By Tony Dale
The conference of the public sector workers union, Unison, held in June, was a mixed affair. Important left resolutions supporting the minimum wage and full employment were passed.
However, most of what the right-wing leadership wanted was voted for by conference. The left was defeated on the anti-union laws. There was a rallying behind the leadership, under fire from the Labour leadership after supporting Clause Four.
The left was pre-occupied with the question of whether or not we should stand a candidate in elections for General Secretary in which former NUPE leader, Rodney Bickerstaffe, is standing. With no credible candidate, any left challenge will be a diversion from essential battles inside the union.
Bickerstaffe may represent an opposition to unfettered Blairism in the labour movement but he also has the worst characteristics of the UNISON leadership: supporting centralised power in the union and more say for unelected full timers.
The election is a matter of tactics, not about who hates Bickerstaffe more, but what will benefit the rank and file of the union.
The Socialist Workers Party are seeking nominations for one of their hacks, Yunus Bakhsh, posing as an ordinary health worker, angry about his pay packet, in an attempt to whip up some publicity for the SWP. Militant Labour are seeking nominations for Roger Bannister as a Campaign for a Fighting and Democratic Unison (CFDU) candidate.
A substantial minority of the CFDU — including ex-NUPE left wingers, AWL members and Socialist Appeal supporters — did not want to make a challenge to Bickerstaffe if a more credible candidate to Bannister could not be found. Militant Labour won their position by 17 votes to 8 at a CFDU branch delegates meeting.
The Militant Labour campaign deserves more consideration than that of the SWP but should still be opposed. Roger Bannister is a Militant member, supports candidates against Labour and is ex-NALGO.
Many of the divisions in the union derive from the union affiliations of members prior to the merger of NUPE, COHSE and NALGO, and the formation of Unison. Following merger an ex-NALGO official, Alan Jinkinson, became General Secretary. Many ex-NUPE members see Bickerstaffe’s candidature as their turn to have one of “their people” as General Secretary. The left, if it wants to see these divisions healed, has to take such feelings on board.
The ex-NUPE rank and file are likely to see the CFDU campaign as an attack by ex-NALGO sectarians on “their” leader, who is under siege from the Blair Labour leadership. The campaign could flair up into a nasty red baiting episode.
The most important thing the left needs to get to grips with is how to unite the whole of Unison’s rank and file to take control of and transform our union. In this context campaigns against Bickerstaffe are counter-productive and we should stop them by arguing branches do not nominate either the SWP or the Militant Labour candidates.
A far more useful project now and in the run-up to a General Election will be organising Unison’s Labour left. The decisions of the Affiliated Political Fund Conference (backing minimum wage, rebuilding of the welfare state etc) show the potential. Many of the most serious Unison militants are also Labour Party members. This vital organisational work needs to go hand in hand with attempting to revive the existing organisations of the Unison left.