Unison: challenges after stilted conference

Submitted by AWL on 22 June, 2021 - 5:39 Author: Ruth Cashman
Unison conference

The new National Executive Committee (NEC) of the public service union Unison, with a left majority for the first time in the union’s history, will face an uncooperative staff who will not want to relinquish control of the union just because their lay allies have been defeated. Within the union structures the NEC must prioritise democratising, including rewriting the industrial action handbook so it is no longer a block to lay control of disputes.

At a virtual NEC meeting after the Unison conference held online 15-17 June, left-winger Paul Holmes was elected president, with left-wingers also as senior and junior vice presidents (Andrea Egan and Kath Owen). Currently, Unison staff will not allow Paul Holmes to take up the post of president.

We had the most in depth discussion of climate change and how to stop it we’ve had at conference, and it’s good to see that is increasingly on the union’s agenda.

But, for reasons beyond the union’s control, and although last year Unison had no conference, this conference was more stilted than usual. All “standing orders” interventions were suspended except “that the question be put”, and all speakers had to register in advance. I missed the energy of face-to-face conference.

Unison’s conference is notorious for a lack of contentious motions. Many, many options are ruled out of order and those that make it to the agenda are filibustered. This year’s conference was probably worse than ever in that respect.

At a time when nurses are running grassroots campaigns for better pay, the rank and file are increasingly accusing the union of not fighting, and the NEC has gone to the left, it seems concerning that little of that found voice at our sovereign conference.

Some amendments on industrial action made it through. The one controversy at conference itself was the branch funding review. The outgoing NEC were successful in passing their motion which slightly increased branch funding but failed to look at staffing resources, despite that being the instruction given to them by a previous conference decision.

It was always going to be difficult to stop such a decision at a virtual conference.

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