Jeremy Dewar looks at the manifestos of the Unison General Secretary candidates

Unison is the sleeping giant of the trade union movement.

Despite having 1.3 million members, including the bulk of key workers in various low-paid and/or insecure roles from cleaners and nurses to teaching assistants and bin workers, the union barely makes a sound, unless it’s a local initiative, like the Tower Hamlets strikers.

Retiring General Secretary Dave Prentis and his leadership team have ruled Unison for 20 years, sometimes with an iron fist, but never used the union’s collective strength against the class enemy. Their record is shameful.

Members now have the chance to elect a new General Secretary who will set the union’s direction in the coming years. Ahead of the ballot deadline on 27 November, we look at the state of the union and the policies of the four candidates. 

Decimation

Unison’s membership has been on the sharp receiving end of austerity programmes imposed by Tory and (to a lesser extent) Labour governments. Real pay has fallen by between a fifth and a quarter in a decade. Hundreds of thousands of jobs in the NHS and local government have been lost.

Our pensions have been reduced and contributions increased. Privatisation, PFI deals, and the academisation of schools have forced down wages, service levels and working conditions, while ripping up any shred of accountability. Now covid has exposed the fragile condition of our most cherished institutions, like the NHS.

One of the few times that Unison has stepped up to the plate was the aborted pensions strike of November 2012. After promising a fight “bigger than the miners”, the strike was called off abruptly after one day and without consultation. A litany of other misdeeds can be added to the case for change, including witch-hunts of good militants, corruption in the last General Secretary election and the eagerness to join in the demonisation of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party.

Manifestos

Three of the candidates do promise “change”. The fourth, Christine McAnea, proudly stands on her record of 25 years as a Unison officer. So when McAnea says, “when you retire, I will still be there for you, campaigning for fair benefits,” remember that pensioners only need benefits because McAnea was part of the leadership team that sold out your public sector benefit.

Like McAnea, Roger McKenzie is also an Assistant General Secretary and has been for 10 years. Yet he is the bureaucracy’s outsider – and an active anti-racist campaigner. He has the support of a host of left Labour MPs including Jeremy Corbyn – though not Unison member John McDonnell – and many Labour Party and Black members. But McKenzie does not acknowledge the mistakes of the past decade let alone propose any solutions going forward: just an “increasing [amount of] expert advice”.

There is also another Black candidate, Hugo Pierre, who like Paul Holmes is a rank and file candidate, i.e. a member who actually has a job among those he is campaigning to represent. It is between these two that members who want real change have to choose.

Both have excellent track records of leading strikes and campaigns, perhaps Paul’s being more impressive, building one of the biggest branches in the country in Kirklees, Yorkshire. Paul has consistently got up the noses of management and Unison bureaucrats (he is currently suspended by both).

Having said that, Pierre has the better policies, calling for a “renationalised NHS under workers control and management” and “re-nationalisation of energy companies…with compensation only on the basis of proven need”.

The trouble is, these are stock demands of the Socialist Party, of which Pierre is a member, and who unfortunately never put such words into practice when they win positions high up in the unions, e.g. in the PCS. This is particularly problematic when we remember that Hugo stood in the Unison United Left hustings and, when he lost, chose to stand anyway, knowing this would decisively damage the chances of a left victory. With so much potentially at stake for a million members, unity should weigh heavily on the scales unless there are differences of principle – which there are not.

“United” Left candidate Paul Holmes’ manifesto, like his entire campaign, is very short on detail; reliance on personality and charisma is never a good sign. Nevertheless, many of the same policies are there: “nationally coordinated action” for a “substantial pay rise for health, care and school workers”; “£15 per hour minimum wage”; an “anti-austerity programme and campaign for decent jobs, training and affordable housing”; ending casual contracts; and a fight against “racism, homophobia, disability discrimination and sexism”.

Paul also pledges to divert money away from bureaucratic perks and towards branches and activists, including doubling branch budgets, organising among contracted out cleaners, call centre staff and caterers and aiming for “a Unison steward in every workplace”. In this vital area he is more concrete than Hugo.

Rank & file

But none of the candidates put forward a real rank and file perspective. This would have to include not only taking a worker’s wage instead of the £130,000 Prentis took every year, which both Paul and Hugo support, but also ensuring all Unison officials are subject to election and immediate recall, the right of members to control their own disputes, including strike action, preparedness to break the undemocratic anti-union laws where necessary and to use Unison’s strength to fight for socialist policies and leadership of the Labour Party.

Holmes says every union decision should be democratic but for him this simply means the “reporting back of the decision should be quick and transparent”. What could be quicker or more transparent than members making those decisions themselves in mass meetings and under a leadership, i.e. strike committee, that they themselves elect and direct?

Such a transformation, which is imperative in the face of the Tories’ new pay freeze and looming spending cuts to pay for the coronavirus stimulus programme, cannot be achieved by a General Secretary election. It has to be the work of the rank and file themselves, organised into a movement to radically transform the union.

We should demand, win or lose, that Holmes and United Left convene a national meeting of all Unison activists and left branches to discuss starting such a campaign. If they do so, thousands of Unison members, facing unemployment, downgrading, worse contracts, shorter hours and ever greater workloads, could be mobilised to fight the Tories and the bosses and make them pay for the impending crisis.