By Jon Rogers
On Monday 6th September a group of UNISON activists from around the country gathered outside the improbable location of a four-star hotel in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire. Another 120 UNISON and other union activists were present “virtually” at a rally on Zoom.
The gathering was a protest at a disciplinary hearing being organised by Kirklees Council, a Labour Council. Clearly this was no ordinary disciplinary hearing – Kirklees have the same financial problems as many other local authorities and don’t generally use four-star hotels as a venue.
It wasn’t just the venue which marked this disciplinary hearing out as unusual. The employee who was facing the disciplinary charges had been suspended from work and waiting to hear why since December 2019.
So, who was the (un)lucky employee whom Kirklees would suspend for so long and then book a hotel to host his disciplinary?
His name is Paul Holmes.
Paul Holmes is one of the most dedicated – and decent – trade unionists I have ever met in more than three decades in the movement. He is the long-standing branch secretary of Kirklees local government branch, which is one of UNISON’s largest branches – large by virtue of a high UNISON density rather than the size of their main employer.
It’s not just me who thinks this. Paul has been repeatedly re-elected to the UNISON National Executive Council (NEC) since 2007 and won a third of the vote in last year’s election for General Secretary, the best result ever achieved by a rank and file candidate.
With Paul as a figurehead, the left in UNISON won, for the first time, a majority on the NEC in the elections earlier this year – and his NEC colleagues elected him as UNISON’s President and as one of our representatives on the General Council of the Trades Union Congress.
Paul is a lifelong Labour Party member, but – by virtue of doing his job as a union branch secretary – he has been a thorn in the Council’s flesh whenever they have attacked their workforce. Paul’s forthright manner has also led him into conflict, from time to time, with UNISON officialdom.
Under Paul’s leadership it was Kirklees branch which led the first successful attempt to requisition a Special Local Government Conference in UNISON when many activists were dissatisfied with the settlement on pensions being negotiated (at the time) with the then Blair Government.
Paul won’t have made himself any more popular with either the UNISON bureaucracy or Labour’s right-wing since the past year’s UNISON General Secretary and National Executive Council election campaigns. In the 2020 election to succeed Dave Prentis as the union’s head, Paul won more than a third of the vote – a record for a candidate who was not a paid, previously unelected official. The “Time for Real Change” slate, which coalesced around his candidacy, scored a remarkable victory in the spring 2021 NEC election. The results were much to the chagrin of those around Christina McAnea, the current General Secretary.
When a leading union activist is being attacked, whether by their employer or by officials within their own union, it is naïve to rely upon formal procedures to deliver justice for the individual.
That’s why so many UNISON activists travelled, actually or virtually, to Huddersfield on Monday morning – and it’s why trade unionists and Labour Party members need to raise this case in our union branches and CLPs.
Kirklees Labour Council should be working with their local trade unions to protect the community from Tory austerity – not victimising the elected President of one of Labour’s largest affiliates.
Jon Rogers was Branch Secretary of Lambeth UNISON from 1992 to 2017 and a member of the National Executive Council of UNISON from 2003 to 2017. He is now retired. He blogs regularly here.
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Unison members: vote for the Time for Real Change slate in the UNISON Labour Link election.
Elections for the crucial Labour Link Committee have started in UNISON.
This Committee has responsibility for taking UNISON’s policy into Labour and for determining UNISON’s positions within Party structures and conferences.
The UNISON Labour Link will play a vital role in shaping the future of our Party, and getting socialists elected would represent a major shift in the balance of power, in favour of democracy, socialism and a Labour Party that takes on the Tories and not its own members.
Support these candidates:
- East Midlands – Anjona Roy
- Greater London – Ruth Cashman
- Northern – Helen Smith
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- South East – Billie Reynolds
- South West – Aileen McLoughlin
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The election ends on October 13th. Make sure you don’t miss this opportunity to shape the future of the Labour Party. If you have friends, family or colleagues who are members of UNISON, please forward this message to them.