The battle over public sector pay and anger against the Labour government shaped the debates at the Unison union local government service group conference in Bournemouth this week.
The result of a strike ballot of local government workers is due at the end of this week. A yes vote for action should see 800,000 council workers taking two-day strike action in July.
Other groups of workers could join the strike.
Dave Eggmore from Unison’s local government service group executive, introduced the composite motion on pay. He said, “We need the maximum number voting in the ballot and we need the maximum number voting yes.”
He told delegates that “by March this year, local government efficiency savings amounted to £4.3 billion but not a single penny of that has come back to us in our wage packets.”
Unison members in health have, disappointingly, voted to accept the government’s offer.
Eggmore said, “In the GMB union 95 percent voted to reject the pay offer in health when the union recommended rejection.
“But in local government, where the GMB said it was the best that they could get, 80 percent of its members voted to accept. What’s the difference here? A leadership recommendation.
“This is the same mistake we made in Unison but the other way round.”
The commitment to united campaigning with other unions was repeated, though the leadership want this coordination to remain purely with local government unions.
Jean Geldart, the outgoing chair of Unison’s service group executive, said, “Our members are facing real privation from rising food prices, rising fuel prices. We must break the
government’s stupid pay policy and secure a decent pay rise for our members.”
John McLoughlin from Tower Hamlets said, “We can see what the future holds – year on year pay cuts until we fight back. We have had cuts in real pay over the last ten years. Isn’t it about time that our members had a decent pay rise?
“Some people said members in schools don’t want to strike, but my members in schools on 24 April were asking why aren’t we out on strike with the teachers. We will not put up with this and we need to set the agenda and show real leadership to our members.”
The conference voted for pay claims to be lodged and negotiated earlier, so that industrial action could start in April each year.
An amendment against this motion, which was backed by the leadership, became the focus for arguments over the different strategies on the pay fight.
Adam Smith from Ealing said, “The [leadership’s] speech agreed that last year was a disaster. Let’s remember that 1 April is a settlement date not the start of negotiations.
“Negotiations should start well before then. The employers set targets, so this is our target – it’s a settlement date and if you haven’t settled by then we’re out on strike.”
The amendment was defeated on a card vote.
A range of government attacks are producing anger among Unison members – such as job losses, service cuts, attacks on terms and conditions, privatisation and equal pay.
For instance, over 80 people attended a fringe meeting about the government’s attacks on schools.
As one motion on privatisation in local government put it “what this government gives with one hand, it takes away with the other”.
Delegates who spoke against the policies of the Labour government received strong support from delegates.
Jo Cardwell, from Waltham Forest, described her branch’s campaign to stop jobs from being cut in “efficiency” savings. She said, “How can we be making 300 job cuts when there are billions to bail out Northern Rock and billions for war?”
An emergency motion on fuel costs was passed, which argued for reopening negotiations with the employers for increased fuel allowances for local government workers.
Disquiet over the Labour government ran through the conference, as it has at many other recent union conferences.
Heather Wakefield, Unison’s national secretary for local government, described the situation for local government workers as, “the good, the bad and the downright ugly”.
The good were the union and its activists, the bad were the Tory employers and the ugly were the Labour government.
However, the Unison leadership was attempting to keep the motions over the relationship of the union to Labour off the national conference which started as Socialist Worker went to press.
Thanks to a number of Unison conference delegates who produced this report as Socialist Worker was denied access to the conference.