Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Discord in Unison

GORDON Brown and David Cameron are sparring over who will cut spending on public services, though both know the billions thrown at the banks will have to be recouped from the public, and there are bound to be job losses. Both are championing privatisation, even though the public is having to subsidise it. Union leaders have seemed oblivious to the widespread working-class disillusionment with Labour, and indeed, with parliament.

So some of my friends were excited recently when Dave Prentis, general secretary of the public service union Unison, said public sector workers support for the Labour Party had collapsed, and members were tired of Labour biting the hand that feeds it. Unison, with members working in local government and health services, is the Labour Party's second-biggest donor.

Addressing delegates at the union's annual conference in Brighton, Prentis warned that union money would not back MPs who voted for privatisation, and suggested that the union’s £1 million campaign fund to support the party at the next general election was also under threat unless it changed direction on policy. He warned there would be no more blank cheques, as Labour in office “had let the billionaires, the bankers and the private profiteers call the shots”.

That's good stuff, though threatening to withhold the union's generous funding is not the same as raising the need for a left-wing alternative, as some young comrades seem mistakenly to imagine. I'm old enough to remember that one of the unions which formed Unison was the old National Association of Local Government Officers (NALGO), which was not affiliated to Labour anyway, and some of its higher paid members in both council and health service management were never your typical Labour voter.

But coming up to date, assuming Dave Prentis' justified warning to Labour signals determination to fight its pro-capitalist, privatising policies, with the union's workplace muscle accompanied by political clout; is Unison geared up for such a fight? Defending jobs and public services requires mobilising the enthusiasm of every union member. And as every union member in hospitals and local services knows, it also needs the solidarity, understanding and support of other working people who are the users of your services.

Last weekend I went to the conference of the National Shop Stewards Network, and listened to speakers from the strike committee at Lindsey Oil Refinery, and the cleaners' fight at London School of Oriental and African Studies. John Maguire, Unite convenor at Visteon in Belfast, spoke, and so did Rob Williams, who has won reinstatement at Linamar in Swansea. Brian Caton, general secretary of the Prison Officers Association, was there, and so was John McInally, vice president of the PCS union whose members mainly work in the civil service. Otherwise it was mainly a rank-and-file gathering, and I was pleased to hear Clara Osagiede again, speaking about the struggle of cleaners on London Underground for decent treatment in a supposedly civilised society. This was a conference of workers from the grass roots, reporting from the front lines.

Aiming to unite workers from different unions and industries, the National Shop Stewards Network adopted a clause at its very beginning pledging that it will not interfere in the internal affairs of any individual trade union. Some people were grumbling about this assurance a while back, saying it stopped them criticising union leaders, but I argued it was so union officialdom would have no excuse to oppose the National Shop Stewards Network by claiming it undermined or usurped the authority of the union.

I was wrong to think that would work. Some union officials evidently need no excuse, specifically those of Unison. This is what they told their branches this year:

Constitutional matters – National Shop Stewards’ Network

Some UNISON branches may have been notified of a national conference taking place on 27 June 2009.

UNISON is not affiliated to the convening organisation - which has interfered repeatedly in internal UNISON matters.

UNISON rules & the Democracy in UNISON guidelines make clear that support should be given to external organisations only if the union is affiliated to the outside organisation or its activities are in line with UNISON aims and objectives.

Therefore, no UNISON funds or resources should be used in promoting the NSSN or facilitating attendance at events convened by the organisation.

On November 1, 2006, a Unison member called Tony Staunton, secretary of the union's City of Plymouth branch and a delegate on Plymouth Trades Union Council, set off to London with a delegation of south-west area trades unionists to take part in a lobby of Parliament over the National Health Service. On the same day, at 11 am, knowing Bro.Staunton would be away, a team of senior officials went to the Unison offices in Plymouth Civic Centre. There they downloaded information on computers, questioned the branch administrator and treasurer, and took away all records and financial documents.

Tony was contacted in London, and told he must hand over his laptop and home computer the next day. He had to explain that these contained personal files and software that was not the union's property, including his children's Windows XP accounts. The equipment had been given to him in lieu of honoraria for doing union work. He was willing to co-operate if the officials wanted to check the computers in his presence.

All this followed a complaint to the General Secretary of Unison, alleging that a 2-sided A4 colour newsletter of the UNISON UNITED Left South West, which contained Tony Staunton's mobile phone number, had apparently been printed using union resources outside of the union’s Rules.

It was like the employers at the worst, if not a police state. As if sending three officials to investigate was not enough, the union also sought legal advice to get its hands on those computers. Who was making wrong use of union funds? In the end, after a six months suspension, Bro. Staunton was found not to have committed most of the things alleged against him. But he was expelled from the union.

Unison activist Tony Staunton expelled after 23 years in the union


Tony Staunton: Expelled from the union for reading a leaflet.

From the South-West to the North-East. Yunus Bakhsh was at the NSSN conference on Saturday.
Yunus, a staff nurse with a 23-year career, was suspended from his job with Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Trust in 2006. A disciplinary hearing was held in his absence, over anonymous allegations of bullying, even though a doctor had certified Yunus was suffering from stress. Then a year ago he was sacked.

Yunus might have expected backing from his union, Unison. He had served on the union's national executive and on its health service group executive. But Unison suspended him too, stopping him from using his union office, and taking away computers and records. Later he was to face charges concerning expenses, phone calls, and misuse of the computer for political purposes. A dossier on him included allegations of threatening phone calls to people who had made complaints, break-ins, and smashed windows. Strangely, nobody had gone to the police over these serious matters.

While he was suspended from work, Yunus Bakhsh had time to think about who might have made the complaints against him. A friend introduced him to Facebook, where he was startled to find that Kerry Cafferty, a colleague who had given evidence against him, had "friends" who were known members of the British National Party and other far-Right groups. Cafferty's husband Peter was Unison chair of health, regional auditor and Labour link officer.

Yunus also discovered the Stormfront website, where he found racists and neo-Nazis discussing him and his activities in Tyne and Wear Anti-Fascist Action and other political causes, as well as Unison. In October 2005 someone calling themself 'Northern Flame' asked for "real and substantiated dirt on this nasty piece of work of immigrant stock". The following year a 'Bob Blatchford' wrote: "Just had it on good authority that Yunus Bakhsh was sacked for BULLYING fellow workers! On January 28 another contributor discssed why the Unison branch had been put in administration. They seemed well-informed on the allegations against Yunus - more so than he was, as he had not been officially informed yet.

In January this year, having previously written to Dave Prentis about Kerry Cafferty, Yunus Bakhsh provided the union with evidence about her membership of racist Facebook groups, and about the far-Right seeming far too well-informed on Unison matters. He was told that Cafferty had resigned from the union, and it has nothing against her husband. Presumably the NHS Trust bosses, whose 35 per cent rises Yunus Bakhsh had had denounced, have nothing against Peter Cafferty either. As chair of the staff side he agreed to ending concessionary Christmas transport for staff.

But Yunus Bakhsh remains sacked from his job and expelled from Unison. And the Nazis of the North-East must still be laughing.

Dave Prentis is supposed to be one of the TUC "awkward squad", and he deserves support if he is challenging New Labour. But there is some awkward business to be sorted out in Unison. And the National Shop Stewards Network may feeel entitled to reconsider its pledge about "non-interference".

National Shop Stewards Network, see:


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