A brief account of Unison's national conference, 2008

A critical account of the 2008 Unison national delegate conference by libcom group member Steven Johns, analysing how the union's bureaucracy systematically attempts to remove control of the union from its rank and file and also looking at the response to the from the union's left-wing.

Submitted by Steven. on July 4, 2008

I recently attended Unison's national delegate conference in Bournemouth as a delegate from a London local government branch. It was an eye opening experience with respect to the machinations of political groupings within the union.

In particular some of the ways in which the new Labour-linked bureaucracy maintained control over the supposedly lay lead organisation became clear.

The primary way it does this at conference is by controlling the agenda. Compiling the agenda is the task of the Standing Orders Committee (SOC). The SOC is a group of 13 people elected from regions and the National Executive Council (NEC) - groups predominantly made up of supporters of Labour and the leadership.

Firstly any "controversial" motions are ruled out of order before the conference. The main reasons given for this include "the motion breaks the rules of the union", or that even discussing the motion at conference "would put the union in legal jeopardy". Last year a third of all motions to conference were ruled out of order. This year, half of all motions were ruled out of order, including all motions designed to make taking industrial action easier or quicker and most motions to do with Unison's affiliation to the Labour Party.

Failing that if no excuse to prevent discussion can be found in the second way the SOC controls the agenda is just to bump unwelcome items to the bottom of the agenda. This year out of 130 odd motions tabled, we only had time to discuss about 30 or 40.

The remaining agenda then, consists primarily of ratifying platitudes which no one could disagree with, but which fail to do anything to improve the lives of working people. As a result the conference many consists of five days it unanimously passing motions like "racism is bad", "dead babies are bad", "Cancer is bad" etc. I exaggerate slightly, but not very much.

The only vaguely interesting debate occurred around a very tame motion which requested a review of Unison's political funds on whether or not they accorded to the wishes of the membership. This was first buried at the bottom of the agenda but re-prioritised due to the wishes of delegates. It was then subjected to a wrecking amendment by the NEC - disallowed by union rules - which removed any clause related to the wishes of the membership. Then the proposers of the motion were subjected to a vicious redbaiting campaign, which included the illegal handing out of an anonymous leaflet slagging off the socialist party by the Northern Ireland and northern regions. After a tight card vote the NEC's wrecking amendment passed.

Having had almost all of its motions ruled out of order before the conference began, most of the left was concerned with issues to do with victimisation of its activists by the union leadership. Examples of this victimisation were so horrific they surprised even me who has no illusions about the nature of our leadership: from the four Socialist party members who criticised the SOC using a three wise monkeys cartoon accused of being racist, to the health branch secretary and SWP member poised to be sacked from his job following trumped up criminal accusations to his employer by new Labour clique Unison activists in the Northern region.

The left is, ironically, split between the United Left, controlled by the SWP, and the Socialist party. Despite the large amount of anger in these groups, the left strategy is based overwhelmingly on attempting to get elected to the NEC.

The structure of the NEC is another way in which the new Labour clique exerts control over the union. While the 60-odd strong NEC appears to be a powerful body within the union, individual members on it have very little power. Many important decisions are made not in the NEC itself in various subcommittees, and so "unpopular" Council members can be denied access to important subcommittees. Strong anecdotal evidence suggests that council members supportive of the Labour Party and the union leadership are permitted membership in up to several important subcommittees, while those on the left are allowed in one or no subcommittees at all.

A key goal for much of the left is as I said to try take over the NEC, by standing for election and, importantly, trying to get only one left candidate standing in every region. This is where the divide between the United left and the socialist party seems important.

While I believe a left-controlled NEC would not make any significant difference for ordinary workers, I think it would be interesting to see what happened if it did occur. Although in other unions lefties on the executive seem as likely as their right-wing counterparts to compromise with the employers - such as an SWP member on the CWU executive during the Royal Mail strikes last year. I think this could be a useful aid in dispelling some people's illusions about the unions.