Thursday, 18 June 2015

Unison Disunited Left

Yesterday evening a meeting of Unison United Left was held to decide which prospective candidate should stand if there is a General Secretary election. If an election actually does take place (there is some doubt about that right now), it is widely expected that there will be division amongst various contenders from the trade union leadership, and therefore a single left candidate (as opposed to on previous occasions) would be a great step forward. Unfortunately, after the meeting last night this does not look likely.
In January of this year a similar meeting was held in Manchester. It was a Reclaim the Union meeting called by the NEC left caucus, and was meant to be a discussion about forming a united slate for the NEC elections. However, at the beginning of the meeting Socialist Workers Party members argued that the decision as to who should be stood as a united left General Secretary candidate. It was quite clear that, having ensured they had a majority in the room, the SWP was hoping to push its own candidate, Karen Reissmann, forward, and confer on her the legitimacy of that meeting. I won’t go into the details of that meeting, although a good analysis of it can be found here, but suffice it to say that no joint candidate emerged from it. The Socialist Party, whose preferred candidate is Roger Bannister, abstained and refused to accept the legitimacy of the meeting. Similarly, Paul Holmes, a Labour Party member and the other prospective candidate, refused to accept the decision.

The United Left therefore held another meeting last night, in the hope of ensuring a joint candidate. Unfortunately the outcome was very similar. There were about 120 Unison members in attendance, of whom 50-60 were SWP members, 30 were Socialist Party, and another 30 were either members of the Labour Party, non-aligned, or part of other, smaller groups. The SWP’s behaviour in this meeting followed a depressingly familiar pattern. Having ensured they had the largest vote in the room, they proceeded to push for a vote on a joint candidate. The Socialist Party again abstained from the process, and had already announced their intention to stand Bannister irrespective of the outcome of the meeting. Paul Holmes, at least, agreed to accept the outcome of the meeting. Therefore, Reissmann was nominated with 58 votes in her favour, Paul Holmes received 30 votes, and about 30 Socialist Party members abstained. Therefore, Reissmann was endorsed by the United Left meeting, but we are still likely to have two left wing General Secretary candidates in the case on an election.

The problem with this process is that rather than fostering unity, which was the stated intention, it just intensified division. The fault, unfortunately, lies with the two largest left organisations in Unison, the SWP and the Socialist Party, particularly the former. When the first meeting was held in January, we were in Unison heading towards an important NEC election, and to the Local Government Special Conference, where rank and file activists won a significant symbolic victory over the current leadership. A healthy left would have used the January meeting as an opportunity to build for a united intervention in both, in the hope that a spirit of unity could be fostered from which a joint candidate could emerge. However, it is quite clear that from the outset that both the SWP and the Socialist Party were set upon standing their own candidate. When it became clear that the SWP would dominate the selection process, the Socialist Party simply abstained from it, declaring that they would stand Bannister whatever the outcome. The SWP, on the other hand, attempted to hijack the process and foist their own candidate on the rest of the left. It must be said that, in a formal democratic sense, the SWP clearly won the United Left nomination, however it only did so by ensuring it had large numbers of its own members in the room. It might be argued that irrespective of what organisation they are from, those Unison members had every right to vote for their preferred candidate, but this misses the point. It is clear that the majority, if not all, of those people in attendance at the meeting who were not members of one of the two rival socialist parties voted for Paul Holmes. An organisation like the Socialist Workers Party should know that while they may have a certain weight in numbers compared to other left organisations, within Unison as a whole they are still very marginal, and if they are to run a decent General Secretary campaign then they will need to mobilise numbers way beyond their own ranks. While they may be able to win a show of hands in a meeting of socialist activists, this does not at all indicate their popularity within Unison as a whole. This does not necessarily mean running someone other than an SWP member, but if they are to run one of their own, they will need to win the rest of the left, or at least a good number of them, to the idea of supporting her and campaigning for her. Such tactics as packing meetings do not foster such an attitude, and alienate more people than they convince.

There is a more fundamental problem with the nomination of Karen Reissmann as General Secretary candidate, which was expressed by someone from the floor during the debate last night. The Socialist Workers Party a couple of years ago was embroiled in a damaging internal battle which lost it at least 50 percent of its members, when it attempted to cover up sexual assaults perpetrated by one of its then leaders Martin Smith. A transcript of a session of its annual conference where the issue was discussed (this session was a key part of the cover-up) was leaked online. Reissmann presided over that session, and throughout the faction fight was a vocal and loyal supporter of Martin Smith and the SWP Central Committee. The SWP are so keen to secure the United Left endorsement as part of an attempt to rehabilitate themselves in the movement, and also to prove to their own members that they haven’t been damaged by the incident. That many good activists, disgusted by the SWP’s behaviour, would simply walk away from any United Left campaign headed by Reissmann and dominated by the SWP should be an important consideration. That the SWP’s primary motivation is its own sectarian interest, rather than those of the movement and the left of the union as a whole, should not be forgotten. That is why they have behaved in this manner.

There are some important reasons why a united left wing candidate for a future General Secretary election is desirable. The bureaucracy is divided as to who, if anyone, should take over from Prentis, and unlike in previous years their support may be split. It is extremely unlikely that, even if this is the case, a far left candidate will win. However, its chances of getting a respectable vote are greatly diminished if it is similarly divided. More importantly, the left should see General Secretary elections not only as an opportunity to win a leadership contest, or propagate their own group, but rather see them as an opportunity to build an argument for a fighting anti-austerity union amongst the membership. On that score, standing more than one candidate is a duplication of effort. Dividing and demoralising activists ensures that many people who would be willing to dedicate themselves to such a task are left passive, or even pushed into the camp of other candidates.

If the left can’t get its own house in order why should members trust it with their union? Why should they vote for them at all?

Barons and Bankers

In his speech to Unison conference yesterday, General Secretary David Prentis included a little dig at recently knighted GMB General Secretary Paul Kenny:

“On the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, when, I’m told, power was taken from the King and given to the barons, we’re now being told that we have to call Paul Kenny “sir”. Well what else is new?”

A good gag, and no principled trade unionist would have a problem with criticising a trade union leader for taking an honour from the enemy. However, there is more than a whiff of hypocrisy in Dave’s jibe. We have been informed that his own position as Governor of the Bank of England is now to be extended until 2017.

Keep up the good work Dave.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

What Democracy?

It has come to our attention that current Unison General Secretary Dave Prentis is planning to continue in his role. However, rather than going through the tedious formality of holding an election, he plans to ask Unison’s National Executive Council to simply extend his term of office.

Unison’s rules clearly state that a General Secretary’s term of office is five years, and Prentis was last elected in 2010. Many Unison members were therefore naively expecting a fresh election this year. In fact, a number of people have already indicated their wish to stand. However, Prentis may be seeking to exploit a potential loophole in order to secure an extension. While Unison’s own rules state that a General Secretary election must be held every five years, the Tory anti-union legislation states that a trade union general secretary must stand for re-election, or step down, after five years unless he or she is within five years of retirement. Serendipitously, a previous Unison president changed Prentis’s retirement age to 72 (he is currently 68), and he therefore falls within that category. He may therefore manage to get the NEC to “interpret” the rule book to allow him to continue as General Secretary.

As mentioned above, a number of potential candidates have indicated their wish to stand in the General Secretary election. Heather Wakefield (Head of Local Government (who is currently being victimised by Prentis) and Roger McKenzie (Assistant General Secretary) have both indicated an interest in standing. There are perhaps three lay-activists of the left who have also expressed an interest – Karen Reissmann (Socialist Workers Party and NEC member), Roger Bannister (Socialist Party and NEC member) and Paul Holmes (Labour Party and NEC member). These last three still hope that a single hard left candidate can stand with the support of the others.

Prentis has for a long time been considered to represent the right wing Blairite core of the Unison apparatus. Unfortunately, there is no consensus amongst the right as to who should be the designated heir. Karen Jennings (Assistant General Secretary), Bronwyn McKenna (Assistant General Secretary) and Liz Snape (Assistant General Secretary and Chair of the Unison Slytherin Caucus); have all indicated an interest. It is probably this lack of consensus which motivates Prentis’s drive to extend his term without election. There is a concern amongst the apparatchiks that a divided right vote may allow a left contender to win. Prentis is therefore presenting himself to the right as a caretaker until it can get itself organised for a coronation.
Prentis and his supporters’ argument is likely to be that in this current period – massive wave of austerity attacks, new Tory majority government, etc. – Unison would be damaged by a divisive General Secretary election with a large number of different candidates. Much better to keep the General Secretary position in a safe pair of hands for now. This is a nonsense. Firstly, as was outlined above, this is nothing but a cover for the right wing’s real agenda which is to ensure any candidate other than one of their own isn’t elected. Secondly, this reasoning flies in the face of basic democratic principles. A genuinely contested General Secretary election, where different candidates outline their plans for the future, their strategy for resisting austerity, their assessment of past defeats; should not damage our union it should strengthen it. It could bring the debate on these issues to members, activists, branches and self-organised groups throughout Unison, and allow all of us to have a say on the direction of our organisation. Furthermore, five-yearly elections are our opportunity to hold the General Secretary to account, to pass a verdict on their leadership to date.

This may be what Prentis is really scared of. 

Monday, 15 June 2015

A Question of Democracy

This post is a comment following from a previous article which discussed the ongoing disciplinary action against Heather Wakefield, Head of Local Government, in Unison.

One might ask why Unison activists should care about an obscure falling out amongst the leadership. It could be argued that the union leadership is in fact collectively responsible for the sell out of the 2014 pay campaign, and the squabbles about who said what when are ultimately irrelevant, and certainly tedious. Furthermore, is it not the case that, while Heather Wakefield may be being stitched up on this particular occasion, she shares responsibility for similar sell outs in the past, such as the pensions campaign in 2011 for example?

There is an element of truth in all that, however there are some fundamental issues of democracy, which make this matter of great importance to all Unison members:

1)  Accountability

At the Special Local Government conference in March activists in Unison Local Government unequivocally expressed their displeasure, by democratic vote, at the handling of the 2014 pay dispute. They therefore have every right to know who was ultimately responsible for the decisions made, in order to decide whether to take further action against them.

2) Transparency

A key part of the accountability of an elected leadership is transparency. In order to make decisions as a union collectively on policy, and also on who we believe should lead our union, we require all the facts. If there is a fall out between our leaders over who is responsible for decisions made during one of our principle campaigns, we have a right to know. We need to know what decisions were made by who, in order to decide whether to hold them to account, and whether to vote for them in the future.

3) Collective Debate

It may be argued that until the issue is resolved through Unison’s disciplinary procedures it is out of order to comment on this or to demand comment from the leadership on it. This may seem reasonable at first glance, but is in fact nothing more than another example of bureaucratic sidestepping to avoid democratic discussion. The fact remains that if there is any question about the conduct of our leadership, particularly over an important industrial dispute, the forum for the discussion is not behind closed doors in a confidential disciplinary hearing, but amongst the membership itself. It should be debated at Local Government and National Delegate conferences, in branches, and at the NEC. Arguments and counterarguments should be circulated and debated, resolutions should be submitted and voted on. The debate about what went wrong with our pay campaign could, if handled properly, be transformed from being a squalid and undignified episode of backroom manoeuvres, whispering campaigns and character assassinations in the top echelons of the union into an open debate about what went wrong and why, and how best to move forward, which could include the entire membership.

Instead, we are kept in the dark, and forced to rely on rumour and supposition, while the Unison General Secretary attempts to scapegoat one individual in order to avoid accountability for his own actions, and sideline a potential leadership contender in the process. You do not have to be a Heather Wakefield fan or supporter (this writer is certainly neither) in order to be angry and disappointed with this.

If Unison is ever to be transformed into a democratic, fighting union this sorry state of affairs, and many others like it, must be challenged.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Division at the Top?

Unisons Local Government Conference has been taking place over the last 2 days without its Head of Local Government Heather Wakefield. The National conference starts on Tuesday this week.

These conferences are ostensibly an opportunity for Unison members (delegated by their union branches and self-organised groups), to vote on policy and, if necessary, hold the national leadership to account. This year, Local Government delegates have not had that opportunity.

 After the Tory victory at the general election, and the suspension of industrial action over pay in local government, this may be one of the most important conferences for years.

It is therefore unfortunate that divisions right at the heart of Unison's national leadership have not been communicated to members or delegates. Delegates are being kept in the dark over the real reason for Heather Wakefield's absence.

It seems that she is currently signed off with work-related stress until 29 June, preventing her from attending either the national delegate conference, or the two day Local Government conference on Sunday 14 and Monday 15 June.

This allegedly comes after a few years of ill treatment by senior officials in the union including Dave Prentis, and a disciplinary hearing that will be held in July due to Heather allegedly bringing the union into disrepute for following the wishes of the NJC committee.

It is reported that this disciplinary is the culmination of a serious disagreement between Heather Wakefield and Unison General Secretary Dave Prentis over who is at fault for the unpopular climb down from last year's pay dispute, which led to planned strike action being cancelled without any consultation with branches or members, and to a Local Government Special Conference in March of this year where the leadership of both the national union and the local government section received a very public slap on the wrist from angry local government activists. Furthermore, as someone who is seen as a potential challenger against Prentis for the upcoming General Secretary election, and as someone who attempted to run against him previously, Wakefield has a target on her back. Many believe she was unfairly blamed for the climb down by Prentis and his supporters in order to deflect criticism of the General Secretary and discredit Wakefield. However, Wakefield was in fact excluded from a number of key negotiations during the dispute. It was Prentis who first insisted on going ahead with strike action, before cancelling them after one day of action, pulling the rug out from under Unison reps, activists and members.

In a document detailing the history of the dispute submitted to the Local Government Special Conference, the leadership essentially blamed Wakefield for the climb down over pay.
There are also reports from concerned staff that Prentis has over a period of years shouted at Wakefield in an open plan office that she is “finished”, and criticised her for always going on about the “divisive” issue of gender.

The exact details of what Wakefield is being disciplined for are unclear, but it is reported to be about a press release announcing strike action on 30 September without GMB and UNITE and tweeting the same information. Wakefield was following the express wishes of the NJC committee.

At the TUC General council it has been reported that both UNITE and GMB claimed Wakefield had broken unity and brought the campaign and unison into disrepute by announcing without them. Prentis then allegedly intervened to first postpone that strike then do a deal with GMB and UNITE to call the whole thing off. Leaving our members worse off than the initial pay offer.

The disciplinary is said to be set to coincide with the leadership election at Prentis’s behest.

Obviously, many of the exact details of this affair are unclear, but given that it is clearly intertwined with two of the most important issues facing Unison at the moment - the public sector pay campaign, and the upcoming General Secretary election - the membership surely deserves some honest clarification from the union leadership and the General Secretary. We doubt many will be holding their breath on that one.

This sums up Unison's attitude to negotiations: stitch it up and keep it away from members, now it seems they are treating their staff just as badly if they dare to follow lay member instructions.