Socialist Worker

Delegates tell Unison conference: 'We need action, not words'

by Raymie Kiernan in Glasgow
Issue No. 2458

Glasgow homelessness workers are taking on the council with an all-out strike over pay

Glasgow homelessness workers are taking on the council with an all-out strike over pay (Pic: Duncan Brown)

One question hung over the Unison union’s annual conference in Glasgow this week—will it lead resistance to the new Tory government? 

There was a clear mood of defiance at the local government sector conference. 

Workers know local services face more savage cuts from the Tory budget next month. 

One Nottingham delegate expressed this with a message to the government saying, “David Cameron can take his big society and shove it where the sun don’t shine.”

Many speeches from the floor argued that lack of leadership from the top of the union was a real problem.

It came under fire for not fully implementing decisions made at a special recall conference forced by union members in March. That conference had called to restart the fight over pay this year.

General secretary Dave Prentis made a lacklustre speech that offered no lead, no strategy and no call to defy Tory rule.

Yet in the national press he warned of illegal action over the Tories’ attack on the unions.

Jo Cardwell from Islington in London warned delegates to “beware false radicalism”. 

She moved to implement the special conference decisions and back up the lobbying campaign over pay offered by the leadership with a programme of escalating strikes. 

She said, “Dave Prentis—don’t talk to me about illegal strikes when you call off legal ones.” 


She argued that the leadership struck “a shoddy deal” to call off the local government strikes last year.

Jo argued, “We should be on the streets marching this Saturday. 

“On 8 July every branch should back Barnet branch’s call for solidarity with its strike on the day of the Tories’ budget. And in the autumn we should prepare to strike.” 

 “I want this union’s legacy to be that we took out David Cameron and defended our welfare state.” 

Her speech raised the roof because delegates know the Tories  are launching class war and we need a fightback on a scale unseen for years.

The Tories are pushing attacks on union organisation and privatising services. 

Their cuts mean increasing workloads and intolerable pressure for workers.

Every council worker knows they can’t put up with this and wait another five years for a possible Labour government.

If the Unison leadership won’t lead a real fight then they should get out of the way. 

Workers’ only weapon against the Tories’ onslaught is to strike to defend jobs and services. The left in Unison will make gains when it works together. The results of recent national executive elections show this.

The left now has a duty to build the biggest united left organisation possible.

The leadership tried to deflect criticism from Labour councils making cuts by arguing for a focus on the government. But Ameen Hadi from Salford argued, “If it’s the Tories to blame then we need national action against them this year. 

“No more Tory austerity—we can resist it.”

Workers tell of impact of us

“The Trade Union Bill is a sign that the Tories fear us,” Helen Davies from Barnet Unison argued at the union’s local government conference this week.

She said the coming onslaught on the unions and the public sector means we “cannot carry on as if it is business as usual”.

The impact of austerity on workers, services, young people and the poor dominated discussions at the conference. Delegates agreed that austerity must end.

The debate came over what the union’s strategy should be – and whether workers can wait for Labour.

The Tories have promised new curbs on strikes in “essential services”. As local government service group executive member John McLoughlin pointed out, “We are only essential when they want to stop our right to strike.”

Delegate after delegate talked about the damaging impact of cuts. Shazzia from Sandwell spoke of the “salami slicing” of libraries and other services. This has cut jobs, hours and resources – and driven up stress and workloads.

Sarah from Nottingham described meeting an older man on a protest over the closure of a day centre. He explained that he used it two days a week because he couldn’t afford to heat his home on those days.

Many delegates pointed out that Labour-run councils are imposing attacks. Esther Ray from Hounslow in London said, “We have heard a lot about outsourcing from Tory councils in Barnet and Bromley. But it’s not just the Tories.” She felt her council was “proposing worse” things.

Jim Board from Doncaster said, “Labour has wholeheartedly bought into the austerity agenda. We should demand if you are in opposition then you have a moral duty to reject austerity.”

Left wing fringe meetings were big.

The evening before conference began around 100 delegates met to debate how to get the union to lead a real fight over pay. They discussed how to make sure the union properly implements decisions made at a special conference in March.

These debates shaped the conference floor.

The anger and disillusionment at Labour’s general election result saw a big meeting of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. Up to 70 delegates debated how the left can unite to offer an alternative to austerity.

A Socialist Workers Party meeting on “Why did Labour lose the election?” drew almost 100 delegates.

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