Britain  •  UNISON union

Defrosting Unison

15 June 2018

By Jeremy Dewar

LOCAL GOVERNMENT officers, health workers and school support staff will gather in Brighton in mid-June ostensibly to discuss and debate the way forward for Unison, the principle public sector union. In reality it will be a frustrating week, listening to endless and highly inappropriate self-congratulation from the top table.

Motions or amendments with any teeth have been sent to the Standing Orders Committee for dental surgery. Barnet’s excellent attempts to put some bite into the motions on privatisation, for example, have been ruled out of order – not even printed, lest they incur the wrath of Thompson’s, Unison’s underperforming lawyers.

General Secretary Dave Prentis, who has held the top job since the union was founded 25 years ago, will doubtless rely on his loyal, if dwindling band of supporters to whip through the business, but there is a growing sense that Unison is fiddling while Rome – aka the NHS, state school system, vital local services, etc. – burns.

Pay, cuts and privatisation

The overwhelming bulk of Unison’s 1.25 million members are suffering a triple whammy of stagnating and falling pay levels (20-25 per cent over nine years), cuts to funding (40 per cent in local government) leaving fewer staff to work harder delivering poorer services, and privatisation, outsourcing and PFI deals that further eat into funds, while driving down wages and conditions for Unison members.

Two terrible pay deals have condemned staff to, at best, standstill wages in councils and schools (4.4 per cent over two years) and the NHS (6.5 per cent over three years). This isn’t even likely to be inflation-proof, let alone catch up on some of the pay lost in nearly a decade of austerity. Local government workers were asked to vote twice before they got the “correct” answer: to accept the pittance offered.

Worse, everything from youth services to housing, hospitals, schools, mental health services, etc. have been slashed, with more misery to come. While the valiant fights put up by teaching assistants in Durham and Derby, library and other council staff in Kirklees, Barnet and Lambeth, and currently hospital cleaners in Wigan show a willingness to fight back, there has been no campaign to spread the action or call for a national strike alongside community campaigns to defend services.

The collapse of Carillion, earth tremors under Capita, and countless financial woes in academies, incorporated local colleges and hospital trusts have exposed the rotten heart of privatisation. Yet Unison has been practically mute during this crisis. Unison branches and reps have been left to fight alone, or just go under.

The left

The response of the left has been as useless as it has been misdirected. After many years of there being no effective united left caucus, Unison Action Broad Left was launched in 2016 on the basis of uniting the SWP, Socialist Party and various left officials in the North West, who had tired of Prentis’ corrupt running of the union (there have been three court cases brought against his regime by members, though none, of course, can be discussed at conference!).

This brought about a change in the NEC and service group leaders in last year’s election – with 29 out of 66 members backed by Unison Action. Some service group leaderships have also turned left. But what difference has any of this made? None whatsoever.

After listing the woes of Unison members and the inaction of the leadership, the Broad Left’s “What We Stand For” says: 

“Unison Action Broad Left believes this situation cannot continue and the union needs to be cleaned up. To do that means electing an alternative leadership throughout our structures.”

Important though that undoubtedly is, what happens until this glacial change at the top takes place? Will we lose our jobs, will the NHS be destroyed, will we sink into poverty? Having more “left” voices at the NEC certainly hasn’t brought any discernible changes in how the union behaves towards its members. What alternative strategy will Unison Action pursue to mobilise our members, or reform the union’s sclerotic democracy?

The trouble is Unison Action is decidedly short of action in between elections. In fact it does absolutely nothing. This is what needs to change.

Instead of playing musical chairs at the top table, we need a rank and file caucus in Unison that can coordinate and solidarise with every dispute, demanding official backing but agitating for unofficial action where need be – especially when the officials undemocratically call off action.

We need to link up strikes and demand national action not only to raise pay and stop cuts, but to call for the renationalisation of the NHS and the restoration of public service funding to the levels of 2010.

But to succeed in any of this, in any lasting sense, we need to reclaim our union, starting with conference. This should be the highest authority in the union, a place where all motions are debated, if necessary taken away by working parties to make them more concrete. Votes are mandates, i.e. mandatory for the officials to abide by.

Leaving aside the recent local government pay debacle, where officials made us ballot again and refused to obey the strike vote aside, Unison officers are notorious.

Former London Regional Organiser Linda Perks knowingly broke electoral rules by telling junior officers to spend union time to campaign for Dave Prentis. She was never punished by the union, thrown a huge party on her way out, and is now a councillor in Charlton. Even the judge who found Perks guilty commented, “The subsequent leisurely disciplinary proceedings of Ms Perks and outcome do not inspire confidence or serve as a deterrent for future overzealous officers.”

All officials should be elected, immediately recallable and paid the average wage of a skilled Unison member. That would deter crooks from entering our union. For Dave of course it would be a pay drop. As he’s on £125,000 a year and has been in the job for 25, that’s £3 million he’s taken to soften the fall. At least he’ll know what a pay cut feels like.

Rather than passively waiting for global warming to dissolve Prentis’ glacier on top of Mount Unison, we should climb up and pick away at it until it cracks.

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