Local government delegates discuss how to improve organising

Moves agreed include devising a new UNISON training course for activists on how to organise industrial action ballots and win disputes

Tony Barnsley from UNISON Sandwell branch speaks to conference

Chaired by UNISON vice president Kath Owen, the final afternoon of UNISON’s local government service group conference passed several key motions on union organising.

Conference unanimously voted through a motion to devise a new UNISON training course for activists on how to organise industrial action ballots and win disputes.

Introducing the motion, UNISON Sandwell branch secretary Tony Barnsley (pictured above) said: “If we don’t meet ballot thresholds, we will let our members down on pay year after year”, he said. “As prices rocket, I don’t believe our members aren’t interested in their pay, therefore the way we engage with our members needs to change.”

In the past year, several UNISON national ballots fell well short of surpassing the 50% turnout threshold.

Mr Barnsley shared some impressive organising wins from Sandwell, including a dispute where electricians won a 20% pay rise, and a key victory where members at Sandwell Leisure Trust successfully reversed fire and rehire after 20 months of relentless campaigning and strikes.

He continued: “I’m pleased to report that the company that fired and rehired our members has now been fired by the local council.

“We need to learn from the ballots and disputes that win.”

He attributed the branch’s organising success to phone banking: “The single most effective activity to ensure we got ballot turnouts was speaking to members one to one over the telephone. We phoned every member, every week, until they told us they had voted”.

Speaking in support of the motion, Linda Boyer from the North West region said: “Class warfare is being waged and we’re not winning.”

“The only thing underpinning collective bargaining is our right to withdraw our labour. That is the only thing we have got, it’s as simple as that. We know we have the numerical advantage: we are the many, they are the few, but we’ll never deliver for our members unless we’re organised.”

Another UNISON delegate speaking in support of the motion said: “The great philosopher Mike Tyson put it well: everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”.

He also criticised union recruitment campaigns that promote the union as a support service: “Though we do extremely good work on service provision, we sell the union to members as an insurance policy, so members treat it as an insurance policy, not a democratic organisation to engage in.”

Black members are vital to local government structures

Delegates also passed a motion to promote the development of Black workers within the union.

“Black members are still underrepresented at branch, regional and national levels” said UNISON NEC member Manjula Kumari, introducing the motion that called on the service group executive to work with the national Black members’ committee to produce guidance and information specifically on how to increase the number of Black members active in local government structures.

“Our experiences and voices need to be heard in local government campaigns”

To conclude her speech, Ms Kumari gestured behind her and said: “Conference, please just look at the top table and see how many Black members are sitting on our local service group executive. It’s not acceptable.”

Speaking in support of the motion, one delegate said: “We know Black workers are overworked, underpaid and undervalued, earning less on average than white workers. For Black women, we face the equality pay gap and the gender pay gap.”

“Black workers less likely to raise issues of mistreatment for fear of reprisals in the workplaces.”

Lisa Donaldson added: “Why is it, in 2022, as I look around I’m still having to count the number of Black people I see? It’s wrong.”

Emphasising the importance of solidarity from white members, activists and union officials, Jenny Black from Northern region delivered a message to white delegates: “Black workers have an important role to play in challenging racism, injustice and eliminating discrimination. But it’s not just their role, it’s your role as well.

“Every single person in this room has a responsibility to stand alongside our Black members and tackle this problem.”

Getting young workers involved and active in UNISON

A motion was also passed on getting young workers involved and active in UNISON local government workplaces.

Conference acknowledged that, during lockdowns, young workers of all ages experienced a fall in hours when furloughed, or worked fewer hours on flexible contracts.

The Local Government Association (LGA) had seen a 22% drop in the annual number of apprenticeship positions offered within local government and said continuing financial pressures would reduce opportunities for young people in the short term.

Speaking in support of the motion, Lorraine Thomson from the service group executive said: “Young workers can be more affected by social and economic change. They often face insecurity, precarious work practices, zero-hour contracts and discrimination, and have less knowledge about their rights.”

She continued: “Worryingly, research shows young women, young LGBT+ workers and young Black members were worried about getting active in union and what it involved.”

“We need to support them, provide them with training and mentoring. We should be engaging young members in all aspects of union policy.”

The motion included measures to encourage local government branches and regions to use UNISON’s resources to recruit, organise and increase meaningful participation of young people, particularly young Black, disabled and LGBT+ members.

Alejandra Navarro Woods, a care worker from Sefton, gave a passionate speech, describing how she had worked throughout the pandemic to care for the most vulnerable in her community, witnessing colleagues and care home residents dying from COVID-19.

She said: “I believe the time has come for the low-paid and the young to be given the respect we’ve rightfully earned. We need to fight for fair pay. Our low pay and lack of opportunity is evidence we are being exploited.”

Challenging the union to engage young people in campaign activities, she said: “Young people will not hang around in anything that is not active and meaningful. Send us to picket lines, don’t send us pens.”