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From The Socialist newspaper, 29 June 2006

UNISON conference:

Anger at leadership's tactics

UNISON'S ANNUAL conference displayed a growing anger and questioning from delegates towards the union's leadership.

Ken Smith reports from Unison conference

What had looked like being a quiet conference turned into a display of some deep-rooted anger with the union leadership over issues like the link with the Labour Party, the NHS and the local government pensions dispute.

In common with other union leaders in many other 'left-led' unions, UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis and his supporters appeared to want to avoid controversy. This led to them supporting resolutions mildly critical of themselves.

But over some issues they sought to avoid debate by blatant manoeuvring of the agenda and conference speakers. But this tactic backfired spectacularly. One delegate from Wales got a near ovation when he slammed their undemocratic behaviour.

One of the most blatant examples was when a conference delegate (possibly at the request of some national leaders) moved that the vote be taken after only one speaker in a debate over pensions.

The conference angrily voted against this, which intensified when it was clear that the next speaker in the debate was Glenn Kelly, a Socialist Party member who is a UNISON NEC member. Glenn was a delegate from Bromley local government branch, with branch delegates' usual speaking rights.

But all week Glenn faced a concerted effort to keep him away from the rostrum by procedural means.

Glenn was actually supporting a motion that the leadership were also supporting. But they knew Glenn would raise damning criticisms of them and general secretary Dave Prentis over their handling of the local government pensions dispute.

Prentis had accepted the public-sector framework agreement, which covered many other public-sector workers, including health service members of UNISON.

Glenn asked why he had accepted it without any commitment from the government that the 80% of UNISON members who worked in local government would have their pension rights protected in the same way.

Glenn exposed Prentis' error of judgement in believing that the Labour government would offer the same deal. He added that the current dispute over the local government pension scheme, like a previous deal on single status, showed the government's utter contempt for UNISON.

Glenn pointed out that 48% of the local government conference had opposed the leadership's strategy. Now it was time to rely on the strength of UNISON members in action, not the 'goodwill' of accountants and High Court judges.

During the debate, many delegates pointed out the effect that the suspension of UNISON's money to the Labour Party had in bringing the government back to the table for talks. One delegate argued it had restored 'credibility' to the Labour link.

This prompted another delegate to say at the Campaign for a New Workers' Party fringe meeting that the most popular thing this fund had ever done was to stop doing the thing it was set up for!

A questioning of the link with and funding of Labour was a recurring theme.

The union leadership thought they had managed to avoid the issue appearing on the agenda in anything but the mildest form. But on the first day a number of delegates queried how ten resolutions on the subject could all be ruled out of order on the same grounds.

The president was forced to push the report from the standing orders committee through, in site of two votes where the conference clearly appeared to be challenging their rulings.

Criticism of leadership

SOCIALIST PARTY members played a crucial part in many debates, especially putting forward a critical position towards the leadership's inaction on the NHS and defending public services and their inept strategy on local government members' pensions.

In the debate on public services, an amendment from Greenwich local government branch concluded that the "Labour government's attacks on public services bring in to serious question the relationship between the Labour Party and the trade unions".

This had to be supported by the leadership and was overwhelmingly passed, such is the growth of members' anger towards Labour.

Moving the amendment, Socialist Party member Onay Kasab talked of the betrayals of working-class people by the Labour government and those union leaders who supported them.

He said: "This debate is not just about the millions given to the Labour Party but is also about the influence of New Labour in holding back the tactics of this union when it moves into struggle."

He concluded that there was a need to go further than just questioning the link with Labour. There was a need for a genuine debate in the union about: "building a genuine political alternative to represent public-service workers and the wider working class."

However, whilst there was a strong mood shown to break the link with Labour, this was not reflected by Yunus Baksh, a prominent member of the Socialist Workers' Party and Respect in UNISON. After attacking New Labour, Yunus said he was "not in favour of disaffiliating from the Labour Party."

Dave Prentis had to reflect the angry mood against Labour in his conference speech, perhaps also attempting to deflect the furious frustration at his handling of the pensions dispute.

He said the union would support strike action in the NHS where job cuts and privatisation were threatened - itself a shift in emphasis - and further strike action on pensions. He also said that the union's relationship with Labour was very strained.

He warned those waiting to take over from Blair "not to take my union's support for granted - they'll have to work for it" and he talked of Blair and his supporters "pushing Labour into the political abyss".

Socialist Party members attending the conference donated over 1,800 to the party's fighting fund (before costs). Over 200 copies of the socialist and a special conference supplement were sold. Five people expressed a desire to join the Socialist Party.

Defending the future of the NHS

A PASSIONATE debate about the future of the NHS saw Socialist Party members lead the charge at the inaction of the health sector leadership in UNISON. Anger was directed at them for not acting on the health sector conference decision to name a day for a national demo.

The conference standing orders committee claimed that an emergency motion from Wakefield NHS Trust UNISON had been lost. When a copy was produced, the committee then ruled it out of order as not being an emergency!

Pictured right, the lobby of the Public Services Not Private Profit lobby of Parliament 27 June

During the main NHS debate, Whipps Cross UNISON secretary Len Hockey, also a Socialist Party member, warned: "What we are seeing is the government-sponsored destruction of our NHS. The national day of action passed at health conference urgently needs to be carried out by the national union. We shoulder a burden of responsibility not just for our members but for the wider working class and future generations."

A fringe meeting on the NHS, sponsored by Len's branch and other NHS branches, attracted over 150 delegates and visitors.

A committee was set up which has called a stewards conference for 29 July in Birmingham to push for a national day of action and demonstration on the NHS, called by UNISON and other unions if possible.

For more details about this, contact Adrian O'Malley on 07930 185166 or Len Hockey at

Campaign for a New Workers' Party

OVER 50 people attended the Campaign for a New Workers' Party (CNWP) fringe meeting to hear national secretary and UNISON NEC member Roger Bannister (in a personal capacity) and newly elected Huddersfield councillor and NHS campaigner Jackie Grunsell.

Both Jackie and Roger argued that the events of UNISON conference, Gordon Brown's proposed attacks on public-sector workers and New Labour's destruction of the NHS showed the urgent need for a new mass party to defend working-class people.

Over half of the people had not attended a CNWP event before but all signed the campaign's declaration and donated over 300 to the campaign. Over 100 new signatories for the CNWP declaration were gained at UNISON conference.

CNWP supporters also organised a ballot of UNISON conference delegates and visitors which showed that 87% thought the union should stop funding the Labour Party.

The poll attracted nearly 200 voters - a 10% sample of delegates and visitors.

158 voted to stop funding the Labour Party, 23 voted to continue funding and there was one spoilt ballot.

Roger Bannister, CNWP national secretary said: "This confirms our belief that there is a strong feeling amongst UNISON members that there should be a ballot on this issue.

"And if such a ballot were to be conducted, then there would be a substantial majority for ending the funding of the Labour Party by UNISON."


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