Delegates condemn the big society rhetoric from government

We must “beat this big society nonsense”, Kevin Jackson told UNISON’s community conference in Brighton today, saying the rhetoric was just a mask for cuts. 

Conference criticised spiralling senior management salaries in the sector at a time when workers’ terms and conditions are being cut, including freezing increments, pay freezes and cuts, increases in working hours and cuts to sickness and holiday pay. 

The most highly paid chief executive in housing earned around £26,605 a month while many of the lowest paid got just £949. 

Meanwhile, residents in social housing were seeing benefits and support budgets cut as rents went up – all adding to the growing income inequality that is worse for everyone, conference heard.

“The only way is downwards,” said Ionela Flood, and called on conference to “resist.”

Conference said the ongoing attack on pay within the sector made the fight for a living wage even more vital. 

Terry Conroy spoke on the “dreadful damage” the ConDem cuts were causing in the voluntary sector: £3bn was being cut from an annual budget of £12bn. 

Many voluntary-sector organisations had been “commercialised to the point where they are indistinguishable from the private sector,” she said. And, faced with massive funding cuts, the organisations “prey on staff, prey on their loyalty commitment and prey on their terms and conditions.”

She called on delegates to “fight with all the means at our disposal.”

With 62,000 members, community is the third largest service group in UNISON, and growing, conference heard – but the it still needs to organise effectively. 

Mary Powell of London Housing Associations listed three areas to focus on:

  • organising existing members;
  • organising those coming to the service group through the continued outsourcing of health and local government services;
  • recruiting non-members into the union.

Activists will face difficulties due to the spread of employers and lack of facility time but nonetheless, said Ms Powell, “UNISON’s membership is changing and the trend will continue. It is a matter of fact that services are being outsourced,” and it is vital that the union doesn’t lose those members.

“We need to address these issues. These are things we must do – they are not options for consultation.”

Gerry McSheffrey from Quarriers told conference of his branch’s experience being faced with pay cuts of up to 35% in 2011. The branch campaigned online, via social media, with the press, the community and wrote to MPs, councillors and MSPs, leading to “a debate in Scottish Parliament on social care,” he reported.

This campaign increased the pressure on the employer and showed “the power a small branch can bring. Imagine if 60,000 of us campaigned in a similar way,” he said.

Women’s organisations both employ and serve women, conference heard, and cuts are having a devastating. Delegates vowed to clink with the Women’s Resource Centre]s Why Women? campaign to halt “the decimation of women’s services”.

“Cameron says ‘we’re all in it together’ – that’s not how LGBT workers and those offering LGBT services feel,” said Luke Mallett, as he warned that essential community services for LGBT people are seen as “an easy option” for cuts. 

“It’s vital that we build union membership in the LGBT sector,” he said, and called on delegates to continue to build links with LGBT community and voluntary organisations.

Coalition cuts are having a “vicious, savage and devastating affect on the Black community,” said Angela Roy as she urged delegates to challenge racism. In the past, communities have turned to grassroots organisations to fight against racism but she warned that 25% of Black voluntary sector organisations could disappear.

The Access to Work scheme is “crucial” for disabled members, conference heard, but changes to it made employers less likely to employ disabled people. At the same time disabled people are facing discrimination in redundancy procedures as disability leave is being confused with sickness and used as a reason for redundancy.

Conference agreed to fight against “intolerable discrimination against our disabled members.”

Delegates also vowed to continue to bring young people into the service group. Otherwise, as Joel Bodmer from the young members’ forum put it, “If we fail, then quite simply there won’t be a next generation of activists.”

Luke Mallett agreed, declaring: “Young members are the future of our union.”

UNISON in the community and voluntary sector