This interview with Dave Semple can be found here.
Q: Being active in Kirklees, you must have a lot of experience in dealing with the fascists and racists of the BNP. Are there any lessons which you think could be successfully translated from Kirklees to UNISON nationally, to reduce the support their support amongst the working people UNISON represents?
PH: It is not enough just saying that the BNP are bad, even though they are. You have to provide an alternative. In Kirklees we have fought the BNP in many ways. We have attacked poverty, poor conditions and inequalities in the workplace. We have been unflinching in our attacks on racism and fascism. We have sponsored multi-cultural events and adults/children’s football and rugby league teams. The sponsorship has not just said UNISON – teams shirts have said ‘Kick racism into touch’ and ‘Show racism the red card’.
The branch has campaigned in local elections. The number of BNP Councillors in Kirklees has been reduced from 4 to 1. We haven’t abandoned any areas to the BNP. We are publicly seen as pro-union, anti-BNP and pro-worker. UNISON can’t afford to sit on the sidelines. We have to be taking out our message. We sponsor the local carnival in Huddersfield and the Mela.
Q: Speaking of your activity in Kirklees, the local branch has a union density higher than 80% in its local government division. In an era of declining union density and when many workers think of unions as an anachronism, what tactics did you use to beat the trend?
PH: We went back to organisation. The branch is active on many fronts. We have achieved good terms and conditions for our members. We have 250 plus stewards. We encourage equality. The union runs sports teams. It takes 600 members and their families to the pantomime. It takes 200 members to Flamingoland. We organise a discount scheme involving over 60 shops. We have discounts at theatres and plays. We make the union relevant and inclusive. The branch is a “broad church”. Anyone who wants to help the branch and is pro-union is welcome.
Very few people are anti-union. There may be the odd non-member who used to be a union member somewhere else and had a bad experience. But, by and large, a lot of employees need little to convincing about the need for a union – they just need to know that there is one and that it works. Victories bring recruitment . Once people see the union’s relevance and successes, they will flock to it.
Q: Do you think that on the issues you point to as key for recruitment – cuts, pensions, terms and conditions, pay, stress etc – victories can be scored nationally, even in the teeth of opposition of a Tory government as determined as Thatcher’s, using all the powers of the State? How?
PH: Everything returns to organisation. The power of argument has to be backed by the support of the members. The real debates don’t take place with the employers, they take place with the members. This year, in local government, the national union submitted a document pages long in support of our pay claim and the employers rejected it by email! The 0% offer this year was easily predicable after accepting last year’s rubbish 1% offer. Weakness invites aggression. UNISON can achieve victories but only by engaging with their members.
Kirklees Council has been Tory for the majority of the last 5 years. The big change I notice in many of the activists now, as opposed to 20 years ago, is that some activists are frightened and others are tired and wanting inspiration. One of the reasons for this is poor leadership. Another is the attacks on activists. Don’t be afraid of someone who disagree with you – they might be right! All the best ideas that I have come across are as a result of debate. Once you stop debate, you stifle enthusiasm. We believe in the collective because it is stronger, but also because we ‘pool’ the best ideas.
Q: You advocate the devolution of resources to local branches – money, full time officials and printing, to name the examples you give. What about decision making, with regard to working locally with pro-union support groups like some of the minor political parties on campaigns that benefit UNISON members?
PH: The union’s local policies should be decided at a local level, taking into account national policies decided at conference. UNISON branches should retain their own autonomy and work with whom they feel comfortable. It is not just other groups – often UNISON branches have little or no contact with each other. The union is too hierarchal. It should be lay member led.
Full-time employees of the union should provide professional advice. Full-time officials start with wanting to help. But they tend to get onto a ‘treadmill’ of routine. I saw in the Leeds bin strike how supportive many full-time officials were and what a lift that victory gave them. We shouldn’t be afraid of groups. As long as we understand the purpose of the group, and have joint aims, we should work with them. Often they have the knowledge and the contacts; often we have the finance and the resources. Together we can make a formidable opponent.
The question should be – does the joint work benefit our members. Devolution has meant that some of the old political certainties don’t now exist UNISON’s relationship with the Labour Party is even more complex. If other political parties support our aims and objectives in a campaign, we should try and work with them. Ideas shouldn’t frighten anyone. As Bob Dylan said “good artists borrow, great artists steal”.
Q. As we’ve seen in recent strikes such as against FirstBus and British Airways, the anti-union laws of the Thatcher era are holding back workers, and you call for their repeal. Early Day Motions have gathered over a hundred signatures and, even under a Labour government, we’re no closer to a change. How do we get from where we are to the passage of a Trade Union Freedom Bill?
PH: It is to the disgrace of the Labour government that most of Thatcher’s anti-union legislation is still in place. Many in the leadership of our movement joined it during the disputes of the dockers, miners, steel workers, print workers etc. and yet they now sit in ivory towers. This Government has had thirteen wasted years. It has viewed the trade unions as a protagonist, rather than a friend. Much of the antipathy towards the Labour Party is caused by the government’s lack of support for trade union freedom. I was in a pub the other day when someone I ‘half- knew’ asked me a question about an employer changing his partner’s conditions without her consent. When I told him it was legal, he said “what we need is a Labour Government!” How right he was.
Thatcher showed a loyalty to her class, which has been missing from the Labour Government over the last 13 years. But the unions, themselves, must share much of the blame. They have the votes in the Labour Party, but they haven’t used them. Whether you agree with the union being affiliated to the Labour Party, or not, the unions could have made the Labour Party introduce a Trade Union Freedom Bill if they had wanted to. But they didn’t want to. Once you start rubbing shoulders with the rich and powerful, you start losing touch with working people. In times of economic crisis you can either be on the side of the rich or on the side of the poor – but not both.
Q: While on the topic of Labour, the Union-Party relationship in the aftermath of New Labour is a key issue. In your campaign material, you say that UNISON is ‘a trade union, not a political party’ – what do you mean by this? Would this stance involve a change of approach to bodies like Labour Conference or TULO? How?
PH: To understand the trade unions, you need to understand that they are not a political party. They are a collective who organise at work. The majority of activists do not start off being politically active – they become active because of an injustice at work. Some UNISON activists make the mistake of confusing a trade union with a political party. Someone’s political affiliations are their own affair and they should not suffer in the union because of them. The reason that the trade unions set up the Labour Party was to give trade unionists a political voice. Our members have voluntarily joined a trade union to combine to gain improvements in their lives. The relationship between trade union leaders and their members should be one of ‘how can improvements for our members be achieved.’ We shouldn’t let obstacles, including political ones, stand in our way.
As a Labour Party member of 30 years I have always worked with people in other political parties and am proud to have done so. I don’t expect them to forget about the party they are a member of. But I do expect them to be able to organise in the union and to have open debate. Too many of our leaders fear political groups. Why? If I am considering how to vote on an issue, I imagine standing in front of 100 Kirklees UNISON members (bin workers, homecarers, gardeners etc). What would my arguments be? Am I giving leadership? What questions would the members ask? That keeps you sane and voting the right way.
Workers instinctively like unity and, once a debate takes place, expect unity in action. The internal workings of many unions are complex and not always immediately understandble to outsiders. It can be a big mistake to misunderstand how a union works and assume their workings to be ‘conservative’. Unions have histories, as do workers. Unions have to be respected and understood. When UNISON was first formed, many frictions came from all of us not understanding each other’s histories and ways of working. All I’m trying to say is that, at the end of the day, as a trade union we are a combination of people whose instinct is to work together, even though we may feel that we have political differences. As a socialist, I have encountered many Tories in the union who have supported the union and are good union members. This may seem to some activists to be impossible but it is true. Not everyone draws the same political conclusions at the same time. It is a mistake to dismiss others because they don’t have the same political convictions. A good organiser realises that everyone has something to offer.
Q. Specifically, how will you stop Labour’s leadership ignoring any agreements they make with UNISON and the other unions, as they have done with key elements of the Warwick Agreement?
PH: Very easily. By holding them to account. We still have the votes and the power – we just don’t use them. Members, whether they think we should be affiliated to the Labour Party or not, should be under no illusion. Neither Blair or Cameron wants the trade unions to affiliate to the Labour Party. They both fear that affiliation, for different reasons ( or perhaps the same!) . They think the Labour Party is a ’sleeping tiger’ ( some outside the Labour Party might argue that it is a ‘dead pussycat!). Whether it is sleeping or dead, the unions have to show the relevance of the Labour Party or it will end. We can’t continue as we are. Those in our union who continuously bow down to the Labour Party, because it is in government, have done none of our members any favours. Some in the leadership of our movement either don’t understand this or are incapable of organising. Our forefathers and foremothers didn’t set up the trade unions or the Labour Party because they had a lot of time on their hands. In fact, the reverse was true. One of the reasons they did it was because they had no time on their hands – they were at work seven days a week! They wanted this to change.
A change has to take place. The old values have to re -emerge. Comradeship, tolerance, understanding, organisation and working together in unity. I re-iterate that you have to show which side you are on. If you don’t support workers’ struggles you oppose them. If you don’t fight for workers’ rights, you oppose them. If the Labour Party leaders don’t adhere to agreements we reach with them, we should organise to remove them. We are not a political party, but neither are we a charity. Democracy is about accountability. We should hold all of our representatives accountable for all of their actions.
Q. If you’re elected General Secretary, you want a big debate on continued UNISON affiliation to the Labour Party, and an all-members ballot. How would you vote and why?
PH: I am a supporter of affiliation to the Labour Party. When UNISON was formed in 1993 I was in favour of one political fund. As far back as 1983 I was campaigning for NALGO to affiliate to the Labour Party. Other brothers and sisters in the trade union do not share this view. They are perfectly entitled not to share it. Let’s be clear – the reason that we have political funds at all is the 1927 Political Fund Act, which followed the defeat of the 1926 General Strike, when the Tory Government tried to dilute the trade union’s right to political representation . Political Funds shouldn’t exist. The trade union should be free to finance whatever political activities they want. I would argue that they should finance the Labour Party. But what is missing is the debate. Most of us know that if we actually have a relationship with the Labour Party it should be a vigorous and open one – but it isn’t. If UNISON took up all the delegates’ seats it was entitled to in the Constituency Labour Parties, it would dominate many of them. Councillors and MPs would have to listen to us and debate policy openly.
Our members deserve a ballot on affiliation to the Labour Party. The question which is to be put in that ballot should be openly debated at UNISON’s National Delegate Conference. As General Secretary, I would be bound by the decision of the National Delegate Conference in any ballot. That is absolutely vital. It is the essence of democracy. Stifling debate leads to dissatisfaction and frustration – like most activists, I want a chance to have my stay and then I will abide by a decision. You become frustrated when you can’t have your say and when the decision takes place behind closed doors. The bright light of democracy needs to shine on our relationship with the Labour Party. Don’t fear debate – embrace it.
Q: What role do you see so-called “new media” like blogs and twitter playing in union activism over the coming years?
PH: The so-called ‘new media’ is a tool like any other tool. It has boundless possibilities , but as it becomes more widespread , quality issues come more to the fore. Most people I know restrict themselves, as in all walks of life, to trusted sources i.e. Jon Rogers’ blog. The ‘new media’ allows debate and should be seen as a welcome addition.
You should return to basic principles. Quality, speed, accuracy, content, relevance, honesty, humanity, integrity etc. Tools might change but the message doesn’t. In this election campaign I have tried to concentrate in my campaign on the values/ policies I support. Once you have the basic principles in place, it is beholden on you to use all aspects of the media for your campaign. But don’t forget the basics – or you will build on sand!
Q: Lastly, million dollar question; after the next General Election, in the event of Gordon Brown stepping down and an open contest for Labour leader, who would you back and why?
PH: In the last ‘near’ leadership election of the Labour Party I supported John McDonnell. I did it because the leadership of the Government had to change. Imagine the difference over the last 12 months if the Labour leadership had been attacking banks and their system as much as the public wanted them to. We would have been entering a General Election with the spotlight being on how we should control the banks and the bankers, instead we have allowed the banks to put the spotlight on the public sector and the public services. Who caused the crisis? The economic system is ‘not fit for purpose’. I do not idolise individuals (although I make an exception with Bob Dylan!) but I give a straight answer to a straight question. You can see how much confidence many Labour MPs have by who is resigning from Parliament and looking for ‘well-paid’ job alternatives. The media love debate about personalities, so whilst I would support John McDonnell in a leadership election, my real support is for ordinary, working people and who represent them best. If you keep that closest to your thoughts, you won’t go far wrong.