Hobgoblin Journal

UNISON CONFERENCE: The Impasse of Partnership

By Ian MacDonald

30 July 2007

For the Left, the recent Unison Local Government and National Conference was significant in that although the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party and some independents increased their presence on the National Executive of the union, witch-hunting of the Left has started in earnest. Disturbingly the Right are using anti-racism as a foil.
Like most previous conferences there were many positive motions that were carried. Motions carried included defence of Asylum Seekers, opposition to the BNP and calls to act on Global Warming. But even on Global Warming, there were pernicious statements like,”….. seek to negotiate and cooperate with other employers to promote green workplaces or energy use…..” This gave the leadership another plank on which to peddle “partnership,” which any activist knows means workers footing the bill. There was lack of any focus on facts about the environment and the fact that Capital is responsible ultimately for the effects of Climate Change. What is inevitable is that Capital will adjust and is adjusting rapidly to the concerns of global warming to make further capital out of these concerns. Witness the oil companies’ ongoing campaign to “prove” green credentials. Witness also the reality of Shell’s destructive exploitation of resources in the Niger Delta.

The main issues of contention were Pay, Pensions and Palestine. On Pay, the leadership of the union originally were proposing that it should not be discussed and that there should be further consultative ballots of the members. The fact is for rank-and-file members this issue is not subjectively a Left /Right debate because the issues are crystal clear, “i.e. inflation is rising, we are lagging behind and we need more money and the only way to get that is withdrawal of labour.” The objective situation is somewhat different. The leadership, by holding back, is causing demoralisation and is using the issue to create a “Left/Right” split. I went to a consultative meeting recently where the Regional Leadership started the debate with “…there is no way my members are prepared to strike…… and they never have been.”!! With such a lack of leadership formal logic requires that pragmatic positions can be taken and industrial action not supported. What eventually happened was that the Left, in the form of the Socialist Party, carried an amendment to the leadership-supported motion, calling for the proposals to go straight to ballot. The leadership called for a vote against their own amended motion and supported a motion calling for another consultative ballot, which was carried. Watch this space!!

On the Local Government Pension Scheme the leadership was not prepared to have the matter discussed on the floor of conference and that was the end of the matter. On this issue especially, the membership is demoralised. The reason for this is that a year ago the leadership deliberately demobilised the campaign for a decent Local Government Pension Scheme and only under extreme pressure from the rank and file was a Special Conference allowed which, as it turned out, was rigidly managed by the union leadership. The leadership has put forward for acceptance proposals that do not line up with protection of the 85-Year Rule agreed in Scotland and do not measure up to agreements won by other public service unions. Workers have voted for these proposals. Again there is a formal logic to this. In the absence of any mass organised fighting alternative, workers on the whole will vote for the recommendation of the leadership or abstain.

On Palestine there was a heated debate and many speakers did not get to the rostrum before the “question was put.” The issue of debate was that a clause of a motion which rightly condemned Israel action and called for a two state solution, also stated, “…….But the Conference believes that ending the occupation demands concerted and sustained pressure upon Israel including an economic, cultural , academic and sporting boycott……” The SWP supported this. But the Socialist Party and Alliance for Workers’ Liberty supported an amendment, rightly deleting this clause. The problem with the call for a boycott is that it has racist implications, because it would mean in reality anti-Semitic campaigning. Speakers against this made the case of the South African Boycott back in the seventies and eighties. However, boycotts did not overturn the Apartheid regime. It was and still is the South African masses that are decisive in fighting Capital in all its forms – as can be seen in the present mass strikes in the South African public sector against a pay freeze imposed since 2004.

A few issues need to be addressed in summary.

Firstly there is an up and coming witch-hunt against the Left in Unison. The leadership used the excuse of Socialist Party dominated branches producing a so-called racist leaflet to initiate an investigation into those branches. The so-called racism was a graphic of the three monkeys: “hear no evil, see no evil, and speak no evil.” It is a graphic that has been used, for years and years throughout the union movement against the bosses and has never been construed as racist. To use anti-racism as a cover for witch-hunting the Left is worrying in the extreme and created an atmosphere in conference where delegates were afraid to say what they thought in case they were branded racists.

Secondly, of the left itself, there is no unity and no focus. This is not surprising when you have the SWP focusing on a popular front approach, which in reality gives ground to Islamic fundamentalism, which no Marxist should support. We are about replacing Capital; not posing a society prior to the development of Capitalism. On the other hand the Socialist Party faces the struggles of the working class fairly and squarely and as a result generally takes tactically correct positions. They also see the nonsense of pursuing a role inside the Labour Party when union members and Labour Party activists (present as well as those have left en masse, no longer have any illusions in a party that directly out-sources their jobs and wages war in Iraq. However the SP incorrectly, and fundamentally in my view, as a vanguard organisation substitute themselves and the Campaign for a New Workers Party for mass self-organisation and philosophical and political self-development.

What is needed in Unison and across other public sector unions is a public sector alliance which is based on the struggles of rank and file members and integrated with a study of Marxist ideas that are concrete to the lives of workers who are being sacked on a daily basis, outsourced and having their real wages cut. It is vital that workers study Marxist ideas and learn from their own struggles and other struggles internationally, so that they can form a concept of a free socialist society and what the nature of that society would be. It is important that this can happen without pre-established “lines” drawn up by vanguard organisations and that workers think for themselves by studying original texts and not just the summaries of any particular central committee member.