The battle for UNISON is on

As the UNISON NEC draw up new plans to counter the Tories, a UNISON activist reports on the lengths the union bureaucracy will go, to stifle the left.


UNISON is finally moving in a healthy direction after years of failing to properly resist the Tory attacks on the public sector and its members. The response from UNISON, the country’s largest union, has swung between weak and non-existent. Now the NEC has a majority on it of people who want to take the fight to the Tories over privatisation and pay and tear through the austerity agenda of this vicious government,

Sadly not everyone on the leadership agrees. The old guard are intent on slowing everything to a crawl and frustrating the new direction with every trick in the book. There has now been a serious clash at UNISON NEC over a series of motions that were tabled by the majority left NEC members. They focussed on democratic changes to make the NEC meet more regularly, empower the presidential team to meet between meetings for decision making and to keep officers in posts if they are being victimised by their employers. It also empowered the presidential team to seek independent legal advice and to ensure that all disciplinary issues went through the NEC.

In response the right screamed that this was a ‘power grab’ by the left and that they were rule changes that could only be agreed at National Conference. Four of the motions were declared ‘out of order’. Both of these claims were untrue and politically motivated criticisms.

In reality all of the motions were within the rules as none of them contravened the rule book. For instance, the motion to make the NEC meet 6 times a year rather than five times a year was perfectly in order – the rule book says that the NEC should meet “at least four times a year” it does not restrict it to only meeting four times a year.

The UNISON minority opposition, desperate to stop the rule changes, asked a junior solicitor to issue a legal opinion in which he announced four of the motions were out of order. It went further and argued that the NEC members that brought them were in danger of failing their fiduciary duty to the union, a warning sign that the right is intent on trying to declare members of the left in breach of UNISON rules and potentially open for disciplinary action.

In response the UNISON NEC majority asked well known employment lawyer John Hendy QC from the Institute of Employment Rights for his legal advice. Hendy’s report was conclusive, the motions were all in order and claims otherwise were simply factually wrong.

Dangers, opportunities

The danger is twofold. Firstly that the left does not control the UNISON machinery. This is why it was possible for an unnamed UNISON paid officer to send out a notice to all branch secretaries within 30 minutes of the NEC declaring the motions ‘unlawful’ and declaring that they would be ignored.  The left put out a statement on its Facebook group (around 500 members) the next day. The right are still in a strong position to control the narrative.

There is also a danger that the more the left gets bogged down in internal battles on committees the more rank and file members feel alienated from what is going on. Most members are not informed of the dispute on the NEC, and even if they did know it might just look like two factions arguing over ‘interpretations of the rules’.

What is urgently needed is a bold industrial strategy. An enthusiastic pay campaign in health and local government that gets the biggest possible turn out we can manage. We know we have to beat the 50% threshold for votes so there is an uphill struggle but with enough determination and energy we can get a strong turnout with a big enough for a mandate.

All the right have to offer is demoralisation and demobilisation. We have to show a better way. 

We need a huge turn out for the COP26 protest on 6 November to show that it is workers that will lead the opposition to run away climate change and that we have the power to change the world if we fight hard enough for it. We need clear opposition to the racist Nationality and Borders Bill and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which will make social movement organising a crime. Opposition not just in words but in deeds.

The danger is that the right bog the left down in internecine committee-based warfare that doesn’t impact the life of ordinary members. The way to ensure we consolidate our power in one of the most important trade unions in the country is to turn outwards through mass recruitment campaigns based on a class fight against the Tories and the bosses.

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