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Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name. (William Morris - A Dream of John Ball)

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Stronger UNISON pledge and what it really means

A small clique of supporters of UNISON’s current leadership are organising to try to keep UNISON in its current state of lethargy and its downward path under the somewhat implausible slogan “Stronger UNISON” – for the moment this relates simply to a Facebook page which appears largely to be a gurning competition.

However, having served alongside some of those adopting strange expressions on social media in this way, I have to observe that, to their modest credit, on this occasion they have at least tried to express some coherent common purpose, albeit one which depends largely on platitudes and tautology (and reveals more about them than they perhaps intended).

This is the so-called “stronger UNISON” pledge (which ironically – or not - offers nothing whatsoever in the way of suggestions to actually strengthen UNISON) and it has five points. I wouldn’t describe its adherents as Blairites so I suppose this mimicry of New Labour tactics (of five pledges) is less than completely conscious.

The first point is to “put UNISON members first”. At first glance this is platitudinous nonsense, but the subtext, which decries “the demands of any political party or other outside group” demonstrates the underlying red-baiting which is often used (rather as a border collie might be) to shepherd the majority of NEC members into unity.

The second point is to “build a union that looks after you”. This “pledge” might be seen as a bit rich coming from many relatively long-serving NEC members (including at least one former President) particularly since it can be read as suggesting that we don’t already have this – an implied criticism rather more severe than some of those which we on the left might make – but more than that, it reverses a decade of trying to build an organising union.

The third point, my personal favourite, commits signatories to “unite our union and reject the politics of division”, expanding on this with the wonderfully meaningless opposition to “divisive tactics designed to divide us”. This is in fact an expression of the horror of critical thought which is the hallmark of the UNISON Centre (and a vital part of the reason for our current decline).

The fourth pledge, to “fight cuts and austerity” is vitiated by the subtext which commits the signatory only to support “practical means of stopping cuts and austerity” which, coming from those who have opposed the 4 March demonstration in defence of the NHS and have consistently failed to find such “practical means” over recent years, suggests a fight which may entail many retreats (to put it gently).

The fifth pledge, to “grow our union” is no more than any union activist would say – and the subtext suggests that the authors of the pledge have no idea or imagination about how to give effect to this noble objective. It is instructive too that the only one of the five pledges which relates directly to union organising is not only the most vacuous but also the last.

Taken in the round, I would say that this “stronger UNISON” pledge, whilst an attempt to give some semblance of political justification to a group intending really just to keep things as they are, is actually – whether or not this was intended – a truly damning description of its adherents. The order in which they express their goals is both revealing and (to someone as naive as your blogger) quite shocking.

The first and third pledges tell us that signatories are opponents of both critical thought and the organised left. The second pledge tells us that they adhere to a “servicing model” of trade unionism which has, at its heart, the idea that the union is there to do things for workers, rather than enable workers to do things for ourselves.

Only after these key priorities have been expressed do the signatories remember that they ought to express, in the fourth pledge, a purely rhetorical – and practically meaningless – opposition to austerity and, in the fifth pledge, an entirely vacuous and hence utterly worthless commitment to union organising.

Truly those who would put their names to this nonsense deserve only derision from any good trade unionist. The true meaning of the “stronger UNISON” statement is to express unthinking loyalty to a leadership which leads nowhere and an opposition to any and all attempts to achieve change.

That said, after thirteen and a half years service on the UNISON NEC I can say that this is a good effort compared to most of what I have seen from the majority of that body over those years. Keep trying “comrades”.

Or don't.

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