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From The Socialist newspaper, 16 June 2010

Unison local government conference: Delegates face huge struggles

The Unison local government conference on 13 and 14 June has been dominated by delegates reporting on the cuts already being made by councils across the country. They warned of the devastating cuts and more privatisation that the Con-Dem government are planning.

Jane James

Jean Thorpe, a delegate from Nottingham City branch and a national executive (NEC) member, described the impossible workload of social workers and the job cuts they were now facing. She said these attacks have to be fought locally but that needs to be part of national action.

Jean explained that Unison members in her workplace had told management that unless a particular post was reinstated, they would hand back their cases to management. Unison members won that battle but she explained that they would be a lot stronger if there was national action. That got a lot of applause from delegates.

April Ashley, a delegate from Southwark and an NEC member, called for a national trade union demo against the cuts. She called on Labour councils not to impose the Con-Dem cuts but to fight back and follow the example of Liverpool city council in the 1980s. That council led a mass movement which extracted concessions from the Thatcher government, which meant it could build houses and create jobs.

But the national strategy at the conference to oppose the cuts was very weak. The national leadership made a presentation explaining how to fight the cuts. They recommended that union reps should use the local media and get to know the local journalists. They should explain the cuts to members and the wider community.

They recommended that Unison reps negotiate with councils to try to lessen the cuts. But the major theme was that the density of union membership is so low in many workplaces, how can you have a fight? But as Jean Thorpe and others pointed out, if there's a fightback people will join the union.

There were calls for local areas to have more control of strike ballots and there were complaints about delays. For example Unison members in Tower Hamlets college are working with the UCU against cuts. But by the time the Unison leadership had authorised a strike ballot it was too late to strike with the UCU.

The government is intent not just on devastating cuts but in handing huge swathes of council services to the private sector, leaving very few jobs left in the councils. And another pensions battle looms.

But the strategy of the Unison leadership is like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. They talk about trying to get Unison membership up, and draw cartoons about the effect of cuts in services, when they should be organising the biggest battle ever.

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