Building the left in Unison

Submitted by martin on 15 January, 2009 - 4:06 Author: Interview with Kate Ahrens

Kate Ahrens has been on the National Executive Council of Unison for two years and is now standing for election again as part of a joint left slate. She represents workers in the union’s health sector and has been in the forefront of the pay battle. Kate is also a Workers’ Liberty member. Solidarity spoke to her about her hopes and plans for the union and the left.

S: Can you tell us about your experience on the NEC in the last two years where the left have been in a minority?

The current NEC is deeply polarised; plenty of discussions initiated by left NEC members get ignored, dismissed and misrepresented as a matter of routine. In this context it can be difficult to work up the enthusiasm for putting forward alternative proposals. But we’ve been making much more of an effort as the left caucus has grown. Many long-standing NEC members have been made very nervous by our growing successes in the NEC elections — their comfortable tenures are starting to look more and more precarious.

It’s on the Health Service Group Executive where the clearest opportunities have come, where the left galvanised exactly half of the SGE to vote against the three year pay deal. Its increasingly possible to see the left forming a new leadership of the union.

S: Unison made many upbeat statements about unity on public sector pay in the last two years but failed to deliver action. In fact activists involved in local public sector alliances have been disciplined. How can a left NEC start to bridge this gap between words and deeds?

K: The first and easiest step would be for the NEC to stop witch-hunting activists for seeking to promote cross-union solidarity!

Promoting long running solidarity and cooperation at a local level between public sector unions is a necessary part of the process to winning genuine public sector solidarity in action. Right now, even Unison branches in different service groups can’t work directly with each other without falling foul of the “Democracy in Unison” guidelines.

S: You work as a staff nurse in a big hospital in Leicester. How are the ongoing reforms and privatisations affecting your work there and how does that experience help you represent other NHS workers?

K: There are many issues that are common across the whole of the NHS: short staffing and persistent delays in filling vacancies, bed closures without the relevant community services being resourced adequately, the whole targets-driven culture, and of course, the ongoing problems of Agenda for Change and the roll-out of the Knowledge and Skills Framework.

But I think it’s important to represent everyone in the health service — not just those in large hospitals. I make a point of trying to go to meetings in a variety of different branches across the country, to get a feel for the issues that are important to those working in other areas.

Another problem that is common for us all is the lack of activists in our branches. But I want to be useful as a resource for all branches; I’ll happily come and walk around the wards and departments and meet members if it helps raise the profile of the union.

S: The united left slate is the first in some years; what are its aims for the union?

K: We have got a much broader cross-section of people standing this time and we are united on basic demands of union democracy and an end to bureaucratic attempts to crackdown on activism inside the union. But we are a broad alliance of different opinions and we won’t always agree on everything. That said, having a positive attitude to debating ideas within the left will help to promote across the union our general approach of maximum democracy in decision making and maximum unity in action.

S: Across the public sector unions there are problems of a declining branch activist base. The AWL have criticised others such as the Socialist Party in the PCS for concentrating too much on leadership positions and ignoring more basic structural problems. You’ve talked about a rank-and-file movement. What do you mean by that?

K: Leadership roles can all too easily be seen as a substitute for building the union movement on the ground. We have to deal with the reality of hard-pressed activists struggling to keep their heads above water, while the wider membership are demoralised and at times, fearful for their jobs, especially now. It would be foolish to expect everything in the public sector will change just because a handful more left-wingers get elected in these elections.

If we want to permanently change the culture in Unison, it is necessary to shift not just the structures at the top, but the membership as a whole. That means the left reaching out to much broader layers of members and activists, instead of maintaining the left as a kind of “secret club” that you need to be invited to join by an already existing member.

That will involve challenging, as we are doing now, for the leadership of the union at a national level, but it also means seeking to involve members and activists from across the whole union in gaining control over the whole structure — right down to the democratic accountability of a local steward to their members.

S: Nominations are now open; what can branches and left activists do to support your campaign and the left slate?

The most important thing is to get branches talking about the election and who they want to nominate. Every branch can nominate candidates in their regional seats, their service group seats and also to the black members’ seats and the young members' seat. That’s around a dozen positions that every branch should be considering.

When the election itself is underway (voting takes place from 14 April to 15 May), branches can organise local hustings meetings provided they invite all the candidates for each seat they are considering.

There will also be leaflets outlining the positions of various candidates and our joint positions. It would be great if activists wanted to distribute them, remembering of course, not to use any official union resources or time to do it!

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