This week, Unison – the UK’s biggest union and a major Labour party donor – announced Christina McAnea had won its general secretary election and will become the union’s first woman leader. While hailed in the press as a progressive victory, this is a disappointing result for those on the left who had hoped to see the union – and perhaps Labour – shift direction.
Unison could play a huge part in transforming our society. As the predominant union in local government, healthcare, social care, and a number of other sectors vital to public welfare and social reproduction, its members could be extraordinarily powerful if supported to organise themselves and make use of the leverage they hold.
The 20-year tenure of Dave Prentis, the union’s outgoing general secretary, has been marked by conservatism and a reluctance to tackle many of the union’s historic problems. Sadly, his successor – a close ally – appears to be cut from the same cloth. Even during the election, with votes to win, McAnea failed to support calls for the union to back a wildly popular campaign for a public sector pay rise led by NHS workers. She has surrounded herself with many of the key personnel from the Prentis era. When it comes to the Labour party, it is expected that McAnea, like Prentis, will favour a return to the centre.
Prentis would no doubt claim his leadership has been good for the union: Unison’s membership grew marginally more than other big unions such as Unite in this period. However, it’s worth looking more closely at Unison’s recent history to understand what opportunities have been missed, where the union might be headed, and how the left needs to intervene.
A union in decline.
In recent decades, the public sector has come under a sustained assault from successive governments, and workers in many sectors Unison represents have seen deteriorating conditions, extensive job cuts and the rise of privatisation and outsourcing.
Some branches and regions have managed to buck these trends through workplace organising. Unison Scotland and Unison Northern Ireland, through several decades of strike action, have largely held the line against waves of NHS privatisation that have afflicted the rest of the UK. In Newcastle in 2002, one branch beat back outsourcing with a successful public campaign for a remodelled version of services based on principles of a democratically-reformed public sector and worker democracy. More recently, health workers in Wigan struck for nine days in 2018 and defeated plans to outsource support staff across five hospitals, while in 2019 hundreds of home care workers in Birmingham defeated cuts to their jobs and pay by defying their Labour council and organising sustained strike action and running a worker-led propaganda offensive to shame the councillors driving the cuts.
However, powerful local and regional campaigns that could have become templates for a national fightback have rarely been supported by Unison’s risk-averse leadership. In 2009, the union’s local government members faced pay cuts across the country. Strikes took place in strong branches and regions, but the union failed to implement a national strategy, and many less well-organised branches struggled and lost their disputes. Had the union acted, perhaps it could have changed the course of how the government handled the crisis. Likewise, in 2011, public sector unions began to rally to resist threats to pension cuts. After a short burst of enthusiasm from Unison’s leadership, the union largely dropped out of the dispute on a national level, leaving other public sector unions to battle on alone.
What’s more, strikes for demands that go beyond pay or terms and conditions have frequently been discouraged on grounds of potential legal consequences, and there has been a lack of ambition that has resulted in failure to stand up to the reshaping of the public sector against workers’ interests. In 2014, care workers in Doncaster faced a 35% pay cut after they were outsourced to private-provider Care UK, but saw this threat off after a 90-day strike, and went back into work with a pay rise. Unison, however, made no attempt to use the momentum generated in Doncaster to develop a national campaign to take on big care providers nationwide in order to transform the industry.
These failures aren’t Unison’s leaders’ alone. Many lay activists in key positions within the union learnt caution from their experiences in the 1980s and 1990s, and may have failed to understand the need to shift gears and go on the offensive in recent years as the small gains that could be made from a more conservative, social partnership approach (often by agreeing to dodgy PFI deals and suchlike) began to diminish in the 2010s. That being said, the union’s leadership should have played a much stronger role in fostering a more confident and combative approach.
The union could have learned the lessons of its counterparts internationally. Both the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) across the Atlantic and the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU) in Ireland have attempted much more ambitious campaigns in the last few decades. The SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign saw a wholesale transformation of conditions for some of the most precarious workers in the US, and hundreds of thousands of workers joined the union.
A competent and well-resourced multi-year campaign for a basic universal contract in social care could have reshaped the sector in the UK and guaranteed a living wage for all. A properly-organised series of NHS strikes at a national level could have driven outsourcing out of our health service. With this sort of action, the union might now stand at 2 million members and hundreds of thousands of active reps. Instead, activists report rep numbers have nearly halved over the last 20 years – a dire marker of how the union’s campaigning capacity has been neglected.
Lessons for the left.
Three candidates ran on leftwing platforms in the recent general secretary election – Paul Holmes, Roger McKenzie and Hugo Pierre – against McAnea, who was widely perceived as a continuity candidate. She won the election with 63,900 votes (47.7%), followed by Paul Holmes on 45,220 (33.76%), Roger McKenzie on 14,450 (10.79%) and Hugo Pierre on 10,382 (7.75%), with a turnout of just 10% of the union’s membership.
While the general secretary post certainly isn’t everything – and it’s likely all of the left candidates would have faced substantial difficulties reshaping the union had they won – the left’s failure to win is nonetheless a huge loss. The left can’t afford to congratulate itself on a higher than usual vote share for the most successful of the candidates – Holmes – or on having denied McAnea a majority vote. It must reflect on this defeat, and prepare to organise robustly over the coming years to transform the union.
The first lesson that many have already drawn from this loss – particularly for its relevance to the upcoming Unite general secretary election – is the foolishness of running three left candidates against one rightwinger. McAnea won the election without winning a majority of votes cast, even despite the low turnout. Had all three left campaigns rallied behind one candidate, they might have defeated McAnea – notwithstanding the fact the candidates may have drawn from different bases of support.
Second, and frankly of more importance, however, was the left’s inability to increase turnout significantly due to a lack of organisation at the union’s base, which is in part a symptom of the declining rep numbers. This will only become more of a problem come the next general secretary election, when McAnea’s vote share may benefit from her incumbency. Socialist and progressive activists, where possible with support from more progressive regional leaderships, must plan out a long-term strategy for building a better-coordinated and more active rank-and-file.
There are many success stories to learn from here. The Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) in the Chicago Teachers Union transformed their union by building up a new layer of activists through action and agitating to improve their livelihoods and the learning conditions of their students. Leading activists within CORE have described this approach as “doing the union’s job”. A programme of rank-and-file-led network-building, organising and combative campaigning along these lines is sorely needed in UK unions in order to overcome organisational conservatism and inertia, and campaign infrastructure from the various left general secretary campaigns could be turned towards this use.
Third, Unison also has democratic structures through which lay members can push for greater national support for local campaigns (such as ‘service sector committees’) and also influence other terrains such as the Labour party (‘Labour link committees’). These are mainly controlled by the right, and are sufficiently complex that there needs to be a serious approach to educating and organising a wide layer of members on how they can be used and how they can be taken over.
Lastly, once the pandemic subsides, the public sector may well face further potential cuts. However, after the heroic work of health and social care workers, alongside other workers across the public sector, there will also be an unprecedented opportunity to campaign for improved conditions and a renewal of our public services. While McAnea may again refuse to back health workers, for the left, this chance to support and scale-up struggles must not be missed.
Charlie Macnamara is a trade union activist.