It was a full house for the Branch AGM back in February where Dave Prentis, UNISON General Secretary, was the guest speaker. He spoke powerfully about
the challenges the public sector would likely face from an incoming government,
forced to pay for the bankers recession.
And he reminded members that it would be unions like UNISON who would be on the front line to defend public services and jobs.
In his speech, Branch Secretary Tony Caffery, reminded members that, “this recession wasn’t caused by teaching assistants or librarians, it wasn’t caused by school cleaners or environmental health officers or social workers,” and stated that it was only right that those responsible for the crisis – greedy and irresponsible bankers – should be the ones to pay.
Since the AGM In February, the Election has been and gone, and the political
horse-trading has produced a ConDem coalition government that appears
almost embarrassingly keen to cut, cut and cut again in spite of what the Liberal
Democrats said before the election and despite the enormous damage this will
do to jobs, public services and the wider economy.
This theme was powerfully echoed during the recent national conference. Dave Prentis opened annual conference, by vowing to back industrial action to fight the coming spending cuts. In his speech he singled out the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg for having “lectured” low-paid workers in local government but had himself: “claimed for a biscuit tin.” He said if Clegg came: “for our pensions, then we will ballot for industrial action.”
“Now, six weeks after the election, the Tories say they can’t ask big business to
pay tax; they’ll discourage enterprise. They can’t regulate the financial system or there’ll be fewer jobs in the City. They can’t stop the bonus culture, or they’re penalising success. But with breathtaking hypocrisy, they’ll take away benefits, they’ll undermine our job security, they’ll let our communities take the pain while the City speculators get off scot-free. The public sector’s asked to tighten its belt, more restraint, ‘do more with less’. These pension myths are scare-mongering. There are no unreformed, goldplated pension pots. The average pension in local
government is just £4,000 a year, dropping to £2,600 for women.”
Conference heard a series of debates on Public Services, Taxation, Outsourcing, the NHS and Privatisation, three broad points were made by the Manchester Branch delegation and from branches across the country, representing all
elements of public services.
Firstly, there is an alternative to the government’s brutally aggressive cuts policy. UNISON itself has developed a sensible alternative budget which deals with the UK’s structural debt by:
- stopping the massive tax avoidance, if not actual evasion, practiced by all too many companies;
- cutting expensive consultants;
- axing pointless spending programmes like Trident nuclear missiles;
- imposing a ‘Robin Hood’ tax on financial transactions, and shifting the economy away from financial services and speculation in the City of London to developing a greener manufacturing economy.
Further, UNISON is not averse to finding better and more efficient ways of delivering public services.
Secondly, delegates were clear that the reason that this government is so keen
to cut back so aggressively was because of its ideological belief that the state, nationally and locally, and its role in society must shrink.
The private sector is superior in all ways, and we must rely on them for an increasing array of public services, goes this view. And if you’re not happy with your local school, you are free to set up another one outside of local authority control, and so on with all manner of public services from social care to refuse collection. That may be all very well in the leafy and very rich rural backwaters of the home counties, but in the North and in urban areas like Manchester, whose economy is still fragile after the last time the Conservatives tried radical economic shock therapy in the 1980s, it’s only effective action by local government that is capable of regenerating our city. Try doing that when budgets get cut by 25 or 40%%.
Finally, the point was made that trade unions are there for the bad times, to protect jobs and services when they are under assault. But for trade unions to be able to do this, we need to boost membership and increase activism. And we’ll all need to engage and get the support of service users and the wider community in our campaigns to defend decent public services for all.
If you’ve always thought about getting involved in your union, now is the time to act. If you haven’t, then think on because the only defence ordinary public sector workers are going to be able to rely on to protect jobs and services is the one they can organise for themselves.
More information on annual conference, and on UNISON’s Million Voices Campaign to defend Public Services can be found at www.unison.org.uk