Where next for Unison left?

Submitted by Matthew on 10 February, 2016 - 2:11 Author: Simon Nelson

In the wake of the attacks of the Trade Union Bill and coming off the back of a General Secretary election mired in corruption and with a turnout of less than 10%, the largest public sector union, Unison, is not geared up for a fight.

The incumbent General Secretary, Dave Prentis’s victory in December should highlight the level of stagnation that exists, and the failure of a serious challenge to the entrenched bureaucracy outside of election time.

In the midst of an ongoing and now delayed investigation by the Electoral Reform Society and Unison itself, via Prentis supporter and Deputy General Secretary Roger McKenzie, the arrogance and sense of invulnerability of the bureaucracy is clear. Whilst any challenge to the bureaucracy and the right of our union will include standing in elections and fighting for socialist and militant policy at conferences, to limit ourselves to the broad areas of agreement and compromises on conference floor and on the ballot paper will not be enough.

To fight the waves of cuts that will go through Council Budgets in the next month, the attacks on the NHS and in Higher Education, Unison branches need to be prepared to fight locally and do what they can to coordinate their struggles together.

The unofficial action taken by Lambeth council workers show that there are fights where well organised groups of workers are prepared to take action. Serious and coordinated disputes against cuts, outsourcing and privatisation cannot just be left to individual branches and we have to mobilise the union to use its position nationally to wage a real fight.

After several years of derisory pay offers and tokenistic one day strikes the Unison Special Conference in April 2015 demonstrated a serious level of anger amongst the membership over the sell out of the 2015 pay dispute. Despite the conference deciding to re-initiate the pay campaign and bringing together activists from across the country in their anger at the capitulation of the union to a terrible offer with one day of action, the renewed campaign fizzled to nothing, Why?

The union called for further talks with the employer, who refused and left members who had now pushed for a further fight demobilised. Successive years of top down organisation, the weakening of branches, and Unison’s draconian rules that stop individual branches from speaking to each other, continue to undermine our chances of a real fight. An agreement reached at the meeting in Birmingham on 13 January of people largely from the Burgess4GenSec campaign to meet again and continue to work together is a good start to some ongoing coordination of the left in Unison.

We should build on the network of activists that took part in the campaign and continue to coordinate campaigns to democratise the Union and force it to fight together. Activists need to discuss how branches locally and govern disputes including any national action on pay.

The threat to DOCAS, the system of union dues being collected direct at source from wages, poses a major threat to all unions, but particularly Unison. The retention rate of staff in the probation service, where Unison currently organises, and DOCAS has been removed, shows that around 20% of the membership are lost. Such a fall in membership will be very damaging to the union’s ability to fight but also on its density and influence in the workplace.

Unison’s pledge to fight the Trade Union Bill has highlighted its inability to proactively mobilise members to campaign. Branches hear reports that increasing numbers of full time officials have been sent to lobby the Lords and spend more time in the Head Office, writing briefings and holding meetings. Such a strategy does little to inspire or engage members and abstract calls to campaign against the Bill have not resulted in branch-led campaigns to recruit and prepare to fight the bill when passed.

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