England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

UNISON National Delegate Conference and the struggle for a fighting, member-led union

By Socialist Alternative members in UNISON

2024 National Delegate Conference promises to be a significant staging point for UNISON activists and members alike. There will be many important motions debated, and all against the backdrop of the general election that will follow two weeks later. That election will almost certainly see the corrupt and bankrupt Tory government joyfully dispatched to the dustbin, swiftly followed by the elevation of Keir Starmer’s Labour Party to government.

The ejection of Sunak’s government is welcome, but a Labour government poses significant questions for UNISON and its members. Our members will rightly be looking for a better deal from a Labour government; and the hope of better times may fuel some expectations of action. But the messages that emanate from Labour’s senior figures do little to give confidence in that.

UNISON members have born the brunt of the Tories’ attacks on the public sector, with many of us seeing our pay lose up to 25% of its value since 2010. The impact on working class families has been immense and increasingly untenable. Members will be looking to UNISON to lead a genuine fight on pay to claw back at least some of the losses of recent years.

Beacons of struggle

In some areas we have seen a real determination to fight on pay. These have included Health Care Assistants, School Support Staff at Ash Field Academy, Camden Traffic Wardens and Further Education staff in Scotland. This is just a taste of what is possible. But we cannot allow these disputes to remain isolated beacons of struggle; we have to broaden and deepen the methods applied in these disputes across the whole union.

There are many motions that are being debated this week that will significantly test the union’s relationship with a future Labour government. Social Care is in a crisis situation, with a desperate need for a National Care Service. Labour – while indicating support – has indicated kicking any proposals into the long grass. There are motions calling for action around the crisis in Local Government funding. Birmingham and Nottingham are merely some of the most horrific examples of the crisis there.

Here again, Labour has suggested only tinkering, and has pledged no new money. Also debated will be key motions on LGBTQ+ rights and against racism – areas where Starmer has already retreated in the face of the reactionary, right-wing ‘culture wars’.

Of course not everything revolves around the actions of the Labour Party and future government. Socialist Alternative members oppose the motion proposing affiliation to the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign, which calls for arms to Ukraine and does not offer a way forward for a mass, internationalist, working class anti-war movement.

There are also internal battles to be won in UNISON. We strongly oppose Motion 14 to ban the use of ‘speaking in a personal capacity’ when members speak at events and are named as UNISON members (essentially gagging them from putting forward anything other than official UNISON policy).

Time For Real Change activists have made great strides in transforming our union, but there is still much work to be done. The key strategy, ‘Organising to Win’, demonstrates this. This strategy is about a fundamental change from an individualistic, servicing union, into a union led by local activists accountable to their members. We need a union that recruits members through action, and wins improvements in pay and conditions. This is an approach that needs to be supported but there are many who (though not prepared to challenge Organising to Win directly) are seeking to direct us down pathways to shallow recruitment, and avoiding industrial disputes.

The need to thoroughly embed a local activist-led, organising approach is at the heart of the battles for control of the union. Supporters of Time For Real Change recognise that a democratic member-led union means increasing the number of activists and their ability to take action (skills and resources). As people board their trains away from the south coast after conference, thoughts will turn to next year’s vital NEC election. Time For Real Change supporters (which includes members of Socialist Alternative) currently have a small majority on the NEC. 2025 provides a real opportunity to substantially increase that majority.

While the General Secretary seems most concerned about not upsetting the Labour Party, we must have the interests of members and the whole working class at the front and centre of our programme. There is much work to be done, but Brighton 2024 can be where we kick start the next phase to transform UNISON.

Socialist Alternative supports all steps to democratise our unions and put rank-and-file members in control. This needs to be combined with a militant leadership and a clear strategy to win real victories, as part of the struggle to transform our unions into fighting organisations of the working class. That is what our members are fighting for as part of TFRC, in our branches and on the National Executive Council.

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