Thursday, June 18, 2015
What future for UNISON?
The delegate from Brighton and Hove who spoke against an inoffensive motion on public services from the Northern Region on the grounds that it was a “business as usual” motion summed up the crisis which confronts UNISON.
Of course delegates did not, in their great majority, follow his lead. Faced with the opportunity to vote only on motions which have jumped the hurdle of standing orders and then crawled through the tunnel of prioritisation Conference did what it so often does and passed a motion noting what we are already doing and congratulating us on our perspicacity and diligence, whilst suggesting that we carry on.
I mean no disrespect to the authors of that particular motion, nor to any of the lay authors of any of the motions which we are getting to debate in Glasgow. However, I am utterly alarmed at the prospect that our approach to the election of this Government may well turn out to be “steady as she goes.”
Our General Secretary (who all but announced his fourth candidacy in the forthcoming election in his speech to Conference) lauded the survival of our trade union over the past five years. Our recruitment performance has indeed been positive – but then that has been necessary as we have failed to protect hundreds of thousands of our members’ jobs, just as we have failed to smash the pay freeze and failed (for want of trying) to properly protect all our public service pension schemes.
It is not enough to say that we have survived (not, at least, if one’s concern is with the interests of workers as distinct from the institutional interests of workers’ organisations). If there were inspections of trade unions’ resistance to the Coalition Government UNISON would get, at best “requires improvement.”
The Emergency Composite on an organising response to the election result agreed yesterday, and the Emergency Composite on a campaigning response to be debated tomorrow map out some elements of a constructive approach – but the vigour with which these will be implemented is open to question.
The determining moment of the last Parliament came in December 2011 when UNISON led the climb down on pensions by the public service trade unions. Having been led to the top of the hill, and then back down, our members were notably less enthusiastic about being led back up again to (fail to) smash the pay freeze.
Had it not been for the boosts to recruitment given by both those national disputes we probably would not have such a good story to tell about maintaining our membership levels (so whilst we preserved neither the pensions nor the living standards of our members we did maintain our solvency...)
It is evident that we need a change of approach if we are to face the challenge of a genuinely Tory Government in a way which corresponds with the interests of our members (and if we want to preserve our trade union as an organisation for the long term).
To debate what that change of approach needs to be is beyond the capacity of a Conference which has been all but stage-managed to death (and those of us who are committed to reversing this pernicious tendency know that we have a task before us which will take more than one or two years).
The election for General Secretary could create an opportunity for such a debate – but if the incumbent decides to stand again it is unlikely that this opportunity will be taken.
The official structure of the Union will not produce a challenger to an incumbent General Secretary – and the “outside Left” (of which I have long been a part) seems unlikely to find a candidate who will present a credible new challenge to that incumbent (or even to find a single candidate).
UNISON needs to renew and rejuvenate itself if it is to face the challenge of the most reactionary Government in a hundred years. One man can decide – by stepping down from a job he has now done for fifteen years – to begin to enable the debate that could lead to that renewal.