The conflict in Unison between the union bureaucracy and the new left leadership came to a head at yesterday’s NEC meeting. The right wing has thrown down the gauntlet. The left must answer by mobilising the membership.
At yesterday’s meeting of the Unison National Executive Council (NEC), the left majority – organised around the #TimeforRealChange banner – attempted to break the bureaucratic logjam that has been plaguing them since they democratically won their positions earlier this year.
Ever since losing control of the NEC and its committees, the union’s right wing has engaged in a non-stop campaign of sabotage. Making up the rules as they go along, full-time officials have consistently blocked any attempt by the left to transform Unison into a fighting union that can defend its members.
This has strayed into the farcical, at times. At one point, the bureaucracy even attempted to rule out an increase in the union’s strike pay rate, on the grounds that it was “against union rules”.
Now they have played their hand openly.
Before this week’s NEC meeting was due to take place, one right-wing member of the executive council leaked six motions on his Facebook page that had been put forward by the left – motions that were intended to move past the current deadlock.
This was a clear attempt to discredit the left and their motions before they were even discussed.
What followed was a slew of attempts to browbeat, bully, and intimidate the left into withdrawing their motions.
As part of this, the entire left slate were contacted by Unison’s appointed lawyer, who threatened comrades with all kinds of bloodcurdling legal implications.
According to this well-paid lawyer, if these motions were passed, the union’s apparatus would be under no obligation to carry them out, and could not be disciplined for refusing to do so. Such nonsense was clearly cooked up in order to try and scare the left into a retreat.
Predictably, this obstructionism continued straight into the meeting itself. Bogging the proceedings down as best they could, the right wing continued to threaten legal trouble if the six motions were passed.
According to insider reports, the meeting rapidly descended into a screaming match, with all kinds of interruptions and scandalous behaviour being exhibited by the representatives of the bureaucracy.
The left majority stood firm, however, and each motion was passed despite this vicious resistance by the officialdom.
Not to be out done, the bureaucracy have now taken things a step further.
Using their control over the union’s official communications, they have put up a statement on the Unison website, decrying the left majority on the NEC for passing these motions, and claiming that executive members had no right to do so. They have also sent this statement to all members via email.
This cannot be seen as anything other than a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the left majority on the NEC.
The right wing is prepared to block the legitimate business of the union to represent its members, and prevent it from functioning, all in order to sabotage the left majority and safeguard their privileges. For them, it is a case of rule or ruin.
The parallels with the Corbyn movement are very clear. In 2016, for example, the Labour right wing tried every trick in the book to prevent Corbyn from getting reelected as Labour leader. They even turned to the courts to try and keep him off the ballot.
The Unison right wing – with many links to their counterparts in the Labour Party – are clearly prepared to go to similar lengths.
In this civil war inside the Labour Party, the left leadership made a grave error in attempting to compromise with the right wing.
As part of this, Corbyn’s office prevented rank-and-file party members from going on the offensive against the right – blocking moves to introduce open selection, all in the hope of securing ‘unity’.
In the end, this proved to be a fatal mistake. The right wing were able to continue their sabotage, leading to Labour’s electoral defeats in 2017 and 2019 – and, in turn, to the downfall of the Corbyn movement.
Instead of falling into this same trap, the Unison left must go the whole way in the fight to transform the union.
This means going to the membership, explaining clearly what is happening, and mobilising grassroots activists to bring them into the struggle. This is the only way to fight back against the shenanigans of the right wing, and to counter the story that the bureaucracy is attempting to shove down members’ throats.
#TimeForRealChange should start by calling a mass meeting of the rank-and-file activists, in order to clarify the situation and point the way forward. The left should explain exactly what has been taking place in terms of the antics of the bureaucracy, and what this signifies.
As part of this, the left should call upon members to pass motions and send letters of protest, condemning the obstruction of the democratically-elected leadership that is taking place.
Faced with such a backlash, and with a resolute left majority on the NEC, the bureaucracy’s gamble of openly going public would blow up in their faces.
This is a golden opportunity to fight for the real change that was promised to Unison members. The left must be prepared to seize it. There has never been a greater need to transform our unions into fighting weapons for the working class.
Defend Paul Holmes!
Unison Socialist Appeal supporters
Side-by-side with this civil war inside Unison is the victimisation of Paul Holmes, the union’s left-wing, democratically-elected president, who is being witch-hunted by his employers, Kirklees Council.
As we have reported previously, the council – a Labour-controlled council – is working hand-in-glove with the Unison right wing in order to get him sacked. Conveniently for the union bureaucracy, this would also have the effect of removing him from his position as president.
Following the previous protest outside Paul’s first disciplinary hearing, a further solidarity demonstration has been called to again lobby the council. This is set to take place tomorrow morning, outside the same hotel on the outskirts of Huddersfield.
We encourage all our readers to attend – either in person or online via Zoom – to support Paul and help fight this gross injustice.
Defend Paul Holmes! Stop the witch-hunt!
Friday 8 October, 9am
Clarion Cedar Court Hotel, Huddersfield, HD3 3RH
Join online via Zoom:
Meeting ID: 862 3892 6401
Holding office or taking power?
Our Unison correspondents
It seems that the Unison bureaucracy has an interesting take on the idea of a member-led union. Whereas lay members of the union can stand for election to the NEC, or any other committee for that matter, the real power lies with the permanent bureaucracy, who ensure the ‘governance’ of the union. At least, that is what they would like us to believe.
The election of a left NEC and presidential team within Unison was an earthquake. That process is still developing, as the NEC sub-committees are now dominated by left NEC members.
At the time of writing, the Labour Link committee elections are also taking place for the regional seats. The results of these will be out early next month. The left has already made important gains in terms of winning a sizable number of NEC seats on the Labour Link.
But the bureaucracy is fighting back. We understand that senior officials have been speaking at meetings of full-time organisers in the regions, directly instructing them to do everything in their power to impede the work of the left NEC.
In addition, unelected northern regional secretary Claire Williams has been appointed to a national officer position, to oversee the ‘governance’ of the whole union.
There is also the ongoing suspension of Unison president Paul Holmes, on the basis of undisclosed charges. This goes alongside the bureaucracy’s collusion with Paul’s employers, who have also suspended him – again on undisclosed charges.
This is clearly a very important issue. The behaviour of the Unison bureaucracy stands in sharp contrast to the attitude of the leaders of BFAWU, the bakers’ union, who are standing full square behind their president, Ian Hodson, after he was threatened with expulsion from the Labour Party for ‘supporting a proscribed group’.
What this reveals is the rotten nature of the bureaucratic regime in Unison, and the extent to which they will go to defend their (substantial) salaries and positions.
It is no secret that there is a very close relationship between this gang and the Labour Party bureaucracy, with some Unison national officers – while seconded to Labour – playing a nefarious role in stymying the Corbyn movement.
The lessons of the Corbyn era are absolutely vital for the left NEC members organised around #TimeForRealChange: either you carry through a root-and-branch transformation of the union, and turn it into a genuinely member-led organisation; or the bureaucracy will try and strangle you, stopping you from doing anything.
It is vital to understand also that this battle cannot be won solely within the walls of Unison HQ. The struggle against the bureaucracy has to be carried out at every level of the union.
Members need to know what is happening; they need to understand what the conflict is about; and they need to know how they can deepen and extend the gains that a left NEC represents.
In short, the NEC needs to mobilise the membership. That can only be done through communicating with the members – developing a fighting programme for the union, on the one hand; and arguing for a massive extension of democracy, with the election of all officials, on the other.
Many of the union’s democratic structures are empty, with seats not filled on service group executives, and agendas therefore set by the bureaucracy.
The left needs to be organised at every level. A good start would be the NEC overturning the ban on factions, and therefore allowing for the open organisation of a broad left throughout the union.
We can learn a lot, in particular, from the long struggle of the left in the CPSA/PCS union to dislodge a deeply-embedded right-wing bureaucracy. The right wing has now been completely marginalised inside PCS, providing a good example of what a fighting union should look like.
The years ahead are going to be very tough for Unison members. We need a leadership that is prepared to fight, and an apparatus that is fit for purpose.
The next few weeks are going to be decisive. In plain terms, it is a battle for the future of the union.
If the left merely ‘holds office’ for a year or two, then we will have missed a huge opportunity. If #TimeForRealChange wrestles the ‘governance’ of the union out of the grip of the bureaucracy, however, then we can transform the union from top to bottom.
But for that to happen, we need the active involvement of hundreds and thousands of members. There’s no time to waste.