Ballot papers are being delivered today for the Unison general secretary election. This vote is probably the most important election in the trade union movement for decades. At stake is the future direction of the biggest union in the country – and perhaps most importantly, the key union in the NHS and local government.
For many years, the Unison leadership have sought to solve the problems that members face through a strategy of conciliation with the Tories. The problem with that strategy, however, is that it has led to a continuous erosion of terms and conditions, privatisation, wage freezes, job losses and a decimation of services.
Unison has an enormous potential weight, both industrially and politically. And it plays a decisive role in the public sector.
The union’s members have been fighting a rearguard action for more than ten years now. There have been important local struggles – most recently with the Tower Hamlets dispute. But too often, branches have been left to their own devices.
The practice of the leadership has consistently been to sell the members short. This strategy has also driven the union’s approach in relation to the Labour Party.
No more ‘business as usual’
Unison organises hundreds of thousands of members in offices, schools, care homes, hospitals, and council depots. Many of these workers – including an army of homecare workers who support the most vulnerable people in society – are still at work. Unison members have faced the brunt of the pandemic, and have received huge public support for doing so.
Public support for the NHS and for other frontline workers has never been higher. Meanwhile, the Tories have seldom been weaker. They are seen as arrogant, incompetent, and uncaring.
Unison members now face an important choice. Do we continue to try and present a ‘dented shield’, despite so much evidence that this strategy does not work? Or do we fight for a trade union that will stand up for our members, listen to our concerns, and act upon them?
There have probably never been so many threats looming: NHS privatisation; austerity; and the risks in schools, where reckless Tory policy is forcing children, teachers, and support staff into unsafe conditions.
All these threats will impact dramatically on our members. One thing is for certain: ‘business as usual’ is the last thing we need.
It has been very noticeable that all of the Unison general secretary candidates accept that the union needs to change. But what sort of change do we need?
Two of the candidates – Christine McAnea and Roger McKenzie – come from the Unison bureaucracy. On the other hand, there are two lay candidates who both say that they will not accept the full wage that goes with the job.
Paul Holmes is an experienced rank-and-file activist, who is a member of the NEC and a local branch secretary.
The fourth candidate is Hugo Pierre, a member of the Socialist Party. He has been strongly criticised for standing on a blatantly sectarian basis, after participating in the Broad Left hustings to select a single left candidate and losing to Paul Holmes.
Socialist Appeal has argued for many years for the democratisation of the Union. In our opinion, Unison gives lip service to being a ‘lay member led union’. In reality, the structures of the union are not open to the active involvement of the majority of the membership.
We have argued that the role of the leadership should be to support the struggles of the branches; to take a lead at a national level in campaigning and uniting the struggles; and to fight for socialist policies in the Labour Party.
We have also argued that trade union leaders and MPs should only take the wages of a skilled worker. The Unison general secretary job, however, attracts a salary of £138,000 per year.
We also stand against opportunism and sectarianism, and against any ‘prestige politics’ in the workers movement.
We are confident that our readers will consider the arguments above and in previous articles about the issues in this election, and about the future direction of the union and the Labour Party.
On this basis, we hope that Unison members will vote for the only candidate that can deliver genuine change in the union: Paul Holmes – the members’ candidate.
In line with Unison’s campaigning rules, this article has not been authorised by Paul Holmes and represents the opinion of the Socialist Appeal editorial board.