George Binette reports back on the conference earlier this week as UNISON reps in local government around the country met in London and voted to reopen this year’s NJC pay dispute.
For only the second time in UNISON’s 22-year history, delegates gathered for an extraordinary conference in central London on 24 March. The topic was the disastrous end to and fall-out from last year’s National Joint Council (NJC) pay campaign, which had apparently tied the vast majority of local government workers to a miserable pay deal set to run until 31 March next year. The conference had come about as dozens of branches, led by Manchester, which represented well over 25% of UNISON’s local government membership, had acted in the space of six weeks to formally demand it. The Camden branch was among the first to signal overwhelming support for the conference.
To the surprise of many of the more than 600 delegates present the union’s general secretary Dave Prentis was in attendance throughout as were four of UNISON’s assistant general secretaries. If they had been expecting a stage-managed event to endorse, however reluctantly, the conclusion of last year’s NJC pay dispute they were in for a rude surprise. After an uncertain start that included a 20-minute reading break and disquiet over the prospect of a 90-minute lunch break, the tide turned in the afternoon.
By the end of the day, delegates were voting overwhelmingly in favour of motions that the top table had either opposed or ‘supported with qualifications’. Crucially, more than 60% of votes cast backed a motion that effectively called for UNISON to submit a pay claim for the financial year about to start on 01 April 2015 and to push for the reopening of negotiations with the local government employers’ umbrella body.
In what proved the longest and most bitter debate, Manchester branch secretary, Evelyn Doyle, moved the resolution for kick-starting a renewed pay battle by branding arguments for the status quo as ‘spurious, negative and defeatist’. Camden’s branch secretary also spoke for the motion, saying that adopting it would send ‘an absolutely necessary signal to the Labour Party that our passive support can no longer be taken for granted, especially at a time when its parliamentary leadership continues to embrace the key planks of the austerity programme.’
The conference effectively agreed that UNISON must be ‘prepared to take strike action to secure fair pay no matter which Government is elected in May 2015’. After a speech by branch co-chair Phoebe Watkins, delegates also backed by a two-to-one margin a Camden branch motion, which was strongly critical of an industrial strategy that seemed to consist of nothing more than a one-day protest strike. A motion, devised by Assistant Branch Secretary, John Shepherd, for the use of Survey Monkey to boost turnout in consultation exercises received overwhelming support as well.
What happens to the fight over pay remains to be seen, but the conference itself showed an unprecedented degree of cooperation between regions, especially London and the North West, which augurs well for the future. Locally, stewards and convenors are strongly urged to keep members of developments and put the argument to renewing the NJC pay campaign, sooner rather than later.