UNISON activists from across the country gather in Brighton in mid-June to represent their fellow members at the union’s national delegate conference (NDC).
The conference is the union’s parliament. It’s where representatives of elected members get together to set priorities for the year ahead.
And what a year it’s going to be.
There is less than 12 months to go until the general election – but the Tory-led coalition’s austerity attack continues unabated: public services, jobs, pay, terms and conditions and trade unionism itself remain in the firing line.
At the same time, rising inequality and an increased squeeze on living standards mean that what the union does now is more important than ever.
And we need our union to be strong, with as many members as possible.
This government may only have months left in office, but it is as determined as ever to make cuts and sell off our services and our jobs.
One of our first aims must be to make the argument for a fair society and an alternative to austerity.
Pay is the top of the immediate agenda across the union. And unsurprisingly, it will feature heavily at NDC.
Local government members – including school workers – in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will be balloting over industrial action as conference meets.
And the debates in Brighton will come just after health members across the UK stage a day of protest over pay on 5 June.
That was part of a strategic plan of action on pay, which the health service group conference in April agreed will also include a ballot for industrial action.
Delegates will be meeting against a background of living standards for working people suffering the greatest fall since the Victorian era, with stagnant wages across the economy while the price of essentials continues to rise.
And they will be asked to reiterate the key point that the union’s members deserve fair and equal pay – and that no member should earn less than the living wage.
Motion 25 from the national executive council will call on conference to welcome the union’s Worth It campaign and its goal of placing the pay and living standards of our members centre stage.
Specifically, it will ask the conference to back practical steps to:
- campaign for an end to the public sector pay cap;
- continue to highlight falling living standards;
- support UNISON’s sector-based activity around pay;
- in particular, to ensure full support where members democratically decide on lawful industrial action;
- use the Worth It Campaign to engage with UNISON members as a key way of fighting back in conjunction with sector based campaigns;
- promote a living wage as a means of ending the blight of in-work poverty;
- campaign for an end to the use of zero-hours and other exploitative contracts;
- encourage councils and other providers to sign up to the union’s Ethical Care Charter;
- work with allies to make living standards a central part of the 2015 general election campaign;
- use the activity associated with the Worth it campaign to recruit new members and to reach out to the wider community.
Pay, of course, is just part of a wider campaign against an austerity agenda that has seen jobs lost, pay frozen, attacks on conditions at work, public services cut, privatised or withdrawn, and devastating economic decisions by the coalition government leading to UNISON members facing increasing pressures on their financial and family lives.
When delegates debate motion 59 on campaigning against austerity up to the general election, it will be against a background of the slowest economic recovery for 100 years, with GDP improving by only a third of the amount that Chancellor George Osborne predicted in his first budget.
The motion will urge the union to work “in every town and city across the UK” to “inspire more people to resist this assault on the principle of collectively-delivered and properly-funded public services and fight against an economic policy that is unbalanced and unfair”, and “highlight our alternative agenda both among our own members and the general public”.
And a key part of that agenda is our opposition to selling off, outsourcing and privatising our public services.
Conference will set the campaigning and organisational priorities for that when it debates a number of motions on privatisation across public services from councils to probation, social care to the NHS, and everything between and beyond those.
Privatising, outsourcing and cutting public services is a major citizenship issue. It affects every member, their families, friends and communities – not just the members directly providing those services or their UNISON service groups.
And that is true whether we’re talking about key local services provided by councils or major national services such as the NHS – both of which are UNISON campaigning priorities.
UNISON is the largest union in the NHS, representing a full range of medical and non-medical staff – as well as hundreds of thousands more members who use the service as patients.
And the debate on motion 46, An NHS for the future, will be relevant to all members.
“It is necessary,” the motion declares, to reassert the importance of the NHS “as one of the few remaining symbols of social solidarity left in the UK.”
In the wake of the government’s Health and Social Care Act leading to wholesale privatisation of NHS services in England and cuts seeing widespread financial crises, conference will have the opportunity to set out an alternative – integration, with “the potential to bring about benefits for patients and service users, in terms of a more seamless joined-up service across sectoral boundaries”.
But motion 46 warns that this cannot be done on the cheap and needs the active involvement of both NHS staff and patients.
Your delegates will have the chance to back plans for:
- continued support for the NHS model as the best way of delivering free health care at the point of delivery, and the defence of it against any government attempts to undermine the service;
- continued strong campaigning against privatisation and cuts at national, regional and local level;
- a campaign for safe staffing levels to help ensure the best care.
The conference will set out a strong campaigning agenda for action on a wide range of issues in the workplace, across society generally and even internationally.
But for the union to deliver that, it needs to be strong. We need more members and a higher proportion of the workforce in UNISON if our voice is to be heard and our actions effective.
That is why the debates on recruitment and organising – particularly in a fragmented workforce – will be especially important.
A wide range of motions will help delegates set out priorities and plans to continue and improve the union’s work on recruiting and organising new members and workplaces.
These will include motion 5 from the NEC, which sets out plans to address the reality that more and more public service workers – more than a quarter of them – are employed by the private sector and the community and voluntary sector on outsourced contracts.
Conference will be asked to back plans for “a system of prioritising organising that incorporates branch, regional and national priorities,” which involves members and the union’s lay democracy throughout.
And as part of strengthening the union’s presence on the ground and in the workplace, delegates will receive a report updating them on the latest stage of the union’s branch resources review and decide the next steps to make sure that each union branch has the resources it needs to work locally.
All in all, delegates in Brighton will be faced with a full agenda and a busy conference.
But at the end the week, the union will have set out clear priorities, plans and campaigns for the coming year, one which includes a general election.
And we will have set out the steps to strengthen the union and put it in the best position to defend out members and defend the public services they provide – services that are an essential part of any civilised society.