Unison union activists are up for the fight over pensions—and the union’s annual conference last week proved it.
Delegates debated pensions on Wednesday of last week, the day after Unison general secretary Dave Prentis issued a “call to arms” for “a campaign of strike action without precedent” over the issue.
Jane Carolan, speaking for the national executive, called on every activist to deliver “an unprecedented turnout and an unprecedented majority for action in any ballot”.
And she pushed for solidarity with the 30 June strikes. “Take your banners and take your Unison pensions T-shirts,” she said. “It’s going to be the start of a very long campaign.”
Scottish delegate Lilian Macer, moving the composite motion on pensions, told the conference to “organise, agitate, educate and stop the great pensions robbery”.
The conference was absolutely united on the need for strikes.
Gary Firth of Calderdale Unison talked about how his father had been forced to work into his old age because he couldn’t live on his meagre pension.
“Finally he retired five years ago at the age of 70,” he told the conference. “Sadly he died less than three months later.”
Pat May from Wolverhampton said when she heard about the pension plans “it was like the government plunged a knife into my heart”.
“I’m a mother of five children,” she said. “My bones hurt—they hurt so much now. I want to finish work when I am 60.”
It went down a storm when she talked about US civil rights activist Rosa Parks: “We need to be like that. Enough is enough.”
There were some differences of emphasis over how soon the ballot should be called.
Steve Swift of Manchester said the union needed to win the media battle first. He said, “If we go out on strike without winning the argument with people out there, then we’ll have lost.”
But the mood in the conference hall was clear.
Caroline Glendinning of Oxford was applauded when she said, “It’s a shame this recent bout of activity didn’t start sooner so we could have joined our sister unions on 30 June.”
“However, we still have 2 October,” she added.
John McLoughlin of Tower Hamlets said, “When Dave Prentis says we will not stand by and see our pensions destroyed, when he says that we will take part in coordinated strike action on a scale never witnessed, he speaks for us all.”
He said the ideal time for action would be during the Tory Party conference in October.
When Cameron and Osborne speak, he said, “they should face the largest wave of strike action across the public sector this country has ever seen”. The end of his sentence was drowned out by applause.
The enthusiasm for a fightback was also shown when up to 200 delegates packed into a fringe meeting on pensions on Tuesday evening.
The meeting was backed by dozens of Unison branches.
Alex Kenny of the NUT union talked about how 30 June was the beginning of “coordinated action on a scale we haven’t seen before and a scale we’re only just starting to realise is possible”.
Paul Holmes from Kirklees Unison was cheered when he said the strikes would win. “We as a class can organise to defend what’s rightfully ours,” he said.
And Sue Bond of the PCS added you could “feel the mood change”.
“Let’s remember who we are fighting,” Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said in his speech. “No one in this hall today is our enemy.”
This was widely taken as a signal that the witchhunt of left wing activists in the union should end. The debates on the union’s rules on Thursday showed that delegates are keen for that to be the case.
The executive was resoundingly defeated on a rule change that would allow it to expel members of “a political party whose constitution, aims or objectives are contrary to the objectives of Unison”.
There was a massive roar of support as Monique Hirst from Kirklees Unison said the rule was about “getting rid of members the NEC seem to think are threatening the leadership”.
An amendment to the union’s “rule I” on disciplinaries, which would have limited suspensions to two years, was only narrowly defeated on a card vote.
This followed a well-attended fringe meeting on the witchhunt.
Socialist Workers Party activist Yunus Bakhsh, who was expelled from Unison, spoke alongside Socialist Party member Glenn Kelly, who has now been suspended from office in Unison for four years.
Both read out tribunal judgements that clear their names—but still the union has made no steps towards reinstating them.
Delegates decisively rejected a motion from the executive that would have restored Unison’s relations with Israeli trade union federation Histadrut.
For the last two years the conference has voted to suspend relations after Histadrut supported Israel’s war on Gaza in 2009 and its attack on the aid flotilla in 2010.
But the executive wanted to change that position to one of “critical engagement”. The leadership pushed the motion hard but were defeated.
Delegates voted to support the TUC calling a demonstration in the week of the Tories’ conference in Manchester in October.
Conference also supported a call for a joint demonstration over the NHS at an unspecified date.