Unison women's conference
Flashes of bitterness
By Hazel Croft
OVER 400 delegates met at this year's UNISON women's conference in Glasgow. UNISON represents hundreds of thousands of mainly low paid women council and NHS workers, and the discussion at the conference reflected their concerns. There were debates about bullying at work, the nightmare of flexible working and unsociable shifts, and the paltry level of the minimum wage. Overall the atmosphere was subdued. But there were flashes of anger at the union leadership and signs of real dissatisfaction at the New Labour government.
That mood was highlighted by the enthusiastic reception given to three striking care workers from Leicestershire who addressed the conference. Some of the 600 care workers taking rolling strike action are set to lose over 1,000 a year if management force them to sign new contracts. Cindy Murray said she would lose 150 a month: "We feel bad about striking. But the onus is not on us-it's on the council." Fellow striker Joy Allison lambasted the regional UNISON leadership for "trying to pull the plug on the dispute".
She added, to huge applause, "We are not going to put up with it. We have no intention of giving in this fight. We are staying out." In debate after debate delegates were critical of the leadership of the national women's committee. This dissatisfaction came out over all sorts of issues, for example about the lack of progress in the numbers of women in leading positions in the union. By the end of the conference it became a standing joke among many of the delegates that, whatever way the women's committee voted, they would vote the opposite.
Time and again the women's committee lost motions and amendments which tried to water down UNISON policy. So in the debate about Third World debt, the women's committee tried to amend a motion critical of Labour's empty rhetoric about Third World debt so that it praised New Labour.
Delegates threw out the amendment and then, against the wishes of the leadership, voted unanimously for the motion condemning Labour over debt. There was a huge cheer when the UNISON ballot for the London mayor was announced, with 68 percent of UNISON members supporting Ken Livingstone. Delegates welcomed a statement from the women's committee which condemned the entry of Haider's far right Freedom Party into the Austrian government. However, there was no discussion on union democracy. The leadership refused to allow delegates to even mention UCLH, where two leading UNISON activists face disciplinary hearings. Nevertheless, it was clear that many delegates are unhappy with the inaction of their leadership in the face of the harsh reality of the New Labour government.