Almost five months after the left, under the banner Time for Real Change, won a clear majority on the National Executive (NEC) of the public services union Unison, on 2 November the left won a one-seat majority on the Labour Link National Committee.
Unlike other affiliated unions, Unison has a parallel (though very opaque) structure for its political activity related to the Labour Party, with its own national committee and conference. Perhaps a quarter of Unison’s members pay into the affiliated political fund and can take part in that structure.
For years this part of the union has been in the control of the right and the bureaucracy. There are many barriers to holding anyone to account: the Labour Link conference is small, and motions and delegates come from regions not branches.
Elections have often been uncontested. 12 of 23 seats on the Labour Link committee are decided by the union’s National Executive. As long as the right had control of the NEC, it would also control the Labour Link committee, anyway.
This year was different, with contests for seven of the 11 seats. The left won four: Ruth Cashman in London, Billie Reynolds in the South East, Aileen Mcloughlin in the South West and Paul Holmes in Yorkshire & Humber. Of the uncontested seats, two went to the left and two to the right.
Because some of the new left NEC members are not Labour Link payers, and some seats are reserved for low-paid members, the new batch of NEC-nominated seats is evenly split, six-six. The overall tally of the new Labour Link committee is 12-11. Paul Holmes is currently suspended by Unison and cannot take up his seat, so there is deadlock, for now.
Paul Holmes has also been suspended by Kirklees council, where he is Unison branch secretary, since December 2020. After several weeks of hearings by his employer, the final disciplinary took place on Friday 5 November, with a solidarity rally outside.
No announcement has followed, and we have heard the decision has been delayed. The presumption is that only once the Kirkless process is complete can the separate Unison disciplinary process begin.
The newly-elected NEC is locked in battle with the General Secretary and the permanent officials over who controls the union, and the battle connects with the pay disputes in the union’s two biggest sectors, local government and health.
In October the left NEC voted for the NEC to meet more frequently, for the presidential team and sub-committees to have powers between meetings, and on issues relating to suspension of members, including that elected union officers dismissed by employers will not automatically be removed from those elected positions. Those last are pertinent to Paul Holmes and the action against him by Kirklees Council.
Legal advice given by Lord Hendy QC to the presidential team said that these decisions were within union rules, but the General Secretary claimed legal advice that they were not. There is a stand-off.
At the same time we are preparing to ballot for industrial action on pay in local government and doing a second indicative ballot on pay in the NHS.
In Unison it has become usual to be so cautious about strikes, drawing it out with two consultations before a formal ballot, that the members become willing to accept any small concession from the employer (or sometimes none) to achieve at least some pay increase.
In local government, we are in dispute over our pay claim for 10% (after a real-terms 20% pay cut in the last decade), with inflation now close to 5% and with food, energy and fuel costs rising even faster. Members have voted by 79% to reject the 1.75% offer, and Unite and GMB have voted similarly.
Turn-out is reported to have been low, but that was an indicative ballot with no campaigning. In local government, we are going to a full ballot from 1 December to 14 January.
Turning the union machine into one which can win this local government pay dispute (and win on NHS pay, if that gets to a formal ballot) will be a serious challenge for the left.
We need to look to examples from unions like UCU (recent ballots), CWU (2017 and 2020 ballots), and NEU (2019 ballot on high-stakes testing) on mobilising every branch to run a vibrant campaign. We need to get members to pledge to vote now, and every rep, team. or workplace engaged with.
And we need a serious strategy for strike action, which should include full strike pay to bring out workers that can have maximum impact. We call on the newly left Labour Link committee and NEC to put out public statements on these disputes, to publish reports of motions and NEC meetings, and to turn outwards towards the members who have kept working through this pandemic on low pay and with poor conditions. Now is the time to turn round Unison.