‘If the rank and file did that we’d be suspended for disrepute’ – war breaks out in the UK’s biggest union
The Unison left, which won a democratic majority on the union’s national executive and Labour Link committee as well as the Unison presidency, has for months accused the Unison right of manoeuvres and machinations to prevent the new executive from exercising its democratic authority – including the long-term suspension of new president Paul Holmes and a series of refusals to carry out instructions that the UK’s leading labour lawyer said merited instant dismissal for gross misconduct.
The Holmes suspension collapsed late last year and a senior Unison staffer unequivocally apologised for defaming him, but now the left’s Time for Real Change (TRC) group has accused general secretary Christina McAnea and her allies of blocking NEC meetings and withholding union staff who should attend and assist, against the wishes of its elected members. A TRC statement on the group’s website explains:
Statement on NEC Committee meetings
On Wednesday evening [26 January], UNISON’s General Secretary unilaterally issued an instruction to postpone important NEC Committee meetings without the agreement of the elected chairs of those committees. The General Secretary has no power under the UNISON Rulebook to unilaterally stop meetings; this power resides with the elected NEC (Rule D.2.11.9).
The General Secretary instructed UNISON staff not to attend these meetings. Prior to this, an Assistant General Secretary had instructed staff servicing the Finance and Resource Management Committee to leave their duties during the meeting.
The reason for this obstructionism, says the group, is to prevent the NEC voting in measures that would add scrutiny, control and democracy to the union’s financial and legal affairs:
This was due to decisions taken by that Committee, which sought to:
1) add accountability to decisions around staff using UNISON funds for personal legal advice and
2) to provide transparency on the use of UNISON funds for ongoing release time for some NEC members.
In regard to the latter, the Chair of the Finance and Resource Management Committee has been trying for seven months to obtain this information but has been refused access, making scrutiny and challenge on behalf of members impossible.
Had the General Secretary’s instruction been followed by the NEC Staffing Committee, it would not have met to debate proposals which – if agreed by the NEC to be subsequently taken to Conference – would introduce elections for the positions of Assistant General Secretary, Regional Secretary and Head of Service Group as they become vacant.
But the group says its elected members decided to go ahead anyway, despite this de facto and anti-democratic strike by Unison’s right-wing management:
However, elected members of the NEC Staffing Committee decided to proceed with the meeting and to invite relevant staff. All 12 NEC members of the Staffing Committee were present and were able to take decisions to:
1) Agree to take forward proposals on the election of senior positions
2) Agree to permanent funding to make secure the employment of temporary staff who support members with particularly difficult casework, and
3) Agree to a request for funding to employ additional staff to improve oversight of UNISON’s many contracts and to support branches with their procurement.
All NEC members value the contribution made by UNISON staff, but the elected NEC and its Committees must continue to function.
The General Secretary was given the opportunity to withdraw her instruction. So far she has declined to do so. However, NEC meetings must continue to preserve the democracy of our union.
The above episode shows that real change is desperately required in UNISON to create a truly member-led union.
One Unison left figure told Skwawkbox:
Members are beginning to wake up to the news about the real fight that is breaking out in Unison. The General Secretary has instructed her staff not to attend some work meetings with the NEC. This is unofficial strike action to undermine democracy.
If the rank and file did that we would be suspended for bringing the union into disrepute.
Unison’s press office was contacted for comment on the TRC allegations and informed that an article would be published this evening covering them. Not for the first time, no response was received.
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