The Unison public sector workers’ union national conference, held in Brighton last week, was framed by the mood for a fight over pay, and the coming to office of Gordon Brown.
The union’s leaders were forced to reflect the left wing feeling.
Unison general secretary Dave Prentis told delegates, “We demand fairness and justice for our members – and we are prepared to fight and, if necessary strike, to get it.”
Saying “We will work with Gordon Brown to rebuild public confidence in our public services, to usher in a new era that sees the restoration of real labour values”, he warned, “Labour is drinking in the last-chance saloon.”
But union leaders were less ready to discuss major confrontation against a Labour government over the core issues faced by union members.
A motion on a united fight against Gordon Brown’s public sector pay cuts was passed at the end of the conference (see » Biggest public sector union votes for joint strikes). But it was only concerted pressure from delegates – who at one point overturned standing orders bringing conference to a halt – that got pay discussed at all.
Unison members face the burden of keeping services running against the onslaught of PFI and PPP privatisation schemes.
Many delegates wanted the union to call effective action against privatisation. After a card vote a call for a national demonstration against privatisation was passed.
The conference agreed to step up the union campaign in support of the NHS, while opposing privatisation and the growth of the market.
Victimised activist Karen Reissmann received repeated standing ovations (see » Unison backing for suspended nurse, Karen Reissmann for a report of Karen’s case) as she attacked NHS privatisation.
One speaker after another protested at the growing marketisation of the NHS and the negative consequences for services of the growing role of the private sector.
“We are seeing the patchwork privatisation of our NHS,” warned delegate Tony Phillips. “It’s the result of a system that takes taxpayers’ money out of the NHS and puts it into the pockets of fat cat profiteers.”
Conference welcomed the union’s plans for a national demonstration for the NHS on 13 October.
Pauline Walker of Kings College branch said, “We should demonstrate that our hearts, minds and feet are with the health service and not with this government that seeks to break it up.”
As part of the international discussions the conference passed a motion in solidarity with the Palestinians.
Motion 53 called for, among other things, an Israeli withdrawal to 1967 borders, allowing Palestinian refugees to return home, removing the Israeli settlements, taking the “apartheid wall” down, and respecting the Palestinian people’s right to national self-determination.
The conference also condemned the economic sanctions imposed upon the Palestinian Occupied Territories.
The motion also said, “Conference believes that ending the occupation demands concerted and sustained pressure upon Israel including an economic, cultural, academic and sporting boycott.”
Delegates voted by over three to one for the motion.
Helen Jenner, speaking for the union executive – which backed the motion – stated that she did not interpret the motion as mandating Unison itself to operate a boycott.
Proposing the motion, Tracy Morgan of Wolverhampton general branch said that Palestinians were “living on tenterhooks” and that a renewed campaign would give them “a sense of hope”.