Giving up on Unison

Members of the Socialist Party in England and Wales employed by two local councils in London have resigned from Britain's largest public sector union. Peter Manson sees a parallel in SPEW's abandonment of Labour

The July 20 issue of The Socialist casually reports: “Bromley council Unison’s officers and stewards have resigned from Unison en masse and are to join the union, Unite. After long and dedicated service to Unison their decision was not a light one. They are calling on all the council’s Unison members to join them. This now leaves Bromley council in south London without a single council Unison representative.”

So the largest proportion of unionised workers, belonging to the biggest public service union, is now unrepresented. What is there to crow about in that? Bromley is one of the Unison branches placed under “regional supervision” - that is, controlled dictatorially by the bureaucracy - following the witch-hunting of branch officers who are members of the Socialist Party in England and Wales. But instead of continuing to lead the fightback from within Unison, the SPEW comrades have abandoned ship and gone over to Unite.

Incredibly, one of the defectors is Kathy Smith, until two weeks ago the branch chair, who had just been elected to Unison’s national executive. The Socialist notes that she had stood “on a clear anti-witch-hunt platform, demanding the lifting of the bans on holding office imposed on Glenn Kelly and three other London Unison activists - the ‘Four’ - and the lifting of the regional supervision of branches.” Why on earth has she thrown in the towel?

The Unison Four were found guilty by a union kangaroo court of causing ‘racial offence’ after they issued a leaflet critical of the standing orders committee (SOC) at the beginning of the 2007 annual conference. Specifically the leaflet carried a cartoon of the proverbial ‘three monkeys’ (‘See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’) and the union bureaucracy absurdly alleged that this was a racist attack on Unison’s black membership and, in particular, the black chair of the SOC. Although the accusation of racist intent was later withdrawn, the allegation of causing offence was upheld and the four, including Bronley branch secretary Glenn Kelly, were banned from holding office for up to five years.

The four - Onay Kasab, Suzanne Muna, Brian Debus and comrade Kelly - decided to take their case to a state employment tribunal and in March this year finally won. The tribunal found that “all the claimants were unjustifiably disciplined contrary to section 64 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidated) Act 1992” (this followed an earlier setback, when a tribunal ruled that the four had not suffered discrimination because of their views). But the leadership would not back down, and refused to lift the bans. So, instead of stepping up their campaign within Unison, in at least two branches the comrades have decided to look for greener pastures - that is, a union where SPEW had a better chance of winning branch positions in the here and now, albeit one with a smaller membership.

In her statement comrade Smith points to the inaction of the leadership-imposed Unison officials in fighting the Bromley council attacks on the workforce - this on top of the attempt to “effectively strangle the rights of the branch and its members and its ability to resist the cuts”. They have “sat back and not led a single campaign in defence of members”. And she says that “it has been shocking to find out from senior officers of the council that these union officials have been regularly meeting with our Tory employers”.

I wonder how many union organisations there are where officials fail to fight the bosses effectively, preferring negotiation to mobilisation, and pay little or no heed to democracy. Of course, this is a particularly blatant and despicable case, but does that really justify walking away? Of course not. It is the duty of revolutionaries to fight where the mass of workers are, irrespective of the obstacles. Our movement has seen a whole history of militants, particularly communists, being subject to bans. There have been many examples of comrades overcoming all such adversity - for instance, the largest union confederation in Spain, the Workers’ Commissions, started life in the 1970s as part of the fascist ‘Vertical Syndicate’, the only ‘union’ allowed under Franco’s dictatorship.

But our SPEW comrades are rather less patient. The Socialist reports what apparently caused comrades Smith and Kelly to abandon Unison: “When Kathy attended her first NEC on July 13, she tried to carry out her mandate. She proposed that if the position of the union is that it would not break the law then it should lift the bans, as the union has been found guilty in a court of law of illegally imposing them. She also complained that there is no right in the rule book for branches to be taken into regional supervision and that under the rules the NEC must not do anything that is not within the rule book ... Unfortunately the NEC was not even allowed to debate these issues and she was simply told it wasn’t a matter for the NEC.”

Talk about giving up the fight before the battle has begun.

According to Labour Representation Committee and Unison member Marsha Thompson, “No-one can now be found who will admit in public to believing that formal disciplinary action was the correct response to the production of that leaflet.” The witch-hunt against SPEW has effectively ended, she says. That is why the comrades are “badly wrong” to have deserted what is “the largest local government trade union by many a mile. As important as local organisation is - and it is vitally important - none of the fundamental problems which we face in local government can be resolved other than nationally. Socialists who want to change things for the better are, if working in local government, better placed to achieve this as Unison members than in any other trade union. Outside of Unison you choose to have no say over the negotiating position of the majority of national negotiators. As hard as it may sometimes be for Unison activists to feel that we can positively influence our leadership, it would be a hundred times harder outside Unison” (various email lists, July 21).

Comrade Thompson states that no comrade should let “feelings about their personal treatment ... come before the interests of our class”. She goes on to point out that “The vast majority of people in Bromley who leave Unison won’t join Unite - they just won’t join anything.”

So is she right? Well, we have the example of Greenwich, comrade Thompson’s former branch, where another member of the Unison Four, Onay Kasab, has long been treading the path now taken by comrades Kelly and Smith. Soon after he was barred from office, comrade Kasab joined both of the other two main unions that represent council workers, Unite and GMB. Greenwich militants at first believed ‘Kas’ was simply covering himself. After all, he had been a thorn in the side of Greenwich council for many years and had reason to fear that management might take advantage of the Unison witch-hunt to target him for dismissal. But, while retaining his Unison membership, he more or less openly began campaigning for workers, including those belonging to Unison, to join Unite. Eventually he was expelled for “poaching” Unison members.

That was in March 2011. But the following month he was elected Unite branch secretary. Despite SPEW protestations of innocence, its comrades had been encouraging Unison members to switch. A few dozen of those around the former Unison branch leadership did so, to the extent that by April 26, when the newly established Greenwich Unite branch held its first meeting following a merger of its white-collar and blue-collar sections, the left swept the board. The Socialist reported at the time that comrade Kasab won 132 votes, while his rightwing opponent got just 12:

“When the result was announced, virtually the whole room erupted into cheering. This sent a clear message - workers do not forget a fighting record, no matter the slurs or slanders. It also sent a clear message to the Unison witch-hunters, who used undemocratic methods to impose their administration of the Greenwich Unison branch and who have expelled Onay from Unison. When the question is put to workers to decide, they will choose fighting leaders.”

The article concludes: “Rebuilding Unite in Greenwich is now an urgent task. This will be done in the teeth of the battle against the cuts. What is clear from the campaign is that there are hundreds of workers who will now be joining Unite very quickly as a result of this election. Workers over the last few weeks took Unite forms, while saying that they would only be joining if Onay was elected” (May 1).

Many Greenwich Unison militants had previously believed that comrade Kasab had been acting alone, without the support of SPEW. But this article - and then the defections in Bromley - removed any last doubts that the organisation as a whole had decided upon this course.

It is a course that has a certain parallel with SPEW’s actions in relation to the Labour Party. When members of what was then Militant Tendency, SPEW’s forerunner, were witch-hunted by the Labour Party machine, the group subsequently declared that this proved Labour was now no longer any kind of working class party and set out to persuade anyone it could to form a Labour Party mark two. It gave up on the possibility of the unions being made to fight for workers within Labour. Now, it seems, SPEW has given up on the possibility of Unison being made to fight effectively for the members. Unite is to be a ‘Unison mark two’.

But, despite the upbeat article quoted above, the latest move seems destined to go the same way as all SPEW attempts to coax a replacement Labour Party into existence. Greenwich Unison has a far larger membership than Unite - I am told that, while Unison’s membership stands at between 2,000 and 3,000, Unite has about 1,000. Unison has far more members than Unite and GMB combined. But even this tells only half the story. Less than 50% of Greenwich council staff are members of any union.

So can we expect this new SPEW policy to be replicated across the country? Will all SPEW Unison comrades switch to Unite, taking a few hundred supporters with them across the country? And what happens if SPEW then becomes the subject of a witch-hunt by their new union’s bureaucracy? Will it give up on Unite too?