Since his re-election as Unison general secretary in December 2015 Dave Prentis’ leadership has been rocked by scandal and former allies now challenge his leadership.
Allegations of widespread malpractice by senior officials in the general secretary election have undermined his credibility. A new broad left won significant gains in recent national executive council (NEC) elections.
This year’s national conference, held in Brighton last week, was dominated by criticism of government attacks on the public sector. But anger at the lack of leadership from the top of the union was less easy to contain than usual.
Wendy from Tower Hamlets summed up the frustration in the pay debate. “I’m a low paid worker, I work in a kitchen,” she said. “I earn £6,400 in a year. At the end of each month I have to choose between feeding my child and paying rent.
“But where I live luxury flats are going up. The wealth of the richest increased £82 billion last year. We are sick of poverty, we are sick of pay restraints. That's why I voted for Jeremy Corbyn and that’s why we have to fight to break the pay freeze.”
An NEC motion pledged to “continue to explore industrial action strategies in the face of the 2016 Trade Union Act”.
It promised to explore “the possibility of coordinated action across Unison sectors and service groups as well as across the public sector”.
It agreed to “call on the TUC to organise a public sector pay lobby of parliament in summer 2017”.
Prentis backed the People’s Assembly national demonstration on 1 July. He said, “We will call on every single Unison branch to march against the Tories.”
He also said, “We will not go through another five years pay poverty. Now is the time to rise up, this is our year to smash the pay cap.”
Prentis needs to start delivering on his promises.
Defending the welfare state
Anger at the state of social housing and the preventable deaths after the Grenfell Tower blaze repeatedly broke out. Mandy from London argued, “We should demand that the rich who leave their homes empty for profit are requisitioned now.
“Let's put the queen in a little apartment and use the refurbishment money for her palace for council housing instead.”
Jim from Doncaster said there was “no greater monument to the contempt from our rulers for working class communities than Grenfell”.
Delegates heard warnings of how talk of “integration” is being used as a cover for cuts and privatisation in health and social care.
The privatisation pushed by Tory and New Labour governments undermined the standard of care, and drove down workers’ wages and conditions. Public cash has subsidised private firms’ profits.
Understaffing is endemic. Andrea from Bolton exposed how, at one flagship council, an arm’s length care firm was running 1,000 staff hours a week short.
Tracy, a low paid carer and delegate from Sefton, said that workers like her are the “shock absorbers of the system”.
She added, “So called health tourism or immigration is not to blame, 'bed blocking' is not the problem, proper funding and resources are. We only spend 1 percent of GDP on social care.”
Gareth, from Bournemouth and Christchurch, said, “Integrating one chronically underfunded service with another chronically underfunded service? It doesn't take a genius to work out how that’s going to go.”
One motion said the national 200,000-strong protest for the NHS in March “shows the potential for a serious fight”.
It continued, “We believe unions should be doing more to build that fight.”
Delegates voted to affiliate Unison to NHS Campaigns Together and to call on the TUC to organise a national demonstration in defence of our NHS.
NEC member Elizabeth Cameron said racism is “at its highest level in my life”. She was moving a motion on challenging racism and xenophobia.
She attacked the racism coming from the top of society. “We are making clear that refugees are welcome here, and we won't allow migrant workers be scapegoated,” she said.
Jo from Islington, north London, said it was important to resist double standards over media reporting of terrorism. “We have to reject the idea that it’s only terrorism when the victims are white,” she said.
The conference reaffirmed support for working with “a wide coalition of anti-racist groups” to organise against “all manifestations of racism, antisemitism and xenophobia”.
Around 130 delegates joined a Stand Up To Racism (SUTR) fringe meeting. And up to 200 were at the Love Music Hate Racism (LMHR) conference social with founder of Steel Pulse, Basil Gabbidon.
Basil urged activists and artists to campaign with LMHR. “The power of music has an influence but pop music isn’t enough—it’s got to be conscious,” he said. “It’s up to us to make a change.”
Nahella Ashraf from SUTR said, “The trade unions are the backbone of the anti-racist movement.”