Can UNISON become a member led union?

Simon Deville reports:

Cleaning staff at the University of London have proved a model of organisation and have forced significant concessions from their employers over the last three years. The overwhelmingly South American workforce have shown that it is possible to organise effectively in private companies with a largely immigrant workforce of part-time staff. However they have increasingly felt that their union Unison has let them down, has failed to support them, and is actually holding back their struggle.

Between February and July 2011, Senate House Unison organised a recruitment drive among the cleaners which drove membership up from 18 to over 100. By far the best recruiters were among the cleaners themselves.

Photo: Amanda bentham

Photo: Amanda Bentham

In September 2011 the cleaners organised wildcat strike action which won them £6000 in pay owed them by BBW. The same month they secured a recognition agreement with the company and a commitment from the University of London to pay the London Living Wage a year earlier than previously promised. Following a series of lively and very loud protests the London Living Wage was eventually implemented for all BBW staff at the University of London in July 2012.

Having achieved the London Living Wage and union recognition, the cleaners decided that their next step should be to demand the right for sick pay, the same holiday entitlement as staff directly employed by the university, and the right to a pension. They launched the “3 Cosas” campaign in conjunction with a number of students and produced a video in support of their campaign. Although the video had nothing but praise for Unison and the role it had played, the response from some of the branch and regional officials was to try to block the campaign. Activists were shocked by the response and initially wanted to leave Unison at that point. However they stayed in the branch and after some negotiations the branch formally supported the 3 Cosas campaign.

A number of cleaners and their supporters became increasingly dismayed about the union from this point onwards. When the cleaners’ reps approached Balfour Beatty to negotiate around 3 Cosas the employers said that they were negotiating with branch and regional officials, but when they approached Unison, their officials denied that they were having discussions.

The cleaners’ reps and their supporters came to the conclusion that the only way they would get support from the branch would be to take over the branch leadership, so they stood a slate for the branch elections at their AGM. After a significantly higher turnout than usual the London region refused to release the election results. Eventually the London region said that they would re-run the election citing rather spurious minor problems with the election. Many of the activists said that they felt patronised and humiliated by the  way Unison was treating them, and that they did not believe that the union would ever allow them to take over the branch. At the beginning of April they called a meeting open to all union members and decided that they would leave Unison and join the syndicalist union, the Industrial Workers of Great Britain (IWGB).

It is not at all clear that this will be in their long term interest. Contrary to their belief that Unison would never let them run the branch, it seems that the reason Unison is taking such drastic action was precisely because they were losing control of the branch to a group of left wing activists.

Now there will be a weakened Unison branch and an IWGB branch that isn’t recognised (it remains to be seen if all the cleaners will join the IWGB or just some of them), and even if it gains recognition with IWGB it will have little influence over the University of London management, which is who they will have to negotiate with to win the demands of 3 Cosas campaign.

Whether the cleaners are making a tactical mistake or not, it is clear that the real cause of this split is the control freakery that is increasingly dominating the union. Far too much of our resources are used to block activities or to prevent us even discussing action that might potentially be deemed not legal or might upset a perceived relationship Unison has with the employers. If the union is to keep its members and to grow, it needs to become a genuinely member led union.

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