Thursday, April 09, 2015

UNISON and the future of civil service trade unionism (not)



I’ll blog a full report of this week’s NEC meeting when I have a little more time (in the mean time Tony Wilson has a useful summary of the meeting online here).

In the mean time I just want to mention an aside from the report of our General Secretary, Dave Prentis, who commented that a merger between our sister trade unions, PCS and UNITE was once more on the cards and that this could change the face of public service trade unionism.

Last year’s PCS Conference knocked back a drive for a “transfer of engagements” to UNITE, but agreed to continuing talks. The politically motivated assault upon the civil service trade unions, through the Tory withdrawal of arrangements for civil servants to pay their union subscriptions from their salaries, is clearly one factor which may impel further progress in this direction.

Any prospect of the coming together of the largest private sector and largest civil service trade unions is clearly viewed with hostility on the political right – with Tory politicians worrying about the possibility of the largest civil service union being affiliated to the Labour Party. Ironically, some Labour supporters are fearful for the opposite reason, believing that a merged UNITE/PCS “mega-union” would likely disaffiliate.

PCS have considered supporting non-Labour candidates in the past, and the influential Socialist Party elements within UNITE’s dominant United Left have rebutted attempts by leading UNITE United Left activists to assert the importance of a Labour vote next month. Given occasional comments by UNITE’s General Secretary it is easy to see why some think that any new union might not be within the Labour Party.

While political commentators obsess about the tiny fraction of trade union resources which go on party political campaigning, the really interesting question for UNISON activists to ask is, why (if looking for a potential partner) is PCS not in such discussions with our own trade union.
Whilst UNITE is a diverse general union, with its membership scattered across numerous sectors and more numerous in the private than the public sector, UNISON (although increasingly having features of a general union) remains – at least in intention – an industrial union in our largest sectors (health and local government) (and for support staff in education). 

There can be no doubt that at least some of those who supported the bringing together of NALGO, NUPE and COHSE in the member ballots which took place twenty three years ago, aspired to continue to build unity by brining on board other unions. So far the only takers have been the British Association of Occupational Therapists.
 
A civil service Service Group within UNISON, with the same autonomy as other Service Groups, its own Executive and Annual Conference would sit much more comfortably than would the addition of the current PCS membership to UNITE’s current small civil service presence.
From the point of view of any industrial logic, a PCS-UNISON merger would be a far better deal for members of both trade unions than any relationship with UNITE (we even have some spare room on the Euston Road…)

Five and a half years ago, UNISON and PCS signed an agreement at the TUC for closer working, which optimists in both unions hoped might presage an even closer union. Why did it all come to nothing?

I think that there are a number of reasons, and that not all fault lies in any one place. However, the long running attack by UNISON on four activists who happened to be members of the Socialist Party (and which eventually led to complete defeat for UNISON) was hardly helpful.
Critically, UNISON’s role in leading the withdrawal from industrial action over public service pensions in December 2011, which left PCS and some other unions isolated, drove a wedge between the two organisations, which have moved further apart with time.

A progressive and imaginative approach from UNISON’s leadership since the signing of the memorandum with PCS at the 2009 TUC could have seen the emergence of a new public service trade union to take forward the work of UNISON for another twenty years – instead we are now in a position in which UNISON and PCS are squabbling about recognition and representation and lay and full-time officials are nursing hurt feelings on all sides whilst a reactionary Government rides roughshod over our members. 

The political choices made by UNISON’s leadership, and supported by the majority of UNISON’s National Executive Council (NEC) seem to have ruled out the logical future for public service trade unionism. Only an NEC with a majority of members from the Reclaim the Union slate could possibly retrieve this situation.



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