Unison conference shows workers
Heading for a fight against New Labour
By Hazel Croft and Paul Mcgarr
THE NEW Labour government is on a collision course with public sector workers. That was dramatically underlined last week at the conference of UNISON-Britain's biggest trade union, with 1.3 million members.
As New Labour was revealing its plans for the next term in the Queen's Speech, UNISON delegates voted overwhelmingly for uncompromising rejection of central elements of that programme. Not since the 1970s has a big union so clearly said that it rejects the main thrust of a Labour government, a government which UNISON's Affiliated Political Fund made huge efforts to get members to vote for. Cabinet minister Stephen Byers had told the conference that New Labour planned to press ahead with privatisation of public services.
He might have expected some muttering, perhaps a refusal to give him warm applause at the end of the speech. But to his intense shock he was met with furious booing and heckling. When some delegates held up placards spelling out "No more privatisation" they won rousing support.
Byers had attacked people for being "dogmatically attached to the purity of public ownership, with a rejection of any role to be played by the private sector".
The outraged reaction among delegates saw Dave Prentis, UNISON's general secretary, deliver a stinging attack on the government.
Prentis has always had differences with New Labour. But Blairites backed him when he was elected last year. Last week he quoted a poll commissioned by the union that showed 77 percent of people do not want private companies running public services for profit. To enthusiastic applause he insisted, "The government received no mandate for privatisation of public services in the election. It is not the will of the people."
Prentis ended by attacking New Labour's "Thatcherite obsession with privatisation". It is not just a matter of delegates wanting industrial action against privatisation. The conference also voted to review the union's funding of Labour.
People who had previously supported Labour almost by instinct are now questioning whether the union should fund that party. For decades the "link with Labour" has been unquestioned. Now it is seriously under discussion.
"I'M A staff nurse in theatre, and as a UNISON convenor I deal with the private firm Interserve on a daily basis in our spanking new PFI hospital. On Friday last week the electricity blew at our spanking new hospital. But the generators didn't kick in. We had no electricity for 20 minutes. There were patients on operating tables, in the middle of surgery, in the theatre. The place was like a rabbit warren, pitch black, and there was no emergency lighting. Interserve has cut jobs, including the engineers and theatre services, because they said such services are no longer required. I went to the Interserve boss and said, "Where were your contingency plans?" They said they didn't have one. We have just conducted a consultative ballot of Interserve staff, and 94 percent voted to request a strike ballot."
- Linda Weightman, UNISON convenor Cumberland Infirmary, Carlisle. It is one of Blair's flagship PFI hospitals
I'm proud we heckled Byers
"I REALLY enjoy working in the public sector. I work in the Direct Service Organisation in Gloucester. We organise the repairs and things like that. I believe in public service, and privatisation is just wrong. Look at Railtrack. I'm 21 and a single parent. Now I'm just about better off working than on benefit. If we were privatised I wouldn't be, because wages would go down. I'm proud people heckled Byers. If we don't fight they will think they can get away with privatisation. All over the world you get the IMF, the G8 and the drug companies like GlaxoSmithKline just wanting to make profits. I was in Prague at the protest against the IMF last year. We have to fight back against the disgusting face of global capitalism everywhere."
- Laura Stuart, Gloucester City UNISON
We get pittance for a vital job
"DAVE PRENTIS was right to say to Labour that if you think you have a mandate for privatisation then think again. New Labour and established parties across the world no longer reflect the hopes and aspirations of ordinary people. That's why we see all these new movements developing. When our union leaders say we are going to fight privatisation, let's hold them to their words."
- John McLoughlin, branch chair Tower Hamlets local government UNISON
"I'VE BEEN an NHS catering worker for 25 years. When a Labour government got in all my members thought that would mean the end of privatisation. But it hasn't. I've been privatised before. It means I'm not really earning any more now than when I was 16. Some of my members get just �4.36 an hour for doing a vital job. We used to have two domestics on each ward and they do a very good job. We were proud of it. But they cut jobs and people don't have the time, and that's why you get hospitals getting filthy."
- Pat McKeever, branch secretary Manchester Children's Hospital UNISON
What do we get for our money?
UNISON DELEGATES passed a motion saying that "members are asking why we hand over millions of pounds of members' money to fund a party which is attacking our jobs, wages and conditions".
They voted to instruct the union's leaders to conduct a review on "the future of the political funds". Delegates stopped short of issuing an ultimatum to Labour that if it did not drop the Private Finance Initiative then the union should "withhold UNISON's considerable funding for the Labour Party".
But up to a quarter of delegates backed that stance. Delegate Richard Lugg from Hounslow told the conference, "The bankers and shareholders have bought themselves a New Labour government which is sponsoring the interests of big business.
"We should say to the Labour Party that if they do not deliver what we want we will withdraw the funding." And Theresa Higgins from Middlesbrough told a fringe meeting at the conference, "I'm a Labour Party member and have been for many years. I was appalled at Byers's speech. He talks to us like we are a different species. I don't want to spend our money supporting a government which says I have to work for the private sector. Our members are asking what's happening. Why are we paying somebody to do something to us that we don't want? I don't want to come out of the Labour Party, but I want them to listen and not privatise."
Heartbreaking realities of privatisation
"I WORK in a nursery in Brent in London. I love the job and have done it for 25 years. When I first started there were 15 council nurseries in Brent. Now there are only four. We were privatised under a Labour council. But the private firm went bankrupt and we had to be brought back into the council. Privatisation means people are more scared for their jobs. You see your friends and workmates made redundant, the service getting worse. It's heartbreaking. I voted Labour at the election, but with a very heavy heart. What Stephen Byers said was awful. When he talks about bringing in the private sector it makes me feel sick. There are going to be big battles if the government carries on like this."
- Phil O'Reilly
They act like Tories
"BLAIR JUST simply picked up where the Tories left off. We are still short of nurses, still understaffed-morale is very low. The money just isn't going into hospitals, despite what Blair said. I wrote to Blair a week before the election-that's three times I've written to him now. I asked him why he is carrying on Tory policy, and why is our pay so low? The managers haven't got a clue about nursing and they don't care about the staff. They are just not being flexible. They're trying to make us work rotating shifts. But some of the nurses want to work permanent nights because of family commitments. They don't ask about your family when they sort out your shift. They've recently introduced "long day" shifts from 7.30am to 9.15pm. So how are mothers supposed to take and pick up their children from school? We've had to fight all the way, and we'll continue fighting."
- Beverley Richards, staff nurse Mile End Hospital