In a period of increasing class struggle, it is welcome that Unison, the biggest union in the country, held its first ever young members conference recently, from 3-5 December in Cardiff.
On the agenda were important issues facing young workers: from mental health to exploitative apprenticeships; and from domestic violence to the housing crisis.
And despite this being their first conference, many delegates were eager to take to the platform and discuss their experiences in-depth.
A contribution from one delegate, for example, touched on how both the climate emergency and the mental health crisis were systematic failures of capitalism, with the comrade correctly rejecting the individualist ‘solutions’ of the government and the bosses.
Another young activist highlighted how the only way to tackle the exploitation of apprentices is through militant struggle, as the Tyneside apprentices showed during their strike in 1944.
Comrades also welcomed the contribution made by left-winger Andrea Egan, one of the union’s vice presidents.
Andrea’s speech presented a sharp assessment of the situation facing Unison members and trade unionists across the country.
Egan also called for united action across the unions in order to tackle the problems that are faced by all workers. This is exactly the kind of bold call to arms that’s needed.
Really great to hear from @andreaegan5 at #unisonYM21!! Imo Andrea has been a model of lay leadership at our conference, constantly speaking to young members, listening to their experiences, getting their feedback. Proud to have her as one of our Vice Presidents ✊ pic.twitter.com/AjLGjWQkIO— Lilly Boulby (@LillyBNEC) December 5, 2021
The conference was not all plain sailing, however. The small turnout of delegates was the most glaring issue. Only 54 delegates were present, approximately – making decisions on behalf of a youth membership of 64,000.
Added to this was the way in which motions were unfairly and arbitrarily ruled out of order. This resulted in many attendees complaining that they were unable to speak on issues that mattered most to them. One motion was even struck off for going a comma over the word limit!
This anti-democratic farce led to sessions ending early, with the conference running out of things to talk about. One session ended at 10.30am, despite only commencing an hour earlier at 9.30am.
These problems are a reflection of the dead weight of the right-wing Unison bureaucracy, which continues to control much of the union.
And it is this same bureaucracy that continues to hamper the actions of the democratically-elected left-wing majority on the NEC, organised under the #TimeForRealChange (TFRC) banner.
It was clear to attendees that the reason for these issues is also what lies behind the lack of engagement and action from the union officialdom in the recent period. Many were not shy in pointing this fact out.
In a session on how young people can be more engaged in Unison, delegates pointed to barriers in the way of getting involved in the union, as well as the feeling that ‘engagement’ was seen in a tokenistic and shallow way.
One delegate from Liverpool summed up the whole situation very neatly. She said in no uncertain terms that what young members need most isn’t free pens or pizza parties – it is a union that will stand by them on the picket line.
For a democratic, fighting Unison!
Clearly the conference, while a success in formal terms, left much to be desired. As such, there was a layer of attendees keen to challenge those in charge, and to get involved in the struggle to build a democratic union.
As a consequence, the Socialist Appeal fringe event – ‘For a democratic, fighting Unison’ – clearly resonated with these delegates.
The discussion was led by Lilly Boulby, a Socialist Appeal supporter, and one of two young members’ representatives on the Unison NEC.
Lilly spoke about the ongoing struggle taking place within the union, and about the need to clear out the bureaucrats holding back grassroots activists from democratising the union and turning it into a fighting weapon for rank-and-file members.
Lilly was joined by Maciej Krzymieniecki, a youth rep for the DVLA branch of the PCS, which has taken multiple rounds of strike action over the last year.
As well as discussing the lessons of this strike, Maciej also spoke on the struggle by left activists within PCS and its predecessor union CPSA against the old right wing.
Maciej linked this to the current battle within Unison, highlighting the importance that a left-wing leadership can have for workers in struggle, such as himself.
Finally, Sarah, a Unison young members’ officer from London, spoke on the situation facing young workers in Britain nationally, and the need for a fundamental change in society.
This requires a transformation of workers’ organisations – a goal that Socialist Appeal is actively fighting for.
Attendees were clearly very interested in what comrades on the platform had to say. The discussion that followed covered questions such as: the need to fight against the union bureaucracy; the nature of democracy in capitalist society; what a workers’ democracy would look like; and how to win people to both the union movement and to socialism.
This shows clearly the radical mood amongst an increasing layer of young activists. The youth have been on the sharp end of the capitalist crisis for the whole of their lives. They are not impressed by gestures or freebies – they want action.
Transforming the unions
What is needed now is real democratic organising within Unison, starting with the recruitment of activists who can lead the union in struggle. Despite the contempt shown for them by the bureaucracy, there is clearly a layer willing and ready to take up this task.
Their fighting strength – if organised and linked up with a bold programme of radical socialist change – would easily overcome the careerism, bureaucratic manoeuvres, and apparatus of the organised right wing.
If they were mobilised behind such a programme, with the clear goal of transforming Unison into a militant point of reference within the trade union movement, this would inspire wider and wider layers to join them.
This is the task that now lies in front of us. We invite all trade unionists and young workers to join Socialist Appeal in this challenge.