England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

UNISON conference 2023: Fighting for the union we need

By Socialist Alternative members in UNISON

The urgent challenge facing the leadership of UNISON is the cost of living crisis. UNISON members in the NHS, Higher Education and other sectors have seen their pay significantly eroded over the past decade. For council workers and school support staff, pay has lost an incredible 25% of its value since 2010.

That of course is an indictment of the right-wing bureaucracy of UNISON who have overseen pay negotiations for much of that period (before the left gained a majority at the last NEC elections in 2021), and acted as a fire blanket to dampen down any incipient flames of anger from members. They have largely contained the anger whilst inflation was steady at 1% to 2%. However the surge to double digit inflation has changed the mood of our members.

Inflation since last summer has been running at around 10%, and that has created a real pressure upon working class people. The price of essentials, fuel, heating, and food have been climbing at a much faster rate. Food inflation is currently 19%. One branch has shared that more than a third of school support members are worried about feeding and clothing their own children.

Recent NHS deal not up to scratch

That is the real challenge that must be met by UNISON. Too often, the right-wing lay leadership and senior officers have sought to sell below-inflation pay deals as ‘wins’, including in the recent NHS pay ballots. But faced with soaring prices, workers will no longer fall for this. We refuse to be poorer! The NHS pay deal highlighted the issues facing the union. Sold by the General Secretary and the Lead Negotiating Officer as a good deal, branches were restricted from putting forward any alternative view.

Unsurprisingly, the offer was accepted by members, amidst a significant expression of anger from a layer of activists – with 26% opposed. In contrast, RCN and Unite members have rejected the deal highlighting the potential that exists for coordinated action, not just in the NHS but across the public sector. But only if we have unions that are prepared to fight.

The pay deal does nothing to address the existential crisis in the NHS. Funding remains restricted and therefore the staffing crisis, workload pressures, and service to patients remains unresolved. The RCN may now seek a separate pay deal for nurses. While the Pay Review Body may be broken, we must oppose any pay deal that separates the nurses from the rest of the NHS workforce. Such a division will be to the long term detriment of all NHS workers, and allow the Tories to entrench divide and conquer techniques.

Let’s win the ballot in Local Government!

In local Government, a strike ballot over pay is currently taking place. It is a ballot we must win. The recent local elections saw Labour become the largest party in Local Government for the first time in 21 years. That is a lever we must maximise to achieve an actual pay rise for members.

However, Starmer has made it abundantly clear that he will not support workers taking action. We must call on elected Labour representatives to join the picket lines and support the unions’ struggle, but we can have no reliance on Starmer’s Labour to provide the vehicle for political organisation that working-class people need. We need a democratic discussion across our union about our political campaigning. This was brought into sharp focus when UNISON’s reps on the Labour Party NEC abstained over whether UNISON member Jeremy Corbyn should be allowed to stand for Labour despite many UNISON members no doubt wanting to campaign for Corbyn either as a Labour MP or independent, which we would support.

Socialist Alternative believes that what working class people need is a new left party of class struggle with a socialist programme – one which is rooted in workplace and community struggles.

The pay deals have shown that there is further work to be done to democratise UNISON. Time for Real Change supporters on the NEC have made a real difference in a short space of time, notably in supporting struggle across all sectors of the union, with strike pay doubled, and payable from day one of action. For low-paid members, that gives them real ownership over disputes.

Motions to conference – building our union and fighting for trans rights

Once again this year, conference is prevented from debating important motions including on the election of senior officers – a principle that Socialist Alternative members in the union have been to the fore in promoting. If UNISON is to be a genuine member-led union, lay activists must be able to debate and decide which positions in our union are elected.

However there are important motions on the agenda to democratise and build our capacity to struggle. Motion 84 from the NEC ‘Effective Use of Our Union’s Resources to Build our Industrial Action Fund and Capacity to Deliver Effective Industrial Action’ is an important motion that may meet some resistance. Whilst some branches may feel protective of their (in some cases large) reserves, it is important to look at our union’s capacity as a whole to fight for better pay and conditions for members.

Conference must be used as a basis to discuss how we become a fighting union, embedding a genuine organising strategy and how we take on the Tories and their anti-trade union laws. Socialist Alternative members have been campaigning hard for unions to take up the issue of how we defend and extend trans rights in an atmosphere of increased transphobic attacks, and we would urge support for motions that seek to do this.

However conference, important as it is, is a once-a-year event. We must focus on building and developing an extensive number of workplace activists that can lead campaigns and bring added energy into branches. We need to build Time For Real Change as a grassroots and democratic broad left organisation across our union to win the fight against those who seek to block struggles.

The last year has seen a new layer of young people attracted to trade unions as a result of the cost of living crisis and the increase in strike action. We need to fight for a UNISON that can take its place at the forefront of a rising tide of struggle.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *