UNISON is ‘strong and stable’ WET conference hears

Water, environment and transport delegates debate a wide range of motions as their conference opens in Brighton

“We are strong and stable – even if the government isn’t.” That was the message from UNISON’s water, environment and transport (WET) service group executive chair Ruth Davis this morning, as she addressed the group’s conference in Brighton.

“We live in difficult times, but we must carry on and not allow” people to make us change our lives,” she said of the recent terrorist attacks in London and Manchester, together with the Grenfell Tower fire.

Ms Davis thanked public service workers who have tackled these events.

Reminding delegates of the Conservative government’s ‘Big Red Tape Challenge,’ which aims to cut regulation in the name of making money, she told delegates that “enough is enough. Public safety is paramount”.

Ms Davis also applauded the union’s “great victory” for members in the case of British Gas v Lock, which means that regular commission has to be reflected in holiday pay.

Earlier, UNISON vice president Margaret McKee (pictured above) had opened business with a minute’s silence for those who lost their lives recently, while also remembering president Eric Roberts, who died last autumn.

A busy morning saw a range of debates arranged around organising and recruitment, negotiating and bargaining, and campaigning.

John Wilkinson of the United Utilities branch told delegates how traditional, printed magazines help to “increase UNISON’s visibility in the workplace”.

“It’s all part of an overall strategy,” including the use of digital communications, said another speaker, but added that one of the values of printed media is that it’s more visible to non-members.

Mandy Pearce from United Utilities introduced a motion calling for more training for members wishing to become pensions trustees, saying that it was an area that UNISON could influence “more than any other”.

Ian Brindley for the service group executive supported the need for such training – particularly at a time when pensions are under attack due to government ideology.

Other motions in the morning session dealt with a wide variety of concerns, including that of Tupe transfers, where workers’ jobs are outsourced to another company, and the difficulties faced by members working with the Environment Agency corporate services teams whose jobs are being transferred to Defra, which currently does not recognise UNISON.

The crisis in the bus sector and the problems for members working in it was raised, with Caroline Pinter for the national women’s committee highlighting the vital importance of bus services to many people – whether to get to work, to the shops or to leisure activities – particularly in rural areas.

Also on the agenda was the need to protect national collective bargaining through the Passenger Transport Forum, after a number of employers have made clear their intention to withdraw from this body.

Michael Killian for the service group executive pointed out that in the context of the UK’s current political situation, with a minority government struggling to form a coalition and a prime minister teetering close to the precipice, there was hope for big change in the future.

Malcolm West from Yorkshire Water urged the executive to help branches share best practice on the National Equality Standard, while the national Black members’ committee raised the issue of the glass ceiling faced by Black WET employees.

Health and safety, and protecting the environment – and the pay and conditions of those working in that area – were debated too.

On the latter, Jackie Hamer, for the executive, reminded delegates that “we all live in this environment.

And Sarah Peet of the Environment Agency North West pointed out that  DEFRA was the biggest government department affected by leaving the EU, with 600 of 1,000 pieces if EU legislation affecting DEFRA business.

Delegates also discussed moves to “increase competition” in the water industry, safety for bus workers, revitalising the union’s water charter and getting union representatives onto water company boards.

Delegates also heard from Roger McKenzie, the union’s assistant general secretary with responsibility for organising and recruitment, who suggested that many would have watched the scenes from London and Manchester, followed by politicians saying “public service workers, aren’t they great?” and been sickened by hearing this when pay caps and attacks on pensions continue.

“You can’t eat prestige,” he said.

“Our members have had enough and it’s time for something different. We want our people treated with respect and dignity.”

Mr McKenzie said that the nature of work had changed – people are less likely to stay in a single job for decades, for instance – and that that creates new organising challenges. But organising remains essentially the same and union members must always stand together, because the employer will never simply give workers something.