Next week’s Unison conference will be an arena for the struggle between a right-wing bureaucracy attempting to maintain their stifling control, and an ascendant grassroots left seeking to transform the union. The left must seize the moment.

Next week’s Unison conference will be an arena for the struggle between a right-wing bureaucracy attempting to maintain their stifling control, and an ascendant grassroots left seeking to transform the union. The left must seize the moment.

This year’s Unison national delegate conference represents the culmination of eighteen tumultuous months in our union.

From the onset of the election campaign for the general secretary position, right up until today, there has barely been a week without some degree of controversy.

Paul Holmes’ general secretary campaign and the subsequent victory of the Time for Real Change (TFRC) candidates in the NEC elections were a real earthquake, with implications far beyond Unison.

The right wing in the union have tried to explain all this as being down to the intrigues of a left faction. But the truth is that the rise of the left in Unison reflects years, if not decades, of discontent with the status quo in Unison.

Click here to read the latest bulletin from Unison Marxists – Socialist Appeal supporters inside the union – which will be distributed at the upcoming national delegate conference in Brighton.

Bureaucratic blockage

unison nec left victory

Years of paying lip service to the fight against low pay and discrimination at work, combined with years of ineffectual opposition to waves of Tory austerity, have eroded member’s support for the right-wing ‘establishment’ in Unison, as in many other unions also.

Decades of unfettered right-wing control of Unison, with a pliant NEC that was cosseted and bolstered by perks and privileges, created a lay bureaucracy, with all the sense of entitlement that flows from it. No wonder members have looked for something different!

In challenging this control and winning an overall majority on the NEC, Time for Real Change shook up the hornets’ nest. The right wing found themselves in a minority for the first time, losing all the votes, and effectively being unable to present any serious alternative ideas.

The efforts of the right wing have concentrated on obstructing the work of the NEC, combined with virulent attacks on Paul Holmes, the left-wing Unison President. They are able to do this through their dominance amongst the staff and within other unelected structures, as well as a layer of lay officials that have been co-opted by them. 

The right’s strategy is clear. In waging a guerilla struggle of this kind, they intend to bog down the left in their elected positions with all kinds of delays, thereby preventing them from functioning effectively. 

In this way, they hope that grassroots members who have voted for TFRC will become disillusioned, allowing the right wing to retake these positions the next time they’re up for election.

Conference showdown

As such, it is imperative that the left takes the fight to the bureaucracy and the right wing. The outcome of this year’s national delegate conference will play a large role in this.

Conference will be a big test for Time for Real Change. The right wing have sought to manipulate the conference agenda to rule out NEC motions on key issues: like the election of full-time officials, and a review of legal services – a motion that they didn’t even print in the preliminary agenda for conference.

This is no accident. These motions would likely receive support at conference, and would have a major impact if implemented.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for the bureaucracy to maintain control of the situation. This is why they are resorting to blatantly undemocratic tactics like this.

The lessons of the defeat of the Corbyn movement are vitally important in this context. The success or otherwise of the campaign for real change depends on a resolute leadership – one that is prepared to take on and defeat the bureaucratic obfuscation of the right wing. 

The message from those events is simple: give the right wing an inch, and they will take a mile. 

The left must therefore face down and defeat these undemocratic efforts to block their motions from discussion.

Fighting programme

unison

Beyond conference itself, there are big questions that have to be posed. How can the left ensure that the fight for real change is developed? How can we carry out a fundamental transformation of Unison into a fighting, democratic union? 

How can we build a union that both successfully defends our members, and becomes a genuine weapon for workers in the class struggle? How can we ensure it becomes a pole of attraction in the labour movement for workers looking to fight back against the employers and the Tories?

One thing is very clear. The battle to transform Unison cannot be won within the confines of the Unison HQ on Euston Road. The fight for real change needs to be taken into every branch, and placed in the hands of every member. But that also requires a clear programme.

Time for Real Change has highlighted the cost-of-living crisis, low pay, and discrimination in recent material. But there is a way to go. An important step would be to develop a Charter for Real Change: a manifesto that sets out clearly what TFRC is fighting to achieve.

Such a document – by clearly laying out bold socialist policies to tackle the burning problems facing grassroots members – could have an electrifying alternative. Not only would it enthuse existing activists, but it would also bring new layers into the struggle, massively strengthening the position of the left and solidifying our base amongst the rank and file.

Broad left

To activate such a layer of workers, who can then democratically decide the policies Unison needs and promote them at all levels within the union, we also need an organisation for them to join. 

This highlights the need for an open and democratic broad left. Such a body must organise across the whole union, presenting clear perspectives, arguments, and ideas that clearly break with the lip-service-only approach that has hampered the effectiveness of Unison since its formation.

Some significant steps have already been taken. Doubling strike pay and making it payable from day one is a welcome move, for instance. This has contrasted sharply with the track record of the bureaucracy and the right wing, who have consistently sought to hold back the membership. But on its own, this isn’t enough. 

For too long, branches have been left to fight alone. There are many issues that require coordinated action: attacks on pensions; wage freezes; the threat of privatisation – the list only gets longer.

A broad left would give the necessary political edge to such campaigns within the union. It should be seen as a vital part of the struggle against the bureaucracy, and a counterweight to their dominance in head office.

Coordinated action

Unison trade union demo

At a time when the cost-of-living is spiralling out of control, with workers being made to pay for another capitalist crisis, Unison should be taking the lead in organising with other public sector unions to coordinate industrial action across all sectors.

The potential for such coordinated action was illustrated in the pensions dispute in November 2011, where millions participated in a huge one-day public sector strike. That movement could have stopped the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government in its tracks.

This inspiring struggle could have been used as a springboard to unite the unions against the government and its capitalist backers. But instead, right-wing union leaders – Dave Prentis, foremost among them – simply marched members up the hill and then back down again, before agreeing to a rotten deal and selling the membership short.

Today, the cost-of-living crisis affects millions of working people and their families – even more than were affected by the coalition’s attack on pensions. 

In this context, a one-day public sector strike now would receive overwhelming support amongst workers. More than this, it would show workers that there is a way forward, if used as the foundation for a concerted campaign to topple the Tories from power.

Seize the moment

The struggle to transform Unison won’t be won or lost in Brighton this June. But it is an important milestone. For the first time, the question will be placed clearly before Unison’s membership: Will it be business as usual inside the union? Or is it time for real change?

The left must seize this opportunity to win a clear victory over those who represent the former. This means putting plans in place to counter any efforts at obstruction or sabotage. We must be prepared to do whatever it takes to demonstrate the difference that the left’s plans for Unison will make to ordinary members.

The right wing and the bureaucracy have already proven how far they are willing to go in their struggle to protect their privileges. Time for Real Change and all honest left activists must be similarly resolute in their efforts to democratise Unison and prepare our union for battle.

Unison is potentially an enormously powerful union. It has been held back for decades by a leadership that preferred perks to policy and picket lines; that prioritised freebies over fighting for the members.

Now, at a time when members really need our union to stand up and help them organise to defend themselves, this fight has never been more important.

The opportunity ahead of us cannot be squandered. The most effective way of seizing it is to actively involve grassroots members in the struggle to transform the union at every level.

  • For a fighting and democratic Unison! For the election of all full-time officials!
  • Build an open and democratic national broad left organisation!
  • Fight austerity! No wage freezes! No to below-inflation pay deals!
  • For unified coordinated action across the public sector! For a one-day public sector strike!

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