Important trade unions such as Unison and GMB are heavily implicated by the scandalous revelations in the leaked report into bureaucratic sabotage at Labour HQ. These events highlight the need to democratise our unions.
Like many Labour members I was disgusted – though not surprised – to hear of the sabotage committed by a clique of senior party staff. I was particularly shocked to hear of the abuse and harassment of black, female MPs, such as Diane Abbott and Dawn Butler.
Further shock came when it was revealed that some of those involved now work at a top level in my union Unison.
Kim Johnson is the Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside, and is a former Labour Link officer for my branch of Unison. She spoke for many Unison members when, in a tweet directed at Prentis, she said: “Ashamed as a former Deputy Chair of National Black Members that so many of these staff demonstrating racist attitudes now work in my union at the highest level.”
Calls for action
Hundreds of members have also signed an open letter to the union. The letter calls on the union leadership to identify those employed by Unison, or who held Labour Party positions because of their membership of the union, who were aware of any incidents described in the report.
Open Letter for fellow UNISON members to sign to Dave Prentis calling for action over the people implicated in the #LabourReport who now work for UNISON. Please sign and send to activists: https://t.co/JsMtmvvNcZ
— Mark Hebden (@unionlib) April 13, 2020
It states that the union must condemn the sexism and racism exposed, and address the underlying discriminatory attitudes of individuals. The letter also calls on the Unison Labour Link to take action.
Our general secretary, NEC and Labour Link must answer these calls for action. No member can have faith in officers who engaged in such behaviour. Failure by the union leadership to act would mean protecting officers whose actions may have contributed to a Tory victory.
Tory austerity kills
In June 2017, there were sickening scenes in Parliament when the Tories cheered the defeat of a Labour amendment to the Queen’s speech, which would have ended the 1% public sector pay cap. This scene has recently become infamous, as the pay cap affected NHS staff who are now working tirelessly to fight the disease.
For millions of public sector workers, many of them members of Unison, this showed the difference that a Labour government would have meant to their lives.
Added to this, it is evident that Tory austerity has left us ill-equipped to tackle the pandemic. The neglect of ‘Exercise Cygnus’ (a government strategic simulation in October 2016 to predict the impact of a hypothetical influenza pandemic), for example, has exposed the lack of preparation. Again, it is clear that Labour’s defeat in 2017 has had far reaching consequences.
At the last Labour Party conference, our union general secretary lectured us about how unity was essential to beat the Tories. In the health debate, Unison refused to support the repeal of Tory Health and Social Care Act.
During the discussion, Dave Prentis ended his speech with an attack on party members, admonishing them for triggering selection contests, and calling for unity. It would be extremely hypocritical, therefore, if he now takes no action on the implications of the leaked report for Unison.
The open letter by members, however, draws parallels between this scandal and the interference by full-time officers in the 2015 Unison general secretary election. Back then, no action was taken in the wake of those revelations. This fact does not fill us with hope that the leadership will take the right action this time round.
In the recent Labour leadership election, Unison Labour Link endorsed Keir Starmer without consulting the regions, as they did in 2015 and 2016. With indecent haste, Starmer was presented to us as a fait accompli as our candidate.
As a Unison member, I received two emails from Dave Prentis encouraging me to vote for Labour in last year’s general election. But I had five telling me to vote for Starmer.
Acting against members
Unison – along with GMB, Unite and other unions – are providing members in essential sectors with invaluable support. Many activists themselves are in the frontline of the fight against COVID-19, facing everyday battles to get PPE.
Members of these unions must ask themselves: do Starmer and his policy of ‘national unity’ represent the best interests of essential workers? Or of non-essential workers, such as those in construction still forced to work?
Union activists could always be confident that Jeremy Corbyn would support them to the hilt. For this reason, when the bureaucratic clique undermined the Labour leader, they were acting against the trade unions and their members as well.
The leaderships of Unison and the GMB must choose either to support this clique, or their thousands of members in the public sector. Notably, the GMB also represent Labour staffers, and its Labour HQ branch has supported the bureaucrats involved.
The 2017 general election was a battle in the class struggle, just as any strike is. In a strike, there is a term for those who act against the interests of the workers: scab. These scabs do not deserve the support of the trade union movement.
The actions of the Labour right wing, and of the Unison and GMB leaders, have rightly come under scrutiny. But trade unionists must also question the role of the left trade union leaders.
When the saboteurs at Labour HQ left the employ of the party, their collaborators in the Parliamentary Labour Party remained. The Corbyn-supporting membership needed – and still need – open selection in order to deal with this political threat.
Yet at the 2018 party conference, the Unite leaders went against their union’s mandate and supported a revised trigger ballot process, and pushed the question of open selection off the agenda.
This latest scandal shows that Unison and the rest of the unions must be democratised, in order to reflect the views and interests of its members. Democracy and fighting unions go hand-in-hand, as is shown by the example of PCS.
This year’s general secretary election provides Unison members with an opportunity to take a step forward in this direction.