Building a real rank-and-file movement in UNISON

Submitted by Matthew on 27 May, 2010 - 10:52 Author: Todd Hamer

Members of the public sector union Unison should be at the forefront of a fightback against the cuts. That’s the message being put forward by Paul Holmes who is standing for the general secretary election (running until 11 June) against Dave Prentis. But Unison under Prentis is not “fit for purpose” — undemocratic, passive in the face of massive attacks. Todd Hamer describes the state of the union and the kind of campaign the activist left needs to change the union’s culture.

With 1.3 million members Unison will be the lynchpin of any defence of public services. But it is a union that is organisationally, politically and ideologically based on unelected fulltime staff (“the bureaucracy”) and a few hundred sycophantic, right-wing lay activists.

Their glorious leader is Dave Prentis whose achievements as leader have consisted of defeats, privatisation and pay cuts. The “machine” is currently using the union’s resources to ensure Dave Prentis is re-elected as general secretary.

The bureaucracy’s approach to trade unionism is best explained by examining one of the recent “victories” gained by Karen Jennings, Unison’s “head on health”.

In hospitals up and down the country, Unison posters proudly declare that the union put the brakes on privatisation. Through hard negotiations Jennings and her team squeezed a promise from Andy Burnham, ex-Health Secretary, that the NHS would be “preferred provider” of health services. This means that when the Primary Care Trusts commission a service (e.g. a year’s worth of hip replacements) they should “prefer” that an NHS hospital gets the contract rather than a private provider.

But this policy will achieve virtually nothing in the battle against privatisation. At best, “preferred provider” will slightly slow down only the latest phase. It leaves in place the entire infrastructure of two years of NHS privatisation — the costly internal markets, precarious employment practices of running services on short-term contracts and the reduction of human health to cash sum calculations.

And the new government could reverse “preferred provider” in an instant and move swiftly to an open health care market.

However, we did not need to wait for the Tories. According to the bosses’ Health Service Journal, Gordon Brown intervened in March 2010 with a letter to the voluntary sector lobby. He explained: “The words ‘preferred provider’ will probably remain, but the guts of the policy are being ripped out.” So, this is a meaningless concession, far from the “victory of the year”. But empty phrases allow the Unison bureaucracy to fake a victory and disarm their members in the face of any future cuts and privatisation.

Unison negotiators probably genuinely believed that they had done their best and got a great deal. But it is precisely because they have given up on trade unionism, the strength of organised workers, that they see no alternative than begging for crumbs in negotiations.

New Labour has done more to dismantle the NHS in the past 13 years than at any time since 1948. We are now a few simple steps away from the end of universal free healthcare — something that the Lib-Con government are sure to capitalise on. Jennings and the Unison elite have facilitated this process, whilst deluding themselves that they were winning.

Social partnership

Venal and self-serving they may be, but union bureaucrats are first and foremost pragmatists. Right now they are dealing with the fallout of a shrinking trade union movement. Their pragmatism breeds its own ideology.

The received wisdom for trade union leaders throughout the 1990s and 2000s was that the unions had entered a new era of “social partnership”. The idea here is that the bosses’ interests are the same as the workers. Tony Blair summed up this belief when he announced in 1998 that we now live in a “classless society”.

In signing up to this dogma, the union leaders rejected some basic ABCs of trade unionism. “Social partnership” means that workers don’t need to stand together and take action to defend their interests.

If the bosses’ ultimate goal is the same as the workers, then everything can be resolved by talking it through. Any conflict is trivial, or temporary, to be overcome by “adult dialogue”. A skilled band of union negotiators can help to bring enlightenment to “the world of work” and transcend the apparent boss-worker antagonism.

This is clearly nonsense. Any worker who has been bullied by management, had their terms and conditions attacked, or taken a pay cut, knows that their interests do not coincide with their boss. Workers understand that their interests lie in standing together, organising and defending their collective interests. This is why trade unions exist.

The idea that we are “all in it together” is a myth that only serves the interests of the rich; it stops us defending ourselves.

But the strategy of “social partnership” has had a devastating effect on trade union organisation. Members are encouraged to see their union as a service, a great protector that struts around the corridors of power defending their interests. Any halfway competent boss views these people as a joke, or worse, as an opportunity. Without strong workplace organisation the negotiators are toothless. The great promises of the union never materialise, and workers leave the union thinking it’s not worth paying for such a shoddy service.

Meanwhile in the corridors of power, the negotiators get drawn into the bosses’ world, deluding themselves that they are winning for “their” members by sycophantic politicking. When they are forced to justify their actions, they wash their hands and say they are trying their best — “what can you do with a weak membership?”

In Unison the collective delusion of “social partnership” has evolved into paranoid psychosis. Attempts to organise industrial action are regularly obstructed by the union officials. These attempts are seen as the domain of the fringe left-wing. Trade unionism based on workers’ solidarity is now seen as an extremist activity. People who advocate it are run out of office. The union actually runs courses on how to “deal” with “Trotskyists” in the union.

Break the cycle of decline

The Unison leadership has vested interests in keeping the members inactive and in the dark. When this fails and someone kicks up a fuss, they rely on threats and intimidation to silence critics.

If even a fraction of the 1.3 million members got involved in union activism, these “leaders” could be held to account. Their actions could be scrutinised, they could be forced to represent our collectively worked-out policies, they could be prevented from witch-hunting hard-working lay activists and could be forced to serve the interests of ordinary members.

Getting involved as an activist in Unison is a fairly demoralising experience. However, we can imagine that in the times to come, people may get involved despite the best efforts of the Unison machine, get involved in their hundreds, even in their thousands, as part of a movement that is necessary if we are going to defend our public services. The depth of the cuts may spark off spontaneous strikes in local government or the NHS. Could we see Visteon-style occupations on a massive scale in PFI hospitals?

Another possibility is that the Unison bureaucracy is forced to act in response to the Lib-Con government. There are two major threats on the horizon. Firstly, Vince Cable has said he wants to ban public sector strikes. Secondly, there is a chance the Lib-Con will try to ban unions from funding political parties. We may see right-wing Unison bureaucrats or New Labour politicians, trying to rouse a mass movement against these proposals. Such a mass movement will develop a life of its own and may refuse to be led by these middle-class incompetents.

However, none of this can be taken for granted. The leaders have no experience of organising a mass movement. they do not know how to communicate with the majority of their members and they are scared of the forces they may unleash. At every opportunity to organise and turn to the strength of their membership, they have retreated.

Most hopefully, the general secretary election provides a small window of opportunity to elect a new leader. Paul Holmes, branch secretary of Kirklees Unison, has helped to create the best organised branch in the union, with over 80% density.

Holmes is arguing that we need to build a rank-and-file movement in the union. He argues that it is only by mass participation of the membership that we can hope to defend our jobs, terms and conditions. With strength in the workplace and mass participation, we can smash through all the bureaucratic blocks to effective trade unionism.

By running in the general secretary election, Holmes wants to inspire such a movement from below. He believes in root and branch change within the union, to rally a mass movement that can revitalise branches, reinvigorate the union’s democracy and see off the Tory-Lib Dem government attacks. At the moment he has everything to fight for in this election. But if he is unsuccessful, then the message that he is putting out to the members remains the same.

In every branch there will be many bread and butter trade union issues to campaign around on which to build up the union’s organisational strength.

Paul Holmes' message is to organise. He not only wants your vote but also wants you to get active in the union, inspire the workers around you that we can organise and fightback against the Tory-Lib Dem public sector cuts.

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