1.3 million members of the public sector union UNISON have begun voting for a new general secretary. UNISON member Sam O’Brien writes in a personal capacity about the election and why he is backing rank and file candidate Paul Holmes.
UNISON is the largest public sector union, and the question of its leadership and direction is an important one for the whole labour movement.
Dave Prentis, the current general secretary, announced he was standing down on 13 July. His 20-year leadership of the union has been characterised by a partnership model that undermined resistance to the attacks of the Blair years, and by chronic inaction (despite radical rhetoric) against Tory austerity under Cameron, May and Johnson. Activists who have tried to challenge this approach have often been marginalised or witch-hunted out of the union.
Time and again, union members have been built up to expect a fight on wages and pensions, only to find the rug pulled out from underneath such action at the crucial moment. Despite hours of fighting speeches and soundbites at UNISON conferences over the years there has been no serious coordinated fight to protect services, jobs or terms and conditions. That is why it is crucial that socialists campaign for a general secretary who is not tied to this status quo.
The status quo candidates
There are two candidates in the election whose recent background is within the Prentis bureaucracy: Christina McAnea and Roger McKenzie.
Christina McAnea is one of UNISON’s assistant general secretaries, responsible for bargaining. As a former Communist Party member who used to sell the Morning Star and who supports Palestine and trans rights, it would be wrong to describe her as a ‘right-wing’ candidate. However, her candidacy does represent continuity with the Prentis years. She has never openly criticised any of the mistakes that UNISON have made, and has no alternative vision for the direction of the union.
Roger McKenzie is also an assistant general secretary. Before working for UNISON he held a number of positions within the labour movement including as TUC Race Equality Officer and as constituency secretary for Islington North Labour Party. In this post he worked closely with Jeremy Corbyn, and his campaign for general secretary is backed by Corbyn and Diane Abbott. This close relationship is one reason why many on the left are arguing to support his campaign.
When Corbyn was suspended from the Labour Party recently, McKenzie, unlike McAnea, was quick to support him, saying:
‘I have been proud to stand beside Jeremy Corbyn over the last 3 decades. I have stood beside him on picket lines and on anti-racist demonstrations and I am proud to stand by his side again today. I always stand by my friends.
I remain proud to have his support and endorsement for UNISON general secretary.
Jeremy’s work on anti racism and internationalism is exemplary and I will always call him a friend and comrade.’
McKenzie’s main campaign pledge is to increase the number of activists within the union to 100,000.
UNISON does need more lay activists. In most branches the activist base has been depleted, partly as a result of the way the union has been run. If your focus is on doing shoddy deals from the top rather than fighting employers, who needs activists?
McKenzie also pledges to allow UNISON’s self-organised groups (such as its women’s groups and BAME groups) play a more central role within the union.
He has recently criticised Keir Starmer for abstaining on the Tory Spycops Bill, saying:
‘Under my leadership UNISON will not blindly finance the Labour Party from our members’ hard-earned money, if it refuses to stand up for us and ignores the policies our members back.’
Beyond this, however, it is not clear what he would change about the way UNISON operates, or what criticisms, if any, he has of how UNISON has been organised under Prentis. He has been in post for nearly 10 years, and has never publicly voiced opposition to anything Prentis has done.
Paul Holmes: a rank-and-file challenger
Paul Holmes, on the other hand does have a different plan for the union. Currently the elected branch secretary of Kirklees UNISON, he wants to generalise the campaigning attitude that has led to success in his own branch. Kirklees UNISON has a fantastic record of fighting back against redundancies and cuts to terms and conditions over the years, and as a result, has retained a high membership. Most recently Paul has led a campaign against racism and bullying towards refuse collection workers.
As a socialist and a Labour Party member, Holmes has condemned the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn and called for him to be reinstated as soon as possible.
If elected he has pledged to increase the amount of funding local branches receive from members’ subs from 25%, as it currently stands, to 50%. This would give branches more resources to organise locally. This is more important than ever because, after years of privatisation, many branches represent members in dozens of different companies, rather than in two or three main employers as would have been the case in the past.
Holmes also wants to sell off UNISON’s two headquarters, and use the £100 million from the sale to fund union campaigns. If elected he has pledged to stay on the same salary as he is on now as branch secretary, rather than accept the full general secretary’s salary of £138,000.
He has consistently criticised Prentis’ failure to lead a fightback, and has stood by activists who have been persecuted for doing the same.
Holmes’ candidacy is garnering enthusiasm from a broad layer of the active membership: he has over 100 nominations from UNISON branches. He is being supported by former shadow chancellor John McDonnell.
Holmes was also nominated as the candidate for the UNISON Action Broad Left group, and as such, has a strong claim to be seen as the main candidate for left-wing rank-and-file activists in this election. He won out, in the UNISON Action Broad Left selection process, against Hugo Pierre, a Socialist Party member who is the Schools and Children’s Services Officer for Camden branch, though Pierre has decided to stand as a candidate anyway.
Left unity and ‘splitting the vote’
Whenever there is a general secretary election in a major union, there is usually an argument among supporters of the various left candidates about the importance of not ‘splitting the vote’ and thus allowing the status quo candidate to win because the left vote is shared between two or more candidates.
Of course, this possibility could have been avoided in this election by adopting a single transferable vote (STV) system, so that members get to vote for their first- and second preference- candidate. When STV was proposed at the NEC, Holmes and his supporters were in favour. Both McAnea and McKenzie’s supporters voted against it.
Another telling moment came when UNISON’s national executive council (NEC) voted recently, in two rounds of voting, on which general secretary candidate to support. In the first round, McAnea and Holmes drew for first place, with 22 votes each; in the second round, between McAnea and Holmes only, McKenzie’s supporters either voted for McAnea or abstained, meaning that she won by 29 votes to 26 with 5 abstentions. If McKenzie’s backers had voted for Holmes, he would have gone into the election with NEC support to lead the union; in the event, that advantage goes to McAnea.
When it came to the crunch, both on the issue of who to nominate, and on adopting STV in the union-wide vote, McKenzie’s supporters backed the status quo. They prioritized preserving the unity of the existing bureaucracy over supporting the best opportunity for a challenge to it.
Building the base, not the bureaucracy
Ultimately, having a left-wing union leadership will not, in itself, lead to the victories we need to see to transform our workplaces and society. The key to that is developing powerful workplace organisation. Sometimes those victories will need to be won against the wishes of even the most left-wing union leaders, who at times will want to compromise with the government and employers. But having a real change in the leadership of UNISON would offer new opportunities for activists to build the sort of workplace power we need to fight back against this vicious Tory government. For this reason, if you are a member of UNISON, you should use your vote and your voice to support Paul Holmes.
Voting began on 28th October and UNISON members should be getting their ballot papers soon. The poll closes on 27th November at 5pm. To be sure of having your vote counted, it should be posted by 24th November at the latest. If you have not received a ballot paper by 10th November there will be a voting helpline you can contact.
Links can be found here for the various social media pages and resources you can use to support the Paul Holmes campaign.