Over 100 UNISON activists attended a day conference in Birmingham on “What's going wrong in UNSON?” yesterday.
Workers Liberty supporters went to the conference in the hope that it would see the launch of a campaign to change root and branch the current structures of the union and attempt to engage with the broader questions of going beyond the exiting left.
Unfortunately that did not happen. Positively there were representatives of most of the left including both the SP and SWP who in recent years have been reluctant to work together inside the union. The ongoing series of witchunts against members of both organisations seem to have drawn them together at least on the issue of 'democracy' or more pragmatically mutual self defence.
The other motivation is the opportunity presented by forthcoming NEC elections for the left to present a united and full slate in attempt to win the leadership of the union.
How realistic that might be we'll leave for now. But certainly the effort to achieve that aim is likely to be better organised than ever before with a decision made to have regional meetings and committees to get the left vote out. Such an effort is needed as the bureaucracy has already started their campaign using the union's official publications to promote their chosen candidates in a series of puff pieces.
The left are systematically excluded from those pages despite some significant achievements and success stories in organising and victories in strikes and disputes. Workers Liberty supporters will be supporting and represented on that slate.
However and back to the original problem the question of democracy inside the union was barely touched upon. WL speakers and a few 'independent' individuals did try to raise the question of rank and file organisation and the need for the left to push forward demands for some basic democratic rights inside the union. Particularly the idea that branches should have a right to organise their own campaigns, industrial disputes and to contact other TU branches both inside and outside the union.
Before the conference WL supporters had proposed for discussion a charter of democratic rights following some ideas that have been effectively used by some of the 'reform caucuses' in the US as a statement for the conference to agree. Responses had been minimal and in hindsight reflect that the purpose of the conference was never going to be some honest discussion about democracy but a launch rally for a joint slate. The request for such a statement had come from the organisers of the conference but clearly agreement on any specific words or action beyond the electoral deal was too much for the SP and SWP at this time.
Even so it seems that an opportunity has been lost. The experience in the US, in other unions in Britain and internationally all suggest that there are some fundamental problems with trade union democracy. They are the product of the way right wing leaderships have tried to deal with declining membership and influence.
In his book ‘US Labor in Trouble and Transition’ Kim Moody identifies three main strategies used:
A clampdown on the left, workplace and branch democracy
Halting declining numbers by seeking mergers not organising to win new members
'Partnership working' and making concessions in the bosses interest
All three are relevant to UNISON and with a merger with the GMB in sight are likely to get worse. A left leadership could challenge these trends and try to turn the union back to being a class struggle organisation that organises directly in workplaces for its members economic and social interests.
But the decay of branches, the lack of activists and consequently the low levels of density in workplaces require a strategy of rebuilding the union from the bottom up. Creating a base, in each branch, of rank and file militants to deliver and direct action and hold the leadership to account is the essential and urgent task.
That task may be acknowledged by both the SP and SWP but its well down their list of priorities and is probably not much more than lip service as their aim is to win positions to advance not the union but their own organisations. The track record of the SP for instance in the leadership of the PCS demonstrates that even a “Marxist leadership” does not automatically lead to a democratic and fighting union. The SWP were explicit that problems all came down to a question of leadership and questions of structure etc resolve themselves.
We have tried to explain that a left leadership in charge of the bureaucracy still leaves it as a bureaucracy. This would leave them as left bureaucrats unless they use those positions to create new forms of accountability and membership control over decision making. Pointing this out does seems to have upset some people but over 100 years of experience tells us that left leaders unless under the direct democratic control of members do, under institutional and social pressures, become compromised. Their individual integrity, morality, background etc may act to slow or limit that drift but not stop it.
That’s why we call for a rank and file movement as a necessity not as an option inside the trade unions. It reflects our broader conception of 'socialism from below' as opposed to Stalinist and social democratic forms of socialism. The best example relates to attitudes towards nationalisation where for us 'workers control' is not a bonus but the prerequisite of it having any socialist content. So in the Soviet Union many on the left saw the nationalised property relations as progressive in themselves even in the hands of a viciously anti working class bureaucracy.
The other problem, left largely ignored, was the role of the unelected bureaucracy of full time officers within the union who support the elected leadership and would work to undermine an disrupt the work of a left NEC. Again the demand is simple that we are for these posts to be elected, accountable on the average wage of the workers they represent. This was raised from the floor but not taken up as a common demand that the slate would publicise.
Positively some speakers talked of organising in their regions groups of UNISON activists across the political divisions through the Shop Stewards Network. This idea was approved by the platform and WL supporters will try to ensure that whatever regional meetings are convened around the elections are continued as regular regional activists meetings to organise around pay disputes, anti privatisation campaigns and delivering solidarity to branches in dispute and individuals facing suspension, disciplinary etc.
If nothing else yesterday’s conference was a start in healing some of the wounds that have afflicted the left in UNISON in recent years. But the left remains isolated inside the union and to get beyond its current limits must take up seriously the broader issues of democracy and opening up debate in the union. WL supporters hope to continue that debate work toward the creation of a genuine rank and file movement inside the union.
An update on the current state of the witchunts and the campaigns around them will be posted separately.