Socialist Worker

Paul Holmes: ‘We need a rank and file general secretary’

Paul Holmes is standing in the election for general secretary of the Unison union. He spoke to Simon Basketter about his campaign

Issue No. 2190

Why are you standing for general secretary?

After the general election, whoever wins, the bankers are going to be gunning for working class people.

For the last few years the union has been too timid and too tame. The reality is it has all gone one way—to the employers. We have to be far more aggressive in our approach.

We have had too many backroom deals. We need to vigorously stand up for our members.

The approach on a range of issues has been disastrous. On pensions, we had great support from the rank and file for action. But we ended up with a muddled outcome.

We have done badly over pay and the bankers are going to want more.

Or take single status. The whole process started with a fudge in 1997.

Over the last 12 years thousands of workers have seen a worsening of pay and conditions.

Some have had overtime rates slashed, and others have lost pay.

We started with national pay and conditions and national bargaining. That has been consistently undermined—now we are in danger of ending up with local agreements and local bargaining.

What is your view of the union’s link with Labour?

The whole point of Unison’s Labour link, if it is to have one, is that union policies should go into the Labour Party.

The reality it has all been the other way round.

It is ridiculous to have two political funds. In my view there should be just one political fund and we should decide at a delegate conference what sort of fund we want. At the minute it is a secret fund, not open to the membership.

Thousands of members who pay into the political fund but aren’t Labour Party members end up having no say over what happens to the money.

With a single political fund we should be able to democratically decide to back political parties and campaigns that support Unison policies. The membership should decide what happens to the money.

Do you think this election is happening at the best time?

The general secretary election seemed to come out of nowhere. It obviously would have been better if it had been launched at conference.

That would have meant 1,000 delegates could have been part of the process.

It then would have taken place by December, when it legally has to, rather than being rushed through.

What do you think about there being more than one left candidate?

The first thing to say is that an election should be contested. And everyone who wants to stand should have a right to.

I don’t believe that standing in an election causes division either in the union or on the left.

It is what democracy is about. In that sense, having a number of candidates is not a problem.

I personally want there to be a single united candidate of the left.

But the key thing is that we campaign to get a good turnout, as that is what will invigorate the union.

What about the witchhunts in the union?

There is a need for disciplinary procedures in a union, for instance if people fiddle money or are in the BNP.

But—and I can’t say this strongly enough—it is clear that a range of people in the union have been disciplined for their political opinions.

That is unacceptable and it is very much part of my campaign that this must stop.

What sort of union do we need?

What the union needs to do is inspire every activist.

That’s what leadership should mean.

The election campaign isn’t a passive thing—it is also about convincing people of what we can achieve as a union.

We need a real fight on jobs, services, pay and pensions.

In my branch, by standing up for ourselves, we have got 86 percent of the workforce in the union.

We had a Tory council attacking services, but being prepared to stand up for ourselves is the basis of our organising and of recruitment.

We don’t need paper policies—we need to lift activists by the campaign.

We need to transform the union’s approach to stand up to the attacks we face.

For that, we need a rank and file general secretary—not distant from the members but fighting with them.

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Tue 23 Feb 2010, 19:25 GMT
Issue No. 2190
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