Unison General Secretary election: Decision time

Ballot papers are being delivered for the Unison general secretary election. This vote is probably the most important election in the trade union movement for decades. At stake is the future direction of the biggest union in the country – and perhaps most importantly, the key union in the NHS and local government.

For many years, the Unison leadership have sought to solve the problems that members face through a strategy of conciliation with the Tories. The problem with that strategy, however, is that it has led to a continuous erosion of terms and conditions, privatisation, wage freezes, job losses and a decimation of services.

Unison has an enormous potential weight, both industrially and politically. And it plays a decisive role in the public sector.

The union’s members have been fighting a rearguard action for more than ten years now. There have been important local struggles – most recently with the Tower Hamlets dispute. But too often, branches have been left to their own devices.

The practice of the leadership has consistently been to sell the members short.

No more ‘business as usual’

Uniosn tower hamlets

Unison organises hundreds of thousands of members in offices, schools, care homes, hospitals, and council depots. Many of these workers – including an army of homecare workers who support the most vulnerable people in society – are still at work. Unison members have faced the brunt of the pandemic, and have received huge public support for doing so.

Public support for the NHS and for other frontline workers has never been higher. Meanwhile, the Tories have seldom been weaker. They are seen as arrogant, incompetent, and uncaring.

Unison members now face an important choice. Do we continue to try and present a ‘dented shield’, despite so much evidence that this strategy does not work? Or do we fight for a trade union that will stand up for our members, listen to our concerns, and act upon them?

There have probably never been so many threats looming: NHS privatisation; austerity; and the risks in schools, where reckless Tory policy is forcing children, teachers, and support staff into unsafe conditions.

All these threats will impact dramatically on our members. One thing is for certain: ‘business as usual’ is the last thing we need.

Real change

It has been very noticeable that all of the Unison general secretary candidates accept that the union needs to change. But what sort of change do we need?

Two of the candidates – Christine McAnea and Roger McKenzie – come from the Unison bureaucracy. On the other hand, there are two lay candidates who both say that they will not accept the full wage that goes with the job.

Paul Holmes is an experienced rank-and-file activist, who is a member of the NEC and a local branch secretary.

The fourth candidate is Hugo Pierre, a member of the Socialist Party. He has been strongly criticised for standing on a blatantly sectarian basis, after participating in the Broad Left hustings to select a single left candidate and losing to Paul Holmes.

Members’ candidate

Paul Holmes real change

Socialist Appeal has argued for many years for the democratisation of the Union. In our opinion, Unison gives lip service to being a ‘lay member led union’. In reality, the structures of the union are not open to the active involvement of the majority of the membership.

We have argued that the role of the leadership should be to support the struggles of the branches; to take a lead at a national level in campaigning and uniting the struggles; and to fight for socialist policies in the labour movement.

We have also argued that trade union leaders and MPs should only take the wages of a skilled worker. The Unison general secretary job, however, attracts a salary of £138,000 per year.

We also stand against opportunism and sectarianism, and against any ‘prestige politics’ in the workers movement.

We are confident that our readers will consider the arguments above and in previous articles about the issues in this election, and about the future direction of the union.

On this basis, we hope that Unison members will vote for the only candidate that can deliver genuine change in the union: Paul Holmes – the members’ candidate.

In line with Unison’s campaigning rules, this article has not been authorised by Paul Holmes and represents the opinion of the Socialist Appeal editorial board.

From Socialist Appeal

Glasgow City cleaning workers walk out

On Monday the 7th and Tuesday the 8th of September, over 200 cleaning workers in Glasgow staged a walkout and gathered for a rally outside the city chambers in George Square. This was in response to Glasgow City Council’s decision to extend their hours. Additionally, workers received letters on the 12th of September stating that 21 hours of pay would be deducted from their wages as a result of the wildcat action.

Continue reading Glasgow City cleaning workers walk out

Royal Mail Putting Profit before Health: Posties Fight Back

There is growing anger among postal workers regarding the lack of safety and infection control provisions within Royal Mail. In some places, postal workers have already staged walkouts, showing the bosses that they won’t be sacrificed for profit.

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EIS-FELA Lecturers Win Pay Deal

A deal has been reached in the Scottish further education lecturers’ campaign for pay rises, after months of negotiations and several days of strike action. The EIS Further Education Lecturers’ Association (EIS-FELA) recommended for its members to accept the latest offer from Colleges Scotland, the organisation representing Scottish colleges in the dispute. Results from the ballot show that 88% of members accepted the offer.

Continue reading EIS-FELA Lecturers Win Pay Deal

DPD driver’s death demonstrates brutality of precarious work

By Alex Johnson, IMT Edinburgh

Recent figures show unemployment to be at 4.5%, the lowest seen since the 1970s. When we take a moment to examine this figure more closely, however, we find that it isn’t the cause for celebration the Tories would have us believe.

Continue reading DPD driver’s death demonstrates brutality of precarious work

Strike Threats Pressure Holyrood Budget

By Marios Kalomenopoulos, IMT Edinburgh

The political situation in Scotland has been rather quiet, recently, however this superficial stability hides important changes that are developing below the surface. The unions response to the proposed budget from the SNP government is one such expression.

Continue reading Strike Threats Pressure Holyrood Budget

Battle for Bifab: The Return Bout

By Tam Burke, IMT Edinburgh, Prospect, Personal Capacity

Compared with Catalonia, South Africa or the USA, political life in Scotland for most of last year hardly set the heather on fire. Then in November came the Battle for BiFab when the workers made headlines with their successful fight for the wages they were due. A dispute last November between their employer, Burntisland Fabrication (BiFab), and its customer, Seaway Heavy Lifting (SHL), over what payment was still due, threatened the closure of the three yards, Burtisland and Methyl in Fife and Arnish, Isle of Lewis. BiFab said they’d no money coming in to pay wages, so 1400 workers would be laid off. There was no likelihood of the yards reopening. “A hammer blow to BiFab workers and communities in Fife and the Isle of Lewis” declared Gary Smith, GMB Union organiser. SHL said it’d paid BiFab on time in line with the contract. BiFab sought a Notice of Administration, giving just ten short days to find a solution before the yards fell silent. Shocked politicians at every level and of all parties condemned, denounced, exclaimed, wailed, complained and proclaimed that somehow it must not happen, but without any mitigation of the catastrophe.

Continue reading Battle for Bifab: The Return Bout

Bifab Workers March on Parliament

by Tam Burke

Several hundred workers, some with their families, from the BiFab (Burntisland Fabrication) energy engineering company marched down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile on Thursday, 16th November to the Scottish Parliament demanding action to save 1,400 jobs under threat and payment of their wages. They are still working even though the company says it can’t pay any more wages. This is due to Dutch owned Seaway Heavy Lifting(SHL) refusing to pay for their order of jackets for marine wind  turbines. SHL cite “production problems and cost overruns” by BiFab. This news came out of the blue to workers, union leaders and Government ministers. There is anger at the callous disregard for the livelihoods under threat. The wider community beyond that depends on the spending of BiFab workers will also be badly hit.

Continue reading Bifab Workers March on Parliament

Scottish Government’s Cuts to Produce Industrial Action in Schools

By Tam Burke, Edinburgh

A big FAIL mark was given by teachers in Scotland to the Scottish Government just after the Tories’ general election humiliation. The AGM of the EIS (Educational Institute of Scotland, the teachers union) unanimously agreed to prepare a campaign to restore salaries which have been severely cut by the continual 1% pay cap. If negotiations fail to achieve this for next year’s pay settlement, a ballot will be held for industrial action, including strikes, beginning at the start of the 2018-19 academic year.
Teachers have had enough of 1% pay increases which, as for all other workers, mean a pay cut when rises in prices and contributions paid by workers for national insurance and pensions are accounted for. The union’s fair pay settlement is set at 20% for the 2017 pay rise. This is a result of the long running cap public sector pay which has seen their pay fall by a similar figure over several years. The teachers’ mood is hardening.
This year has seen two periods of EIS Further Education College members taking action with rallies, strikes, picket lines and support from students causing disruption. The action was suspended after a deal brokered by the Scottish Government. It may resume if it is not implemented following the announcement on 12th June that several Councils cannot afford to pay staff the amount agreed. Workers in education are under pressure due to unrelenting cuts in spending. Staff must stand united in fighting back against the SNP Government and remind Nicola Sturgeon of her stated principle that “education is at the heart of our plans and I am committed to doing all I can to improve the life chances of every child and young person.”
The reality is the Scottish Government is bending the knee to the Tory Government by passing on the cuts to councils to do their dirty work, destroying services and hope. Then Jeremy Corbyn came along to inspire belief in the fightback against the Tories and that austerity can be brought to an end.
The GTCS (General Teaching Council for Scotland) reported that in 2016 86% of its members reported increased workloads, 19 % had a decrease in workload satisfaction and 54% would not recommend teaching as a job. Implementation of a new curriculum, without sufficient preparation, has resulted in even more stress as teachers struggle to cope to do their best for their pupils. The SSTA (Scottish Secondary Teachers Association), the other teachers’ union, held their 2017 conference under the theme “Put pupils first – give teachers time to teach”. The question is how best to achieve that decent aim? In October 2016 SSTA members , on a 40% turnout, voted 91% for industrial action short of strikes, over issues such as extra hours workload, the failure to provide supply teachers to cover shortages and for more training time. The SSTA welcomed the Scottish Government’s pledge last year to provide modern school buildings, but stated “fundamentally the teacher in the classroom is the most important educational resource.”
The GTC found a lack of job share provision by employers for staff with families, that teachers on a three day week felt it equalled five days with the extra time need to cover vacancies that would not be filled due to cuts. A lack of permanent jobs means staff look elsewhere for work, not necessarily in Scotland or in teaching. The SSTA has highlighted the 1819 teaching posts lost between 2010 and 2016 due to the Tory Government’s cuts in money to councils for services, including education. This loss increases the workload of those left behind. This is the same reported for workers in the NHS. We support all public sector unions fighting together to defend public services and improve pay and conditions across the board.
Ultimately the Tory Government and capitalism are to blame. However, with only verbal opposition by the SNP Government rather than practical defiance in refusing to carry out cuts, it’s no wonder EIS members are preparing for strike action if negotiations fail. Larry Flanagan, EIS General Secretary, stated to the AGM delegates that they were the key to victory, to encouraging members to support a ballot and to work for its acceptance. He reminded the AGM that under the Tory trade union legislation, every abstention counted as a no vote. The role of local reps and the active rank and file members are key to building members’ confidence to succeed. This struggle with the Tories involves the conditions of all workers in education, so requires widening the struggle to include joint action as “divided we beg, united we win”.
The teaching unions are non-party political, but undoubtedly many members are encouraged by the move to the left by a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn. The fightback will more and more lead teachers to draw increasingly political conclusions. Only by taking the means of running of society out of the hands of the tiny minority whose self interest curtails educational spending and achievement and putting it in the hands of the workers under public ownership can we ensure a properly funded and well rounded education system