I won't post here a comprehensive overview of UNISON National Delegate Conference, having already written a brief such overview for Labour Hub which you can read online here. This post isn't brief.
What I want to do here is look at some of the most controversial decisions, particularly those taken on the Tuesday afternoon of conference, and consider what they mean and how activists should respond to the fact that they were passed with large majorities.
I particularly want to stress to the reader that this blog post is addressed to all UNISON activists, and not simply to the small number of activists whom we have elected onto our National Executive Council (NEC).
Too much is already being carried on too few pairs of shoulders and it is vitally important that activists, across all Regions and Service Groups, who want to see an effective, democratic trade union fighting for the interests of our members, network to broaden the base of rank and file organisation.
Much of the most important work for such networks of activists will not relate to the goings-on at National Delegate Conference (NDC) since, concerning pay and conditions, they are matters for the relevant Service Group, albeit networking at regional level within particularly the larger service groups may well be the most effective step to take in order to build up the level of national organisation which will be required.
Activists engaged in such rank-and-file organising needs not be fearful of threats from officials, such as we have seen many times in the past, for we know that the power to take or not to take disciplinary action against activists is now in the hands of NEC members who are sympathetic to the need for activists to organise and network in order to achieve UNISON goals.
Just as Marxists do not write "recipes for the cook-shops of the future", so it is not the place of a retired local government employee writing a blog to tell today's activists precisely how they should network and organise, although I do take the liberty of insisting that they must.
The more effectively we can organise, and the more we can raise the level of struggle against the attacks upon our members’ standard of living, the more likely it will be that future conferences will be more sympathetic to socialist arguments, whether advanced from the floor or the platform.
All of that having been said, I will now turn my attention (as promised more than 300 words ago) to the particular decisions of National Delegate Conference which gave rise to such controversy, and indeed venom, and consider their meaning and how activists should respond.
The first such motion to be debated (Motion 10, titled "Not in our Name") came from the National Disabled Members Committee (NDMC). The National Executive Council had hoped to support an amendment to this motion but this had been ruled out of order by the Standing Orders Committee (SOC) on the grounds that it was "a negative amendment”. In the absence of their preferred amendment, the NEC oppose the motion.
The main motion, coming as it did from the NDMC, picked out points of particular concern for disabled members (of whom, as diligent readers of this blog will note, your humble blogger is now one).
The NDMC were concerned that the discretionary power of the NEC to allow an unemployed member to continue to hold office (a power which has been held by the UNISON NEC since 1993) placed at a comparative disadvantage a disabled member compelled to take medical retirement and therefore becoming a retired member in respect of whom no such discretionary power would exist.
The NDMC also felt that the exercise of such discretion in respect of an office holder within UNISON, given that disabled members are less likely to hold office, was also discriminatory against disabled members.
You might feel, dear reader, that the NDMC might have chosen to call for disabled members forced into medical retirement to be given the same rights as other unemployed members, and might have called upon UNISON to do more to remove obstacles to disabled members holding office in our trade union.
However, this disabled person can only observe that it was obviously more important for the NDMC, on this occasion, to make criticisms of the NEC than to make proposals to advance the interests of disabled members. Respecting self organisation as I do, I must accept that the NDMC believed it to be for the best for disabled members that they express these beliefs in the way in which they did.
On the basis of these beliefs, and the belief that various decisions of the NEC taken in October 2021 (all of which beliefs must be taken to have been shared by NDC in passing the motion, and therefore now to be UNISON policy) the NDMC made certain specific proposals which the NDC endorsed. Since these instructions are the specific decisions of Conference I will comment upon each in turn;
First, conference instructed the NEC to reverse all changes which had been implemented as a result of the resolutions passed in October and to commit not to implement those or similar resolutions in future without the support of a 2/3 majority at National Delegate Conference.
In its statement to conference on Friday, the NEC rightly committed itself to an urgent full review of NEC practices. It is to be hoped that this will enable our elected lay NEC to regularise its control over UNISON's affairs in accordance with Rule D.2.1 (and the many other rules which identify, specify and clarify the powers of the NEC).
During my seven terms on our NEC I witnessed, on several occasions, the serious consequences of poor governance of our trade union by the NEC in the past. There was and is a compelling case for the NEC to be more assertive in relation to the governance of UNISON.
The solution to the controversy which has flown from the decisions of the NEC in October 2021 is to remove the need for those decisions by all parties recognising the shortcomings of the past and committing to working together to enable effective lay leadership of our trade union in accordance with our Rules.
Secondly, motion 10 instructed the NEC to bring any future resolutions which are "or which could be perceived to be" rule changes to NDC for a full debate by delegates before they are implemented.
This does of course beg the question of whose perceptions are to be relied upon (particularly when the movers of the motion erroneously concluded that resolutions concerning NEC procedure amounted to amendments to rule when they did not).
It will also pose a challenge for the NEC if SOC continue to be as ready as they were this year to rule out of order entirely appropriate submissions to NDC from the NEC. An NEC motion calling for a review of the arrangements made for legal representation of UNISON members was ruled out on the grounds that the NEC had the power to do this anyway in accordance with Rule K and therefore it was not appropriate for the Conference agenda.
Given that the motion ruled out by SOC could very likely have been "perceived to be" a rule change by the mover of motion 10 there is probably a cautionary tale in here somewhere about adopting conference policy which is ambiguous.
The same note of caution may apply to the third instruction issued to the NEC by motion 10 which is that it should write to all Service Group Executives, National Self Organised Groups and other National Committees to confirm that in the future the NEC will always bring resolutions that are, or could be perceived to be, rule changes to national delegate conference.
However, it will be a relatively simple matter for the NEC to send such a message. A cynic might observe that it won't be the first time that conference has instructed the NEC to do something that doesn't quite make sense, and they might be equally certain that it won't be the last.
The fourth specific instruction which motion 10 gave to the NEC is that they should contact all regional disabled members groups to reassure them of the NEC's support for self organisation and to commit to opposing any action that treats, or could be seen to treat, non-disabled members more favourably than disabled members.
This gives the NEC the opportunity to consider how to take the positive steps to promote the interests of disabled members for which the NDMC might have asked, but did not. For example, the NEC could consider how our rules might be either interpreted or amended to allow for the possibility that a disabled member compelled, against their wishes, to take medical retirement could be treated as, and/or given the same rights as, an unemployed member.
Obviously the NEC would want to consult the NDMC on this matter, as they would before taking action to consult widely in the union to identify obstacles to disabled members holding office in our trade union, with a view to removing those obstacles. By focusing in a positive way on the interests of disabled members the NEC could move on constructively from the disagreements of last week, and the NDMC would have the opportunity to move forward with them.
The fifth and final instruction given by conference to our NEC when it passed motion 10 was that the NEC should write to the General Secretary, Assistant General Secretary with responsibility for equalities and the National Secretary for equality is to seek assurance that the Equality Liaison Committee will be included in the annual NEC meetings schedule so that future concerns can be raised directly with the chairs of NEC strategic committees in a timely manner.
This is an obviously sensible proposal. The Equality Liaison Committee should be as important within UNISON as the Service Group Liaison Committee and both of these committees, which in each each case provide an interface between leading members of the NEC and lay representatives of vitally important parts of the structure of a trade union, should provide an opportunity for an ongoing dialogue.
It has been a historic weakness of the organised left within UNISON that it has failed to make sufficient headway among many of the activists whose primary focus of activity is within our self organised groups, just as it has been a historic weakness of our self organised groups, in many cases, that they have been supportive of the UNISON machine and have contributed to a lay bulwark against necessary radical change.
After last week, it may seem counterintuitive to suggest that now is the very best time for us to try to overcome divisions between the self organised groups and left, but that is the time in which we are now living. Activists can certainly assist this process by engaging with and participating in self organised groups at branch, regional and national level.
The second - and most controversial - motion agreed on the Tuesday afternoon of UNISON conference was motion 11, proposed by four Irish branches and agreed on a card vote with the support of some 65% of the conference. This was a motion of "no-confidence" in the NEC which, in its preamble accused the NEC of being too concerned with divisive internal power play and of undermining the democratic rights of NDC and the democratic mandate of our first female General Secretary.
It was, of course, a tribute to the superior organisation of the supporters of this motion in the months before conference that so many delegates believed what the motion said and what they were told about the NEC, even though this also depended upon a shameful and vicious campaign of character assassination against the then President of UNISON, my friend, Paul Holmes. However the passage of the motion did not please its most energetic supporters once it became clear that the motion of no-confidence agreed at NDC did not lead automatically to the resignation of the NEC.
There were those, including some on the left and at least one member of the NEC, who thought that they should be the outcome of the agreement of Conference to motion 11. This approach however was - and is - hopelessly abstract and depended upon elevating form over substance.
If UNISON existed in isolation, like some sort of giant social club, then it might make sense to suggest that the correct response to motion 11 would have been the resignation of the NEC. However, a trade union does not exist in isolation but only comes into existence as part of a continuing class struggle between labour and capital. Conference did not only agree motion 11, but agreed many other motions, several of them by a much larger majority, and many of which issued instructions to the NEC.
The context within which NDC 2022 took place is of a cost of living crisis unprecedented in recent times. It would have been grotesquely irresponsible for the NEC collectively to absent themselves from their responsibility to provide leadership to our members as the struggle enters such a critical phase.
UNISON members will have the opportunity to elect a new NEC in the next round of NEC elections, which occur every two years. The collective accountability of the NEC to NDC does not empower NDC to dismiss the NEC, any more than the requirement of Rule E.3.1 that the General Secretary acts under the direction of the NEC would authorise the NEC to dismiss the General Secretary without good cause (and due process).
As importantly, the anger of some Conference delegates at the NEC does not overwrite, and cannot overrule, the anger of UNISON members at our collective failure to protect their living standards over recent years, which is what led to the results of the 2021 NEC elections.
The NEC statement in response to motion 11 rightly commits to reviewing all Conference decisions, with the General Secretary in order to implement the decisions of the sovereign body of our trade union. Activists at branch level can contribute to this process by ourselves taking forward Conference decisions, for example in relation to the cost of living crisis, in order to raise both the organisation and the combativity of our membership at a critical time.
The third motion critical of the NEC agreed on the Tuesday afternoon of conference was one which the NEC itself supported, albeit with qualifications about the factual accuracy of some of the preamble in the motion. This was motion 9 from the National Black Members Committee (NBMC) which dealt with Fair Representation.
The motion criticised the NEC for having elected an all white Presidential team, for having failed to elect any Black chairs or vice chairs of committees and for choosing a delegation to the TUC general council which was all white. Only the first of these three criticisms was entirely correct (and the same criticism could have been made of the previous Presidential team).
However, the instructions which motion 9 gave to the NEC, which were to pay full attention to the Rule book requirement for fair representation in the future, and to take measures to prevent the problems identified in the motion from happening again, with a report back on actions taken to next year's NDC, were such instructions as the NEC could obviously support.
Fair representation, particularly in relation to race, is a founding principle of our trade union. Racism has been central to the development of capitalism for centuries, and the struggle against racism is therefore central to the building of a working-class movement. The struggle against racism must necessarily be led by the victims of racism, and therefore the self organisation of Black workers is essential for effective trade unionism.
Fair representation can help to ensure that Black workers, who are more likely than white workers to be trade union members, are represented in leading positions in proportion to the race profile of the membership. Of course, fair representation in isolation from self organisation can just mean a white dominated organisation choosing some Black faces to be among its leadership, rather than genuine Black leadership of the struggle (as we can see in many employing organisations where Black senior managers do not necessarily contribute to the fight against institutional racism).
The review of NEC practices to which the NEC has committed in its statement to Conference on Friday of last week will include a more representative make up of NEC elected roles, a goal towards which the NEC began to move with the election of the new Presidential Team even before the statement had been drafted. Activists in branches and regions can contribute to this process by ensuring in elections at all levels of our union that Black workers are represented, working with Black members self organisation to help to ensure that this leads to representative Black leadership in UNISON.
There is a material basis for a strategic alliance between the left in UNISON and the Black members self organised group. Over a number of years, Black members have expressed concerns about the decisions made in relation to legal representation of UNISON members. It is only the NEC elected in 2021 which has committed to the review of these arrangements which may enable us to address those concerns.
Fair representation, even on its own, is important. It is however even more important that UNISON should pay attention to the views of our members’ self organised groups if we are effectively to confront the various forms of oppression which so many of our members face.
What matters most of all is what UNISON does.
The challenge confronting our NEC following conference week is to take the criticisms which were made, and to extract from the hard shell of reactionary hostility, the kernel of valid and legitimate concerns in order to address these and to build a productive partnership with those critics who made their criticisms genuinely and out of concern for UNISON.
The challenge confronting activists in branches and regions is to redouble our efforts to organise at a rank-and-file level in order to strengthen UNISON for the coming fight over pay, but also for all the many campaigns prioritised at Conference.
We have an NEC which is on the side of rank-and-file members and does not wish to place bureaucratic obstacles in our way when we need to engage in struggle. Given the better than expected turnout on the TUC demonstration on Saturday there is every reason to believe that, whilst we have a mountain to climb, we can reach base camp and begin that ascent.