The battle for UNISON

Emerging from the Covid pandemic and following a decade of austerity, the capitalist class is once again determined to force the working class to pay the price for economic instability and crisis. But their success is not a foregone conclusion – that depends on whether there is a struggle.

In an attempt to stave that off, and particularly to prevent struggle finding a political expression, when Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership of the Labour Party in 2015 the Blairite right-wing embarked on a ferocious campaign. These representatives of capitalist interests in the Labour Party had spent years transforming it into a party safe for big business, and were not about to allow the door to open to the possibility of it becoming a vehicle through which workers could challenge the profit system.

Now with Corbynism defeated within the Labour Party framework the new battleground is in the biggest public sector trade union, with 1.3 million members, UNISON.

For the first time since its inception in 1993, the left won a majority on the UNISON national executive council (NEC) in the elections this June, with 37 members of the Time For Real Change group successful and four Socialist Party members, against 27 right-wingers. This is a major breakthrough that could transform UNISON into a fighting, democratic union that could re-energise the whole trade union movement.

Public sector workers have faced the brunt of austerity. In local government over half a million jobs have been lost, the NHS has faced both funding crises and privatisation, and many of the other sectors UNISON organises in have faced savage attacks. The care sector, for example, has faced rapid privatisation and a driving down of wages, with a combined number of over 200,000 vacancies in both care homes and home care services. The Covid pandemic cruelly exposed and exacerbated this crisis.

UNISON has been forced to act by members in individual homes and care contracts to defend members’ pay, allowances for sleeping-in, and against privatisation. But under the previous right-wing leadership, the union failed to use its position to organise for sector-wide action. Instead, it adopted a lobbying approach in ‘partnership’ with the sector, meaning employers’ organisations. Rather than mobilise the membership in campaigns to defend jobs, pay, terms and conditions, the UNISON leadership adopted a risk-averse strategy that relied on the aspirations of members to fight being dampened down in legalese.

It is vital that the new left NEC fights on the issues that face members: national action on pay, fighting cuts and austerity, campaigning to renationalise public services, and for working class political representation.

At the NEC on Wednesday 6 October, the newly-elected lay leadership of the union proposed six resolutions on democratic issues: an attempt to make decision-making more transparent, make the general secretary and Head of Legal Services more accountable to the NEC, as specified in the rules, and begin to address the democratic rights of members facing disciplinary action.

The Socialist Party supported these measures to democratise the functioning of the NEC. It is important to get to grips with democratising UNISON so that members can debate and agree a fighting strategy on the key issues. However, this debate cannot be kept within the confines of the NEC and cannot be divorced from the key issues affecting members.

The sovereign decision-making body of the union is the National Delegate Conference and for each sector the union organises in, the Service Group Conferences. But motions calling for a strategy to fight can be ruled out of order by the various standing orders committees on the basis that sometimes to even print a motion on the order paper would put UNISON ‘in legal jeopardy’.

This means that motions calling for a no-cuts campaign in local government, for example, or calling on NHS Trusts not to pay PFI debts, cannot be debated by UNISON members openly for democratic decisions to be made. The truth is that were the Tolpuddle Martyrs to have organised within UNISON today they would never have met to discuss coming together to act in their interests if the UNISON in-house lawyers were standing over them!

On paper UNISON is a ‘lay-member led union’. Members have the ‘right to campaign’ but this is severely restricted by the paid officials, to the extent where branches can’t talk to each other and even the call for solidarity when members take action has to be done through the union machine.

Two of the six resolutions should have been uncontentious: increasing the number of meetings from quarterly to bi-monthly and delegating all the disciplinary powers of the NEC to a standing committee of the NEC – the Development & Organisation Committee. The latter was actually a protocol agreed in 2001 that has never been circulated to NEC members since. However, the right-wingers opposed even these proposals.

Before the meeting started, legal advice from a barristers’ chambers was issued to all NEC members to say that even discussing the resolutions could place those who supported them individually responsible for any legal action taken, up to and including the High Court, against these new measures. The advice argued that the resolutions amounted to new rules which the NEC cannot make as that authority lies solely with the National Delegate Conference.

However, it quickly became clear that this advice was mainly a scare tactic to prevent the resolutions being debated. For example Rule D2.11.1 gives the NEC the right “to provide for any case in which the rules are silent”; rule D2.11.2 allows the NEC to “augment the rules by making regulations”; and rule D2.11.3 allows the NEC “to interpret the rules in event of doubt, conflict or dispute”.

One resolution aimed to tighten up the relationship between the general secretary and the NEC. In rule the general secretary acts on behalf of the NEC between meetings and is supposed to consult with the presidents and chairs of NEC committees. However the legal advice presented to NEC members stated that the general secretary had the ‘exclusive authority’ to act between meetings. This would in effect mean the general secretary had the authority to act outside the instructions of the NEC well beyond the remit of the rulebook.

Another resolution aimed to tighten up how legal advice was obtained, allowing the NEC presidential team to instruct the Head of Legal Services to get advice from named external sources if they agreed. It was opposed by the right on the grounds that Head of Legal Services had rights in contract that gave them the sole responsibility for obtaining legal advice. But the rules give the NEC the right “to bring or defend legal proceedings of any type” (Rule D2.11.4).

There was a resolution attempting to make clear the process by which the NEC would scrutinise decisions to suspend members facing disciplinary action. These actions have been used to silence political opponents of the right, including Socialist Party members. The resolution enabled the NEC to lift or continue suspensions after reviewing them on a four-weekly basis. The right claimed that allowing the NEC to know the details would infringe natural justice. However the reasons for suspension are very different to those of finding whether a breach of rule has been made. Introducing a protocol for consideration does not alter the rules as the powers of suspension under Rule I rest with the NEC (C7.4.2 and C7.4.2).

The final resolution was to allow members dismissed by employers to continue, if the NEC agreed, in their elected position until the NEC decided otherwise or the member resigned. Again this was claimed to be a new rule, but these powers exist in rules C2.4.2 and C7.1.1. The Socialist Party supported this resolution on the basis that it was to be used where members were subject to victimisation by employers. Employers should not have the right to determine who the elected representatives of the union are through firing them.

The six resolutions had to be voted onto the agenda as the paid officials would not put them on, because of the legal advice. They were all passed in face of fierce opposition from the right-wing NEC members and the paid officials, including the general secretary, Christina McAnea.

After the meeting an unsigned letter was sent to UNISON branches explaining that the union’s officers would not be bound by the new regulations. This unauthorised letter could only have been sent from a very senior level of the union. It shows the lengths to which the Blairite/Starmerite right wing and the full-time machine will go to keep their power and privileges and ensure the union stays on their chosen political and industrial track.

The Cymru/Wales Regional Council discussed the resolutions the following day, even though the vast majority of branch delegates will not have seen them or the legal advice. The motion put to the meeting expressed disgust and called for a recall conference, with only the Carmarthenshire branch representative speaking against. An emergency resolution was allowed onto the Police and Justice Service Group conference agenda again to condemn the NEC decisions. There was more opposition from the floor, but it shows the determined campaign by the right wing going on behind the scenes.

A social media post was put out by the Time for Real Change group which said that there had been “a disagreement” over the proposals but they were trying to resolve this through legal advice, and hoped to “go forward as a united union”. Unfortunately, this approach has echoes of the way the left around Jeremy Corbyn, including Momentum, conducted the battle in the Labour Party. Instead of mounting a fight as determinedly as the right wing were doing, those around Corbyn persisted in talking about unity and playing down any division. They were crushed by the ruthless defenders of capitalism inside their own party.

While, in this instance in UNISON, getting legal advice can help, the right are not going to give up on the basis of it. It is impossible to achieve unity between, on the one hand, forces who want to hold back struggle, who lean on the bosses and are in alliance with the Starmerites in the Labour Party, and on the other hand, the interests of working class members who need to fight for their pay and jobs and services.

The new NEC must put out a statement to the whole union explaining the need for greater lay-member control and link this to a fighting programme on pay, jobs and services. Meanwhile those staff acting outside of the democratic decision making must be held to account.

Unfortunately the NEC meeting did not make other decisions that could have had a real impact on members. This was mainly a result of the threats, intimidation and filibustering tactics used to prevent the resolutions on democratising UNISON being debated or passed.

Socialist Party NEC members raised the need for a co-ordinated fight against the pay freeze. Local government members are going to be balloted for strike action following a paltry 1.75% offer from the employers. Health workers however have just been offered a second consultative ballot. We proposed that the NEC ask the Health Service Group Committee to reconsider this plan and instead move to an official ballot as well. Unfortunately the left president did not take a vote to press home this point.

Socialist Party members also raised the undemocratic behaviour of UNISON delegates at Labour Party conference, who voted against the wishes of members and in support of Starmer’s changes to election rules for a new leader. A statement appeared on the UNISON website from Christina McAnea, congratulating the conference for ‘moving in the right direction’. This came despite Starmer’s decisive break with Corbyn’s leadership, including, for example, opposing current UNISON policy for the renationalisation of the energy sector. Socialist Party members proposed the NEC put out its own statement, but a vote was not taken on this either.

On these vital issues, which reveal to a broader audience what the real agenda of the right wing is, Socialist Party members were not backed up by the rest of the left.

The battle lines are now drawn in UNISON. The left majority on the NEC cannot rest on this majority when the right are clearly vigorously campaigning. The fight has to be extended beyond the confines of the NEC and taken into the membership. There has never been a greater need for an open democratic left in the union with a clear fighting programme to take on the bosses and the bureaucracy. This must involve all the organised forces that want to fight the right wing – including the Socialist Party – and members at all levels of the union, and not just 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, to show that improving democracy is essential to enabling UNISON to have a fighting programme on opposing cuts and the pay freeze and defending our public services.

Socialist Party members in UNISON