The annual conference of Britain’s biggest public sector union, Unison, met last week.
The union faces a new situation after the general election. Its leadership emphasised the need for unity and resistance against the new Tory government. This is welcome and must be built on
The conference took place with huge budget cuts looming just around the corner.
The union’s members face mass job losses, a pay freeze, further privatisation and a major attack on pensions.
These are all part of the coalition government’s savage austerity agenda.
The conference, held in Bournemouth, was angry. at the plans to make workers pay for the crisis.
There was also a desire for unity to strengthen resistance in the face of the planned assault on public services.
Dave Prentis, the union’s general secretary, addressed over 3,000 delegates and observers, just hours after Nick Clegg launched an assault on “gold-plated” public sector pensions.
Prentis sent a message to the government and the employers that the union would fight back. Rounding on the Tories and Lib Dems he rightly pointed out “neither have a mandate for cuts”.
Delegates passed an emergency motion on resisting the cuts backed by the leadership. This stated that the “fiscal costs of the 2008 financial meltdown are being used as the pretext for a concerted onslaught on public provision and welfare entitlements”.
The motion called for “industrial action where necessary to defend our members’ jobs, pay, pensions and working conditions”.
Prentis signalled a green light for Unison branches to hold industrial action ballots to defend jobs. And he told delegates that if Clegg, “who claimed expenses for a biscuit tin”, attacked pensions “we will ballot for national industrial action.”
Prentis also said Unison will work with other unions to defend public services.
Delegates, wanting to see the union give a clear lead for a fightback, welcomed his stance.
Much of the discussion was over how to translate this into action.
One key debate took pace over the local government pension scheme (LGPS).
As one delegate pointed out “the vultures are gathering over the LPGS.” The union leadership put forward a motion that pointed out the scheme’s financial strength – receiving an income of £10.2 billion in 2008-9 while only paying out £5.6 billion in benefits.
The union leadership hopes that its proposed efficiency reforms to the pension fund will stop politicians attacking the scheme.
But a fight over pensions will be hard to avoid.
And delegates also had some reservations about the proposed changes to the scheme, especially moves to centralise the 101 existing schemes into one each for England, Wales and Scotland.
A delegate from Southwark said, “If there are fewer pensions schemes then there is less possibility of members getting involved in their running”.
The union leadership supported an amendment from Knowsley branch in Merseyside calling for co-ordinated strike action if other public sector pensions schemes are attacked.
This call was echoed by delegates from the floor. Steven Ellis from Ealing Unison told conference, “Dave Prentis is right – if Clegg comes after our pensions, we need national strike action.
“We should link up with other unions. All public sector pension schemes are under attack.
“It’s happening elsewhere in Europe – we need some of that spirit here.”
John McLoughlin from Tower Hamlets Unison added, “It’s not if, but when there will be an attack on pensions. They say they are unaffordable.
“Yet all the public sector schemes combined cost £4.1 billion last year, while the richest 1 percent receive £10 billion a year in tax relief on their pensions.”
“Pensions unite us across the public sector.
“We saw our strength during the pension strikes in 2006, when we forced the government to retreat.”
Some delegates, backed by sections of the leadership, argued that the best way to fight attacks on public services was to focus on increasing union membership, or “density”.
But as John pointed out, “When we fight back, people flock to join the union. That’s how you build union density.”
The determination of Unison members to fight was summed up by one delegate who said, “Our pensions are not gold-plated.
“But if they attack them, they’ll find they are armour-plated.”
Build fightback to cuts
Dave Prentis’s call for action is welcome and makes winning the argument for a fightback across the 1.3 million members of the union easier.
The challenge for activists is to build on this, and to ensure the mood of anger is turned into action. The union leadership must be held to its promise for serious resistance.
Local branch activists need to fight every cut, and the union nationally needs to give the go-ahead to strike ballots for any branch wanting to take action.