UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.

Saturday, 31 December 2011

Review of 2011 - Celebrate the Successes... It’s going to be a Long War

UNISON can look back on 2011 as a year in which our public profile was paraded effectively on a variety of streets and boulevards up and down the UK, leading to a good few column inches in newspapers and a position at the top of the hour news bulletins.

Our successes are worth celebrating. Who can forget the 26th of March, when the streets of London were turned into a cavalcade of green and purple, as wave after wave of UNISON branches marched through the streets, from every corner of the United Kingdom. This was a ubiquitous protest about the injustice and inequality of the austerity measures being pursued by the present government, where the many are suffering so that the few are protected. It was only prevented from being the highlight of the year by the magnificent strike effort on November 30th.

Then, rather than asking our members to abandon their picket lines for another trip to London, every major town throughout the land saw its own huge protest movement, from Shetland to the South West tip of Cornwall. If rhetoric could remove governments, the vast array of platform speakers that day should have swept the Tories from office.

A coalition of public service unions took action together that proved the value of unity in the face of an enemy, while there only was one enemy. As events progressed, trade unions returned to their essential nature as bargaining beasts, sitting in scheme level negotiations whose outcomes now crucially depend on member consultation.

We marched at the Lib Dem Birmingham conference, then at the Tory Party’s in Manchester. Scotland had its own national demonstration on October 1st in familiar Scottish weather (a downpour), while every nation and region has its own memories of events noteworthy and significant.

Of equal consequence at branch level up and down the country are the countless victories that keep significant terms and conditions for members, save jobs or keep services in house. Some, such as the Edinburgh victory against the wholesale privatisation of the city cleansing services, or the Southampton strikes make the headlines. Too many others are probably known only to a handful of grateful members, or sometimes even only to the branch negotiators, who extinguish one blaze only to move on to the next with no respite.

In the fight to maintain our public services the reality is that while UNISON nationally is majoring in research and public relations, important as those may be, it is stewards and branch officers in local authorities and schools, in hospitals, in health centres and police stations, in colleges and universities, and in voluntary projects and charities, that ensure that the day to day challenge of trade unionism is met. Our reason for existing is the defence of our member. The efforts currently made in that defence are praiseworthy and admirable.

Events like the November 30th strike crucially reveal both our strengths and weaknesses. It was a remarkable feat of organisation that produced a show of solidarity across the land, bringing the experience of strike action to a new generation of activists, particularly in the Health Service. It was remarkable that where members did go into work, on December 1st, there was a sense of shame among them, induced by a feeling that they had missed out on a major event rather than by any action from union activists.

The strike revitalised many branches, and brought new enthusiasm, energy and confidence into the union. But we cannot disguise the weaknesses that it also revealed. Our strength remains greatest the further north the region and the low level of density in many branches made the level of action challenging. Strong picket lines disguised a multitude of sins and action in the ever growing privatised public services sector was spasmodic, and therefore problematic.

Both the analysis of the strike day and the sense of branches fire fighting, however successfully, on a daily basis add up to a sense that, though we are recruiting more members and growing as a union, at a basic level, we recite the mantra of being an organising union but on the ground have yet to move toward actually taking organising seriously.

The consequences are clearly seen in the limitations of our branch organisation, and the failure to engage branches in an overall sense of purpose and action beyond the recent industrial action strategy.

“Meeting the Organising Challenge” has been the buzz word since the initial paper was introduced in 2007 on the back of the Pay and Grading exercise for staff, based on a new structure designed to provide both career progression, and to create posts designed to meet the challenge of the changing organisation.

UNISON acknowledged that the public services environment in which it existed was changing, and the traditional branch structures were failing to keep up with them , resulting in the creation of new posts and new appointments. In addition the union introduced the branch assessment process. The twin keys were seen as building local organisation and building workplace activism changing the focus from dealing with individual casework and routine representation.

The union was to move from an organisation where a limited number of officers and activists served to members to one where the members were enabled to help themselves, The goals were admirable, their level of achievement arguable.

In the common dictionary definition, trade unions are organisations of workers that have banded together to achieve common goals such as representing their interests and improve their working conditions. How we do that has been the subject of debate since trade unions have been founded and ideas about the role of the organising union are part of that debate.

It also relates to the debate about the wider role of the union movement. From Lenin’s “Left Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder,” the argument about whether trade unions have a limited workplace role or one that should challenge the causes of workplace injustice in the widest sense have raged. (British trade unions answered that in their own fashion in their historic role in founding the Labour Party. Created through the TUC - though with a minority of trades unions involved - the goal was expressed as the “furtherance of the interests of working men through independent parliamentary representation.” However from the start of the Labour Party there was an in-built argument as to whether its principles were socialist, to change the system or to improve it.)

UNISON’s own policies have been clear about our opposition to societal inequality and injustice, and as expressed in the NEC statement unanimously adopted at NDC 2010, in our opposition to the policies of the Con-Dem coalition, and we committed ourselves to that as a whole union.

As noted earlier, we have had our successes, and we should celebrate them. But largely our successes have been national initiatives in which branches and regions have been urged to participate. Politically, we largely lack a cohesive strategy to engage at the local level - branches through local activists concentrate on bargaining, not on political campaigning.

Branch take-up of political education and materials remains limited. Such successful branch initiatives as there are, like the Edinburgh “Our City’s Not For Sale” campaign are as outstanding as they are uncommon. They remain the exception rather than the rule. Occasional stalls at significant local events or one-off demos are not likely to change the political tide. Yet that is what as a union we are committed to if the government are to be defeated.

2011 has defined our limitations but they are not insurmountable. We have acknowledged the need to move from a servicing to a mobilising culture, and need to start by empowering our branches to do so. Branch assessment must not be the largely bureaucratic paper exercise that it is at the moment, but the engine for change, in an agreed timescale designed to encourage branches from working on a day to day basis to planned growth through workplace activism.

We need to further strengthen the link between our policy goals and objectives, a dynamic alternative vision of policy and politics and decide what that means at Branch level. National initiatives achieve publicity but will not achieve change on their own. Just consider how many of the political reviews of the year so loved in the national and Sunday newspapers have even mentioned our initiatives and successes, and those of the TUC as a factor for consideration in their state of the nation addresses.

But the connection between our policies and what we seek to do locally is vital. Successful models for doing so already exist - particularly in the outstanding work of the Northern region where the annual policy conference brings together all the branches, sectors and self organised groups to decide a work programme that binds all those disparate groups together.

Further, in the influential Northern Public Sector Alliance, there exists a campaigning model that other regions could learn from - it exemplifies the vision of some activists to understanding the power of the collective through engagement with marginalised groups as spearheaded by the late Kenny Bell, deputy regional convenor of northern region (who sadly died in 2011 but who took a lead from Pablo Friere organising models of popular education).

We have a lack of imagination that we have to overcome as to what real activism at branch level can achieve, partly because of a lack of an engagement between national and regional and branch level.

As a union we also need a better strategy about what we are trying to achieve. One size will not fit all. The political narrative in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland is not the political narrative of England. The Scottish situation of a forthcoming referendum on independence means a different political response to that required in opposition to the Tories .We need to start to acknowledge that more directly.

For ‘revolutionary socialists’ writing in Socialist Worker or the Socialist, another demo or another day’s strike action will defeat the coalition. Unfortunately the dynamics of parliamentary elections are against that approach. To achieve political change means changing the votes of several million voters, not in one place but largely in Eastern and Southern England. There are implications in that need serious consideration.

Celebrate our achievements. But it is also wise to consider where we are failing and whether there are changes necessary? We have the tools but need to start putting them to work much more effectively if we are to achieve the progressive change that we seek.