With the background of huge cuts in public services around the corner, Unison’s local government and national delegate conferences met last week in Bournemouth.
Detailed discussion on the way forward were restricted by the fact that motion deadlines fell before the general election. However, a united emergency motion between the leadership and left-led branches laid out strategy against cuts.
The union supported a national ballot if final salary pensions are attacked, campaigns in defence of jobs and services, and organising local demonstrations on September 29 as part of a European-wide day of action.
Dave Prentis made a further commitment to ballot for action on pensions in his speech. Unison has much good policy on fighting privatisation, cuts and job losses. The question has always been whether the current leadership are prepared to lead an effective campaign and particularly whether they will back branches who do go into dispute.
Their record is poor, but the left must organise at branch and regional level to push the union nationally to hold to its own policy.
This job is made more difficult in Unison by the clamping down on democracy and witch-hunts of individual activists. At conference, this was debated in the form of a rule amendment restricting suspensions from the union and from holding office to 24 months.
In the recent past, activists have been arbitrarily suspended for long periods, including Caroline Bedale from Manchester Community Health branch, who was suspended beyond her retirement age for her involvement in Karen Reissman’s campaign. The rule change received a big majority on conference floor, but failed in the required two-thirds vote. The majority was a sign that even amongst those attending conference there is a discomfort with the severity of the individual witch-hunting.
Other controversial debates included a emergency motion strengthening Unison’s policy on a boycott of Israel, which was included in the context of a condemnation of the attack on the aid flotilla. Those opposing the boycott did not get a motion on the agenda, so spoke against the emergency motion and were heavily defeated.
A motion submitted by the Women’s Committee in favour of the banning the buying of sex and supporting the ‘Nordic model’ for addressing prostitution also caused debate. The AWL hosted a well-attended fringe meeting with Thierry Schaufhausser speaking for the GMB-IUSW sex workers’ branch. However, the debate was restricted on conference floor and, with the support of the platform, the motion was strongly carried.
A Unison United Left meeting addressed by John McDonnell MP (amongst others) drew broad support and had a good debate on the way forward, showing that the left organises relatively well at conference itself. We need to recognise, however, that the lack of good motions to conference and the disappointing result in the recent general secretary elections shows that this needs to be continued away from conference.
Most importantly, we have to find a way of developing rank-and-file organisation across branches to link up those opposing the cuts.