming the ballot was unlawful. Unfortunately, despite the seething public hatred of the rail bosses - with 73% opinion poll support for re-nationalisation of Railtrack - the guards union, the RMT, called the strike off. A magnificent opportunity was lost by the union leaders to strike a blow against the culture of profits-before-safety and to show in practice how the anti-union laws could be taken on.

The union leaders have for too long hidden behind the anti-union laws, claiming they prevent them organising strikes except under the most difficult conditions. The result of this was shown in a recent workforce survey, which revealed the huge scepticism which exists amongst workers about what the unions can do for them. "Less than a third of those who are not members in union-recognised workplaces", reported the Financial Times (24 September), "believe their interests are best served by joining a union". Unions now organise no more than 19% of the private sector and 60% of the public sector. Trade union membership, at 7.1 million, is the lowest it has been since 1944.


A real growth in union membership can only come about in a period of rising class struggle, something of course that the present leadership of the unions is dead set against. But the left in the unions does not have the luxury of saying it does not matter what the leadership do at the tops of the unions, 'struggle will come from below'. This would be letting the right wing off the hook. When the union leaders act as an obstacle to effective struggle then the logic of the situation is to call for their removal. As one Jubilee line shop steward said to The Guardian after Jackson had condemned their walkout: 'Ken Jackson is a prima donna sitting in an ivory tower who never speaks to the shop floor workers. He should start talking to his shop stewards or resign'.

This is the fundamental reason why Roger Bannister is fighting on a programme which includes the call for a new leadership of UNISON. What is being challenged in this high profile campaign is the class collaborationist policies of the trade union leadership in all the unions, epitomised by their 'partnership approach' to the bosses.

UNISON leaders, including Dave Prentis, have accepted the capitalist market as the only game in town. Whatever his individual qualities (or lack of them) it is inevitable, if he is elected, that he will continue the very same policies that led to the pro-bosses approach of the Ken Jacksons of this world. This does not mean that Roger Bannister would call for the overthrow of capitalism from Mabledon Place (the UNISON HQ) on every occasion that the union clashes with this or that employer. He will first and foremost have to demonstrate to the 1.3 million members that he will lead the union from the front, and above all remove all obstacles in the way of their struggle to defend themselves against the onslaught of the employers. This, for example, would include a preparedness to defy the anti-union laws where and when necessary, not at every opportunity, but on those occasions when their use by the bosses is clearly seen as an act of vindictiveness (as in the case of the rail guards), and when there is a clear majority of the workforce ready to take action.


This is perhaps not the best time for socialists to stand in union elections. There are no big national struggles underway comparable with those which took place against the Labour government's wage controls in the 1979 'Winter of Discontent', when the issue of who should be leader of the union would be much clearer. Instead, most struggles are of a localised and defensive nature. An added complication is the postal ballot, which leaves workers to the isolation of their own living room, with all the pressure of the capitalist media telling them which way to vote. At least the much derided 'car park mass meetings' of the 1970s allowed workers to hear opposing arguments from the candidates of those in favour or against industrial action.

Roger Bannister's campaign will above all seek to mobilise the maximum unity of the union against the bosses' attacks. He will bring out the common nature of these attacks in the councils, the National Health Service, and all the other places that contain UNISON members. The right wing consciously attempt to play this down, especially when it involves criticism of New Labour councils and government.

Whatever the outcome of the election itself, Roger Bannister's candidacy is a real step forward for the left in UNISON and for the development of a mass left opposition force that can be a model for other unions too.

Bill Mullins

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