The general public sector union Unison has begun the process of electing a new general secretary at a very important time for the union. Decades of cuts and privatisation of services provided by Unison members have been brutally exposed by the Covid crisis as fatally undermining healthcare and social care. Over a decade of austerity now faces being compounded by the actual bankruptcies of local authorities.
Health workers have begun a fight for fairer pay in the NHS, with many Unison members participating in local protests but without even an ounce of support from the Unison national leadership. Unison members desperately need a union leadership willing and able to stand up for them against the employers, and the establishment politicians in Westminster and local and devolved governments.
It is also an important moment for Unison because of the internal politics of the union. Incumbent general secretary Dave Prentis embodies the failed policies of retreat, surrender and partnership with the employers, which have been so disastrous for Unison members and enforced upon unwilling activists by repeated witch-hunts of left activists in the union. Prentis is retiring and so for the first time in over a decade, he will not be the bureaucracy’s candidate.
The pressure of members and austerity is starting to tell on the Unison bureaucracy. In this general secretary election there is more than one candidate emerging from the union establishment. Christine McAnea represents a continuation of the Prentis era. Roger McKenzie originates within ‘Team Dave’ but has worked to present a different image, of the need to build a 2 million member-strong union and recruit thousands more union reps. McKenzie is not a left candidate, although supported by some lefts, and if he becomes general secretary will need a strong organised left at every level of the union to push him to carry out his pledges and to force the kind of mass struggle necessary to recruit masses more members and reps.
On the left of the union, Unison Action (UA) has been debating the issue of a left candidate for almost a year. Supporters of SA have been involved with UA from the start, in fact some of us played a key part in its founding. We believe that the necessary root and branch transformation of our union requires a strong broad left based on branch and workplace activists with a fighting programme. We have sought to build UA into such an organisation and believe that it has potential to develop in that direction. SA supporters have stood for, and won, NEC and other positions as UA candidates and intend to continue to do so.
Within UA, three individuals representing different groupings sought to win the UA nomination to run in the GS election with the backing of the UA steering committee. We have argued from the start for one left candidate, chosen by UA, to contest the GS election. We believed that Hugo Pierre from the Socialist Party had the best programme and should be selected as the UA-backed candidate. This is despite our criticisms of the sectarian actions of his party both inside UA and declaring that Hugo would run anyway if he failed to get UA support. We made clear that while we would vote for Hugo in the UA selection meeting on the basis of political ideas, we would respect the result of the vote rather than supporting a break-away go-it-alone campaign by Hugo or anyone else.
UA held a hustings in which we actively participated and put questions to all the candidates about how they would organise struggles by Unison members and seek to change the union for the better. SA supporters encouraged Unison members watching the hustings to come forward for the NEC elections next year, in which we believe the biggest possible challenge by UA-backed candidates will be necessary, regardless of who wins the GS election.
At the subsequent steering committee, Hugo lost the vote partly because members of the Socialist Party abstained when it came to the vote, leaving the road open for Paul Holmes who has been selected as the UA candidate. Hugo is now seeking to stand anyway, begging the question why the Socialist Party decided to participate in the Committee meeting. In contrast, SA members in UA will respect the decision of the steering committee.
During the GS election we will seek to discuss how Unison can be transformed into a fighting democratic union, including the GS election this autumn and looking beyond that to the struggles necessary on the streets and workplaces, and to trying to win a left majority on the NEC next year.