28. Our work in Unison



Unison was one such union in which the Socialist Party successfully used this approach, coming up against an increasingly rightwing leadership. It takes a leap of the imagination to remember that this union once stood firmly on the left, when Alan Fisher was General Secretary of the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE), one of the constituent unions which formed Unison. Alan once wrote a front page article for Militant in the week of a big demonstration against the 1974-79 Labour government’s spending cuts. It is inconceivable to imagine Dave Prentis, his successor to the leadership of Unison, doing the same thing. Those days had long gone as a succession of general secretaries more and more on the right led the union. First under Rodney Bickerstaffe and following him Dave Prentis the union moved into the embrace of New Labour. By definition this meant that it would come into collision with the ranks of the union itself.

Almost as soon as Blair was elected, opposition to his pro-capitalist policies was expressed in the union’s national conference, with a delegate declaring to wild applause: “If Labour doesn’t deliver, then we will fight them just as hard as the Tories before.” Another mentioned that Unison had spent £6.5 million to get Labour elected and now expected something in return. Glenn Kelly, a well-known Militant/Socialist Party member, tried to move an amendment to a motion which merely called for an ‘understanding’ on related matters to the Labour government. A number of branches supported his amendment which sought to include the phrase “the abolition of the anti-union laws”. This caused pandemonium, with personal attacks on the proposer, but the amendment remained. Glenn was entitled to speak for seven minutes but halfway through his speech the microphone was switched off and the ‘stop speaking’ light came on.

An apology was made later but by then it was too late. The Socialist concluded: “This is an indication of how the union leadership will be acting in the months to come, once the direction of the Labour government becomes clearer – attacking their own members and carrying out the policies of a capitalist Labour government.”1 When arguments did not quell the opposition to the right, more forceful measures were tried, including attempting to silence and even ban left rank and file organisations like the Campaign for a Fighting and Democratic Unison (CFDU), in which the Socialist Party participated at this stage.

Bickerstaffe commented at a Unison National Executive Council (NEC) meeting a little later: “This is a defining moment for the union.” Glenn, a member of the NEC, reporting this in the pages of the Socialist, commented: “Unfortunately, he wasn’t talking about the need for the union to take on the Labour government over public sector spending freezes… Instead, he would argue that the NEC should ban branches from giving any backing to the CFDU. He sought to strengthen his case by using legal opinion which had advised that “no-one can use union funds to change union policy except the NEC and that the union should consider conducting an investigation with a view to disciplinary proceedings”.

He was backed up by the unelected Deputy General Secretary Prentis, who said: “Some may see this as a sledgehammer to crack a nut but if we don’t then the nut will become the sledgehammer and before you know it the NEC will be having to negotiate with the national committee of the CFDU.” Bickerstaffe raised the alleged links between the CFDU and the Socialist Party. NEC member Jean Geldhart (not a CFDU supporter) moved an alternative motion  defending the right to organise in the union. Unfortunately, 30 NEC members voted for the witch-hunt with 16 against.2

Despite the fact that this became the theme over the next years for the right wing, they would not be able to completely achieve their goals in significantly undermining the influence of the left. Needless to say, the wages and conditions of Unison members deteriorated under the baleful stewardship of the right wing. It was the left – particularly the intrepid band of militants gathered around the Socialist newspaper with others – which resisted the undemocratic right wing and attempted to concentrate the attentions of members on the need to improve pay and conditions.

In a sinister development in October 1997 police raided the homes of two Nottingham Unison activists. Later, the offices of the City Council branch of Unison were raided by police and computers taken away without prior approval or the council’s permission. The raid was carried out because it was claimed they had been involved in “the production and distribution of ‘racially inflammatory material’”.3 Almost ten years later, charges of a similar character were levelled against four magnificent Socialist Party members by the same kind of people behind this attack. Both sets of charges proved to be groundless. The best answer was the victory of prominent left-wingers and Socialist Party members like Glenn Kelly and Jean Thorpe in by-elections which were held for the NEC. Their election was fought on the basis of day-to-day issues affecting Unison members, such as opposition to the public sector pay freeze and the urgent need for a decent living wage.

Blair, in his first speech to the TUC since taking office, told unions to stop fighting and join ‘the real world’. His full embrace of the gravy train was not yet fully revealed. He had not yet officially entered Millionaires Row but his world had nothing in common with that of the mass of ordinary people, including Labour voters and struggling local government workers. He declared that Labour would not allow the return of “‘the days of industrial warfare’… Gone were the days of ‘heavy handed state intervention, nationalisation and industrial conflict’.” His priority was to promote “the flexibility of labour markets”.4 Just where that has led us to is revealed today in the zero-hours contracts, part-time working and mass structural unemployment. The great majority of right-wing trade union leaders were no different in their outlook. Bickerstaffe, with a left-wing past, allowed Unison to accommodate to Blair’s neoliberal world while attacking the left within the unions who opposed this.

The capitalist press backed the union’s right wing and Blair. Moreover, in the case of Glenn Kelly events took a very sinister turn when his employers in Bromley Council ordered a disciplinary investigation against him. There was clear collusion with the council by Unison officials. A united front between Unison officials and a right-wing Tory council was established in order to discipline and drive out someone they perceived as an important rank and file opponent of their programme of cuts. The union leadership hoped to rid themselves of this ‘troublesome priest’. This and subsequent attempts to evict Glenn from the workplace failed because of a concerted and spirited campaign in his defence launched by the Socialist Party and his workmates. Bromley Council backed down over Glenn when it became clear that the workers were prepared to take action. It also emerged that the council was not going to be able to rely on the trade union officialdom to come to their assistance because of the pressure from below.