Unison conference: Will the union change direction?

Submitted by Anon on 9 June, 2007 - 11:52

by a Unison conference delegate

Unison’s national delegate conference (June 19-22) will see a number of debates that could move the union in a new direction in the next year. Unfortunately some of the most important decisions for the union will not be played out on conference floor.

The threatened industrial action on pay in the health service and potentially in local government will be decided on elsewhere. In the same way, the chance for Unison to have any positive input into the Labour leadership election has already passed, with a decision to nominate Gordon Brown and Alan Johnson.

The choice of Johnson in particular will be galling to local government staff still unable to settle their pension dispute. Johnson was the government’s lead on selling the deal of paying more now for less later but is considered to be “someone we can do business with”. And to add salt to the wound, the Unison political committee cited Johnson’s “strong trade union links” and “good ministerial record”. Hopefully, as in the CWU,this decision will be rejected by the conference.

This highlights the enduring problem in Unison. The leadership will sometimes criticise the government but never mobilises its members to force through a change in government policy.

In the last year the local government pension dispute was left to fizzle out after a very successful day of national strike action. A return to talks has produced no significant improvements in the deal initially offered. The head of steam that had built up over the privatisation of NHS Logistics was also wasted despite excellent support for action after a setpiece by Dave Prentis at Labour Party Conference. The broader NHS campaign has been demobilised with consecutive postponements of a national demo and a very poorly organised day of action on March 3rd.

Despite the inaction of the national union, many branches have organised strike and other action against local cuts in jobs and services, winning some impressive results. At the same time other public sector unions are taking the lead that should be Unison’s in organising a broader alliance. The civil servants’ union PCS, recently on strike, and teachers in the NUT, are considering joint action in the Autumn. Unison branches should take up the challenge of organising a public sector alliance against the proposed pay freeze and continued cuts in services.

Another threat, at least to the self-interest of the bureaucracy, is that Unison has lost its previously one undisputed advantage – as Britain’s biggest union – to the new super-union Unite. It’s clear that Unite expects to make gains inside the public sector. Unison’s response – starting merger talks with GMB – highlights the leadership’s limitations: falling back on a bureaucratic solution rather than building the union through struggle.

Throughout the order paper there are motions highlighting both the need and possibility of struggle throughout the public sector. Unison is of course itself already a public sector alliance, organising workers across the NHS, further and higher education, police, local government etc. But in its 14 years it has never organised coordinated action across those sectors.

The possibility is there and so are the issues. At local government conference, in the few days before national conference, pensions, single status agreements and the continued battle to maintain terms and conditions for those workers now working under private sector employers will all be discussed.

These broad issues are common across the union. The government has a clear plan for the public sector as a whole: limit pay to below inflation, break down national terms and conditions and threaten job security, as an incentive toward productivity. In this way it hopes to create in the public sector the kind of insecure, low paid employment and lack of rights found in private industry.

The Executive’s proposal to reform the sectors and accept greater flexibility in branches’ ability to organise mixed groups of workers is acknowledgement of the threat. But it only has meaning if branches are allowed to organise to resist the attacks.

A fringe meeting at which health workers and other groups will meet to share experiences and discuss tactics should offer possibilities to explore the possibilities for rank and file organisation.

Conference will also discuss a number of international issues, including a proposed boycott of Israeli institutions (see elsewhere in this paper). If this motion is passed it will mean an end to Unison’s long standing attempts to promote joint activity between the Israeli and Palestinian trade union federations. For a union with committed — in theory, anyway — to international solidarity with workers worldwide, this will be a step backwards into the kind of negative campaigning that already blights so much of the left

Workers’ Liberty supporters will be involved in all of these debates, promoting our basic idea that the union will find strength and renewal in bringing the membership into struggle. The task of socialists will be to organise those activists already fighting into a rank and file movement that not only proposes policy, but is strong enough to make it happen.

After the interest shown in John McDonnell’s bid for Labour leader at Unison Health conference in April, we’ll also be promoting the Labour Representation Committee as an organisation which offers some possibilities of channelling trade unions’ resistance to Brown and Blair into an organised political voice.

• Get in touch: unison@workersliberty.org or www.workersliberty.org/unison

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