The 24 March was a good day for ordinary members of our union and a bad day for the leadership and Dave Prentis. You may recall that Dave Prentis started our last pay campaign smashing a huge frozen sculpture of a pound promising they were going to break the pay freeze. It was a good start and the strikes that we campaigned for across the country in July 2014 were a testament to the fact that UNISON members agreed with the leadership that we were ‘worth it’.
However, despite our good start, we found ourselves in October undermined by the very same leadership that told us we were worth it and with a general secretary who lost his penchant for smashing the pay freeze, preferring instead to make deals with Labour and our pay masters. We were no longer ‘worth it’. Furthermore, this shoddy deal, presented to us as ‘an offer’, was no better than we had before the strike.
In all branches across the country where the branch activists recommended rejection, the ‘deal’ was rejected. However, in branches where no lead was given, unsurprisingly the majority of members voted to accept, thinking this was either the best they could get or that there was no strategy to fight for anything better.
However, 25% of branches in UNISON, led by Manchester, called for a special conference to take the leadership to task. The conference was held in Westminster, right opposite the Houses of Parliament. A bitter reminder, if one was needed, that the MPs got 11% pay rise and that we are certainly not ‘all in this together’. Members may not be aware that at the TUC this year, Mark Carney, the head of the Bank of England, thanked British workers for taking the hit in the biggest crisis for decades in the British and global economy. Considering the responsibility for this crisis can be laid fairly and squarely at the door of the banks, it is frankly embarrassing that the trade unions are being thanked for delivering our pay, conditions and services on a plate.
It tells you something about the spinelessness of the leadership in the large public sector Unions and explains why members are so angry. We don’t expect big business and banks to fight our corner and we know the Labour Party leadership picked sides a long time ago, but our own Trade Unions should do better. If they don’t, the question is, who is going to stand up for us?
At special conference our leadership got a taste of that anger and disillusionment. The only set of motions they were opposed to were the ones that instructed them to re-open pay negotiations for 2015. After many speeches, for and against, the vote was taken. We all looked around the room and we knew we had won, except the leadership called for a card vote, where each branch has to vote with the number of members it has in its branch. We waited an hour or so for them to count the votes, but we were proved right and 289,118 members voted to re-open the pay negotiations and 188, 662 voted against.
It is a significant step forward for democracy in our union and it is a warning for the leadership in the future. It is also pertinent that we have elections for our National Executive Committee starting on April 7. Do we really want more of the same?
Delegate to Special Conference