“The battleground will be pay”, says the UNISON general secretary as he predicts a ‘UNISON spring’ in 2013

UNISON’s National Delegate Conference in Bournemouth opened on Tuesday (19 June). The conference includes representatives from all of the union’s various service groups, of which local government is by far the largest. Overall, the 2012 conference has been a relatively low-key affair, with very few motions proving controversial and superficially, at least, a high degree of consensus.

As usual the conference hall was packed for the general secretary’s annual keynote address, which Dave Prentis delivered over the course of 26 minutes on Tuesday afternoon. The intended highlight of the address, unveiled the previous day in an interview with The Guardian, was the announcement of a campaign to ‘smash the pay freeze’, which came at the end of his speech.

Predictably, Prentis turned much of his rhetorical fire on the coalition government, and particularly the Tories. He branded prime minister David Cameron as ‘a man who remembers to protect his own class and posh mates’, while declaring UNISON’s determination ‘to show the most right-wing Government in our lifetimes that we will stand in their way.’ He had some choice words as well for the Liberal Democrats, especially for their role in Parliament in securing the passage of the Health & Social Care Act 2012, which he described as a license for ‘smash and grab raids [by private companies] on our NHS.’

Prentis also recycled some of his 2011 speech in criticising the Labour Party leadership, saying ‘it was Labour that built the bridges that the Tories marched over’ and arguing that the Party ‘has to do so much more’ to win back the trust of the union’s members. In terms of audience reaction, this passage seemed among the most popular in the whole of the speech.

He went on to praise UNISON activists engaged in a wide range of campaigns and disputes from Edinburgh to Southampton and Swindon with our neighbourhing branches of Barnet and Haringey in between. At the same time as he delivered his speech, UNISON members at Downhills primary school in Haringey were striking alongside teachers in the NUT against the drive by Education Secretary Michael Gove to force Academy status on the school. The joint walkout seemed to illustrate Prentis’ assertion that ‘We are best when in alliance with other unions’, though the remark left quite a few in the hall wondering why UNISON’s leadership had seemed so keen to walk away from further joint action with other unions in the wake of the 30 November pensions strike.

In addition to pledging a major battle over the dramatic erosion of real pay for the vast majority of UNISON members, the general secretary committed UNISON to:
•    Boost the number of so-called ‘fighting fund’ area organisers from some 120 to 300, albeit on fixed-term contracts
•    Establish a new dedicated unit to provide advice to branch activists on the thorny issues posed by procurement/outsourcing, and
•    Set up by this autumn a direct legal advice helpline – a promise that drew huge applause from delegates evidently frustrated at the often lengthy delays they currently face. He did not, however, offer more details in the speech.

UNISON will also launch a revamped, password protected website, which Prentis predicted would be another useful tool both for activists and the union’s membership generally.

Prentis exhorted delegates and activists generally to build for the TUC-initiated demonstration against the Government’s austerity programme on Saturday 20 October. He insisted that this event had to ‘far bigger than our demo on 26 March [last year]’, a demonstration which attracted an estimated 500,000 on to the streets of central London.

At the very end of his speech, the general secretary at last turned to the pay campaign. There was little in the way of specifics beyond a general commitment to an extended fight, including strike action, to smash the current pay freeze and by implication the long-term, de facto incomes policy, which the Coalition is pursuing. The response to this concluding element of the speech was, however, muted, and in contrast to previous years, the speech did not elicit a standing ovation. Having demobilised members so swiftly after last November’s pensions strike, the union’s leadership may face a major challenge in encouraging us to fight on pay despite the sharp and ongoing decline in living standards, which has left all too many local government and public sector workers struggling to make ends meet. The persistent fear of job loss may also discourage members from taking further action, though I would have to add that the general secretary’s speech failed to instil confidence that we can actually achieve the stated aim of smashing the pay freeze.

Meanwhile in a potentially significant development, one of the week’s guest speakers was Paul Kenny, who is this year’s president of the TUC, but also the general secretary of the GMB, a union often seen as UNISON’s historic rival, particularly in local government. Kenny’s often entertaining speech on Thursday morning was well received, with the majority of delegates applauding enthusiastically and giving him a standing ovation at the end. Both Kenny’s very presence and the content of his speech will fuel speculation that a merger between our two unions might actually be on the cards in the not too distant future.

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