As public sector workers face unprecedented cuts in jobs and conditions, having to pay the cost for the bank crisis, Unison, the biggest public sector union, should be at the front of the battle to defend jobs and services. How well it can do that may depend on the outcome of an election for general secretary due to begin on 15 May.
The current general secretary Dave Prentis, who is standing for re-election, has a terrible record — his style has been to make occasional left wing speeches at conferences, threatening a fight but never following up with action. He has done everything possible to hold back strike action by Unison members, so as to not “rock the boat” with the Labour government. Union militants who wanted to fight have either been frustrated by bureaucratic blocks or victimised by disciplinary action.
The strength of union organisation has withered at the branch level while the full time bureaucracy at regional and national level has been strengthened. Membership has grown but not in line with the massive growth in the public sector.
Union density — the proportion of workers who are union members — is falling in many areas. To compensate for this Prentis has led the union into “partnership deals” with most of the major employers. At its worst this has meant the active participation of Unison branches in identifying where cuts can be made and jobs can be lost. The new government will care little for such cooperation and will seek to destroy the remaining strength of the union as it cuts jobs and services.
Prentis and his allies will have no answers to these attacks. That is why Prentis has used his position to call an election earlier than he was required to (he could have stayed in post until 2013). He wants to avoid growing anger in the union as the cuts bite. He wants to avoid being held to account.
But one candidate in this election could, if elected, change the rotten culture in the union.
Paul Holmes is a member of the National Executive Council and long-time secretary of Kirklees local government branch. It’s an exceptionally well organised branch with a very high density and a network of hundreds of effective stewards and reps.
The strength of organisation was seen in a successful deal on “single status” (wage rates that are equitable). During that campaign the branch had to hire a local football stadium for branch meetings of thousands.
Paul sees his election as the starting point of a campaign to rebuild the union in the branches and workplaces.
He’s also prepared to lead in national struggles. In the last round of government pension reform Paul led the call for a special conference to allow members a say on how to fight for a better deal.
He’s also been outspoken on the witchunts and lack of democracy inside the union. He wants to see the currently unelected posts of Deputy General Secretary, Regional Secretaries and the Heads of the Services Groups, being elected.
Paul believes there should be change to the union’s link with the Labour Party so that the union’s policies are pursued in the party and not vice-versa. He supports a wide-ranging, unrestricted debate at Unison National Delegate Conference on the Political Fund and a members’ ballot on affiliation, with a recommendation from the National Delegate Conference.
The other main left candidate, Roger Bannister, has made immediate disaffiliation from the Labour Party the central point of his platform. In doing so he made the possibility of a single left candidate impossible. Whilst the link exists it should be used — even in its current limited form. With Labour in opposition, and a likely leadership election ahead, to give up the influence we have here to shape the political fight against the cuts would be short sighted in the extreme.
Moreover Bannister’s disaffiliation call is based on narrow “sectarian” interests. It is linked to support for the Socialist Party’s idea of a new workers party and advocacy of the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition in the election. The fact that TUSC was not much more than a badge of convenience for the Socialist Party and the relative resilience of Labour’s support demonstrates there is a long way to go until ordinary workers are ready to give up on the Labour Party despite their anger at its record.
In the same way the current leadership of Unison has failed to use industrial action and embraced “partnership” rather than led a fight against the bosses, their failure to use the Labour link is a problem of rotten politics rather than structures.
Workers’ Liberty is supporting Paul Holmes in this election and call on others who want a fighting and democratic Unison to support his campaign and start building the rank and file movement we need.
Alliance for Workers’ Liberty members and Unison activists Mike Fenwick and Ali Brown spoke to Paul Holmes about his campaign.
WL: You’re standing for General Secretary against the current leadership, Dave Prentis. How do you think Unison has fared in recent years?
Paul Holmes: I think the issue now is what is coming after the General Election. Have we in the last five or six years prepared ourselves for what’s coming? I think the answer is no. That’s why I’m making organisation the theme of my campaign. All the old lessons are going to have to be relearned. Because there is no doubt even if you look at what the Institute for Fiscal Affairs said recently that the coming cuts are more than any party is thinking about or at least will be publicly saying.
WL: In your publicity you’ve emphasised the strength of your own branch. What has that strength delivered for members?
PH: It’s delivered a really good set of terms and conditions, probably the best in Yorkshire at this moment, certainly in Local Government. We haven’t been the victims of Single Status that many branches have. And we’ve had a very successful Equal Pay campaign where members got in excess of £20,000 net. But even in Kirklees we could be under threat from Single Status. And there is no doubt that what happened in the banks last year is affecting all branches, and Kirklees won’t be excluded from that.
WL: What do you think it would take for other branches to achieve what you’ve achieved in Kirklees?
PH: You’ve got to inspire people. When I joined the movement in 1979, two things inspired me to fight — the election of Thatcher and the activists in the movement. I think we need to rebuild that movement, to build organisation inside the union. It’s not just a question of leaders it’s about building in the rank and file.
WL: Democracy is a problem inside the union and would be a problem for the rank and file organisation of members you’ve just described. The witchunts against the left seem just part of the broader democratic deficit inside the union. What’s your programme for democracy inside the union?
PH: I think it’s in four parts. One is that in an economic crisis the union only has two choices — to represent its members or attack its members. It can represent them and organise them to fight the bosses, or end up doing the bosses’ work.
Then the programme for democracy in the union has to include the election of all the major officials. It’s a disgrace that we are only electing the General Secretary now. The heads of service groups, regional secretaries and virtually all full time officials should be elected.
Equally important, given what’s happened in politics over the last few years, there has to be the right to recall. The right to replace people.
And the third thing as far as I’m concerned we’ve got to reignite the branches and we can only do that by delivering resources to the branches. Branch activists are getting fried and they need that support.
WL: The other main left candidate, Roger Bannister, has made disaffiliation from the Labour Party the main point of his campaign. You are a Labour Party member. Are you happy with the way the Labour Link works? If not how would you like to see it changed?
PH: I think it links into the question of democracy. I think most people inside the union would see the Labour Link as far too closed, far too secretive and removed from the rank and file. 400,000 members pay into the link and they should be involved in it. They’ve got to be involved in selecting MPs. They’ve got to be involved in where the money goes. They’ve got to be involved in who the leader of the Labour party is when they’re elected.
I don’t think the issue of the link is as crucial as some of my opponents think it is. But if we are going to have the link is has to be democratised and open. And if it isn’t going to be democratised and open then the members have got to have the right to get rid of the link.
WL: The AWL is in favour of a rank and file movement, similar to the kind of movement you’ve described. But a lot of the rest of the left, although divided amongst themselves, see taking positions as the way to change the union. Clearly you’ve got a different vision of what the union could become. How do you think we can move forward with the left to achieve that kind of goal?
PH: There are no prescriptive answers. Undoubtedly no successful union has existed in history without a successful rank and file movement. The election of a leader is just one step. The election of a leader is a means whereby you activate people who are thinking about getting involved. That is the crucial point as far as I’m concerned. Replacing one leader with another does nothing in and of itself.
WL: After the General Election result cuts are on their way. Unison has never acted, as yet, with all its strength across all the different parts of the public sector. How would you open up the ability of branches to work together and in Public Sector Alliances?
PH: The natural inclination of workers is to be united. If you get involved in any dispute the first thing any member will say to you is “what’s this union doing” or “what’s that union doing?” And they get demoralised if this union or that union aren’t doing the same thing as us. I think the saddest thing about Unison, over the last 10 years, is that we are always going to do some united action the year after next. Whether it’s in the Health Service, whether its Local Government, whether it’s about pensions, whether it’s about pay. And I think we have to do it on the ground and do it now.
Over the previous period individual workers in the public sector have been left to fight alone and you alone. And there’s no doubt that you die alone.
After the general election the magnitude of the cuts, which will frighten the leadership of all the unions, will mean that either we will unite or we will fall. And I believe we will unite around a leader that’s prepared to help build a rank and file organisation.
WL: If you win you will be surrounded by a right wing NEC and a hostile full-time bureaucracy that’s going to be hostile to you. How will you survive ?
PH: Well I think the first thing to say is I will be the most senior elected official inside the union. Now, I’m used to being elected. I’ve been elected now for 36 years. And that’s what I’ll be promoting inside the union. I will have a mandate from the members to promote that at every opportunity inside the union and all parts of this union will have to respect that decision. I think it will respect it at conference and in future elections. I’m not an individual, I would represent a mood. If I win this election I’ll carry that mood forward.