"This is my piece on the UNISON Active blog about the current leadership of the NEC. Sometimes it’s just important to nail your colours to the mast and I am dismayed, angry and yes, really disappointed at what is going on and also at the disingenuous way it is being portrayed by TFRC.
I won’t lie - it has been a profoundly depressing experience attending meetings of the UNISON National Executive Council (NEC) this year.
Just when the pay, conditions and safety of women, many of them low paid, who make up almost 80% of our members, and who have been the heroes of Covid, should have been centre stage at NEC meetings, we have seen the unedifying spectacle of our Time for Real Change (TFRC) leadership instead spending hours debating internal wrangling.
Instead of promoting equality and diversity, TFRC has replaced most committee chairs with white men. Instead of debating and confronting the challenges of building confidence in the Local Government pay ballot, we have had to sit through engineered attacks on staff and the undermining of our own democratic processes for changing rules.
Despite TFRC’s fine words like “member led” and “union democracy”, I cannot for the life of me see where the interests of our members are being served. Their stated aims may seem to be something we can all sign up to, but what I am witnessing is the self-serving and damaging action behind that rhetoric.
We all want better pay for our public service workers; and better funding for the NHS, local government and other public services. We all want a member led union, with greater lay democracy, an end to discrimination towards all equalities groups and to challenge the hostile environment for our migrant workers and refugees. We all want a more equal, socially just society. I and most of the activists I know have been working for that for most of our adult lives through our union and political activism.
However, look beyond the snappy catch phrases, and you realise that you don’t actually know what it is TFRC want to do in our union to achieve these ends for our members. That, to them, a “lay led” union doesn’t mean respecting the rules and policies that come from the National Delegate Conference, voted on by our lay membership. That it doesn’t mean finding out what our members want and finding ways to organise and engage with them in partnership with the elected General Secretary and the staff.
I have been an NEC member for almost five years. Like others of my Scotland NEC colleagues, I am unaligned with any faction. We have challenged the previous NEC leadership, and we have won, through argument, NEC agreement to look at some of the processes to make them more transparent. All the while I have had the interests of the members in Scotland at the forefront of my mind, especially women members and especially the low paid women who have been on the frontline of dealing with COVID.
When the leadership of the NEC changed, I hoped that we would see some changes for the better; that it might allow for a more open, transparent and inclusive leadership, where everyone’s contribution was valued and where we could all work together for the benefit of our members, finding ways to genuinely engage all our members with their union.
We had our new General Secretary, Christina McAnea, and despite the hype from some, I am clear that she is not a “continuity” leader. I had hoped that the NEC could work in genuine partnership with Christina and the staff, to address the criticisms of the past, a process which, in my view had already begun.
I was doomed to bitter disappointment. Things are going from bad to worse, with most of the same tactics so vehemently criticised by the TFRC in the past, now embraced by the new faction. We see the same building of power bases and cliques, excluding those with expertise who don’t align themselves with the TFRC faction.
We see attempts to undermine the very lay democracy that TFRC purports to espouse, with the passing of motions which two out of three legal opinions advise are in breach of UNISON rules; and worst of all, we see the bullying and harassment of staff. We have become like the very employers we most criticise, with constant threats to staff of being sued for non-compliance.
So although the rhetoric has been all about getting back to being a member led union, there is precious little evidence that the “members” referred to are more than the TFRC members on the NEC. There is precious little evidence that the TFRC faction is making any attempt to start where our members are and build from there. Our very poor turnout in the Local Government pay ballot would surely tell us that.
Those of us who have followed the outcome of ballots in the years since the latest (anti-) Trade Union Act know that smaller, targeted ballots have a much higher chance of meeting the 50% threshold for strike action. We know that we are still a long way from building members’ confidence for wide-scale action, particularly after two years of COVID. We know that members care about pay, that they are angry, but also that many are not in a place to vote for strikes or to trust in collective action. These are arguments still to be won by patient organising and engagement.
What we need is an organising agenda that is inclusive of the whole of the leadership including those with different affiliations or none and in partnership with the General Secretary and staff. There is such excellent work done by staff to further UNISON’s policies agreed at NDC and huge amounts of knowledge and expertise amongst both staff and lay members.
But that is not what is happening and it is a massive opportunity missed. What I see is the NEC lay leadership pushing its own agenda because it can. What I am witnessing is much worse than what went before, especially when you look at its treatment of the staff and its cavalier attitude to our union’s rule book.
I don’t know who said “Power corrupts but absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Was it one of George Orwell’s pigs? Anyway it feels to me that this is what we are seeing here.
Instead of taking the opportunity to engage with the whole of the NEC to make the arguments for what they are trying to achieve and how it will benefit our members; instead of listening to dissenting voices and countering them with coherent arguments and genuine debate, TFRC has chosen to railroad through decisions by strength of numbers.
It’s both arrogant and divisive. It makes no effort to take the rest of us with them and it leaves us feeling powerless to represent our members’ interests. That has never happened before, and when it is the self-described “left” faction that is taking this approach, you have to ask whose interests they are serving.