A promising new campaign has started in the Sheffield City (Local Government) branch of the public sector union Unison.
The branch has been run by ineffectual officers with scarcely any democratic life or real connection with its members since it was closed down in the early 2000s by the regional bureaucracy in order to oust SWP members in the branch leadership. This has left it floundering in the face of cuts to members pay and conditions - most recently in the form of the single-status pay and grading changes and now a recruitment freeze and threats of redundancies as a result of the Labour-led council passing on the Con-Dem government's cuts.
A group of Unison members, mainly employees of Sheffield City Council or its housing ALMO Sheffield Homes, have started the 'Unison Unleashed' campaign to address these problems by restoring branch democracy and forcing the branch to mount a proper fight against the cuts.
The first step was to gather the signatures of around 400 branch members on a petition calling for a Special General Meeting, where members would have the opportunity to hold the branch officers to account. This number was well above the number required by the union's rulebook (five percent of the total membership) to force this meeting.
The petition was handed to the branch officers and things initially looked good for a meeting in September... until the Yorkshire and Humberside Regional office got involved. A letter from the "Regional Manager" addressed to "Identifiable members of the Sheffield City Branch who signed the petition initiated by members of the Socialist Workers Party" informed those members that there would be no SGM - the petition statement had apparently contained too much extraneous information and was therefore inadmissible. They were also told that there was nothing wrong with branch democracy: there were regular branch meetings that members could attend if they wanted - never mind that there has been no AGM for two years, members never hear about when branch meetings are going to be held and the meetings are often held in their core working hours...
At this year's Unison AGM, Dave Prentis gave signals that the Unison leadership might be about to end the witch-hunts against left-
wing union members, asserting “there are no enemies in this room”. Clearly the message has not filtered down to the Yorkshire and Humberside regional office. Unison Unleashed will certainly test the leadership's sincerity.
It is also a vitally important campaign for the future of the fight against the public service cuts in one of the UK's largest
cities. Council workers won't be able to fight the cuts if they don't have a union branch fit for the purpose - a branch that is truly democratic and controlled by rank-and-file members, not useless bureaucrats.