Dave Prentis, the general secretary of Unison, has announced he is to retire by the end of the year. An election is underway to choose a new general secretary.
Given Unison’s weight and importance, the outcome of this election has colossal significance for the labour and trade union movement. The union has 1.3 million members, of which 70% are women. Many are very low paid. It claims to be “the largest and fastest growing union in the UK”.
But over the last 20 years, workers – including members of Unison – have seen their wages, terms, and conditions continually eroded, savaged by cuts and austerity. Now, many are in the frontline dealing with the ravages of COVID-19.
The Unison leadership has stood on the right wing of the labour movement and played a key role in maintaining the right’s grip in the trade unions and the Labour Party.
The union nominated Sir Keir Starmer for leader of the Labour Party and helped to finance his campaign, in an effort to return the party to a ‘safe pair of hands’.
Through Unison Labour Link, that part of the union affiliated to the Labour Party, it has pursued a right-wing agenda in earnest.
Within the union, the bureaucracy had embarked on witch-hunts against the left, suspending members on spurious charges. In doing so, it has trampled on union democracy.
A left victory in Unison would throw this into reverse.
Continuity or change?
The nomination period for the general secretary election will extend until 25 September. Any ballot will run from 28 October to 27 November 2020, and the result will be declared on 11 January 2021.
The list of four prospective candidates are Paul Holmes, Christina McAnea, Roger McKenzie and Hugo Pierre.
The previous election was in 2015, with the following results: Roger Bannister, 16,853 (12.6%); John Burgess, 15,573 (11.6%); Dave Prentis, 66,155 (49.4%); Heather Wakefield, 35,433 (26.4%). As can be seen, around 130,000 members voted out of a potential 1.3 million.
Christina McAnea is clearly the right-wing ‘continuity’ candidate. She is currently an assistant general secretary, responsible for collective bargaining. Now she wishes to continue in the footsteps of Dave Prentis.
Roger McKenzie, another assistant general secretary, responsible for organising, is little different in essence from McAnea. McKenzie, however, has unconvincingly put himself forward as the candidate for change.
None of these candidates have ever challenged or opposed Prentis’ bureaucratic methods or regime, where politically-motivated disciplinary action is pursued to preserve the interests of the apparatus. This speaks volumes about these candidates.
Unison boasts that it is a “lay-led union”. Many, therefore, would be keen for the general secretary to come from the rank and file, and not the union bureaucracy.
There are two candidates who come from the rank and file. One is Hugo Pierre. He is an NEC member, representing one of the reserved seats for black members. He is also Education Convenor in the London Borough of Camden.
Pierre failed to get the Unison Broad Left nomination. But as a member of the Socialist Party, he has decided to stand on their platform.
The remaining left candidate is Paul Holmes. He won the endorsement of the union’s Broad Left, UNISON Action, as their candidate for general secretary.
Paul is a long-standing member of Unison and is on its NEC. If elected, Paul will not accept the £130,000 salary, but take his present salary of £32,000.
He has a first-class track record in defending union members. Shamefully, he has been suspended both by the union and his employer for several months. This is clearly a case of victimisation.
The Labour deputy leader of the Council, responsible for industrial relations, even sent an email to the Chief Executive saying, in response to Paul’s suspension, “So there is a Father Christmas!”
Paul’s union branch has also been suspended. It is no accident that action was taken against Paul after he defeated the sitting right-winger on the Unison Labour Link National Committee.
This is a typical vindictive tactic of the Unison bureaucracy. The employers were also in league with this attempt to victimise Paul Holmes. Unfortunately, this is not the first time such an unholy alliance between employers and union bureaucrats has been used to hound union militants.
Scandalously, the Socialist Party has linked up behind the union bureaucracy and the employers to spread unfounded allegations against Paul. They hope that by damaging Paul with false slanders, they will pick up votes for Hugo Pierre.
This dirty gutter method was carried over from their comrades in PCS, where they have been involved – as in Unison now – in poisonous prestige politics.
The pernicious role of this group in the trade unions arises from their need to bolster their prestige in the face of declining membership and influence. Such tactics represent the worst kind of sectarianism.
Paul stood in the 2010 general secretary election with the backing of the former Unison United Left, He came third behind Dave Prentis and Roger Bannister, a Socialist Party member, who is now retired.
Roger had a certain following in Unison. But in 2015, he only managed to scrape the 25 nominations needed to stand.
Hugo Pierre, who is certainly less well-known, will struggle to get the required nominations to get on the ballot paper. If he does, however, it will damage the left’s election prospects by deliberately splitting the left vote.
The result of the general secretary election could be so different this time round.
Firstly, with Prentis standing down, the advantage of being the incumbent no longer exists.
Secondly, if Hugo Pierre drops out or fails to get the required nominations, this will mean there will be one clear rank-and-file left candidate. This would ensure a unified left vote.
Thirdly, the two establishment candidates, both assistant general secretaries, will be in danger of splitting their vote. It cannot be excluded that one of them will be pressured to stand down in favour of presenting a single right-wing candidate.
The establishment candidates are unknown in the broad membership of the union. Given that two-thirds of the union is made up of local government workers, where Paul is well known as an NEC member for local government, this gives him far greater potential support.
Shifting the balance
The race is certainly not a foregone conclusion. The ruling class has been alerted to developments in Unison and are alarmed at the prospect of the union shifting to the left.
If a socialist candidate such as Paul Holmes were to win the leadership of Unison, the whole balance of forces between left and right would change within the labour and trade union movement.
This would place the right wing in the Labour Party in grave difficulty. The ruling class and their agents will therefore do everything in their power to prevent this.
That is why we must do everything in our power to ensure that Paul Holmes – the left candidate – wins this time round.