The conference started with a short speech from Paul Holmes saying that the NEC had taken the Motion 11 vote of no confidence (passed by a card vote 60-40) very seriously and would be meeting on Friday evening to discuss a response. As such it was a little shocking to hear from Standing Orders that they had put an emergency motion criticising the NEC for not responding to the no-confidence vote on the agenda for Friday morning. A delegate from Birmingham urged SOC to look again at this decision as the NEC had responded and would respond in full after their meeting on Friday. SOC agreed to ‘look at it again’.
The morning session began with delegates doing a photo shoot for Gonul Erden, a former co-president of SES who is in prison facing charges of belonging to an armed organisation.
This was followed by a speech from Mehmet Bozgeyik the President of KESK the Turkish Confederation of Public Service Workers. Bozgeyik gave a speech about the general level of repression in Turkey, not only aimed at trade unionists but also campaigners and journalists. There is huge political pressure on judges, universities and other institutions to obey the government. The rampant privatisation and subcontracting of many public services are posing a huge problem in Turkey. He spoke about the very active role of women in the union as well as the women’s movement in Turkey and their struggle for democratic rights, against militarism and for freedom “We believe that if they win then the men will win too!” Refreshingly Bozgeyik also said we had to fight capitalist hegemony and move towards a better system, though this only drew very limited applause from the assembled UNISON delegates. It is interesting at UNISON conference how trade unionists from abroad always talk about socialism and the fight against imperialism, words you rarely or never hear from the floor.
Debate on global vaccine inequality saw delegates lambast the problems of a for-profit system of healthcare and medicine and the needs of many people, especially across the global south.
Motion seven on the Seven Principles of Public Life and applying it to the union movement led to an interesting discussion. The motivation for the motion was that the Nolan principles, created to fight governmental sleaze, should also be applied to the union movement. Delegates got up to oppose and explain that the Nolan Principles were simply inoperative in terms of union members and not those in public office. It appeared that speakers in favour of the motion were few and far between and hadn’t had any pre-prepared speeches made ready for them. A number of left delegates got up and criticised the motion, including its position that elected people should be selfless and only act for the public good – very true for councillors and MPs but for union reps? Arguing for higher wages for you and your colleagues cannot be described as selfless and only acting in the public interest is an argument used against striking public sector workers including railway workers. One delegate pointed out Lord Nolan had agreed with the injunction against flying pickets during the Miners’ strike “he is no friend of the trade union and workers movement!” The motion was overwhelmingly defeated.
Conference then discussed the Review of the Equality Act, saying how important the Act initially was but how much more needs to be done. The Act is hopelessly out of date in terms of language, doesn’t deal with issues of identity and also crucially doesn’t have an understanding of power relations (a man can claim to have sexist discrimination or a white person can claim racist abuse, both of which are politically very dubious claims).
In the afternoon it was the rule change debate. This had two amendments in particular aimed at removing Holmes from the presidency. Because Holmes has been sacked by his employer in Kirklees he is currently unemployed, though appealing the decision. In the rule book, it allows for unemployed members to continue in their positions at the discretion of the NEC, though they couldn’t re-stand for their positions as unemployed members. The first amendment would have removed the power of the NEC to decide if people can stay in their roles despite being sacked. The consequence of this would be that if a branch, regional or national officer was sacked by their employer they would automatically be removed from their post as well. This gives power to the bosses to target our activists and decapitate key parts of the union movement.
Delegates supporting the rule change emphasised that a trade union was for workers, not the unemployed. They repeated the same point over and over that an unemployed person cannot be an officer of a union branch – insinuating that the left was trying to keep unemployed people in post for many years which wasn’t the case. A great many delegates got up to speak against the motion and pointed out, again and again, the reality of trade union victimisation and the danger of having a branch secretary sacked and then not even being able to complete their term as an officer to prepare for another AGM. It was a principle of the trade union movement that we stand together and don’t hand power to the bosses to target our activists. Clearly, this was all aimed at removing Paul Holmes from office – which at least the motivator of the motion made clear in their summing up. It was about one man in the union, and the opposition was willing to undermine basic trade unionism to get to him.
That motion was defeated on a card vote, it needed a super majority of 2/3s but got 555,000 against 455,000 votes – a majority but not enough.
The left had really focussed a lot of energy on that motion which left them a little on the back foot for the second rule amendment which was in fact the far more dangerous one. The second rule change proposed that officers be automatically removed from their posts if they are sacked by bosses for discrimination or harassment. The motivators of the amendment argued ‘why would you want someone sacked for sexism or racism to have an officer post in the union?’ This appeared like a much more reasonable rule change than the previous one but it suffered from the same problem, that it handed power to the bosses to decide who the officers of our union are. Speakers in favour of the rule change laughed at the idea that bosses cared what our union rules were and seemed to believe that if a boss sacked you for sexism or racism then that must be true. Baffling to hear from trade union reps who deal with the lies and manipulations of managers on a regular basis.
The motion was voted on and the show of hands looked close to 2/3s but it needed a card vote to clarify (also the problem in UNISON conference is a number of delegates come from tiny branches so card votes show much more clearly the actual weight of what delegates vote means). Astonishingly the chair of the session, a leading member of the TFRC slate, didn’t call a card vote despite a number of delegates jumping to their feet to demand it. And so the rule change was passed.
That was the end of business for the day. What it means for Holmes isn’t clear. One interpretation of the rule could be that the process of appeal against a decision needs to be exhausted before someone is removed from their post, though for those that have argued for the rule change they are clear – Holmes needs to go and nothing else will do.
Speaking to a number of delegates it is clear that many believe that Holmes has been accused of sexual harassment by at least 15 women. No such thing is true. Holmes was accused of sexism, which is not to deny the seriousness of those accusations but it reveals the failure of the left to properly publicly address what was going on with Holmes and bring it out into the light, even to mount a proper public defence of him, has led to rumours spreading like wildfire.
Part of the ferocity of the criticisms against TFRC was because a number of delegates came to conference convinced that the left had elected a sexist abuser to the position of president and then fiddled with the rules to keep him in power. It was a simple, straightforward narrative and made sense to many people. The fact that it wasn’t true, or that the reality was more complex than that was lost in the factional heat.
If TFRC or the left more generally is going to turn this around and not only maintain its position on the NEC but also win the General Secretary and Standing Orders Committee positions then there is a lot of work to do.
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