Trade Unionists in Cardiff last week lined up to attack Tony Blair for branding them as 'wreckers'. They were in the same venue that Blair had used to make that speech. This time it was filled with 500 women members of the Unison public sector union.
Debates against privatisation were at the top of the agenda at the union's annual women's conference, held last Friday and Saturday. 'I work in the transport industry, which has been in the private sector since 1986 when the National Bus company was sold off,' said Fran Hill, a West Midlands delegate.
'I can tell you what to expect if everything is privatised. Our terms and conditions have suffered. So have pay rates and holidays, which has really hit the drivers. Then there is the privatised gas industry, which wants to make 2,400 job cuts. The bulk of those will go in our local area in Solihull. I have one message for Tony Blair. Keep public services public because, believe me, privatisation is the real wrecker, not us.'
The delegates were pleased to hear Unison general secretary Dave Prentis echo their anger at the government. He opened his speech with, 'If standing up for public service workers means I'm a wrecker, then I'm proud to be a wrecker.'
Prentis tried to throw some words of encouragement to the Labour government in his speech, but each time he criticised Blair the audience applauded: 'They say public services will be 'overwhelmingly' free at the point of delivery. Don't be fooled. It's privatisation of delivery-taxpayers' money siphoned off for private profit. We gambled on Railtrack and we lost. We must not let this government gamble on public services. We will never ever support this drive to push our services into the private sector. That is the road to ruin, and we will not go along with it.'
But many delegates were critical of the union leadership for moving too slowly against the government's rush to privatise. 'Let's be honest. We as a union have pussyfooted round this for long enough,' said Barbara Trahar from Neath and Port Talbot.
'We should tell the government we are no longer prepared for our union members to be treated in a shoddy way. We should be standing out there shouting from the rooftops. Enough is enough. Do something. Do it now.'
Eve Redcar from Cleveland agreed: 'I think in terms of Unison we should do more. There is lots of talk but we don't do a lot.' New Labour has claimed that its high profile policies on childcare and flexible working for parents will be popular among women workers like those in Cardiff. But there was no respite for the government, as delegates passed motions that criticised such policies.
On childcare, Liz Leicester from Camden argued, 'There are very big problems with the government's strategy. It's not creating the places and it is way out of reach in terms of affordability.'
Judy Margrove from Leeds damned the government's limited new proposals over flexible working as 'basically a piece of scrap paper'.
Jane Jones, a delegate from the northern region, condemned New Labour's provision of care for the elderly: 'Why not reopen elderly people's housing and stop putting money into the pockets of private companies?' Delegates voted unanimously to call for an end to the government's dispersal of asylum seekers and its 'barbaric' voucher system after a moving speech from an East Midlands delegate.
A J Fredichohan explained that the voucher system was devastating refugees' lives, despite home secretary David Blunkett's announcement that it would be abandoned. She described how an asylum seeker with her two children, aged four months and three years old, were dispersed to a derelict house in Nottingham. 'The nearest shop was three miles away and she had to walk, carrying her children. She only received vouchers to cover her three year old. The rest of the vouchers did not arrive for ten days. It is disgraceful, degrading and wrong.'
Delegates spoke to Socialist Worker about their anger at the government's privatisation drive and why they felt the union should stop funding New Labour. Ann Harper from Warrington said, 'I'm a member of the Labour Party. Through various different sources I donate to the Labour Party three times. 'But I don't think our union should fund New Labour. We're paying them to get rid of our jobs through their privatisation.'
Gillian Steel, an East Midlands delegate, said, 'I think Tony Blair has insulted trade unionists. The Labour Party is supposed to work with us. After all, we got him elected. I think we should have a choice where our funding goes.' 'If the Labour Party is going to insult us, why are we funding them?' asked Kay Tong from the West Midlands. 'It's a lot of money that we give as a union, and I would be happy if it went to other campaigns and not the government.'
At last year's Unison conference delegates voted to demand that the leadership holds a review of the union's political funding of the Labour Party. That review is due to be revealed at the union's conference in June.
Fighting back has won us support
'I work 30 hours a week. The annual expenses allowance of the lead member of Rochdale council is more than my salary for the year,' said Julie Pih, a homecare worker in Rochdale.
She was speaking at a fringe meeting at the conference where delegates spoke about the battles they were having against privatisation of services. 'We have been fighting their privatisation of 30 percent of homecare in-house services. We had an 82 percent vote for strike action and around 400 workers went on strike for a day. Where homecare workers haven't fought privatisation, things have ended up much worse. We say to people that if we don't fight that is what will happen to our service.'
Deborah Derby said, 'On our strike day the weather was appalling. 'But the general public still showed their support for us and gave £1,000 in donations. Involving private companies isn't a cheap option. They come in at a cheap rate and suddenly they have got a 70 percent monopoly over the service. Then the prices go up. But it's cold comfort to say 'I told you so' from a dole queue.'
Wendy Simon from Knowsley in Merseyside said, 'I think we should explain to people that a whole range of jobs are under threat which people might not realise are public sector jobs.
'I think over the last couple of weeks that battle has been widened out, with the strikes on the rail and the postal workers' fight.'