The context for the election now underway for a new General Secretary for the big public-services union Unison is the destruction that governments over the last 20 years have brought on services, pay, conditions and rights at work in the public sector.
Nominations are now open, and will run to 25 September. The vote-out, between candidates who get at least 25 branch nominations, will run from 28 October to 27 November, and the result will be announced on 11 January 2021.
It’s right to point the finger for the destruction at the Tory and coalition administrations since 2010. But Labour, too, oversaw the introduction of austerity as a response to the economic crisis.
The main losers have been the working class, through cuts in public services (NHS, schools, local services etc), cuts in benefits, and cuts in jobs and rights at work. Real wages have declined by 22% over the last 10 years in local government according to official union statistics, between 10 and 20% over the last 7 years in health, and 16.5% over the last 10 years in higher education.
The pandemic has exposed the fact that Unison and other public sector unions have allowed a key group of workers in care homes and home or domiciliary care (low paid, mainly women, often migrant) to remain badly unionised, with virtually no recognition agreements and few rights at work.
We don’t expect private-sector profit-led employers to give us sick pay and PPE and union representation and negotiating rights out of their own benevolence. In fact, we expect they won’t do that, because it eats into the profits.
But, except in the North West region of Unison, there appears to be no plan or organising strategy for that sector. And this in a union that prides itself on being a majority female union with seats on its committees reserved for low paid and manual workers.
Labour and big unions like Unison and the GMB have also failed to fight against outsourcing and to remove Thatcher’s anti-union laws.
As trade unionists, we get used to hearing from our union leaders that we cannot act without our members, that to win against unscrupulous employers or governments with strong majorities our members must be convinced to take serious action.
But in the last 20 years, under Dave Prentis as General Secretary of Unison, the leadership’s practice has been to demoralise, demotivate or undermine organising for action. That approach has filtered through to many of the union’s elected bodies, regionally and locally.
To safeguard the control of the union machine, Unison branches have been shut down or taken into regional control, and rules have been brought in to prevent branches coordinating “horizontally”, even in the run-up to conference to support motions. The claim that a local branch cannot support anything counter to Unison national policy is used by regions to keep branch activists down.
Two assistant general secretaries are standing to replace Prentis. Both will pull out a left-wing speech when needed, and both will get coverage for free in the unions’ media.
Christina McAnea is the right-wing continuity-Prentis candidate. Roger McKenzie is a left-wing bureaucrat supported by Jeremy Corbyn and seen by the official Labour left as the best bet to change the union.
There are two lay candidates, Paul Holmes (a Labour left activist in the Yorkshire region, with the support of “Unison Action”) and Hugo Pierre (Socialist Party). Both are long-serving members of the union’s National Executive.
Both lay-candidate platforms display the weakness of rank and file organisation in the union. The platforms have real content in the arena of the candidates’ immediate experience, but are weaker on other sectors and issues. They are not candidates of a vibrant rank and file movement, or even a properly functioning union broad left; they are respect-worthy individual activists with limited forces behind them.
For example, Paul Holmes and Hugo Pierre are local government activists, and their platforms are very local-government-focused. Neither mentions the emerging grassroots NHS pay campaign, though both Holmes and Pierre surely support it. Neither says anything (beyond personal “worker’s wage” commitments) about democratic reform of the union.
The union’s left is split between McKenzie, Holmes and Pierre. Over the nomination period Workers’ Liberty activists in Unison will be writing to each of these with questions about the anti-union laws, industrial strategy across our sectors, Labour, union democracy, building rank-and-file organisation, and taking a worker’s wage.