Socialist Worker

Unison union conference sees revolt against leadership

by Sarah Bates
Issue No. 2610

John McDonnell offers support to the Wigan NHS strikers at a conference fringe meeting

John McDonnell offers support to the Wigan NHS strikers at a conference fringe meeting (Pic: Karen Reissmann)

The Unison union national conference erupted in chanting and cries of “democracy” on Wednesday after union leaders attempted to quash revolt over a controversial motion.

During the first two days of conference delegates railed against “Theresa May and her friends” smashing up public services and privatising NHS and social care. There was also discussion on Brexit, low pay, and transgender inclusion. 

In the "Reshaping and resourcing our union" motion on Wednesday, Unison's national executive committee called for a “thorough strategic review” of the union and its finances.

And it argued that “A strong strategic centre that supports strong organising regions and active branches is far more viable than a federation of independent fragmented branches."

But many delegates were worried the review was about taking financial resources from local branches and the motion was heavily defeated.

Jon Woods from Portsmouth, who spoke against the motion, told Socialist Worker in a personal capacity, "I think everybody agrees the union structures need reviewing—the question is who does the reviewing.

"Conference showed today that delegates don’t trust the full time officials in our union to do that reviewing. The danger is that the review will be done in the interests of full time officials.”


Much of the discussion reflected concerns that Unison headquarters wouldn’t provide regions with support when they needed it.  

After a vote where delegates raised their hands, the chair said the motion had passed. But delegates rose to their feet, and demanded a re-count through a more formal card vote based on the members that delegates represent.

The result was conclusive—690,044 against the motion, with 394,990 votes for it. 

When he opened national delegate conference on Tuesday, general secretary Dave Prentis said Unison was “a union designed to serve its members.”

Prentis said fighting racism was “at the heart” of Unison and warned that there was “no room for complacency— the battle against racism never ends.”

in a discussion on Brexit, Stephen Maclean from Sussex argued, “We must campaign for freedom of movement everywhere. I want my colleagues from Sri Lanka or Zimbabwe to be free from deportation too.

“And while we’re at it, let's get to London on 13 July to tell Trump he’s not welcome in the country And let’s be back the next day to chase the fascists into the sewers where they belong."

On the first day of conference over 280 delegates packed into a Fighting Austerity fringe meeting, hearing from strikers and Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell. 


Michael Purcell from Wigan where health workers are currently fighting against privatisation, told the meeting, “Hands off our jobs, hands off our terms and conditions and hands off our NHS.”

McDonnell said that a Corbyn government would “invest in our public services - we’re going to end the cuts, invest in healthcare, education and restore the fabric of civilised society.”

He promised to restore collective bargaining, introduce a financial transaction tax for the banking industry and scrap the trade union act. 

McDonnell added, "We’re preparing for government. I think the Tories will cling on for as long as possible, but we have to be ready because they might go sooner.

"We can do all that, but it will come to nought unless we mobilise. The best form of mobilisation is supporting every form of working class organisation."

Mandy Buckley, who is a senior shop steward for Unison home care workers in Birmingham who are preparing to restart strikes, spoke to the fringe event and said, “We are low paid women workers, if we can do it then anyone can do it.”

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