Friday, 22 June 2012

Organising for a future that works

Organising to break the pay freeze, organising to protect our NHS and our public services and organising to turn back the vicious impact of ConDem policies on our members, on the poorest in society, on the disabled, elderly and our children. A daunting list of tasks but one UNISON’s National Conference was up for.

This year's conference was all about equality and social justice. It was about communicating, organising, campaigning to get our message to our members, prospective members and to the public at large. There is an alternative!

We will build now for massive demonstrations in London and Scotland on 20 October to campaign for a “Future that Works” instead of the failed coalition policies.

“We will smash the public sector pay freeze”, said Dave Prentis, General Secretary in his keynote speech. He slammed three years without a pay rise, most public service workers having to tighten their belts with escalating food and fuel bills, but one in four now struggling to survive. "This year pay will be our battleground”, said Dave.

Later Scotland's Stephanie Herd told delegates: “We know we are going into a fight. But rather than say, “We are all in this together”, I say, “We’ll win this together!”

It wasn’t the most contentious conference which is just as well because we will need maximum unity to resist the multiple attacks on public services, the people who deliver them and the people who rely on them.

The speech of the week came from Northern Region’s Clare Williams as she demolished the government policies that are cutting wages and throwing people on the dole. "I'm no economist, but even I can see that if people haven't got much money, they can't spend it in the local economy. So how is that going to stimulate growth?"

Scotland NEC member Jane Carolan outlined UNISON’s alternative to these failed policies. “A strategy that will create demand in the economy, will create employment through investment in skills and infrastructure, and that sees investment in public services as a boost to the economy. We have already agreed it wasn't the nurses, janitors, social workers or any other public sector worker who broke the bank".

And Scottish Convener Lilian Macer promised: “We will continue to expose the coalition for what they are - ideologues pursing an agenda to benefit themselves and their super wealthy funders.”

Depute Convener Stephen Smellie's call on members to 'raise our sights' in opposing cuts to public services, which vice-president Chris Tansley described as "devastating" and a return to "Victorian values".

Victorian 'values' like child poverty, on the rise and hitting families in work as well as the unemployed. Aberdeenshire’s Kate Ramsden told Conference: “Child poverty could be ended tomorrow if the political will was there to do it”.

Inequality

Every speech highlighted the growing inequality in this country. From the increases in boardroom pay of 41% whilst low paid public service workers suffer a pay freeze - a real terms pay cut of almost 14%; to the millions paid out in bonuses whilst more and more of our children live in poverty, delegates railed at the social injustices perpetrated by this government on our poorest and our most vulnerable, whilst giving tax cuts to their wealthy chums.

They railed at the thrust towards more and more privatisation, when keeping money in public services instead of paying it as profits to private companies would save over £100 billion a year.

They railed at the impact of welfare reforms on the poor, the disabled and the elderly and the demonisation of these people by this uncaring government.

Pensions

And they called for fair pensions for all, including a state pension not lower than the official poverty line figure - currently £178.

A two hour debate about the England and Wales pensions proposals at Local Government Conference ended in a plan to consult and inform widely before a ballot. The debate challenged the confusion many have between the two thrusts needed in the pensions campaign. The bargaining strategy in individual pension schemes to ensure fairness and sustainability, alongside the broad political campaign for fair state pensions for all and against the rise in retirement age.

Health and safety

Making health and safety the first debate was a key sign of the union’s concern about laws that protect workers’ basic right to come home safe from work being watered down to satisfy the greed of big business.

On the health aspects, Bill Dunn from Highland Healthcare called on branches to negotiate disability leave policies and to challenge bad practice with the Equality Act 2010.

Devolution

Conference backed measures to support devolved bargaining with additional
resources. On the constitutional front, Stephen Smellie told delegates: "It is not about where the political power is held -Edinburgh or London – but what the politicians will do with that power, and how it will make a difference to our security of employment or our children’s future."

Falkirk's Gray Allen reminded delegates, “Putting football and rugby aside, between public service workers across the UK there can be no barriers, no boundaries and no divides."

Reaching out

As befits a campaigning union, UNISON also agreed to reach out and campaign on issues like elder abuse, youth unemployment and equal chances for young black people.

The mover of the Elder Abuse motion was ‘proud to be in a union that cares’ and rightly so. Strathclyde Police and Fire’s Brian Molloy added: “All the citizens of the UK have a duty to protect the most vulnerable people living in our society.”

Emotional and moving contributions came from Neville Lawrence, ever dignified after 18 years of seeking justice for his son Stephen. He called police privatisation plans a ‘disaster’.

Tears also met the words of Carmen Mayusa from Colombia where on average one trade unionist is killed every three days. Standing ovations greeted four wives of the Miami 5, imprisoned in the US for trying to stop terrorism against ordinary Cubans.

Something to celebrate

Bad as things are, Conference had things to celebrate. The victories against privatisation in Edinburgh and Aberdeen took centre stage. “We won in Edinburgh. We won in Aberdeen. We’ve turned the tide in Southampton. We’re fighting on in Barnet and councils across the country. We’ve got a taste of victory and it tastes good. Let’s go out and do it again!” Edinburgh’s John Stevenson urged delegates.

The next step is to take that message back to our members and our communities to show them there is an alternative to austerity - an alternative based on compassion, equality and social justice.

And to rally our members to "March for the Future" on 20th October 2012 at the TUC March in London or the STUC March in Scotland.

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