All change at the top of the big unions?

Stephen Smellie surveys the field and asks whether change at the top will presage change beneath.

Over the next 18 months UNISON, UNITE and GMB, our biggest unions, will be electing new general secretaries. Consequently, the landscape could dramatically change, or it could pretty much stay the same. All three ballots will have similar contexts within which they will be conducted. These include the pressures of austerity, Brexit, the crisis of political representation that the current Tory majority and the failure of Labour presents, and Covid-induced economic collapse. Adding colour will also be the political groupings and cliques within each union.

None of the three unions has ever had a woman general secretary. This is an issue that will play a significant role, even before the exposure of the culture of sexism and harassment in the GMB. UNISON, with 1m women members, is the most likely to break this particular glass ceiling with a woman candidate, current Assistant General Secretary (AGS), Christina McAnea, receiving far more nominations than any of the others, including the NEC and several regions including, by a large majority, Scotland. The other three candidates, Roger McKenzie, also an AGS, and NEC members, Paul Holmes and Hugo Pierre, are competing to be seen as the best ‘left’ candidate to offer change whilst McAnea is being described by some of their supporters as the ‘continuity’ candidate, a charge she refutes and points out that as a woman she offers the greatest possible change.

As in many unions, a UNISON broad left grouping has existed for years. This has rarely reached beyond a core of activists of the Labour left allied to Socialist Workers’ Party and Socialist Party members, who occasionally have rallied to form an anti-Prentis alliance in NEC elections, recently under the banner of UNISON Action (UA). As in previous years, they have failed to agree on a single left candidate.

Hugo Pierre, elected to the NEC in the Black Male seat, is accused of splitting UA to promote the Socialist Party. His programme of demanding national action to fight pay and cuts is the same programme that, in theory, many people support but which no-one in the union has been able to deliver or even explain how it could be delivered. Paul Holmes, male NEC Local Government representative, is the candidate for the remaining UA faction. Pierre’s supporters claim Holmes’ current suspension by the union and his employer, on charges not officially made public but subject to discussion on social media, make him an unsuitable candidate for the ‘left’ to rally round. Holmes promises that, if elected, he would move UNISON HQ out of London and give branches 50% of all subs paid by members (compared to the 20%-25% they currently get). With commitments to lead from the front and organise national campaigns and strikes, his programme is questioned on how he can achieve this with significantly less funds available for the national union.

Both Holmes and Pierre promise to take only a ‘worker’s wage’ although with differing figures in mind.
Holmes received significantly more nominations than Pierre, including the big Local Government Executive and North West Region, leading to suggestions that Pierre should stand down to allow Holmes to be the one ‘left’ candidate. However, the UA faction actually split 3 ways with some of their supporters preferring to support Roger McKenzie as a ‘left’ more likely to win than either of the other two.

McKenzie, whose nominations are around the same level as Holmes, has been an AGS for 10 years, despite which he is presented as a change candidate. His responsibility is for Organising which he presents as his main issue for the union. He is well known in the union movement as one of the most senior black trade unionists and his election would be the first time a black person has led a major union since Bill Morris was General Secretary of the TGWU. Any hope amongst his supporters that he would emerge as the leading ‘left’ candidate or even the leading Assistant General Secretary candidate were dashed when McAnea won double the number of branch nominations and Holmes achieved more nominations than any previous lay member candidate.

McAnea, from Glasgow, has been a lead negotiator for the union in many sectors and currently heads up bargaining in her AGS role. She launched a detailed manifesto focussing on better organised campaigns and more visibility in the media, including as the leader of the biggest organisation, never mind union, of women members in Britain. She proposes establishing a UNISON College to deliver training for members. She points out that, unlike the others, she recognises the union is led by lay members on the NEC and other committees and she would work with them to achieve her aims.

Scottish branches overwhelmingly supported McAnea’s nomination and she is well known among activists here. The Scottish constitutional position has not featured in the debates, with the union having a clear policy position that it is up to Scottish members and the Scottish union to determine its position. McAnea is the favourite to win, based on the number of nominations. However, with Holmes having support of many of the bigger branches in England and McKenzie’s profile as AGS responsible for Organising at a time when Black Lives Matter has raised greater awareness of racism, nothing can be taken for granted, except that Pierre cannot win. Whether McAnea emerges as the first woman General Secretary, McKenzie as the first black General Secretary or Holmes as the first lay member to be elected as General Secretary, UNISON will look different in future. Whoever wins it is possible that the bi-annual NEC elections due next year will be the determining factor as to whether the union not only looks different but acts different in future.

The UNISON ballot opened on 28 October, closes on 27 November and the results will be announced on 11 January 2021.

Stephen Smellie is Depute Convenor UNISON Scotland