Unison: Conference issues

The annual conference has acquired a new significance following the addition of the Transport and General Workers Union into the ranks of 'awkward squad' unions with the victory of Tony Woodley. Alan Stevens reports

On June 9 The Times ran the sensationalist front page headline, “Public sector union prepares the ground for general strike”. To further agitate its bulldog-breed readers, the sub-heading warned: “Unison to adopt French tactics” (my emphasis).

The substance of the article seems to be mainly based on next week’s Unison conference agenda, which shows definite signs of activist pressure for a more fighting approach. This conference has now acquired a new significance following the addition of the Transport and General Workers Union into the ranks of ‘awkward squad’ unions with the victory of Tony Woodley. Developments in Unison, the country’s biggest union, are a worry to the ruling class because, as The Times says, “The upsurge in activity from a union seen as relatively friendly towards the government is certain to be copied by other unions which have recently elected a wave of far-left leaders.”

So what is it exactly that causes such worry?

Firstly, that Unison will create and maintain through regular contributions a substantial permanent strike fund. It is galling enough to the bosses that unions should have the audacity to make financial provision for winning a strike. However, this Unison proposal indicates both an expectation of more actions and a more systematic preparation for them.

Secondly, that Unison will coordinate pay claims (and thus disputes) across different areas of the public sector. This represents, says The Times, “continental” tactics to “bypass laws banning secondary action”. This is akin to fighting a man who has his arms and legs tied and complaining if he manages to bite you. Britain has the most repressive anti-union laws in Europe. They are designed to isolate, delay, constrain, prevent and undermine effective union action, whilst leaving almost complete tactical freedom to the employer. Employers are perfectly free to combine against their workers, and of course they as a matter of course utilise the state, its courts and the whole barrage of moneyed media to isolate and attack strikers. On the other hand a picket exceeding six, a sympathy or ‘unofficial’ strike can all lead to legal action against the relevant union.

The bosses’ restrictive practices have to go - but that will require building up sufficient strength to force a change in the law or render it redundant. Meanwhile, we must be as flexible as possible - finding loopholes and coordinating struggles for maximum effect. Thatcher may have knocked the British working class onto its knees; Blair may have kept them there; but now it is getting up.

The third issue that worries The Times is that Unison may establish an additional (third) political fund that could be used to support other parties, including the “far-left Socialist Alliance” - a move that could cause “ the biggest upset yet in the unions’ relations with the Labour Party.

This is a very complex issue, but the ruling class are well aware of the vital role the Labour Party (or at least its leadership) has always played on their behalf at vital stages in the class struggle. Losing the hold the Labour Party has been able to exercise over the working class would be a setback for our rulers. Worse would be the rise of a new independent workers’ party.

But it is not all cut and dried. The conference has not happened yet. There is clearly a flood of motions from activists that seek to push Unison left. It is also easy to discern the various devices in use by the union’s national executive to deflect, water down and constrain this upwards pressure - on the strike fund, for example, the NEC is supporting the lowest contribution rate of one percent and an amendment limiting the fund to £15 million.

There has been a host of resolutions about relations with the Labour Party and democratising the political fund. The NEC is against democratisation. It is also against a third fund, as supporting non-Labour Party candidates would contravene affiliation rules. This is characterised as disaffiliation through the back door. However, rather than fight this out, the NEC is attempting to constrain debate and avoid votes on controversial motions. Many have been ruled out of order. The NEC is supporting a very tame ‘stay as we are but push for more influence’ motion. As for the others making it on to the agenda on this question, the NEC recommends deferring all such decisions. The NEC is obviously acutely sensitive to a substantial anti-Labour mood.

The branch officials and local activists who are exerting this upwards pressure are obviously tapping into a mood amongst ordinary workers. However, they largely ‘do the business’ out of sight of a still very passive membership. This is the easy road - at present you seem to get further, quicker than if you take the more difficult route of educating and organising the rank and file.

The firefighters’ dispute offers a lesson here. A vicious government counterattack panicked the national leadership, disorientated the rank and file and left activists desperately leaving them to organise defensive positions.

You can see an element of ‘easy-road’ opportunism in the proposals for a huge strike fund. It is so much easier to get workers out on strike if you pay them - but there is nothing so passive as being paid to stay home. The principle of a strike fund is great - especially when so many have mortgages and all sorts of other commitments. But what is missing is a long-term strategy to equip the working class with the organisational and ideological tools they need to win.

This can only be achieved in a process of active struggle.