'MR BLAIR, we will take strike action again.' This warning came from Dave Prentis last week at the conference of the Unison union. He is the general secretary of the 1.3 million strong public sector workers' union. Prentis praised the strikes the union's members have staged in the last year. He warned more would follow unless the government coughed up to tackle low pay and improve schools and hospitals.
The biggest cheers during Prentis's speech came when he joked about 'Tory Blair'. The tone echoed a general leftward shift by Unison's leaders to reflect their members' anger at New Labour.
This move by the leadership led to the conference often feeling subdued. There were few sharp arguments because delegates agreed with the leaders' words - even if many were sceptical that words would become action. Dave Prentis won enthusiastic applause declaring, 'I am proud of our union on Iraq. We were right to oppose the war before it started, right to oppose it during the war.
'And we demand that Iraq be returned to the Iraqi people, not next year, not next month, but now.' The conference's most controversial moments came during a debate about the union's financial link with the Labour Party. At present Labour is the only political party that the union funds. The union's leaders strongly oppose any change in this arrangement.
The debate was shaped by bureaucratic manoeuvres and the particular structure of the political fund in Unison (for more click here). The broad lines of the key political arguments were clear enough. David O'Connor from Glasgow argued, 'Our members ask, why does our union give our money to an organisation that attacks our wages and conditions and pushes privatisation?'
Dave Draycott from Leeds echoed this, 'Our members are extremely angry at attacks on them by a New Labour party funded by our dues.' And Suzanne Mooner from the Housing Corporation Unison branch said that her branch meeting was unanimously against the union simply handing its political fund to New Labour.
'We thought about PFI and privatisation. But most of all we thought about the lies, about Blair ignoring the wishes of working people to attack Iraq on behalf of big business.'
The union leaders and their supporters acknowledged the anger against the government, but then put a counterargument. They said trade unions could and should use the link to 'reclaim Labour' from those around Blair. They argued that Blair's growing weakness makes this possible. Dave Prentis argued for 'a united trade union front to campaign to renew our Labour Party'.
He spelled out how he would be working with other key union leaders in the Amicus, TGWU and GMB unions to do this. 'I will be meeting with the new boys on the block - Derek Simpson, Tony Woodley and Kevin Curran. We will be talking about how we reclaim our party.' The theme was echoed by delegates defending the union's link with Labour.
Carry Murphy from Glasgow argued, 'Our fight is with the government, not with the Labour Party. Let's reclaim our party - against the war, against privatisation, against racism.'
Other speakers pointed to the example of Wales, where Labour did relatively well in this year's assembly election on policies slightly to the left of Blair's. Bill King argued, 'In Wales we got a Labour majority government because we don't have New Labour but the Labour Party, clear red water.
'It was the Labour link that produced this change. Does the link work? In Wales it does.' These arguments convinced many delegates. The union's leaders won a vote (by around 85 percent to 15 percent of delegates) to keep the existing set-up of the union's political funds.
In the debates some delegates argued that the union should put conditions on funding Labour constituencies. They said money should only go to constituency parties if the MP backed core Unison policies. The union's leaders defeated this. But in doing so general secretary Dave Prentis effectively promised to implement precisely this change.
'I object to going to TV studios and finding MPs who continue to get money from Unison opposing me. I give you a commitment to review this.'
Powerful mood for wider unity
THERE WAS a sense of urgency in the conference debates about the Nazi BNP, racism and fascism. There was also a huge feeling for trade unions and anti-racist and anti-fascist groups to unite. Guest speaker Mohammed Azam, a Labour councillor in Oldham, kicked off the discussion by urging unity in the fight against the BNP.
'It's not just an issue for the black and Asian communities, it is a fight for the whole trade union movement,' he said. 'Let's get back to basics, let's defend the working class, let us unite and say no to the fascists, no to the BNP.' Ray Walker from Salford proposed the motion that urged a united campaign against the BNP. It also blamed the government, naming David Blunkett and Tony Blair, for fuelling racism through its vicious attacks on asylum seekers, and for failing to address poverty and industrial decline.
'The BNP have targeted towns where there have been job losses and voters are disaffected,' said Ray Walker. Steve Beardsmore from the West Midlands Region said, 'I live in Castle Priory in Dudley with a BNP councillor daring to represent me. 'This was once a rock solid Labour seat.'
Claire Williams, the Unison convenor for the Northern Region, explained how they had built a united campaign against the Nazis. 'The BNP stood 54 candidates in the local elections in the north east, 25 in Sunderland. They got 13,000 votes but no seats. We brought together trade unions, Labour councillors, the ANL, Show Racism the Red Card, the Tyne and Wear Anti-Fascist Action and others. This is the way to beat the fascists, by uniting together. We are leafleting and campaigning around local estates in Durham and elsewhere and setting up cultural events especially involving young people. On 12 July we will make sure there is a massive anti-fascist presence at the Durham Miners' Gala. The north east belongs to us, not to the fascists.' The motion was carried unanimously.
The conference also voted to affiliate to the Committee to Defend Asylum Seekers.
What we think
A return to 'Old Labour' policies will not be enough
THE ARGUMENTS put by Unison leaders, and echoed by others such as CWU union leader Billy Hayes (see here), on the link between the unions and Labour are important. Socialist Worker thinks they are wrong on key points.
Labour in Wales did stand on policies slightly better than those of Tony Blair. But the result of Blair's policies hits people in Wales every bit as much as people across Britain.
The poverty and unemployment in parts of Wales are among the worst in Britain, and the Labour - run Welsh Assembly has done nothing to change this. Nor did Rhodri Morgan, Labour's leader in Wales, speak out against war on Iraq. The differences between Blair and Welsh Labour were not a result of the link between the party and the union.
Labour's fear of Plaid Cymru taking its working class votes was the key factor. Unison leaders also pointed repeatedly to how the unions had united to win a vote over PFI at last year's Labour Party conference. Yet chancellor Gordon Brown declared within minutes of that vote that he would ignore it. The government has not slowed its drive for even more privatisation. Just as important is the limited vision of change held out by those like the Unison leaders.
They are arguing for a return to a Labour Party more like that under the leadership of John Smith in the early 1990s or of the Labour governments of the 1970s. That is a dismal prospect.
John Smith was the key architect of Labour's courting of big business, with what was called his 'prawn cocktail offensive' in the City. And anyone old enough to remember the 1970s Labour governments will recall the soaring unemployment, strikebreaking, wage cuts, school and hospital closures that were its hallmark.
Real change demands harnessing the anger of millions of people at Blair's domestic and foreign policy into struggle, and backing for those who stand openly for socialist policies.
For more on Unison conference click here