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From The Socialist newspaper, 25 June 2008

Unison conference 2008: Fighting to reclaim the union for its members

Unison conference 2008 anti-witchhunt protest, photo Paul Mattsson

Glenn Kelly at Unison conference 2008, photo Paul Mattsson

BY THE end of this year's Unison conference of public sector workers, the Socialist Party was seen as the most prominent party, as a result of its campaign against the union leaders' witch hunt of four of its members and for promoting discussion on why Unison should break its political link with Labour.

Jane James

At the local government section conference (which preceded the main one) Onay Kasab from Greenwich received much applause when he reminded the leadership that the union's "priority was not the New Labour government but our members. Let's reclaim this union".

Onay Kasab, Unison conference 2008 anti-witchhunt protest, photo Paul Mattsson

Onay Kasab, Unison conference 2008 anti-witchhunt protest, photo Paul Mattsson

Brian Blake from Ealing described how low paid workers in his council (who faced a 50% cut in their pay) had given 100% support for industrial action back in September 2007 but the request for a ballot was not met. This led to members leaving the union.

A number of delegates criticised union officials for not facilitating strike ballots but the chair ruled that delegates must stop referring to specific officials in their contributions.

Brian Debus, Hackney, spoke to Motion 4 - 'Pay campaign lessons of 2007' - which was carried. It argued that "a successful pay campaign needs to be conducted prior to the wage year rather than during it." In future members need to be ready to take action before 1 April instead of leaving a ballot until late in the year, as happened in 2007. Brian pointed out that "councils made millions of pounds by holding onto our money till the end of 2007."

Defend the 4

Unison conference 2008 anti-witchhunt protest, photo Paul Mattsson

Unison conference 2008 anti-witchhunt protest, photo Paul Mattsson

From the first day of the national conference the leadership was on the back foot. So worried was general secretary Dave Prentis that members from the branches of the four being witch-hunted would disrupt his speech with protests, that Socialist Party delegates reported it was the flattest, most non-controversial speech they had heard. Delegates pointed out that instead of fighting his own members Prentis should be fighting for decent pay and against privatisation.

Supporters of the four went ahead with a loud, determined protest outside the conference and were joined by delegates in a march to an anti-witch hunt meeting which was filled to overflowing by the hundreds who attended!

Unison conference 2008 anti-witchhunt protest, photo Paul Mattsson

Unison conference 2008 anti-witchhunt protest, photo Paul Mattsson

At the local government section conference, Socialist Party members expressed the mood of anger and frustration of workers against the Labour government. This in turn was carried over into the main conference, particularly in the last few hours of the conference when motion 63 was debated.

This motion - entitled 'New Labour: what do we get for our money?' - pointed out how New Labour are attacking public sector workers and services and proposed a review of the union's political fund. It only got onto the agenda because delegates had argued against their regional officials for it to be debated and it became the highest prioritised motion following a vote.

Unison's cosying up to New Labour is a barrier to fighting against the government's pay freeze, privatisation and public sector cuts.

This was a very sharp debate with Glenn Kelly, Bromley branch quoting Gordon Brown, who had said: "I feel your pain". Glenn warned him that he would "feel our wrath"! He asked what the NEC was afraid of: "I am happy to test the link [with Labour] with the members. Why aren't they?" He concluded by saying that "every penny of union members' money should be to defend our members."

The NEC argued that it would be a waste of resources to have a consultation on the Labour link and that the money would be better spent to fight pay, privatisation and the BNP.

Keith Sonnet, deputy general secretary, slanderously declared that "the Socialist Party wanted to get their grubby hands on our money !"

The NEC amendment which overturned (wrecked!) the motion was narrowly carried in a card vote. It should be noted however that the excellent votes that Socialist Party members achieved in the service group executive elections - where the demand for breaking from Labour was raised - shows that ordinary members, as well as a large number of delegates, are opposed to the Labour link.

Peter Taaffe, Socialist Party general secretary, addresses the Socialist Party fringe meeting at Unison conference 2008, photo Gary Freeman

Peter Taaffe, Socialist Party general secretary, addresses the Socialist Party fringe meeting at Unison conference 2008, photo Gary Freeman

A Socialist Party fringe meeting attracted 75 delegates who heard Peter Taaffe (Socialist Party general secretary) highlight the significance of this conference. Workers were angry at having to suffer the consequences of the failing economy and would demand fighting leaders for their unions.

Socialist Party members were the most prominent in calling for Unison to break from Labour and demanding that the union fight against pay cuts - which is the real reason behind the witch hunt.

  • Glenn Kelly spoke at an anti-witch hunt meeting on Thursday lunchtime where he called for a wider campaign to democratise and reclaim the union for the members. This would bring together all those who want an end to the witch hunts, to ensure the election of officials and build a union committed to fighting for its members.
  • Socialist Party members sold 200 copies of The Socialist and raised 750 for the party's Fighting Fund. A number of Unison members agreed to join the party in addition to those who wanted more information.

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    In The Socialist 25 June 2008:

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    Unison Service Group Executives - socialists elected

    National Shop Stewards Network Conference

    Fighting, democratic unions not witch hunts

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    Socialist Party Marxist analysis

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    Union news in brief

    Usdaw election


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