Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/861/20965
Unison national conference
Prentis pushed to talk up action
Angie Waller, Unison local government service group executive (personal capacity)
Delegates to public sector union Unison's national conference on 16 to 19 June underlined the need for a fighting strategy. General secretary Dave Prentis was pushed by members' anger to talk about more action this year.
The leadership has traditionally relied on Labour to come to the rescue. Delegates had no patience left for this approach.
In the union's preceding local government conference on 14 and 15 June, many speeches had called for strikes, to loud applause. Striking Glasgow homelessness caseworkers received a standing ovation. Delegates were incensed by Unison's lack of leadership in the face of Tory onslaught.
At national conference, Prentis was pushed to promise support for all branch struggles and make sure victimised members are reinstated. Robert O'Donnnell, a Unison rep sacked by the Glasgow venue conference was taking place in, addressed delegates and was promised support.
In his opening speech, Prentis said the union would "fight the attack on facility time, doubling our legal funds, challenging and campaigning. And if we fail we will take this vicious, vindictive government to the highest court in Europe to defend our right to strike."
But legal action is not enough. Socialist Party speakers said the Trades Union Congress (TUC) needs to convene a council of war. All unions must mount a campaign of coordinated industrial action - with a 24-hour general strike as the next major step.
Our ideas were well received. The leadership has been caught in the headlights by an unexpected Tory victory, and has no strategy to fight back.
Prentis said the Labour leadership election is not the union's top priority. Neither is waiting for the next Labour government. Stopping well short of calling for a general strike, he was nonetheless forced to promise more militant leadership. He said the TUC should call a mass demonstration against austerity. If it doesn't, he even suggested Unison could organise it.
Conference was adjourned early on 18 June. Delegates converged on Glasgow's George Square in support of Robert O'Donnnell and the homelessness caseworkers. This excellent gesture of solidarity buoyed up conference's spirit.
The rally was opened by Brian Smith, secretary of Glasgow Unison. Brian is a member of our Scottish sister party, Socialist Party Scotland. He said: "We are absolutely clear that Robert was victimised for trying to build the union by an employer that is hostile to the trade union movement."
Brian reminded the rally that the venue is 91% owned by Glasgow's Labour council. To loud agreement from the crowd, Brian declared: "They should hang their heads in shame!"
Members of Socialist Party Scotland have been crucial in the homelessness caseworkers' struggle and Robert's reinstatement campaign. They have raised thousands in support funds, and linked the disputes with hundreds of other branches.
Many Socialist Party members spoke in debates. Speaking for the first time was Danny Wilkinson from Lincoln, a young member who introduced the fight against zero-hour contracts and for a £10 an hour minimum wage.
Brian Debus, chair of Hackney Unison, spoke several times. He was described by one speaker as the "great white shark of the union" for his record fighting council attacks and campaigning for socialism. 19 June marked eight years since four Socialist Party members, including Brian, were victimised by the Unison leadership for standing up to the union's bureaucracy.
Bromley Unison's Glen Kelly, another of the four, was prevented from attending conference by his employer's attacks on facility time. Laurie Pocock, secretary of Croydon Unison, paid tribute to Glenn's work - not only for his Bromley members, but helping neighbouring Croydon.
Many delegates expressed frustration at the scapegoating of frontline public sector workers for the failings caused by privatisation, cuts and top-heavy management. This was neatly summed up by Nottingham care worker Sara Huntingford, who said: "I came into this job wiping people's backsides. Now I seem to spend most of my time covering other people's backsides!"
A Socialist Party fringe meeting had 65 there, and 160 copies of the Socialist were sold during the conference.
In The Socialist 24 June 2015:
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