By Sarah Bates
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2810

Where now for the left after Unison conference turmoil?

Right wing ideas are best addressed by raising the level of struggle
Issue 2810
A different atmosphere to Unison conference. Hundreds of Unison members on the streets at the 18 June TUC demo with purple Unison placards. flags and a giant balloon.

A different atmosphere to Unison conference. Hundreds of Unison members on the streets at the 18 June TUC demo (Picture: Guy Smallman)

A bloody internal war between the left and right dominated the Unison union national delegate conference last week. It was the first in-person conference held since 2019, and the first since the elections of socialist Paul Holmes to the presidency and a left majority of the national executive committee (NEC).

A number of motions on the first day of the conference attacked the NEC. Motion 10 criticised the NEC for allowing Holmes to continue in office despite being unemployed because his employer had sacked him. Effectively it suggested that victimisation by the bosses should trigger removal from elected positions in Unison.

Opposing the motion, Jon Woods from Portsmouth argued that the NEC was being attacked “for using the powers the NEC already has in the rules”.

He said the motion’s logic appeared to argue “We can’t have ordinary lay members interpreting rules, it’s only officers and the lawyers they choose who they want do this. Let’s be clear—the NEC didn’t guarantee the right to remain a member or elected rep. It just said it wouldn’t automatically assume the employer was right,” he said. But the motion passed.

Motion 11—which expressed “no confidence” in the NEC—was also passed. It argued that the NEC had changed Unison rules, which is normally only permitted through a vote by conference.

It said that the NEC sought to remove powers from the general secretary. It argued the NEC had “shamefully concentrated on what appears to be an internal power play while the rest of us are left to take on the challenge of austerity, UK government attacks on members and services and bad employers that deny our members rights”.

On a “card vote”, based on branch numbers, 655,809 voted for, and 389,160 against.

Another motion criticised the lack of black representation among chairs and vice-chairs of sub-committees. Delegates who support Socialist Worker successfully argued that the left should not oppose this motion and the left-led NEC switched to supporting it with the qualification that such problems are long-standing rather than just emerging in the last year.

The motions and rule changes follow Holmes’ strong left campaign for general secretary and then his election as union president while he was suspended from his job. He was the victim of an anti-union witchhunt at Kirklees Council and was formally sacked in January 2022, after a disciplinary process lasting two and a half years.

There were serious allegations made against him that were rightly investigated. Unison is currently looking at legal avenues to reinstate him. Unison solicitors are actively supporting his claim of unfair dismissal on grounds of trade union activity and do not believe that any of the allegations justify gross misconduct.

His election helped found the Time for Real Change left campaign within the union. The ascendancy of the Time for Real Change campaign within Unison has seen attacks on it both within and outside of the union structures. But just because these unpalatable attacks come from the right, doesn’t mean the basic democracy of conference can be ignored.

In a statement on the last day of the conference, the left-led NEC said, “National Delegate Conference is the sovereign body of our union and as such its decisions must be respected. Conference, this week you have passed a number of motions calling on your NEC to deliver on your vitally important priorities. The NEC accepts serious mistakes have been made. We apologise to Conference.”

The NEC pledged to continue taking action over the cost of living crisis, pay, democracy and equality.

There is a fundamental issue behind all this of formally taking control of a union when many bureaucratic obstacles remain that make shifts to more militant trade unionism difficult.

The left’s biggest error is to have fought through the internal channels rather than appealing to the members on the basis of the need for a fight over pay, oppression and other pressing questions.

While there has been so much attention on the top of the union, hundreds of thousands of Unison members have seen real terms pay cuts, the horrors of Covid and management bullying. And yet there has been no explosion of resistance to the general secretary’s lack of a lead.

NEC member Karen Reissmann told Socialist Worker in a personal capacity, “Unison members are more frightened about the future than they’ve ever been and more angry about the future than they’ve ever been. 

“There’s a real feeling of  ‘them’ and ‘us’—where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. You can feel that mood on hospital wards and you could feel it on the very big Unison bloc on Saturday’s TUC demo. Some of that frustration at the union’s inability to fight these attacks was directed at the NEC at the conference.

“This left the NEC in a weaker position, but class struggle isn’t going to go away. There’s a possibility to grow on the ground. Working class people don’t have much of a choice and Keir Starmer doesn’t offer much of an option. 

“As a left, we need to create an organisation that is fit to take on the Tories and the bosses.

“There was an internal vote within the NEC about whether we should all resign. Socialist Workers supporters abstained from this vote. We think we have to take the vote of no confidence seriously, but if the whole executive resigned, you will have no national executive for four or five months. We wouldn’t be able to support demonstrations or organise protests. 

“We should be able to bring forward NEC elections, which are due to start in January. We wanted to bring them forward but the union rules don’t allow this.”

The internal turmoil in the union can be solved in the long term only by looking outwards and raising the level of struggle from the base.

Despite a deeply divided atmosphere at parts of conference, socialist delegates won wide support when they raised the question of solidarity for striking rail workers and a real fightback against the cost of living crisis, they received mass support.

But noticeably absent from the motions was one proposing pay strikes. This is not helped by the division of union functions between the national conference which deals with politics, and service group conferences such as health and local government which deal with pay, terms and conditions. The unity of the TUC demo needs to be replicated in the unity of ballots and strikes.

Many delegates highlighted how workers are getting a rough deal from the government and employers, with some calling for strikes. Yet there wasn’t an opportunity for the conference to mandate a national ballot for workers’ action.

As well as giving workers a fighting chance to resist the attacks from the top, serious action would also radically change the feel of the union. Uniting against the bosses and Tories is the best way to reject the division of the union’s right.

It could also bring on board Unison members who may have voted “no confidence” in the NEC but can be won over with policies of resistance.

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