“Mainstream media coverage has frequently pointed to a turnout of “only” 61% among RCN members, while failing to note that just 53% of eligible UNISON member had replied to the consultation.”
By George Binette
Ballot papers have started to land this week in elections to the National Executive Council (NEC) of Britain’s largest trade union, UNISON. The 1.3-million-member organisation is also one of the Labour Party’s most significant affiliates. With dozens of the 68 NEC seats contested, the stakes are high in a union sharply polarised on a range of strategic questions. Its full-time apparatus around General Secretary Christina McAnea acts as a bulwark for the Starmer leadership inside Labour, while the outgoing executive has had a narrow left-wing majority, primarily grouped around “Time for Real Change” initiative, which emerged from the 2020 campaign to succeed Dave (now Baron) Prentis as the union’s general secretary.
UNISON representative on Labour’s NEC Mark Ferguson abstained on the Starmer faction’s motion to bar Jeremy Corbyn from standing as a party candidate despite his long-standing UNISON membership, dating from his time as an organiser for NUPE, one of the three partners to the 1993 merger which created UNISON. Similarly, there is nothing to suggest UNISON officialdom acted to support this year’s union president, Andrea Egan, when she faced expulsion from the Labour Party on the flimsiest of pretexts last November despite more than a decade of Labour activism in Bolton.
A Tale of Two Ballots
The union’s NEC elections, which run until Friday 19 May, come in the wake of UNISON members across the NHS following official recommendations and voting accept the Government’s slightly improved offer. That proposal still amounted to a substantial real pay cut for hundreds of thousands of NHS staff covered by the Agenda for Change framework.
The union’s Health Care Executive remains under the control of supporters of the McAnea leadership and after what some participants described as a “heated debate” it gave its blessing to the deal struck with Health Secretary Steve Barclay in mid-March. Nearly three-quarters of those voting said “yes” to the deal after an exceptionally aggressive sales job from UNISON HQ with messages on the union’s website and distributed by email suggesting that a “no” vote would simply mean the Government taking any improvements off the table.
In sharp contrast, members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), an organisation which for most of its 106-year existence has explicitly banned strike action, had voted by a 54% to 46% margin to reject the proposed settlement. The RCN’s leadership had also pushed hard for acceptance, but its members had actually been in the vanguard of industrial action in the NHS between December last year and this February. Mainstream media coverage has frequently pointed to a turnout of “only” 61% among RCN members, while failing to note that just 53% of eligible UNISON member had replied to the consultation.
While UNISON members in the NHS had consistently voted by large majorities in favour of strike action last autumn, average turnout across England was just under 35%, so significantly below the 50% (+1) threshold dictated by the Tories’ 2016 Trade Union Act. As a result, strikes by UNISON members took place almost exclusively in the Ambulance Service Trusts across four days with only small pockets of hospital-based staff taking any action. On the one hand, most UNISON members covered by the pay deal made no financial sacrifice during the dispute, while on the other they had never experienced the enthusiastic support from much of the public enjoyed by RCN-organised nurses on their picket lines.
Tory Divide and Rule
The other general unions – GMB and Unite – with substantial memberships among ancillary NHS staff have yet to conclude their ballots on the offer. Both unions’ ballots close on Friday 28 April. Tory strategists and some hard-line elements in NHS senior management (and Wes Streeting, no doubt!) are hoping that both will accept, so leaving the RCN isolated unless it proves willing to co-ordinate future action with junior doctors in the BMA. It is still by no means clear that the NHS Staff Council will ratify the deal.
While GMB officials have backed the Government’s proposal, Unite has not made any recommendation to its members and rejection seems a very real possibility. The union has already called for a further two-day action at the start of May at London’s Guys and St Thomas’ hospitals, and across the Yorkshire Ambulance Service, coinciding with the next RCN stoppage.
UNISON: Are the Times Still A-Changin’?
The past two years have often been frustrating for the NEC majority in UNISON with some bitter internal battles over constitutional change. Nonetheless, the outgoing NEC has managed to double daily strike pay to £50, which is now available from the first day of action. Previously, members were only eligible for any pay from union funds after striking for at least four days. The “Time for Real Change” representatives have pursued an agenda that emphasises solidarity with workers in struggle and publicly supporting an excellent statement from the Fire Brigades Union in defence of refugees.
“Time for Real Change” has received support from key figures in the Socialist Campaign Group, particularly Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. For anyone committed to the defence and resurgence of the Labour left a victory for its slate really does matter. Its representatives on UNISON’s Labour Link committee have fought a rear-guard action against the party’s rightward lurch and the dramatic erosion of internal democracy.
- George Binette is currently Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP’s Trade Union Liaison Officer. A retired UNISON member, who was secretary of the union’s Camden local government branch between 2009 and ’17. This is the first of his monthly “The Union Link” column for Labour Outlook.
- You can find here the full slate of 54 “Time for Real Change” candidates standing in the current UNISON elections. Those in full membership of UNISON as of mid-January this year are eligible to vote between now and 19 May.
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