THE NATIONAL conference of Britain's biggest union got under way on Tuesday as Socialist Worker went to press. Delegates representing 1.3 million members of the Unison public sector workers' union faced a series of key debates.
Among them was one on the union's political fund and link with New Labour - with the key conference floor debate set for Wednesday. The union's leaders had angered many delegates by ruling out of order motions calling for the political fund to be democratised - allowing union members to decide how the fund should be spent.
The conference looked likely to be presented simply with motions keeping the existing set-up, in which only Labour gets funding. A flavour of the feelings of many delegates came at a packed fringe meeting on the political fund on Monday.
Over 300 people attended what was the biggest fringe meeting for many years at Unison conference. They heard George Galloway MP, the RMT rail union's London political officer Unjum Mirza, and Unison's London Region convenor, Geoff Martin. Among the audience, for a while, was Unison general secretary Dave Prentis. George Galloway launched a blistering attack on the government, and made clear his view on trade unions' political funds.
'I've had a few phone calls from important people in Unison about what I'm going to say tonight. I am against Unison disaffiliating from the Labour Party. But I am in favour of you demanding the flexibility to use your political funds as you see fit.'
And, he argued, 'The people who called me were saying how important it is for Unison to keep its influence on New Labour. What influence? You can't even influence your own representatives sitting on Labour's national executive, voting month after month to kick your members in the teeth.'
In a reference to his own suspension from the Labour Party, Galloway pointed out, 'Your two Unison representatives last week voted with Sir Jeremy Beecham, the local government workers' 'friend', who moved to stop discussion on the national executive on my case.'
Beecham sits on Labour's executive representing councillors and heads of the council employers' body now pushing for regional pay. Geoff Martin, a well known Labour Party member in Unison, argued, 'My personal view is that the union should remain affiliated to the Labour Party. But I have no fear about opening up debate on whether to support other candidates. I don't want to see us backing David Blunkett. If somebody is giving you a kicking you don't go out and buy them a new pair of Doctor Martens.'
From the floor Tony Wilson, a Unison member and transport worker from Manchester, argued, 'Why are we wasting millions of pounds on a Labour Party which is continuing to attack our members?'
Whatever happened in the conference on Wednesday the issue of the political fund will not go away, in Unison or elsewhere.
Education and housing in focus
EDUCATION WAS a crucial debate at the local government conference. Unison, along with the GMB, TGWU and some teaching unions, has signed the government's 'Raising Standards and Tackling Workload' proposal. The largest teaching union in England and Wales, the NUT, opposes the plan. The government claims the deal will reduce teachers' workload, and give school support staff proper recognition and pay.
Unison leaders have attacked the NUT for their stance. They wheeled in schools minister David Miliband and the deputy general secretary of the smaller NASUWT teachers' union to a fringe meeting to try to persuade delegates. Many delegates were unhappy at their leaders' stance.
They shared the NUT's fear that the deal was not about improving things for support staff, but is 'teaching on the cheap'. The deal envisages teaching assistants in some cases doing whole-class teaching without a teacher present.
Julie Thompson from Kirklees argued, 'Nowhere does this it say support staff will be paid extra for any extra duties.' Despite such fears, the union leaders won backing for the deal. But they were forced to put forward a motion that unless proper funding was guaranteed then Unison would pull out of the plan.
ANOTHER important debate was over the government's drive to privatise council housing. Delegates unanimously backed motions stressing the importance of this fight. They also passed motions making clear Unison's opposition to all forms of privatisation, from stock transfer to Arms Length Management Organisations (ALMOs).
ALMOs are a halfway stage to privatisation, with housing still under council control but hived off to a separate organisation. Phoebe Watkins from Camden argued, 'ALMOs are opening housing up for privatisation further down the line. We must fight ALMOs by any means necessary.'
Stand up to pay attack
THE MAIN Unison conference was preceded on Sunday and Monday by conferences of different sections of the union. These focus on pay and conditions, while the national conference takes up broader political issues. The biggest sector of Unison represents workers employed by local councils. High up its conference agenda was the looming threat of a major assault on national pay deals.
Chancellor Gordon Brown signalled in his recent statement on the euro his intention to push for 'flexibility' in public sector pay. He said he would ensure that the pay commissions and negotiating bodies covering public sector pay would be told to move towards regional pay. This could see workers doing identical public sector jobs getting widely differing pay.
The employers' body representing local councils has moved to turn that threat into reality. Its submission to the Local Government Pay Commission shocked delegates. The employers not only want regional pay, but a series of other attacks such as moves towards divisive performance-related pay.
Jean Geldart, chair of Unison's local government executive, said, 'The employers are talking about low pay and regional pay. We have to stop that, make it clear we won't stand for it.'
Vicky Lang from Derbyshire told delegates, 'This is a crucial attack. The employers are saying they can pull out of national pay bargaining at any time. If we lose this our strength will be gone. We need to go on the offensive and say we will take industrial action.'
The fight against low pay in the public sector repeatedly penetrated the conference. Striking nursery nurses from Tower Hamlets (see page 16) won a standing ovation from delegates.
Speakers also repeatedly referred to other strikes against low pay involving the union's members, from nursery nurses in Kirklees and in Scotland, to health workers in North Lincolnshire and east London.
John McLoughlin from Tower Hamlets won applause in a debate on fair pay, arguing, 'The reality of the last ten years is towards greater inequality, not less. Our members are on poverty pay, while fat cats are raking it in.'
He also struck a chord with most delegates saying, 'How can the government say it can't afford to fund public services if they can spend £3 billion destroying communities in Iraq?'