UNISON Conference and the vote against women
Posted on June 29, 2013
Okay, so I’ve had over a week now to collect my thoughts following the disastrous decision by delegates at UNISON Conference to reject a statement in support of believing women who report violence perpetrated against them, so if you’re not into the minutiae of trade union motions and amendments you’d best look away now.
For those who’ve been following recent events on the left, the amendment (8.1) to motion 8 at this year’s National Delegate Conference (NDC) was pretty much a rehash of the statement MarshaJane and I came up with after UNISON Women’s Conference, and which hundreds of trade unionists, including many from UNISON, have already signed up to. You can read the original statement here – Our Movement Must be a Safe Space for Women.
As I explained in a previous post – Sometimes words really do mean what they say – while there have been some mutterings from the SWP and others suggesting this statement is some kind of attack on them, that was never the intention: the intention, or motivation if you like, behind this was always simply to reassert the trade union movement’s current position on opposing all forms of violence against women.
Motion 8 (you can find the text here – UNISON final agenda) was about women’s activism within the union, and about the need for more experienced women activists to be buddying and mentoring new women and passing on our knowledge to others. The perfect motion then for MarshaJane’s branch to submit the amendment to, the text of which read:
8.1Add new sixth and seventh paragraph as follows:“We believe that our trade union has the potential to transform society for the better. Therefore we have a particular responsibility to confront and challenge male violence against women within our movement. Male violence against women is not acceptable in any case. It must not be tolerated from those who hold office or power in our movement.We recognise the enormous challenges faced by women victims of male violence, and the pressures which women face, including from abusive men, not to complain about violence and abuse. We therefore believe that, when women complain of male violence within our movement, our trade union should start from a position of believing women. We believe that all women who complain of male violence have the right to be listened to and supported.”Add new point 6):“6) review existing practice and subsequently issue guidance to all UNISON bodies about how to respond to male violence against women in our movement.”Havering
Nothing even remotely contentious there as you can see.
Sadly conference didn’t agree, and after a protracted debate on the amendment, a debate that ended up straddling the one and a half hour lunch break – a break that gave the opposition time to come up with even more spurious reasons to oppose – the amendment was lost. Then myself and others went onto social media to howl our frustrations out to the world, and all hell broke loose.
The arguments against the amendment were the usual predictable de-politicised blah about men being victims too (yes, sometimes they are, and none of us have denied that), about how starting from a position of believing women in these circumstances automatically assumes you start from a position of believing men are guilty (no it doesn’t, and no one has suggested doing away with due process and so on), and on and on and on. And on.
I’m not convinced it was those what-about-the-men arguments from those opposing that lost it though. What I think lost the amendment was that the majority of speakers for it, not those opposed to it, those for it, got up and basically said exactly the same as those opposing it. It actually got to a point, after about the fourth or fifth speaker saying something along the lines of “I support this but I’ve got some issues with the wording because: what about the men?” that I seriously wanted to go to the front of the hall and ask any remaining speakers ‘for’ if they were sure they were sitting in the right seats, because in case they were confused, the ‘against’ seats they should have been sitting in were just across the aisle.
In my naïvety it wasn’t until the next day that the penny dropped, and I realised that those so-called speakers ‘for’ the amendment were almost all either SWP or Socialist Party members who’d allowed themselves to be manipulated into scuppering the statement as some kind of payback to MarshaJane and I for trying to take them on on this issue. Maybe it would have taken me longer to realise this, or maybe I wouldn’t have been so convinced of this cynical politicking, had I not witnessed the outright gloating of some of the SWP contingent in the day or so that followed.
How sad that some bitter desire for revenge, coupled with a misguided commitment to continuing to defend the indefensible re their party’s reprehensible treatment of women who have reported rape by senior officials, has got them to such a point of complete moral turpitude.
But anyway, the point of this post is to explain what happened at conference, not to take pot shots at some elements of the left – that’s for another time, so watch this space – and to offer some reassurance to those I’ve spoken to or engaged with on social media since who feel they should resign their UNISON membership because, as they see it, UNISON doesn’t support women or believe them when they report abuses against them.
Because that’s categorically not the case.
Conference simply failed to vote for an amendment: what this vote didn’t do was change in any way, shape or form UNISON’s existing pro-women policies, policies that myself and others have fought long and hard for, and will continue to fight long and hard for within the union and beyond, as long as we have breath to breathe or whatever the expression is.
Policies like the one passed at Conference 2007 recognising VAW as gender violence and recognising “the role of violence against women in perpetuating the subordination of women in all societies throughout the globe“. The one that states our belief that :
“the government should adopt the definition of violence against women contained within the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, under which “violence against women” means ‘any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life'”
UNISON remains committed to working towards the elimination of violence against women in all its forms. It’s a member of the End Violence against Women Coalition, and nationally and through branches and regions remains supportive of Rape Crisis and other by-women-for-women services. For many years UNISON staff and activists have been working hard to try to get domestic violence policies adopted in all workplaces, and that work will not stop as a result of this atrocious vote.
Understandably there’s been a lot of anger expressed since the amendment was lost, much of it from women who feel particularly let down by this conference decision. But rest assured, all of us who were involved in pushing for the amendment are conscious of how we fucked up, and we’re already making plans for how we get it back to next year’s conference. We know there’s work we need to do in the interim to raise levels of political awareness of the specificity of violence against women and girls, and we’re ready for and committed to doing that.
In the meantime, here are posts from some others on the same subject:
And for those who think this post is too long and boring – here’s a Storify I did covering all the salient points: