By Isabel Ringrose
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Unison union conference: members put Palestine on agenda

Delegates also discussed Labour's failings and the need to start a fightback against a Labour government on day one
Issue 2911
Unison conference applauds President Libby Nolan's speech

Unison conference applauds President Libby Nolan’s speech (Picture: Unison)

The Unison union’s conference—it’s annual national meeting—began on Tuesday. Delegates made sure Palestine was at the centre of debate—despite it not officially being on the agenda until later in the week.

Many contributions ended with, “Free Palestine, support trans rights” and delegates sported Palestine badges and keffiyehs. And there was a Palestine flag hanging from the platform at the front of the conference room.

Delegates were also angry at the Tories’ vicious attacks on trans people. They raged at Keir Starmer, Wes Streeting—Labour minister for health—and other Labour frontbenchers for reneging on their support for trans people. They vowed to kick out the Tories—and get ready to confront a Labour government.

President Libby Nolan opened the conference saying, “We’ve been fighting against the Tories, and we’ve got to renew that fight against a Labour government that may not deliver.” This received a big applause from the conference. “We will not stop marching for Palestine. We also continue to show solidarity with the students protesting and facing violence.

“We will always say asylum seekers are welcome here. And we will not stop saying trans women are women, trans men are men and non-binary identities are valid. There is a battle with political leaders over supporting our trans comrades. If you are on the side of trans comrades you do not have photos with those people,” she said.

This was a reference to Unison general secretary Christina McAnea posing with Streeting. Unison had the pictures on its website despite Streeting backing the bigoted Cass Review that essentially bans healthcare for trans youth. And he said he was “wrong” to say trans women are women.

Delegates also discussed fighting the climate emergency. Tony from Yorkshire and Humberside said, “As we speak people are dying from extreme heat, floods, pollution and devastation. This is our issue. The scale of change needed to reach net zero targets won’t happen without transmitting to a low carbon environment that is fair and sufficiently funded.”

Lucinda from Sheffield Hallam university argued, “The time for words and pledges has passed. The existential crisis is here. Labour has already reneged on its plan to spend £28 billion. Labour’s priority is big business, rather than the crisis of the world being on fire. Labour is not our future—the youth of today who were involved in school students’ action and now encampments on the ground are.”

Delegates spoke about making the union more LGBT+ inclusive—and fighting the bigots. Claire from Southend slammed the Tories’ record, saying, “There’s a rolling back of LGBT+ rights under a vicious right wing government.

“We need to build Pride demonstrations locally and nationally to give confidence to trans, non-binary and gender diverse comrades—and to say the politics of hate is not welcome. And we need to build resistance because on 27 July it’s London trans pride and the vicious racist Tommy Robinson is organising to march the same day.”

Another delegate said, “We can’t let this slide just because we’ve got a Labour government coming. Trans lives matter—my life matters. As a trans woman I’m not a predator as gender critical bigots like to label us. I just want to exist.”

The exploitation of migrant workers was also discussed by delegates. Neil from the Eastern Region said, “Migrant workers in the care sector work too many hours, are taken advantage of and face harassment and bullying.

“Unscrupulous employers think they can get away with this. The government demonises migrant workers and fails to protect them when abused by their employers.”

A delegate from the Women’s Committee added, “The majority of these workers are women. The impact is worse because they are often the primary carer at home and are forced to bring younger or older relatives with them. But new Tory restrictive visas on families mean they’re at more of a chance of being exploited.”         

Delegate Jon from Portsmouth City branch spoke about how “fourteen years of Tory rule created conditions where rogue employers can flourish”.

“They have passed laws deliberately to make life for migrant workers difficult and to stoke up racism,” he added. “Rishi Sunak bangs on about boats in the most racist general election we’ve seen. The real problem is the record number of billionaires dodging tax that could be used for public services.”

Jon slammed Labour’s attacks on migrants, saying, “Keir Starmer is pandering to the Tories and Nigel Farage. Labour should repeal the restrictions and provide legal routes for people fleeing persecution. If we are serious about standing up for migrant workers we need to be ready to take on the Labour government from day one.”

Any confrontation of a Labour government has to be grounded in action—it can’t be left for the union’s leadership to weaken and water down resistance.

Calls to the streets are a good start. Most motions mention “working with, “influencing”, “seeking commitment” and “demanding” from Labour. Unison members have to be ready to launch campaigns over racism, the NHS, council funding housing and workers’ rights. And trade unionists have to launch pay struggles to properly drive the message home to Starmer—and the union leaders who back him.

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