Monday, June 17, 2013

If 1% is the answer, what was the question?

For many delegates at UNISON Conference this year the process an procedures can appear to be quite impenetrable - confusing and overly formal. Add to this the extent to which conference time can be absorbed by debates in which there is a clear consensus and little opposition and conference can also seem like little more than a talking shop.

For first-time delegates, this can sometimes produce a measure of frustration - "Why are we debating things we all agree on?" "Why aren't we discussing our strategy to do something about it?" Are just some of the very valid comments and criticisms expressed. But then, there are often moments of high drama where the tension and the anger break through and the, "view from the workplace," gets placed front and centre for the, "top table," to hear.

The debate on Composite C on Sunday was one of those moments. This debate began slowly with a 
presentation of the motion ("Calling a halt to Poverty Pay in Local Government.") by a platform speaker. The argument presented was simple - that we have asked members and they have spoken, that there is little mood for industrial action to improve on the employers disgraceful offer of a 1% increase on pay levels and that UNISON had therefore opted to accept this as the,"best that could be achieved by negotiation," and that the campaign for a much improved pay increase for our members in 2014 must begin now!

So, light the blue touch paper and stand well back!

Paradoxically, only one delegate (a stalwart brother from Lambeth UNISON) spoke against this, "grouped," motion - not to disagree with it but to raise the question to which many want a clear answer; Why should UNISON members have to wait another year for the leadership of our union to lead a real fight to defend pay and services? 

We say, "paradoxically," simply because of this - that almost every speaker, "for," the motion agreed entirely with the sentiments of the speaker, "against!" But perhaps this was to be expected - after all, the motion itself was quite inoffensive; it said everything most right-thinking trade unionists would agree with and support. So whilst speaking in support, the anger of those addressing conference toward the leadership of our union - for failing to lead during the last year and for being too timid and too slow to mount the campaign to, "smash the Pay Freeze," that Dave Prentis promised a year ago - was given full voice.

This, we could sense, was what conference delegates had been simmering towards. Speaker after speaker made the obvious points; that during the last three years the value of our members wages had fallen by an average 13%; that, "Austerity," will continue until at least 2017, leading to a further devaluing of pay by around 17% and, most importantly that our members cannot afford to wait for, "the constant promise of jam tomorrow!"

Alongside this, the key question of unity across trade unions and, importantly, within our own union featured heavily. As we write, UNISON in Scotland is preparing to ballot members for sustained industrial action to advance a genuine pay increase for our members north of the border. Imagine - had the campaign promised by our leadership actually taken priority within our union, we would very likely have been also preparing to ballot for action alongside UNISON Scotland  - an action which would have had a much more far-reaching impact.

On the 27 June 2013, members of teaching unions and the civil service will begin a renewed campaign of industrial action on many of the same issues facing our members. Imagine - had the, "campaign," taken place we would very likely have been in a position to co-ordinate industrial action across schools and other public services, again with a much greater impact. 

Solidarity has always been a crucial trade union principle - one which we should and must place a greater emphasis on. For those at the top of society, a divided trade union movement is a god-send - when the services delivered by members of multiple trade unions are under threat, it is a divided response that can allow those attacks to succeed. It is our task, and it is our trade unions task to never allow those divisions to weaken our response and to leave our members and communities vulnerable.

This is never an abstract question - the result of our leaders failure to lead and to inspire our members confidence to fight is a reduced standard of living - for members in councils where 68% are already earning less than £21,000 p.a - a level below even Osborne's low pay threshold! The impact of this reduction is felt in every part of our members lives - housing, food, fuel costs & the futures for their children.

So yes - let's now build the fight-back over pay. Let's build a huge & coordinated campaign across the union movement to challenge the Coalitions Pay Freeze. But let's also say clearly to those at the top of our union that failing to fight and to lead must never be allowed to be delayed again.

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