Trade unions face a huge challenge in the fight against austerity and new legal attacks. Union leaders’ failure to demand more than token resistance has led to discontent among workers.
Frustration at Dave Prentis, general secretary of the Unison trade union, was laid bare at its national conference in Brighton last week.
Members’ living standards have been under attack for years.
But the union’s leadership has offered little strategy beyond waiting for a Labour government while the party implements Tory austerity at a local level.
Local government pay sellouts and the unwillingness to lead health workers into battle alongside junior doctors to defend the NHS have fuelled the anger.
For some former Prentis allies his appeals for unity at the conference fell on deaf ears.
Several national and service group executive members and chairs joined dozens of branch officials at a fringe meeting of up to 300 delegates calling for change.
North West regional convenor Paula Barker argued that “Unison is becoming broken” by a “repeated pattern of capitulation” and a “crisis” in the union’s democracy.
It is crucial that this newly developing alliance is not just sucked back into the union machine.
It needs to be more than a mechanism to win union elections—it must focus on solidarity and resistance to austerity.
Workers in Unison face bigger workloads, more stress, bullying managers and politicians focused more on cuts and outsourcing than providing decent services.
Privatisation is now so common that delegates voted to change the union’s structure to accommodate what is now the fastest growing section—the private sector.
This reflects the leadership’s failure to stop the outsourcing. It has meant a transfer of activity to the branch as officials deal with multiple restructures and fragmentation.
A fierce debate over branch funding saw activists challenge an executive motion, which the leadership only very narrowly won.
The Tories’ new anti-union law was also a key issue.
The top table only seemed willing to congratulate its lobbying efforts that wrung some concessions out of the government. But union leaders’ failure to stop the act was the elephant in the room.
Many argued for an approach of defiance, not compliance, to make the Trade Union Act “unworkable”.
Janet from UCLH health branch in London pointed out that “the laws make union leaders more cautious”. But she argued, “We need to be prepared to resist the act”.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told the conference, “The next Labour government will repeal the act—but we’ll go further and extend trade union and employment rights.”
It was a welcome commitment from the leader of a party that, under previous leaders, failed to repeal anti-union laws while in office.
But John from Tower Hamlets in London urged action now. He said, “We should be demanding that no Labour authority in the country uses the act against workers.”
He added, “The Tories are not invincible. But we cannot beat the anti-union laws by bowing down in front of them—let’s defy them, let’s resist and let’s beat the Tories.”