UNISON Conference

Jon Rogers reports

UNISON National Delegate Conference took place in Brighton from Tuesday 14th to Friday 17th of June. This was not only the first in-person Conference since 2019, but the first since the election of UNISON’s first female General Secretary, Christina McAnea in 2020. It was also the first since the election of a left wing majority on the National Executive Council (NEC) in 2021.

As ever at UNISON Conference, a number of positive and progressive policy motions were agreed overwhelmingly, indeed unanimously in some cases. The first motion agreed at the Conference, noting that UNISON will reach its 30th birthday next year, committed the union to reviewing the gender composition of the organisation at various levels in order to live up to our rulebook commitment to proportionality.

The following morning, ahead of the speech from the General Secretary, Conference agreed to intensify campaigning for a National Care Service, as advocated by the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. It moved on subsequently to agree a composite motion on coordinating and stepping up pay campaigns across the union to address the cost of living crisis. UNISON also agreed a motion pledging support for decarbonising public services and a policy firmly in support of trans rights.

On Thursday, the conference agreed to condemn, and take action against, global vaccine inequality and on Friday morning to amend UNISON policy on sex work in order to oppose the so-called ‘Nordic model’ of criminalising the purchase of sex, which sex workers argue puts them at greater risk. Friday afternoon saw UNISON conference overwhelmingly support a motion to reject ‘First Past the Post’ and campaign for a form of proportional representation in elections to the Westminster Parliament.

The same conference which was so united in support of these diverse policy motions was, however, bitterly divided on various questions of internal UNISON politics. The Tuesday afternoon of the Conference was dominated by ill-tempered debate over motions attacking the NEC for what some delegates saw as a ‘power grab’ in which lay members of the National Executive had sought to assert their authority over paid officials, and also criticising the NEC for the race profile of those in leading positions.

These debates witnessed some bitter and unprecedented attacks upon UNISON President Paul Holmes, whose status as President, given that he is now an unemployed member – having been unfairly dismissed and victimised by Kirklees Council – depended upon a decision of the NEC to which many delegates were opposed. Conference went so far as to pass a motion of no confidence in the NEC, although this did not become known until the result of a card vote on Wednesday morning revealed that almost (but not quite) two-thirds of the Conference had voted for the motion.

The passing of this motion became the occasion for these divisive debates, and vitriolic attacks upon the President to continue. During the debate on rule amendments on the Thursday afternoon, an attempt to remove completely the discretion of the NEC to allow unemployed members to hold office in the union was narrowly defeated when it failed to achieve a two-thirds majority. However, a rule amendment which qualified that discretion such that it might never, in future, be exercised in favour of an unemployed member who had been dismissed on grounds of bullying, harassment or discrimination, was declared carried (by a two-thirds majority) on a show of hands.

If, as seemed to be the intentions of the movers of this rule amendment, it is interpreted so that UNISON accepts whatever the employer says is the reason for dismissal of a member, it would appear to empower employers to victimise an activist to ensure that they cannot continue to hold office, by the simple device of alleging bullying or harassment. Once again, the President appeared to be the target for this rule change, although of course it does not take effect retrospectively.

Some delegates, who had supported the motion of no confidence which passed convincingly on the Tuesday afternoon, felt that this should have led to the resignation of the entire NEC, although this is not what the UNISON rules required or suggested.

One branch was able to move an emergency motion calling on the NEC to make a statement in response to the motion of no confidence, and this was admitted to the agenda by the Standing Orders Committee and timetabled for debate on the Friday morning even though the NEC had announced that they were calling a meeting on Friday lunchtime to agree just such a statement. The movers did not withdraw the motion and so Friday morning saw a rerun of the attacks from Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.

When the NEC returned, late back from lunch, on the Friday afternoon, having spent the entire lunch break in a meeting agreeing their statement, this prompted a number of spurious points of order from delegates who were dissatisfied because all they wanted to hear was that the NEC would resign. I understand that one NEC member did suggest that this should happen but found no wider support for what would have been an irresponsible abdication of responsibility.

In response to the NEC statement, some delegates walked out of the Conference and did not return. Ironically, this contributed to the defeat of an emergency composite motion attacking the NEC for not having invited Labour’s Deputy Leader and former UNISON activist Angela Rayner to speak at the Conference  – although when delegates heard about her remarks that the police should, in certain circumstances, shoot first and ask questions afterwards, which remarks she has not withdrawn, the motion fell by such a margin that even had the walk-out not happened it would not have been carried.

Overall, Conference demonstrated that while the lefewing candidates had won a majority in last year’s NEC elections, in which the small minority of the most active members who vote were expressing their dissatisfaction with UNISON’s failure to defend our members’ interests over recent years, the left is far from having such power throughout the structures of the union.

While the new, and largely inexperienced, NEC may have made some mis-steps over the past year, they did not deserve the degree of vitriol hurled at them from the floor of Conference. Had left wing delegates attacked a former NEC in this way they would have already been subject to disciplinary action.

In particular, the personal attacks upon Paul Holmes as UNISON President were vile in the extreme. It is greatly to Paul’s credit that he withstood this venomous barrage with dignity and integrity, as did Vice Presidents Andrea Egan and Kath Owen.

Left wing activists, whether on the NEC or in the branches, need to listen to this wake-up call and get organised to carry through the changes which UNISON requires if it is to become the union our members need.

Jon Rogers was active in UNISON for three decades and served 14 years on its National Executive Council. He blogs here. His book, An Obscure Footnote in Trade Union History: Memoirs of a Trade Union Bully Boy, is available here.

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