Tuesday, 20 June 2006

Consensus Conference - well, most of the time

UNISON Conference 2006: Consensus and a common purpose was the theme of this year's Conference. A good thing when we have huge fights ahead of us on pensions and defending public services.
However it does make for a bit of a dull Conference.

Lively debate broke out on the public services, pensions and international debates but the defining point in the week was the moving and inspirational speech by Thabitha Khumalo of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions.

Contributions like that put so many things into perspective. We often struggle to organise in the workplace. We can face victimisation and we do support and represent members who have experienced gross injustice at the hands of their employers.

But we face nothing like Thabitha. We don't usually face arrest, beatings or torture for being a trade unionist. If we did, would we be able to manage it with Thabitha's strength of purpose and humbling dignity? How would we stand up to the murder and torture faced by our other trade union comrades in Colombia?

We may not face the same adversity but this week demonstrated we do have a role in supporting colleagues who do face that adversity. Financial and practical support for Zimbabwean trade unionists. Working with a range of organisations to support and defend the democracy in Venezuela that has brought so many benefits to its people.

And most significantly, we have a huge role in facilitating dialogue between Palestinian and Israeli trade unionists. We saw that at the STUC and we saw it again this Conference. Perhaps the context was not as fraternal but that only served to show how important it was to bring people together.

As Mike Kirby said, "We deplore violence against people, violence from any quarter section or state against any people. We can seek to influence Governments but we cannot determine what happens. However, we have seen in parts of the islands where we organise, that trade unions can bring people together."

Conference started with a key debate on the underfunding of social care and a demand for the investment to ensure high quality and free personal care in the 21st century, provided by well trained and well rewarded staff.

The union then set out its wide-ranging agenda for defending and building world class public services.

The government has missed opportunities to implement truly radical reforms and is reverting to the failed outsourcing and privatisation of the past. General Secretary Dave Prentis warned Labour that it could not take union support for granted and would lose the next election if kept to that agenda.

The failed policies of the 'market' are destroying the principles of our NHS. Marketisation was roundly condemned. Scotland pointed to the successes of bringing staff back 'in-house'.

But none of this can be achieved acting just on our own. The pensions debate highlighted the need for unions to work together and the union also set out a strategy for more co-operation between public service unions in the future.

Protecting migrant workers and the continuing fight against racism was also high on the agenda. The hard work of UNISON activists on the ground in combating the poison of the BNP was recognised by Conference.

The energy debate reminded us of the range of services our members work in but also the key issues for safe and sustainable energy for all of us.

Conference also called for a higher profile for Health and Safety and recognised and valued the work of our 20,000 Health and Safety reps.

The continued fight to defend council housing was the last debate of Conferebce with a special mention for Edinburgh where tenants voted to reject stock transfer.

There were few fundamental differences in debate and the enormity of the challenges we faced perhaps drove forward the consensus. Where there was debate, a recurrent theme was the need to leave the past behind and concentrate on new strategies for the future.

We have set out a host of those strategies this week.


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