Sunday, November 09, 2014

How shall we reclaim the union? The answer is elementary!

I was expecting to blog greetings of solidarity and good luck to Welsh health workers due to join their English colleagues by taking strike action tomorrow (10 November)‎.

However, the action has been suspended. I heard a rumour at the weekend that part of the package upon which members are being consulted (justifying the suspension of strike action) is a guarantee that all Welsh health workers will get a 1% pay rise next year.

I don't know that to be true and - since that would be well below the rate of price inflation and hence guarantee a continuing decline in the living standards of our members in the Welsh health service - I won't comment further until I see the detail in writing.

Local government members in Wales (alongside colleagues in England and Northern Ireland) are, of course, also being consulted on pay "proposals" which are (for anyone who has been holidaying on Mars in recent weeks and not already heard this) WORSE than the 1% offer against which we took strike action on 10 July.

For our leaders to abandon a programme of strike action in response to a modestly improved offer (which many, if not most, activists deplore and decry) is pretty much par for the course. I remember saying to a senior national official some years ago, in response to her allegation that we "trots" always accused the leadership of "selling the members out" that, on the contrary, our allegation was generally of "selling the members short."

This time it's different. The generation of a set of "proposals" from joint talks where those proposals offer many members less than the offer they took strike action to oppose, tie our hands over pay in the year of a General Election which will be fought over living standards - and are presented in such a way as to obfuscate and deceive - does warrant the use of the phrase "sell-out".

This isn't just failing to smash the ice sculpture. This is polishing it and returning it unharmed to the freezer with an affectionate wave.

The General Secretary who came to the National Joint Council Committee to discuss these proposals (bearing a copy of a quite disgraceful letter from the Leader of the Labour Group on the Local Government Association) did himself, his reputation and his legacy more harm on that day than on any other day before or since.

The grotesque mismanagement of the local government pay dispute by what we should probably learn to call our misleadership raises anew questions which have been troubling trade union activists for more than a century.

Michels advanced the "iron law of oligarchy" more than a hundred years ago to explain how working class organisations could generate a "leadership" layer of paid officials with interests distinct from, and sometimes opposed to, those of the wider membership.

A century ago working class militants found responses to this problem, including the Clyde Workers Committee (a cross-union shop stewards body) - who pioneered rank and file organisation with the slogan "with the officials when we can, against the officials when we must" - ‎and the "Miners' Next Step" (within the important South Wales Miners' Federation) - who saw the need to contest union elections to change the leadership.

Along with a number of other activists I have been trying (and mostly failing) to apply these insights within UNISON for more than twenty years. Yesterday I spoke at a "reclaim the union" meeting to a gathering of activists most, but not all, of whom were members of the Socialist Party (with whose politics - needless to say - I have profound disagreements). The meeting discussed how to maximise support for rejection of the pay sell-out in local government and for the call for a Special Local Government Conference rightly initiated by the Manchester branch. It wasn't (and wasn't meant to be) a broadly representative gathering, but it was a useful forum for discussion to which I was pleased to have been invited.

Within the last week I have also agreed to put my name (along with those of a number of other leftwing members of the UNISON NEC) to a statement calling for a "unity" meeting to discuss preparations for the forthcoming elections to the National Executive Council and for the General Secretary. Since this statement was initiated by Paul HOLMES and Max WATSON I consider the case for supporting it to be "elementary".

(I have considered ending this blog post here in order to start a tradition of "shaggy dog" blog posts on trade union related blogs, but I shall resist that temptation).

UNISON members and activists need to build an organisation which can walk the walk of rank and file organisation whilst chewing the gum of electoral intervention at the same time. We are a long way from being able to create such an organisation.

Part of our problem is that union organisation itself has become something of a hollowed out shell in many areas. There are branches where our challenge is not so much to build rank and file organisation as to build trade union organisation full stop (and there are no branches where we do not need to strengthen our workplace organisation).

For the moment, UNISON activists need to focus on a few key priorities.

First, we must pursue the pay disputes, arguing for further action wherever that is possible, and for rejection of unsatisfactory settlements where these are being consulted upon.

Secondly, in the local government service group, we must support Manchester's call for a Special Conference and stand ready to co-ordinate between branches both the agenda for that Conference and a branch-based fringe meeting to co-ordinate the activity of all those who think that our union should fight for the interests of our members.

Thirdly, we need to ensure candidates who believe that our union should fight for the interests of our members stand for every seat on our National Executive Council‎ (and that we avoid "splitting" the vote for such candidates).

Fourthly, we need an honest and open discussion about the forthcoming General Secretary election. It is understandable that no such honest and open discussion can take place on the Euston Road, but we don't have to mirror that shortcoming.

As things stand there is no credible "official" candidate other than our incumbent General Secretary and no obvious rank and file opponent has emerged who has not stood - and lost - before.

Do we run training courses on succession planning?

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

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