Thursday, 11 March 2010

Defend public services - oppose the witch-hunt in Unison!

At the civil servants' strike rally on Tuesday 9 March a number of guest speakers pledged their support for the battle to defend civil service redundancy terms. They included - what shall I call them? - many of the usual suspects: John McDonnell MP, NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear, RMT general secretary Bob Crow. But there was also a more surprise guest appearance by Unison general secretary Dave Prentis.

Prentis was unequivocal in his support for the civil servants:
UNISON fully supports PCS members in their fight to retain their hard-won conditions. Both our unions face similar attacks on our pay, our pensions and our conditions.

What’s happening to our public services and our public sector workers at the moment is daylight robbery. The rich are allowed to get away with being tax cheats. They are allowed to get away with their off-shore accounts and their non-dom havens. But I call that theft.

...the Government, instead of attacking its own workforce, should be standing up to the tax cheats, to the rich city bankers and the financial institutions. And it should stand up for public services and public sector workers. General Secretary of UNISON, with 1.4 million members, I call on all public service unions to unite together to stem the growing clamour for more and more public spending cuts. Using our collective strength to say to whoever is in power - we won’t tolerate attacks on our services, on our members or their pay and jobs. We will fight to defend them.
This is all very welcome. But it sits uneasily beside developements inside his own union, where activists are worried that a full-scale witch-hunt is going into swing.

For years, four key officers in their respective branches - Bromley, Greenwich, Hackney, the Tenant Services Authority - have been defending themselves for putting out a leaflet critical of the leadership (their real "crime") at the union's 2007 conference. The leaflet had a cartoon of the three wise monkeys on it - capable, so the witch-hunters said, given a fair dollop of imagination, of giving offence to black people.

Eventually, the four, who are also members of the Socialist Party (their real "crime") were banned from office for several years. Last Friday morning, 5 March, Unison London region "swooped" on the Unison offices of three of the four and shut them down, pending new branch elections.

Throughout the country, Unison branches are fighting bitter battles to defend the jobs, pay and service conditions of some of those 1.4 million members that Prentis likes to boast about. The last thing they need is to be looking over their shoulders wondering whether their own union backs them. It would be even more absurd if wider activist layers came under suspicion because of their support for the four - classic witch-hunt territory, where those who question the standards of justice in a case involving others in turn find themselves coming under suspicion.

Is this all just an internal union affair that others should keep their noses out of? I don't think so. With 1.4 million Unison members in the UK, probably every other member of the population has a friend or family member in the union! Moreover, unions pride themselves on serving not just the interests of their members but also of the industries, communities and public services that they work in. This is especially important for the public services. "Defending jobs, defending public services" is a slogan unions use often - and with justice.

Ordinary residents who rely on the services that Unison members deliver will be affected if the union's ability to function at a grassroots level is hampered by the witch-hunt and so, yes, we do have an interest in what happens inside Unison.

Defend Unison democracy!
Join Unison members protesting outside Congress House on Great Russell Street, London. Monday 15 March, 6pm onwards.
Followed by a "Defend the Four" meeting, 7pm at University of London Union (ULU), Malet Street (just around the corner).

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