Socialist Worker

Tension at the Unison conference

by Raymie Kiernan
Issue No. 2559

Unisons national delegate conference

Unison's national delegate conference (Pic: Socialist Worker)

Thousands of public sector workers met in Brighton this week at the national and sector conferences of Britain's largest union, Unison.

The largest sector conference, took place on Sunday and Monday. Appeals to fight for justice for Grenfell residents, hold the Tories to account and redouble efforts to combat racism were popular.

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Workers discussed the public sector pay cap, the social care crisis, fighting for better mental health service provision and resisting the cuts to school budgets and austerity across our local services.

Delegates argued that the support for Jeremy Corbyn's left wing manifesto should lift unions’ horizons. Even union general secretary Dave Prentis admitted that left wing ideas are “popular”.

There were repeated calls for the union to mobilise on the streets, particularly for this Saturday's march for homes and the demonstration to get rid of Theresa May on 1 July.

The tension with years of lacklustre leadership was evident, particularly around pay.

One leadership argument was that sector wide industrial action was not possible until the union recruits more members and increases density. The popular counter to this was that if the union starts to fight, struggle would be the best recruitment sergeant.

A lively debate around budget cuts in schools also illustrated this tension

 One schools convenor from London spoke of the “disgrace” of a school in his area paying 20 percent of its budget to service Private Finance Initiative (PFI) debt.

“We’re like a big bottle of fizzy pop that's being shaken and shaken. When will it explode?” asked a Birmingham teaching assistant.

National executive member Chris Tansley argued that the new education union formed by the merger of the NUT and ATL teaching unions “poses a threat to us”.

But other delegates wanted joint action.

York nursery worker Julie pointed to the NUT union call for strikes against Tory school cuts. She said, “We must join them. Education was a central issue in the election that lost the Tories votes.

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