Socialist Worker

Unison candidate John Burgess says, 'The Tories aim to smash us - let's take them on'

John Burgess, standing for leader of the public sector union Unison, spoke to Raymie Kiernan about how the vote could galvanise resistance to the Tories

Issue No. 2468

John Burgess and other workers march to support striking Glasgow caseworkers at this year’s Unison conference

John Burgess and other workers march to support striking Glasgow caseworkers at this year’s Unison conference (Pic: Duncan Brown)

Workers have suffered five years of cuts, privatisation and other attacks. Yet trade union leaders have not launched the kind of resistance needed to match the Tory assault. 

Their strategy to elect a Labour government failed—and would never have been enough anyway.

Now an election for general secretary of Britain’s biggest public sector union, Unison, is looming. And it is an opportunity to back a candidate who will help lead industrial struggle against the Tories.

John Burgess, branch secretary of Barnet Unison in north London, is standing. 

He spoke to Socialist Worker in a personal capacity about the need for a union that fights.

“Unison faces the biggest challenge it’s ever faced,” he said. “The Tories want to finish off public services and stop unions from opposing them. Doing nothing is not an option. 

“The future of the trade union movement will be decided by whether or not we energise reps and develop more reps filled with confidence to fight back. We need to make the Tories worried.”

John said the Tories’ Trade Union Bill is “a back-handed compliment”. He explained, “The trade union movement is the only credible opposition to what they are doing.

“We have to construct a genuine industrial response. If we have to act outside the law, then we have to act outside the law.

“Otherwise we’ll fight with one hand tied behind our back.”


Many workers heavily criticised the Unison leadership in the last year for cobbling together a rotten deal in a local government pay dispute in England and Wales. 

Leaders didn’t want strikes in Labour-run councils causing the party embarrassment in the run-up to the general election. 

John is a Labour member but argued that the strategy of putting struggle on hold for the interests of a party is “bollocks”.

He said, “We have to lead, not abdicate responsibility. Going behind peoples’ backs and doing deals is out of order.

“I’m there for our members first, not the Labour Party. I don’t see why anyone should get a penny of our money if they are doing things against our members.”

John said that electing a new union leadership is not enough—and that workplace organisation must be built.

“The employers are not going to be intimidated by rhetoric,” he said. 

“You’ve got to do the work. We have to give people confidence and be able to deliver action. 

“The union’s lifeblood are the reps and members, and we need to put control of resources back into their hands. Without them we’ll do nothing.

“This is an important election. We have the opportunity to change the way that one of the largest trade unions operates.

“The government’s aim is to extinguish the union movement and public services. We need every worker, every rep to take them on.”

Grab this chance to create a stronger, united left

Two candidates from Unison’s leadership are standing for general secretary—current post holder Dave Prentis and local government officer Heather Wakefield. 

John Burgess

John Burgess

Both are tainted by the sellout of the local government pay dispute and there’s a big opportunity for a left challenge.

Karen Reissmann, Unison national and health service group executive (SGE) member, told Socialist Worker why health workers should back John.

“The Tories are determined to destroy our health service,” she said. “I am supporting John because he’s a principled leader. 

“He will not leave health workers behind when we fight over pay, unsocial hours, stress or NHS services.”

Roger Hutt is a Unison steward at Care UK in Doncaster, South Yorkshire.

Unison members there struck for 90 days last year against NHS privatisation. Roger is also backing John for general secretary.

Roger told Socialist Worker, “John is unshakeable in his pursuit of what he believes in. 


“For me he is what this union is crying out for—someone who will put the interests of members before the union’s political agenda.”

Many on the left in the union back John and want to see a single left candidate.

After two hustings to agree on one, sadly  previous general secretary candidate Roger Bannister has insisted he will stand. 

This is despite his supporters being in a minority at both left hustings this year.

Jon Woods is Unison local government SGE member for the South East.

He told Socialist Worker, “John is the best candidate to unite the left and go beyond that to bring in all those who are willing to fight.

“Roger’s approach has been to say ‘Back me or I’ll stand anyway’. You can’t build a united left on the basis of ultimatums.

“John’s campaign can help us rebuild a united left in the union and take the struggle forward.

“He can lead a fight, link with other workers in struggle and not just talk the talk but put it into practice.”

Workers spoke to Socialist Worker in a personal capacity

John does not give up or give in to bosses

I’ve worked alongside John for the last six years as Barnet Unison chair. 

It’s important that we have a leader who, like John, has recent experience of organising and encouraging a sustained fightback. 

He enjoys the confidence of our branch because we know he supports us all the way.

The fight against privatisation is not over in our branch and has been going on in its recent form for seven years.

John could have chosen a personally easier option in that time and packed up and moved on.

He has not done so. I have yet to see him give up or give in.

Helen Davies, Barnet Unison chair and Unison NEC London region (pc)

What you can do to support John Burgess

The election for Unison general secretary will take place in November and December. 

To raise support and nominate John at union meetings, they must take place between 2 September and 9 October. 

Go to the blog now, download the nomination letter and get it onto the agenda of your next meeting. 

To be on the ballot paper candidates must receive a nomination from the national executive, or two national service group executives, or two regional councils, or at least 25 branches.

Regional planning meetings are being organised to support John’s campaign.

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