Friday, 23 December 2011

The Equalities Deficit

Recently, in my role of Equalities Officer I attended a conference entitled 'The Equalities Deficit: Defending opportunity and fairness against the cuts'. Organised by the TUC, the one day conference was aimed at everybody 'who cares about the future of equality'. It was opened by Brendan Barber, General Secretary of the TUC, who spoke of the 'cultural, aspirational and social deficits' being left by the cuts. He spoke of the threats to quality of life now facing many groups at a disproportionate level to others and the widening gaps that were opening up between different sectors of society. What was clear was that nobody would be unaffected by the scale of the actions being taken by the government but that some would be more heavily affected than others and that these people were largely those who were already the most vulnerable in our society.

On the day of the conference new figures had just been released showing that unemployment had risen to 2.28 million and that women’s unemployment levels were at a twenty three year high. It seemed timely then that the TUC used the day to launch a new publication entitled the 'TUC Women and the Cuts Toolkit: How to carry out a human rights assessment of the spending cuts on women'. Women will be one of the groups most heavily hit by the consequences of both past and future cuts as the majority of public sector workers are women, women will lose more in cuts to benefits and are the majority of those providing unpaid care so are likely to be the ones having to shoulder the consequences of cuts to social care provision.

Mary Bousted, General Secretary of the education Union ATL, spoke of the impact of the cuts on children and families, teachers and plummeting levels of optimism within the education sector at a time when youth unemployment was reaching unprecedented levels. She spoke of the 'loss of hope' and the 'dignity of good work' being denied to the young along with the loss of financial support in education caused by the removal of the Education Maintenance Allowance. All this would lead to a generation of young people who feel that they hold no input into society and if you were unlucky enough to fall into more than one of the categories in which people are being disproportionately affected you could watch your chances be even further reduced. Young and Black? Young and a Woman? A woman from an ethnic minority group? Heaven forbid that you should then express a different sexual orientation or religious view. The picture painted was exceptionally bleak.

Rob Berkeley, Director of the Runnymede Trust, an independent policy-research organisation focusing on race and social policy then took up the platform to talk about the impact of the cuts on those from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups. His message was one of the impacts of cuts to legal aid with minority groups being the first to experience the impact of the cuts. People from these groups were three times as likely to be unemployed and there already exists a 16% employment gap between black/Caribbean men and white men. Again the picture was one of growing inequality between different sectors of society.

The last speaker of the morning’s plenary session was Maria Exall, chair of the TUC LGBT committee and a member of the Communication Workers Union. She spoke of the shrinking of the state that was happening under the present government and the way the government are using the media to demonise those they are attacking to justify their programme of cuts. Budget cuts to youth support services and support for homeless people has led to young people facing an even tougher situation than previously. All this at a time when they may be coming to terms with a different sexual orientation and the consequences thereof. There have been cuts to services which offer advice and support and who promote education around issues such as sexuality. A lot of these support services available to young people have been taken over by faith-based groups from whom young people find that they can face even further discrimination around certain issues.

Following the bleak messages of the mornings speakers the question on conference attendees' minds was, 'how do we challenge the cuts from the position we now find ourselves in?' The morning workshop I attended was on Organising and Campaigning for Equality. Again the message from speakers was that things would not be easy to challenge and that a lot of campaigns had already been lost. However, there were also messages of hope and inspiration, positive campaigns which had been won and the repetition of the message that we need to stand together in challenging the future cuts that are being proposed.

Jane Holgate, senior lecturer and worker in work and employment relations at the University of Leeds, spoke about the idea of ‘community unionism’, where community-based organising and trade union organising worked more closely together to support each other's campaigns. She put it that if trade unions are to remain relevant in coming years they need to move from a more adversarial form of organising which leads to power issues, groups becoming divisory and self-interested, to a more cohesive stance, supporting solidarity not just across a trade-focused group but organising across workplace issues which affect the whole community. Unions will need to be more inclusive and work alongside organisations such as the Occupy movement, UK Uncut, BARAC and local groups such as Norfolk Coalition against the Cuts to achieve the best outcomes for their members. The future will be about building relationships and alliances, fostering non-conflictive ways of working and making democracy within the unions more inclusive to attract the widest possible member base and build the strength of union organisation.

The afternoon workshop I attended was titled 'Using the Public Sector Equality Duty' and covered issues around using the 2010 legislation as a campaign tool. Questions arose about how we could challenge the impact of the cuts on issues of equality within the framework of the 2010 Equalities Act, an act which many feel has reduced the power of equalities legislation by employers only having to show 'due regard' to equalities issues. Various views were held on this point but there was also mention of a few cases where the new legislation has been used effectively to challenge proposed cuts. When trying to look for the best way to challenge a series of cuts, the Equalities angle is still one which can be successfully used if a proposed measure is likely to disproportionately affect a particular group in society. Equality Impact Assessments will still remain a key part of an employer showing they have shown 'due regard' to equalities issues.

The afternoon workshops were followed by speeches and a question and answer session on areas that had been covered by the conference. There were some powerful speakers including Diana Holland, Assistant General Secretary for Equalities and an elected member of the TUC Women’s committee, Kate Pickett, co-author of ‘The spirit level: Why equality is better for everyone’ and Michael Rubenstein, writer and commentator on discrimination and employment law and General Editor of Equality Law Reports. Again there were a host of different issues raised which were all adding to the overall growing equalities deficit.

The conclusions I reached after listening to the various speakers at the conference were that the cuts are already affecting the most vulnerable in society disproportionately. I think there is little room to argue that they are not. They will continue to divide sectors of society further from each other, worsening equality amongst the population rather than improving it. This will lead to even greater social problems and a far less cohesive society. The thing that really struck me, however, was that at this time groups cannot afford to focus solely on the area that will be affecting them the most. We cannot fight back coherently if everyone is trying to shout the loudest to champion their own views to the detriment of other groups. What we need now is to be united and support each other’s struggles; to stand up and work together in solidarity.

If you find yourself thinking 'Why should I support that, it doesn’t affect me,' then don’t. The cuts are affecting and will continue to affect us all, anyone who works in public services, uses public services, the private sector, those from ethnically diverse groups and from a plethora of different backgrounds. If a cut is affecting women it is also affecting men in that they will see their wives, mothers and families being hit by the impact and they in turn will struggle more. The cuts are affecting young people and older people, those who are working and those who are not. The government and media would like us to believe that we are all separate groups and not interdependent. It makes it easier to break down support for campaigns which are challenging the nature of the way in which the cuts are being imposed. We must challenge these ideas and stand up for each other and the trade union movement has a continued role to play in this.

Following N30 I feel even more strongly that now is the time to stand together in challenging the pain the government's cuts are inflicting on our society. As we have recently seen in the media with the build-up to the strike, the media likes conflict. It makes for a better story and grips people more than hearing that largely there was a lot of support for something. The Equalities Deficit Conference and N30 have shown me one thing; that if we say ‘that’s their problem’ and ignore how cuts will affect a particular group, we can only lose those battles and also our own as others will not support us when we ourselves may need it most. On N30 people from all different backgrounds stood together to challenge the government; trade unions, students, the Occupy movement, workers from across the public and private sectors, pensioners and those unable to work all expressed support for dignity in retirement and challenged the government on proposed cuts to public sector pension schemes. Equality will only stand a chance if we now support each other in working for a fairer society and fighting back together against the deeper inequalities these cuts are causing.

Katherine Osborne is an Equalities Officer in the Norfolk County Branch of UNISON.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Pensions Strike, November 30th

The pensions strike was an unprecedented coming together of public sector unions that delivered a timely reminder as to how effective collective solidarity and collective action can be. Not surprisingly, the media and the government have downplayed its effectiveness but what would Cabinet members know of the impact of the strike? I bet most of them don’t send their kids to state schools, use the NHS or rely on the other public services that ground to a halt on 30 November. Maybe that is unfair, one or two of them have probably had a chauffeur who was a member of the PCS union...

I think it would be a mistake to see the day’s action as the peak of our campaign. It is inevitable that Cameron and Clegg will try to be the new Thatcher, thinking they will get votes and save their political careers by taking on the unions. They are too distant from reality to know that times have changed and that, generally speaking, the public are supporting the unions in this dispute. We have to be ready to take further action in the New Year, probably smart action like that which occurred in the Southampton dispute. The Southampton UNISON Branch website is worth a look! We need to make sure any action is even more effective by recruiting non-union members to join UNISON and convincing union members who attended work to join us next time. When people cross a picket line it is sometimes hard to stay reasonable but I think that is what we must do if we want to get them on board.

We also need to remember the power that comes to us from industrial action as other disputes loom. After two years of a pay freeze, local government workers face a maximum increase of 1% for the next two years, at a time when inflation has been over 4%. That means four years of pay cuts imposed on us by a Government who has let the bankers who caused the economic mess get away scot free and return to their lifestyle of excessive bonuses. Locally there are bound to be disputes as our various local employers feel compelled to squeeze our pay and conditions, cut our jobs and privatise services.

UNISON representatives will do all they can to safeguard our members wherever they work but there comes a time when we can only achieve so much by negotiation. To get a better deal, we may call on our members to take industrial action again. We need to have established a culture where union membership is high and where people are prepared to take action to make a real difference. This in itself empowers UNISON negotiators. All union members have a part to play in establishing that culture; recruiting non-members, making sure that their workplace has a steward and having regular workplace meetings are the foundations that we must start to build.

Jonathan Dunning is the Branch Secretary of the Norfolk County Branch of UNISON.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Dave Prentis' Speech to Labour Conference

“Conference, today we face a coalition with no democratic mandate - taking a chainsaw to our public services. Public service workers, our members, keeping families and communities together, keeping our children learning, keeping the vulnerable safe. And in our most damaged communities, standing between us and another lost generation. Picking up the pieces, giving rays of hope when it looks so bleak. Putting people on a path to a better future.

“But the services people rely on most, are now targets for swingeing cuts and privatisations. Redundancy notices scattered like confetti. At the time that we need them most, we’re adding public service workers to the dole queue.

“And for those that are left, their living standards squeezed between rising prices and frozen pay. Ordinary people, our people, paying the price for the reckless greed of the rich, and now the Coalition coming for their pensions.

“Pensions that are affordable, worth less than £100 a week. Pensions that they’ve saved for the dignity of an old age free of means-tested benefits. And now they face a punitive hike in contributions. Not a single penny to go into any pension fund, but siphoned off by the Treasury to pay off the deficit, the biggest con trick of our time.

“Expected to work longer for worse benefits. Members who are privatised, cut off from their pension and that is why we have said: “enough is enough”. We’ve spent 8 months in negotiations - searching for solutions. We will continue to negotiate – that’s what we do. But we are now balloting millions of workers for action on 30 November.

“Conference, my members are no militants. But they will stand up for what’s fair, what’s right, and to those who say we shouldn’t strike, who say striking doesn’t work, that we’ll only harm the economy, make things worse, put jobs at risk. Just remember, that’s exactly what they told the matchgirls who shut London’s sweatshops. The gasworkers who won the eight hour day. The builders who fought for health and safety legislation. Our women who won the right to equal pay. Sometimes you have to remind people what you are worth.

“You have to show people what they’d miss if you weren’t there. Sometimes you have to let people know that you cannot be taken for granted. And I want to make it very clear today, if we vote to strike, a hard decision, always a last resort.

“Millions of public service workers and our union will expect the support of their party and its leadership. The campaigns we are fighting are not just about jobs, or pensions, they are about creating the type of society we leave for our children. They are about preserving and defending all our grandparents fought for; a welfare state, universal public services, they’re about saving the gains we made together, while we were in government. Our members have not given up the fight, and nor must our party.

“So conference, it’s no time to sit on the sidelines, while this Government tears down all that we built. It’s no time to sit on the fence when this country faces a stark choice between taking on the powerful and privileged, or letting the price be paid by the poor and the powerless.

“And this - there’s so much talk about reaching out and reconnecting, but now really is the time to reach out to millions of public service workers, to show we are on the same side of the street as them. To those nursery workers fighting for their jobs, to those care workers fighting to protect their services. And yes, yes to the millions fighting to protect their pensions, they look to Labour now more than ever to support them, to speak up for them. They will never forgive us if we let them down and neither will their union.”

Dave Prentis is the National General Secretary of UNISON.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Youth Anger in the UK

In no way do I support or condone the actions of rioters around the UK this week. However, neither am I angry at their actions. I am sure this would be different if I or my loved ones had been directly affected – having lived in both Liverpool and Bristol close to some of the flash-points, my first thought was for the welfare of those I know who live nearby. But I repeat, I am not angry at the rioters: instead, I feel a deep sadness for them. The fact from BBC News that surprised me and now sticks in my mind is that the average age of those involved is 14-20 years.

As David Cameron’s government trip over their Louis Vuitton travel solutions in their rush back to Downing Street, I would like to ask our Prime Minister, "how did you fail to anticipate this?" If we refer to history, he seems to have conveniently forgotten the Toxteth and Brixton riots of the 1980s, which followed recession and austerity measures under Margaret Thatcher’s administration. Under the same government, peaceful protests against the Poll Tax escalated into rioting in 1990 – a pattern echoed, though far less drastically, after the anti-cuts protest in March of this year. And while this week’s events have certainly not been organised by politically motivated left-wing groups, I do not believe that it is a coincidence that we have seen attacks on high street businesses (like the Bristol Stokes Croft Tesco), representing the minority who have much, by those multitudes who have little.

But history, as well as a basic appreciation of psychology, can teach us something else which is equally relevant to this situation: people with no hope feel frustrated, become angry and may react violently. This government is taking the hope offered by state-provided support and education away from those who need it most. How many of the rioters, aged 14-20, were receiving the Education Maintenance Allowance before it closed to new applicants on the 1st January 2011?

How many were receiving help from Education Welfare Services before public sector cuts began impacting on staffing levels and service delivery? How many were involved with Social Services, with their health and well-being directly at risk without the intervention which may no longer be deliverable following cuts to services and staff, and how many were being supported by youth services like Connexions that have been decimated or are simply not there any more? How many had hoped to work hard and gain a place at a good university – before the fees went up to £9,000 per year, meaning an average of £27000 debt, without any guarantee of a job at the end of it?

It is no longer enough to condemn violent disorder as despicable behaviour from a senseless criminal underclass we can lock away and forget about. These people are not all gang members, stupid, on benefits or drugs. Many of those who are old enough will also be voters and tax-payers. Nor are they all anarchists or left-wing militant groups; they have been brought up in a capitalist society, where expensive possessions are deemed to represent success – that’s what the TV, advertising and tabloid press all seem to say. When they are faced with severely limited access to education, no hope for the future and an upper-class, deaf government that has no concern for their welfare, they get angry and try to take what they think they are owed.

We should certainly condemn their actions and their violence, but we mustn’t dismiss them. They are frustrated and angry for a multitude of reasons: it’s time somebody listened to the millions of voices that are being ignored.

Emma Whitcombe is a steward in the Norfolk County Branch of UNISON.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Keep Great Britain Rolling!

Great Britain – the country that brought you the industrial revolution and Fred Dibnah's lovely obsession with steam trains faces the closure of the last factory where workers have the skills to manufacture locomotive rolling stock.

This goes to the heart of the question of what makes a nation state viable and what the impact of allowing essential industry being manufactured at a distance: will we always be able to afford the energy to import these goods? Is this reliance on trading with companies who are at significant geographical distance not an unnecessary exploitation of a limited energy resource? Could we, inadvertently, be putting our own neighbourhoods at risk?

Sustainability is commonly thought of as being an issue relating to the provision of a continuing and generous supply of energy in a way that does not loot the natural resources nor pollute and cause global warming or other environmental damage. Part of the way sustainability can be enhanced is by limiting the length of manufacturing supply chains.

Back on 30 October 2006, journalist John Vidal wrote this in The Guardian:

'The biggest ship afloat is due to arrive in Felixstowe, Suffolk, this week on its maiden voyage from China with nearly 45,000 tonnes of Christmas presents and fare for the holiday season.

'The Emma Maersk, which is 400 metres long (1,300 ft), 56 metres wide and 60 metres tall, and dubbed the SS Santa, will unload more than 3,000 containers for supermarkets and stores before heading to mainland Europe.

'...the ship...[had a] cargo of crackers, DVD players, toys, puzzles and clothes....”

I well remember the reporters on Look East salivating with glee over the cocktail shakers that that famous Christmas-loving nation, China, sent to us in the spirit of the season. Had Great Britain lost the technical ability to manufacture Christmas tat?

Of course not! It was simply that the monetary cost of a British-based labour was much higher than that of Chinese-based labour. However the actual cost of the full productive and delivery cycle of this merchandise was not reflected in the price of the goods we purchased from that charitable enterprise, the “SS Santa.” The market didn't factor in the cost of the ecosystem damage that is caused by such a long supply chain. It also misses the fact that greenhouse gases produced in China damage the ecosystem just as surely as those pumped out by Manchester industries; both the manufacturing and shipping costs of environmental damage were missing from the price tag attached to the cocktail shakers. Economists call such hidden costs 'externalities.'

Extending this principle to the matter of Bombardier and the construction of rolling stock, it is therefore advantageous to manufacture essential goods as close as possible to home. If GB PLC (as it could be described in a capitalist context) is to remain viable, it is imperative that the supply chain either be as short as possible or are kept at home for crucial industries. The capacity to build infrastructural technology is a matter of profound national, regional, and local interest. The real argument is – yes – Bombardier should be cranking out rolling stock as quickly as its assembly lines possibly can; AND so should Siemens. There is a desperate world wide need for green-friendly mass transport and the improvement and extension of the rail stock and lines is one rational way to begin answering that requirement. The competition between these two manufacturers is an illusory necessity created by an absurd system of capitalisation that bases all decisions on how much paper (money) is created by a series of transactions and manufacturing rather than the usable values of those products.

In addition to the ecological and viability issues, the labourers of Bombardier are victims of the same capitalist system that is currently creating economic mayhem in Greece, Ireland, and Portugal: the credit rating industries. Siemens, German-based, has a triple-A credit rating; Canadian-based Bombardier has a B+ credit rating. Therefore when Bombardier borrows money, it pays a higher interest rate than its competition. Without regard to quality of product, the workers at Bombardier are disadvantaged in this ridiculous marketplace because of the shenanigans of their capitalist masters and their competitors, and of course, the ridiculous zero-sum environment in which the current regime forces them to operate.

Bombardier, the only UK-based manufacturer of locomotive rolling stock is facing the real possibility of closing because the UK government has found a 'better value' (for that, read 'cheaper') provider in the corporate person of German-based Siemens. The externalities (remember that word for the uncounted costs) in this case includes the costs of transporting the new stock to Great Britain; it also doesn't factor in the domestic externalities: unemployment (1,400 job losses – enjoy your new customers, Ian Duncan Smith!) and, as significantly, the potential loss of an entire and critical industry.

Bombardier is a Canadian-owned company located in Derbyshire. However, labour gives value to the product, not some multi-story office building in Montreal. Workers living in Britain must be allowed to retain the skills needed to keep the British region of Europe as economically independent as possible; it is a logical and necessary part of the road to sustainability and sensible stewardship of our planet's endangered resources. Saving Bombardier is a beginning of a potential strategy to ensure both the longer term survival of Great Britain and our larger human family. This is not protectionism or xenophobia: rather, it is common sense.

Messrs. Cameron & Clegg say they want GB to be a country that 'makes things'. Perhaps the first thing they should attempt to do is make sense of their own policies.

Karen Michael is a steward in the Norfolk County Branch of UNISON.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Conference Friday

The final day of LG Conference in Manchester began with motion 41, which concerned policeman being taken off the street to cover for redundant civilian workers despite the policeman being on a much higher wage. A police administrator earns £16,000 but a former police officer doing the same job gets £32,000. There have been articles written in Norfolk papers suggesting that our own local force will be pushing ahead with this policy and this will have an impact on the safety of our streets.

This led onto motion 53 which spoke of the loss of skills and experience due to the closure of the Connexions service and staff being made redundant. In Norfolk our Connexions Rep, Ruth Thacker, worked hard to organise the young people to campaign to save their service, but there was still a loss of staff. The mover of the motion made mention of a friend in Suffolk whose a leading light in Suffolk Against the Cuts, a likely reference to Ruth! The loss of Connexions staff will prohibit the social mobility of our children because those who currently give the advice are trained professionals in that specific area, while teachers are usually only qualified in the area that they teach.

A lengthy debate ensued about supporting members in the private and community sectors. Our members in the private sector pay the same rates as everyone, but frequently don't have access to the same resources. It is harder to support those in the voluntary sector despite our best efforts, though in Norfolk the presence of Julie Heywood in that sector (who provides fantastic support for her members) makes a real difference. Her role is made harder as it is more difficult to get recognition agreements in the private and voluntary sector.

We must make sure we represent members before and after transfers and outsourcing, providing a tailored approach to suit the circumstances. We need joint local bargaining committees to be strong and fight the reductions of terms and conditions. The community and voluntary sector is the third biggest service group in UNISON and the organisation needs to reflect this.

Motion 65 was called 'Campaigning with the community and voluntary sector to fight the cuts'. This motion demanded an audit of members so we can learn where our members are, build better links with them and help support their local communities. We noticed that there were lots of empty seats through this motion and thought it might be because delegates didn't think it applied to them, but by this time next year they could be working in these areas after being transferred over.

NEC Spokesman Clytus lightened the mood in the break by singing! Amongst certain other numbers was the classic 'There may be trouble ahead...'

Motion 101 concerned equality in marriage and civil partnerships. The only reason that same-sex marriages aren't allowed is because it's believed by some to be a threat to the institution of marriage and to the fabric of society. Philip O'Shea spoke about his desire to get married like Kate did to William, he too wants to marry his prince. He wants to get married in church and he wants to be able to leave his pension to his partner. A civil partnership lacks the love and romance associated with marriage. While the Labour Party made huge inroads into equality with transgender and civil partnerships, we know that we still have a way to go.

Motion 76 sought to actively oppose cuts in the welfare state and highlight the devastating impact theses cuts can have on the most vulnerable in our society. Disability Living Allowance is not a benefit in the truest sense but an allowance that takes into consideration the increased living costs that those with a disability face in order to live an ordinary life.

We finished with an agreement to protect our right to take industrial action, as this government plans to weaken our rights. One amendment asked us to continue to work with the United Campaign to Repeal the Anti-Trade union Laws and the Institute of Employment Rights to promote trade union rights.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Conference Thursday

Composite D was called 'Our NHS, our Future.' In King's Lynn the Queen Elizabeth Hospital has gone to a foundation trust status and the impact of changes is already being felt with sections being hived off and private providers being bought into run them. Terms and conditions are already being ratcheted down and it will only get worse if we don't take steps to stop it now.

Motions 1 and 2 referred to organising and we felt that we need to start being better at organising rather than servicing. It is through organising that we'll strengthen our membership. We found ourselves questioning whether we use the skills of our Retired Members sufficiently. There are 160,000 retired members in UNISON so we must use them. They are willing hands that are prepared to help.

Much was made of the Three Companies Project and the organizing focus it had.

We have looked into the use of social media to recruit and organise. Online campaigning is the way forward but we mustn't do it isolation but rather as a complement to the face-to-face element. As well as a website, our branch has a Facebook page administered by delegate Melissa Brown.

As Senior Steward for libraries, Melissa has worked hard to establish a dedicated Library Facebook page as well as the main one and has also been blogging regular updates from conference. Members in their 50s are less likely to use the internet, so is this an area our branch could specifically target? One branch has themed meet-and-greet days, going out in pairs and speaking to people, both members and non members. The themes focus on a particular area of campaigning, such as pensions.

The Tower Hamlets branch shared a chant they shouted on their recent rally - 1,2,3,4 tax the rich and not the poor, 5,6,7,8 help us save the welfare state.

There was a video by Aung San Suu Kyi, Burmese democracy leader and honorary UNISON member.

Jo Spears from the Southampton branch spoke at a fringe meeting looking at organising and inspired many with her story of how her branch's organising approach saw a huge increase in membership and an improvement to their terms and conditions. Jo had previously calculated that she would have to work for 244 years to earn the amount her chief executive earns in a year. Our delegation considered trying an area-based support system rather than service-based. An idea was suggested: reps could carry business cards with the rep's name and details as well as the addresses of the Facebook page and the UNISON local and national websites.

There was much discussion of proposed changes to Branch finance rules, with the suggestion that funds surplus to the day-to-day needs of branches invested in the national branch investment scheme as approved by the National Executive Council. Assurances over ethical investing were raised and the national auditors were demanding we put in safety mechanisms. Tax considerations were also discussed at length.

Amendments were proposed to Rule I: Disciplinary Action. This rule seeks to expel those in the BNP and "whose objectives are contrary to the objectives of UNISON". However, with the wording proposed, this potentially would not just apply to membership of racist parties, but other membership of other organisations such as Greenpeace and the Socialist Workers Party. There was a passionate speech against the motion due to the ambiguous nature of the wording. The NEC member who had proposed the amendments used his right to reply and gave a guarantee that the changed rule wouldn't be used against left wing parties. He claimed that by not adopting the language used, the union would leave itself open to legal challenge. However, the amendment was soundly rejected when put to the vote.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Conference Wednesday

Wednesday is an international day of action in support of the Robin Hood Tax, a suggested way to address the financial crisis within our country. Before we went into a debate about pensions, there was an update on the situation as a lot has happened this week. Misinformation and propaganda by right wing press has impacted on public opinion. Figures quoted by Treasury Spokesman Danny Alexander were based on the top civil servants' pay, not that of typical workers. This led nicely onto Composite B, which is about pensions.

Danny Alexander earns £134,000 a year, yet he wants to steal the pensions from cleaners, dinner ladies and nurses. Our response is outright rejection of government policy which expects us to "pay more, work longer and get less". No less a figure than Mervyn King, head of the Bank of England, said the price of this financial crisis is being borne by those whom did not cause it and he's surprised that public anger is not greater. In Norfolk, we have higher numbers of elderly people as a percentage of the population and so the pensions issue is one that will impact greatly upon us. Already we are seeing the impact as older people can no longer afford to leave work and make way for younger workers, which is increasing the numbers of young people out of work.

There was much mention of Dave Prentis' references to strike action, but Dave also said he'd negotiate 'any time, any place and for as long as it takes' to get a positive outcome. It is felt that these aren't the words of someone who is rushing towards a ballot.

Motion 24 continued the debate on pensions, but from the perspective of black members. Black members face great hardships because they are three times more likely to suffer poverty than white people. In Norfolk, our black community is not represented proportionately within NCC. We know that there are not many black people working in the public sector and so they will be primarily suffering the effects of the cuts in private sector roles.

Motion 39 demanded that public sector services should stay public and explored the challenges presented by mutual and social social enterprise organizations. NCC leader, Derrick Murphy, suggested that the youths who used Providence Street services should set up a scheme and run it themselves. However, without adequate and secured funding and business advice and support from properly trained staff, it would be very difficult for these young people, however enthusiastic and motivated they were, to run the scheme to a professional standard.

There were a couple of motions that spoke about the need for joint action between trade unions and communities needing to come together to oppose cuts. Our delegation spoke about working with our trades councils and external groups such and the Norfolk Coalition Against the Cuts (NCAC).

After lunch, we had an international speaker from Ireland - Shay Cody, General Secretary of IMPACT. Shay told the story of neoliberalism in Ireland and how the light-touch approach led to the failure of the Celtic Tiger economy and the well-documented devastating impact on Irish society.

Shay spoke passionately and movingly of what has happened in Ireland and how some are calling for the nation to default on their loans. This would see the deficit cut immediately but would also see public spending decimated and jobs lost while those private firms who contributed to the situation would be left practically unscathed.

Motion 87 took the campaign against public service cuts to an international audience. We are working with those in other countries who are suffering cuts like us. We should work with our sister unions in Europe and build real international solidarity in Europe. Collective action is not just possible, but can bring about change.

We had a further guest speaker, Phumzile Nxumalo, Deputy President of NAPSAWU in Swaziland. Swaziland are the only remaining country that has an absolute monarch. The king banned all political parties and trade union activities and this state of affairs has existed since 1973. He recently told his parliament what they could and could not discuss. There is no right of redress if the king does not agree with your opinion and unemployment in the country is over 45%. The International Monetary Fund have opposed structural adjustments and cut budgets but these have had little effect as they have no impact upon the king himself. Phumzile thanked our union for it's continued support.

Motion 89 concerned Palestine and the reality of the occupation was felt by our President, Angela Lynes. It was as a result of a visit she made to Palestine that this motion was proposed. We asked that our union review it's relationship with Histadrut and it was decided that we will continue to engage with it because that is what those people our representatives met in Palestine wanted.

Our policy will be one of critical engagement. We will challenge them to go beyond a paper policy. Histadrut is the leading trade union organization in Israel and has a key influence over labour law. There was opposition to this motion, which said that nothing would change and if there was another attack on a peace flotilla, they still wouldn't condemn it. There was a feeling that if nothing has changed, then we should insist on severing our ties with Histadrut.

There were many speakers against the motion. The Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) had said that it wanted other unions to sever all ties with Histadrut at an international labour conference held on 4th May 2011. However, other speakers said that the PGFTU had been clear when asked that they wanted our union to retain a relationship with Histadrut. Many speakers set out valid arguments both for and against the motion. This was a difficult motion to vote on, however, after discussion it was suggested that as we wouldn't share a platform with the BNP because it legitimises their politics of hate, so a continued relationship with Histadrut legitimises a union which has failed to condemn attacks, occupation and discrimination. We therefore voted against the Motion and it was lost.

The final motion of the day was Motion 79 - Rights at Work. This government wants to make it even harder to claim unfair dismissal and are set on changing our laws so they are even more stacked against the worker. Countries with the fairest societies have the best collective bargaining. Workers rights are fundamental human rights and we are keen to see the Labour Party ready to support our call for the relaxation of anti-union laws.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Conference Tuesday

Angela Lynes, UNISON president, welcomed everyone to conference and introduced international guest speakers. She gave a moving address, providing the background to her trade unions activities and a narrative about how she came to take on the presidency of Unison. Angela spoke of a White Line picket, where people line up, without stopping traffic, on the white markings in the middle of the road.

Mike Hayes explained about the challenges that the union was facing due to increased activity and campaigns that we have run. Our biggest challenge is maintaining momentum against the negative actions of the ConDem government. Our new headquarters was opened in April 2011 and we retain ownership of the former HQ at Mabledon Place. We will work with a developer and receive a lump sum of millions of pounds while maintaining the lease of the building for the future.

The real business got underway with Motion 33 - The Big Society, Nothing About Us, Without Us, Is For Us. The Big Society is a cynical programme designed to remove state accountability and sell off our services. Southern Cross was used as a typical example of how this government sees the future of our service delivery responsibilities. It was suggested that David Cameron should also offer us control of banks and big businesses if he wants us to have control as he claims. Margaret Thatcher said there was no such thing as society, only individuals, but now Cameron claims he wants a Big Society when a society made up on UNISON members was delivering on the premise all along. The cradle-to-grave welfare state is the great creation of the Labour Party and we are proud to state that we want a society run for human need, not corporate greed.

Motion 28 referred to the abolition of the Two Tier Code. This refers to the government attempts to remove TUPE tranfer protection from law. The attempted removal of this protection will increase the pace of the race to the bottom. There will be almost no protection for staff transferred and the private sector takes all the profit while the public sector shoulders the risk. It's really hard for us as activists to support staff in workplaces who are on different terms and conditions. The new concept of an 'Easy Council' was discussed - this being a council where all services were put out to tender and seen as easy pickings for private firms eager to cherry-pick profit-making roles.

Motion 70 dealt with campaigning Against the Tory-led Government. There is no strategy for growth in this Con/Dem plan to cut the deficit, merely the dismantling of our welfare state. We need to highlight the lies in government arguments about a 'bloated' public sector and show the real reason for the deficit. There is a movement of national industrial action growing and we want our union to be at the forefront of it. This neoliberal government believes in a small state where philanthropy and business deliver services. Cameron has no plans to reinstate services when the fortunes of our country change, proving that this is an ideological plan rather than an economic plan. The Labour rehetoric emerging from Milliband and Balls that the cuts run "too deep and too fast" is simply not good enough.

Motion 85 called for improvements to the current State Pension. The level recognized as being needed to move out of poverty is £178.00 per week and the state pension is currently £102.15, a £75+ difference. Pensioners are willing to take action over this, they want dignity, equality and no means testing. Pension credit is not claimed by many of those who are eligible and as trade unionists, we need to fight for an old age pension that promotes the things that pensioners want.

Motion 44 called for the support of Sure Start centres. There are about 55 Sure Start Children's Centres in Norfolk and these have now been structured into "lots". Those not currently under the control of a school (10 of them) are going to be put out to tender to external, probably private, providers and this is viewed as an undesirable outcome.

General Secretary Dave Prentis addressed conference after a video of the mass public protest in London on March 26 2011. Eric Pickles and Ed Balls were among the political figures discussed in Dave's address and he urged Cameron and Nick Clegg to go back to the bankers and tell them to clear up their own mess. He also stated that in future we will only support those MPs who support our values, our aims and our goals.

Dave also mentioned the tissue of lies spread by Treasury Spokesman Danny Alexander which failed to engage our membership. He rebutted the government claim that our pensions are unaffordable, stating that we have the fight of our lives ahead to protect our rights but that it is nonetheless one that we can win.

Comp E, named 'Cuts are not the Cure', looked at the government's attempts to remove the structural deficit within four years and doing so by cutting services rather than intelligently applying tax increases. This is a strategy that will hit our communities hard. It is the poor rather than the rich that will face the worst blows and those who played no part in creating the problem are being expected to pay for it. In Norfolk we saw this most clearly with the cuts to all Youth Services, including the Connexions. These young people had nothing to do with the banking crisis yet their future is being thrown on to the scrapheap without a second thought. We need a fair system that offers young people from disadvantaged backgrounds the same opportunities as those with privileged upbringing.

Motion 34 considered how women are hit more by the cuts than men. They are likely to receive lower income, are more likely to be reliant on benefits and are more dependent on the services being cut. Significantly, they are also more likely to be employed in the public sector and be UNISON members. At Norfolk County Council, women members with childcare needs have said that they were told that it's not fair that they should be able to have flexible working, a statement which fails to appreciate their legal right to request it.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Conference Monday

The day began with a guest speaker, Domingo Perez, General Secretary of South American public sector union UNE. Perez spoke of a world where economic imperialism is the only thing which seems to matter. This policy seems to be driven by the economic interests of the USA. Slashing public sector budgets in the name of efficiency savings will lead to health and welfare being neglected. Workers and trade unions must aim to build a world society formed on the basic principle of social justice.

Motion 28 defended the rights of 12,000 UNISON workers in the meat hygeine industry. New proposals would see food factories employ their own inspectors, which could be a disaster for food hygiene. UNISON feel that we need high quality state inspection of all meat plants where the inspectors are trained, qualified and independent professionals.

There was a group debate on Composite C, which is about attacks on terms and conditions. Across the country, terms are being cut and disciplinary and sickness policies are being used to dismiss staff. Workers need to use Equality Impact Assessments (EqIAs) to save our terms and conditions. This is not about the deficit, it's about creating a conveniently-flexible workforce with only very basic terms and conditions. These cuts will hit women worse than men and despite government claims to the contrary, there is no evidence that agreeing cuts to terms and conditions saves jobs.

Motion 27 dealt with the notion of the living wage. The London living wage is £8.30 per hour, but outsourced workers are being warned that they might not be able to have a living wage despite companies making huge profits. A living wage is designed for a minimum acceptable standard of living and is the minimum required level to raise people out of poverty. It is shameful that in 2011 we are having to force employers to pay a decent living wage and this should be a key part of trade union agendas.

Composite D regarded Car Allowances and rising fuel costs. Our members who use their vehicle for business should not have to subsidise the employers. We need a travel scheme which fairly remunerates workers for their travel costs, especially as fuel costs take up a large part of the wage of the low paid. It was felt that Britain needed a fair fuel regulator. A speaker against the motion said leading by example doesn't help and we need more progressive action and better green policies. It was pointed out that the employers often try and use the climate change agenda as a reason for cutting travel costs.

Motion 29 concerned the Green Book and sickness arrangements that offer some form of protection to those with a disability. In addition, the annual leave entitlement provides respite from illness. However, the government wishes to move away from Green Book conditions and is seeking to erode nationally agreed terms and conditions, by taking such measures as forcing workers to visit their doctor in their own time.

Motion 19 was about the Localism bill and the community right to challenge, which is meant to allow the involvement of charities and social enterprises but also opens the door for free-market tendering of public services which will lead to privatisation.

Guest Speaker Clifford Singer talked about campaigns and social media. Spoof posters such as the famous "Vote Conservative or I'll kill this kitten" were popular prior to the last general election and were circulated widely on Facebook and Twitter. The 'False Economy' website saw the coming together of various campaigns and was valued by people looking for arguments to support the stance that there are alternatives and cuts are not the cure.

Humour and satire is a good way to respond to ridiculous pieces of information. Crowd sourcing is a new idea whereby the public are able to send in info to generate news pieces for websites, and organisations such as UK UnCut and 38 Degrees have taken protests off the internet and onto the streets through actions such as candlelit vigils and lobbying MPs. Social media has the ability to neutralise the dominant ideology put out by the right-wing press. YouTube footage also has the power to shift false messages put out by mainstream media.

Motion 42 campaigned against college cuts. Colleges have a key role in economic recovery, directly increasing the knowledge of our members and helping them progress their careers and increase their earning potential. Cuts will see our members miss out on adult and further education, as well as denying our members in colleges proper terms and conditions.

Motion 43 related to colleges and the green agenda. It was felt that the green agenda could be one of the first to be dropped in the race to make cuts. Home working was raised as an area of concern, one which our delegation agreed needed to be kept under observation because we know that many of our members subsidise the council with their work at home.

Composite F referred to School Support Staff. The government wants to have greater deregulation of pay and T&Cs. An increase in need requires an increase in funding, but instead staff are being slashed. Learning support staff are stretched and subject to the expectation that they will take on extra duties for no extra pay. Local Authorities act as a safety net for schools, but allowing Academy Status would remove this safety net. This government sees the role of support staff as being better suited to voluntary workers as per their Big Society ideals.

Motion 15 was named 'No more Free schools or Gove-style academies'. This refers to the marketisation and privatisation of education. Schools can go over to academy status very quickly and communities should be involved in consultation, but it very rarely happens in the way it should. Winners and losers are present when you introduce competition to education and our children shouldn't be the victim of an ideology that wants to see profit at the heart of everything. As these academies are essentially private schools funded by the state, it allows companies to come in and make profit from the state when that money would be better spent on improving standards.

Motion 45 related to social care integration with health services. A single point of access for elderly people sounds like a good idea but would not put an end to the postcode lottery nor negate the need for efficiency savings. The merging of social care and NHS could see the blurring of roles without any integrated organisation. It was recognised that the goals of integrating services were generally positive ones but the main driver was not care standards, but instead saving money.

The pressures in social work are growing and our members are being placed under greater force to list children as being in need rather than at risk. Cuts might see a reduction in admin support, a typical cut claiming that back office staff are not front line and therefore not a necessary part of the service. However, social workers now have to perform roles that should be undertaken by paid admin staff and can't concentrate their time and attention to the protection work.

Motion 22 identified that cuts in housing are across the board. Benefits, numbers working in the sector, resources for supporting homeless people, legislation and security of tenure have all reduced in the last two years. Guaranteed housing contributes towards social cohesion and feelings of security. There is some history of services being brought back in house where private companies have failed.