Delegates to the Unison union’s national conference met in Brighton against a backdrop of political turmoil, economic crisis and a profound threat hanging over the future of public services.
Unison general secretary Dave Prentis responded to the anger over Labour with an hard attack on Labour’s record over MPs’s expenses and the continued drive to privatisation.
He said the union is at a crossroads. To applause, Prentis announced that there will be “no more blank cheques” for the government. He told delegates, “Our members are tired of feeding the hand that bites them.”
Some delegates stood up in support when Prentis continued, “As general secretary I call on the labour link to suspend all constituency development payments.” He also said that the union should only promote and support labour candidates who are willing to stand up for our values of public service.”
In the debate on public services John Mcloughlin from Tower Hamlets said, “Wasn’t it a breath of fresh air?
He continued, “I hope that unless there is an end in the privatisation and the cuts there will be not one penny of unison’s money going to the Labour Party.”
Earlier speaking in the debate on apprenticeships, the first motion of the day, Sinead Kirwan from Camden, north London, told delegates, “It’s really vital that we recruit young people like me into the union.
“We have to be seen as a fighting union. Many young people coming into the union have a lot to teach us – we’ve seen the student occupations and the G20 protests.
“We’re in the middle of the worst recession since the 1930s and the public sector is going to be hit hard.”
To applause she added, “We have to fight for every job in the public sector. “I’m on a zero hours contract, like lots of young people I know. Unison has to recruit not just with argument but with action.”
Outside the conference, Caroline Bedale from Manchester told Socialist Worker that the left had to ensure arguments are raised.
She said, “The motions at conference don’t offer us a good enough strategy to fight – whether that is over cuts, especially in the NHS, or over fighting the British National Party (BNP).
“The wording of the motions isn’t enough to offer a real challenge to the government. We will have to make sure we put the arguments forward about an alternative, and a strategy to go forwards.”
Pete Marsden from Blackpool added that for him the key issues facing the union include “pay, pensions, the economic crisis and combating the BNP”. He said, “The issues are linked – the BNP is trying to use the economic crisis to scapegoat minorities.
“I think we have to make sure Unison nationally doesn’t succeed in lowering expectations over pay and conditions. Look at how the banks have been bailed out with public money – why should the public sector be paying for that with cuts and attacks.”
A Mori poll carried out last weekend showed that support for Labour among public sector workers is at an all-time low.
Just 30 percent of those who named a party said they were planning to vote Labour – a fall of 12 percent on a similar poll last year.
All those quoted spoke to Socialist Worker in a personal capacity