Debates over the lack of leadership in the battle against Tory austerity dominated the annual conference of the Unison union at SECC in Glasgow last week.
Unison’s members are looking to defend themselves against attacks in the workplace – increasing workloads, job cuts and pay freezes. But its leadership is seemingly content to maintain membership numbers for the next five years.
Anger over shoddy pay deals in both the national disputes in local government and health repeatedly burst onto conference floor.
Two disputes shaped a mood of resistance at the conference.
The homelessness caseworkers’ all-out strike against the Labour-run council also had a high profile throughout the week. So did the conference venue’s refusal to recognise unions and the sacking of SECC Unison rep Robert O’Donnell.
Conference even ended early so delegates could protest in their support. And the union leadership were forced to adapt to the fighting spirit.
Under pressure, general secretary Dave Prentis told conference that “waiting for the next Labour government” was not a top priority. He announced that the union would campaign for the TUC to organise a mass lobby of parliament, and a massive march against austerity.
“If they refuse, we’ll organise it ourselves.”
He could hardly say anything else, such was the level of frustration at Labour coming through in speeches. Delegates attacked Labour councils implementing Tory cuts, and the Labour Party’s failure to offer a clear alternative to the Tories.
Doncaster and Bassetlaw delegate Roger Hutt summed up that bitter mood. He spoke of how Care UK workers, who struck 90 days last year, felt “sold down the river” by the lack of support from Labour locally. Doncaster is former Labour leader Ed Miliband’s backyard.
There were attempts to deflect criticism of Labour by focusing on the Tories. But this only raised the question of why the leadership had not led a sustained nationwide fight.
Esther Ray from Hounslow in west London addressed Prentis, saying, “We don’t want any more talk, we want action. I’m ready for a fight—are you ready for a fight?”
Ameen Hadi from Salford argued, “Workers can beat this Tory government—that’s the argument we have to win. We need to get our members in health and local government out together and combine with other unions. Let’s strike together and make a difference.”
Others wanted a more robust response to the Tory attack on union rights than Prentis pledge to go to “the highest court in Europe to defend our right to strike”.
Portsmouth delegate Jon Woods argued, “We cannot rely on the courts to defend our right to strike. We must strike, and defy the law if we have to.”
Barnet delegate John Burgess agreed. He said, “This lot want to finish what Thatcher started and we need to take them on full on. That must include national industrial action.”
Fringe meetings call for solidarity and resistance
Up to 200 delegates came to a left fringe meeting on resisting austerity. “We need a change–we want a fighting union,” said Max Watson, is Unison branch secretary at London Met University.
By live video link Greek trade unionist Costas Pittas brought a message of “not waiting for government to change things”. He said, “The best support any worker around Europe can give to us is creating unity from below and taking on your own government.”
The meeting also heard from the homelessness caseworker on all-out strike in Glasgow. Barnet Unison chair Helen Davies said the Glasgow strikers’ visit to her branch helped convince workers they could take up the fight against Tory council privatisation.
As well as hearing a message from sacked PCS union rep Candy Udwin delegates also heard from Scottish National Party Glasgow MSP Sandra White.
In explaining why voters had turned their backs on Labour Sandra argued that politicians “were there to represent those who elect us, not to railroad through austerity on people”.
Other speakers included anti-racist campaigner Maz Saleem, reinstated Barts health worker Charlotte Monro and Unison NEC member Karen Reissmann.
Other left fringe meetings took place throughout the week including a 70-strong meeting of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, and over 40 delegates came to the Socialist Workers Party meeting at the end of the day after the solidarity march for the homelessness caseworkers strike.
Can the left unite to seize the day?
Karen Reissmann also spoke alongside fellow NEC member Paul Holmes at a hustings meeting aimed at securing a united left candidate for union general secretary. Dave Prentis’ five-year term comes to an end this year.
Karen described the Unison leadership’s performance in leading resistance to Tory austerity as a “cloud cuckoo strategy”. She said, “I think we can defeat this government but this union needs a fighting strategy.”
She argued that building a left rank and file network in the union was the critical factor in shaping a fighting strategy – “whoever gets elected they can’t do without that”.
Paul told the meeting, “This is a winnable election.” He argued the left needed a candidate to unite the union and inspire activists on the ground because there was discontent throughout the union.
Speaking about the current leadership he asked, “Who has confidence in the top table at the moment?” He also said the left needed to win both the national executive and the general secretary position “otherwise one will be the prisoner of the other”.
During the debate from the floor delegates argued the left could do better than in the past—but cannot afford the luxury of divisions.
The meeting was organised on the basis that any platform speaker accepted the vote of the delegates at the meeting. Paul and Karen both committed to supporting whoever won most votes. Previous general secretary candidate Roger Bannister was not on the platform, as he did not accept this condition.
Three quarters of the room were critical of his position. Roger’s supporters argued that he has consistently polled more votes than other left candidates in the past, and abstained from the vote.
Karen got the backing of over half of the delegates, with Paul and those abstaining gaining an equal share of the rest of the votes.