Socialist Worker

Unite union delegates vow to fight austerity and to defend the NHS at conference

by Dave Sewell, in Brighton
Issue No. 2512

Unite union members on strike in Bromley, south London, last year

Unite union members on strike in Bromley, south London, last year (Pic: Nathan Pettefar)

In a session on fighting austerity today, Tuesday, delegates at the Unite union's conference voted for opposition to privatisation and campaigning to repeal the Housing Act.

They also voted to organise solidarity with the junior doctors and call on the TUC to build a national demonstration and general strike in 2017 to defend the NHS.

One of the biggest tests for Unite is local government where austerity has hit hardest. Hundreds of Labour councillors are Unite members, including several conference delegates.

The union is campaigning for councils to try harder to avoid cuts. EC member Dick Banks said, "You don't have to be an expert to recognise that more can more done". He pointed to successes in winning Labour councils to agreements on "good industrial relations".

Conference agreed to call on councils to use borrowing and reserves more to avoid cuts, and to join a campaign against the cuts. But some delegates—including former Lambeth council leader Ted Knight— argued that councils needed to pass legal no cuts budgets.

Andy Ford from Warrington listed the services being closed there. "It's not true that they are mitigating the cuts," he said. He pointed to the experience of Kevin Bennett, a councillor who voted against the cuts. "His life was made a misery and he was bullied out of the Labour Party."

Councillors and conference delegates Damien Bailey and David Agleby defended their role. Damien said, "Do not tell me as a Unite councillor to pass a budget that could potentially see my council suspended and some posh KPMG administrators take over"—although no such action had been suggested.

David said, "It is not Labour councillors who are making this happen, it is the Tory government."

Danny Hoggan from Greenwich council Unite responded, "You are making cuts whether you like it or not. You will find it far more liberating to come out of the town hall and join us."

The conference voted down the motion for no cuts budgets, but the policy that was passed can help boost campaigners and workers fighting council cuts.

What strategy to save jobs?

Delegates at the Unite union conference voted for renationalisation of public transport and a public inquiry into the financial crisis.

Many motions dealt with the ongoing tide of job losses in manufacturing, particularly steel. Some workers spoke powerfully about the effect of closures.

But the solutions focused on lobbying against supposedly unsafe "cheap substandard imports" or as one speaker put it "foreign crap".

One composite was criticised for calling for use of "British products and British labour". When asked, EC chair Tony Woodhouse gave "assurances" that this wouldn't be interpreted to mean a return to "British jobs for British workers". The racist slogan had been shamefully used by Unite's previous general secretary Derek Simpson.

Another motion called for lobbying the World Trade Organisation to deny China "market economy status" on technical grounds. One of these was that the Chinese economy includes state ownership and intervention - something Unite campaigns for in Britain. Siding with a bosses' organisation to compete with workers in other countries is a dead end.

The composite motion did include a reference to workers taking action but this was almost entirely absent from the debate. The recurring theme was that the government needs a real "strategy for manufacturing"—but in truth so does Unite.

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