Unison conference: action good, democracy vital

Submitted by Matthew on 15 June, 2011 - 1:01

Dave Prentis, general secretary of the big public sector union Unison has announced plans to ballot the union’s members for strikes against the government’s pension cuts.

Prentis first made that declaration on May Day, and has now repeated it in the run-up to Unison’s local government and general conferences, to be held in Manchester on 19-24 June.

“Be in no doubt”, said Prentis, “this union is on the road to industrial action in the autumn”. He added that this will “not be a one-day action, as we know that will not change anything. This is longer term industrial action to prevent the destruction of public service pension schemes”.

This shift by Prentis may win him an easy ride at the conference, especially as the left in Unison has generally not pushed hard to get the union into action sooner, alongside the teachers and civil service workers on 30 June. It shouldn’t.

On 30 June, many Unison members, especially in schools, where they work alongside teachers, will refuse individually to cross picket lines. But, lacking support for their union, Unison members in many other workplaces will walk through picket lines on their way to work.

They will weaken the strikes and it will give non-union members the courage to cross picket lines.

Unison’s leaders defend their stance on 30 June by saying they need more time to “cleanse” their membership records so their ballot does not fall foul of the anti-union laws (the same Tory anti-union laws which Dave Prentis completely failed to push the New Labour government to repeal over 18 years in government).

That doesn’t explain why they have not had “enough time” already, in the year and more since the coalition Government made its plans for pension cuts and other cuts clear soon after the General Election. Does Unison really operate on the basis that, faced with a big attack, it will take well over a year for it to get ready to fight back?

In any case, there is no way that Unison will be able to give up-to-date contact information for over one million members without making some mistakes. The crucial question will not be whether the bosses will find mistakes, but whether they think they can get away with a legal challenge without provoking unofficial action.

That depends on members’ confidence and militancy. And that in turn depends on good information and strong leadership. Unison members are not getting that.

Outside the future action which Dave Prentis vaguely invokes, the Unison leaders have worked to hold back strike action against the cuts which have already taken tens of thousands of Unison members’ jobs in local government.

When Tower Hamlets struck on 30 March, the union did not publicise it. In the run-up to Unison conference, the leadership has adopted a more militant stance, telling the world (8 June) that “the union [is] balloting 30,000 members in branches across the country over industrial action to protect pay and conditions and against job losses”. It has given some publicity to the Southampton council workers’ dispute.

But many activists have had to spend months battling with their regional officers to get strike ballots. Some unelected regional officers have blocked ballots on job cuts on the basis that those are not “real trade disputes”.

Unison consistently fails even to act as an adequate clearing-house for exchanging information between its vast number of different branches, and actively, by union rule, bans branches from communicating “horizontally” between themselves.

Our approach must be to fight for union democracy, and to to use the democratic structures of the union to seek maximum rank-and-file control over disputes. That means raising specific demands around which we mobilise for our strikes. These demands will arm our negotiators and allow us to hold them to account.

We want rank-and-file control over industrial strategy. This means imposing negotiating timetables on the leadership so they cannot disappear into the negotiating room for months on end. It means demanding regular reports of negotiations, demanding that the negotiations are open and available for all members to scrutinise.

We believe in a trade unionism where every member has something to contribute. We are not a standing army waiting for orders from our union leaders.

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