In a result which has bucked the current trend of elections in the trade unions, the left secured a victory in the UNISON national executive committee (NEC) elections by winning a majority for the first time. Despite UNISON being the largest union in the UK, organising workers in the NHS, local government and other public services, it has been led by the right wing for the last 20 years since its inception. Socialist Alternative supporters Jacqui Berry and Steve North were re-elected and Kevin Corran, NHS worker and standing for the first time in the national male health seat won an impressive 8100 votes but narrowly missed out on winning the seat.
The Covid pandemic and the role played by frontline workers have been features of this election. Enraged by the slap in the face from the government’s 1% pay offer for NHS workers, after Tory ministers joined the ‘clap for our carers’ last year, many health workers were participating in protests. However, UNISON did not support them. Instead, newly elected right-wing general secretary, Christine McAnea, immediately distanced herself from any protests and plans for strike action. Some health workers decided to leave UNISON and join the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) instead, who had set aside £38m in a strike fund and begun training their members in activism to prepare for the upcoming battle over the 1% pay offer.
This was part of the context for the success of the left in the NEC elections. The #TimeForRealChange slate got 37 of its 56 candidates elected. This was achieved by campaigning against the pay freeze, privatisation and cuts to public services. Along with other left wing candidates, it means there is an overall majority for the left on the 68-seat NEC. This victory now needs to be used to fundamentally transform UNISON into the democratic, fighting trade union that its members need.
Immediate tasks: challenge the power of the bureaucracy!
One of the most immediate tasks for the new NEC is to elect the union’s Presidential team (made up of one President and two Vice Presidents). In the past, the left have always put forward candidates for this election but have never been successful. With a majority it is now possible to elect a full left slate. These are obviously important positions for the left to win, not least because they decide who will sit on various committees within the union. These include Finance and Resources, Development & Organisation (which deals with disciplinaries), and Staffing committees. Winning left majorities on these committees will be vital in ensuring the right-wing bureaucracy is challenged and that the new left majority can take meaningful control of the union.
An important step will be discussion amongst the left on its democratic programme for the union. This should involve proposals for election of senior officials, Assistant General Secretaries and regional officials. The left-led NEC will be hamstrung in achieving what it wants to, in terms of policy and campaigning, unless it takes seriously the need to make fundamental changes to how the union is organised. For too long, the right-wing bureaucracy has been able to act as a brake on struggle, and it can’t be allowed to continue now! Full time officers have micromanaged every aspect of union organisation and must be edged aside so the rank and file can lead the union.
For a campaigning, member-led union
As well as needing fundamental internal transformation, UNISON now needs to turn outwards and become an active, campaigning union. The two are, of course, linked. UNISON has not been at the forefront of workers’ struggle, despite its size, primarily because the right-wing bureaucracy have been politically opposed to leading the type of fight-back necessary. Now, there is the opportunity to use the potential power of 1.3 million workers to win on pay, working conditions and kicking out privateers from our public services.
There should be immediate discussions with other public sector unions on the possibility for coordinated strike action on pay, as well as serious mobilisations of members for the People’s Assembly protest on 26 June and the NHS anniversary day of action on 3 July. These could act as a springboard for a well organised and sustained mass movement for a 15% pay rise, an increase in the minimum wage, an end to zero-hours contracts and more.
In relation to the Labour Party, there should be an election to choose a left-wing representative to the Labour NEC. However, it cannot be left here. Unite’s member on the Labour Party NEC, Howard Beckett, is currently suspended from Labour, along with many other left-wing activists. There can be no more blank cheques given to the Starmer’s Labour Party, which is no longer a vehicle of struggle, and there needs to be an urgent discussion on working class political representation in UNISON.
UNISON should also be properly involved in other struggles which are currently taking place, such as the Kill the Bill protests and the movement around climate change, until now led by young people without any meaningful support from the trade union movement. Mass protests around the COP26 in Glasgow in November should be a priority for UNISON to seriously mobilise for.
Mobilise the members, build a strong broad left
These changes should not, and cannot, be implemented by the NEC alone. The entrenched right-wing bureaucracy will not release its stranglehold of the union easily, and it will require the mobilisation of members in support of the new policies and approach of the NEC. UNISON’s bureaucracy has a disgusting historical record of witch-hunts against the left and a culture of bullying and intimidation inside the union. There needs to be a serious and conscious campaign to build a strong rank-and-file broad left organisation which can, on the one hand, support the NEC in pushing back against the bureaucracy and, on the other, hold the NEC to account to ensure the left candidates stand by their election pledges.
The #TimeForRealChange slate was successful, in part, because it represented a united front of left candidates. This lesson must be taken on board for how the left operates going forward, including learning from the general secretary election, where because there were three left candidates, the right wing candidate won. Those involved in this slate must now look to how they build a genuine broad left, based on the rank-and-file members and left-wing workplace representatives throughout the union, including the recruitment and training of new reps. A good step to work towards this could be the holding of a mass meeting of all those members and activists who wish to be involved to discuss what they can do. It will also need to include the NEC repealing the anti-member, restrictive election rules which in effect prevent any campaigning by organisations, including trends within the union.
Impact on the labour movement as a whole
The victory of the left in the UNISON NEC elections can be a turning point for the whole labour movement. The previous leadership has played an extremely negative role in the post-2008 period, leaving members defenseless in the face of an onslaught of austerity. UNISON led the way in 2011 – by selling out the public sector general strike against attacks on pensions, demoralising hundreds of thousands of its members. Now there is an opportunity for UNISON to lead the way in coordinating action and resistance across the trade union movement.
In recent weeks there has been the election of right wing general secretaries in the RMT and the GMB – not to mention the election earlier in the year of Christine McAnea in UNISON – but there are other trade unions with left leaders who the UNISON NEC could make appeals to, as well as the memberships of the other trade unions. Nominations have just closed for the general secretary candidates in Unite, revealing the potential danger once again of a split in the left vote. A victory for Gerard Coyne in Unite would represent a huge step back. But if a left candidate wins, having a left-led Unite and UNISON – representing over 2.3 million workers – would be a huge opportunity for a drastic change in the approach of the trade union movement in Britain.
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