Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/585/7476
Unison conference: We needed a council of war - we got a council of doom
Unison general secretary Dave Prentice got a standing ovation when he had a dig at New Labour, photo by Paul Mattsson
With dire predictions of 350,000 public sector jobs under threat, a massive increase in privatisation and talk of the end of the public sector pension, the Unison conference should have been a council of war. However in many senses it was more like a council of doom.
The average delegate would have been clearly aware of all the attacks that are coming their way, but have been sent home with no ammunition to take on the employers and the government.
Unison conference 2009: Defend the Four protest, photo Paul Mattsson
Incredibly, rather than a strategy to fight, the union held up the "Newcastle road" as the way forward. Here, by their own admission, the Unison branch (given an hour to lecture us in the art of defeat) said they had worked with the council to reduce the workforce by 25% in return for no compulsory redundancy and no privatisation.
No one is opposed to having a fallback Plan B position, where some concessions have to be given if a fight with the employers is lost. But to hold this up as a model Plan A is effectively to wave a white flag of surrender without a single shot being fired in anger.
To be agreeing to 25% job cuts is to agree to devastate services and place an intolerable workload on the remaining workforce.
Return to 1980s
Unison conference 2009: Onay Kasab at the Socialist Party fringe meeting, photo Paul Mattsson
The idea that workers will accept keeping services in-house no matter what the cost to them, is ridiculous and not new. It is a return to the 1980s days of compulsory competitive tendering, where workers had a gun held to their heads to accept cuts in jobs, wages and conditions just to keep services in-house.
We were also treated to the rallying cry from the leadership of: "Go back to your branches and recruit, recruit... But remember, we are not strong enough to fight because our membership density is too low".
This shows a complete lack of understanding of why workers join a union. They will if the leadership is prepared to lead a fight for jobs and services. If not, the membership will fall not grow.
Unison conference 2009: Roger Bannister, photo Paul Mattsson
The union leaders fail to learn from our own recent past. The biggest growth in membership is when the union leads a fight. We recruited 40,000 in one month when we called the action on pensions in 2006.
Whilst many activists are lacking confidence, instead of giving a lead the union leaders seek only to reflect back the worst conservatism and pessimism.
Activists can and will respond to a lead when given. This was shown when the general secretary Dave Prentis hinted at a fight against New Labour. He pointed to a recent survey of public sector workers that says 70% of them won't vote Labour in the next general election.
Unison conference 2009: Monique Hirst, photo Paul Mattsson
He said: "It no good saying that the Tories will be worse if Labour is simply going to do the same as they are doing now". He then stunned conference when he went on to say: "Members are fed up with feeding the hand that bites them". He called for an immediate suspension of union funds to Unison-backed MPs' constituencies. (Though this is only £100,000 a year in total). He also called for Labour prospective candidates to sign up to Unison's public service agenda if they want to get the union's backing.
These minimal demands were cheered to the rafters and Prentis got his first ever standing ovation.
The Socialist Party welcomes any step towards breaking the link with New Labour. But when Unison's manifesto is thrown back in our faces, as it inevitably will be, what will Prentis do then? Will he call for the end of the £3 million a year going to Labour? Will he call for it to be used to support workers' candidates who will genuinely defend public sector workers?
Unison conference 2009: Peter Taaffe at the Socialist Party fringe meeting, photo Paul Mattsson
Unfortunately we have to say that history shows that he will crawl back to New Labour as the election approaches, unless we can force him from below to do otherwise.
Generally the conference was sanitised from controversy so much, if it was a colour it would be beige. But genuine debate did break out over new rules. The union leaders lost two key votes. They had sought to set up new bargaining structures. But when they refused to guarantee members' minimal democratic control over their negotiators, conference threw it out.
The conference also refused to believe that the union would only use a new proposed rule against the BNP and racist parties/organisations. The leaders had sought to bring in a rule that would allow them to expel "a member of a political party whose aims and objectives were contrary to those of the union".
The union has spent thousands of pounds and years getting rid of socialists, yet has failed to deal with the BNP members in our ranks, despite demands from the branches to deal with them. (A more detailed article to follow).
Unison conference 2009: Glenn Kelly addresses the Reclaim the Union fringe meeting, photo Paul Mattsson
The opposition to the ongoing witch hunt was shown when 250 delegates packed into a fringe meeting of "Reclaim the Union" addressed by Glenn Kelly, one of the Socialist Party members currently being witch-hunted.
The Socialist Party also had its biggest fringe meeting in years with 75 in attendance. We sold 229 copies of The Socialist and raised £2,800 for the Socialist Party's fighting fund.
In The Socialist 24 June 2009:
Youth fight for jobs
Socialist Party editorial
Socialist Party news and analysis
Revolution in Iran
Socialist Party statement