The defeat of the Local Government pay dispute and the current uneven impact of the NHS strikes over the current pay claim have shown the current weakness of branch and workplace organisation in both health and local government.
Sections of the left in Unison have taken the defeat as a basis to direct their energy into the upcoming elections for the National Executive and General Secretary, as a way to build confidence. Calls for the left to unite around agreed candidates are of course welcome, but they don’t allow discussion of ways to transform the union or to build power in individual workplaces. Rather they are electoral lash ups that break apart as soon as the ballots close, formed on the basis of who shouts the loudest, avoiding discussion of disagreements and preferring sectarian manoeuvres over honest and sharp debate.
The Unison local government special conference in March gives us an opportunity to connect a movement against the rotten pay deal with a positive plan to ensure we cannot be sold out again. The process of reforming the structures and behaviours of the national union has to be backed up with stronger branches, livelier and bigger branches, representative of the workers in the workplace. Where action is taken it should be to win, not as a token demonstration of anger.
Our starting point must always be supporting workers in struggle against their bosses. To build a movement capable of winning and popularising socialist ideas we have to fight for the control of disputes to be at the workplace level, with strike funds and strike committees, cross-union where relevant, that meet regularly to democratically decide how to push a dispute forward. We need to be creative and presenting a strategy that can include selective action and a strategy announced at the start of a dispute. To do this will require the left to put motions forward at conference and also to transform our branches and discuss these ideas with the people we work with (not just those who are currently active).
Control at the workplace level will require fighting for such policies regionally and nationally, if we can connect branches across the country and cross-union local disputes will be much better placed to win, create new activists and break down the divide between union members’ local and national union structures.
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