Women Unison members march. Photo Paul Mattsson

Socialist Party members in Unison

The elections for Unison’s National Executive Council (NEC), which run from 17 April to 19 May, come at a time when members continue to find themselves casualties of the cost-of-living crisis, piled on top of decades of low pay and underfunding for the public sector. Many workers are facing crisis point in terms of staff shortages and burnout from excessive workloads.

Now more than ever they need a leadership which is prepared to go to the end for the members, and not crumble in the face of attacks from the employers, nor support deals that leave members poorer.

Two years ago, Unison members voted out the old right-wing NEC, and a new left-leaning NEC was elected, including four Socialist Party members, with the Time for the Real Change (TFRC) grouping in a majority.

Unison members have been part of the national strike wave, taking action in higher education and the Environment Agency, for example. For the first time in years there has been strike action by Unison members in the NHS, in ambulances and some hospital trusts.

Reject the NHS pay offer

Unison members in the NHS have shown a determination to fight that has forced the weak Tory government to the table and to improve the pay offer. More could be won. Socialist Party members on Unison’s health Service Group Executive (SGE) argued to campaign for the offer to be rejected.

But the health SGE is still dominated by the old right wing, supporters of general secretary Christina McAnea, and it narrowly voted through a recommendation to accept, with a sizable minority voting against – 20-15. Now full-time officers are spending more time and energy trying to secure an ‘accept’ vote than they did in winning the ballot in the first place. Meanwhile, many health workers are rightly angry and are organising to campaign across the health unions for ‘reject’.

While the NEC doesn’t have direct control over pay negotiations, nonetheless they have a duty to come out and give a clear lead, and to seek to bring together the unions in a coordinated fight.

The right want to win back control

These elections will be fiercely fought, as the Starmerite right wing, led by Christina McAnea, is desperate to wrestle back control of the union. What has happened in health is an indication of the direction the leadership would go in, if the right wing were to win back control of the NEC.

There is no doubt that should the right wing win back control they would revert to all their old witch-hunting methods, clamping down on democracy, to try to ensure that never again could they lose control. 

It is therefore vital that the left not only maintains the leadership, but develops a clear strategy to fight low pay, cuts and privatisation, if members are to see the real difference a left, fighting leadership can make.

Local government pay

A ballot for action will begin in local government in May, demanding inflation plus 2%. The inadequate Tory-backed employers’ offer of a flat-rate £1,925 is the same offer as last year. Last year Unison’s leadership did not mount a campaign and consequently in a consultation the offer was accepted by members – although Socialist Party members on the union’s NEC and local government SGE both argued for a campaign, and showed on the ground that when a lead was given and a campaign was waged, Unison members would vote for action, just the same as union members were doing across the public sector. Now the massive strike action in the public sector, including in schools, has both given confidence to Unison members and applied pressure to the leaders, who have now moved to a statutory ballot.

If this ballot is successful, it will bring hundreds of thousands more workers into action and would be another big step up in the strike wave.

Unity and coordination

It would also underline how essential it is to strive for maximum unity across trade unions organised in the same sectors. The right-wing health representatives on the NEC and in the health SGE preferred to follow a sectarian policy during the health dispute, almost under the banner of ‘the workers disunited will never be defeated’! They called individual union days of action and refused to coordinate, even with the Budget Day strikes, which Socialist Party NEC members called for.

As the largest local government union, Unison could spearhead a united pay campaign with Unite and GMB, and especially in schools, where huge numbers of teachers have participated in national action. Support staff organised by the National Education Union (NEU) demonstrated their willingness to fight alongside teachers in a strike ballot which only narrowly missed the Tory turnout threshold. The reballot of support staff by the NEU now raises the possibility of huge, united organisation and action in schools.

That is why, when Unison’s general secretary complained to the TUC, and attempted to organise a programme of non-cooperation, over the NEU’s campaign for strike action among its support staff members, which has resulted in a hefty fine being levied on the NEU by the TUC, Socialist Party Unison NEC members argued against this action, and for maximum unity between trade unions instead of division (see ‘Unison and NEU: For maximum unity not division’ at socialistparty.org.uk).

Unfortunately, in the last two years the TFRC leadership has not always shown itself capable of mounting a fight against the right wing and for the members, and instead has mistakenly covered over differences with talk of ‘unity’. Yes, unity is strength, but only if it is unity in fighting in the interests of members. Their approach to the Paul Holmes issue, not being seen to take complaints made by mainly women members seriously, gave gifts to the right wing that led to significant and unnecessary defeats at conference last year.

Our own political voice

A key question in the next year will be the general election and the union’s strategy towards the Labour Party. Keir Starmer has made his position clear, that Jeremy Corbyn and all his anti-austerity programme are history. A New Labour government will do the bidding of the bosses and the unions should expect little.  This will put Unison members in direct conflict with a Labour government, and any new union leadership that fails to have a clear programme will end up holding members back from action, accepting just a few crumbs off the New Labour table. There are already warnings of this in the deals that have been accepted in schools and health in Wales, where there is ‘social partnership’ between union leaders and the Labour-led government.

Unison members already rightly ask why we hand over millions of pounds of members’ money to a party whose leader can’t even bring himself to support us on a picket line, let alone take on the interests of big businesses.

It is clear that our members’ jobs, wages and conditions cannot be protected, let alone improved, without the resources needed, and this cannot be achieved without ending the scourge of profiteering in the public sector. That means cancelling all PFI debt, bringing back in-house all the privatised services, and renationalising the public utilities where our members work, such as water, gas and electricity.

While many of the current TFRC left leadership agree with these policies, they do not address the question of which political party stands for such a programme? Clearly not Starmer’s Labour Party. He has banned Jeremy Corbyn from standing, and, outrageously, the Unison representatives on Labour’s NEC abstained on the vote! That is why the Socialist Party calls for a democratic discussion about how to achieve a genuine political voice for Unison members, and demands that the union’s political funds are opened up to allow branches to democratically decide to support candidates that back Unison policies even if outside the Labour Party.

The Socialist Party argues that the trade unions must back Corbyn to stand, as part of a workers’ list of candidates. We will be the only ones in the Unison elections openly calling for the union to stop funding Labour cutters and privatisers, and to start the process of building a new workers’ party that would genuinely defend the interests of Unison members and the working class.

It is therefore vital that a strong bloc of Socialist Party members is re-elected and strengthened in number on Unison’s NEC. Please vote for: 

  • Hugo Pierre, national black members’ male seat
  • April Ashley, national black members’ female seat
  • Adrian O’Malley, national health service general seat
  • Paul Couchman, national local government male seat
  • David Maples, national disabled members’ general seat
  • Jim McFarlane, Scotland male seat
  • Mary McCusker, Scotland female seat
  • Naomi Byron, Greater London reserved seat
  • Tom Hunt, East Midlands region male seat