The UNISON NEC election results are a shock wave. It is the first time ever that the left has controlled the NEC in UNISON since the union was founded in 1993 – and it is a significant majority. The left now has 41 of 67 seats on the NEC. 37 from Time for Change, and four supporters of the Socialist Party.
This provides the opportunity to open up the union, stop witch hunts and create more opportunity for UNISON to use its industrial strength in local government, the care sector and health to fight for workers.
There is a lot of credit due to campaign built by Paul Holme’s for the NEC and for general secretary. That isn’t to say the Paul Holmes campaign was flawless, and I think more could have been done to unite the left after the general secretary results, but it is the campaign that got by far the best results and mobilised more members than anyone else.
The question of course now is what next, and while we should be excited by this result, we should also not be unaware of the difficulties that remain. For the past three decades strike levels have been at a historic low (far lower than during WW2 even), and unions with left leaning general secretaries as well as left leaning NECs haven’t been able to break out of the stranglehold. So, getting a left leadership is no magic bullet. There are many reasons for this that would be an article in and of itself, but they include the anti-union laws, defeats of the workers movements going back to the 1980s, and the atomisation of society and workplaces through neoliberalism.
In recognising these barriers, we can’t be downbeat, and this election result does provide real hope. But there will need to be a concrete plan.
The main thing that I have seen in the Paul Holmes campaign is the idea of more funding for branches. Rank and file activists support this, but real change will require far more.
The campaign can now unite different strands of the left, and work out, maybe through a conference of UNISON activists, a way forward. This could create a new grassroots network, which is badly absent in UNISON with many branches totally moribund. We see this in other left led unions where the leadership cannot mobilise the membership as it is too passive and demotivated. It will also mean taking on societal blocks such as the anti-union laws, and convincing members that they need to be broken (there have been small examples of this, such as the librarians at in my branch, Lambeth UNISON who have taken wildcat action on a couple of occasions and been successful in the outcomes). We will need to have far better outreach into communities. There are some good examples of this at a local level such as in Barnet UNISON and indeed in Paul Holme’s own branch of Kirklees.
Some ways that UNISON could be transformed form a corporate style top down organisation into an actual fighting union:
• Open up the London headquarters in Euston as an activist centre and bedeck it with radical posters etc
• Call sectional and regional activist conferences to build new activist networks and make the case for strikes and direct action.
• Scrap the ‘legal jeopardy’ rule at conference that means any motions proposing strike action are de facto ruled out of order.
• Give branches control of their disputes away from the control of full time officers.
• Substantially reduce the number of full timers and build a massive strike fund.
• Recruit an in-house legal team that could also be used by other unions.
• Do a massive drive for new stewards with a huge increase in training courses.
• Start pushing the need to break the anti-union laws with a public facing campaign.
• Set up community branches for the unemployed and retired who can link up with workplace branches to take campaigns into local communities.
• Call national days of action involving demonstrations, civil disobedience, occupations, and direct action.
What is really needed now though is for activists and members across the union to come together to work out a concrete plan on how to break the stranglehold in terms of strike action. They might be some of the ideas above, they might be others. But there is a real opportunity here, a real chance for a springboard that we haven’t seen in UNISON for a long time.
Well done to those that have got us this far, and they are owed a debt of gratitude, and now we can hopefully move forward to the real change that the campaign wants.