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UNISON general secretary election
How to resist New Labour's attacks
AS 2005 opens up, the 1.3 million members of UNISON, Britain's biggest union, face a barrage of ballot papers coming through their letter boxes.
Three national ballots are taking place between now and March. They are the election of general secretary, where Socialist Party member Roger Bannister is standing, as well as the election of a new national executive committee and a ballot on whether to keep the union's political fund.
The 800,000 members of UNISON's local government section will probably also be balloting, subject to a consultation process, for strike action against cuts in pension rights.
Many local branches will also be organising ballots over various disputes. For example, the Liverpool branch face the threat of the Liberal-controlled council unilaterally breaking away from the national terms and conditions agreement.
This outbreak of ballots will focus members' attention on what sort of union they need to defend them against New Labour's renewed onslaught. For the bulk of union members, conditions are worse now than even five years ago, when Dave Prentis, the existing general secretary, was first elected.
On his 'watch' local government workers have been forced to accept a three-year pay deal, no more than the level of inflation. It is even less when you consider the 1% increase in national insurance contributions. Thousands of council workers are in battle with New Labour-controlled councils because of the effects of the single status agreement.
Facing a real cut in wages
80,000 health workers face a real cut in wages as a result of Agenda for Change. This is on top of the increasing amount of privatisation under New Labour. And the huge increase of temporary and agency labour across councils, the NHS and other parts of the public sector has driven down pay and conditions for many.
And now the latest attacks are on pensions. According to Simon Jenkins of The Times: "The bulk of more than four million workers most affected by these 'reforms' [attacks on pension rights] are bound to be Labour voters".
He predicts that Tony Blair faces his 'miners' strike' that "could engulf a fifth of Britain's working population". He points out that New Labour's proposals to increase the retiring age from 60 to 65 will 'save' 20% on the pensions bill.
He thinks that the government will not want this hanging over its head as it heads for a general election in May or June. It will postpone its plans until after the election because of the threat of united strike action by unions like the PCS civil service union.
But when the government feels this vulnerable, it is the best time for the unions to act.
That is why Roger Bannister's election address demands that unions act before the general election and send a clear warning to the government that an attack on pension rights will be answered with industrial action across the whole of the public sector.
Dave Prentis' 'fighting' talk on pensions is no doubt linked to the general secretary election. UNISON members must demand he goes ahead with the ballot for industrial action being proposed for 21 March.
But what does Dave Prentis promise to do about all the other issues of wage cuts, job losses and privatisation? You have to look hard in his election material for any answer beyond a few phrases about "standing up for public service workers."
Prentis stands for a continuation of inaction against the attacks, because of his close links to the New Labour Party and government.
Roger Bannister's campaign will ensure that these issues are brought to the fore. The other candidate Jon Rogers is tied completely into the Labour Party. Neither of them will give a real choice to the members on the crucial issue of UNISON's link with Labour.
This is the major cause of paralysis amongst many union leaders and Prentis is no different. For them, the unions need a Labour government because they fear a Tory one.
But it is a Labour government which has introduced foundation hospitals into the NHS. It is a Labour government which has dared to run down public services and hand them over lock stock and barrel to the private sector.
The choice between New Labour and the Tories is no choice at all. It is a phantom that exists in the minds of the union leaders, a few activists and no one else.
The Bannister campaign will link all the industrial issues together with the need for a complete break with the Labour Party. It will explain the urgent need for the unions to build their own party that represents the interests of the millions of union members and not the interests of the millionaires.
In The Socialist 8 January 2005: