One hundred and ten British Army medics have been deployed to Northern Ireland hospitals to assist with the Covid crisis, operating as regular NHS staff. In the aftermath of this announcement, many Unison members and branches reacted angrily to a statement issued by the leadership of their union, which they perceived to be in opposition to the use of army medical staff in the battle against the pandemic. The Unison leadership statement was written without forethought or sensitivity on an issue that has the potential, if mishandled, to create sectarian tensions and divisions amongst their membership. 

Despite Unison Regional Secretary Patricia McKeown later clarifying that they were not opposed to the use of army medics, damage to the union had already been done, with many Unison members threatening to resign. The Unison statement lays bare how disconnected the union leadership are from the desperate conditions healthcare workers are currently facing, and at best reflects their lack of sensitivity on the controversial questions which divide our communities. For Socialist Party members in the trade unions, this event is a warning of serious issues our movement must address.

While a large majority of the population welcome the use of British Army medics to help relieve the pressure beleaguered healthcare workers are under, given the legacy of the Troubles, it is no doubt a controversial issue for some. The fact that military medics have had to be called in is an indictment of Stormont’s handling of the pandemic. The Executive has had months to prepare for a further spike in infections. During this time they should have taken all steps necessary to increase capacity, including training additional staff. A lot more needs to be done to support our health workers, and all private hospitals and health facilities should immediately be taken into public ownership, with their resources integrated into the NHS.  It is scandalous that, in the midst of a pandemic, the Stormont Executive has just returned £90 million to Westminster because they couldn’t find a way of using it! Additionally, concerns have been raised about unnecessary delays in allowing those with the required medical training and experience to return to work in our hospitals.

Oppose union-bashing – but serious issues must be addressed

The injudicious statement from Unison has also been used by local politicians to engage in union-bashing, a cynical attempt to deflect from their failure to prevent this new surge of infection or to prepare our health service for it, and to distract from their decades of cuts, privatisation and underfunding of the NHS. For example, Sammy Wilson has branded those who wrote the statement “a disgrace”, which is particularly hypocritical given his constant public flouting of basic health and safety advice regarding masks, and his repeated calls to prioritise ‘the economy’ – ie, profit – over measures to control the spread of the virus.

The anger on this issue from ordinary people isn’t manufactured, as some have argued, but has primarily come from working-class people, especially Unison members who feel the union’s leadership is out of touch, and also one-sided on contentious issues. Trade unions have a right and responsibility to look at any issue in a workplace that affects their members, including the question of staffing, but the first thing the Unison leadership should have done was to consult with their workplace reps. Then they might have understood the need for sensitivity and have taken a better approach that would not have resulted in such a furore and the alienation of many of their members, especially those from the Protestant community. This incident highlights a very important issue, which Socialist Party members have raised in the movement – that is the danger of union leaderships’ poor handling of contentious issues resulting in significant division along sectarian lines, mass resignations and even sectarian splits in the trade unions, as we have seen in the past.

One-sided approach threatens workers’ unity

In our view, the leadership of some of the unions – including leading figures in Unison – have a political approach which inevitably leads to such dangerous mistakes. The outlook of the regional Unison leadership in recent years has been reflected in a cosy relationship with Sinn Féin, a party based on sectarian division which has, as part of the Executive, implemented attacks on workers and public services. It is also reflected in leading figures – including Patricia McKeown – speaking on platforms such as “Trade Unionists for a United Ireland,” an initiative which seeks support from trade unions for a one-sided position on the national question. If this goes uncorrected, it will lead to further clashes between the Unison leadership and a large section of its membership, and can seriously damage the trade union movement as a whole.

This debacle also highlights serious issues regarding union democracy. Many Unison branches disassociated themselves from the leadership’s statement and raised issues with the lack of consultation before it was published. Unfortunately, this is all too common in Unison and across the trade unions today. Belatedly, the union leadership organised a meeting of branch secretaries and senior shop stewards after this storm erupted.

Trade union activists, both in Unison and other unions, must unequivocally challenge  union-bashing from the politicians and others. Alongside this, we must take seriously the real anger of union members on this issue, recognise the dangers posed and organise to transform our trade unions.

Fighting, democratic and anti-sectarian unions needed

In our view, the trade union movement must remain independent of the various Unionist and nationalist parties and other sectarian forces. That does not mean ignoring contentious issues, but addressing them in a way which is sensitive to the views and aspirations of workers from across the sectarian divide, and putting forward positions that can unite and represent the interests of the working class as a whole.

This will require strong democratic structures, linked to the workforce, which make decisions on approach to contentious issues. Trade unions should be fighting and democratic bodies, with key decisions made by elected representatives of workers, who are accountable to their membership and can be recalled if necessary, as well as regular consultation with workplace activists and the membership as a whole. Trade union officials should be regularly elected, open to recall by the members and paid a wage related to that of the members they represent. It is completely undemocratic that we have trade union officials appointed for life, who are paid scandalously high wages and expenses and who are, in reality, unaccountable to the members. 

We have no faith in the current leadership of Unison and, indeed, many other unions to take this approach. We need the coming together of rank-and-file Unison activists to challenge this leadership and campaign to democratically transform the union. If not, more and more members will leave Unison and even walk away from trade unions entirely. This would weaken the ability of health staff and all workers to fight for our interests in the coming period – for major investment in our NHS; oppose and reverse privatisation; for living wages and decent conditions; for control over workplace health and safety; for the cost of this crisis to be paid by the billionaires and pandemic profiteers, not the working class.

For decades, Tory and Blairite Labour governments have decimated the NHS. The DUP, Sinn Féin and the other sectarian and pro-capitalist parties in the Assembly have united to implement cuts and privatisation. Collectively, they share the blame for the current crisis in healthcare. Yet the Unison leadership – and leaderships of other health unions – have done little to stop this, swallowing attack after attack on the health service while seeking a ‘social partnership’ with the politicians. This is not unique to Northern Ireland, as demonstrated by comments from the new right-wing Unison general secretary Christina McAnea, who criticised other unions for their willingness to organise industrial action. At times, Unison and others have been forced to call action under pressure from below – including participating in the health strikes of 2019 which won a partial victory – but they always aim to ‘put the lid’ back on struggle as quickly as possible. If, instead, Unison and other health unions had led determined and sustained resistance against attacks on our NHS, it would have galvanised public opinion and helped bring working-class communities together in opposition to the sectarian politicians.

Build an anti-sectarian political voice for the working class

We need trade unions that take a combative approach towards the bosses and politicians, rather than the unofficial ‘social partnership’ which has allowed the politicians to undermine workers’ pay and conditions, our NHS and other public services. That also means challenging the sectarian and pro-capitalist parties in the Executive by building a mass, cross-community, working-class party which can unite Protestants and Catholics in class struggle and seek to overcome sectarian division on the basis of solidarity and mutual respect. We encourage all trade unionists who share our deep concerns about the issues raised in this statement to discuss with us about how we can work together to make this a reality.