Saturday, March 28, 2015
After the Special Local Government Conference decision - who is saying what?
The decisions of UNISON’s Special Local Government Conference (crucially the decision to try to reopen pay negotiations in the National Joint Council (NJC) for England, Wales and Northern Ireland this year) have attracted a range of online comment.
I am indebted to my fellow member of the National Executive Council (NEC) John Gray (a.k.a. the Goblin Cleaver) for drawing attention to a considered commentary at UNISON Anonymous, which shares some of the balance which I tried to express when the NJC Committee first abandoned last year’s pay campaign. A simplistic approach of bashing the national leadership over the conduct of the particular campaign hardly reflects the reality of how our pay campaign came to falter as it did.
However, in the spirit of a blog which appears to have been set up to provide a faux-activist voice for supporters of UNISON’s lackadaisical leadership, UNISON Active arrive only at the conclusion that, whatever legitimate criticism of the misleadership of the pay campaign “we need to avoid a ‘them and us’ agenda at all costs.”
Let’s face it, those who say that “we need to avoid a ‘them and us’ agenda at all costs” usually think that because they realise that they – or those they support - will be thought of as “them”.
There can be little doubt that the extent to which the Communist Party of Britain’s Unity Bulletin at the Special Conference had its finger so far from the pulse (and so distant from the views of the branches who had requisitioned the Conference) reflected the enduring inability of many comrades from that political tradition to accept or comprehend a materialist analysis of the particular role of paid trade union officials in the workers’ movement in capitalist countries.
Comrades from the other side of the “icepick” divide are culpable of an equally one-sided analysis of the role of the “trade union bureaucracy” (as a force in conflict with the interests of the membership) which does little more to assist comprehension of real life trade unionism than the willful ignorance of the Unity Bulletin and UNISON Active.
In an otherwise reasonable review of the Conference, the Socialist Party make the mistake of personifying “the bureaucracy” as if it were a homogenous, subjectively self-conscious agent capable of purposive action, whilst the Socialist Workers Party’s report presents the debate as if it became only about union leadership (providing a mirror image of the equally one dimensional reporting of UNISON Active).
Meanwhile, Workers Liberty, conclude that at the very point at which activists have just shown that we can use our official structures to good effect that is the point at which we should build an unofficial structure (turning the maxim of the Clyde Workers Committee on its head).
The paid officials of trade unions have material interests which are distinct from, but not necessarily in opposition to, the interests of workers who join trade unions. This does not mean that there is a unified “bureaucracy” in any particular trade union – indeed the absence of such in UNISON just now is self-evident.
However, the predominance of the interests of those who favour institutional continuity is equally evident in UNISON over the past few years, and the strategic approach to campaigning and industrial action as a device to “show members that we are on their side” and to recruit more members (and sustain subscription income) is inexplicable from the point of view of those who refuse to accept that paid officials have material interests of their own.
The next steps after Tuesday’s Special Conference are not entirely about building unity, nor entirely about building opposition (though both are necessary). They are about building union organisation and strengthening union democracy. Branches and activists who need not agree on every point (or even most points) have shown that we can work together in a disciplined way to make use of our Conference democracy in the interests of our members.
There is a lot more to be done with this.
I would particularly commend the succinct summary of the outcome of the Conference from the Morning Star (but then I suppose I would...)