As the sovereign decision making body of over one million public sector workers, Unison’s National Delegate Conference 2011 (21-24 June) should have been one of the most significant labour movement events in recent years.
As the government tries to impose the biggest assault on working-class pension provision in the history of British capitalism, this conference was an opportunity to get our union geared up for action.
By his tough talk in the run-up to conference, Prentis repositioned himself as the leader of the awkward squad of union leaders, despite the fact that he has refused to call out Unison members for 30 June.
However, there was a noticeable and real leftward shift. The union leadership are calling for a turn away from the servicing model and towards an organising approach. The Executive also supported some amendments arguing that branches should be able to talk to one another and have access to the email addresses of their members (things currently blocked by union officialdom). These were small but important victories for democracy in the union.
More significantly, in his speech to conference Prentis signalled the end of the witchhunt by stating “there are no enemies in this room”. The imaginative use of the union’s disciplinary apparatus to silence left-wing activists has caused enormous damage over the last five years.
On Wednesday afternoon, conference voted to maintain a boycott of Histadrut pending a review, against the recommendation of the NEC.
On Thursday afternoon, conference unexpectedly overturned the leadership on a number of rule changes which sought to further centralise power away from branches. By the end of the session, Prentis looked like a beaten man.
Apart from these minor skirmishes, there was no satisfactory debate and no discussion on our industrial strategy. Prentis managed to outflank the other union leaders and the left by saying we need more than one day of action. However, Unison members still have no timetable for action nor any answer on what will constitute a victory.
The problem we face is that it is impossible to ballot 1.2 million people strictly within the confines of the anti-union laws. If the government is feeling confident, then they will be able to find a minor discrepancy in the ballot (e.g. some workers who have been redeployed) and challenge the union in the courts. Activists need to start discussing what we do in the event of a court injunction and start organising for unofficial action.
Conference made some strong commitments to turn away from social partnership and towards a class struggle approach. Time will tell if the strong words can be turned into a reality. For the past fifteen years, the bureaucracy has trained up a generation of activists in social partnership and sectarianism towards the left. The leadership now recognise that they need the left if they are going to make Prentis’ words a reality.
We should have no illusions in Prentis and his cronies, but their verbal leftism may yet unleash a movement from below that can beat the government and rejuvenate the union.