When discussing trade unions, it is always important to draw a distinction between the national and the local. The local character and strength of a union will considerably vary from shop to shop, and there are many excellent UNISON branches in existence. However, UNISON is currently in a severely weakened state at a national level.

To paraphrase A.J.P. Taylor, the problem with UNISON is that it is too big and there are too many members. This may sound counter-intuitive: surely trade unions want as many members as possible. Being a public services union – mostly covering members in the public sector, it is the largest trade union in the UK (the expansion of the state in Covid firmly knocked Unite into second place), accounting for approximately 20% of all trade union membership in the UK. Furthermore, given that just under 80% of its members are women, it will also be making a significant contribution to the 50% of trade union members who are women. However, UNISON’s steward recruitment has severely lagged its membership recruitment and retention.

The most noticeable consequence of this has been in UNISON’s explorations in calling for mass-strike action. It has recently tried to call an aggregated strike ballot in Local Government and tested the waters in the NHS via an indicative ballot.  Both failed to get past the 50% turnout threshold mandated by the 2016 Trade Union Act. 

They failed as there were not enough stewards and branch officers to reliably get the vote out. This is hardly a problem unique to UNISON, but it is most evident due to its size. A union that cannot strike en masse will have problems in the future, particularly with the current cost of living crisis. Often the world only makes sense for workers if they force it via direct action, hence the rise in the number of industrial disputes

This does not mean that UNISON cannot do good work at a branch or regional level as shown by the recent insourcing at five London hospitals, but strikes, while not a panacea, are  a necessary tool that a union needs to be able to deploy. Thus, it may be that for the immediate future, UNISON has to call disaggregated strike ballots as it has done in higher education, though this approach has limits: only 10 branches out of 37 balloted passed the 50% thresholds. Not every branch can be as efficient as Brighton University.

Compounding the issue of a lack of national strength is that UNISON’s executive is currently beset by infighting because of the victory of the new ‘Time for Real Change Group’ faction in the 2021 UNISON NEC elections. The group now holds 36 out of 61 of the NEC seats and will do so until at least 2023 when the next round of NEC elections takes place.

Time for Real Change is the product of the split in the UNISON Action Broad Left which led to two of its members, Paul Holmes and Hugo Pierre, running against each other in 2021’s general secretary contest. The infighting in UNISON’s executive is so vicious that both the General Secretary Christina McAnea, and members of the NEC have taken legal advice about the other. This is partly because the NEC have sought to reduce the powers of the General Secretary and localize the NEC’s powers in the Presidential Team which consists of two people (President Paul Holmes and the vice-president Andrea Egan, both members of Time for Real Change), and at least one meeting was canceled due to concerns about bullying. This level of infighting can only be internecine, and it is already set to spill over into UNISON’s National Delegate Conference (the main decision making body of the union) in June as part of a motion called ‘Not in Our Name’.

Unfortunately for members, it looks as though this squabble is far from finished, and further inertia is expected. The reality is that the overwhelming majority of UNISON’s members will not be aware of, or care about, the internal politicking in the union. What they will care about is what their union can do for them in the here and now. UNISON risks effective paralysis and not being able to fulfill its mission-statement of winning for its members at national level.

This is not just a problem for members, but also the rest of the public sector and wider trade unionism. When engaged in collective bargaining, trade unions are representing more than just their members. This is particularly true of UNISON on account of how public sector pay scales are structured and their uniformity within sectors such as health and local government. Equally, trade union growth has been driven by public sector recruitment; therefore, the largest union in the public sector needs to be able to take the lead on winning for members. Unfortunately, UNISON currently looks unable to do this.

If you have an idea for an article on trade unions we would love to hear from you, please read our pitching guidelines and email us at editors@thesocialreview.co.uk