Unison conference: the witchhunt

10:28 am - June 17th 2008

by Kate Belgrave    

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Excellent chance of it all hitting the fan at Unison conference today: The four left-leaning union activists that the union bureaucracy is presently trying to expel are holding a special protest meeting at midday. It’s a meeting which anybody who is anybody in Unison has a substantial stake in.

The union bureaucracy’s witchhunt of these four respected officers is easily the biggest issue at conference this year. There are those who think that the union’s future is written in this battle. Either left or the right in the union must win.

A bit of background for you: in the kind of extraordinarily risky, go-for-broke, ill-thought-out sort of move by which Unison’s increasingly desperate bureaucracy is beginning to distinguish itself, the bureaucracy is disciplining – and trying to expel – branch secretaries Glenn Kelly (Bromley local government and Unison NEC member), Onay Kasab (Greenwich local government), Suzanne Muna (Housing corporation) and Hackney branch chair Brian Debus. These four are popular, effective and respected Unison activists who have been around – and working hard for members at branch level – for a very long while. (Their stopthewitchhunt website is here).

Ostensibly, their crime against the union was to criticise the union’s famously rigid standing orders committee last year for throwing out controversial motions presented by local branches for debate at Unison’s 2007 national conference. The standing orders committee ruled out about a third of the motions put forward for conference debate last year (word is that this year, about half of all branch motions have been ruled out).

It was perhaps no surprise that the motions that hit the trash were ones that called for conference to debate controversial topics like the union’s continued funding of the Labour party, the election (rather than appointment) of union officials, and better branch freedoms to organise industrial action.

Glenn Kelly has been fairly clear on the reasons why he’s drawn such lightening: ‘We dared raise the question of whether trade union officials should be elected or not. Why shouldn’t those at the top of the union – who live very handsomely off our subs – be elected by our union? Unfortunately, they’re frightened of that debate. Those who earn a living from our union fear change. They rule and dictate when and where our members can go on strike, whether a pay deal is good or bad or should be accepted. Too many of them have never had to face an election in their lives.’

At the 2007 conference, then, the Bromley, Greenwich, Housing corporation and Hackney branches circulated a leaflet that called for the hijacked motions to be returned to the conference agenda. To make the point about being silenced and ignored by the standing orders committee, they put the well-known ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ illustration of three monkeys at the top of the leaflet – that much-used picture that has one monkey with its hands over its eyes, one with its hands over its ears, and one with its hand clapped over its mouth.

As Brian Debus has observed, the leaflet went down very well with union members of all shapes, sizes and hues (might seem an odd comment, but you’ll see in a second how that becomes relevant). Indeed, branch reps from around the country asked for more copies. The leaflet struck a chord. Union members were furious that so many branch motions on critical topics had been struck from the conference agenda.

Clearly, the union bureaucracy was aware of the groundswell. Three days into conference, it came up with a way to put the leaflet and its authors out of circulation: the graphic of the monkeys was said to be racist (the standing orders committee chair is black).

And so – to cut a long story short for now – the whole thing exploded. Senior officers of the four branches that had contributed to the design of the leaflet suddenly found themselves accused of racism in front of the thousands who attended conference. And it was thus the union put itself in a position to launch a formal investigation into the leading officers at those branches. (Subsequently, the investigation dropped the racism angle – it had to admit that it had found no racist intent. I’ll expand on this in future posts). I understand that the four branch officers now are being investigated for producing a leaflet that attacked the decisions of the standing orders committee.

So – will it be that by making the decision to attack these branch officers in this way, the union bureaucracy has started the war that leads to its own demise? Certainly, union members are up in arms, and are demanding that the bureaucracy explains itself.

It is no coincidence that the four union branch officers facing expulsion for producing that leaflet are members of the Socialist party – a party that has regularly called for Unison to break its link with Labour. It is surely no coincidence either that charges against Hackney branch secretary Matthew Waterfall – who was originally in the firing-line with Kelly, Kasab, Muna and Debus – were dropped. Waterfall was the only member of that group who did not belong to a left political party.

And one interesting aside…

Word comes through one’s various gossip channels that Unison bureaucrats are now purely terrified that the crazy pinkos who make up the London activist scene will descend on Bournemouth to humiliate Unison General secretary Dave Prentis when he takes the floor during conference to address the union masses.

They’re particularly worried that Bromley and Greenwich members will arrive by the coachload to speak up for their branch secretaries – those members being especially cheesed at the bureaucracy’s decision to target Glenn Kelly and Onay Kasab for expulsion, as described above.

A helpful mole tells us that from this point on, the policy is that applications for visitors’ passes will be vetted closely by trusted union toadies – an unusual development, it seems.

Until now, interested parties could turn up at the conference centre and ask for a visitor’s pass with a view to sitting in the visitors’ gallery for an hour or two and listening to conference debates. Even I managed to get one.

Now – I trust I have this right – the names of all applicants for visitor passes will be examined for Known Commies, and handed to a strike force on those occasions when the wrong answer chunters out of the printer. Times are clearly rather tense. So goes a witchhunt…

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About the author
Kate Belgrave is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. She is a New Zealander who moved to the UK eight years ago. She was a columnist and journalist at the New Zealand Herald and is now a web editor. She writes on issues like public sector cuts, workplace disputes and related topics. She is also interested in abortion rights, and finding fault with religion. Also at: Hangbitching.com and @hangbitch
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