A UNISON branch official looks at the attacks on the left within the union at a time when public sector workers face major cuts
This summer Dave Prentis won his bid to become General Secretary of UNISON for the third time with 67.2% of the vote (based on a very poor 14% turn out). As a speaker at conference Dave Prentis often talks left.
However, despite his fine words, he has been at the helm during a period when the left have suffered serious attacks from the leadership. Several very well known and respected left wingers in UNISON have faced harassment and even expulsion on trumped up and unfounded charges. Some of these instances are well known amongst the wider labour movement.
One of the most infamous of these attacks was the disciplining of four branch officers and Socialist Party members over a leaflet featuring the three wise monkeys “hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil”. This was intended as a criticism of the Conference’s standing orders committee who had ruled a large proportion of contentious motions out of order. The leadership accused them of racism as the chair of the standing orders committee was black. This dreadful decision was made despite the knowledge that the individuals were active Socialists and hardly likely to be racist. Even amongst many union moderates this was regarded as a politically motivated attack.
This year, a delegate was ordered to leave the conference floor for wearing a T-shirt saying “Yunus Bakhsh, working class hero” on it. Yunus has been one of the most well known figures to be subject to this witch hunt. The UNISON leadership had sided with his employer when he was sacked for alleged misconduct and dealt him a double blow by expelling him from the union. An employment tribunal has since declared Yunus’ dismissal from employment as unfair and due to his activities as a trade unionist. It is a pretty sorry state of affairs when an employment tribunal supports a victimised trade unionist whilst his union will not.
What is most sad is the devastating effect this has had on those activists that have been subject to the witch hunt. Without exception they are people who have devoted their lives to UNISON and the unions that came together to form UNISON in the early 90’s. They have been leading figures in some of the most energetic and inspirational branches. What the leadership fail to understand (or maybe understand only too well) is that by removing these individuals they are removing a good deal of the heart of our union and weakening us in our fight against the bosses attacks.
The attacks began it appears with the raiding of the Plymouth city branch in 2006. This raid led to the suspension and eventual expulsion of Tony Staunton, a respected trade unionist and leading figure of the United Left in the South West. He was basically accused of downloading leftwing materials on to a computer he used for union work but this very neatly coincided with his bid to run against a right winger in the National executive elections. The witch hunt has since engulfed some of the best known figures on the UNISON left.
The reason for these attacks can be discovered in the leadership’s relationship with New Labour. In their last term in office, opposition to privatisation and cuts from public sector workers increased. Attacks were occurring on Local Government pensions, outsourcing and PFI builds were happening across the whole public sector and the marketisation of the NHS had led to a crisis and major cuts in many NHS trusts.
Some branches of UNISON began to fight back. It was very obvious that the leadership of UNISON didn’t want to rock the boat for the Labour Government and actively tried to keep their membership quiet.
A national demonstration over the NHS cuts was only called after massive pressure from lay activists and then held once the initial anger had turned to demoralisation. Branches were left to fight alone as no nationally co-ordinated action was organised. Members were encouraged to accept below inflation pay rises.
However certain figures on the left were winning over the membership to a position of fighting back. At the 2006 Health sector conference Yunus Bakhsh had received a standing ovation from the floor after encouraging conference to resist New Labour’s cuts and the privatisation agenda in the NHS. The witch hunt has attempted to silence these individuals and has left others worried about standing up against the leadership’s approach for fear of a similar fate.
Things don’t appear to have changed since the election of the ConDem Government either. The ConDems are imposing a pay freeze on all grades in the NHS at staff nurse level and above and a below inflation offer for those below a staff nurses grade. UNISON have already produced a circular pouring cold water upon any prospect of an Industrial Action ballot despite conference agreeing on this in the event of a pay freeze. I can only imagine that they believe large scale industrial action would be damaging to New Labour’s chances of getting back in to power. Maybe they think it could lose public sector workers sympathy from the general public: as if we aren’t part of the general public!
The only way to change this abysmal situation is for UNISON members and public sector workers in general to begin to fight back against the ConDems plan to devastate public services and our pay and conditions. This fight back will need to be organised by the public sector workers themselves regardless of what their union leadership thinks. It is only in doing this that they will grow in confidence and class consciousness and begin to challenge the politics of the leadership.
Whilst I think it remains important for socialists to stand for elections in the union it has to be remembered that real change comes from below and election results are just a reflection of the level of class consciousness amongst the rank and file.