The most contentious debate at the Local Government sector conference of public sector workers’ union Unison, which finished on 17 June, was around a motion proposed by Lambeth Unison, supported by Workers’ Liberty Unison activists.
The motion advocated that Unison organise its members working in primary schools to support the National Education Union’s planned boycott of testing in primary schools. Arguing that “Unison members must not be put in the position of being asked to cover work that another union’s members are boycotting as part of a legitimate dispute”, it asked that all Unison members in primary schools be balloted for industrial action to boycott testing.
The conference’s Standing Orders Committee ruled the motion out of order on bureaucratic grounds, arguing that the conference could not “instruct” the Service Group Executive, the relevant Unison committee, to hold a ballot. Delegates from Lambeth, Barnet, and Southwark Unison branches challenged the ruling, and conference voted by a large majority to refer back the section of the SOC report ruling out the motion. Despite this, and the clear mood it expressed from delegates to have the motion discussed, SOC dug in and refused to allow the motion to be heard.
Nevertheless, the vote to refer back shows that there is an appetite amongst Unison activists to discuss how their union can support the NEU’s planned boycott. Workers’ Liberty members at the conference were able to work well with other rank-and-file militants and socialists, including Socialist Party activists, to challenge the SOC and raise the profile of the issue.
As a result of the pressure from conference, the Service Group Executive will now discuss the matter at its July meeting. Activists are organising to lobby SGE members in advance of that meeting. The issue reinforces the need, in the first place, for meaningful collaboration at workplace level between members of different unions, and ultimately for a single industrial union of school workers.
The fact that the most hotly debated issue at the conference was one that related to a Standing Orders Committee decision is also an indication of the undemocratic, bureaucratic culture that still prevails in Unison nationally. Unison’s National Delegate Conference, which brings together delegates from local government, health, and the other sectors in which Unison organises, is due to begin on 18 June, as Solidarity goes to press. Motions tabled include a proposal for Unison to pursue a clear “remain and reform” policy on Brexit, to defend free movement, and to fight for Labour to advocate this.