Unison United Left, a left-wing grouping in the public sector union Unison, has recently split, with some of its leading figures planning to form a new organisation. A statement announcing the split is online here.
AWL supports this move, but believes more clarity is needed about the reasons for the split and the basis of the new organisation. In a spirit of comradeship and support, we have written the following statement.
WHY AWL SUPPORTS A NEW RANK-AND-FILE INITIATIVE IN UNISON
For many years, AWL members active in Unison have said that Unison United Left (UUL) has been a completely inadequate organisation to do the job of transforming our union to make it fight in the interests of its members and to defend public services.
UUL has failed to offer an adequate response to the pensions defeat, to the pay battles, to the union’s failure to oppose council cuts or the dismantling of the NHS. Instead of aiming to provide ongoing co-ordination for all members and branches involved in militant industrial and political struggle, and interested in democratising Unison, UUL has acted only as a small caucus for intervening in conferences and elections, and to publicise some left-wing ideas in the union.
At National Delegate Conference 2013, it became clear that even on this minimal level UUL was failing. There was a debate about creating “a safe space for women in the labour movement” and male violence against women. This should have been uncontroversial for socialists, but within the UUL it wasn't. Socialist Workers Party delegates spoke for the amendment, but drowned their support in qualifications and helped the amendment get defeated. The SWP’s position in the debate was motivated by their desire to protect their organisation, following allegations of rape against one of their leading comrades and criticism of their handling of this case. The fact that UUL couldn’t hold an unamibugous position on as fundamental an issue as women’s rights in the labour movement was another nail in its coffin.
Because UUL is not fit-for-purpose, we support the motives behind the “For a fighting, democratic Unison” statement and welcome the call for a new rank-and-file initiative within Unison. We are keen to debate with others in the union the best way for a new organisation to be formed, and to play an active role in building it.
Our starting point must always be supporting workers in struggle against their bosses. To build a movement capable of winning for our members we need serious, well-organised rank-and-file networks that can build support for militant action and organise independently of union officialdom. We have to show how a rank-and-file organisation can be a model of democracy, promoting models of union organisation that start from the workplace up and where the “distance” between union members in workplaces and the union’s structures is minimised. A new rank-and-file initiative should champion militant, creative, and strategic industrial tactics, aiming to build industrial battles that are fought to win around specific demands. And a new rank-and-file initiative must of course support the struggles of those union members who face specific oppressions, including women, black people, LGBT people, and disabled people. As we have said, UUL’s failure to do this unambiguously at the 2013 NDC was a nail in its coffin.
AWL is deeply critical of the way members of SWP (and, in a separate case, the Socialist Party, who have not been part of UUL for many years) have dealt with debates around rape, domestic violence, and sexism in their own organisations. However, we disagree with the “For a fighting, democratic, Unison” statement’s assertion that SWP members who remain in the party are beyond the pale in terms of joint work, and must automatically be excluded from any new initiative.
Unison’s current membership contains many people whose views on domestic violence and rape are probably much, much worse than members of the SWP’s. We do not believe in excluding such people, but rather in involving them in joint struggle and acting on our responsibilities as socialist-feminists to confront, challenge, and change any reactionary views they may hold on questions of liberation. A rank-and-file initiative that is open to all union members who want to fight their employer and democratise the union must begin with that attitude of openness combined with political confrontation and challenge of reactionary views. We should challenge the SWP (and the SP) to change their views, not exclude them from the outset.
None of this suggests giving the SWP or the SP a free ride, or accepting at face value their claims to be part of the healthy left. Furthermore, it is certainly not our view that if someone is good on industrial issues then that somehow “makes up for” or excuses reactionary views they may hold on questions of liberation. But the response should be to challenge and confront those with reactionary views, and create a political environment in which such views will never go unchallenged, rather than through bans and exclusions. A political struggle to clean up the culture of the left, the wider labour movement, and the whole working class on questions of liberation cannot start from excluding certain groups but rather from healthy socialist-feminists setting new, higher, political standards and challenging, convincing, persuading, and educating those around us to meet them. That process in an essential part of helping our class develop the political ideas necessary to win power. Transformative organisations like rank-and-file networks inside trade unions have an essential part to play in that process, and revolutionary socialist-feminists have an essential role to play inside such networks.
On this basis we welcome the move to leave the moribund UUL behind, and seek further discussions with those who have initiated it about the basis for a new organisation.
By Lynne Moffatt, for the AWL Health Workers and Local Government Workers Fractions
MarshaJane Thompson, one of the authors of the original statement, has replied. She writes:
"Whilst welcoming your support for our initiative to develop a new rank and file organisation, it seems to us that you are in danger of misunderstanding our position in respect of those SWP members who continue to support their Central Committee.
"Where any of us hold positions in our movement, our members expect us to work alongside others holding other positions. We did this in UUL with members of the SP we are not in a formal organisation with and we shall continue to do so now.
"What we won't do is seek, jointly, to be the 'leadership' of the 'left' or 'rank and file' alongside those who can tolerate the treatment of women by the leadership of the SWP. We will not organise alongside nor devote any energy to promoting those who support the SWP CC.
"Since we do welcome your support for the action we have taken we are particularly concerned to ensure this is clear."