As ballots closed for Unison’s general secretary election, 23 minutes of audio recording were leaked revealing a covert campaign by Unison’s full-time staff to elect incumbent Dave Prentis in clear breach of Unison rules.
Left-wing challenger, John Burgess, has called for an independent enquiry led by respected labour movement representatives and for any result that secures Prentis’ victory to be declared null and void.
Burgess is right. Although this mess is probably illegal, the labour movement should hold its own to account and meet out its own justice.
This leaked file is a secret recording of a briefing by the London Regional Organiser who instructs her colleagues in the minute detail of how to campaign for a “Dave”, using Unison resources and on Unison time. During the recording we hear the contempt our regional staff have for lay members and our union’s democracy.
The meeting, held on 21 October 2015 at 2pm (when the full-timers were working on union time) starts with the organiser thanking her collegues for their hard work in securing over 50 branch nominations for “Dave”. She tells us “Dave is very very pleased and he’s relayed that to me personally”. Does this mean Dave Prentis himself was in on the conspiracy?
We hear that bundles of “Vote Dave Prentis” propaganda will be stored in a fellow Regional Organisers office. RO’s should put aside 3-4 days to canvass “friendly” branches and lay activists to distribute these materials. Branches that “nominated the opposition” should be “tied up in other activism” during the election period. And repeatedly the full-timer instructs her colleagues not to get caught.
Any casual observer of Unison’s London Region will know there is something rotten in this section of the union. The militant Tres Cosas campaigners at the University of London were originally organised in Unison. They broke and formed an independent union under the banner of the IWGB after their victory in the branch elections was declared null and void. When they protested at Unison’s offices, the bureaucrats called the riot cops.
Save Lewisham Hospital campaigners will remember the hostility of the local Unison branch and regional organisers to the campaign.
It seems likely that if Prentis’ campaign has coopted one regional office then it could well have coopted others. We do not know how far the corruption has spread. However, it seems likely that if the London Region felt comfortable to conduct such a blatant misuse of union resources, then they were not alone.
This issue is not simply an abstract question of union democracy. The regional officials implicated in this recording are the same full-timers that thwart attempts to organise a fightback against the Tory’s and bully the activists that do. For the past 5 years public sector workers have endured an unprecedented assault on our pay, terms and conditions. There has been an onslaught of privatisation and cuts. Yet Unison has barely organised a protest.
In 2011 the coalition government was confident enough to impose the biggest cut in pensions in British history. Millions of workers lost six figure sums from the value of their life’s work in one swift attack. Unison could have united millions of workers in collective action against the government, leading other public sector unions in a fightback. Instead it stalled, then organised a protest strike, then stalled, then sold the barely revised attack as a “partial victory”. A fighting leadership could have made an enormous difference and changed the course of history but different interests rule in Unison.
A full-time officer in London earns nearly £50,000 a year. Senior officials earn a great deal more. The general secretary earns over six figures including benefits. They have good pensions and soft jobs that allow them enough time for activity outside their job description, like undermining a union election. When union members are under attack, they are not directly affected. They spend more time with management than with workers and outside of work they have enough cash to live comfortable middle-class lifestyles. They have different material interests to the members who pay their wages.
Strikes, protests and organising workers are hard work for union officials. This audioclip demonstrates what many of us have expected for many years. A large section of the full-time staff see their work as “organising” a few compliant reps whilst creating a hateful, witchhunting, clique atmosphere against the militants, choking off democracy, shutting down attempts to organise. With weak leadership few workers agitate for a fight, and so the officials can claim their pets are the true voice of the rank-and-file.
Unison, as the union of 1.3 million public sector workers, should be fighting the bosses and the government, not just for our personal interests but for society as a whole. But in order to do this we also have rid our union of the stench of corruption and bureaucratic control.
To join the campaign for union democracy see JohnBurgess4GenSec@blogspot.com #Unisongate