The victory of the left in the national executive council (NEC) elections of the public services union Unison in June was a major opportunity to transform the country’s largest union. Unison has been politically and industrially timid with little fight against privatisation, losses of jobs and services or real-term pay cuts.
Democratising the union is essential so members can debate and decide a new strategy for the union. The union’s largest service groups, Health and Local Government, have both rejected pay offers but there has been no forum to discuss how to win ballots under constraints of the anti-union laws and very little resources have been put into either pay campaign. Unison’s unelected officials will not allow greater member democracy without a fight.
This month every Unison Branch Secretary received an email signed “Unison” saying the union will not carry out the policy voted at the NEC and claiming the policy contravened Unison rules.
“At today’s NEC meeting (Wednesday 6 October), resolutions were tabled relating to the powers of the Vice Presidents and the NEC.
“Legal advice was given to the NEC, which stated that four out of the six resolutions contravened existing UNISON rules and were therefore rule amendments and could not be debated or voted on at any NEC meeting.
“Rule amendments can only be agreed by Unison’s National Delegate Conference, as provided for in Rule N of Unison’s rulebook.
“The legal advice states that the ‘resolutions’ are ultra vires (i.e. beyond their powers). The NEC considered them and voted on each in turn. All six were passed by simple majority and a roll call was taken for five out of the six votes. As per the legal advice concerning the four resolutions containing rule breaches, staff cannot be instructed to comply with the four unlawful resolutions that were passed today by the NEC.”
The motions were not shared with Branch Secretaries; but they do not contravene Unison rules and the NEC is seeking its own legal advice from John Hendy QC.
One motion calls for the NEC to meet monthly. The NEC are right to meet more regularly to exercise lay control over the union . This is clearly within the rules of the union, which state: “The National Executive Council shall meet at least four times in every calendar year”.
The NEC resolved to establish a sub-committee of the NEC made of the President and Vice Presidents. This would formalise the role of the Presidential team and prevent the General Secretary from blocking NEC decisions as the General Secretary has the right act “on behalf” of the NEC between meetings. This is also within union rules “The National Executive Council shall have the right to appoint such Committees from amongst its membership as it shall see fit, and shall have the power to delegate to such Committees any of its functions as it considers appropriate.”
The NEC voted to give the Presidential team right to get legal advice from union’s lawyers or outside counsel. The primary mode of operation of the bureaucracy is to claim legal jeopardy in the face of any challenge or call for action, so ability to access legal advice will be sadly necessary for the new NEC.
The NEC voted to explicitly delegate all its disciplinary powers to the Development and Organising (D&O) Committee and for all suspensions to be reported to the NEC and reviewed regularly. The Unison bureaucracy have a history of action against the left. They have suspended the current Unison President, Paul Holmes, from office without investigation. holding him in limbo.
The most controversial motion was that all office holders dismissed by their employer shall continue to be a member of the union from the date of dismissal and whilst such a member shall be entitled to hold office in the union, at discretion of the union’s executive. We know employers victimise effective reps, Unison should be vigorous in defence of reps being victimised and if they are dismissed should support them keeping full membership as campaigns are mounted for reinstatement. This motion was not a rule change, as NEC under rule have the right to determine who may be offered full membership outside of rulebook provisions.
This is a battle about who runs the union and in whose interests: highly paid officials acting to keep the union to timid partnership trade unionism, or public service workers and the rank and file activists they elect.
So far the officials have fought back hard. The new left leadership needs a strategy to weather the attacks and ensure their decisions are enacted. That means taking the argument into the membership and linking it with the current pay disputes.
It means striving to establish forums for open, democratic decision making. We have no rank and file organisation with structures, democracy and accountability to members. Mobilising members to fight for lay democracy means the NEC has to fight on the issues that affect members, work for union democracy in relation to members controlling our own disputes to win pay rises, and democratic conferences which can develop strategy to beat back privatisation. The left must show that democratic changes can transform Unison to a union fights militantly for its members’ interests. That defends every job and every condition. That does not sell its members short or sign deals with management that accept attacks on our pensions or increase in our workloads.