Democracy still the key in Unison

Submitted by Anon on 26 June, 2009 - 7:45 Author: Conference Delegate

In his speech to this year’s conference of the public services union Unison, in Brighton in mid-June, general secretary Dave Prentis called on the “Labour Link” section of the union to stop funding constituency development plans, and to work only with Labour MPs who abide by the union’s values and objectives.

He also called on them to campaign to ensure that the manifesto the Labour Party draws up for the next general election does not continue privatisation.

The conference gave him a standing ovation, reflecting the anger delegates feel about the Labour Party. But in Unison all activity regarding the affiliation to the Labour Party is the exclusive business of the “Labour Link” — a small minority within the union. Unless, of course, your name is Dave Prentis.

The wording of the demands was deliberately vague — focussing on union values rather than policy of the union. Holding “Labour Link” to the commitments will be difficult without winning more accountability in the wider union.

On the fringe there were lively left meetings, including an upbeat and well attended one called by Workers’ Liberty.

The lessons for the left, we believe, is the need to organise in a meaningful way between conferences. Workers Liberty continues to emphasise a campaign for greater democracy in the union — not just supporting campaigns against the witch hunting of the left, but also seeing the larger picture of a union where members are disenfranchised at all levels by unelected bureaucrats.

The defeat of some proposed rule amendments at the conference brought chagrin and surprise to the leadership, but the only way to improve democracy in the union as a whole is to build an active rank and file based in the union branches.

The amendments were scanty on detail, and in practice would have resulted in fewer decisions being made by conferences and more by unaccountable committees coerced by unelected bureaucrats.

The left also defeated a proposal to change the existing policy that states that fascists and white supremacists can be expelled from the union to a rule that would allow expulsion of anyone who campaigns politically in groups that contradict the aims and values of the union

Such a wide ranging rule could be used against socialists within the union and even, potentially, against anyone involved in any party standing against the Labour Party!

The vast majority of the motions debated were however entirely uncontroversial. There were daily confrontations with the Standing Orders Committee, who continued to rule out of order motions from the left on what appeared to be an arbitrary basis.

The left did not succeed on having motions debated — expect where the leadership chose to support them, notably on Palestine, where in our view the dominant “left” position was not really left at all.

The only motion debated on Palestine reinforced the existing policy to maintain an “economic, cultural, and sporting boycott” of Israel and called on the union to “review” its relationship with the Israeli trade union union movement, the Histadrut, on grounds of the Histadrut’s failure to condemn Israeli attacks on Gaza over the last year.

We argued against this, and in favour of positive solidarity with the Palestinians and dialogue with progressive groups and trade unions in Israel.

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