THE MOOD for a fight for decent pay for public sector workers marked the conference of Britain's biggest trade union this week. So too did the growing feeling for united action over pay across the public sector. The main conference of the Unison union took place in Bournemouth after Socialist Worker went to press on Tuesday.
But delegates from the union's branches in local councils met on Sunday and Monday. There was no doubting the mood. 'Our members are low paid. They are angry and they want action,' Julie Thompson from Kirklees told the conference. They are fed up with the injustice of low pay. We need to harness their energy and willingness to fight, and let Tony Blair know what we feel.'
The Unison delegates gathered as over 800,000 of the union's members in councils in England and Wales vote on national strikes over pay. If that ballot is won-and most delegates believed it could be-then action would start with a one-day national strike on Wednesday 17 July. That strike should also involve TGWU and GMB union members in the councils, who are also balloting.
The feeling for a strike on pay was strong at the Unison conference, and speakers stressed that it was among the lowest paid that the anger over pay was sharpest. More than 277,000 council workers earn below £5 an hour.
Theresa Connell from Newcastle spoke of the mood among low paid Unison members in schools: 'Our members in schools are angry. They are criticising us for not being militant enough!'
Many of these schools workers effectively get paid below the minimum wage. They get paid in term time only but are banned from claiming Jobseeker's Allowance in the school holidays. More The mood for action on pay was buoyed by the spirit brought by delegates from London.
Over 50,000 council workers across the capital struck over pay for two days last week. It was their second round of strikes to win an increase in the London weighting allowance they get for the extra costs of working and living in the capital. John McLoughlin from Tower Hamlets told delegates, 'It's been the low paid, the teaching assistants, the nursery workers and the cleaners who have been at the heart of the strike. They have been magnificent, joining the union, picketing, rallying and saying they want to do more.'
And he added, 'They are asking why we don't unite all those public sector workers fighting on pay in united action.' An excellent fringe meeting organised by the Lambeth and Westminster council branches saw delegates from across the country pack in to hear how the London action had been built.
Jon Rogers, branch secretary of Lambeth Unison, stressed the role of activists linking up across the capital, pushing and organising action, and not just relying on the union leaders:
'We called activists' meetings across London, not in opposition to the official structures but, you might say, semi-official.' He argued this approach needed to be extended nationally for the fight on pay. He added, 'We are very keen to see coordinated action between different public sector unions.'
Tony Staunton from Plymouth stressed that the same sentiment existed everywhere: 'It's not just council workers, but teachers, college lecturers, firefighters, education workers, all fighting for better pay. We need united action.'
Global battle to slay the 'monster' of privatisation
PRIVATISATION was a key theme at the Unison conference. From elderly care homes to home helps and housing, New Labour is driving the privatisation of council services across the country. But the government's plans to push through the privatisation of Britain's three million council homes have suffered serious setbacks recently.
Council tenants have voted down privatisation plans in areas like Southwark, Dudley and, most significantly, in a ballot in Birmingham-England's biggest council. Tracey Twist from Birmingham told the delegates, 'We won a magnificent victory by uniting tenants and council workers. The national Defend Council Housing campaign played a key role.'
Unison is now pledged to affiliate to Defend Council Housing. 'But we can't be complacent,' warned Tracey Twist. 'They'll be back with privatisation under some form.'
In some areas the government is backing what are dubbed Arms Length Management Organisations (ALMOs) for council housing. This is 'a rebranding of privatisation under a different name', argued Phoebe Watkins, a Camden delegate.
In Leeds the New Labour council started a ballot of over 60,000 tenants this week on setting up an ALMO. On privatisation, as on several other issues, conference delegates voted for more action and resistance than the union's leaders were offering. Delegates gave their backing to a national demonstration and one-day national stoppage against privatisation.
The mood was underlined when Roger Ronnie, general secretary of the SAMWU South African public service union, addressed the conference. He won a standing ovation for a blistering speech attacking privatisation: 'Privatisation is happening all over the world, and we have to join hands to defeat this monster,' argued Roger.
He ended, to loud applause, saying, 'Let us name our enemy. It is the global system of capitalism that has brought nothing but poverty, unemployment and attacks on working people.'