England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

UNISON conference shows all to play for in fight to transform our union

By Socialist Alternative supporters in UNISON

The annual National Delegate Conference (NDC) of UNISON took place in Liverpool between 13-16 June against the backdrop of the continuing cost of living crisis that is heavily impacting on our 1.2 million members, and the entire working class. This year’s conference also marked 2023 as the Year of Black Workers – delegates heard how all too often it is Black workers who suffer the most from poor pay and conditions, with institutional racism and abuse in the workplace.

Dividing lines

The lines of division at this conference on the contentious motions were clear. Are we to be a union that steps up to the plate and can deliver industrial action to meet the needs of our members, or are we to be a servicing union that offers discounts and ‘insurance’?

Where delegates intervened and spoke of action taken by UNISON members, for example in Higher Education, Further Education and the Environment Agency, they were met with great applause. This was also true of strike action by education support workers currently underway at Ash Field Academy in Leicester, which got numerous mentions and applause. The strikes of Amazon workers in Coventry, junior doctors, postal workers, rail workers and many more were all referenced, showing the desire of many delegates to see UNISON take action and link arms with the wider movement.

Review or get strike ready?

A number of motions aimed to increase our readiness for strike action. One, drafted by the outgoing left-majority National Executive Council (NEC), sought to make the union take steps in the here and now – for example organising training courses on how to win ballots and disputes. The Standing Orders Committee (the body that sets conference agenda), under the control of the right wing in the union, attempted to counterpose a motion committing the union to a vague “review” with few serious immediate commitments. Thanks to strong speeches from the left, including Socialist Alternative members, the motion committing the union to urgent actions (for example training on how to win ballots and disputes) won the vote.

Another, motion 84, moved again by the outgoing NEC, was aimed at using the union’s resources to build our industrial action fund, and our capacity to deliver effective industrial action. This was the most hotly debated topic of the conference. In essence, the motion sought measures to increase our strike fund, to expand the ‘Movement’ technology being used by branches to beat the anti-union laws and to deliver mandatory ‘strike ready’ training to be funded by requiring the branches with substantial cash reserves to contribute.

Cynically and dishonestly, the right wing labelled this a ‘smash and grab’ of branch resources. Speakers in support of the motion rightly pointed out we are a trade union and have a duty to support our members and deliver action. Unfortunately, this motion was narrowly lost on a card vote with 488,528 in favour, and 498,199 against.

Struggles against oppression, defending trans rights and the right to abortion

Socialist Alternative supporters had initiated a motion in the aftermath of the Westminster government using Section 35 to block the Gender Recognition Reforms from the Scottish Parliament, which was submitted by several branches. Unfortunately, this did not get to be discussed at conference due to running out of time, despite it being one of the more popular motions in the reprioritisation process for the final afternoon of conference. However trans rights did feature at the Local Government conference earlier in the week.

UNISON’s current policy is very clear and strong on trans rights, and this needs to be further translated into more active support and campaigning. Our petition, which gained around 200 signatures throughout the week stressed the need for UNISON to use its resources to bring workplace branches to Pride events this year, linking the struggle for LGBTQIA+ liberation with the workers movement.

Conference was in session when Carla Foster was jailed for having an abortion and a motion was passed on the critical issue of abortion being criminalised. UNISON and other unions need to ensure that this is seen as a trade union issue.

National Executive Council elections

Just days prior to the conference, results had been received for elections to the National Executive Council (NEC). Time for Real Change (TFRC), the left grouping that Socialist Alternative members participate in, successfully won seats, but unfortunately also were defeated in some contests.

Socialist Alternative were proud to be part of the Time for Real Change election campaign and worked hard to get the vote out. Our two incumbent NEC members were reelected, with two new additions. Kevin Corran, a mental health worker from Greater Manchester, won the Health Male seat. David Jones, the branch secretary of Wirral UNISON, won the Local Government Male position, decisively beating both the candidate of the right and of the Socialist Party (the SP have gone from 4 members to 1 on the NEC).

Tom Barker, SA member and TFRC candidate for the East Midlands Male seat, was just 158 votes off winning the seat at the first time of standing, coming second. Tom has been leading a strike at Ash Field Academy in Leicester, which has seen enormous picket lines of 70 UNISON members. The vibrant and dynamic campaign in this dispute clearly had an impact on the high vote for TFRC in this seat. We urge continued solidarity for this strike to give confidence to members, and to heap further pressure on management.

This is a seat that could have been won by TFRC if there had been one left candidate (the SP stood and came last) The combined left vote would have comfortably beaten the right wing candidate. Despite the concerted efforts of the right wing in UNISON, they were however unable to win a majority on the NEC.

Left wins the Presidential Team: Next steps

Following the first meeting of the new NEC at the end of conference, a new Presidential Team of Julia Mwaluke, Libby Nolan and Steve North was elected – all supporters of TFRC.

It is a massive achievement that the left won this election. However what is also clear is that the right will not give up without a fight. Winning the Presidential Team must be seen as only the beginning.

Following the conference, we need to build TFRC at all levels of our union and to develop it as a broad, fighting and democratic organisation. TFRC will need bold, public facing campaigns aimed at recruiting and activating branch activists across the union. It will need to link boldly and unapologetically with fighting members of other unions, striking back across the public sector, including rank-and-file health workers’ campaigns like NHS Workers Say NO.

Socialist Alternative in UNISON

SA members spoke in numerous debates including on winning ballots, getting strike ready, renters rights, the care sector and the Northern Ireland ‘peace process’. We had an incredible response to our political material, with 122 copies of our paper sold and £835.59 raised through donations to our Fighting Fund. Our fringe meeting on the subject of how unions can fight for trans rights and against Tory ‘culture wars’ was very successful, with 30 people in attendance.

The fight is on to change UNISON. If you agree with what we are putting forward, we urge you to consider joining Socialist Alternative.


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