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Pay turmoil in Unison

Unison’s local government sector has been thrown into turmoil following the hijacking of the union’s democratic procedures after last year’s local government pay fiasco. To recap: in 2014 armchair generals committed the union to an undeliverable unsupported, confused pay strategy. The government walked the union into a cul de sac and gloated as industrial action was generally unsupported.

The union negotiators retreated from the cul de sac, snatching a settlement that was poor – but all that was possible given the lack of support for action. The members then voted to accept the deal, with a decisive majority, 64.35 per cent, on a turnout of 19.77 per cent.

That was not acceptable to the ultra-left. They combined with other left variants to call a special conference to overturn the pay deal and the vote of the broader membership. The outcome was a meeting where disaffected delusionists passed innumerable meaningless motions, abusing the concept of “lay members” and seeking to appoint themselves to oversee future disputes. Their true contempt for the membership is underlined by the setting aside of members’ previous ballot decisions in favour of some sort of activists’ collective.

‘The silence and absence of so many branches while surreal orchestrated ploys were played out on the conference floor was palpable.’

The silence and absence of so many branches while surreal orchestrated ploys were played out on the conference floor was palpable. The members have withdrawn from the infantile disorder which presents itself as so-called lay democracy – but the situation will not change until the members take charge.

So pay negotiations are to be reopened. Well, only if the employers agree. And with inflation figures around zero, what will Unison do then? There is no prospect of united action by Unison, Unite and the GMB.

Perhaps there is another agenda – Unison is to have an election for its general secretary later in the year. At least five candidates are promoting themselves, the outright ultra-left and those courting them following on from the disputes in both local government and health.

In the longer term, does the ultra-left view the prospect of the union fragmenting into regionalism, municipalism, localism as a good thing – a way of capturing the assets of the union rather than having a unified national union?

Despite great progress made in Unison in trying to create a truly unified public service union, much of its structure is unfit for purpose, rooted in the past and backward-looking. That is an issue the whole membership is going to have to grapple with.