Unison is the biggest union for public sector workers, with over a million members across local government, health, education and much more. The first in-person conference since 2019 is therefore an important event for the working class in Britain. Here we reproduce material from the bulletin produced by Socialist Party members for the conference.
Hugo Pierre, Unison NEC member (personal capacity)
Unison conference 2022 takes place in the midst of a cost-of-living nightmare. Millionaire Tory chancellor Rishi Sunak has been forced into finding some extra cash but it’s nowhere near enough.
Following years of austerity with no fightback from the previous right-wing Unison leadership, members voted for change in the national executive elections in 2021. This is the first in-person national conference since then and members will want to know: will the new left-led national executive (NEC) lead a fight?
At last, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has called a national demo on 18 June. The rail union RMT is preparing for historic national strike action on the railways as well as London Underground. The Communication Workers Union (CWU) is also campaigning in preparation for national action in Royal Mail and British Telecom. The National Education Union (NEU) and civil service union PCS are both preparing to ballot in the autumn, and national disputes are continuing in higher education. Bin workers and other council workers, mainly in Unite and GMB, are striking in various places around the country. The potential is building for coordinated action on pay.
Unison members in local government and the NHS – the largest public sector union – will be demanding to join in!
In March 2011, 750,000 marched on the anti-austerity TUC demo. That led directly to the two million-strong walkout by 29 unions to defend our pensions – effectively a public sector general strike.
The right-wing Unison leadership of then general secretary Dave Prentis, with the likes of current general secretary Christina McAnea, then a national officer, led the retreat from the struggle that could have defeated the Tory-Lib-Dem coalition. It only emboldened the government and council employers, including many Labour councils.
Unison members faced a wave of attacks in the Tory austerity years. Over 500,000 jobs were lost in local government. There is a crisis in social care with over 200,000 vacancies across the whole sector. Funding cuts and privatisation have left the NHS structurally unable to meet the demands of the biggest health crisis. Wage stagnation for most members means pay levels, in real terms, 20-25% lower than they were in 2010.
Throughout this period the right-wing Prentis-led Unison leadership failed to translate the anger and willingness of members to fight into a strategy to win. The candidate of the right wing, Christina McAnea, won the general secretary election in 2020, but left-leaning candidates who stood for change took the majority of seats on the NEC in the 2022 elections. This included four Socialist Party members.
This opened up the opportunity to transform Unison into a fighting, democratic union. Unison members continue to face all and more of the issues that have seen a decline in membership and weakened workplace representation over the austerity years. The left leadership must adopt a programme that can mobilise members. The most urgent task will be to prepare members for action on pay.
The cost-of-living crisis, which in reality is a further transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich through inflation, will hit public sector workers among the hardest. The current RPI inflation rate of 11.1% massively outstrips last year’s pay rise for local government workers of 1.75%. Figures recently released show that average earnings had risen by 8.2% in the first three months of this year. However this was mainly due to bonuses in the finance sector. Public sector pay growth was only 1.6%!
Public sector workers will again see a crash in real wages if public sector unions and Unison in particular do not mount a substantial and sustained serious campaign on pay. It is vital that any pay claim demands wage rises above the RPI inflation figure.
But lessons from previous pay campaigns must be learnt. Last year, Unison conducted a ballot of the entire local government membership in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Unfortunately, the ballot was eight months after the claim should have been settled, with a very lacklustre campaign. This resulted in an overwhelming vote for strike action but with a very low turnout of 14.5%, well below the threshold for action imposed by the undemocratic Tory anti-trade union laws.
Unfortunately, the lessons do not appear to be learned. The local government pay claim date was 1 April, yet incredibly, in the last couple of weeks, council employers in the Local Government Association had complained that they haven’t yet received the unions’ pay claim! Only in the last week has it been submitted. As the largest public sector union, Unison must take the lead in co-ordinating claims, ballots and strike action.
All unions face major challenges in winning national ballots, but the first job is to enthuse and develop the activist base with a strategy to win, so that they can actively campaign for a successful ballot. The RMT has shown this can be done.
The cost-of-living crisis will force members to ask questions of their union. The left leadership of Unison will be tested on this and other matters.
Unison in the NHS should have been leading the campaign on pay. Members’ life-and-death work during Covid highlighted the enormous popular support for the role they play. Grassroots campaigns sprung up for a 15% pay rise involving a substantial number of health workers, which could have been built upon.
Unlike the local government service group, which has a left majority on its executive, the health group leadership is still in the hands of the right wing. They squandered the opportunity to build a pay campaign. They ran a consultation without much of a campaign behind it in the summer of 2021, and then meekly accepted the pay review body’s below-inflation offer.
This is despite the campaigns members in some regions have organised for better terms and conditions, including full sick pay, as happened with Homerton Hospital’s privatised catering workers. In the North West, there were a number of strikes of privatised hospital workers on numerous issues.
There is a real warning to Unison that a failure to fight could weaken organisation in the sector. The successful action in Barts Health Trust for privatised staff to be brought back in-house and onto Agenda for Change conditions was organised by Unite. This was in an NHS Trust that was formerly well organised by Unison, where the union is now a shell.
Some steps have been taken in the right direction. The left-led NEC has agreed to increase the basic rate of strike pay, and has agreed recently to support the identified groups of members balloting for action over national pay in Scotland with an even higher rate.
However, unfortunately, the left-led NEC has spent a considerable proportion of their time on structural changes, and dealing with disciplinary cases concerning Unison president Paul Holmes – involving the union and his employer.
There is no doubt that the union machine, which predominantly backs the right-wing general secretary Christina McAnea, has at every turn tried to block, delay and fillibuster any attempts at positive change. The union’s communications have even been misused to attack decisions made by the NEC. The left-led NEC has to get its message to members and activists ‘over the heads’ of the unelected officials. This includes bringing reports and motions through branches and regional bodies.
We need no lectures on ‘democracy’ from the right-wing, who have dirt on their hands having presided over decades of vicious witch-hunts, suspending and shutting down branches, and expelling militant activists in order to stay in control.
However, it is a serious mistake of the left majority NEC to not properly investigate bullying complaints made by reps and branch staff in Kirklees, who have a proud fighting record. This only opens the door to the hypocritical right-wing.
Cuts and a political voice
Organisational changes are important, but what will transform the union are the campaigns that involve members and transform their pay, conditions at work and their job security. Key to this in local government is the fight against budget cuts.
Unison members fought ‘fire & rehire’ attacks by a Labour Mayor in Tower Hamlets, at the start of Kier Starmer’s New Labour leadership. Starmer refused to intervene on behalf of the strikers, demonstrating that his stated “under new management” means Labour attacking workers and backing its right-wing councillors determined to cut services. This approach is further laid bare by the Unite Coventry bin strike.
Unison’s rules mean that only members who pay into the ‘Labour Link’ fund are allowed to have any say on the union’s political relationship with Labour or any other party.
Unison’s link with Labour does not serve members’ interests in providing political representation. Instead, members’ money is being handed to a party that sacks them. The left-led NEC and the ‘Time for Real Change’ team have not even taken back control of the union’s formal link with Labour.
But most importantly, under Keir Starmer’s leadership of the Labour Party, with Corbyn and his anti-austerity stance driven out of the party, the undemocratic structures mean the trade unions have little influence.
Under the right-wing leadership, Unison members were not allowed to debate the role councillors could play in opposing cuts, by setting no-cuts, needs-based budgets, and building a mass campaign for more money from the Tories. Motions were ruled out of order. But this is now official Unite policy, after a motion initiated by Socialist Party members was passed at its national conference last autumn.
Unison taking this position would give confidence to members fighting attacks, would add to the pressure on Labour councillors, and give a boost to community campaigners and to candidates standing on an anti-cuts platform in local elections. Under the new left NEC, members must be allowed to debate how this, and the need for national industrial action against cuts, can be organised.
Unite the union has started to take a different path. Under the new left general secretary, Sharon Graham, they are using their ‘War Chest’ to fund industrial action where members are determined to take on the employers. As a result of the Coventry bin strike, Unite has withdrawn funding from Labour councillors attacking its members, and suspended Coventry councillors from the union. There is now a serious discussion beginning in the union as to whether Unite should be part of establishing new political representation for its members alongside other trade unions outside of Labour.
The battle to transform Unison into a fighting democratic trade union has begun. Socialist Party members will campaign to place a fighting programme at the head of this union, essential to organising members for the battles ahead.
In 2019, 14 activists and staff in Kirklees Unison, 12 of them women, made complaints of bullying against their branch secretary, Paul Holmes.
Disgracefully, the then right-wing leadership of Unison did not take these complaints seriously. They did not carry out a full investigation, and wrongly left it in the hands of the employer, a right-wing led Labour council, to investigate and take action.
Subsequently, Paul Holmes was re-elected to the NEC and is now Unison president. The left leadership have dismissed the complaints against him, without any explanation or reasons given. This was despite Unison’s own investigation officer stating that there was ‘a case to answer’ and that an internal Unison disciplinary hearing should take place.
The right-wing are now, cynically and outrageously, using this issue to try to rebuild support for their discredited leadership. Meanwhile, Paul Holmes has been sacked by Kirklees council and is appealing his case at an employment tribunal.
Unison must take all complaints of bullying and intimidatory behaviour seriously. It must carry out its own investigations and draw its own conclusions about what should be done, independent of employers.
The NEC should re-open the investigation, to give the opportunity both to the complainants to make their case and to Paul Holmes to defend his position, and for both sides to be given full access to its results.