Tuesday, December 13, 2016
What will the Certification Officer hearing mean for the future of UNISON?
I have kept to the promise I made not to provide a running commentary on preparations for next week’s hearing in front of the (Assistant) Certification Officer of complaints made in connection with the election for UNISON General Secretary last year. Being in possession of some three thousand pages of documents and statements in a total (now) of ten large files, I shall of course have a fair bit more to say soon – and not all of it as a pantomime.
I have certainly learnt things from the preparation of this hearing which I would not have learnt had I relied upon being given straightforward answers to questions as a mere member of the ruling body of the trade union. Whatever the outcome of the hearing, we must and will ensure that UNISON members have the opportunity to become familiar with every detail of what went on in the course of the election, so that members can make our own judgement about our own trade union.
What I see now is what I have known for years, with greater understanding as each of the thirteen years I have already served on the National Executive Council (NEC) of UNISON has passed – UNISON is a top-down, hierarchical and bureaucratic organisation directed by a small number of senior officials in conjunction with a few leading members of the Executive (though the role of the lay part of this partnership is strictly subaltern).
There are some on the left who might, historically, have said “so what?” to this observation and, whilst I am something of a troublesome ultra-democrat (with incipient anarcho-syndicalist tendencies), I could see the argument that we ought not to trouble ourselves too much if our trade union was less democratic than we might wish if it were delivering for our members.
The history of the period since 2010 in particular is a history of UNISON “battening down the hatches” in order to try to ride out a storm which shows no sign of abating. In the service of this strategy we abandoned prematurely the fight to defend public service pensions in 2012 and subsequently failed time and again to smash the pay freeze which has driven down the living standards of those of our members whose jobs we have been able to defend.
Therefore, in order to protect the continued existence of our trade union as an institution, we have deliberately refrained from supporting assertively the interests of our members. Our members have responded to this strategy as one might expect, with declining participation and interest in our union, as it delivers less for them.
From within the organisation this truth cannot be acknowledged, as a culture in which criticism is seen as disloyalty has risen over the years. Each success is applauded. Each failure is ignored. Critics are condemned or humiliated.
The combination of undemocratic, “top down” bureaucratic control with ineffective performance in collective bargaining is toxic for the future of UNISON. Ultimately, the most energetic commitment to organising cannot keep such an organisation growing in such a cold climate.
Therefore we need change.
Members need the new UNISONAction Broad Left – and activists need to show discipline and humility to build the coalition which is emerging to change our trade union.
We need candidates in every seat in the forthcoming elections to our National Executive Council (NEC) who are committed to change – and we need one such candidate for each seat.
Now is not the time for timidity. Nor is it the time for ego.
I do not regret my decision to stand down from our NEC. I am allowed to have a life, and now that I have the opportunity of happiness I intend to take it.
I will miss the opportunity of being part of a larger left on the NEC, seriously trying to reverse the decline of UNISON – but I will miss it far less if the seat I currently occupy is filled by Sean Fox, Secretary of the Haringey branch and representative of London on the National Joint Council Committee, who has the experience and judgement to do the job we need to be done.