Unison are the second-biggest trade union in the UK, and easily the most prominent trade union in the health and care sectors. Unison recently held a seminar on social care, and published a report on their findings1.
Bristol Care Workers Network are a group of health and social care workers who are already fighting for better pay and terms in the social care sector. Several of us are Unison members and some of us are, reluctantly, Unison reps. We appreciate that Unison are trying to draw attention to the exploitation that we face daily. While we are grateful for the union’s interest in social care, we couldn’t help but raise our eyebrows when we read Unison’s seminar report. We have some questions for Unison, about its strategies and its motives.
Question one: What makes Unison think they will be effective?
Social care provision has never really been a unionised sector before, and any of us feel overlooked by the mainstream trade union movement.There are multiple, complex reasons why the care industry is largely non-unionised, and our experience on the ground gives us some insight into what unions have got wrong about the care sector so far. The organising model favoured by the big TUC unions is heavily reliant on a regular,fee-paying membership, bureaucracy,legalism and formal recognition agreements. This is likely to be ineffective in an industry where pay is low, exploitation is already widespread and jobs change hands quickly. Stifling legislation around union recognition and strike ballots make industrial action difficult in an industry where workers come and go without waiting around, and where bosses are likely to crush organising efforts quickly and brutally.
The issue of proceduralism isn’t addressed in Unison’s report. Up until now, Unison and other TUC unions have done very little to address the red tape culture within the trade union movement and the barriers this poses for precarious workers.This is one reason why union membership is so low in care work and in other precarious sectors of the economy. This is reflective of a bigger issue within the union movement; the unions are not only shrinking and aging organisations, they are also gentrifying, and union membership is increasingly becoming the privilege of UK-born, salaried professionals in stable jobs2. Migrant workers, young workers, and low income workers make up a big chunk of the social care workforce but are all under-represented in the trade union movement. Union membership has become a middle-class luxury, inaccessible to workers in social care and other low-status industries, and the bureaucratisation of the trade union movement is a major cause of this phenomenon. What are Unison going to do to change this?
To take on the social care sector, Unison will need to change the way it organises. Knowing that permanent membership is an obstacle to precarious workers, are Unison willing to put the wider workforce first, and organise outside their membership? In an industry where jobs, workplaces and even whole companies can come and go in a flash, are they willing to push for more than just statutory recognition agreements, or better yet, to organise without formal recognition at all? Are they willing to call for wildcat action when the speed and viciousness of management’s attacks make a strike ballot impossible? In short, are they willing to break the rules? And if they’re not willing to change, what makes them think they stand a chance?
Unison will say their hands are tied. It’s true that the unions don’t make the rules, but trade unionism doesn’t have to be like this.Historically, the workers in the worst conditions have always looked to syndicalism and wildcat unions when orthodox trade unions haven’t given them the time of day3. Precarious workers across the economy are once again turning to grassroots organisations and DIY unions to fight their battles4567. While the mainstream unions are still ignoring us, precarious workers have been winning significant victories using DIY unions. This is just as true in health and social care as in couriering, catering, hospitality and other industries. Autonomous and ‘unofficial’ unions that aren’t bound by the same legislation as the big TUC unions have proven to be both more militant and more dynamic, and as a result, they are better able to take on the most exploitative industries. Trade unionism is changing in the 21st century. Our message to Unison is- if you can’t keep up, stay out of our way.
Question two: What can you do that we can’t do ourselves?
One glaring question comes to mind on reading Unison’s report. Where are the care workers themselves? The report makes one solitary reference to any actual conversation with social care workers, described as ‘research’ by one of the speakers. The subjects of the research don’t seem to have been invited to speak at all. Dave Prentis, chairing, studied history and economics before completing a master’s in industrial relations, and joining the NALGO union as a full timer while still in his 20s8. He has no experience of working in the care sector. The whole report implies a serious lack of interest in what workers themselves actually want. To quote Dr Suad, you don’t have to be a voice for the voiceless. Just pass us the mic9.
As an example, the report briefly touch on the topic of wage theft which is rife in the sector, but then mitigates this with calls for a ‘fairer funding regime’ and ‘wider system change’. This issue is skipped over again later in the action points without any further clarity being offered as to what, if anything the union plans to do about this. We assume from this that Unison will not be standing up for us against the bosses who are stealing our wages. Yes, wage theft is only part of the problem, and yes, we need an overhaul of the social care system, but with minimum wage workers already struggling as it is10, how should we pay our bills in the mean time? Why is it an either-or between fighting wage theft now and fighting for a better system in future-can’t we do both? And if not, then why is Unison’s political agenda a higher priority than the material interests of the workers?
BCWN has always argued against a hierarchical model of trade unionism. We want power, not representation; we don’t want anyone fighting on our behalf who isn’t on the front line with us. Why would the union bosses care about our struggles if they don’t have any skin in the game? We feel this stance has been vindicated time and again, in every major industrial action from the 1926 general strike11 to this year’s university pensions strike12, the conflict of interests between the union establishment and the workers themselves has led to the betrayal of the workers. Unison’s campaigns in the social care sector will be no different, and this report already hints at the inevitable tokenising and sidelining of workers’ own voices.
Workers are getting sick of being talked over by their unions. Unison’s attitude here, that workers’ interests are less important than the union’s own ambitions, further emphasises the need for new unions which workers can run for ourselves. In increasing numbers, we are fighting our own battles, rather than paying for the union to do it for us. As we said above, DIY action from an increasingly educated and militant workforce can achieve anything that a trade union can, in a fraction of the time, without the fees and the red tape. In our daily lives, despite what is written in the report, we have found Unison and the others to be either indifferent to our struggles or to actively hinder us (more on this below). As the constitution of the original IWA said, ‘the emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working classes themselves’13.This report offers us nothing except further disempowerment.
Why would workers disarm ourselves by letting the union fight our battles, when we are more than capable of fighting for ourselves?
Question three: Why should we trust Unison?
Our day to day experiences with Unison, as well as a mounting body of evidence, all indicates that the union isn’t what it claims to be. It is becoming clearer every day that Unison doesn’t have its workers’ interests at heart. The case of Sussex University’s ‘pop-up union’, as well as scores of other betrayals, show the reality of how Unison act on the ground; not only sidelining and misrepresenting workers’ interests but often actively sabotaging workers’ struggles, stabbing us in the back and ultimately siding with management rather than seeing us succeed without them.141516 For those of us that work in the privatised social care sector, it’s rare to even meet a union member on the job. Anecdotally, colleagues who have contacted Unison for help have been told not to bother by reps and branch secretaries, either because the union doesn’t have the time to represent them, that the union is too hamstrung by their own red type to actually do anything, or that they can’t even think about helping workers who have joined until more workers have signed up (and the union has reached the 40% density in the workplace required for statutory recognition).
Unison’s report implies that they count the recruitment of new members as a victory in its own right. It isn’t. In the struggle for socialism, trade union density is a means, not an end. Increased union membership is only a victory in itself if you think the interests of the organisation are more important than the interests of the wider working class. In our experience, though, this is exactly what Unison think. We vividly remember being told by one of our branch secretaries that the Unison rep’s role began and ended with recruitment, and later being told not to invite non-union colleagues to meetings about their own pay and terms, weakening our collective power in the process.Socialism should be about mutual aid, not withholding support on condition of payment. In this, prioritising the receipt of dues above all other concerns, Unison act more like a for-profit organisation than a trade union. When they are clearly out for themselves, what incentive do we have to work with them? Why should we bother?
In fact, Unison has a track record of saying one thing and doing another, like the time they publicly denounced the 2013 bedroom tax while privately instructing their members to enforce it17. This two-faced approach has been most obvious recently with the two below-inflation national pay offers-one for NHS workers and one for local authority workers, which Unison refused to fight against. On the local government pay deal, Unison members were given a vote and actually voted to reject the pay deal, but Unison itself clearly thought the small matter of members’ livelihoods wasn’t worth the trouble, and accepted the deal without a mandate from its members. The NHS pay offer has been even more controversial; Unison’s fellow union the GMB voted overwhelmingly to reject the offer, showing a clear desire among workers to fight for a better deal. Again, Unison backed down without a fight, lauding the deal int their own propaganda despite Opendemocracy describing it as ‘meagre’ and ‘deliberately misleading’18. Predictably, the NHS pay deal has pleased no-one; Staff were left feeling angry, lied to and disappointed192021. Next time we’re scraping together change to buy a bus ticket, we’ll know who to thank.
Although Unison escaped the blacklisting scandal that engulfed the Unite union in recent years, the organisation has its’ own skeletons in the closet. In 2015, a whistleblower exposed corruption in the organisation’s internal democracy, revealing that paid Unison staff were working for Dave Prentis’s22 re-election campaign. The same year, the blog Dagenham Speaks raised a litany of allegations against the local Unison branch. Among other things, Dagenham Speaks claim that Unison officials colluded with local government to close down care facilities where their own members worked23, even blocking other unions’ attempts to keep the units open. We don’t accept that these were isolated incidents; in fact, this kind of backbiting fits all too well with our experiences of Unison on the ground. Unison is a deeply undemocratic organisation and, as we said above, we believe the union is set up to promote a kind of dictatorial culture, where workers are kept far away from the levers of power. Corruption is an inevitable consequence of this kind of power-hoarding culture.
Away from the rhetoric, this is the reality of unison’s practice. Before Unison flies our flag, can they guarantee that things will be different?
These are our questions to Unison. To our fellow workers, our advice is simple. You don’t need Unison. Learn your rights, get together with your colleagues and fight for yourself. Don’t join the union, be the union.
3See Live Working or Die Fighting by Paul Mason 2008
11See The British General Strike of 1926 by Tom Brown, available in the 1990 collection Tom Brown’s Syndicalism, published by Freedom Press