In the aftermath of the Unison Local Government Special Conference, unison activists are rightly discussing where next, how can we build on this policy victory and make it a victory for low paid workers in our re-opened pay battle. In this contribution Ed Whitby discusses how we continue to reclaim not just this pay battle, but also the structures of our union from the workplaces and branches upwards.
The momentum for last month's Special Conference came from the anger of many members across the country, but significantly in the North West, about the failure of local government unions to lead a serious fight to defend our pay, terms, and conditions. In Unison's largest region, where density is highest and strikes most solid, this anger, and the desire to hold the Unison leadership to account, was strongest. This region is also one of the worst-hit by government cuts.
This mood is in many ways a culmination of successive failures: the 2011 pension battle, the false starts and eventual capitulation in the 2013, 2014, and 2015 pay campaigns, and the failure to lead a serious fight against five years of severe cuts in local government.
Those campaigns failed, in part, because of the huge democratic deficit inside Unison. Campaigns are “led” (although, in fact, not led) from above, with the membership treated as a passive stage army to be marched up the hill of one-day strikes, and then demobilised when the union leadership decides the membership has exhausted its will to fight. That conservatism and defeatism is projected back onto the membership itself, who then feel too demoralised to do anything other than vote for shoddy deals, and the employers win.
The decision of the Special Conference to resume the 2015/2016 pay fight is a huge victory, but it does not, by itself, redress that fundamental power imbalance within the union. It does not create rank-and-file control. It does not erase the very real demoralisation (more-or-less engineered by the leadership) that still exists amongst much of the membership.
Some left-led branches, with the powerful North West Region acting as a lever, have been able to coordinate and achieve something significant within the union structures. But what happens next? What happens in Northern Region, in Wales, in the South East Region, where those wanting to carry out the policy of the Special Conference are in smaller numbers and have less influence in branches or regions?
How do we win the fight to open up and democratise branches and regions? How do we transform our union structures – not winning mere changes of personnel on national committees, but fundamental transformation of the way our union is run?
At present, the far left in Unison seems unable to think beyond ensuring a few left-wing individuals get elected / re-elected to national committees. But having left-wingers on national committees is of limited use if there are no rank-and-file structures to discuss what they do, and to hold them to account.
The frequent incompetence of the existing bureaucracy shouldn't fool us into thinking that all we need to do is win a few more seats on the NEC, or the SGEs, or win a few more policy debates at NDC, to turn things round. The experiences of “left-led” unions like PCS and NUT, who have suffered heavy defeats with similar failures to fight in a sustained and coordinated way, should give us pause. There's more to winning reform in unions than electing better people to committees.
Genuine rank-and-fileism means, fundamentally, union members being self-organised in strong branches, with as little distance between the structures of the union and the workplace as possible. It means transforming union structures to get rid of the corps of highly-paid, unelected, unaccountable officials and ensure that all union officials who have any direct role in the day-to-day running of the union are elected and paid no more than an average workers' wage. In the immediate term, before winning such reforms, it means strong, militant branches organising horizontally, not “outside of union structures”, but in grassroots networks within the union that can discuss and plan strategies for action. Building rank and file organisation is key but is not counter to using official structures. A decent rank and file organisation would fight for good policy at every level, stand accountable reps and would fundamentally transform the union because it would have the ability to argue for and in practice to carry out those policies.
The Local Association National Action Campaign (LANAC) in the National Union of Teachers is a useful model. LANAC is based on union structures, and is made up of delegates from affiliated NUT branches (with observers from NUT workplace groups). As such, it aims to transform both the culture and structures of the union by fighting for democratic reform and more radical industrial strategies. It is a quite different model from the moribund “Broad Left”-type approach, which merely seeks to cohere left-wing individuals to intervene in union elections or conference policy debates.
The victory at the Special Conference shows that battles of policy can be won within union structures. But while those structures remain under the control of the same bureaucracy that sabotaged the pay fight in the first place, independent rank-and-file organisation (beginning at branch level) will still be necessary.