(picture: Unison bloc at last year’s Manchester demonstration against health cuts)
The Unison union’s annual conference is taking place in Brighton this week. The main themes running through it have been the forthcoming pay strikes and anger at the Labour Party.
But the past two days have also seen a highly unusual rank-and-file revolt over whether a motion on domestic violence proposed by the Unison women’s committee should be debated by the national delegate conference. A decision to rule the motion out of order on Tuesday triggered a storm of criticism and protest on conference floor and across social media.
“It’s unusual for the standing orders committee to challenge a motion from one of Unison’s self-organised groups in this manner,” a conference delegate told rs21. “And it’s even more unusual for delegates (beyond those immediately concerned and the hard left) to vote against a standing orders decision.”
He added: “They said they had legal objections to wording of the motion. Normally that would have been the end of the matter. Instead we had vote after vote to overturn the decision. After four votes standing orders conceded that they would look at the matter again.
“Yesterday they reported back and said they stood by their original decision. Clearly a few arms had been twisted overnight and this time they narrowly won the vote. But delegates were furious about this bureaucratic manoeuvring. People who’ve never been known to challenge the leadership before were up in arms.
“The legal objection was over a line in the motion that said we should start from believing women. The standing orders committee claimed this commitment would expose to union to legal action from members accused of domestic violence. This is despite the very next sentence which says every party to an inquiry has the right to a full and impartial hearing.
“Delegates countered that the motion’s wording had already been agreed at Unison women’s conference and the national executive’s policy committee. The standing orders committee at the women’s conference made no objections. So if there is a legal risk, we’re already exposed to it. Either way the decision makes no sense.
“I work for a children’s charity and this kind of wording and approach is standard practice in child protection – it doesn’t in anyway diminish need to conduct a thorough investigation. This is well established way of addressing issues around domestic violence and family abuse. If Unison is in jeopardy then so is pretty much every council in the country.”
“The motion on domestic violence is a detailed, thoroughly researched and serious policy proposal. It was tabled as the result of a sustained grassroots campaign in Unison’s women’s section, which is by no means a bastion of the hard left.
“Yesterday lunchtime the women’s committee held a fringe meeting on domestic violence with 150 people present. Feelings were running very high and people enthusiastically took up the suggestion that every time a woman spoke they would use the words ‘as a woman, you should believe me when I say… [pause for applause]’. The tactic worked well, and kept on working all afternoon without the levels of applause dropping off.”
“There’s two lessons the left should draw from this. The first is about the politics of oppression and issues such as domestic violence. These are not going away. They are striking a chord and stirring people into questioning how conference works in a way that other issues previously have not.
“The national executive and national officials are also split on this issue – and not on traditional left/right lines. I think it’s a shame that the bulk of the organised far left was absent from the domestic violence fringe meeting. That won’t do.
“This is being driven by real anger at the trivialisation of domestic violence issues – but it also represents a wider restlessness at Unison conference. You see this in the way people talk about the Labour Party – they say ‘Labour should do this’, or ‘Labour mustn’t do that’, not ‘and that’s why you should vote Labour’.
“Something is clearly stirring among Unison delegates that’s reaching way beyond the ‘usual suspects’. The question is how to organise that mutinous spirit so that we don’t simply say the battle will be taken up again next year. We need to drive this issue through our branches as a matter of priority.”
• rs21 will be carrying a longer report from Unison conference next week. You can download our conference leaflet – with articles on UKIP and higher education – here.